Stealing Annal¨ªa was proving disappointingly easy. A bribe for information, a bout of sequestered fighting with Spanish deserters drunk from the festival, and a twenty-minute decoy were all that had separated Court's men from her.
From a distance, Court spotted Liam giving him a salute. Farther ahead rode Gavin with Annal¨ªa. Court frowned to see her kicking within his arms before Gavin spurred his horse to ride for the lodge.
Court had decided not to take the time to meet the rest of his crew, and since he thought she'd go eagerly once they'd told her their plan, he'd sent his oldest and youngest to retrieve her.
At the same time, Court, Fergus, Niall, and MacTiernay had fought deserters and checked the jail, opening every cell just for the hell of it, but Llorente wasn't there. Annal¨ªa might be unwilling now, but once she recovered from the news of her brother, she'd be glad they'd saved her.
He raised his rifle, resting the warm barrel against his shoulder, then signaled the others to ride out in the opposite direction. They took a false route away from town, then doubled back toward the northeast corner of Andorra, heading for the lodge. From there they followed a hidden smuggler's route, speeding through the winding ravines that continued ever upward in elevation.
When the trail tapered and the terrain made them slow their pace, Niall rode up alongside him. "I've been thinking."
"What about?" he mumbled.
"About the way you've been treating the bonny Andorran. And about why you slept in her room last night."
Court turned back to see if the others could hear. Fergus was nodding off and MacTiernay was too far back. "More comfortable bed, Niall. Now drop it."
"We've established that your behavior is off."
"No - "
"What we need to know is why," Niall interrupted.
"I'll be damned before I let you study me. It's my business."
"I'm your cousin. MacCarrick is my clan, too. What you do does concern me."
"How could this - "
"Bloody hell, doona start on that." They closed in on the lodge, the lodge where they would drop this conversation. From their vantage, he could already see it down the mountain. His brows drew together. Why the hell was the place bright with light this late?
"You canna ignore it any longer." Lowering his voice, Niall said, "You reacted as you never have before." His horse, sensing a barn and rest, tried for a trot, but Niall reined him in. "I'd thought that part of you was simply dead, and was glad of it, but it's no'."
Court hiked his shoulders. "This will be done soon. I'll get her to safety, and then it's finished." They'd planned to free her and her brother and get them to the lodge, but if Llorente was dead, Court had promised Niall he'd see the girl to a safe house near Toulouse.
"You will leave her behind in France?" he asked as they rode into the rickety stable.
"Yes," Court said firmly, but damn it all, he'd hesitated a slight second and Niall knew it. Something was off with him, his reaction to her unique. He was as confounded about it as Niall was.
"Damn it, Court, if you hurt her, you'll never be right. Look at Ethan - that's as wrong as a man can get."
Court's eldest brother, Ethan, was a fearsome man in both looks and deed, and his fianc¨¦e's mysterious death had only fueled the rumors surrounding -
Shrieks interrupted his thoughts. From inside sounded Annal¨ªa's screams, punctuated by loud crashes and all the men cheering.
They heard it just as they were dismounting. He and Niall shared a look, then ran into the house. They found Liam standing outside a room, egged on by thirty raucous Highlanders, as he raised his arms over his head and advanced under a barrage of vases, candleholders, shoes, and boxes. An outraged screech sounded with each hurled object.
Court elbowed through the men, who now cheered him and slapped his back to see him alive, until he reached Liam. Court tapped him on the shoulder and cocked his eyebrows, and Liam happily backed away. The men grew quiet.
Court almost felt sorry for her as he assumed his most threatening expression and readied to enter. He put himself in the line of fire, barely dodging a crystal vase filled with packing straw, but he never slowed his ominous stride toward her.
He caught her eyes, saw her in a clinging fire-red dress, with her hair curling and free and her breasts nearly spilling out, and his jaw dropped. In a thunderstruck tone, he said, "Anna?" just as she brained him with a candleholder.
Aleix woke late in the night to the sound of many footsteps descending the stairs. He rubbed his eyes, frowning into the darkness.
The guards never came this late. Comprehension stabbed at him, and he knew why they would this night.
He was about to be executed.
"Papa." Olivia's voice? She sounded as though she were on the stairs as well. "Perhaps you shouldn't act hastily with Llorente."
"What do you mean?" Pascal asked.
"I believe this is a very delicate time. The prisoner is beloved by these people." Her voice was laced with disgust. "His execution could be the catalyst they need to rebel again."
Aleix shook himself. She was right. It would enrage them.
"And this could be the last straw for Spain." The footsteps halted outside his room. "You know they are on the verge of retrieving their deserters. If they decide to become involved..."
Damn it, Aleix thought, that's what I've wanted for months.
