If You Desire

Page 23

"I'm sure he has much in common with them."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want to frighten you needlessly," he said, then added in a distracted tone, "And I never thought he would even get close to us."

"If you knew he was such a horrible killer, why did you agree to this? You could be risking your life."

He said nothing.

"Hugh, you wouldn't, um, risk your life for mine?"

"What kind of question is that?"

She made a sound of frustration. "Oh, just answer me, won't you?"

His body seemed to tense, and after an obvious struggle, he gritted through his teeth, "Aye."

"T-truly?" Her voice went higher.

"Just try to get some sleep."

As if that was going to happen. After a few long moments, she asked, "How does he kill them?"

"With a blade."

The blood drained from her face, leaving it cool. "Grey...stabsthem? Even women? Would he do that tome ?"

Hugh hesitated. "I doona know that telling you - "

"I have to know, Hugh," she interrupted sharply. "I need to know what he plans."

Hugh's gaze flickered over her face. Finally he said, "He slits their throats - "

A violent pounding on the door boomed through the silent home.

Chapter Thirty

Jane jerked with fright, then whispered, "Who in the devil would be knocking?"

"Ethan." Hugh relaxed a fraction, stowing his gun in his pants waist.It has to be . "My brother is supposed to meet us here. Jane, lock the door behind me, and doona come out until I return."

When she followed him to the door, he strode from the room, pausing outside only long enough to hear the lock click into place.

His brother's timing was as impeccable as ever - just when Hugh had decided to take Jane, just when he hadn't had a doubt in his mind that he would...

Hugh hurried down the stairs, then crossed to a front window. When he glanced past the curtain, unease crept up his spine. It was one of Weyland's messengers - not his brother.

In that instant, he realized something had happened to Ethan. Hugh yanked open the door and snatched the missive from the grim man. "Do you know anything about my brother?" Hugh asked, though it was unlikely since most messengers weren't privy to important information.

The man shook his head, then turned away directly to set off and confirm that the missive had been received.

Locking the door again, Hugh ripped open the letter and read the one line. Disbelieving what it said, he crumpled the paper in his fist, then turned and charged up the stairs.

As soon as Jane opened the door to him, he shouted orders. "Pack your smallest bag with clothes, essentials only. You can take your bow but no' thirty bloody books. We leave in ten minutes."

"What's happened?"

"Grey's in England. Has been for days." If Grey could control the Network like this, deceiving and manipulating so many in the field, then his addiction wasn't impairing him mentally as they'd suspected. It seemed the man had lost nothing, and wasplaying with them. "He could have followed us directly here."

Hugh had been so intent on getting into Jane's skirts, he hadn't been concentrating on protecting her from a man whose entire life centered on killing.

Grey could attack in so many insidious ways. He could poison the well, or burn the house with a mixture of turpentine and alcohol, then pick off anyone who escaped. Toward the end, burning had become a particular favorite of his.

Swooping together piles of clothes, she said, "How do you know he's in England?" She must have sensed that he was about to hedge his answer, because she snapped, "This is no time to be secretive! I'm in the middle of this, too!"

Hugh ran his hand over his face. "He killed Lysette."

She gasped, dropping the bag she'd been filling. "If he could be near, then what about my family at Vinelands?"

"Grey has never gone out of his way to kill indiscriminately - only people he hates, or who fit his agenda. But to be safe, I'll leave a letter for Robert explaining that they should make haste to leave."

"Only people he hates? Then why would he kill Lysette?" She resumed packing. "You said they were lovers."

"They had been, but it ended badly. He thought she betrayed him."

"Hugh, if he's really out there right now, he could shoot us."

"He does no' like to shoot," Hugh assured her. "He was never verra good at it, even before he was afflicted with tremors."

"But why don't we stay here? Stay locked in - "

"He'll have no qualms about burning the house down around us." He strode up to her, grasping her shoulders. "Lass, I'm going to keep you safe, I vow it, but you need to trust that I know what I'm doing."

She gave him a shaky nod.

"Now, dress to ride in the forest. Something dark if you have it."

"We're leaving the coach?"

"The driver's off the property. Besides, Grey can track a coach, but he'll never follow our trail on horseback," he said as he scanned her suddenly empty floor.Was there a bloody system to her clothing that he couldn't discern?

"Remember that rocky trail up by the waterfall to the north?"

"Yes, you wouldn't let me ride it when I was younger."

"Well, we're going to ride it tonight, and until we're well away, we're going to do it really bloody fast."

Fifteen minutes later found them riding in the woods through fog so thick, it seemed to swirl like an unctuous current in the moonlight.

Hugh had her reins fisted in his hand, and Jane held on to her horse's mane as it charged up and over the harsh terrain. Branches snatched at her clothing and at her hair until it came free, streaming behind her.

At the first sign that her horse stumbled, Hugh brought her mount forward beside his own, and dragged Jane behind him. Making sure she was holding on tight, he took up a breakneck pace. His surefooted horse proved up to the task, her mount bustling along behind.

Nothing in London could compare with this thrill - her arms around the torso of a Highlander as he rode faster than she'd ever ridden a horse, much less at night.

Though it all felt dreamlike to her, Hugh was very purposeful and alert. All night, like a chess player anticipating his opponent's moves, Hugh guided them north. Oftentimes, he would ride in one direction, then slow, c*ck his head, and turn back around.

"How are you doing, lass?" he asked periodically, patting her leg.

Now that she realized the danger she was in, she was overwhelmed by how much Hugh was doing for her. The image of him at the moonlit window, body tense, eyes watchful, ready to do battle, was seared into her mind.

He'd admitted he would risk his life for hers. With that, she knew for certain that he couldn't have left her before out of callousness, or neglected to tell her good-bye out of indifference. No, Hugh was so much more than what she saw on the surface. And she planned to investigate all the layers.

