If You Desire

Page 25

He opened yet another cabinet - nothing. "I saw a loch out back." He might even have spotted steam from a hot spring, adjacent to the rocky banks - hot water ready for the taking. "If I could just find one sodding bucket, a pot to bring water up - "

He broke off when some unseen creature upstairs thundered into a run, crashed into a wall, then darted back the same way. Jane turned away, covering her face with her hands.

Crossing to her, he muttered, "Ach, Jane, I dinna know." He tentatively laid his hand on her shoulder, frowning as he pulled free a few feathers that had settled in her hair.

He'd done it - he'd finally pushed her past her limit. As they'd neared the property, he'd again warned her it would be far from luxurious. She'd replied that as long as there was a bath, she would be fine. In fact, she'd dreamed aloud about soaking for hours - and that was before they'd been covered with dust, feathers, and spiderwebs.

She was exhausted, she'd been attacked, and not only was there no bath, there was no bed and no fire, and the areas where there were precious stretches of intact windows seemed to be precisely where birds had nested.

Hugh couldn't believe he'd brought his lass to a place like this. How could she not cry?

She bent over, and when her shoulders began to shake, Hugh vowed silently that he was going to beat Courtland to within an inch of his life.

"Jane, I never would have brought you here if I'd known. And we will no' stay." He turned her toward him and gently drew her hands from her face.

Jane was...laughing.

"I'm sorry," she said, biting back a snicker, holding up her palm. "Our situation isnot funny." With an expression of concentration, she tapped her temple and said, "Dire, Jane, that's what it is. Not amusing."

She was likely delirious - Hugh's expression indicated that he certainly suspected so. He was peering at her as if she'd just been released from Bedlam and would be returning forthwith.But then the accommodations would be sublime compared to this. Many fewer grouse.

And she lost it again.

Of course, this was where Courtland MacCarrick lived. She didn't know which was worse: Court owning a place like this - or the fact that her determination to stay here was still unfaltering.

"Jane?" he said slowly. Poor Hugh. He'd been so discomfited when they'd entered - his broad shoulders had been jammed back - and now his worry was evident. "Lass, what're you laughing about?"

When another feather wafted down to stick jauntily out of Hugh's hair, she snickered some more. Wiping her eyes, she said, "It's just that this is so much better than what I'd expected Court's home to be like."

"And how's that?"

"It'sabove ground."

Hugh's eyes briefly widened, then he half-frowned, half-grinned.

Jane inhaled, forcing herself to continue in a dry tone, "And I had no idea Courtland was such an animal lover. Look at all these beloved pets."

"Aye," Hugh agreed, his tone as dry as hers, "since he was a lad - never could keep enough of the wee beasties. Names them, every one."

She gave a burst of laughter, surprised and delighted with Hugh, but reined it in to observe, "And Court's quite clever with his menagerie. I never would have conceived of utilizing the chimney and the mattresses as pens for them."

Hugh nodded solemnly. "Makes it easier to feed them their steady diet of dirt and cotton. Look how they thrive."

Wrestling with laughter, Jane observed, "And the décor is quite fetching." She tapped her chin. "Early hovel, if I'm not mistaken. Only the most studious and dedicated neglect could achieve this."

"Aye, this level of hovel is rarely seen. He's been hard at it foryears ."

She did laugh then, having more fun bantering with Hugh in this awful place than she could remember. "Hugh, I think you're enjoying yourself with me."

He looked at the wall to her right as he said, "When you can refrain from teasing me, I like being around you." When he glanced back at her disbelieving expression, he added in a gruff voice, "Always enjoyed your company."

There was something in his expression, the smallest hint of vulnerability, as if he expected - or only wanted - her to make the same admission. "I enjoyed being with you as well," she murmured.

"And byenjoy , you mean that you liked having someone at your beck and call to retrieve anything you could no' reach and to bait hooks." Had the tight lines around his eyes relaxed somewhat? "Admit it - you never lifted a paddle to row around the lake when I was near."

