Court drew Anna closer against him, her back to his front, her bottom tucked in his lap. He put his face to her hair and inhaled, recalling the night before and growing harder.
Then the doubts assailed him.
He'd taken a young woman, innocent and impressionable before she met him, and he'd bent her over and spread her and driven into her hard. And he knew he'd do it again -
"You're going to ask me if you hurt me," she said in a languid voice, reading his mind. He was just about to speak when she took his erection in her hand. "You're going to ask me if I was embarrassed." She stroked him. "You didn't hurt me." She guided him into her. "I'm not embarrassed." She wriggled her hips until she was better placed, then slowly moved down on him.
She was doing this? After last night? Though he was sure he was still dreaming, he met her and entered deep.
She gasped, then sighed contentedly. "See? None the worse for your wear."
"I dinna embarrass you at all?"
"Perhaps at first, but certainly not toward the end."
"Then maybe I'm no' wicked enough for you?" He nipped her ear and she laughed. He felt it. "I'm an old man with no more tricks in my bag?"
In an instant, he wrapped his arms tight around her, clasping her to him, and turned on his back. "Courtland?" she cried, when she lay atop him.
He spread his knees, locking her legs wide outside of them and set his hands all over her breasts and belly. She moaned when he dug his heels down to thrust up into her while his fingers flicked and played. He took her like this until she arched her back off his body, driving herself nearly down to the hilt, and when she melted on him, he spent hot within her.
Afterward he returned her to her front and reluctantly withdrew from the warmth of her body. He brushed her hair to the side and ran his thumbs along her slim shoulders until she slept again, then murmured in her ear, "Anna, my heart is full."
He rose and dragged on his trousers to return to his room. When he glanced back at her before shutting the door, she turned to her back, treating him to a view of her delectable breasts, and he groaned, knowing he wouldn't even make it till the afternoon before having her once more. He'd bring her breakfast and see if he could tempt her. He grinned. She was always as tempted as he.
In his room, he washed and dressed and found himself whistling. He wasn't a whistler. He shrugged, then stomped down the stairs, but when he was halfway down, his face fell.
Ethan was home.
His brother always looked furious, but this time markedly so, his scar whitening. Bloody hell. He gave Court one look and turned for the study. Court swore under his breath and followed.
"I have heard some of the situation," he began as soon as Court shut the door. "How long do you intend to stay like this?"
"Her brother will come soon," he hedged.
"And then you'll let her go with him? Even though you've slept with her?"
"Hugh told you?"
"He'd said nothing. Our mother is no' the only one getting reports from this house. I'd heard and then your face told me."
Of course Ethan knew. Ethan knew everything.
"Your Castilian has been asking the servants what a peculiar Gaelic phrase means." He skewered Court with a look. "Her pronunciation is extraordinary, I'm told. She couldn't have just heard it once in passing and then repeated the sounds so perfectly."
Actually, she could. She could mimic Ethan cold within five seconds of meeting him.
"You bound her to you?"
"Aye." The words had just seemed to flow from him. There was no stopping them. And yes, he'd told her that more than once.
"So she was innocent and of good family?"
"Aye," he said, putting his shoulders back. He refused to be ashamed of what he'd done.
An amused expression of disbelief. "You actually think you're going to marry the lass?"
"Tell me, brother, do you hate her?"
Court narrowed his eyes.
From a leather satchel by the desk, Ethan withdrew a weighty tome and tossed it onto the desk.
Leabhar nan S¨´il-radharc. The Book of Fates.
Court scrambled back, never taking his eyes from it as every muscle in his body instantly went rigid with tension. The cover glimmered like the scales of a fish and showed none the worse for wear from all the times his forefathers had sought to destroy it. Court's stomach clenched, then roiled. The only marking the book had accepted was blood.
It was not as thick as it could have been - more pages could've been added. But they knew it ended where it did because there were to be no more direct descendants to have their fates foretold.
"You must hate her. You've put her in a situation where she can marry you or be ruined. Of course, she had better choose ruined. Much better than death and torment at worst, or at best a financially strapped mercenary who canna give her children."
