If You Desire

Page 5

At her urging, her father had also visited and befriended the reclusive brothers, though they seemed to want to have nothing to do with the rest of the merry Weyland brood. Somehow he persuaded them to come back down the following summer, delighting her. Since he had no sons, Papa was set on recruiting them to work in his import business.

By the end of the next season at the lake, whenever she got a bee sting or splinter she ran to Hugh alone.

Her fifteenth summer they returned again, but Hugh spent most of the time frowning at her, as if he didn't quite know what to make of her. When she'd turned sixteen, just when she'd started to fill out, he'd avoided her entirely. He'd decided to work for her father, and spent all his time with him at Ros Creag, discussing the business.

She'd cried from missing her big, solemn Scot. Her cousins told her she could have anyone and that they didn't want her pining over "that rough MacCarrick," but upon seeing she would not be dissuaded, they'd suggested she play dirty - and her cousins had known what they were talking about. Their saying was, "Man bows before the Weyland Eight. And if he won't bow, we'll make him kneel."

Claudia had said, "Now we scheme, Janey. By next summer, we'll make sure you have low-cut dresses, soft as-silk hands" - she grinned a devilish grin - "and a shameless demeanor. Your Highlander won't know what hit him."

But he didn't come the next summer, leaving Jane devastated. Until that one night when luck was with her, and he'd arrived with an urgent message for her father. Whatever could be pressing about relics and antiques, Jane couldn't fathom.

Before he could ride off again, she made sure he saw her, and he gaped as if he didn't recognize her. A single night's stay had turned into two, then three, and he couldn't seem to spend enough time with her.

Her older cousins had taught her much in the previous year, and every day he was there, she teased and tormented him for the days he hadn't been.

She'd learned that whispering in his ear could make his eyes slide shut and his lips part, and that running her fingers through his hair as she hugged him could make him hiss in a breath. As often as she could, she'd coaxed him to swim with her - especially after that first time, when he'd frozen in the middle of shrugging out of his shirt to silently watch her removing her skirt and blouse, until she was in naught but stocking, garters, and a chemise. After they swam, Jane - never one for modesty - had slipped from the water in the transparent garment. She'd followed his rapt gaze on her body before he finally jerked his face away. "Hugh, can you see through?"

When he'd turned back to her and given her a slow nod, his eyes dark, she'd said, "Well, darling, if it's only you." She'd noted that it had taken him a very long time before he'd been able to get out of the water that day.

During what would prove to be their last afternoon, they'd been lying side by side in the meadow, and she rolled on top of him to tickle him. He despised it when she tickled him, and for hours afterward was surly and tense, his voice husky.

But that time, instead of shaking her off, he reached up and tugged her ribbon loose to free her hair. "So fair," he rasped as he ran his thumb over her bottom lip. "But you know that well, do you no'?"

She leaned down to kiss him, intending not the torturing little kisses on his ear before she whispered to him, or the brushing of her lips on the back of his neck that she'd been giving him all summer. She wanted her first real kiss.

But he took her shoulders and pushed her up, grating, "You're too young, lass."

"I'm almost eighteen, and I've already had marriage offers from men older than you."

He scowled at that, then shook his head. "Sìne, I'm leaving here soon."

She smiled sadly. "I know. That's what you do when summer's over. You go back north to Scotland. And every winter I miss you very much until you return to me here."

He just stared at her face as if memorizing it.

Jane had never seen him or heard from him again. Not until this night.

She'd been so convinced Hugh would marry her - it had been a foregone conclusion for her - that she'd only been counting the days until Hugh deemed hernot too young. She'd believed in him so much, certain they would be together. Yet he'd known he was going to work abroad for years, had known he was leaving her behind. It had been a conscious decision on his part, and he hadn't even told her why.

He hadn't asked her to wait for him, or given Jane her chance to make him happy.

And now, ten years later, she stared into the mirror, watching the tears roll down her face....

