If You Desire

Page 21

"Madly in love. That's ridiculous." Yet her heart had started knocking hard in her chest.

Belinda frowned. "Jane, where's your famed confidence?"

"Embattled. Running screaming for the hills. Which happens when one's husband regards his marriage as a sprung bear trap. When he appears determined to gnaw off a paw to escape, well, that never helps, either."

"Maybe he doesn't think he's rich enough or good enough for you," Belinda said. "After all, you were about to marry an exceedingly handsome and wealthy earl."

"She's right," Sam said. "This smacks of self-sacrifice to me."

"So you think he's here, ready to risk his life for me, because he's in love with me and couldn't stand to see me hurt?"

Belinda nodded. "Why, that's it, precisely."

Whywas Hugh doing all this? Yes, she knew he owed her father for his livelihood. But surely this was above and beyond repayment. "Any ideas on why he'd leave before and be furiously resolved against marrying me now?"

"No, but in your place, I'd be finding out," Sam said. "And I'd develop a strategy."

"A strategy for MacCarrick," Jane said, tapping her chin. "Why do I have a sense of history repeating itself?"

Sam shrugged. "True, our last plan wasn't utterly successful - "

"Utterly successful?" Jane asked with a laugh. "We endeavored to get him to marry me, and instead, he disappeared for a decade."

"Well, then, what are you going to do?" Belinda asked.

Brows drawn, Jane said, "Wait until an answer comes to me from nowhere, then act impulsively and inappropriately?"

Sam rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "It might just work."

Chapter Twenty-seven

Toward sundown, Hugh caught her just as she was leaving the house through a side door. "You canna avoid me all day." He eased her against the wall, and she let him.

"I stayed within your eyesight," she said, surprised when he rested a hand beside her head and leaned over her. "Besides, I thought you were enjoying spending time with Robert and Lawrence."

He narrowed his eyes. "Oh, aye. Today, I've shot, fished, and smoked, and because I've had to keep my eye on you throughout it all, they've ribbed me without cease for being 'wrapped 'round the old finger.'" He sounded so gruff, she almost smiled. "Did you tell your cousins about last night?"

"Of course I did."

"You told them how I...how we..." He trailed off with a groan, bending down to rest his forehead against hers. "Jane, you dinna."

"Have you been worried about this all day?"

He pulled back his head. "Christ, yes."

She studied her nails. "Well, you deserved to agonize over it, after how hurtful you were this morning."

"Likely, but I doona want our private business bandied about by your cousins. After one day's post run, all seven will know."

"I did tell Sam and Belinda, but I didn't give details. I merely told them we've been...intimate but haven't, well, made love."

"That's too much still," he said, but he relaxed a fraction, leaning in again. "I dinna think you would voluntarily speak to me after this morning."

"I'm going to make myself forget what you said."

"I'd appreciate that - "

"If you make a deal with me. Every time you brood over the next two weeks, you have to give me a hundred pounds."

"A hundred? Why do you want this?"

"I've realized today that just because we're forced to spend this time together, it doesn't have to be miserable. I want to enjoy myself - with you - and it's impossible when you're mired in thoughts of something else."

"I canna just change myself - "

"Make the deal, Hugh, or Iwon't forget what you said this morning, and Iwill divulge everything to my cousins, right down to the exact words you were saying when you were above me."

He looked away, jaw clenched so hard that she thought he could chew metal, and gritted out, "I'll make the deal."

"Good. But be warned, those pounds will add up rapidly."

"I think I can handle it."

"The expense or the not brooding?"

He was saved from answering when Sam's daughter Emily appeared.

"Come on, Aunt Janey," the girl cried, grabbing Jane's hand and pulling her toward the lawn.

Jane caught Hugh's hand, and over her shoulder, she explained, "Emily's like I was when I was little - running wild all day until I dropped where I stood."

"When you were little?" Hugh raised his brows. "You were still like that at thirteen."

She chuckled, which seemed to surprise him. When they reached a blanket on the lawn, Jane sat and tugged Hugh's hand until he dropped down beside her. Emily crawled into her lap.

"Aunt Janey," Emily whispered loudly, "is he the rough Scot you married?"

Jane saw his face grow cold immediately. "He is."

Emily eyed him suspiciously. "Am I really to call him uncle, then?"

"Um, yes, sweeting, he's your uncle Hugh."

"Is he really going to buy us presents?"

To Emily, she whispered loudly, "You should ask him."

Emily tilted her head. "Are you going to get me the dollies I asked for?"

Hugh looked at Jane briefly before answering. "Aye."

"You won't forget?"

When he shook his head, Emily flashed him one of the beatific smiles that, in the past, had gotten Jane to promise her - and deliver - a brown-spotted, white pony that Emily could name Freckles. Hugh merely gave Emily a nod, like a man greeting an acquaintance at a club.

Before Emily scampered away, she said, "Bye...Uncle Hugh."

Jane frowned at him. "You act like you've never been around children before."

"I have no'. No' in years." Then he tensed. "What should I have done?" He seemed to be waiting intently for her answer.

Hugh tries...."Well, you could have said, 'Yes, sweet, but only if you are good all week long,' or something along that line."

He seemed to be filing that away. "Dinna know you liked bairns so much."

"Ilove them," she said, glancing over at the children playing, getting grass stains all over themselves. "I love everything about them. How their hair smells like sunshine at the end of the day, and how they feel everything so strongly and they're so quick to laugh...." She trailed off at his darkening expression. "Did I say something?"

"Why have you no' gone about getting your own?" he snapped.

She drew back. "Alas, there's an intermediary necessary for 'getting' them - he's called a husband."

"Seems like you should no' have been so stringent about your 'qualifications' for a husband, then."

