After four miles riding through blindingly dense rain, they reached the inn, and Court dropped down with Annal¨ªa to race inside. The interior was bright and cooking smoke wafted from the kitchen. The innkeeper was up and looked harried, but still acted as though he didn't recognize Court.
"We need a room," Court said.
"Rooms," Annal¨ªa corrected, shimmying out of his arms. "We need two rooms."
The innkeeper, John Groot, peered at her hard. "Nobility," he muttered under his breath. "Don't have two. Just have the one," he informed them in an English accent. "Nice one, though, once we get it cleaned up. The rain, you see. Made sure we had a full house."
Two women, one older and the other obviously her daughter, marched out of a back kitchen. "Another couple, John!" the woman exclaimed with a thick French accent. "Well, get the poor girl a seat by the fire and something to drink while we fix their room." She called to someone unseen to tend the horses.
Court led Annal¨ªa to a fireside bench, peeled her little wrapper from her, and pulled her down to sit beside him. He put his fingers under her chin and lifted her face to him. She was pale, her pupils dilated.
When Groot asked, "What will you have to drink?" Court answered for her, "Whisky."
She glared at him, but said to Groot, "No, thank you. I'm fine. I don't drink spirits."
The innkeeper shrugged and poured a generous draught, which Court retrieved and took to Annal¨ªa. Under his breath, he said, "You bloody well did before, now drink it or I'll pour it down your throat."
Her back went even more rigid. She gave a polite smile to Groot and took the glass between two fingers, as if it were distasteful, but she did drink.
Court returned to the innkeeper for a glass for himself. The liquid burned going down. As soon as he emptied it and put it back on the bar, Groot filled it again.
The bartop was freshly polished, and the place was cleaner and more organized than before. "New wife?" Court asked under his breath, as he motioned for another refill, then set to drinking it. He'd been here six months ago, and Groot had been alone.
"That she'd be," he answered in a proud voice. He should be proud. Groot, a gangly Englishman with ruddy skin and no visible chin, had somehow married that bonny French matron. Why did that seem encouraging to Court?
He had Groot pour another for Annal¨ªa, then traded her the full glass for her empty one.
The mother descended then, regarding Annal¨ªa and talking in French. Court's French was not as strong as it could be. When he'd kicked in the door to the boardinghouse with Annal¨ªa limp in his arms demanding help, he could just as likely have been asking where they could do a spot of ice fishing.
"Is she your lady wife?" the mother finally asked him in English.
"What?" He took his eyes from Annal¨ªa once he made sure she'd gotten enough into her belly. He didn't like how pale she was. "Uh, aye, she's my wife." The liquor was beginning to hit him. He'd forgotten he'd lost a stone of weight.
She squinted at him. "You had to think about it?"
"Newly married," he bit out, looking over the woman's head at Annal¨ªa. Her wet hair hung heavy, her wee ears peeking out from the thick mass.
"In any case, you have treated her poorly," the woman informed him. "She's too delicate for treatment like this."
He raised his finger and corrected her. "She appears delicate."
"Certainly too slight to cover the miles you have tonight." She said over her shoulder to her daughter, who was just descending, "They are newly married."
"For shame, monsieur, riding with a new bride in such weather! That's not the way to have a babe settle within her."
He made his face impassive. There'd be no chance of that even if he'd taken her once for every time he'd imagined bedding her. He would never have a chance.
"My word!" the mother exclaimed as she drew Annal¨ªa to her feet to go upstairs. "She's bandaged under her blouse. And bleeding!"
"It's a scratch," Annal¨ªa mumbled. Both women cast him stern looks.
"No, really," she insisted in a bleary voice, the liquor working on her as well. "It's not as if he shot me," she muttered.
"Shot?" they screeched in unison just before they descended on her, clucking and cooing. He wanted to reiterate that her wound wasn't his fault. But it was his fault. He'd driven her out into the night. Driven her to chisel her way out of a room and run into gunfire.
To free her brother. Who'd been alive.
He drained his glass and slammed it down, feeling restless and uneasy.
"We're taking her up for a bath, monsieur," the mother said. Court didn't like the way the two women were proprietary about Annal¨ªa. He should be the one taking care of her since he'd done it for the last three days. Well, maybe not helping her when she'd bathed, though he'd wanted to...
He saw Annal¨ªa stumble. She was hurt and drunk and, damn it, she was delicate. He reluctantly nodded to the women.
Once they'd left, Groot said, "Fine lady you got there, MacCarrick. Rich-looking."
"No' mine. Just looking out for her for a bit."
"Were you looking out for her before or after she got shot?"
Court's jaw clenched, and he saw Groot warily note it. "And your crew?" he asked, in a higher voice.
"Meeting me here in the next few days. The lass is staying longer."
He raised his eyebrows.
