"Fine." Jane glared at her father over her shoulder as she hurried toward Hugh. "I'llhandle this." Once she'd reached Hugh, his hand shot out to clutch her elbow as if he feared she'd flee from him at any second. "If you'll come with me to Papa's study?" He hesitated, so obviously wanting to thrash Freddie. "Hugh, if you want to speak with me, I won't do it here." He finally allowed her to lead him from the room.
In the front hallway, Hugh slowed and grated, "Why in the hell is Bidworth here?" She saw him glance at her bare ring finger, and his tone went lower. "Have you...have you taken up with him again?"
"Not that it is any of your business, but he's here with his new intended," she answered calmly, letting him relax an instant before adding, "to wish me well on my travels."
"Yes, you just ruined the party my family threw for Claudia and me to see us off to Italy for the winter."
"When are you supposed to sail?"
"On the morning's tide - "
She rubbed her temples. "I clearly misheard you. For a moment, I thought you had just dared to insert yourself into my life once more. You gave up any right you had to do that."
"No, I dinna. I'm still your husband. We're married, and we're staying that way."
She blinked at him.
"You heard me, lass."
Perfect, Jane thought with a sigh.I can get this man to keep me, but first I have to wear away his will for weeks, and then he must be pistol-whipped, bludgeoned, and concussed. It's a formula.
"What brought about this change of heart?" she asked.
"There's been no change of heart."
Behind Hugh, she saw her father ordering her cousins away, barring them from coming to her rescue. He probably thought he was buying Hugh time to apologize - when that notion hadn't seemed to have occurred to Hugh at all.
There was no apology, no flowers, not even a preamble. In fact, he hadn't bothered to take the time toshave before he'd barged into her party, threatening servants and frightening guests - after she'd thrown herself at him for weeks. "How dare you show up here like this!"
She couldn't understand him. Something had changed in Hugh - yes, he wasn't known to assail genteel soirées like a crazed Highlander - but this change was beneath the surface, a drastic shift in his whole personality. She sensed it. She...feared it. Maybe his head injury had been worse than he'd let on. Maybe it had altered him.
"I dinna mean to embarrass you like this, God knows I dinna, but what I have to say canna wait."
"Yet you couldn't tell me during all the time we were together?"
More titillated guests peered around the corner, and Hugh looked over his shoulder, seeming to snarl at them.
She gave the group a pained smile, and said in a confiding tone, "He's just about to leave, you see - "
"No' a chance of it," Hugh interrupted, telling her softly, "No' without you."
Under her breath she said, "What could you possibly have to say to me now?"
He opened his mouth to speak, but saw her glance past him once more at the gathering crowd.
Hugh's brows drew together. "This will no' work."
Her gaze snapped back to his face. "That's whatI'm saying."
"You're coming with me."
"When hell freezes - Oh!"
Before she had any idea what he intended, he'd picked her up and easily lofted her over his shoulder. Her cousins gasped.
"Hugh!" She kicked futilely. "What in the devil are you thinking?" Jane felt her face flushing from humiliation - and probably from being upside down. She didn't deserve this treatment, and she didn't have to tolerate it. She was a woman who had bloody steamer trunks by her door!
Her father strode forward, and to him she snapped, "How many times are you going to let Hugh act this way with me?"
"I swear to you, this will be the last," he said, his tone steely. "Is that correct, MacCarrick?"
"Aye, it is."
"That's good to hear, son. My carriage is outside - you can take her to Grosvenor Square in it."
Hugh nodded, then strode straight out the front door. More guests were arriving as he descended the stairs with her. She closed her eyes tightly in mortification.
When Hugh placed her in the carriage, she was breathless, speechless, and dizzy. As soon as they were rolling forward, Hugh dragged her across his lap, his hands flying to her face, cradling her cheeks as he pressed his lips to hers.
She froze, stunned.
"Sìne," he rasped. "Ah, God, lass, kiss me back." He brought his mouth down over hers, kissing her in that desperate way, as if it was the last he'd ever take from her. And like a fool, she felt herself responding to his need, to the urgency of it. He groaned, deepening the kiss as he clenched her in his arms.
She was so close to getting swept up, missing him so badly, all but forgetting the pain he'd caused.No, no, no! She forced herself to break away, pushing at him. "You said you wanted totalk to me. And I didn't even agree to that. You haven't given me any explanation."
After several moments, he released her, just as the carriage eased to a stop. When a footman opened her door, she hurried out, but paused when faced with the grand façade of the MacCarrick town house.
Her anger and hurt came back redoubled; a light mist began to fall, making her blink as she stared.
All those times she'd ridden by, praying to see him - and he'd been avoiding her all along. Had he seen her from the window and closed the drapes? She felt her bottom lip trembling to remember how badly she'd ached, how terribly she'd yearned to see him.
And that had only been the first time she'd lost him.
"Jane?" he bit out in a strangled tone to see her eyes watering. His one chance to win her back...And all I've done is make her cry. Of all the reactions he'd anticipated, her crying was not one of them. He clasped her hand in his, pulling her inside out of the damp night. He could tell she wanted to resist, but she didn't seem to have the energy.
He took her directly up into his room and sat her on his bed, curling his finger under her chin. She'd closed her eyes, but the tears were spilling out. He felt as if a knife was being plunged repeatedly into his chest with each tear. "My God, lass, did I hurt you? Was I too rough with you in the carriage?" His breath left his lungs in a rush. "Christ, I was." He remembered little of that mind-boggling kiss - he'd probably squeezed her with all the strength in his body. "I've wanted this for so long, and to be so close...I could no' control myself."
