"Can't, Papa. I'm supposed to meet Freddie at Hyde Park this morning," she said airily.
Hugh's stomach clenched.Freddie?
"Do give Frederick my regards."
Who the hell is Frederick?
She nodded and swirled out of the room without a backward glance at Hugh.
Hugh said, "I go with her, if you have no one else."
"Quin's got it. She's just going down the street," Weyland assured him, but Hugh continued to stare after her. "You know, all of Jane's beaus call her Plain Jane." Weyland gave a chuckle. "I suppose sarcasm passes for wit among these young bucks today. But who can keep up with them? I only remember Frederick Bidworth because he's lasted so much longer than most."
Now Hugh glowered at the door. Beau? Just how long had "Freddie" lasted?
"So I trust your moonlighting went well?" Weyland asked.
Hugh turned, frowning until Weyland pointed to the cuts down the side of his face.
"Aye, successful," he said, inwardly shaking himself. Just a casual suitor. An innocent meeting in the park. So why this sudden roiling in his gut?
"I expect you're wanting to know what the situation with Grey is." When Hugh nodded, Weyland said, "You knew he was becoming more unstable, but it finally got to the point that he was uncontrollable. We made an attempt to take him out. But a more cunning killer, I've never seen. He survived, and in retaliation, he's gone rogue, threatening to make public a list of all our people in the organization. He might already have done it."
Hugh's fists tightened. "Everyone?"
"I was just receiving word from a messenger out back when you arrived. From what we've been able to gather, it's the entire Network. If the list goes public, you'll be officially retired."
Hugh had never expected to end his career that way. "Does Jane have any idea?" he asked, trying not to reveal how much the idea disturbed him. "Any idea what I am?"
"No, she still thinks you're in business with me. And I plan to keep it that way until we know with absolute certainty that the list has gone public. After that, it won't matter - everyone will know."
Hugh exhaled a weary breath. "Weyland, you ken the danger you're in. No' just from Grey."
"I know." Weyland nodded gravely. "At last count, no man in England has more people who want him dead than I do. And they'll want more than that - the information, the secrets, the political prisoners.... It's about to be a maelstrom. That's why I need you to take Jane away for a time."
"And you?" Weyland had become like a father to Hugh, and he wouldn't allow him to be hurt. "I will no' leave you here to the wolves."
"This is the worst crisis in the history of our organization. I can't go to ground. But I'll call in help, and with luck, we'll bait Grey to come here. Stop shaking your head, son. Ethan has been spoiling for a chance at Grey. Quin and Rolley are itching for the fight. But my daughter must go."
The reminder that Ethan would be fully involved reassured Hugh, and he finally relaxed somewhat -
"And you will marry Jane first. That's why I brought you here."
Jane's soon-to-be fiancé was so much Hugh's opposite, he was like a foil to him.
As she gazed into Freddie Bidworth's cerulean blue eyes, Jane considered how perfect a man he was. He was the golden boy, the gentleman Adonis, and his looks made young women sigh whenever he strode by. If his blond locks caught the sun, swoons would be imminent.
When he laughed, and he laughed often, he threw back that blond head, giving himself up to it. Whereas Hugh was brooding and a loner, Freddie was merry and got along with everyone. Society loved him. And he loved it back.
Even after her unsettling encounters with Hugh, Jane couldn't help but smile at her good fortune that Freddie had waited so long for her. He'd joked that he would be the knight who tamed Plain Jane. He treated her as if they would be "partners in life," as he'd put it, and he'd promised that they would have a bloody good time of it. He let her be herself and even seemed to like her wild ways, since his personality tended toward...safe.
Not to mention that he was theEarl of Whiting.
"Freddie, let's go away together," Jane murmured. Since it appeared that Hugh was remaining in the city, she thought it best for her to vacate it. "Let's leave London for a holiday and get away from everyone."
"You're irrepressible, d'you know that?" Freddie sighed. "I can't be running off with you."
"No one would have to know. Besides, you like that I'm irrepressible."
"Now, that I do." He tapped her nose. "But I did want to talk to you about your wicked ways. Mother has asked me to coax you to be a bit more circumspect. Since everyone assumes we'll be wed, she says your behavior reflects on our family."
"Tocoax me, Freddie?" she asked, her tone gone leaden.
"Just until Lavinia finds a husband, you see."
His sister, pursed-lipped Lavinia, wed? As soon as waspish, sanctimonious prudes came into matrimonial demand.
Jane had no sympathy for the young woman, not after she'd found out that Lavinia and the dowager countess routinely did the unthinkable, the unforgivable.
They donated funds to the Society for the Suppression of Vice - the bane of most Weylands. The soddingS.S.V.
The society that received anonymous hate mail whenever Jane sat down at her escritoire.
Jane wondered what they would say if the new Lady Whiting formed the Society for the Expression of Vice. Just a thought.
"Well, if you'll ever agree to be my wife," Freddie continued, "countesses sometimes must make sacrifices. And it's just for a while."
For a while? No, it'd be a protracted sacrifice. So long as men shuddered at the sight of bitter females. Her face fell. Who was she to talk?She was becoming bitter. "Lavinia might not wed for a spell," she said carefully.
"Surely she will!" He gave her a boyish grin. "Could you do it for me, vixen?"
She smiled tightly, hating it when he called her that. Just last night, Jane had had a Scot with a body like a god's rasp "Sìne" to her. Compared to MacCarrick's husky brogue that set her blood afire, Freddie's clipped "vixen" was downright insipid.
Still comparing every man to Hugh, Janey?
"Kiss me," she said suddenly, placing her palms on his chest. "Give me a nice kiss, won't you, Freddie?" she asked almost desperately. They'd kissed hundreds of times before, but this would be the most important one of her life.
Be the man to make me forget him.