"I'll need you to keep an eye on her." Groot wasn't merely the owner of their meeting point. Court's brothers had introduced him to this place that they used for their work. For all his clumsy appearance and shifty ways, Groot was a retired sharpshooter and weapons expert, with a sealed shed in the back filled with everything from pistols to howitzers. More important, his brother Hugh trusted him. His brother Ethan didn't, but then Ethan trusted no one. "She's been marked by the Rechazados."
Groot whistled. "I'll have to bring in some extra hands, then - some who don't mind the added risk." When Court nodded, he said, "Hugh left some clothes here last time around. You interested?"
"Aye." Finally, something not bloodstained. He'd hated that whenever Annal¨ªa looked at him, her gaze always seemed to fall on either the bloodstains or the scar at his temple.
"Also got two letters from your brothers. You want them now?"
"Might as well," Court said with obvious reluctance. When Groot returned with them, Court kicked off his boots and put them by the fire, then tore open the first one, from Ethan.
Cut your contract with Pascal immediately. I told you one day you'd pick the wrong goddamned side.
Yes, Ethan had said that, and Court had told him to mind his own goddamned business. Then from Hugh:
Had an investment opportunity for you and accessed your accounts. Couldn't wait for your permission, so I used my signing card and told them you were dead. Fight hard down there, but remember, a sucking chest wound is nature's way of telling you to slow down.
Furious, Court crumpled the letters and threw them in the fire. Hugh had a signing card only because Court liked to keep his affairs in order. Just in case. Yet here he was still alive and Hugh had ransacked his accounts to bet on an investment. Hugh had plenty of money to play with; Ethan had infinite amounts, it seemed. Hell, if Court had known it was so profitable to kill for the Crown, he'd have signed on when they did instead of stubbornly going in a different direction, as he'd always done. Maybe then he'd have enough money to pay off his land.
Court had one brother ordering him and the other doing whatever he bloody wanted, neither caring what he thought. Neither ever sought permission. He watched the last corner fold and burn. These were his ways as well.
He needed to sober up. He looked to Groot and simply said, "Food."
The passing of another half hour, a change of clothes, and a hearty meal had a negligible effect on Court's sobriety. He stomped up the stairs, passing the French women as they descended, ignoring their glares.
He'd made sure Annal¨ªa had had some food and her bags taken up to her. And of course some whisky-spiked tea. Now that the women had left her room, he expected her to be passed out asleep after such a day.
Damn, he would like to have seen her in the bath. Probably a good thing he didn't. If he ever witnessed her wet, soapy body.... He stifled a groan and eased open the door.
He found her on her knees, rooting through her bag, clad in nothing but a new bandage and a bath sheet wrapped around her torso. She hopped to her feet when he entered.
She had smooth, golden shoulders, and the candlelight showed them slightly damp. He felt a muscle in his cheek twitch.
"I-I need privacy!"
"You've had an hour."
"But I can't find anything to wear."
"Your bags were waxed. Your belongings will be dry." When she didn't answer, he said, "You could wear one of your silky, lacy nightdresses."
"How do you - ? Oh, never mind! I refuse to wear that if you will be in this room with me. Now leave!"
"Ordering me?" He raised his eyebrows. "Of course. You must want to ensure that I will no' budge from this room."
"No, that's not - "
"I will turn my back and be glad of that," he said, his voice hoarse. Even Annal¨ªa fully covered in a bath sheet made him crazed.
"I need to get dressed and then under the covers."
"Your wish, lass...."
When she finally nodded, he made a big show of turning around with a huff. The second he heard the towel fall, he turned back around. And had to run his hand over his face to keep from whistling in awe.
She was...unimaginably beautiful.
She had her back to him, so he was treated to a view of her full, lush bottom, tight strong legs, slim back and tiny waist. Her hair was damp and curled down to her hips.
"Mercy," he breathed.
"Oh! You wouldn't!" She raced to slip the nightdress over her head, but she couldn't manage it swiftly enough with her thick bandage and injured arm. He thought about helping, was sure he would've helped - had he been capable of more than staring, jaw slackened. She finally swept it to the ground, then stepped into it, drawing it on.
She whirled around, catching him dumbstruck. "You promised! You said you would turn!" She reached forward to swipe a blanket from the bed, flashing him a thigh and breasts before she could hold it before her like a shield.
He was just drunk enough to grin. "I did turn. I simply turned back too soon, which was the most inspired idea I've had all day." Besides taking her into his lap in the saddle and having her put her arms around him. Today he'd begun to understand that all those clever bastards out there practicing chivalry weren't doing it only for the ladies' benefit.
"You are no gentleman! You are the opposite. You are a rogue and a cad and a blackguard." Her voice was a bit slurred. She wrapped the blanket around her torso over her gown and began pacing.