"You make it sound like it's too late - I'm only twenty-seven! My mother had me when she was twenty-nine. There is no reason for me to settle. Or therewas no reason to settle - oh, I'm confused. I swear, it'd be so much easier if I was either completely married or completely single."

"But right now, you're half-married to arough Scot ?" he grated.

That had really gotten to him. "They don't mean anything by it."

He looked away and plucked a piece of grass as he asked, "Were you...were you shamed to have me here as your husband?"

"Oh, heavens, no!" she said, then wished she'd been a little more poised - and a little less exclamatory - in her answer, even as his grim expression eased somewhat.

She didn't care what her cousins said. She'd always found Hugh's rugged looks handsome. He dressed simply but well, and he had good manners for all that he didn't talk much - and for all that his handshake was a "bit excruciating," as Robert had told Sam, who'd told Jane.

"Besides, rough Scot is a lot better than what they call Robert." When Hugh raised his eyebrows, she said, "They call Robert the laughing quack. He thinks the two of you are fast friends, by the way. He told me he got a good sense about you, though he couldn't wrangle more than two words out of you. He's usually right about these things."

"Good sense, huh? Then why...?" He never finished the question, as he'd caught sight of Lawrence starting the bonfire. "There's to be a fire?" He eyed his surroundings warily. "Here?"

She nodded. "We eat supper out here whenever the weather's this nice."

"I ken that." His gaze was watchful as Belinda and Sam began setting out food and wine.

"We will stay, won't we?"

He swung a look at her as if she'd just asked him to drink from the Thames.

They intended to sit out here. All of them. Together. Oh, no, no.

"No, we canna stay." He rose, pulling her up with him. This, Hugh would not do.

He and his brothers had been invited to attend those fireside dinners, but they'd never accepted, all of them too uncomprehending of the strange behavior of this family. Men drank readily and smoked cigars in front of their wives, trilling laughter sounded throughout the night, children slept draped over their parents wherever they'd fallen asleep, not waking even at the loud laughter.

How many nights had the three brothers sat out on their terrace, listening, giving each other looks of bewilderment?

Now he was to be on the other side of the cove, for the fire?

He must have shown how dismayed he was, because she sidled up to him, a smile playing about her wine-reddened lips - the lips he'd burned to sample when he'd pressed her against the house just minutes ago.

"I'd really like to eat here tonight," she said.

He shook his head sternly.

"Please?" she asked in a soft voice, making him wonder which was worse - that she could manage him, or that they both knew she could.

She took his hand, easing them back down to the blanket. "We'll just sit here." He knew she was manipulating him, but he was also aware she would clasp his arm and mold her body to his as they sat. Withstand the fire; get this attention.

He would win this one.

Leaning close, her br**sts soft against his arm, she trailed her hand up to the back of his neck, then made slow, lazy circles with her nails. "This is not so bad, is it?"

Not with her, but the others had all convened - from nannies to bairns to couples - all lazy on blankets around the fire, with delicacies spread about on china dishes. Though Jane prepared him a selection, and the food smelled delicious, he had no appetite.

Once the children had dropped off - with the wee lass Emily bundled in a blanket and curled over Jane's ankles - and the nannies had retired, more bottles of wine surfaced. The talk grew lively and the language turned frank, even in front of the ladies, evenby the ladies.

Hugh glanced up when he heard Robert say, "At least Hugh knows what she's like. Imagine if he'd married her without having known her for so long."

Samantha said, "Well, I'm sure he knows that Janey's the wildest of the Eight."

"I am not!" Jane cried.

"Does Hugh know about the Russian prince?" Samantha asked, and Jane gave a self-satisfied smile.

Hugh's no' sure he wants to know about the Russian prince....

But Samantha had already begun. "Just this spring at a ball, a horrid old lecher of a prince stuck his hand down Charlotte's bodice. Little Charlotte was so mortified! So we all went on the offensive, spreading rumors about his eleventh toe of a male appendage." Samantha's eyes were glinting with amusement. "But Jane merely watched from the side like a tigress sizing up prey, waiting for the right moment. I saw the whole thing happening. As he strolled past her, she flashed him a come-hither smile. His attention was so fixed on her that he never saw her foot sweep out from under her skirts to trip him. He crashed face first into the gala-size punch bowl."

Hugh felt the corners of his lips quirking. Fierce lass.

Belinda added, "Jane sauntered up to us, brushing her hands off, and remarked" - she mimicked Jane's sensual voice - "'Darlings, all men bow before the Weyland Eight. Or they fall.'"

Hugh raised his eyebrows at Jane, and the words slipped out: "They bow, do they?"

"Weren't you listening?" she asked with a saucy grin. "That, or they fall. And the big ones like you fallhard ."

No bloody kidding.

Everyone laughed. After that, the conversation devolved into a dirty limerick contest. When Hugh found himself on the verge of grinning, he grew guarded. He forced himself to draw back. That's what he did - he was always on the outside, looking in. Always. It wasn't difficult - he was so different from these people, it was like night and day.

Everyone here was so bloody comfortable in their own skin, so settled and sure in their relationships, affection displayed openly, unconsciously. Samantha laughed with her lips pressed to Robert's neck. Belinda and Lawrence held hands to walk ten feet to go retrieve her shawl.

What would it be like if he belonged here, if Jane truly were his? What wouldhe be like without the constant shadow of theLeabhar over him? How he envied this life.

One family so blessed, one cursed.

When he exhaled, Jane absently stroked the back of his neck with her nails, as though she sensed he needed it.

He stared into the fire. Just weeks ago, the woman his brother loved - the only one he'd ever loved - had almost died. Because of Court's brash actions, the two of them had been hunted down by the Rechazado.

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