"What do you suggest?"
"We must not act rashly. I know it was infuriating that she was taken, but instead of killing her, I suggest you retrieve her and carry out your plan to marry, solidifying your claim. Afterward you can dispose of Llorente, supplanting him in the people's affections."
Retrieve? Taken? Perhaps they had some ally who'd prevented the nuptials. His heart leapt at the thought. The first hope he'd felt in days.
"But she's tainted," Pascal said. Tainted?
Olivia asked, "Do you think the Highlanders will use her?" Those animals took Annal¨ªa?
"It doesn't matter if they do or don't - she'll be ruined in everyone's eyes. Our guests will see to that."
Aleix struggled not to yell, struggled not to ram his head against the walls in rage. Why would the Highlanders do that when they worked for Pascal? When they'd defeated Aleix and his men not two weeks ago for the bastard.
"The benefits of marrying her will still outweigh the detriments. Think of Spain, Papa. And if she does carry a child, she can have an...accident and you can marry again."
A pause. Alex could picture the general's thoughtful expression. Finally, he said, "I suspect it's too late, but I will try."
"I think that's a wise decision."
"You always were my most cunning child, Olivia. Cold, just like me."
"Yes, Papa. Just like you."
Annal¨ªa could see MacCarrick's expression turn menacing, his body tensing as he rubbed his temple. She snatched a pitcher from the straw-lined crate and readied it to throw.
"Doona think of it," he warned in a rasp, scowling at her weapon.
She reared back her arm, just about to hurl it.
"I said" - he seized one wrist, then the other in one hand, then set the pitcher down - "no."
"And I've told you," she bit out as she kicked his knee, "to go to hell, b¨¨stia!"
Still holding her wrists in a manacle-like grip, he set her away so she couldn't reach him with her pointy slippers and doubtless so he could gape further at her dress - the Pascal special she'd been trapped in. When the two ruffians had carried her inside this hovel and had set her on her feet with her hands bound, displaying her like a prize, she'd been forced to watch in horror as her breasts had nearly spilled out in front of all these men.
MacCarrick began to speak, then closed his mouth, never taking his eyes from her chest.
"You are despicable!" she cried. "Is that why you kidnapped me? Because you wanted me? Because of one miserable kiss?"
At the last, she thought she heard murmuring just outside the door. MacCarrick turned to glower, but everyone had disappeared from view. "Doona flatter yourself," he grated over his shoulder before facing her again, this time actually looking at her face.
"I have my reasons. Chief among them is revenge against Pascal."
"But why me?" she demanded. "When will you return me?"
"We will no'."
"But you must! You don't understand!"
"Doona understand that he was holding your brother's life over you to get you to marry him? Doona understand what you are?"
She labored for breath. "Y-You know that the only thing keeping my brother alive is my marrying Pascal? Why in God's name would you take me?"
"Your brother's gone, lass."
"No, MacCarrick. He is not."
"Why do you say that?"
"I have it on good authority that as of tonight he still lived."
He shook his head. "We checked the jail for him. He was gone."
She sneered the words. "That's because Pascal is keeping him at the main house."
"And who told you that?"
She put her chin up. "A reliable source." She knew he would scoff that she believed Olivia. And truthfully, Olivia had never said he was there. But Annal¨ªa knew.
When she didn't answer, he said, "Then I'll assume you're lying and will no' listen to you anymore."
"Fine. Pascal's daughter told me."
"Very reliable source you've gotten yourself."
"You won't believe me, but know this, I won't believe you. He isn't dead, yet he might be after your efforts today if I don't get back there!" She marched past him, but he caught her around the waist, spinning her back into the room. "You can't keep me here!"
"Aye, I can. I'll no' let you risk your life when there's nothing to gain."
"It's my risk to take!"
"No' anymore," he said so easily.
"And just what do you intend to do with me?"
"We'll wait here for a couple of days, then I'm taking you to a posting house in Toulouse. It's safe there. You can contact your family."
Her hands balled into fists. "And I should just trust that your intention is to get me to safety? Out of the kindness of your heart? I seem to recall you saying 'Never trust me, Annal¨ªa.'" She lowered her voice and mocked his Scottish accent. "'I'm bluidy bad and ye wilnah liv tae regret it, Annha-leha.'"
Outright laughter from the next room. He turned with a scowl, then faced her again. "I never said I was bad."
"I took license!" She fought to dampen her temper. "I am...sorry. I just want to come to some terms." When he appeared unmoved, she resorted to begging. Clasping her hands together, she said, "I will agree to what you...to what you said before, but please - please - let me return to Pascal." Instead of this softening him, he appeared to grow even angrier.
"Forget it. The plan goes ahead."
"But I saved your life!"
