If You Desire

Page 17

The only reason she hadn't hied herself off to a cousin's estate was that members of her family were due to arrive at Vinelands any day now. Not that Hugh knew that. "At this season, there will no' be many around," he'd said, defending his decision to take her here. But her family sought out the quiet fall season when there weren'tmany around , since it was the only time they could be themselves....

"Jane, I've warned you about locking the door," Hugh grated outside her room. "Open it, or this time I'll break the goddamned thing down."

"As you said yesterday - "

The door burst open.

She gaped, as much from the wildly swinging door and splintered doorframe as from Hugh's lethally calm demeanor - he wasn't even out of breath.

"I'll be damned if I can figure out why you've been angry," he said. "But I've about had enough of this."

"As have I!"

"You know, I always wondered what it'd be like to live with y - with a woman."


"It's a wee bit like hell, with your carrying on."

"What do you construe as carrying on?" she asked, indignant. "When I avoid you because you've cut me off at every attempt I've made to start a conversation? Why would Iwant to be around you when talking to you is like pulling teeth?"

"And how's that?"

"I asked you why your brothers haven't married, and you snapped, 'Drop the subject.' I asked you why none of you have any children, and you said, 'Enough of this.' I asked you if you've ever considered adding a trellis and a rose arbor,anything to soften the grimness of this place, and you just walked out of the room! I've never met a surlier man."

"If I am, it's because you've ignored everything I've asked of you."

"Like what?"

"I asked you to avoid the windows, yet I continue to catch you in the window seat in the upstairs parlor, staring out at Vinelands. I've asked you to pick up things in your room, and you tell me it's your 'horizontal system' and that if I canna discern it then I must be stupid."

Everybody who knew Jane knew she was untidy - her lady's maid played solitaire and read gothic novels all day because Jane wouldn't let her straighten much - but untidy worked for Jane. Without her system, how would she ever find anything?

"And you refuse to let the maid clean up here," Hugh finished.

"I don't wish to cause any extra work for anyone, and the servants are only here for a few hours a day. If it bothers you so terribly - and, really, Hugh, when did you get to be so exacting? - you can keep the door closed."

"You know I canna do that."

She sighed and trudged across the plush rugs to peer out the window. Ros Creag, which meant "stony promontory," was as forbidding and no-nonsense as its name, just as it had been in the past. But then, the appearance did exactly what it was meant to - it kept people away. Had this place been welcoming, the MacCarrick brothers would have been overrun with Weylands borrowing fishing gear and foodstuffs, dropping off pies....

Everywhere she looked outside, the gardens were freakishly orderly, as though a gardener had laid out the shrubs and flowers to the inch with a ruler, then ruthlessly checked any undue exuberance. The manor was stately but imposing, its bricks made of dark rock, like the craggy, lakeside cliff it clung to.

Though separated from Vinelands by just that small cove, this place was a world away from it. Whereas Ros Creag was stern and solitary upon a cliff, Vinelands occupied an expanse of lawn rolling down to the water and a swimming beach, and looked like a quaint country cottage, though it had eight bedrooms. Arbors and follies dotted the property, and a small dock crawled lazily from the shore into the water.

And Hugh wondered why she'd always preferred her own home to his.

"So you truly doona like it here." His words came from just behind her, but she hadn't heard him approach. She frowned, recalling that he'd done that in London, too. He used to stride loudly, his boots booming across the floor. Now he was all sneaky silence.

With a shrug, she turned and headed for the door. One good thing about Ros Creag? It was big enough that they need never see each other.

Damn, she'd been nettled since the night he'd kissed her. Apparently, Jane agreed with everyone else that Hugh reached too high in wedding her.

As he watched her walking away, he told himself yet again that it didn't matter. Once Grey had been killed and she was completely out of danger, Hugh would leave her just as he had before.

And go where? Do what? If the list went public, he would have no profession. He'd thought about joining up with Court's crew of Highland mercenaries, but had dismissed the idea. Hugh was a loner, always working solo. Always on the periphery.

Except with Jane. She was the only person on this earth he'd ever been able to be around constantly. Hell, he'd never beenable to spend enough time with her, had always yearned for more.

Now that he'd gotten his wish, he wanted to take it back.

No, he could tolerate this. The situation was only temporary.

Yet it wasn't only the clutter or even her continued pique that bothered him. It had finally hit him that he would beliving with her, under the same roof, appearing as man and wife. She was so mysteriously feminine, and never having lived with a woman, he found himself a shade overwhelmed.

With a grated sound of frustration, he strode after her, picking his way around piles of clothing. Hugh was uncomfortable with disarray, having come to crave order and structure in everything. Without order, came randomness; Hugh hated random. He felt he'd been chosen at random for his fate, and he resented the lack of control.

Weren't women supposed to be fastidious, organized creatures? More unfortunate for him, much of Jane's disarray came in the form of her fascinating undergarments. There were garters he hadn't seen in her room in London, and even stockings with designs in them.

"Wait, Jane." He caught her elbow just as she reached the hallway. "Tell me why you doona like it here."

"I'm used to being around family and friends, everyone talking and laughing, and you take me away from all that to stay in thisdepressing  - there, I've said it - manor. And even then I could tolerate it, if you were fit company."

"What is so bad about this place?" he asked, glancing around with an incredulous expression. "You never liked coming here in the past, either. Why?"

"Why?I would have to leave my house - where there was whistling, and my uncles chasing their giggling wives, and happy children running about like wild creatures - to come here, where the curtains were drawn, and it was as dark and silent as a tomb."

"I was just as uneasy at your home."

"Why on earth?"