"And you liked having me run my nails down your back, and filch for you whatever pie was cooling on the kitchen windowsill, and give you peeks of a transparent linen shift when we swam."

His eyes went half-lidded. "Christ, I did like you in nothing but wet linen."

Her toes curled in her boots, as much from his admission as from his sudden hungry expression. But then he seemed to grow bewildered by what he'd just said, and strode outside toward the lake. She was right behind him.

At the edge of the water, they turned back to face the manor. Sidling next to him, she butted his arm with her head until he grumbled but lifted his arm to put it around her shoulders.

"I truly dinna know, Jane," he said, his tone weary. "I welcome your humor, but it does no' erase the fault. This has added at least two days' riding to get to Carrickliffe."

Even if she weren't bent on staying here, the idea of more riding made her feel ill. "This was a fine property once," she offered, planting the seeds for a later request to stay here. If she came out and asked now, he would think she'd completely lost her mind. But, in truth, the place had probably been incredible at one time. Nicely situated on a hill overlooking the crystal-clear lake, the manor consisted of two wings. But the wings weren't connected at a right angle - they flared out so that all the rooms in each had a view of the lake and the glens unfolding behind it for miles.

"Aye. Once."

"Just pulling down the dead vines covering the brick would make a big difference in the façade." A hovel it might currently be, but the manor house had been designed in the much-lauded baronial style. The massive stones at the foot and the ancient beams inside shouldering the ceilings in that great room were all the rage in England.

Most important, Jane could be alone with Hugh here. In her eyes, that meant it was perfect.

Except for one thing, she thought, running her hand over the back of her neck and gazing around. She'd just gotten the eerie feeling that they were being watched.

"Perhaps so," Hugh said. "But that does no' help us for tonight."

"Cheer up, Hugh," she said absently. "Things can't get worse - "

Rain thundered down, like a loosed bucket of freezing water.

Chapter 34~35

Chapter Thirty-four

"Well, the good news is that I got my bath," Jane murmured in a drowsy tone. She lay on her side, her head resting comfortably in his lap as he sat back against the wall.

Where her fortitude sprang from, Hugh had no idea.

This afternoon, after they'd run for the manor in pounding rain, he'd settled their horses under a portico for the night, and then they'd investigated most of the interior.

Dodging streaming leaks from the ceilings, they had finally stumbled upon a tiny bedroom off the kitchen, likely a servant's quarters. It had only one window, and the panels, though cracked, were intact. The room was free of feathers, and no scrabbling sounded from its undersized fireplace. The chimney was only partially obstructed - the smoke from their small fire crept in flagging tendrils, but always up.

After eating a dinner of biscuits from a tin, tea steeped in heated rainwater, and apples liberated that morning from some farmer's orchard, they'd settled down for the night.

"Hugh, why did Court let this place get so run-down?" she asked.

"Now that I've seen it, I think it was probably neglected before Court even bought it." After that, his brother had had no time to improve it. Court had been on the Continent with his gang, working to pay off this place, which he'd bought for pennies on the pound.

Though the land was rich, and there was an astonishing amount of it, the manor was occupied by its own demolition crew. Hugh was amazed that Court had considered bringing Annalía, a rich and cultured lass, here to live. Annalía was a brave girl, but Hugh thought even she would have swooned at the state of Court's home.

Yet, hadn't Hugh done the same? He'd brought a rich and cultured woman here.

Lightning flashed outside, and when thunder rattled the structure, the creatures outside the room began to mew and tussle with renewed vigor. Hugh pinched the bridge of his nose, but Jane only chuckled.

"I'll take you to an inn tomorrow," he said quickly. "There's a village a few miles north of here, and they might have a place for us to stay. You can have a proper bath."

"Hugh, you're brooding so hard, I canhear my money piling up. And you already owe me five thousand pounds, at least." She sounded lazily comfortable and amused.

