The hand mirror. The one he'd forced her to clean up.
She'd taken the heavy silver-plated frame and hammered it against the equally heavy hairbrush handle to chisel away the bottom pins of the shutters. Yes, they were locked. Yes, they were thick.
But now they opened from the bottom.
He stormed from the room bellowing, "Liam, saddle up my horse."
Just then, Liam lurched inside from the stable, eyes unfocused, hand on his head. "She's - "
"Aye, I know," Court snapped, shoving his pistol in his trouser waist. As he rushed to saddle his mount, he thought about the scene in her room. He'd never forget it for all his days. She'd propped up her battered tools, carefully arranging them, to let him know the extent of her trickery. Gloating...
Since there was only one route back to Pascal's, Court knew how to follow. But she must've ridden like hell was at her heels, because he didn't catch up with her for nearly half an hour. Just as he got his first glimpse of her, she disappeared. Once he rode to the spot where he'd last seen her, he understood why and didn't even have time to tense before he and his horse went charging down a steep drop-off covered in slate. She'd taken it without even pausing.
Even now, toward the bottom, she hadn't slowed her breakneck pace. Daft woman! His own horse was having difficulty flying down the terrain. He could hear the hooves fracturing the stone.
After this, the land twisted into canyons and wider coulees, and soon he was able to pull alongside her, yet every time he neared she veered away. Her riding was impressive, but in the end it was only a matter of time. His hand shot out to snag her reins, and in seconds he had them stopped and her swooped from her horse.
"Let - me - go!" She slapped at him, sounding like she was on the verge of real violence. Which she'd proved she didn't mind using.
"Riding like this at night?" He set her down but took her shoulders. "On slate? You're lucky you dinna break your neck."
"You rode like that, too. Yet I'm the one who's supposed to be considered fortunate?"
His hands tightened on her. "Why will you no' listen to reason, lass? Your brother's gone and you'd sacrifice yourself for nothing. If you'd cooperate with me, I'll get you to safety. You ken we will no' hurt you."
She narrowed her eyes accusingly. In the stark moonlight he could clearly see the abraded skin on her chin.
"That will no' happen again," he said, but she still fought to break his grip.
She kicked out, connecting with his leg, too high and too close for comfort. "Annal¨ªa, do you want a graphic lesson on exactly why it is you should no' kick a man like that?" Bloody hell if she didn't do it again and closer. "One more time and I swear tae you I'll snatch up your skirts and turn you over - " He went silent, and drew her to him, her back to his chest, covering her mouth with his hand. A sound nearby put him on edge.
Her teeth found his skin, of course, sinking deep, and he clenched his jaw. Something rustled in the bushes, getting closer. "Who's out there?" he called, as he pulled his pistol free.
After several tense moments, they heard, "We're here to return Annal¨ªa Llorente to Pascal."
"My arse," he muttered, cocking his gun. Had to be the Rechazados. No one else could have found them here. "Listen to me, Anna. These men are no' here to collect you - they're the Rechazados. Have you heard of them?"
She nodded, releasing her teeth.
"So you know they're assassins, no' escorts. Now will you cooperate with me?"
She said a muffled, "Yes."
He eased his hand away, shaking it to regain some feeling in the skin she'd chewed. "Now we need to get - "
"Help me!" she screamed, lunging forward when he caught her waist. "I've been captured!"
One shot rang out, the sound blasting through the arroyo like a cannon, then more rained down, pitting the earth all around them. Court shoved her behind him, keeping his grip on her wrist as he fired twice.
Too many of them. Too close. He clasped her in his arms and dove behind a hill.
The horses shrieked and reared, galloping away. Bloody hell. His ammunition was in his saddlebag.
"Help me!" she screamed again, struggling against his grip.
"Shut your mouth, woman. They're shooting at us, and you want to give them a bead?"
"They aren't shooting at me - they're shooting at you!"
"Those are Pascal's killers, and they are no' very discriminating." She still resisted, though he'd brought her hard against him, her back to his chest. "Now they'll hear the shots back at the lodge and ride out, but we've got to be smart until then. Understand?" he demanded. "If you want to live, you'll do what I say or I swear to you, you'll have a bullet in your brain within a quarter hour."
She sounded like she'd started crying.
His brows drew together. "Are you...are you afraid?" he asked, half baffled, having no idea what to do with this. He felt her nodding shakily against his chest and realized the lass was probably scared to death. Bullet in the brain. Great one, Court. But he had to be certain. "You ken they'll kill both of us?"
She whispered, "Y-You will get us to safety?"
"Aye," he said in a milder tone. Gentle. "If you do as I say."
