If You Desire

Page 3

When a middle-aged roué exposed himself to the Persian-rug women and they laughed, Belinda harrumphed. She shoved her glass at Jane so she could surreptitiously take notes, like a first-year plebeian might write up boys' school demerits. Jane shrugged, placing her own finished glass on a tray, and started on Belinda's.

She nearly choked on the last sips as she spied a towering man in a long black domino pushing through the crowd, clearly searching for someone. His build, his stride, the aggressive set of his lips just beneath the fluttering veil drop of his mask - everything about him reminded her of Hugh, though she knew it couldn't be him. Hugh wasn't in London.

But what if it had been him? Sooner or later, he would have to return to the city, and they would run into each other. It was possible she might seehim on the carpets, with his knees falling open and eyelids growing heavy as a woman's skilled hand rubbed him. The thought made Jane drain Belinda's cup. "Going for more punch," she mumbled, suddenly longing to be away from the warm throng of bodies.

"Bring us back some more," Claudia called.

"A double," Maddy added absently. She was watching the tall man wending through the crowd as well.

As Jane made her way toward the punch table, she recognized that the restless feeling in her belly that she continually battled had grown sharply worse. Ever since she could remember, she'd been plagued by an anxiety, as if she were missing something, as if she were in the wrong place with greener grass calling to her. She felt an urgency about everything.

Now, after regarding the man who was so like Hugh, and imagining Hugh being serviced by another woman, she felt anurgency for fresh air. Else she'd lose her punch.

Once she had glasses in hand, she returned to the group to see if they wouldn't mind going outside -

But Maddy wasn't there.

"I turned around and she was gone," Claudia said, sounding not too concerned. Maddy had a habit of slinking off whenever she felt like it. The more she did it, the more Jane realized Maddy didn't find environments like the Hive threatening.

"Shall we start looking on the dance floor?" Jane asked with a sigh.

The three began maneuvering through the crowd. Unfortunately, Maddy was short and had an uncanny way of blending in. A half an hour passed, and they still hadn't spotted her -

A shrill whistle rent the din; Jane's head jerked up. The band whimpered to a lull.

"Police!"someone yelled just as more whistles sounded all around them. "It's the bloody peelers!"

"No, no, that isn't possible," Jane said. These dance halls always paid off the police! Who in the devil had forgotten the "payment for protection"?

All at once, waves of screaming people clambered toward the back entrance, jostling them. The Hive was suddenly like a bottle turned upside down with the cork pulled out. The entire building seemed to rock as people fled, colliding with Jane and her cousins until a current of bodies separated them.

Jane battled to reach them, but was only forced back. When Belinda pointed to the back door, Jane shook her head emphatically - that way out was choked with people. They would be crushed to death. She'd rather get nicked and have her name printed on the page of shame in theTimes .

When Jane lost sight of her cousins completely, she backed to the wall - stunned to find herself separated and completely alone. The wave of people continued to swell until Jane was engulfed again. Unable to find a clear spot or an empty corner, she felt the world spinning out of control.

Two hands shoved against her back, sending her careening. She whirled around, swinging her reticule. She garnered a split second's worth of room but connected with nothing, and the momentum tore her reticule down and off her wrist. Gone. Her money, her makeshift weapon...

The next push didn't take her by surprise, but someone else was standing on her dress hem. Jane flailed her arms, helpless to stop herself from being pitched to the ground.

At once, she attempted to scramble up, but her skirts had spread out over the floor like the wings of a framed butterfly, pinned there by the stampede. Over and over, she fought to rise, but always new boots trapped her skirts.

Jane darted her hands out between ankles, yanking at the material with desperate strength, struggling to gather her dress about her legs.

She couldn't catch her breath under the press of people. How had this night gone so wrong -

A boot came straight for her head. To dodge it, she rolled toward the wall as far as she could, but then, even over the commotion, she distinctly heard the eerie ping of metal.

Looking up with dread, she saw one of the hanging murals directly above her, swaying wildly. The brass chain holding it had an opened link that was straightening under the massive weight.