"Why did you bring that here?" He looked around wildly, not believing Anna was in the same house as this cursed thing.
"I thought I might need to refresh your memory."
Court didn't bother to disguise his fury. He could kill Ethan for this. "As if I'd ever forget."
"But you have. And you've apparently forgotten what happened to the last woman engaged to one of us. Specifically me."
"It is no' like that, Ethan. I feel that this is different - "
"Of course you do." He exhaled and gave Court a rare look of pity. "You want it so badly you'll do anything to convince yourself it is, but all you're doing is hurting her."
Court was shaking his head, watching in misery as Ethan opened it to the last page. Their page.
"Good on you, Court. Why wait for 'death and torment' when you can meet it head-on? A career killing for money, seducing innocents...By the time you're my age, you'll have bypassed the deeds I've done."
That rocked him. Ethan was not a kind man. He'd always made the detestable things Court did seem petty.
"Strange," Ethan mused, "I feel no different than I did when I was still the most evil MacCarrick."
Court ignored his grim humor. "And what if her brother never comes? You have all the answers - what should I do then?"
"You know Hugh and I can find her a place of safety."
"I can keep her safe. I will go down there and destroy every Rechazado to protect her."
"But you still have to let her go. If you will no', you'll prove you doona care for her enough. If you truly did, you would never even chance her life. Look at Hugh - he refuses to be near Jane, but you think to marry yours." Ethan slammed the cover shut.
With a last revolted look at the book, Court stormed from the room, passing Hugh on the way out. "Watch Anna. And doona let him or that bloody book get near her." Outside he scarcely noticed the people on the street darting out of his way.
"Out for a spell." That was Hugh's cryptic answer when she'd asked where Court was. When she'd asked two hours ago. She didn't like it when he went out, could imagine far too many scenarios where he got ambushed, where he was outnumbered.
She paced the foyer, not caring that the servants gave her queer glances. They would anyway, since they all knew she was being bedded by MacCarrick daily, sometimes hourly.
Finally, he strode in the door from the drizzle outside, shaking his soaked hair like a wolf. He must have been walking outdoors the entire time.
"Where have you been? I was worried."
There was a bleakness in his eyes that wasn't there before. "What's happened?" he asked.
"Nothing. I just missed you and you didn't say good-bye."
He put his hands on her shoulders, absently rubbing her neck with his thumbs. She knew it was an unconscious gesture. "I was reminded of something today," he said, his words halting. He seemed to realize he touched her, because he looked surprised and cast his hands down.
"What is it?" she asked, becoming alarmed.
"I've realized things about us, about the way...about the way I feel, and I never want to hurt you. I am going back to - " He fell silent and tensed visibly, then turned back to the door, his body rigid and protective in front of her. His hand went behind him under his coat and rested on a pistol she hadn't known was there.
One of the front doors flew open, and MacCarrick relaxed the hand on his gun.
"Aleix?" He was well! He was here! She ran to hug him.
"Are you all right?" Aleix demanded as he took her shoulders to study her. "Are you unhurt?"
"Yes, I'm very well," she assured him. Seeming convinced of her well-being, his attention focused on MacCarrick. Aleix looked as though he'd kill him. "Now, Aleix, let me explain - " A figure drew Annal¨ªa's gaze. She turned back to the door, gaping. "Olivia?"
At that moment, Aleix charged MacCarrick, who met him, the two like animals after each other's throats as they fell into vases, pummeling each other. Oh, God, she didn't want either one hurt!
"You filthy Scot," her brother bellowed. "You put me in Pascal's prison, then you take my sister? You are about to die."
Wait, Court put Aleix in prison?...He'd said he didn't. He'd said he never attacked them - "Oh!" She put her hand over her mouth. He never said he hadn't fought against Aleix.
"Enough!" Everyone froze. Annal¨ªa slowly peered over her shoulder to find a man - an older version of Court, but for the twisting scar running down his face. This must be Ethan. If possible he was more menacing than Courtland and Hugh.
