By the end of the first five days at Beinn a'Chaorainn, Hugh felt like a cauldron about to boil over.
This unfortunate state was attested to by the fact that the property was already turning the corner. Every time Hugh thought about touching Jane, he worked.
In his time here, Hugh had accomplished the labor of a dozen men.
This afternoon, he sawed boards for the entryway floor, while M¨°rag and Jane cleaned upstairs. The days that were clement enough for him to work outside were the days M¨°rag aired the manor. Through the open windows, he could hear Jane humming or laughing as she cleaned, or spy flashes of her as she strolled down the hall.
He found himself looking forward to those glimpses of her.
With the three of them toiling, his and Jane's living situation had improved dramatically. Hugh had selected the two best adjoining rooms in the manor for Jane and himself, and then M¨°rag had gone to work like a dervish cleaning them, as if to embarrass Jane for her sneezing clumsiness with a broom.
On M¨°rag's second day, she'd returned with a packhorse and a cart. She'd only purchased necessities for them-linens, mattress rolls, kitchen and cleaning supplies, foodstuffs - but the shopkeepers in M¨°rag's small village were quick to pile wares on her to take back to the brother of "Master Courtland." They all saw Court as a savior, the ruthless warrior Scot who'd reclaimed the land from a haughty English baron - a baron who had insisted on raising sheep, and running off tenants to allow them to graze.
Court had done nothing but capitalize on the baron's bad business sense, but Hugh wasn't going to enlighten the shopkeepers.
In fact, Hugh was becoming more and more confident that staying on was the right decision. Having M¨°rag around was ideal because not only was she transforming the interior and reluctantly teaching Jane how to help, but her presence kept Hugh from trailing after Jane's skirts like a wolf licking his lips.
The one problem with M¨°rag was that she and Jane bickered constantly. Jane was bewildered to be ridiculed for the way she talked or disliked simply for being a foreigner. Hugh didn't want Jane to be miserable, but he wouldn't mind her understanding that "bloody English" was merely an equivalent to "rough Scot."
Sometimes Jane won an argument, and Hugh would hear her say, "No, no, I promised myself I wouldn't gloat." Sometimes she lost a spat and would sniff, "Oh." Pause. "Well,obviously ."
And they competed at everything. When he'd dragged some old furniture down from the attic and repaired it, Jane and M¨°rag raced to paint or stain it, looking more at the other's progress than their own. When he replaced the windows, they raced each other at cleaning them. In fact, Hugh feared Jane was working much too hard, toiling with an almost frantic zealousness. Hugh knew she was competitive by nature, but this seemed to be more than a mere rivalry.
To distract her, Hugh had crafted a target for her out of a dense hay bale with a sheet stretched taut over it, and she'd painted the rings. Yet she didn't practice in lieu of work; she woke earlier to do it all.
Every morning, on the terrace between the manor and stables, she donned her three-fingertip hunting gloves and her quiver. Her breaths would be visible in the cool air as she drew her bow, her expression intent. It was a thing of beauty to watch, and he secretly did so every morning.
Even M¨°rag would pause at the kitchen window and stare in amazement.
Though Jane had been behaving herself, his want of her never relented. Even if she wasn't teasing him, she might as well have been. Jane exuded sexuality. Today, he'd passed her in a tight spot and had laid his hands on her waist. Her breaths had gone shallow and her cheeks had heated.
If he passed her room and spied her stockings and little garters strewn about, his gut tightened with want. Because their rooms were so close, each night Hugh drifted off to the intoxicating scents of her lotions and light perfume and to recent visions of her laces and silk corsets. In other words, he went to bed every night hard as steel.
On several occasions, Jane had approached him, nibbling her lip, appearing as if she needed to discuss something serious. He had no idea what she might be wanting, but always found himself relieved when she turned away without saying anything. Yet he knew soon she would broach whatever subject she wrestled with - and he sensed that this wouldn't bode well for him.
If he wasn't tormented with desire for her, he was wracked with concern about his brother and Jane's continued safety. And growing each day was a thick sense of foreboding Hugh couldn't shake.
Something had to give....
As Hugh labored with his horse to haul debris away from the manor, Jane perched in the saddle, sitting backward so she could watch Hugh.
