If You Desire

Page 20

She bit her lip and gazed up at him with those big, green eyes. When he realized she was about to ask in a way he hadn't yet figured out how to deny, he cut her off, snapping, "No' a chance," and dragged her toward the horse.

He was biting out Gaelic curses, she slapping at his grip on her elbow and kicking at his shins, when a voice cried, "Jane?"

They both faced forward and froze.

Chapter 25~27

Chapter Twenty-five

"Oh, bloody hell." The seventh circle of hell. That's what Hugh looked like he'd ventured into as more and more of her family filed out of the house and approached them. Belinda was here with her husband and children, and Sam and her family had arrived as well.

She had to laugh evilly. "Too late to run. You're snared,

I'm afraid."

"Aye, and you'd best enjoy it," Hugh muttered. "You go back to a locked cellar."

"Jane!" Samantha cried again, her russet curls bouncing. "What are you doing here?"

"Aunty Jane!" five children called as they besieged her, trampling her to the ground as she laughed.

Belinda clapped her hands in delight. "But you said you couldn't come this week!"

Then they noticed Hugh behind her, and everything went silent while jaws dropped. The children stared up at the towering Highlander in wonder. To break the awkward moment, Jane held up her hand, and as expected, Hugh shot forward to help her to her feet.

"What'she doing here?" Sam asked, never one to mince words.

Hugh gave Jane an expression as if to say, "Indeed."

"Well, he's...we're married."

Sam's jovial husband, a physician named Robert Granger, murmured to Sam, "Not four days ago, you told me she was marrying Bidworth."

From the side of her mouth, Sam answered, "That's because shewas ."

"Well, obviouslythat did not happen," Jane said blithely. "So wish us well and meet my new husband."

Hugh knew her cousins - barely - so she introduced Hugh to Robert, and they shook hands. If Hugh's threatening look hadn't deterred him, Robert would likely have bear-hugged him a welcome into the family.

Then she presented Hugh to Lawrence Thompson, Belinda's husband, a prankster and a considerable wit with a ready laugh, who cradled his hand after Hugh shook it.

Seeing all of them lifted Jane's spirits and made her realize how much Hugh's awful words had hurt her.I'll still leave you.

Hugh eyed everyone with such a leery demeanor, so noticeably out of his element, that she couldn't resist. She knew she had a diabolical gleam in her eyes when she faced Hugh and said, "I absolutely must catch up with my cousins and show off my new ring. In private." He was subtly shaking his head. "Hugh, why don't you get to knowthe other husbands  - they like to drink scotch and sit on the lawn about this time of morning. Talk about the stock exchange and such."

She hadn't missed his wary glance at the children either. "Oh, and, children, your new uncle Hugh loves to buy presents and treats. You've only to tell him what you want!"

"Off of him now!" Robert exclaimed as he shooed bairns off Hugh. "Run along and play!"

Hugh wanted to fall down with relief when the last one made yet another request, released his leg, then scampered away. Jane really was going to do this - she truly was leaving him to deal with these men. She and her cousins had gathered up bottles of wine and strolled out on the dock without a backward glance.

"Don't know what Jane was thinking, to set the hounds to you like that!" Robert flashed him a sheepish grin.

"But, finally, it's just men." He led them over to a set of wicker lawn chairs and, once seated, began pouring a round of drinks, though it was not nearly ten.

"So, what do you do, MacCarrick?"

Hugh reluctantly sat and accepted the glass, not knowing his way around this. "I'm...retired." He'd never been forced to make conversation. Never spoke unless something needed to be said. In more than one way, he'd been perfectly suited for his occupation.

"That's the way to do it, my boy!" Robert raised his glass - then drained it. "Retire, take a beautiful bride, and enjoy life."

Lawrence worked on his drink more slowly, but not by much. "Are you and Jane starting a family straight away?"

Hugh shrugged. After seeing her happiness when all those bairns waylaid her, he had never been more keenly aware that he could never give her children.

Robert sank back with his second drink on his knee. "We waited, Sam and I, nearly three years to start."

