"If I risked only my life, this would be done," he grated. "I would no' think twice. But if I were to cause you any kind of hurt, I could never forgive myself."
Tears began spilling from her eyes. "Any kind of hurt?" She threw her hands up. "Thishurts right now, Hugh. It hurts worse than anything I've ever known." She futilely wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. "Of course, you'll just see that as proof that the curse is in effect, right?"
"I would no' have had you feeling even this." He looked as if watching her crying was torture. He seemed to want to touch her but only clenched and opened his fist. "I would no' have come back if no' for Grey and would never have seen you again. I managed it for years - "
"You...youpurposely sought not to see me?" He'd been avoiding her? When she'd been begging her cousins to ride with her past his London home, praying for a mere glimpse of him? "This just gets better. Well, understand that the last ten years have been unbearable without you. So by staying away, you hurt me. By abandoning me, you devastated me."
"Abandoned? I never made you any promises."
"I thought we were getting married!" Her tears streamed without check. "I thought you were just waiting until I was eighteen. I didn't describe my wedding ring to someone Ididn't believe would be my husband."
His lips parted, but then he shook his head. "Even if none of this had happened, even without the curse, I still would no' have offered for you. I dinna have anything to offer you. I hadnothing ."
"I wouldn't have cared as long as I was with you."
"That's bullshite!" he roared, finally reaching the limits of his control. "You liked wealth and made no secret of it. And every time you made that clear, you dinna see me tensing at yet another reminder that I was no' good enough for you. You described that ring for a reason, Jane - because you expected it!"
"The only thing I expected wasnot to be abandoned without a word. And I'll tell you right now that it's so much worse to be left behind than to do the leaving."
"You have no bloody idea," he bit out, his tone seething. "You want to know my secrets, Jane? Know that at twenty-two, I went out in the world and did a cold-blooded thing. And I did it foryou . Because I knew if I did such a heinous act, I would never dream of entangling my life with yours. So doona tell me it's easier to walk away - it's no'. No' if you can possibly go back."
"But you're still going to do it again. When Grey's caught."
"Aye. I know that I will," he said, staring down at her. "Even if I doona know how."
Later that morning, when Hugh felt he had calmed enough from the morning's fight, he found her on the terrace shooting her bow. With her face cold and expressionless as marble, she drew back her bowstring and shot, drawing one arrow after another from the quiver at her back with incredible speed.
She'd long since shredded her target.
"Jane, can you stop for a moment?" he asked, falling in beside her when she retrieved her arrows.
Angrily yanking them out, she collected them in the quiver. "Can you not see I'm busy?" She didn't even glance at him, just returned to her line to nock another arrow. In one fluid movement, she raised her aim to the target, pulled and released the bowstring, hitting dead center.
"I need to speak with you," Hugh said.
"And I need some time alone."
Noting the drawn expression on her face and her arms beginning to shake, he said, "You've been at this for hours, lass."
"There's nothing to talk about, since I understand the situation perfectly. I've all butbegged you to remain married to me. I've confessed my unwavering feelings for you and offered to do whatever it takes to get us past this. But there's a rub. You can't, because you'recursed ."
At last, he'd revealed his weighty secret, and she'd brought up the strong arguments he'd anticipated from her. But what had he expected - that he could be talked from something that had pervaded every corner of his life? Hell, even if somehow he could come to disbelieve the curse, he'd had it hanging over him so long, shaping him, that he was suspicious of happiness, was uncomfortable with it.
He knew he shouldn't have told her, if he wasn't capable of even trying. "So what do we do about this marriage? We need to decide something."
"We can decide this very easily. You let go of this curse absurdity. If you swear never to mention it again, I'll vow to wipe this memory from my mind. Then we'll live happily ever after. Or, if you insist on this tripe, then we will end in one of two ways - divorce or separation."
"If I could let this go and stay married to you, I'd give my right arm for it."
At that, she hesitated in the middle of a shot, and hit just wide of the center.
"But you can't," she said softly.
He gave a weary exhalation. "No."
Making her manner brisk once more, she said, "Then we've made our decision."
"Jane..." When she wouldn't look at him again, he turned from her, but didn't know where to go, what to do.
Work.Work would take his mind off her, off scenes of the night before. Yet the only thing left to do on the property, after weeks of ceaseless labor, was to clear the trees from the drive. He crossed to the stables, entering the darkened building. His mood must be palpable - the horses seemed startled by him, though they never had been before.
Yes, getting lost in exertion would dull his desperate want of her. Who was he deluding?Nothing would dull it. It'd bloody gottenworse, now that he'd been foolish enough to think he could slake himself inside her -
Blinding pain exploded through his head. The side of his face slammed against the hard-packed ground; warmth seeped down the back of his neck.
Another blow connected with Hugh's temple. Two hits, placed just as Grey had been taught to do - if he wanted to keep a victim alive but immobilized. The booted kicks to Hugh's gut were solely for Grey's enjoyment.
Grey clucked his tongue. "Damn, Hugh, you could've made this a little more challenging."
Jane had watched Hugh amble down the hill toward the stables, looking as if he carried the weight of the world, and felt a pang, then grew more angered than before. He never allowed her to juststep back, to lick her wounds a bit. And if she'd ever needed to...
She felt as if she'd been slapped and was still reeling.
He didn't want to stay with her, even after they'd made love and she'd easily concluded that it was the most wondrous thing that had ever happened to her. It was bad enough that she'd given her virginity to someone who regretted taking it, when she'd waited so long, waited so impatiently. But rubbing salt in the wound was the fact that Hugh regretted taking it because of a soddingcurse .
This was so fantastical as not to be believed.