Sheloved to watch him work, especially when he was shirtless. Whenever he stood and ran his arm over his forehead, the sweat-slick ridges of his stomach would tense, and Jane's breath would go shallow. She didn't think she'd ever seen anything half as beautiful as his muscles covered with sweat.
Today was her first afternoon off since they'd arrived. M¨°rag was harvesting kale today, so Jane was relaxing, which obviously pleased Hugh.
He likely believed she worked so hard just to compete with M¨°rag, but Jane feared her cleaning skills would be forever eclipsed by the girl's.
No, Jane worked to prove she could be an asset to Hugh, that she was a good wife and one worth keeping. She tended the gardens, she painted furniture, and she arranged the beautiful homespun rugs M¨°rag had bought from local artisans. The house was already becoming homey and comfortable.
If she lost Hugh in the end, it wouldnot be from lack of trying....
She blinked, tossing him his canteen. He drank greedily, then ran his forearm over his mouth. She loved it when men did that. And by "men" she meant "Hugh." When he tossed the canteen back, she was so busy staring at him that she missed, fumbling the canteen twice before it thudded to the ground. She could barely contain her yearning - indeed, she'd ceased bothering to hide the depth of it - yet Hugh still hadn't touched her. Again and again, she mulled reasons why.
With a frown, he released the leather trace over his shoulder, then scooped up the canteen on his way to the saddle. When he dusted it off and handed it to her, she gave him a sheepish smile.
He backed away from her with a guarded expression, then took up the traces again. The horse strained forward once more.
She'd struggled to broach the subject of staying married to him, but his eyes always seemed dark with warning - just like now. She felt as if she would be all but proposing to him, and she could admit her confidence was shaken. Men were usually tongue-tied, stumbling over themselves to give her whatever she wanted. Hugh was distant, his countenance shuttered.
She inhaled, grasping about for courage. There wasn't going to be a better time than now. Before she lost her nerve again, she quickly asked, "Do you want to know what I've been thinking about?"
He shook his head emphatically, so she waited several minutes before she asked, "Hugh, do you think I'd make a good wife?"
After a hesitation, he slowly answered, "Aye."
"You're not just saying that to spare my feelings?"
"No. Any man would be proud to call you wife - "
"Then why don't you just keep me?"
He stumbled over his feet, falling to his knee in the mud.
"Iwant to keepyou ," she declared, as if her seemingly innocent question hadn't just sent his body and mind reeling.
He rose, inwardly cursing. Why did she have to start with the teasing once again? Damn it, all in all, he'd been having a good day. The unseasonably mild weather had held pleasant, and he'd been enjoying her company, as usual. As she'd chatted and laughed about this and that, he'd been sneaking glances up at her, marveling at how much Scotland was agreeing with her.
Her cheeks were pinkened, her eyes appeared, impossibly, a more vibrant green, and her auburn hair was even shinier, seeming burnished with gold.
The lass was growing so beautiful that at times, she rendered him speechless.
"It's a reasonable question, Hugh."
Now he felt himself growing cold. "This is no' something to jest about."
Earlier, the expressions flitting across her face had gone from thoughtful to panicked to fearful, then to the determined mien she wore now. "I'm not," she said in a steady voice. "At all. I want to stay married to you."
He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't quite manage it when he saw that she was serious.Unbelievable. His voice hoarse, he finally said, "It will no' happen, Jane."
Shewanted to be his lover and his wife? Right now, he wished to God he were selfish enough to keep her.
"Why? If you give me a good reason, I'll desist from this. Otherwise..." She trailed off, as if in warning.
"I told you, I never wanted to be married."
"Butwhy ? Give me one reason."
"That is just no' the life for me," he said simply. "Never has been and never will be. You have to accept that some men are no' husband material."
"I think you are."
"You doona even know me anymore."
"Because you won't tell me anything," she countered.
"Take my word for it."
"Are you certain you don't want just totry staying married after all this is done? To see if we suit?"
"Aye, I'm verra certain," he said, making his tone cutting.