"Five thousand, is it?" He stroked her damp hair, and they settled into companionable silence. But as ever, worry for Ethan weighed on his thoughts. Hugh was cut off from communication with London and daren't leave Jane anywhere while he went to search for Ethan or hunted for Grey.

Hugh had to assume that Grey was still loose, which meant Hugh and Jane could be together indefinitely as they waited for the bastard to be captured or killed.

Indefinitely? Hugh gave himself ten days before he was in bed with her - and that would be drawing on every reserve of discipline he possessed...

"Hugh, tell me something about your life, something exciting you've done since I saw you last."

Anything exciting he'd done fell firmly into the category ofclassified . He finally answered, "I bought a home in Scotland."

She turned on her back, gazing up at him with interest. "Oh, do tell me about it."

He ran his free hand over the back of his neck. "I stumbled upon the estate on the coast in a place called Cape Waldegrave." She had to tap his hip to prompt him for more. "The waves are relentless and so lofty that you can see the sun set through them." He admitted, "I could no' rest until I owned it."

She sighed. "It sounds breathtaking. I think I'd like living in Scotland."

He berated himself for imagining the look in her eyes if she saw the cape. It was of no bloody consequence that she would love its wave-tossed cliffs, or that when he'd chosen the property, he'd specifically thought of her there, of wanting to impress her....

Since leaving Ros Creag, he'd tried his damnedest not to think about how close he'd come to having her after all these years. He recalled how inevitable it had felt to be with her, as if resisting the need to be inside her was senseless. Especially since she seemed to desire it just as much.

The idea that this stunning woman, who laid her head trustingly in his lap, had been willing - eager - to make love to him made him crazed. And the more time that passed, the less embarrassed he was about his actions those nights at Rose Creag - and the more aroused he became.

Ten days? Mayhap a week.

Doona look down...just doona look....

Hugh hissed in a breath when he did look, glimpsing her na**d body as he helped her from the hot spring into the cool morning air. He threw the towel around her as though she were on fire, but the image of her standing wholly na**d, with water sluicing down her smooth flesh, was seared into his mind.

A week without touching her? That had been an absurdly optimistic estimate.

"This was such a wonderful surprise!" She gazed up at him as though he was her hero, her eyes sparkling with pleasure. She showed no visible signs of fatigue from their demanding journey, or from last night's bleak accommodations in what was, in essence, a closet. Resilient lass.

In a breathless voice, she asked, "Hugh, how did you find the spring?"

"Yesterday, I thought I saw steam rising from this cove of the loch, but dinna want to get your hopes up until I explored it."

"I wondered where you'd gone this morning."

"I had no idea the water would be this clean." He frowned. "Or that you'd be willing to shuck off your clothes and dive in." After making sure the towel was firmly tucked in, he swooped her up into his arms for the five-minute walk back to the manor.

She laughed, throwing her arms around his neck and clinging to him so sweetly. "I woke thinking I'd find you beside me, but that ferret cat was there instead. When it hissed, I tossed my boot at it, which it appropriated. I want to stay here. Can you help me find my boot?"

"You've thrown me again, Jane."

"Well, I've been thinking, and I've concluded this place is not half bad." When he gave her a stern look, she said, "I'm not jesting, Hugh. If I'm to be in Scotland for an indeterminate time, away from all my family and friends without any town entertainments, I'll need something to do. This is actually the perfect opportunity. Since this tumbledown place needs work, we might as well see it done." He said nothing, so she continued, "Together, we'll compile a list of materials we'll need, and you can fix and I can clean."

"You? Doing the cleaning?"

She blinked up at him. "How hard can it be?"

He opened his mouth to explain, then closed it. Jane had decided that cleaning wouldn't be difficult; Jane would not be moved from this opinion until she'd tried it.

"Why would I want to do this?"

"It needs to be done. It's your brother's home. He can pay you back."

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