Waited?So odd to hear these upper-class gentlemen speak of topics like this. "Waited" meant contraception.

Robert and Lawrence then mused on how their wives had behaved and looked when pregnant ("quite lusty" and "pleasingly plump"), how children changed a man ("didn't know what I was about before them"), and other things Hugh tried his damnedest to block out.

He kept glancing over at Jane and her cousins deep in conversation, knowing she was telling them everything about last night. Each time she closed in to whisper to the two women, he cringed, feeling his face flush violently.

After a grueling hour of conversation Hugh barely heard, Lawrence suggested that the men target-shoot. Hugh ran his hand over the back of his neck, knowing he would have to miss. Though he had a powerful desire to impress Jane, to shoot as these people had never seen, he stifled it, aware how unwise it would be to demonstrate exactly what he excelled in.

A quick glance told him that Jane had shaded her eyes with her hand to see. Would she remember that he could shoot? She used to tag along with him on hunts all the time, had tromped with him over every inch of woodlands in the area.

Hugh recalled one of the first times Jane had accompanied him. Afterward, she'd bragged to Weyland about Hugh's shooting: "Papa, you wouldn't believe how he can shoot - so calm, and steady as a rock! He hit a duck at seventy yards at least in a stiff breeze."

Weyland had eyed him with new interest. "Did he, then?" Hugh hadn't understood why at the time. He'd had no way of knowing that Weyland was sizing him up for a lethal profession - one that had provided wealth to a second son who'd had none, and laid out the path to walk with death....

Chapter Twenty-six

"So how is your Scot in bed? As good as you've always dreamed?" Sam asked.

Jane rolled her eyes. Of course, the conversation had wended its way to this topic, and Sam was going to needle for details until the entire truth came out. So Jane related everything - well, almost everything.

She told them of her stunned hurt over Lysette, and her subsequent relief when she'd found out Hugh had been true to her. She admitted that they'd been intimate last night but hadn't consummated the marriage, and she related their last conversation - or, more accurately, fight.

She confided her suspicion that Hugh was a mercenary of some sort.

Sam said, "I can't imagine what Uncle Edward is up to, forcing you to marry MacCarrick."

"And Hugh being a mercenary?" Belinda glanced in his direction. "Does sort of fit."

"But, marriage of convenience or not, why haven't you rendered it veryinconvenient already?" Sam asked.

Jane surreptitiously rolled down her stockings, discarding them and her shoes to dip her feet in the water. "Hugh doesn't want to be trapped and will do whatever it takes to get out of it. He's made that abundantly clear. I believe his words were, 'I will still leave you.'"

Belinda had pre-opened the cork on the second wine bottle, but still couldn't get it open. She handed it to Sam and said, "Jane, I can see why you wouldn't want to chance this, but I don't understand why he is so averse. Does he have a lover?"

"No, he said he is 'between.'"

Sam took out the cork with her teeth, then spat it into the lake. Recorking a bottle was something of a crime at Vinelands. "Does he make any money as a mercenary?"

"Father told me he had some. But then, Father also neglected to tell me his true occupation."

Sam asked, "So sure he's a mercenary?"

Jane nodded. "His brother is. And Hugh was just down there on the Continent fighting with him. That's how he got those marks on his face."

Sam handed Belinda the bottle. "Which brother?"

"Court. Courtland. Theangry one."

After they both flashed expressions of recognition at that, Belinda said, "At least he wasn't as bad as the oldest one."

"The one whose face was all cut up! He used to give me night terrors," Sam admitted.

"Oh, me too!" Belinda said. "One morning I was out berry-picking with Claudia, and we met him on a foggy lane. We froze, and he scowled as if he knew what was about to happen. When we dropped our baskets and ran, he roared curses at us."

For some reason, Jane felt a brief flare of pity for Ethan. He would have been only twenty or so.

"Later we felt awful. Silly." Almost as an afterthought, Belinda muttered, "But we didn't go back for our baskets."

