If You Desire

Page 8

"I have called in favors and requested help with this matter. But we can't find him. We have no idea when or where he could strike."

She stood, then slowly crossed to the window. "So he could be out there watching me right now?"

Incredibly, her father didn't scoff and reassure her. "He could be. But we don't believe he is. He was last seen in Portugal, and there's been no indication that he's made England yet, only that this is his destination."

She stared out at two mothers pushing perambulators and tapping each other's forearms as they leaned in with gossip. A boy played at the edge of the park with a hoop and stick. So peaceful. She bit her bottom lip. Though this all seemed so far-fetched, she'd heard of madder scenarios.

After all, she lived in London.

As much as she loved this city, she could acknowledge its dangers and the violence that played out here daily. Just a year ago, Samantha had had a vial of vitriol splashed on her by a perfect stranger. Luckily, it only ate through her dress and scarred her leg - instead of her face, as other women had suffered in similar random attacks over that summer. There were grave robbers, or resurrectionists, who gotimpatient waiting for corpses to sell. And Jane had been mugged so many times that a lull in the offenses gave her cause to wonder if she was dressing shabbily.

She'd read of opium eaters like Grey who, in the grips of hallucinations, assaulted others.

As with a dazzling yet dangerous animal, one could admire London, but had to respect the risks inherent here. If her father said Grey was unhinged and she needed to flee the city, then very well. She'd certainly read stranger accounts in theTimes  - accounts she'd always cringed to see included not only the criminals' names and addresses, but thevictims' as well....

She shivered. "I'll agree to leave London for a time. But not with Hugh. There's no reason for him to do this. Why would he ever agree to a marriage?"

"As of ten minutes ago, I don't believe he was agreeing, I believe he wasdemanding your hand."

"That's correct. He was behaving like the crazed, ravening madman you want to protect me from."

What she said struck her father completely the wrong way. His face grew tight and his lips thinned. "They are nothing alike, Jane. Don't youever say that again!"

She drew back at her normally placid father's furious tone. "Papa?"

"Hugh is a good man. An honorable man. He and Grey worked together and shared similar experiences. Hugh could have taken the same path, but he didn't."

She swallowed. "F-fine. Then I shall go with Hugh. But there's no need for marriage - "

"What have I ever done to indicate to you that I'd let my only child, my unmarried daughter, run off to travel with one of my business associates?" When she opened her mouth to answer, he cut her off. "Yes, well, that endstoday . Besides, if you are so miserable, you can get an annulment as soon as this is over."

"You can't make me marry him. I'll simply go to Freddie and get him to take me away."

"Yes. I'm sure the dowager countess and her pinch-faced daughter will welcome you with open arms. Surely they won't mind that I won't be providing you with a dowry."

Her eyes went wide. "You wouldn't!"

He nodded gravely.

"Whoare you?" she asked, blinking at him in bewilderment. Her father's personality had shifted utterly, just as Hugh's had. "I-I'll stay with my cousins. Samantha and Belinda and their families are going to Vinelands this week - "

"And how long will you flit from cousin to cousin? From estate to estate as a hanger-on?"

She crossed to him, determined to reason with him. "Father, you know I can't go back if I do this," she said with a light touch on his arm. "Once this is over, I will not be able to make another match."

"Certainly you will. John Ruskin got his marriage annulled just last year, and his former wife is already remarried. And think of all the girls who elope to Scotland. When their families find them and drag them back, the chits have their marriages annulled, and a couple of years later they marry again. If I had a pound for every time that happened during the last season - "

"Those girls are eighteen, nineteen. They have time to wait for another match." She lifted her hand from his arm and gripped her forehead. "I'm too old to wait! And you know my chances with Freddie would be ruined by this."

"If you still want him after all of this is over, then I would use all my influence to see it done."

She sank into a chair. "And why on earth would Freddie still want me?"

"He's waited this long."

She bit her lip at that, then said, "I still don't understand why Hugh has agreed to this. How can you make him take a wife he doesn't want?"

"Are you so sure he doesn't?"

"Of course he doesn't!"

"I believe he cared deeply for you when you were both younger. Don't you think he acted as if he did?"

"If he cared for me so much, then why would he leave without a word?" Looking back now, it was difficult to see him as anything other than a typical male, enjoying the attention she lavished on him.

"You know he told me to tell you good-bye. If you asked about him."

"If?" She gave her father the same expression she'd given him when he'd last voiced this nonsense. "It doesn't matter anymore. He's had a life of his own, and we hardly know each other anymore."

"Yes, he has had a life of his own, and in that time he's earned enough money to take care of you. I know that you two used to get along. Can't you charm him? Cajole him and win him over? It should be easy enough for you. Maybe you mighttry staying married?"

"Why would I ever choose Hugh over Freddie?"

"Because you never loved Freddie."

No, she didn't, but she cared for him, and they had fun together. And since she hadn't loved him, she'd known Freddie had no power to wound her. "Perhaps that's so - but Freddie's never hurt me."

"You don't believe Hugh purposely hurt you? I think you're forgetting all the times he took you riding, or the hours he spent helping you with your archery. He was patient with you, when I could scarcely be."

When she said nothing, recalling scenes from her childhood, her father said, "In the weeks to come, I want you to remember one thing. Remember that Hughtries . He's going to try to make you happy."

"You're assuming I'm going to agree to this."

"Just think, Jane, he'll likely take you out of England."

"Where? Far?" she quickly asked, then flushed at her father's knowing expression. Transparent Jane, eager to travel. "To Carrickliffe?"

"Yes, possibly among his clan. It's up to him. But I do know that he'll go north. And that he won't travel more than a day's ride from a telegraph. I'll be able to contact you the minute you can return home. If at that time you still want an annulment, it will be done."