Tonight, the women Jane had seen at the masquerade had hard eyes for all their swagger and flirting. They were bitter, but it wasn't simply due to economics or circumstances, as Belinda lamented.

Those hard-eyed women had been hurtby men .

Jane recognized it in them with perfect clarity, because this very mirror reflected the same quality growing in her own eyes every day. She could finally acknowledge that.

She would do whatever it took to avoid that fate. Bitterness was a life sentence, and it was one that was entirely avoidable.

She dried her tears - for the last time.

Early tomorrow morn, she'd accept Freddie's proposal.

Chapter 7~8

Chapter Seven

The side door to the Weyland home was unlocked the next morning.

Hugh's body went tense as he let himself inside the quiet house, striding directly to the second floor to find Jane, unholstering his pistol as he hurried up the carpeted stairs. Had Weyland even arrived home from the night before?

He finally heard movement in a room down the hallway and hastened to follow the sounds. Through a cracked-open bedroom door, he spied Jane on her knees, sweeping her hand back and forth under the bed.

He inhaled deeply, gathering control, then stowed his weapon behind him under his jacket.

Unable to help himself, he entered her room and approached silently, staring at her body clad in naught but a silk gown. She slowly gazed up to meet his eyes. She had the damnedest green eyes.

"Just what are you doing in my bedroom?" she demanded, rising to her feet. Though scarcely dressed, with her curves more highlighted than concealed, she sashayed around him, continuing to search through piles of lace for whatever she was missing, unconcerned by her state of undress.

He could see her ni**les under the silk and swallowed hard. Why couldn't she have grown reserved over the years? Never had he encountered a woman so immodest. But then, that last summer with her, he hadn't complained whenever she swam with him.

"What do you want, Hugh?"

"Where's your father gone so early?"

When she shrugged, the threadlike strap of her gown skimmed down her shoulder. Typical Jane, she did not pull it back. "I don't know. Did you check in his study? That's where he is these days, twenty hours out of twenty-four."

Something was different about her this morning. From the time he'd left her last night, fighting not to kiss her, to now, she'd become colder. He felt it strongly.

"I dinna see him. The door was open, and Rolley's nowhere to be seen."

"Then your guess is as good as mine. Why don't you run down there and check again?" She turned, dismissing him.

"You're coming with me. Put on a robe."

When she ignored him, he scanned the room for a wrap. No wonder she'd been searching for something. Shoes, stockings, laces, and satiny corsets littered the room. Dresses were puddled where she'd dropped them. So much disorder. Hugh hated disorder, craved the opposite in every aspect of his life.

He finally spotted something that might cover her. "Put this on."

"I'm not going downstairs until I'm fully attired. I'm late as it is for an engagement." She chuckled as if at some private joke.

"We have a problem, then." For all he knew, Weyland and Rolley had been taken down. "Because I'm no' letting you out of my sight."

"And why is that?"

"Your house is empty with the door unlocked."

"Call down."

He strode to the doorway. "Weyland," he bellowed. No answer. "The robe, Jane."

"To hell, Hugh."

Why was she the one woman on earth he didn't intimidate?

"I've told you I'll go when I'm ready."

"Then dress yourself," he grated.

"Leave the room."

"No' going to happen."

"Turn around, then." When he didn't, she tapped her cheek and said, "But there's nothing you haven't sneaked a peek at before, is there?"

Stunned by the difference in her, he grated, "As I said last night, lass, there's little you have no' shown me."

Her eyes glittered with anger. "But just as you've changed, so have I." She put her shoulders back and pulled her hair behind her, clearly aware that her figure had become even more tempting.

He scrubbed a hand over his mouth, about to say something he shouldn't. "Just dress," he ordered. As he turned from her, he caught his reflection in the basin mirror and scowled. He was well aware that the years hadnot been kind.

One night's restless sleep had done nothing to alleviate his exhaustion, and for the last three days, his injuries had prevented him from shaving.

Was it only three days ago that he'd been in a war? That he'd killed?