"Really?" she said slowly.Raaaally. As if she hadn't heard him, she slipped down from the saddle. "It's a big decision." She gave him a solemn nod. "I know you'll want to think it over." Before strolling off, she tilted her head and studied him, her bright eyes focused and clear.
It was, he thought, swallowing hard, the same way she looked at her arrow's target.
Having raised the subject of staying married, Jane returned to it over the next week with stubborn frequency.
As Hugh worked a Dutch block plane over a new column for the rickety portico, he waited for a glimpse of Jane and mulled over her latest campaign.
The night before, he'd been drinking scotch on a rug by the fire. She'd sat behind him, up on her knees to rub the sore muscles of his back, sharing sips of his drink. His lids had grown heavy as he'd relaxed against her.
The fire, the scotch, his wife easing his body after a hard day's labor.Bliss . He took a savoring sip -
"Any thoughts on our marriage, my love?"
He'd choked on his drink. She'd smiled innocently when he glowered.
This morning on her way out to the terrace to shoot, she'd said in a casual tone, "I noticed you didn't pack any reading material - except for that odd book - so I left a novel on your bed." As he stared after her, she tossed over her shoulder, "And I marked the scenes Iparticularly enjoyed."
He knew exactly what kind of novel she spoke of. As soon as she was out of sight, he bounded up the stairs, eager to see what she would like. Set on his pillow was a book with her false cover, and he tore it open. Five minutes later, he sank to the bed, running a shaking hand over his dazed face.
If these were scenes she enjoyed, then they would suitperfectly ....
No, damn it, this was just the latest battle in her insidious campaign. Her continual sallies never let him forget that every day, here for the taking, was the woman of his dreams. He was like a stallion around a mare in heat - he couldn't concentrate, couldn't keep his mind on anything but how her hair smelled and how her skin tasted.
His eyes followed her everywhere. When she worked, she'd taken to wearing a bandanna over her hair, and she'd begun unbuttoning her blouses to beat the heat of the kitchen or whatever chore she'd undertaken. It seemed to Hugh that her dampened breasts were always on the verge of spilling out. Jane, usually so elegant, looked like a lusty barmaid, and he loved it.
In fact, he couldn't decide which version of her he liked best: the clever beauty in London, the archer with her leather-tipped hunting gloves, or this carefree temptress.
His need for her was unrelenting. He wasn't thinking clearly. He was constantly hard during the day and couldn't sleep a night through without having to spend. The other night, after dreaming about her riding him, he'd awakened soaked in sweat - and precisely three quick strokes away from ejaculating.
She'd wrecked him, weakened him. And when she began staring at Hugh with a mixture of almost innocent curiosity and blatant yearning, only one thing kept him from answering the plea in her eyes.
The book. He kept it out now, staring at it often. It reminded him of what he was....
He frowned when he realized that well over an hour had passed since he'd heard humming or seen a flash of her going by. Hugh hoped she'd decided to sleep for an hour or two, instead of her usual exhaustive toiling, even as he doubted it.
He laid aside his plane, dusted wood shavings from his trousers, then strode in the front door. He met M¨°rag, returning to the kitchen with a basket of turnips.
"Where's my wife?"
She shrugged. "Saw English in the north wing last. Said she was going to wax the floors."
He nodded and grabbed an apple from a bowl, then dropped it as he caught an unmistakable scent.
The girl sniffed. "What the hell has she done now?"
"Paraffin, M¨°rag," he barked over his shoulder as he took off at a run. "Think about it."
M¨°rag gasped and dropped her basket to follow.
Paraffin wax was for floors.
And was easily confused with paraffin oil - another term for...kerosene.
He burst through the closed door and swallowed at the sight. Jane had coated thirsty mahogany wood with jugs of kerosene.
She tottered to her feet. "I wanted to surprise you and have this all finished." She rubbed her nose delicately with the back of her hand. "But I feel quite foxed." Shrugging, she picked up a chunk of sandstone and said, "I was just going to sand the dried area - "
"No!" he and M¨°rag shouted at the same time.One spark...
Heart in his throat, he lunged for her just as M¨°rag cried, "Are ye daft, English?"
Jane blinked, sputtering as he hauled her outside to the well. "I assume I did something wrong?" she said as he quickly stripped her of everything but her shift.