When she said nothing, just continued to cry, he murmured, "This played out badly, I ken that, and I am sorry for it. Ach, Jane, this is killing me."
"Then take - me - back," she said, biting out the words.
"You doona want to go back like this with all those people there."
She pummeled his chest. "Then take me to Claudia's!"
"I canna do that either, lass."
How could he have bungled this so badly? He hadn't been thinking clearly after everything that had happened and the mad journey here. But then to see her like a vision in the candlelight? The realization that this stunning, brave woman washis wife had hit him like a punch. Hewas the lucky bastard who got to dine with her each night and wake up beside her each morning. All he had to do was win her.
Then he'd seen Bidworth. And assumed the worst.
"I've much to tell you and could no' wait any longer. I wanted to stay married to you. But you know why I believed I could no'."
"Because of thecurse ." Her eyes glittered, and her tone was cold. "I would bevery careful bringing that up to me."
"Aye, but since then I found out my brother's to be a da." How odd to say that. Hugh liked saying that. "He's married, happy - "
"So are you saying that the curse has been lifted?" She put her chin up. "Perhaps a magical charm was used to combat it? Will I be expected to wear a MacCarrick talisman around my neck?"
"I'm saying we misinterpreted the words. I knew when I saw Annalía was pregnant - "
"Listen to yourself! There's this curse that's prevented you from accepting me as your wife, but since some woman that I don't even know named Annalía conceived, nowwe can be together. Do I have it right?"
"It sounds mad. But today, for the first time, I realized I could have a future with you - without fear for you."
"Not good enough, Hugh. What if something else happens to make you think you'll hurt me again? You didn't believe in us before - why should I now? What if you find out what the book says under the blood, and it's even more devastating?"
"Court and Annalía think the last two lines qualify the ones that came before - that they're about each son finding the one woman he's supposed to be with. I believe that."
"And I'm the one woman for you?" Her tears were easing.
He drew his head back. "I havenever doubted it."
"So you think you can get me with child now?"
"Aye." His voice gruff, he said, "I dinna, did I?"
"No, you didn't." At his relieved expression, she said, "Is the idea of children with me such a dread prospect?"
"No, but the thought of you in labor, in pain, at risk..." He stifled a shudder. "I dreadthat . And lass, I would no' share you well, no' even with my own bairns."
She tilted her head at his admission, her eyes seeming to soften as she gazed at him. "But you didn't get me pregnant. Will that change your mind?"
"No, nothing will."
"You said over and over that it wasn't just about the curse. You gave me reason after reason why we wouldn't suit."
"No, they were just excuses - "
"Are you saying you lied to me, then?"
"No, I've never lied to you. And I made those excuses to myself as much as to you." At her raised eyebrows, he said,
"The reasons were true, but they doona matter anymore - because I will be whatever you need me to be." He brushed away the last of her tears with his thumb, and she sniffled, but let him.
"You can't change that you're a loner. I'm not, and I won't live a solitary existence. Would you keep me from my family?"
"No, never. If that's the only thing standing between us, I'll bloody move in with a houseful of them."
Her eyes went a shade wider. "Really?" she said slowly.Raaaally. "You would do that?"
"Lass, none of what I've found out will matter if I canna have you. My future's with you, or I might as well not have one."
"But I'm...afraid, Hugh. Something else could change your beliefs, and then I'd lose you a third time." She briefly looked away when she admitted, "I couldn't do it a third time."
"Do you know how badly I wanted to seize onany of your arguments at Beinn a'Chaorainn for why we could be together? But I could no'. And even then I struggled no' to let you go. It was selfish of me, but I never sent for Quin to come for you."
He shook his head, gently laying his hands on her shoulders to rub up to her neck and back. "I've always been searching for a way I could have you, and now I've got one. If you accept me now, you will no' be able to get rid of me."
"So you came for me tonight because you want to be completely married?" Jane said, nibbling her lip. "To live together?"
"Aye, Sìne, if you'll have me." He swallowed, then enfolded her in his arms, but she was stiff, silent. Moments passed....
When she at last wrapped her arms around him, too, he exhaled, realizing he'd been holding his breath.
He drew back and cupped her face, gazing down at her. "Jane, I've told you before that I'm no' a good man - "
"But won't you be good tome ?"
"Oh, Christ, yes. Always."
"Will you love me?"
His brows drew together, and his voice went hoarse. "Till my dying breath," he said, the words sounding like a vow. "And you? Can you love me, even knowing what I've done?"
"Hugh, I understand more about your profession now. I know that you saved soldiers' lives, but you never got any recognition. You might not get credit for your grueling job anywhere else, but I, for one, am so proud of you."
"Proud?" he choked out the word. "Do you know how often I dreaded ever having to tell you about this?"
"I always have been proud of you, and that hasn't changed." Then she eyed him. "Though I do want you to understand that if I'd been a son, I would have had your job."
"I doona doubt it," he said, his lips tugging into a grin, but then he grew serious once more. "You ken what this will mean? So think on this, because I swear to you, lass, I'll never let you go again."
Gazing up at him, she said, "Never let me go? I like the sound of that."
He blinked as if he didn't really believe this was happening. She understood the feeling. But she sensed they'd crossed a threshold - finally.
The antsy feeling was...gone. Because she was right where she was supposed to be.
"I have money for you now," he said, like he was trying toconvince her to be with him. "I can spoil you. And we have that estate by the sea in Scotland."
"I get to live with you in your seashore home?"