Like a shot, the link popped, and the chain lashed out like a whip. The mural came crashing down.

Chapter Four

When Davis Grey chased the dragon, he had no dreams.

In that hazy twilight of opium, the pain in his body ebbed; no longer could he see the faces of the men, women, and children he'd killed.

Chasing the dragon, Grey thought with a weary exhalation, staring at the paint chipping across the ceiling of his hidden east London loft. What an appropriate saying to describe the habit - and his life.

In the past, the smoke had quelled the rage in his heart, yet finally his need for revenge had overpowered even opium's sweet pull.

He rose in stages from his sweat-dampened bed, then crossed to the basin to splash water over his face. In the basin mirror, he studied his na**d body.

Four crusting bullet wounds riddled his pale chest and torso, a constant reminder of the attempt on his life. Though it had been six months ago since Edward Weyland, for whom Grey had killed faithfully, had sent him to his own destruction, the wounds still hadn't healed completely. Though half a year had passed, Grey could remember perfectly the order in which he'd taken each bullet from a trio of Weyland's hungry, younger killers.

Yet somehow Grey had survived. He'd lost much muscle, but he still possessed a wiry strength - enough to enact his plans.

He ran a finger down his chest, skating around the wounds in fascination. Perhaps Weyland should have sent his best man for the kill. But then Weyland always spared Hugh MacCarrick thealtering jobs, the ones that changed a man forever.

Those tasks should have been split between Grey and Hugh, but Weyland carefully meted out each one. Hugh was dispatched to kill people who were out-and-out evil, dangerous people who often fought for the lives Hugh sought to take. Grey executed the variables, the peripherals. Toward the end, Grey hadn't been very particular if children got in the way.

In dreams, he saw their glassy, sightless eyes.

Weyland, that bloody bastard, didn't even send Hugh to kill me.

That galled Grey more than anything, scalding him inside.

Soon Grey would deliver his retribution. Weyland treasured only one thing in this world - his daughter, Jane. MacCarrick had loved her from afar for years. Take away Jane, and two men would be destroyed, forever.

A little work had ensured that Weyland and his informants knew Grey was stirring. Cunning and two deaths had ensured that they thought Grey was still on the Continent. Weyland would already have sent for his best gunman to protect his precious daughter.

Good. Hugh should be there to see Grey end her life. Both MacCarrick and Weyland should know the searing purity of grief.

There was power innate in having nothing left to lose.

Years ago, Weyland had said that Grey was suited for his occupation because he possessed no mercy, but he'd been wrong then. Years ago, Grey wouldn't have been able to happily slit Jane's pretty throat. Weyland wasn't wrong now.

With a shriek, Jane rolled out of the way just as a corner of the mural hammered into the floor directly beside her. She didn't have time to gape at how close it had been because more charging people overwhelmed her. She couldn't breathe. With a cry, she ducked her head down, raising an arm over her face.

Seconds later, Jane lowered her arm, brows drawn in confusion.

The crowd was parting around her instead of treading over her.

At last, she had room to maneuver, a fighting chance....

She'd be damned if she'd be killed by the very spectacle she'd come to leer at! Finally able to gather her skirts, she made another wobbling attempt to rise, and lurched to her feet. Whirling around, she lunged forward.Free!

No!Brought up short, she dropped to her front with a thud. She crawled on her forearms, but realized she was crawling in place. Something still anchored her. More people coming in a rush -

The middle-aged roué she'd seen earlier dropped bodily to the ground beside her, holding his bleeding nose, staring up horrified at something behind them. Before she could even react, another man went flying over her, landing flat on his back.

Suddenly, her skirts were tossed up to the backs of her legs, and a hot, calloused hand clamped onto her thigh. Her eyes went wide in shock. Another hand pawed at her petticoats, ripping them.

"Wh-what are you doing?" she screeched, her head whipping around. With her mask askew and her hair tumbling into her face, she could barely see the man through the shadows of a jungle of legs all around them. "Unhand me this instant!" She jostled the leg he held firmly.