He plopped on the bed, leaned back, and raked his gaze her over shamelessly. "Ask me," he suddenly began. "Ask me to help you find your brother." Where was this coming from? He'd had one thought - get her to the posting house, to relative safety, because he'd jeopardized her. Break it, you fix it. Now he was adding another responsibility? Why?
Because when she'd finally relaxed against his chest earlier, it had been keenly satisfying to him.
Damn it, whisky never made a good decision.
"I could reunite you two and keep you safe from the Rechazados until then."
She halted at the window. "Why would I ask you?"
"Because you need me." He narrowed his eyes. "You've realized that by now, haven't you?"
"I've realized many, many things about you." She leaned her hip against the windowsill.
"Away from the window," he barked.
She glared at him but did move. "And I can just imagine what you would demand in return."
"Maybe, but maybe no'. The only way to find that out is to try me. I know this is hard. I'd wager you've never really had to ask for anything in your life."
"That is correct."
He put his better hand behind his head. "Well, this is a fine place to start."
Her head tilted sharply to the side as she sucked in a breath. He knew she would ask him, and once she did, he would help her. He also knew she was making a mental note to make him pay for this.
"I would...request your" - another intake of breath - "help."
He leaned on his side. His ribs were tender after today's fight, but he wasn't about to move from his mocking position. "Given that you're new at this, I'll instruct you - "
"As if you've ever asked for anything."
"Would you like me to instruct you?"
Her chin went up. "Yes."
"Very well. Since you still didn't ask, you're going to need to say 'please.' It should be very moving and heartrending if you're sincere. And clasping your hands together over your chest would no' hurt."
She swallowed. Her body was tight with tension. "Please."
He nodded in a deigning gesture. "And why should I help you?"
Her voice was tight. "Because you are the one who's hurt me."
"Because of the kidnapping? I thought we established it was a good thing no' to be married to Pascal. And your brother's free. Turned out pretty damned well."
Except for the fact that she was an assassin's target and they'd already struck twice.
"Well, because you've asked so nicely..."
"That's it? That's all you wanted?"
"'Course no'. That just got you into negotiations. I'm a mercenary and this will be hazardous business. I'll need payments along the way."
Her shoulders slumped. "I don't have money with me." Then her eyes brightened. "But we're close to a town now. I can sell my jewelry."
"Canna sell it. They'll be expecting you to do just that. Besides, you've got something much more valuable than that." His gaze landed on her chest.
She sputtered, working up a retort, but he spoke over her. "Whenever I ask for it, I want you to let me kiss you. Just a kiss. And I want you to be as fiery as you were in the study."
"I don't think...I can't just...I'd been drinking..." She paced again.
He nodded as if in understanding. "Of course, you can always tell me to leave."
When she glared as she passed him, he suspected she was about to do just that.
"Can you never stand still, lass?"
Anger flashed in her eyes. "Does it bother you? My pacing?"
"No, no' at all. Just thinkin' if you agree, we're goin' to need a bigger room in the future. Else you'll get dizzy."
Whatever he said was a winner of a response. She stilled, and her gaze softened so sweetly on him - she had never looked at him like that - and damned if he knew why. But he found he liked it. A lot.
"Just a kiss?" she murmured shyly.
"Wherever and whenever I feel like it."
She resumed her glare at that, but mumbled, "Very well."
Court was amazed she'd agreed. All he had to do was risk his life to keep her safe from the most vicious assassin order in Europe? And he got to kiss her, at his pleasure? He definitely had struck the better bargain. "Then we have a deal." He rose and made a sweeping gesture. "You can have the bed."
She eyed him warily before she unwrapped the blanket from her torso then hastened under the cover. The moment she lay on her side, he eased down alongside her.
She gasped. "You said I could have the - " She stopped herself. "I do have the bed, don't I? But you didn't say to myself."
"You learn too quickly, lass. I'll have no more tricks in my bag."
She stiffened, and right when she would scramble away, he threw his arm over her, careful of her bandage. "Anna, stay. I will no' take my payment now. We are both hurt, exhausted, and drunk. Nothing could stir me. Even the sight of your lovely bottom dinna stir me," he said, lying so much he thought he'd be struck down. She relaxed somewhat. "But if you took away any one of the three, then I'd kiss you."
She was silent for a moment, then asked, "Why?"
"Because you're the type of woman who needs to be kissed. Hourly, softly. Fiercely." He skimmed his hand down over her hip and murmured near her ear, "Thoroughly."
She shivered, then eased over on her back and faced him. Her breasts pressed against her nightdress, her nipples hard, and just below them she ran her finger back and forth across the cover in long, languorous movements. "That sounds like a lot of work, MacCarrick," she purred with that accent. "Will you be the man to do all that to me?"
He groaned and leaned forward, thanking God for whisky. "Anna, you have no idea."
She put one finger against his chest and pushed. As she turned away, dismissing him, she said, "Stirred?"