Jane screamed when the bandit shot; a bit of dark cloth flew up, but she couldn't tell where Hugh had been hit. When the man saw Hugh was still standing, he paled and hurled his gun at Hugh before spinning around to run.
Jane tottered on her feet.So close. But Hugh must have been unharmed, because he tossed his empty rifle to the ground and caught the man in three long strides, his movements contained, lethally silent.
Everything's as silent as he is. The woods hushed by the shot. Or is my hearing weakened from the report?Then she heard a whimper, and didn't know if it came from her or the wide-eyed man struggling to free himself. But his thrashing was useless - Hugh's grip was unyielding, his massive hands and forearms clamped around the man's head.
How can Hugh move so quietly? What an odd grip he's got on the bandit -
Jane flinched as Hugh's strong arms twisted in different directions. Suddenly, the thick pop of breaking bone was deafening. The man dropped to his knees, head lolling at an unnatural angle, before his body slumped to the ground.
After a heartbeat's hesitation, Hugh turned to face her.
Jane's slim body shook with ragged breaths. Her pupils were dilated and her lips were pale and parted in shock.
A trail of stark crimson crept from the slice at her neck, and alarm flared in him. "Sìne, I need to look at you," he said as he cautiously eased closer, fully expecting her to run. He knew what he must look like, and he knew that what he'd done to those two would terrify her.
"Jane, I dinna do this lightly," he explained slowly, approaching her. "Those men would have killed you."Eventually.
Nothing. Her face was drawn, white with fear. When he stood before her, he prayed she wouldn't run.Doona flinch from me.... He couldn't take it if Jane feared him.
He eased a hand to the slash on her neck, brushing his fingertips to it, then nearly sagged in relief to find it was a mere graze. Before he could stop himself, he put his arms around her. As he clutched her to him and lowered his head to hers, he groaned at the feel of her, warm andsafe in his arms, but her body was quaking. "Shh, lass," he said against her hair. "You're safe now."
"Wh-what just happened?" she whispered. "I don't understand what just happened. Were they bandits?"
"Aye, of a sort."
"Are you hurt?" There was a burn mark and a small hole through the outside of his pants leg.
"No, no' at all. Do you think you can ride tonight?"
"But what are we going to do with the b-bodies?"
"Leave them. They will no' be found for some time, if ever." He drew back so he could look down into her eyes. Running his hands up and down her arms, he said, "We must leave this place immediately. Can you get dressed while I see to the camp?"
She nodded up at him, and he forced himself to release her, knowing he had work to do, and quickly. Keeping a close watch on her as she dressed and daubed a wet cloth to her neck, he packed up their gear and re-saddled their horses.
When Jane was ready, she said, "Can I...can I ride with you?" She glanced down as if embarrassed to ask.
Without hesitation, he lifted her into his saddle, then swung up behind her, wrapping an arm around her. He exhaled a long breath, pleased she still wanted to be near him.
"Try to rest - I'll ride through the night."
She gave him a shaky nod.
Eager to get her away from this area, he redoubled their already punishing pace. After an hour of hard riding, they reached a craggy, dry creek bed. When they had to slow to cross, she murmured, "Thank you. For what you did back there - for what you're doing."
"Say nothing of it."
"Apparently, you're more of an expert at this than I'd imagined." When he was silent, she continued, "Which makes me wonder, in light of this and Lysette's death, how much of an expert Grey is."
He ground his teeth.
"You're not a mercenary, and he's not a businessman."
"Care to explain?"
Finally, he answered, "I canna tell you, even if I wanted to."
"Do you want to?"
"I...doona know." Part of him did - to get her look of disgust over with.
After long moments passed, she asked, "Are you angry with me?"
"God, no, why would I be?"
"Because I got you into this situation."
"Lass, you are no' at fault here. I am. I should have been more aware - "
"No, I wasn't saying I thoughtI was at fault - neitherof us is. I was saying that I'm sorry you had to kill because of me. I fear you'll feel badly about it."