With the back of her hand, she shoved her hair away, and spied another flash of her attacker. Grim lips pulled back from white teeth as if in a snarl. Three gashes ran down his cheek, and his face was dirty.

His eyes held a murderous rage.

The visage disappeared as her attacker bolted to his feet and felled another oncoming patron, before dropping down beside her once more. His fist shot up at intervals as he ripped again at her petticoats.

She realized he'd finally stopped - when he swooped her up onto his shoulder.

"H-how dare you!" she cried, pummeling his broad back. She vaguely noted that this was a bear of a man who'd lifted her with the ease of plucking lint from a lapel. The body she was looped over was massive, the arm over her heavy and unyielding. His fingers were splayed, it seemed, over the entire width of her bottom.

"Don't go this way! Put me down!" she demanded. "How dare you paw at me, ripping at my undergarments!" As soon as she'd said the last, she spotted the remains of her petticoats pinned beneath a mural with a jaunty satyr covering a nymph. Her face flamed.

With his free arm, the man sent patrons careening. "Lass, it's nothing you have no' shown me before."

"What?" Her jaw dropped.Hugh MacCarrick? This murderous-looking fiend was her gentle giant of a Scot?

Returned after ten years.

"You doona remember me?"

Oh, yes, she did. And remembering how she'd fared the last time the Highlander had drifted into her life, she wondered if she mightn't have been better off trampled by a drunken horde.

Chapter 5~6

Chapter Five

Outside, instead of following the general flight down Haymarket, Hugh immediately ducked down a back alley behind a gin palace, then set her on her feet.

Before she could say a word, he began pawing her again. "Were you injured?" he barked. While she could only sputter, he pulled up her skirts again to check her legs, then rose to fist his hands around her arms, dragging his palms down them from her elbows to wrists to fingers, checking for breaks, sprains. Amazingly, she felt herself to be unharmed.

"Jane, say something."

"I...Hugh?" Somehow he was here for her, though she scarcely recognized him. It was Hugh, but itwasn't . "I-I'm all right." Soon, yes,soon , she would catch her breath and stop gazing up at him.

How many times had she imagined their first time meeting after so long? She'd envisioned herself coldly sighing and spurning him as he begged her to marry him. He would plead for forgiveness for abandoning her without a word.

How different reality was proving.Of course , Jane would be quite foxed and capable of little more than dumbly staring. Oh, yes, and fresh from a police raid and near death by stampeding.

As he lightly tweaked her crooked mask, he exhaled a long breath. "Ah, lass, what in the hell were you thinking, coming here?" Though his looks were altered, his voice was the same - that deep, rumbling brogue that used to make her melt.

Buying time to collect herself, she drew back and brushed off her torn skirts. "This would have been perfectly safe if the proper bribes had been paid."

"Is that so?"

"Quite." She nodded earnestly. "I'm writing a letter to management." She could tell he couldn't decide if she was serious or not. Jane did have a tendency to joke at inappropriate times.

When she began untying her mask, he said, "Keep that on for now. Till I get you in a cab - "

More whistles sounded, and a harsh horn trumpeted the arrival of a police wagon. Hugh took her hand and strode forward, quickly putting distance between them and the warehouse - and her group.

"Hugh, you must stop. I have to go back!"

He ignored her.

When she tried to dig in her heels, he easily pulled her along. "Hugh! My cousins and my friend are still back there."

"They're fine. But if you go back in your condition, you'll get arrested."

"In my condition?"


"Well, since you've addressed it, I will tell you that, in mycondition , the idea of going back to save my friends feels imperative and quite achievable."

"Will no' happen."

The alley finally ended, and they reached a cabstand. So Hugh was sending her home for the night? Perfect. She'd let the cabbie go a block, and then she'd get out and return.

As ever, a score of drivers geared up to jockey and wrangle for the fare. But Hugh held up one finger with a look that subdued even this lively bunch, then pointed to the nicest-looking cab. The chosen cabbie eased his vehicle over, all obliging.

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