Self-preservation, Janey. What if you get attached to him again?

When she was still shaking her head, he said, "Jane, this is not up for debate. You will leave London, and you'll do it this morning."

She'd concluded that she didn't recognize her father, but just when she determined that she didn't care for this new stranger, his face and tone softened. "Ah, daughter, you're so brave about everything, and yet you're terrified of this, aren't you?"

"Well, if I am, it's because Grey looked at me in such a disquieting - "

"Not about Grey. You're afraid of getting hurt again."

Her lips parted, but she couldn't deny her apprehension. "Hugh left me once and never came back. And I know you invited him again and again."

"But, Jane, he came back when it counted."

Chapter 11~12

Chapter Eleven

Never! Never on your life....

With Jane's words running through his mind, Hugh rode for Grosvenor Square in a daze. There'd been too many developments this morning for him to digest. Simply seeing her kissing another man had nearly been his undoing.

And then, after so many years of fighting to stay away from Jane, to be forced to be with her - no, to marry her. He was shocked at how badly part of him wanted Weyland to succeed in persuading her.

Even as Hugh knew he couldn't keep her.

Did I truly just see Jane kissing another man?

When he arrived at the square, Hugh strode inside the MacCarrick family's mansion. They all called this place "the family's," though in truth it now belonged to Ethan. As the oldest son, Ethan had inherited all of the MacCarrick properties, as well as the Scottish earldom of Kavanagh - though he would likely pummel anyone who dared remind him he was a peer.

In the entry hall, Hugh ignored, as usual, his mother's messages to him, lying in the silver tray. He couldn't say he hated the woman, but she'd blamed her sons for their father's death, and that made it damned difficult to want anything to do with her. His brothers felt the same. All her messages to them were unopened as well.

Ethan hadn't banned her from the property, yet. By tacit agreement, she never stayed here when any of her sons were in London, though Hugh would bet she was still bribing the servants for information about them - everyone but Erskine, their butler. The dour-faced man was committed to his job of discouraging any and all visitors, and loyal down to his bones.

Hugh strode directly to the study, his boots drumming across the marble floor. He knew precisely where theLeabhar nan Sùil-radharc, the Book of Fates, would be - still laid out on the long mahogany desk, where Hugh had found Courtland, staring at it almost pleadingly just weeks ago.

As always, Hugh was amazed that such an ancient book could be preserved so well after countless years had passed. Of course, the only marking it had ever accepted was blood.

Long ago, a clan seer had predicted the fates of ten generations of MacCarricks and inscribed them in theLeabhar . The lines within foretold tragedies and triumphs that had all come to pass.

Although Hugh had long since memorized it, he turned to the last page, written to his father...

To the tenth Carrick:

Your lady fair shall bear you three dark sons.

Joy they bring you until they read this tome.

Words before their eyes cut your life's line young.

You die dread knowing cursed men they become, shadowed to walk with death or walk alone.

Not to marry, know love, or bind, their fate;

Your line to die for never seed shall take.

Death and torment to those caught in their wake...

The last two lines were obscured by dried blood that could not be lifted from the page.

Tragedies and triumphs revealed? Hugh exhaled wearily. No triumphs were revealed to the brothers. No, they had sired no bairns among them, had killed their father by reading this very book, and continued to hurt everything they cared for.

Running his forefinger down the prediction on the crisp parchment, he felt his skin grow cold and clammy. There was something innate there, some palpable power in theLeabhar . The last person from outside the family who'd touched it had stared at it in horror and crossed himself.

Hugh turned away in disgust, then made his way to his bedroom. He forced himself to pack, though he wasn't convinced that Weyland could in fact move Jane to this measure, short of blackmail -

"What the bloody hell are you doing?" Ethan barked from the doorway. He glared at Hugh, who was dragging clothing from his wardrobe to a leather travel bag.

"Leaving London."

"Withher ?"

"Aye. Weyland's asked me to...wed her and take her away." His tone was defensive.

"No' again!" Ethan's scar was whitening. "We just got Courtland's woman away from him. Now you're running off with yours?"

"And what of you?" Hugh countered, snatching up shirts. "I think you showed more interest in that girl last night than I've ever seen you show another woman."

"Ah, but I merely played with my wee blonde." He rubbed his scar unconsciously. Did he hate it anew after last night? Or had the chit slapped his face? Hugh hoped the latter. "But you and Court are always wanting more."

"I've agreed to wed Jane - temporarily. And only to take her away until you capture Grey and the havoc caused by the list dies down. I've made it clear to Weyland that this marriage will be annulled at that time, and he understood."

Ethan was shaking his head. "You're no' thinking clearly. You took one look at her after all that time away and bloody lost your mind. And the clan calls you the reasonable one?"

"Iam reasonable," he grated, punching shirts into his bag so hard that the stitches in the leather strained.

"Running off with the woman you've been lost for, tomarry her? Temporarily? Aye, the example of reason you are," Ethan sneered. "My God, you lectured Court about this verra thing. Rightly so."

Hugh glanced away. He'd beensmug when he'd lectured Court, smug that he'd had the discipline to stay away from Jane all these years.

"Hugh, how can you ignore what's happened? Court made up his mind to marry Annalía, and within days, a bullet almost splattered her brain across our front doorstep. And then me. Have you forgotten my fiancée? It wasyou who found Sarah's broken body. Would you expose Jane to a fate like that?"

Christ, no. Never."I will no' consummate the marriage. I will no'keep her," he said in a low tone. "It will no' be a marriage in truth. Besides, I'vealready jeopardized her. Grey will seize on her because of me. I know this. Grey will definitely kill her without me to protect her. Imight hurt her."

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