"So what the devil is MacCarrick's hesitation?" Sam frowned. "He's got enough money to support you, he doesn't have a woman, and he's completely lost for you."

Jane gave Sam an unamused expression, then turned so Hugh couldn't see her take a gulp of wine. After his rant this morning, Jane figured he'd be displeased to find even a temporary wife stockingless and passing around a bottle. "He's so lost for me, he tells me twice daily how our marriage will end."

Sam waved her comment away. "I'm merely saying what I see. It is a puzzle. I do so love puzzles."

"Maybe he's got a lusty Scottish lass waiting for him back in the clan," Belinda offered, taking a more ladylike taste of the wine. "Someone with ample br**sts and wide hips, someone who can cook."

Jane's brows drew together. Suddenly, she found the idea of traveling to his clan's seat decidedly less appealing. Jane would be the outsider, not speaking the language, not understanding exchanges between Hugh and his kinsmen, or between him and any lasses he'd left behind.

Sam said, "At least Jane has the lusty part down pat."

Jane didn't bother contradicting that. Her cravings before had been an irritation, but now with Hugh - and after last night - they seemed to consume her. "I swear" - she leaned in as Sam's two daughters ran by the end of the dock, chased by a heaving nanny - "I swear, sometimes I believe that I think about making love as much as a twenty-seven-year-old male. There are people obsessed with all things carnal. Maybe I'm like them."

Sam rolled her eyes. "This, coming from the twenty-seven-year-old virgin."

"Samantha, you mustn't judge," Belinda chided in a prim tone. "Jane never asked to be a virgin." She snapped her fingers for the bottle. "So what happens if you don't consummate the marriage? What happens at the end of this adventure for you?"

Jane put her hands behind her and leaned back, inhaling deeply. The air was redolent with the scent of wild roses, not yet checked by the autumn's first frost. "Our marriage is dissolved. Hugh goes back to mercenarying or marauding or whatever his secret endeavors are."

Then Sam asked, "Janey, just a thought. Doyou want to stay wed to him?"

Jane had wondered if Sam and Belinda were tiptoeing about Jane's past fixation on Hugh, focusing only on his motivations. They most likely feared Jane would cry over Hugh yet again.

As she contemplated the question, she watched Hugh purposely miss yet another shot, even with Lawrence slapping his back and elbowing him. Hugh could have embarrassed the two men, but he hadn't. And she'd seen him eyeing the way Robert held his rifle and knew he badly wanted to correct it, but he'd said nothing. He really was trying to rub along with her odd family.

Jane sighed. After their encounter the night before, she knew she could spend the rest of her nights with that man. Even after their row today, she knew he'd make a good husband.

At an early age she'd discovered his personality and temperament were devastatingly attractive to her. She'd set her cap at him, and after he'd left, she'd never met his equal.

She gave them a tight smile. "Doesn't matter, does it? He couldn't have made it more clear that as soon as this is over, he will leave and not come back. I swear, you should have seen the look on his face when I told him I hadn't been celibate."

"To be fair," Belinda began, "an easy annulment was one of the terms of the deal he agreed to. Without it, this could get tricky. He might even fear you'll have to divorce. Which cousin Charlotte can tell you is nasty business, after all the hours she's spent at the courthouse."

Sam was shaking her head. "No, he's jealous. He reacted to the thought of you with another man, or men."

Belinda covered her mouth with three fingertips, stifling a hiccup, then snapped her fingers for the bottle again - this time from Jane. "Jane, I'm actually going to have to agree with Sam on this one. He does look at you like he's been starved and you're a feast."

"You've only seen us together for the shortest time!"

Sam said, "But he keeps looking over here at you. Watch for it now. Give it five seconds. Five, four, three - "

Jane tugged one of Sam's russet curls, but Hugh did, in fact, turn to look at her two seconds later. "He might appear a bit possessive," she allowed. "But he should. He's protecting me."

"Come on, haven't you ever seen a Highlander madly in love? No?" Sam jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward Hugh who was staring at Jane with a smoldering expression. "Behold!"

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