Give his right arm, he'd said. Though all signs pointed to his caring for her much more deeply and for much longer than she'd imagined, she actually prayed that wasn't true. If he'd felthalf of what she had for all these years and denied them a marriage because of this...
She thought she might begin to hate him.
If Hugh had been honest and forthcoming about his superstitions all those years ago, she would have gotten over him. She would have understood there was no chance for them, and she would have married someone else. But he hadn't been forthcoming, and she was done letting her feelings for Hugh "Tears and Years" MacCarrick eat away at her life.
It was time for Jane to be practical. She could never compete with a five-hundred-year-old curse. She was never going to have a life with Hugh, so what would she do after Grey was caught? Though she'd told Hugh they could divorce, the idea of it made her cringe. Perhaps she could still get an annulment.
Based on Hugh's insanity.
Or they could stay married but separated. She tilted her head. Yes, that was the better option. She would demand her dowry from Hugh - and her father had better be prompt to pay it, after he'd forced her into thisfarce of a marriage.
With that money and as a married woman, she could be independent. She could travel, sponsor the arts, finally found the Society for the Expression of Vice! She could write dirty books for Holywell Street, take lovers like there was no tomorrow and have ten children by them. Yes. This could work -
A thought made her heart sink and her blood boil. Hugh might believe in a curse as contraception, but Jane did not.
She could be pregnant from last night.
How could he do this to her? He expected her to accept this madness, and vowed to leave her, when she could very well be carrying his child!
Before she had any real idea what she was doing, she was marching down to the stables. This was probably a Bad Idea. She'd impulsively tossed that book, but throwing it away hadn't made her feel any better - well, notthat much better. It had gone differently in her mind and such.
But what did it matter how she behaved now? What else could be hurt by releasing the tirade bubbling inside her?
Because things couldn't possibly be worse than they already were.
Hugh cracked open his eyes, wincing with pain, and found himself staring into the barrel of a pistol.
He struggled to rise but almost lost consciousness. Though he knew he couldn't dissuade Grey from this course, he had to try - because he understood exactly why he'd been kept alive, and his gut roiled with dread.
"Doona do this," he bit out, laboring for breath against the stabbing pain in his ribs. "Kill me, make it slow, but she has no place in all this."
"Why waste your breath?" Grey asked. "I just don'tthink that way. In case you never noticed, I don't think like you at all. I'll kill her as easily as an insect."
"You were no' always like this."
"Precisely why I'm here, Scot. To redress wrongs."
"How did you find us?" Hugh grated, trying to stall.
"It was the oddest thing. I was stalking this young lass, not far from here, planning to remove her fingers, when she met up with a band of six riders. Big bastards on massive mounts. They set off onto a path into the woods, but left a trail so deep that a blind man could follow them, a trail straight here...."
Out of the corner of his eye, Hugh spied a flicker of white. Raising his gaze, he saw Jane poised at the stable entrance, face stoic as an angel's. An avenging angel's - she had an arrow nocked in her bow, pointed at Grey's back. The string was pulled so tight with her leather-tipped fingers, Hugh thought the bow would snap.
Hugh dropped his eyes, but Grey must have followed the direction of his gaze. He twisted around to fire at her, but she let her arrow sing without hesitation. She'd obviously aimed for his heart, but she'd caught him too quickly. Grey hadn't finished whirling around when her arrow struck. It only pierced his gun arm - through the forearm, pinning it to his chest. Hugh couldn't see Grey's face and reaction, but saw Jane's.
Her eyes were stark and wide, her lips parting in shock.
A monster. The man she'd known as Grey was gone and in his place was something she could scarcely comprehend. His face was drawn tight over his prominent cheekbones. A wide coal-black hat shaded his wasted face and darkened teeth.
Before she could nock another arrow, he lunged for her. Swinging his free arm out, he backhanded her, sending her spinning into the wall. She heard Hugh's roar of fury just before her head hit and snapped forward. She slumped, sinking inch by inch to the ground, as she fought to keep her eyes open.
Even though Hugh had been lying on the ground with blood coursing down his neck and temple, now he somehow lumbered to his knees, but Grey turned. With a yell, Grey reared back his leg and kicked him across the side of his head, making Hugh's body jerk in recoil before collapsing once more.
Jane bit back the hysterical scream clawing at her throat and crawled to her bow. She snatched it up just as Grey turned, setting those crazed eyes on her. Scrambling backward, she clumsily tore another arrow from her quiver.
The movement made her vision blurry...couldn't stop blinking...even while taking aim. On a prayer, eyes closing, she pulled back the bowstring and shot again. She heard a meaty thump.Hit him... In the shoulder.
Not a kill shot. Try again. Fight. Another arrow.
Grey closed in and ripped the arrow and bow from her with his free hand, tossing them both away. "Jane, I'm afraid you're just being tedious now," he said, his tone gently chiding and utterly out of place with the maniacal expression on his waxen face. "If you cooperate, I might make this a bit less agonizing."
Blood poured from his wounds; his right arm was still raised against his chest, the hand that clutched his pistol useless. When he attempted to remove the first arrow, he rocked on his feet. Finally he just broke the shanks of both arrows at the middle, then dropped his gun, catching it with his left hand.
"Grey, goddamn it, there must be something," Hugh bit out, laboring to speak, "something you want more than this."
"We aren't going to do this, are we?" Grey asked, as though exasperated. "Hash out old ills and slights, revealing things never revealed before in the hopes of a final understanding? If we did that every time you and I killed, we'd be wise men indeed. Besides, you know there's never been any reasoning or bargaining that has moved me - or you - to mercy."
What is he saying?
Grey stowed his pistol and unsheathed his blade, making her freeze with fear.Grey slits their throats , Hugh had told her.
When he turned to her with the knife, she tried to meet his chilling gaze. "W-why?" she whispered.