"And I canna tell you how much I appreciate that."
Loathe you. So she wouldn't reach out her hands to strangle him, she crossed her arms over her chest. His gaze flickered over her breasts again as if he couldn't stop himself from leering.
And as easily as that, his mind was again on bedding her. "You are a rutting Scottish animal just as everyone said."
He met her eyes, his expression deadly. "Calling me that? When you were there to rut with the general."
She sucked in a breath. "I was there to marry him!"
"Even worse," he roared. "Why no' tell me the truth?"
"Why should I have?" she asked, truly bewildered. "Because of our friendship? Because of the kindness you showed me? You're worse than you think he is, which is precisely why I chose him over you!"
"I dinna harm you. I dinna steal your jewels or silver - "
"You say these things as if they're noteworthy!"
"For a mercenary, they are!" He raked his fingers through his hair.
"You're no mercenary," she spat the word. "Mercenaries kill and then receive money for it. From what I heard at Pascal's you haven't managed the last."
"You know nothing."
"Couldn't get the gold from him? So for revenge you kidnap an innocent girl before her wedding?"
"Innocent?" He laughed, a mean, mocking sound. "You were no' so innocent on the desk. Milady."
Over her gasp, she again heard noise at the doorway. While MacCarrick strode to the door and slammed it shut, grating, "Mind your own damned business," she tried to will the blood from her face.
Oh, my Lord. Her skin burned, her eyes watering from humiliation that her shameful secret was known to these strange men. As long as she lived she'd never give in to passion again. MacCarrick was cruel, taunting her first taste of it, deriding what she'd found pleasant. Not so innocent on the desk. She turned from him, futilely tearing at her bodice.
"I wonder what Pascal would think about your kissing me right before the wedding."
She replied over her shoulder, "I have never lamented anything more in my entire life." A statement that was absolutely true.
He clutched her arm hard and turned her. "I've done you a favor. I saved you to repay my debt. I could have ransomed you to get back my money."
"Yes!" she cried. "Please ransom me! Send a note, and then he'll know I didn't leave willingly - he'll know I was taken."
"You've met him, you know he's a butcher, and you still trust him to have kept your brother alive? You trust him to free a man who's his biggest liability?"
"Yet you worked for him? Try to reason this out with your dull Scottish brain - if you're hired to do the dirty work of a 'butcher,' then guess what that makes you?" She yanked her arm free. "You might want to think twice about calling Pascal one in front of me."
"The opposite holds true as well, then. If we're as bad as you think, then know the fianc¨¦ you're keen to get back to was directing us," he grated. "But you think to take his word?"
"Over yours?" she asked in disbelief. "Of course I would!"
He strode to the doorway, but turned back to say, "Understand, I've locked the shutters outside - the thick, heavy shutters. And we'll all be out in the next room. There's no way to escape." He slammed the door so hard the walls quaked.
"I wish I'd let you rot by the river!" she screamed, then took stock of her situation. She would get back to Pascal or she would die trying. She would marry him.
The irony wasn't lost on her. She'd dreaded marrying Pascal. Down to her very bones she'd rebelled against the idea. Now she was being forced to forgo being forced to marry. This was all MacCarrick's fault, and she simply could not allow him to hurt her anymore.
Tonight it had felt good to fight, to lash out against those who would control her.
She balled her hands into fists and recalled when she'd once asked Vitale how he'd managed to survive on the streets of Paris. "If I hit someone," he'd answered, "I made sure they didn't see it coming." She'd shaken her head, scarcely comprehending that kind of existence, but he'd told her that she could have survived as well - that she could be as cunning and fierce and dangerous as the situation demanded.
Cunning? Yes. Fierce? Probably. Why not use MacCarrick to find out if she could be dangerous?
He wouldn't see it coming.
Court stormed from the room and found the others sitting around the table or lounging on chairs, waiting anxiously, yet attempting nonchalance.
"So she will no' believe you?" Gavin asked.
"No' at all."
Niall scratched his chin. "Let me go talk to her, then."
Court exhaled a long breath. "Pascal told her her brother lives, and his daughter did as well. Why would Annal¨ªa believe you or me when she hates us? She thinks we're savage foreigners - she will no' believe us over accomplished liars from her own culture."
"Niall, if you want to be the one to persuade her that her brother's dead, go try." He lowered his voice to say, "And while you're at it, you can be the one to tell her that if her brother was no' dead before we took her, he sure as hell will be now." Broken glass snapped beneath his boot and he scowled. "What I want to know is why she was able to cast every object from that room. Why was she no' tied?"
"She promised us she would behave," Gavin hastily said.
"She told us she'd be better than before."
"Was she worse than this?" Court asked in amazement as he sank heavily onto a wooden bench.