She hugged him tighter, and all of a sudden she was seventeen again, riding behind him just as they'd always done when they'd explored new places.

"Do you need to stop?" he asked over his shoulder.

"No, I'm fine. I-I'm excited to go to the Highlands at last."

After a hesitation, he answered, "It's no' always like it is in English ballads."

"What do you - "

"Duck," he commanded. She did, just in time to skim under a limb. "There are brigands and reivers who are no' as heroic as you read about."

"Oh." Long ago, she'd looked up Carrickliffe on a map, and she remembered it was far to the north on the coast.

"Are we going to your clan?"

"No' that far. No' yet."

She stifled a sigh of relief. After all these years of yearning to go there, now she balked.

"We'll go to Court's."

"Where's his home?"

"Southern Highlands. If it seems all right, we'll stay there instead. I warn you, it's no' going to be luxurious, but I think it will be the safest place."

"Is Court going to be there?"Please say no.

"No, he's probably in London by now. Or he might have decided to stay on the Continent and go on a job to the east with his men." He muttered something that sounded like: "As long as he didn't go back for her."

"What's that?" she asked, clasping her hands on his hard torso, fighting the urge to rub her face against his back.

"Nothing, lass. Try to get some sleep if you can."

When he placed his big, rough hand over both of hers and warmed them, a realization hit her like a thunderbolt: she hadn't been pushed off a cliff. She'd dived, and the ground was approaching, hadalways been approaching.

She'd just had her eyes closed.

Chapter 31~33

Chapter Thirty-one

As Jane bent down to the crystal-clear creek, cupping water to her mouth, a branch cracked behind her. She whirled around, but saw no one in the dying light of the day. She knew Hugh would have announced himself, and he wouldn't have been finished unpacking the horses for the night. It must be an animal - the forests they'd been traveling through were teeming with roe deer.

She sat on the bank, pulling her skirts up to dip her stockingless legs and a cloth into the chill stream. As she brought the cloth to her face, she reflected over the last four days, during which Hugh had taken them racing through thick woodlands and over craggy rock plains.

The scenery continued to grow more and more breathtaking as they passed ancient Celtic fortifications and sweeping vistas. The leaves were staggering in color - shot through with scarlet, gold, and ochre. Now that they were officially in the Highlands, everything seemed crisper, sharper. Even the air was sweeter. London was dingy by comparison.

Late each night, they'd stopped to camp beneath the trees. Each morning, she'd watched Hugh rise in stages, wincing in sympathy as he clenched his jaw against what must be marked pain. And still he'd set to work, quickly readying them so they could make their way - as he'd told her - toward his brother Courtland's property.

Over each mile, as she rode beside him, she'd watched him study the land, much as he had done when he'd taken her hunting years before. He used every amazing skill she'd ever seen him demonstrate as a hunter, and she'd realized she was as awed by him as she had been at thirteen.

And now he was herhusband .

His intense, focused expression drew her eyes again and again, reminding her of how he'd looked at her those last two nights at Ros Creag. Unfortunately, he'd made no move to touch her since then.

She knew he would deem their last encounter a close call and be thankful they'd dodged a bullet. She deemed it anif at first you don't succeed encounter.

As she brought her wet towel to her face, she contemplated her future, wondering, as ever, if it would include him. The facts: He found her attractive, and he'd wanted to make love to her. He would die for her. That first night he'd returned to London, he'd been so dirty because he'd ridden for days to reach her.

So why wouldn't he desire her for more -

Footsteps over crackling leaves sounded just behind her. Before she could whirl around, a hand covered her mouth; other hands seized her, dragging her away from the water and deeper into the shadowy woods.

She dug her heels into the ground, furiously biting at the hand over her mouth, clawing wildly. The man holding her grunted and cursed. Just as his hand moved, she twisted around to see her attacker; cold metal pressed against her throat and she stilled in terror -

"Get your hands off my wife," Hugh said with a steely calm.

The men froze. Jane frantically blew hair from her eyes and saw Hugh with a rifle, raised and steady, his eyes as cold as ash in the dying sun. He had it aimed at one of the two men who'd grabbed her, the one who had a hunting knife against her neck and a soiled bandanna hanging down around his own. The second man trained his pistol on Hugh. "Let her go, or I'll kill you."

Raw fury emanated from Hugh, but somehow he controlled it.

These two must be bandits, some of the very unheroic ones Hugh had mentioned. Why weren't they hiding their faces with the cloths they wore?

Because she and Hugh weren't only to be robbed.

Rattled by Hugh's killing look, the man holding her swallowed audibly, his bandanna rising with his Adam's apple, and pressed the blade harder to her skin. When she felt blood dripping down, she gasped.

Hugh's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing, just waited. Jane realized that she'd seen him go utterly still like this before - when he'd been hunting and had a target in sight.

Time seemed to slow. How many times had she seen this uncanny concentration just before his forefinger smoothly pressed the trigger? When she saw Hugh's thumb brushing his rifle, she realized these men were about to die.

The one clutching her began dragging her away. The knife wasn't so tight at her neck as they stumbled back. She should hit him...kick him...give Hugh his chance to shoot.

Jane felt the bandit's rank breath waft over her as he said to Hugh, "Yer bonnie wife's about to be my - "

The boom of the rifle made her jerk with fright, but the knife was gone. The man lay crumpled to the ground behind her, blood oozing from a hole between his sightless eyes.

She glanced back at Hugh.

Never taking his gaze from the second man's shaking pistol, Hugh emptied the cartridge from his rifle as if he had all the time in the world. "Pull the trigger, then," Hugh demanded,impatiently .

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.