"Aye. I'm agreeing with M¨°rag on this." He pumped a continuous stream of water all over her wee hands and arms, scrubbing the oil away. "You've taken on far too much for one person with this project. And that oil is flammable and usually used by" - lanterns - "by professionals. If one drop of candle tallow hit your skirt just then, you'd have gone up in a blaze."
"Oh." Jane bit her bottom lip. "You're angry."
"Hugh, be patient with me."
"God knows I try, lass."
When he spied M¨°rag preparing to leave for the night, he ordered Jane, "Scrub your legs and feet. I'll be right back," then strode to the stable to catch the girl. "M¨°rag, I want you to keep my wife away from any and all dangerous and flammable substances that might be on this property. Lock them away if you have to. And I'll triple your wages if you can keep her out of the north wing till I can replace the boards."
Hugh turned back to Jane to bark, "Scrub!" and Jane jumped with fright, then dutifully scrubbed.
M¨°rag made a disgusted sound. "You're no' going to scold English worse? After ruining the room like that?"
Hugh shrugged. "From now on, I'll make sure she understands some things are dangerous around here, but, no, she'll no' know she damaged an entire mahogany floor."
"I'd have been tarred." But then Hugh knew Jane had started growing on the girl when M¨°rag glowered and threw her hands up. "English is no'stoopid - you ken we'll have to bluidy age the new floor, too?"
"It's time you told me why're you've been working so hard, lass," Hugh said when he returned.
She was feeling tipsy and cold, and yet delightfully shivery as Hugh's rough hands rubbed up and down her arms, checking for oil residue. She grinned drunkenly. "I'm endeavoring to impress you. So you'll keep me. And let me live in your seashore house."
When he gave up a shadow of a grin, she said, "Actually, that wasn't a joke."
His face creased into a scowl. "You bring marriage up? Again? You're as stubborn as a Scot! Do you know that?"
"I could make you happy," she insisted. "And you're in a position to take a wife."
"Damn it, lass, you would no' like being married to me."
"How would it differ from what we've been doing?"
When he'd agreed to this marriage, he'd anticipated her wanting out at the first opportunity. That was supposed to be the one constant. He'd never imagined he would be grasping for arguments againsthimself , as he stared at Jane's shift getting soaked with cool well water and clinging to her plump breasts. His hands on her arms began to move more leisurely.
He hadn't been concentrating well anyway, but how could he be expected to formulate an argument when faced with her little nipples stiffening under every spurt of water that hit them? He was in a bad way. He remembered that last time he'd kissed them, he'dfelt them throb beneath his tongue....
He broke away, removing his hands completely from her body. "Jane, forget this plan of yours. I'm no' a good man. And I would no' make a good husband."
"This makes sense to me. It's a logical move for us. We're already married, and we've done the formalities." She lowered her voice to say, "All you have to do is make love to me."
"Logical? You want this because it's logical? That's the one bloody thing it is no'."
Her brows drew together as she gazed up at him. "Hugh, what is so wrong with me?"
He'd never imagined a woman like her could fear herself lacking. He couldn't allow her to think that in any way. Which meant telling her the truth. At least, part of it.
"It's no' you. It'sme ."
Whatever he'd said had evidently been the worst he could have. Her face grew cold in an instant. "Do you have any idea how many men I've told that to spare their feelings?" She crossed her arms and eased away from him. "Oh, how the worm has turned. Now I'm the unwanted, unhappy recipient of platitudes."
"Jane, no." He reached out and laid a hand on her hip, tugging her closer. "You are everything a man could ever want in a wife." He caught her eyes. "The truth is...the truth is that if I were ever planning to marry, I'd have you or none at all."
She tilted her head. "None at all?"
"None. It truly is my problem. I have...difficulties that prevent me from marrying."
"Tell meone reason you don't want to marry."
"That will merely invite more of your questions. As I said before, you doona seem to be happy unless everything's laid bare."
"Hugh, this involves me, and I deserve to know more. I'm just asking you to be fair."
"Aye, I know. Believe me, I ken that. But you need to get inside and dry off."
"I'm not leaving until you tell me one reason."
Finally, after a long hesitation, he bit out, "I canna...give you bairns."
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