When she nodded again, he loosened his grip on her. At once, she drove her elbow into his throat and flew to her feet. Choking out his breath, he lunged for her and stretched to catch her dress just as he fell. The fabric brushed his fingertips.
She tore off into the clearing, screaming, "Help me! I want to return! I want away from him!"
More shots rang out. He scrambled to his feet, returning fire and was sprinting after her when he saw a smoking bullet tear through the billow of her skirt. She froze with a terrified gasp, staring into the darkness. "M-Mind your bullets!"
A split second later, her shoulder was wrenched back just before he snagged her around the waist and dove behind a boulder. He felt wetness against his hand, saw his white shirt stained dark. "Lass," he said as he dropped the empty pistol to probe her shoulders. "Is that mine or yours?"
He answered his own question when he felt her shuddering. "It'll be all right," he grated, though fury overwhelmed him. They'd shot her. A defenseless woman. He ripped off her sleeve and just stopped himself from hissing in a breath.
In the moonlight he could see the bullet had torn open her arm. He prayed it had missed the bone. Taking the material from her sleeve, he tied it tight over the wound.
He hadn't been able to prevent this. He wanted to yell, to ask her why she hadn't listened to him. She was too small to take a bullet. What kind of animal would shoot a woman?
She jerked upright and looked at him as though she'd just realized something, and had just forgotten the bullet hole in her arm. "This is all your fault! I loathe you. Detest you!"
He exhaled. "I've heard it before."
"Do you know what this means, you bastard?" she cried.
Yes, he knew exactly what it meant. Pascal was making a statement to anyone who dared to take what was his. And she might now believe him about her brother.
"Do you, you disgusting brute?" she demanded again, seemingly uncaring of the shots all around them.
He narrowed his eyes. "Groom got cold feet?"
She screamed, springing forward, fingers in claw position to scratch down his face just before he caught her wrists. Still she fought him.
"Damn it! Will you stop?" He lifted her injured arm in front of her face. "Look, wench! Look at all the blood everywhere. Now faint. Should you no' be fainting by now?"
She sank back against the boulder, solemnly regarding her wound, and he could see shock settling over her. "I do appear to have been shot." Her tone was dazed, and he sorely regretted his taunt.
She was too small and too delicate. Niall was right. Women like her needed to be cosseted, protected. Two nights under his protection and she'd been shot.
Death to those caught in his wake.
"We've got to get you someplace safe."
She blinked up at him.
With effort, he tore his gaze from hers to scan the area. He spotted her horse, frantic, caught by the reins tangled in a bush. Court tensed to run, but said to her, "Stay here! This is more serious than you know."
In a small voice, she said, "It hurts as though it's serious."
Annal¨ªa Llorente was docile, a sure sign she was in shock.
He sprinted after the horse, his ribs singing as he dodged bullets. Just when he'd finally secured the confused animal, which carried her bloody saddlebags full of dresses while his had had ammunition, he heard his men sounding the call. Soon after, he heard the guns he recognized by sound firing back at the assassins, but they were separated from him.
"Niall!" he yelled in Gaelic. "How many are there?"
"Seems like the whole order! They're everywhere."
"Bypass the lodge. We'll meet up at the posting house."
"Can you cover me?"
"Aye, be careful with yourself and the girl."
He rode back under the shield of Niall's covering shots. When he slid down from the horse to bend down beside her, he found her leaning against the rock, sitting very still, eyes closed, cradling her arm. Closer, he could see blood streaming in a line down her bent elbow, pooling into the dust. Her other hand was limp, palm up, and his makeshift tourniquet lay on it. Panic made his vision swim. He took it and retied it, knowing she'd only intended to look at the wound, to check how badly she'd been hurt.
"Anna!" He lifted her up. "Annal¨ªa..." She cracked open her eyes. "Ye need tae hold on tae my neck with yer good arm." His brogue was so thick, he wondered if she could even understand him. "I'm goin' tae get ye and me on a horse."
He had turned and was surveying the horse, figuring out how best to mount up, when he heard her say in a frail voice, "You need rescuing as much as I do."
He turned back, brows drawn. "What?"
She struggled against him, weak as a kitten. "I'm better off on my own."
Though he sensed she was gravely sincere, and more than a bit in shock, he clucked her under the chin. "Yer hurtin' my male pride, and will be payin' for that one."
His light response worked. She exhaled and looped her thin arm around his neck. She weighed no more than a feather as he lifted her, but he teased her, saying, "You weigh more than you look."
"You are weaker than you look," she immediately whispered.
He stared down at her in his arms and gathered her even closer. She met his gaze, looking very brave, but he could feel the tension leaving her body as she drifted into unconsciousness. Her eyes slowly closed, and her lips parted.
That's when reason left him.