"What?" Hugh hadn't heard correctly. Surely he hadn't. "Something you should know - I'm no' marrying anyone. Ever."
"You must wed her," Weyland said. "If news of the list breaks, then I want her gone for at least a couple of months, out of the city. Away from the scandal and the danger. As her husband, you can take her away."
"I can do that without wedding her."
"No, Hugh, it must be - "
"You ken what I am. And what I'vedone ." Weyland couldn't truly want his daughter married to a gunman with a broken-down body and blood on his hands? "How can you choose me for this...task?"
"It's because of what you are and what you've done that it must be you. Do you know what the marriage would say to anyone who would think to do her harm? She'd become a MacCarrick. If the threat of your reputation failed to deter them, then what about Ethan's? She'd be his sister-in-law. And Courtland's as well. The only bride in the family. Who would risk your family's wrath to hurt her?"
Hugh's head was pounding as if a vise were tightening at his temples. "Goddamn it, did you ever think that I might no' wish to wed? When I made my first hit, I knew I would never take a bride - "
"There are several members in the organization who have spouses."
"And they put their families' lives in jeopardy because of it."
"Jane's life is already in jeopardy."
Hugh made a sound of frustration. "Then did you ever think I might no' want to marryher specifically?"
"No, I did not." Weyland gave him a sympathetic smile. "That thought never entered my mind."
Hugh hid his astonishment. Or maybe he didn't. Apparently he hadn't been able to hide his feelings for Jane before.
Weyland continued, "If there's a choice, you always opt for the jobs farthest afield, and you never come to my home unless Jane's out of town. It's telling how determined you are to stay away from her."
Hugh could deny nothing.
"I'd believed you would be more receptive, but if you're truly averse to the idea, then you can get an annulment after these difficulties have been resolved."
"No," he snapped. "It will no' happen."
"It must. I won't trust her with anyone but you." When Hugh still refused, Weyland clasped his forehead. "Son, I'm tired, bloody tired, and I'm about to have the fight of my life. I can't win against the deadliest, most skilled adversaries on earth when I have one blatant vulnerability that would be like a red flag to them."
An unmarried, heartbreakingly beautiful, trouble-seeking daughter. No wonder Weyland looked like hell. "Weyland, you doona understand." Was Weyland forgetting that Hugh was uncomfortable around groups of people, unsociable and forbidding? Jane would slowly die around him. "I canna make her happy."
"Hugh, you can buggerhappy !" He slammed his fist on the desk. "I want heralive ."
Hugh was undaunted by his tone. "Let's talk scenarios. The most likely is that you apprehend Grey, and Ethan goes on the offensive and strikes out against a few of the worst threats so severely that he warns the rest away. Everything returns to nearly normal, except that we overreacted with this marriage when I should simply have taken her to lie low for a couple of months. And then Jane and I are stuck with each other for the rest of our lives."
"In that case, you can get an annulment after things die down. If the two of you are so dead-set against it, then don't have a marriage in truth." Hugh shook his head, but Weyland spoke over him. "Here's a scenario, Hugh. You know I might not make it through this alive." He put his hand up when Hugh opened his mouth to interrupt. "Before I die, I know that my daughter is married and could not have a more fearsome protector. Idon't die wondering what will become of her. Can you comprehend what a boon it would be to me to know she's safe with you?Finally to have her settled? Would you not do this for me?"
"You doona know what you ask. She'd be safer without me."
"I hadn't wanted to bring this up, but Grey isn't targeting Jane only because of me. I know you beat him bloody years ago. And I know it was over her." When Hugh could only grind his teeth, Weyland said, "He wants revenge against you as well. I am letting her go - you too need to do what you must to keep her safe. We both owe it to her. She'll be the one to pay for our actions if we don't make sacrifices."
Hugh shoved his fingers through his hair. "This idea of yours has a serious flaw. Jane will never agree to it." Hugh had been only a summer diversion for a young lass of just seventeen years. Upstairs just now, she hadn't even wanted to give him five minutes of her time.
"Then I'll make you a deal. If she agrees, you wed her and take her into hiding until this dies down. If she refuses, you take her away temporarily with no bond between you, risking scandal at best and increased danger at worst."
Hugh scowled at that, but stubbornly insisted, "She will no' agree." Right now she was with her long-term beau, the one who'd lasted longer than the others.
Was Jane in love with this Bidworth? The possibility clawed at him.
"Then do we have a deal? Hugh?" Weyland added, when Hugh remained lost in thought.
Confident of Jane's refusal, Hugh faced Weyland and gave him one tight nod.
"Good. Now, I believe this must be done as soon as possible. This morning, even."
"You canna get a license that..." He trailed off at Weyland's mildly offended expression.
"If only everything was that easy," Weyland said. "So, if you'll just go fetch her from the park - she usually goes to the folly by the fountain. Tell her I need to speak with her at once."
Hell, Hugh wanted to go just to get her away from this Bidworth.
"And, son, if I may make a suggestion before she returns? A wedding ring for Jane might help smooth any ruffled feathers over the suddenness of all this."
Hugh glowered. "I would no' know the first thing about how or where to buy a ring."
"You've never bought jewelry for a woman?"
"You pass Ridergate's on Piccadilly on your way to your family's town house. They have her ring size on file."
Hugh raised his brows - even he had heard the name of that exclusive jeweler. "You must know more about my finances than I do."
"Don't poormouth me, Hugh. I do know you're truly wealthy now."
"And I think a part of you has always been saving up for a wife and family."
"If so, I dinna know about it," he muttered, turning to stride from the room.
Once outside, he realized his heart was thundering. Because within hours, he could bewed to Jane .
No. If Hugh wed her, if he said the vows and signed his name, he would be exposing Jane to his own doomed fate.