"Ask me anything!"
"Why did you wait so long to marry?" She'd had plenty of opportunities, had had offers when she was still a young lass and a coming-out ball when she was nineteen.
"I hadn't found the right man," she answered in a that'll-show-you tone.
"Bidworthwas the right man?"
"He has all the qualifications I'm looking for. Every single one of them."
"Like what?" he asked.
"He's gentle and kind and considerate." At Hugh's bored look, her eyes narrowed. "He's blond, with a face that makes women swoon, and he's titled and popular and rich."
If these were the traits she was looking for, Hugh had never had a chance with her, family curse or not. "Bidworth's cowardly," he said. After meeting the man, however briefly, Hugh knew Weyland had been right not to let her marry the earl - he could never protect Jane.
His comment got her going. "Just because he didn't call you out over this doesn't mean Freddie isn't brave! He's a peer of the realm and a proper British gentleman - who'sabove issuing a challenge on the side of the toll road!"
Hugh supposed there were advantages to being a brutish Scot with no title.
"Freddie's a wonderful man, all around," she continued. "And your attacking him today? My Lord, Hugh, what has gotten into you?"
"He should never have kissed you in public - "
Twist that knife, Jane, he thought.That's right, lass, from twelve o'clock to three.
"And what about provoking him just now?" she asked. "He woke up this morning thinking I was his. Yet you threw this marriage in his face as if this means something to you."
"No worse than you throwing yourself at him on the side of the road."
She gasped. "I didn't throw myself at him! Iembraced him in farewell. Which would be expected, since Freddie and I have been seeing each other foryears !"
"Aye, but during those years, you likely were no' panting in another man's lap, returning his kisses, just moments before."
Her lips parted wordlessly, as if she'd only just realized she couldn't deny it.
"Jane, even if this marriage of ours is a farce, it's binding until it's ended. Never touch another man in front of me. Unless you want him dead."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Why, Hugh, you sound jealous, which we know can't be true."
It was undeniably true. In this one day, Hugh had felt more jealousy clawing at his gut than in his entire life before. If they'd been truly committed, perhaps he wouldn't have felt it to such a blistering degree just now - but there was no foundation for them. They were embroiled in a sham. He'd given her his name but could expect nothing back.
The situation was maddening. How had he found himself agreeing to it, when all his instincts screamed against it? He'd been well aware that he was being maneuvered - and yet, he'd allowed it.
Hugh had never been one to lose his temper or react impulsively. Now he felt he was losing control. What was it about Jane that made him feel primitive and possessive? He'd felt compelled to bare his teeth at Bidworth - or to hit him again, just for pleasure.
Men like Hugh could not afford to lose control. Grey wasn't the first of their kind to succumb to darker impulses. "And doona tease me any longer. Lass, you play with fire."
"If you can't stand my teasing, you never should have agreed to this. It's not as if you haven't experienced it before or didn't know what to expect when Iwarned you not to go along with this!"
"We both agreed to end this marriage when the situation is resolved," he grated. "I will no' be trapped into something I dinna want because you think to amuse yourself by playing with me."
A coldness seemed to settle over her. "Don't spend another minute's desperate worry that you might be 'trapped' with me. There isnothing that can happen between us that will bind us together in this marriage, I assure you." She opened her small traveling case at her feet and withdrew a book, turning from him dismissively.
If only he could turn away and shut her out as easily.
All morning Hugh had felt outside of reality, waiting for everyone to realize what a mistake his and Jane's marriage would be. Each minute, he expected Jane to back out.
In the back of his mind, he'd never thought it would truly be his decision as to whether they would move forward with this or not.
When she'd begun packing, Hugh had paced.She's actually going through with this? Impossible. What if the final choice came down tohim ? Time and again he weighed the risks, but before he knew it, they were all waiting for him to sign his name to the marriage certificate.
Hugh had heard Rolley mutter to Quin, "Never thought I'd see the day steady MacCarrick's hand would shake like that."