"Aye," both he and Liam answered at once.
"I know you said doona muck this up," Gavin said. "But she's a sly one."
Liam was nodding. "A clever lass. She looks up to you with those big green eyes..."
They aren't green, Court thought. They're gold.
"...and then promises no' to fight or bite again."
"She bit you?"
A few men chuckled.
"She bit, she clawed, and she kicked."
"Aye, and she's got some really strong legs for a lass. Must be from the mountains."
Shuddering, Liam said, "Those little white teeth of hers sank deep."
He could hardly fathom it. Prim and proper Annal¨ªa bit Gavin and Liam? So the wine bottle incident wasn't just a fluke. She really was a fighter, as fiery as they came.
And Pascal would've been bedding her, slowly killing that spirit, if they hadn't stolen her. Maybe even starting tonight, the way he'd dressed her.... The thought made him gnash his teeth, clenching his jaw. His filthy hands on her body -
"Court, are you all right?" Niall asked. He was staring at Court's whitened fists.
They were interrupted by a knock on the door from inside the room.
Court swung his head around, eyes narrowed as he rose. He strode through glass to snatch the door open and found her defiant, chin jutted in the air.
"I want to leave the room. I don't like being shut in like this."
Not a request - a statement of want. He was tired of her treating him like a lackey, tired of her looking down her little nose at him. "I'll let you out. But only to clean the mess you made."
She made a scoffing noise and began to shut the door. On him. Again laughter.
He wrapped his fingers around the edge, stopping her. "You're going to clean it regardless."
"Absolutely not, MacCarrick. I refuse," she said with a sniff. "You deserved it - they deserved it - for kidnapping me."
"You want out, you clean."
Her face took on an even haughtier look, and she parted her lips to speak what he knew would be a cutting retort. Instead, her head tilted and she bit her lip. "Very well," she mumbled.
This he never expected. "Why the sudden reversal?"
"I hate being locked up. And I'm hungry."
He knew she was up to something, but he couldn't find a reason not to let her clean up the things she'd used as weapons. "Good, then. I'll have Liam help you sweep."
She nodded, then sauntered, swishing her skirts, to the worst pile of debris. When she eased down, he tried not to stare at her ineffectual bodice.
Someone breathed, "Christ almighty." Fergus? He was awake just for this?
Court noticed the others weren't any more successful in prying their gazes from her breasts as her chest rose and fell with her short breaths.
With clenched fists and a glower at all of them, he stood directly in front of her to block their view. She looked at his boots, then slowly up his body, raising her head until her eyes caught his.
Damn that dress. And it was the dress. Not the way she regarded him with her head tilted so her hair flowed to the side. Not because he'd touched his tongue to that golden skin and knew her addictive taste.
She returned her attention to cleaning and picked up several silver accessories, a wooden jewelry box that somehow had managed not to break, and then a silver hairbrush and hand mirror - a broken mirror.
"You'll have bad luck for that," Liam said warily.
She addressed Court when she answered, "As opposed to before the breaking?"
He ground his teeth. "Liam will finish. When you've stowed those things, come eat."
She hesitated a moment, then, though she was on her knees before him, she nodded to him like a queen deigning a favor. When she returned, her hair was up and her chest was red, no doubt from where she had been tugging at the dress. She might have accomplished a quarter inch.
He sat her beside him and tossed bread, cheese, and an apple in front of her. She'd said she was hungry, but she ate nothing. And still that fire-red dress attracted every eye until he was uncomfortable. Under his breath, he said, "Do you no' have something less...garish?"
"No, I do not," she answered with stress on the t he rarely could manage with the word. "Your young henchman - Liam, I believe is his name - packed low-cut ball gowns."
Court removed his jacket. "Take this." When she stared at it as though it would bite, he said more forcefully, "Take it."
She stood to slip it on. The jacket fell past her knees and a foot below her hands.
"Roll up the sleeves, sit down, and eat. I know it's no' food like you're used to, but you'll have to make do." When she remained standing, Court snared the jacket and pulled her into the seat.
Two seconds later: "I am uncomfortable and would like to leave."
Without eating. "Are our table manners lacking?"
She feigned considering the question, then said, "Hmmm. That's not it...I believe it's your abduction etiquette that's questionable. I've never been kidnapped. So rudely."
Strange, but he almost grinned. She had a well-timed wit, he would give her that. When she stood to go to her room, he did as well. She grabbed the apple, looked Court up and down, raised her nose, then turned on her heel. He let her go alone the short distance, but his gaze followed her until she reached the door.
"Looks like you've got a real soft touch there," Gavin said with a chuckle.
Court turned to them. "She adores me. Gettin' embarrasin'."
His wadded-up jacket collided with his head.