He doubted he could ever convince her that her family's behavior might make outsiders uncomfortable, much less someone as solitary as Hugh. But her locking the door on him rankled on so many levels, and he was just irritated enough to say, "Your aunts ran about with their skirts hiked up, fishing, smoking, passing a bottle of wine between them. And sometimes when your unclescaught your aunts and swooped them upstairs, they weren't as quiet as they could have been with what they were doing."

"And how would you even know that, from the collective fifteen minutes you spent with them over five years?" When he said nothing, she asked, "Do you deny assiduously avoiding everyone but my father?"

He couldn't deny it - he'd never wanted Jane to see how awkward he was around groups of people. "You ken I've usually preferred my own company."

"At least my family was kind to you. Unlike your brothers' treatment of me."

"My brothers were no' unkind to you."

"Are you jesting? One entire summer, Ethan crept about like a frightful ghost in his lair with the entire side of his face bandaged from some mysterious injury - which you would never talk about. And if anyone happened to glance at his face, he'd roar with fury and run them off."

Ethan had been a harrowing sight that summer. And every summer after. "And Court?"

She gave him an incredulous look. "My God, I think he's the angriest man I've ever encountered, always simmering. You never knew when he was going to go off. Being around him was like sidling around a bear trap. And it wasn't a secret that he wasted no love on me."

No, Court had never liked Jane. Hugh supposed Court had resented the girl who tagged along with them everywhere and was frustrated that Hugh didn't mind at all. That last summer, Court had despised her teasing treatment of his brother, never considering that Hugh woke every morning impatient to return for it, day after day.

But Hugh hadn't known Jane felt as strongly about Court, and about Ethan, as well. "I dinna realize it was so bad."

"You never seemed to notice these things because you were so used to them." She adjusted a vase on a shining end table, as if she couldn't stand its perfect placement. Seeming to calm herself, she said, "Hugh, rehashing all this will help nothing. When I ask you questions, you don't have to answer them, and you can be as dismissive as you please. That's your prerogative. My prerogative is that I don't have to be around you when it's avoidable."

"The subjects you brought up are difficult ones."

She raised her eyebrows, waiting for more.

"If I answer one question, you'll ask a dozen more about my answer, no matter if I doona want to talk about it. You're no' happy until everything's laid bare."

"I do apologize for wanting to know more about a man I used to be friends with, who disappeared for years without a word, who has now returned to be my husband in an odd marriage of convenience."

"Damn it, I told your father to tell you good-bye."

She glared at that. "Don't you think I deserved it from you? It's becoming clear to me that wedidn't have the friendship I'd imagined. I must have been like a gnat in your ear, a silly little girl who followed you around when you only wanted to hunt or fish with your brothers."

"Wewere friends - "

"A friend would have told me good-bye when he knew he was leaving and had no intention of returning for years."

Couldshe have thought of him? Could she havemissed him? "Are you angry about that?"

"I'm puzzled. I would have told you good-bye."

"I dinna believe you would even think of me much after I'd gone. I dinna think you would care overmuch one way or the other."

She didn't deny it or confirm it, just continued, "But now you've come back and we're in this confusing situation, and I'm trying to reason it all out, but I don't have enough information. Papa told me this might take months. Are we to be like this the entire time, with you cutting me off or getting angry when I ask questions?"

"I doona want to be that way. I just...I just doona know how to handle this as well as I should."

"What do you mean by 'this'?"

He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Jane, sometimes you throw me. And I'm unused to being married - even if it's only temporary."

"Very well, Hugh. Let's start with an easy question." When she raised her eyebrows, he nodded grimly. "Why would my father ever find occasion to associate with someone as deranged and violent as Grey?"

That's an easy question?"Grey was no' always like this. He came from a wealthy and well-respected family. He had strong connections."

"And he was your good friend?"


"Did you try to help him with his affliction?"

Hugh chose every word carefully, knowing he owed her more of the truth, but unable to divulge his own dealings without revealing everyone's. "I attempted to reason with him, bully him, bargain with him. Nothing worked."

After that, Hugh and Ethan had decided to take matters into their own hands to wean him from opium. They'd captured Grey and carted him back to one of Ethan's estates.

Grey had been furious, frothing at the mouth, spouting insults. Either he had always been a sick bastard - and opium, like liquor, magnified his faults - or his entire personality had been altered.

He'd vowed that if Hugh couldn't "muster the ballocks to finally go f**k Jane Weyland as she so clearly needs," then he'd make short work of her. Hugh barely remembered lunging for Grey's throat and raining blows on his face. Ethan had scarcely been able to haul Hugh off. Afterward, all three of them had seemed shocked by Hugh's utter loss of control.

But after two weeks in a basement, Grey had emerged, seemingly cured. For a year, Hugh had believed he'd maintained an even keel. Ethan, however, suspected Grey only waited for a chance to strike out, and he'd been right.

"I thought for a while that he'd gotten better. But the last time I saw him, his pupils were like pinpricks even in the night...."

Seeing Hugh's disappointment, Grey had self-consciously smoothed his soiled jacket and given him a half grin, and with it a glimpse of his old self. His accent had been clipped and proper, even as he looked away and said softly, "I didn't want to be like this, you know."

"Then why?" Hugh had asked.

"Not quite the way I'd planned things, as it were," he'd continued lightly, but when Hugh said nothing, Grey finally cast Hugh a look that was raw, unguarded. "I woke up one morning, and I was nothing but that number." He averted his face again as if embarrassed. "Good-bye, Scot." Then he'd walked away....

Hugh shook off the memory. "He was lost for good."

"Do you miss your friendship with him?"

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