"Should I no'?"
He felt her shoulders stiffen. "I will truly have my feelings hurt if you regret doing something noble and necessary to save my life."
Noble?He felt a deep welling of pride, and discovered then that noble was exactly how he wanted to be around her - exactly how he hoped she might see him.
She'd watched him kill with his hands, but she understood he'd had no choice.Necessary. The thought came from nowhere:She could accept that I've killed. Without judging me.
But could she accept the way he'd done it?
In the papers and in literature, assassins were regarded as cowardly and were universally reviled - even those from one's own country. In the last three major Continental wars, every army that captured snipers executed them summarily - there were no prisoners, no exchanges. Not that there would have been bargaining for gunmen like Hugh anyway....
None of this mattered. Hugh couldn't tell her of his involvement without divulging others'.
"I could have let the second one run for his life."
"What if there were others in his gang? Or h-he might have wanted revenge for the death of the other. Or he could have caused a commotion, and then Grey would know we've been here."
Hugh might have considered these factors, but he hadn't. There'd been no thoughts in his head when he caught the second man - nothing but the need to kill him for daring to touch her.
"You don't feel guilty, do you?" Jane asked.
"It dinna exactly improve my mood."
She twisted around, wriggling over his leg and against his arm so she could face him. Irritation was clear in her expression. "You act as if you'd had to shoot orphans and kittens! You killedkillers ." She frowned, her voice growing soft. "Do you regret having to do that to save me?"
His arm tightened around her. "No, lass, never."I relished it. "I just would rather...I dinna want you to see that."
She blinked at him. "To see how brave you are? To see you just stand there while the man shot at you?"
"It was no' bravery. The odds were slim that he could have hit me in a place that would put me down before I could get to him. And I meant that I dinna want you to see blood and death. I doona want that memory to follow you. To hurt you."
"Ifit was a memory that could hurt me, I simply wouldn't allow it to pervade my life. I don't want you to think I'm glib, or cold." She seemed to be choosing her words very carefully. "But I believe when the load gets too heavy, we have to shuck some weight from our shoulders. And Hugh" - she gently laid her hands on his forearm locked across her middle - "it really seems that you need to lighten your load."
What if I did?What if he just refused to feel guilt over his deeds and stopped dwelling on all he'd done? The temptation to do so was great.
Another mile passed in silence. At length, she murmured, "Hugh, when you called me your wife like that..." She trailed off.
He briefly closed his eyes. "I know. It will no' happen again."
"Th-that's not what I was going to say." She was trembling against his chest, her wee hands tightening their grip on his arm.
Her next words made him sweat for the first time that day. "When you called me your wife, I found I really...like it."
If Jane had been curious about Hugh's life before the attack yesterday, now she was desperate to know more.
Though they'd finally slowed their pace to ascend a slippery embankment, she wouldn't question him now. She glanced over at him riding beside her in the morning sun, and her heart ached at how exhausted he appeared. He'd been ever wary, so vigilant to protect her - and they'd ridden hard.
The attack had demonstrated yet again how stalwart a guardian Hugh was. When she'd had the knife at her throat, she hadn't believed she was going to die - not then - but she had comprehended how her life would end if it came down to Grey.
Jane wouldn't take another minute with Hugh for granted.
"We're almost there, lass," he said then, with an encouraging nod. "I ken how hard this has been for you."
"For me? What about for you?" He and his horse looked much like they had that night in London.
He shrugged. "I'm accustomed to days like this."
"Of course," she said absently as she tilted her head to study him.
Hugh was a powerful protector, ready to unleash a chilling violence; yet, with her, he was tender and passionate. He had secrets, but she knew he'd be a faithful husband. He'd always desired her happiness above his own.
Just then, a breeze blew a lock of his thick black hair over one of his dark eyes....
She swallowed hard. Recognition took hold.