Now her reflection caught his attention. He watched her in the mirror as she poised a dainty foot on a stool to roll her stocking up one long leg -

He found his jaw slackening in wonderment when she slid her gown higher to wrap the wickedest garter he'd ever seen around her thigh. As she tied it into a perfect bow, his hands clenched the edges of the washstand so hard he thought he'd break the marble.

That last summer, she'd always worn her garters high. Because her shifts were so short....

He forced himself to look away. When he heard stiff material rustling, he asked, "Are you no' done yet?" He didn't recognize his voice.

"Be patient with me, Hugh." How many times had he heard that phrase?

He exhaled and answered as he always had, "I try, lass."Think of other things. He spied her bow propped up near the doorway and noticed fresh blades of grass affixed to the bottom of her full quiver. He was pleased she'd kept up with her archery.

He'd bought Jane her first bow, and helped her with her aim, and by the end of the summer, she could split a wand at a hundred paces. She'd taken to shooting as if she'd been born for it.

Perhaps she had. In the past, when she wasn't torturing him with coy smiles and soft words and touches, Jane had been a bit...fierce.

He glanced at her dressing table and saw a book entitledA Gentlewoman's Apprentice . Probably a scathing satire, knowing her. He picked it up, finding that the cover was a false one stretched over the real cover. Brows drawn, he opened it and scanned some pages, quickly comprehending the nature of the content. A swift perusal of one scene told him this was more lewd than anythinghe'd ever read.

The idea of her reading these writings didn't outrage him - it aroused him, and blood rushed to his groin with each word he skimmed. After swallowing, twice, he grated, "Where do you find books like this?" Without turning, he held it up over his shoulder.

In a bored tone, she said, "All the printers on Holywell Street sell them."

"Is this what young ladies are reading these days?"

"Very much so. Women patrons ensure that our favorite bookseller returns from his grubby little Holywell shop to his grand estate outside of the city each night. He can't print them fast enough. You can turn around now."

No...no, he couldn't.

At length, after getting his erection under control, he turned and found her holding out a necklace to him. "Hugh?"

He crossed to her and took it, and she gave him her back. Tendrils of dark red hair lay starkly against the alabaster skin of her neck. He wanted to press his lips there more than he'd wanted anything in his life, and was a heartbeat from doing so. Instead, he inhaled her perfume - so light as to be a mere tease of fragrance, but spicy.

Then his big hands, which had never been clumsy except around her, fumbled for several moments. Once he'd finished, he lost the struggle to keep from stroking the backs of his fingers over the soft, smooth skin of her neck.

When she shivered, he briefly closed his eyes.

"Hugh, did you just touch me?" she asked, her voice sultry. When he said nothing, she turned, gazing up at him. Her breaths were shallow - he doubted he breathed at all.

His eyes darted to her lips, and she saw it.

"Did you?"

"It happens, when you fasten a necklace, does it no'?"

Her brows drew together in puzzlement, but without waiting for an answer, he grabbed her hand, pulling her along the corridor and down the stairs.

They found Weyland in his study, gazing at his late wife's portrait, absently rolling a letter as one might roll a map. The man schooled his features immediately, but Hugh had always known how much he missed his lovely wife, whom Jane favored so strongly. Weyland faced them and forced a smile, but he appeared exhausted. He looked twenty years older than when Hugh had seen him just months ago.

"MacCarrick, it's good to see you, son."

Hugh didn't shake hands since he still clutched Jane's. "You as well, Weyland."

"Papa," Jane said, yanking her hand away, "please tell me why Hugh was allowed to walk in on me dressing."

When Weyland raised his graying eyebrows, Hugh gave her a baleful look. "No one was here and the door was unlocked. I thought that was...unusual."

"Oh, yes, well, Rolley was with me in the mews. The damned coal vendor was shorting us again," Weyland explained, as if he would ever worry himself over something so trivial. "Jane, I want you to wait outside my study for a few minutes."

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