How could it not, when Hugh felt he walked upon a razor's edge between what fate would allow - or punish him for?
And when he risked the only woman he'd ever loved.
After an hour of silence in the coach, Hugh reached over and removed her book from her hands. Before she could gasp her displeasure, he presented her with a glass jewel case, offered in his big palm.
"And what is this?" she asked, though she recognized theR emblem etched in the crystal.
After a hesitation, she did, then opened it with a nonchalant air. Her heart flipped over like a cart's wheel.
Inside lay the most gorgeous piece of jewelry she had ever seen.
She stared, light-headed, then gazed up at him. "This...this is wholly unnecessary." She tried to hand it back, but he wouldn't take it, and the bewildered look on his face made her hesitate.
"Will you no' wear it, lass?" he asked incredulously.
He'd obviously never envisioned that she might not accept it. She finally set it on the bench between them. "Hugh, you didn't have to do this. I know many women who do not have wedding jewelry."
"I also know many women who don't like to be given temporary jewelry."
"What do you mean?"
"We know this will be over soon," Jane said. "Jewelry, in this case, seems a bit...cruel."
He shook his head firmly. "You'll keep it. After."
After he left her. Again.
"So, did you have this lying around the house, in case of any impromptu weddings?"
"Got it this morning. While you were packing."
"Hmm." She tapped her cheek. "Now it all becomes clear. You got it after you guiltily realized that perhaps you shouldn't have bludgeoned Freddie and manhandled me. You rode out and bought me avery expensive olive branch."
"You've been slighted a grand wedding and all that surrounds it. This is one thing I can control. I wanted to give my friend something befitting her."
"Are we friends, Hugh?" she asked, her voice sounding sad, even to her.
He stiffened. "I've never doubted it."
She bit her lip at that, then surreptitiously glanced down at the ring case, her hands itching to pick it up. Her father had told her Hugh had saved some money, but Ridergate's was fantastically expensive, and that ring - classically set with a huge diamond amidst a cluster of emeralds - was oh-so-lavish.
With a sigh, she realized she ought not take it, because Hugh shouldn't be spending that money on her, no matter how badly she wanted it. Especially when they weren't to stay wed -
He swooped the case back, surprising her. But he did it only to pluck out the ring and capture her hand. "Wear - it," he grated.
Was henervous ? Jane could always tell when Hugh was uncomfortable or discomfited because his shoulders went back. They were presently jammed back. "This is what you wanted."
"Why would you think that?" Had he possibly recalled her description of her dream wedding ring? She nibbled her lip as she awaited his answer.
He muttered, "You told me, lass."
He remembered?If a man could recall such minute details all these years later, then perhaps they had at least been the friends she'd thought them.
When he slipped it on her finger, she shivered - she didn't know why. He appeared relieved that she'd accepted it. And now that he was at ease, she began to react to him, finding herself relaxing as well.
No matter how hard she fought it.
Damn him, they'd always been like that - able to settle in with each other in easy companionship. Now it came more slowly, little by little, like a feather wafting down, but in the end, the amity was the same. Damn, damn, damn....
Could a womanmiss a man who brought her pain? Then somehow ignore all that pain and be excited to be near him again?
A quick consideration indicated:possibly.
Maybe she was simply grateful that for a space of many minutes, she'd forgotten about her anxious feeling. Or, more likely, she just liked the ring.Typical, typical Jane.
She sighed. A near-acceptance of a proposal and a kiss before nine; a marriage, another kiss, and a ring before noon. She wished she could say that all these had occurred with only one man.
"Be forewarned, Hugh," Jane said, when he held out his hands to assist her from the carriage. "I will now place my waist into your grip. Please don't take it as teasing or making merry with fire in any way."
Ever since she'd entreated him to stop at this inn, he'd been wearing a scowl, and at her words it deepened, a glaring contrast to her own jewelry-induced blithe mood.