The Scotsman is...mine.As she gazed at him, she realized he was stillher Hugh. Jane wanted him, always had, but now she felt an abiding respect for him - a deeper, more mature...love. Oh, lord, she didn't love Hugh as much as she had before.
She loved him much, much more.
Yet she'd barely survived his leavingbefore - now what would happen to her if she lost him again?
She had decided he would be her first lover. Now she knew that this quiet, wonderful man had to be her last.How can I get him to stay wed to me? she thought, feeling panic rush through her at the thought of being forced to part from him.No! Calm down. Think!
"Jane, what's wrong?" he asked.
"N-nothing." She eked out a smile for him as a plan evolved in her mind.
No teasing. Only seduction. And only for keeps.
He frowned in return, and once they'd reach the rise, he increased their pace again. She was glad of the time to think.
Obviously, she needed him alone to prove that living with her wouldn't be a "wee bit like hell." So, she was pleased anew they weren't going to Carrickliffe.
Unfortunately, the only thing more undermining than a clan of strangers would beCourtland MacCarrick - who'd always hated her.
Hugh had said he didn't expect Court to be at his secluded home.Perfect. And barring Court's presence, nothing could keep them from staying there.
Abit of work, my arse.Hugh stifled another curse.
Upon reaching the border lands of Beinn a'Chaorainn, Court's property in the wilds of Scotland, Hugh had had his first sense of unease. The long, winding drive was overrun with fallen trees, strewn across it at irregular intervals. They were rotting, meaning no one had been here in ages, not even a caretaker with a work cart.
By the time the house came into view, rain clouds had gathered, casting the manor in an ominous light. At the sight of it, Jane seemed to wilt in her saddle. The estate where Hugh had planned to hide Jane for possibly the entire fall...left a lot to be desired.
With a sinking feeling, he surveyed the tangled, stunted gardens, the front door hanging askew from one rusted hinge, the windows either broken out or matted with dirt and dead ivy.
At that moment, something wide-eyed and furry careened out of the front doorway.
He glanced at Jane. Her lips were parted, her breaths little puffs in the cold air. Dark circles were stark against her pale face. Their pace had been furious, but Hugh had reasoned that they could rest and recuperate at Beinn a'Chaorainn. Yet even under the strain of their travels, she'd been trying to cheerhim up, keeping her mood buoyant for him, sweetly scolding him for brooding.
Now, Jane's expression was guarded as Hugh dismounted and helped her from her horse. Without a word, he strode inside with his shoulders back, as if taking her here hadn't been a colossal error. The next viable alternative was to go to the clan, and he'd wanted to avoid that at all costs.
Hugh crossed the threshold, took one good look around.And so the clan it will be.
Feathers and nests from grouse and pigeons littered the hall. It appeared that red squirrels, maybe badgers or even foxes denned here, and Hugh couldhear teeming in the chimney. As if standing in sentinel, a pine marten was poised upright in the entry hallway, front legs bowed aggressively.
"Look, Hugh!" Jane cried, showing genuine energy for the first time today. "It's a ferret. Or part cat? I can't tell." She eased past Hugh, cooing, "It's the most adorable wittle thing."
Hugh reached for her arm. "No, Jane, doona - "
It hissed at her and scuttled away - back inside. Jane looked crushed, mumbling something about never liking "ferret cats" anyway.
She followed him further inside, batting at the cobwebs that drifted in his wake, spitting frantically against one that brushed her lips. Freed of it, she gazed around the great room, her eyes wide with dawning horror.
His face flushing, his tone defensive, he said, "This is the last place anyone will look for us." He reckoned the manor had been broken into, and once the front door was lost, nature had moved in. Still, Beinn a'Chaorainn had never, by any stretch of the imagination, been habitable in recent memory.
There wasn't a stick of furniture to be seen, apart from three damp, pitted mattresses slumped against a wall. When Hugh's further exploration found the kitchen empty of pots and dishes, Jane said, "It appears that I'll be forgoing a bath." Her tone was strained.