When he grasped her waist and swung her down, she asked, "Hugh, why are you so averse to this place? It looks perfectly acceptable."
Hugh still held her. "It is. But you have to go through the common room to get upstairs."
"You've been here before?" she asked.
He gave a short nod, his dark eyes raking over her décolletage, and she reacted yet again to his avid gaze. All day in the carriage, she'd alternately relaxed and tensed under his stare. After that kiss - which she'd worked to convince herself was a fluke of perfection, a devastating anomaly - she'd felt her br**sts grow sensitive, swelling against the lace cups above her corset.
And while he'd studied her today, she'd done so to him, though much more circumspectly. She'd noted that those gashes on his face and the scars on his neck and hands didn't square with the occupation he professed, nor had the way he'd struck Freddie. Freddie was a tall man, yet Hugh had sent him flying - and he'd done it with the ease of an afterthought.
Jane had been to pugilist matches before and had seen the great, hulking fighters with their meaty fists, yet she'd put everything she owned on Hugh against the lot of them. That didn't fit. Nor did the way his muscular body had been honed as though from hard labor.
She was convinced that he wasn't just a businessman. What hemight be instead eluded her -
"Can you no' cover yourself more?" he grated, finally releasing her. "The patrons here have no need to see you."
"I don't have any clothing that's not in my trunks."
"No' even for your hair?" He frowned at the loosened tendrils.
She wasn't a bonnet type of woman, and a hat was impractical for carriage travel. "Hugh, I haven't complained about the rigorous pace you've set. But if you continue to keep me out here in this damp night, famished and weary, I shall begin."
He exhaled a long breath, took her hand, then dragged her inside as though they were in a race. The common room they entered was, well, common. Boisterous patrons swilled gin and lunged for barmaids. Jane watched, impressed, as one escaped capture with a swift swish of her hips.
Of course, Jane had been in much seedier places before with her cousins. If all of London seemed to be caught up with seeking thrills, then the Eight had made an art form out of successfully locating them. After disguising themselves in men's clothing and pasting on fake moustaches - which probably served no purpose other than to make them chortle with laughter - they'd visited bawdy wax museums. They'd gambled in the east-end gaming halls. They'd gawked wide-eyed at lascivious pictorial shows.
For Jane, this common room was a bit tame.
When Hugh had to slow to wend through a crush of patrons, too inebriated to dart out of his way, a drunkard approached Jane. He stumbled after her, leaning in, looking for all the world as if he wanted to lay his head on her br**sts.
"Here, Hugh," she said, squeezing his hand. "You might want to - "
Hugh wheeled around, yanking her behind him, drawing back a fist in one fluid movement. Her eyes went wide, just as the room grew quiet.
She touched his arm and murmured, "Hugh...don't. It's hardly sporting."
Jane's cousin Sam had once described Jane's temperament as fierce, but even Jane was startled at Hugh's deadly demeanor and swift aggression. An importer? And she was the queen of Egyptian artifacts.
When Hugh lowered his fist, the drunk lurched back, mumbling apologies - and, Jane feared, wetting himself a bit.
Hugh kept her locked behind him in a vise-like grip as he scanned the room slowly. It occurred to her that she was with the biggest and most fearsome-looking man in this place. And the patrons all seemed to know it, as they peered at him warily and avoided looking at her altogether.
When Hugh relaxed his hold and turned to offer her his arm, she proudly took it. As the room returned to normal, she and Hugh made their way to a salon off the common room. His body was still thrumming, as if not hitting that clod had taken much from him. She tried to make light of it. "My darling, the perilous world of imports has hardened you - "
"MacCarrick!" a lovely older blonde called as she exited a back room. Her eyes sparkled as she sashayed up to Hugh. "I couldn't believe it when they said you'd returned to my modest establishment," she all but purred as she took his hand. She was buxom, with a sexy French accent and a bodice more riskily low-cut than even Jane had ever dared.