Hugh strode in. Annal¨ªa heard Olivia mutter in Spanish, "Terrifying, petrifying, and horrifying."
"Court, I doona care who you're fighting or why," Ethan said. "Do it outside the house."
Court gave him a grim nod, then looked at Aleix. Aleix turned for the door.
When the sound of the fight ensued, she and Olivia started after them.
"Stop. Now," Ethan said to them, his voice low and threatening.
She stopped and noticed Olivia did as well as they both turned back.
"But we can't let this happen," Olivia said.
"They'll kill each other!" Annal¨ªa cried.
"No, they won't." When Ethan spoke she felt compelled to believe him. She relaxed marginally until he added, "Court will undoubtedly thrash him."
Both gasped. Annal¨ªa's hand went to her forehead. Olivia scanned the room, no doubt for a weapon, the little witch.
"Is no one pulling for my brother?"
Annal¨ªa could have sworn that this amused Ethan, not that you could tell by the granite expression on his face. Maybe the skin around his eyes wasn't as tight. His jaw not so clenched.
"No," she and Olivia said in unison, then glared at each other.
"I canna wait to have these dynamics explained to me. Shall I tear Court off your beloved...?" He trailed off, expecting them to answer.
"Aleix! His name is Aleix, and he's my brother. And yes, you should."
"He's my fianc¨¦ and you should, but not because he needs you to," Olivia quickly added.
"No, indeed he doesn't," Annal¨ªa sniffed. A split second later: "Fianc¨¦?"
While she restrained herself from clawing the witch's eyes out, the older MacCarrick walked outside, in a leisurely stride.
Minutes later, both men returned behind him, wet from the drizzle. Aleix's nose and lip bled, and both his eye and cheek were swelling. MacCarrick had no such marks, but then he was a professional killer....
"Get in the carriage, Annal¨ªa," Aleix said between breaths. "I'm taking you away from here." To MacCarrick, he said, "When I get her safe, I'll come back to finish this. Make your peace."
When she didn't move, Aleix took her hand. She pulled it free to march in front of MacCarrick. "Please tell me you didn't put my brother in Pascal's jail."
His gaze was locked on hers. "I canna do that."
"Why did you never tell me? You said you didn't attack them. And I believed you."
After a long pause, he grated, "They - attacked - us," every word as though pulled from him.
"It doesn't matter," Aleix said from behind them. "You jailed us. You kept us from killing Pascal."
"Jailed, aye. No' killed," MacCarrick bit out. "You brought us farmers and ranchers. It would have been a slaughter." She knew he didn't often give explanations for his actions and was surprised that he would do it now.
"We were closing in on Pascal."
"You were closing in on the Rechazados protecting Pascal. Putting you in jail saved your lives. Ask Pascal's daughter."
With obvious reluctance, Olivia said, "It's true."
Aleix gave him a disgusted look. "I would rather have risked it than have my people suffering." He offered Annal¨ªa his hand again. "Come with me before he decides to ransom you."
She waited for MacCarrick to interrupt him. To argue with him. He did nothing, just stood watching her. Her heart hammered so loud she wondered if everyone could hear it.
"Now, Annal¨ªa," Aleix told her in Catalan. "Leave your things and come with me."
MacCarrick had sworn he would get her to her brother. His task was complete. And though she'd thought they had made a commitment to each other, he'd never asked her to marry him and they'd never talked of the future. You're mine, he'd said like a vow.
Obviously, he'd done the same twisting of the truth that he'd done concerning the fight with her brother. You're mine. For a time.
Shoulders back, she walked to him. "You said you'd get me safely to my brother."
"So I did."
"Have you nothing else to say?" When he stood silent, she said, "Then thank you." Don't cry, don't cry! She offered her hand. "I appreciate your...help."
He didn't take her hand. He didn't take it and use it to draw her against his solid chest as he told everyone else to go to hell. Her heart hurt as though she'd been stabbed. His brothers stood near him with silent, icy demeanors. Their understood ruthlessness and will highlighted those same aspects in Courtland. She'd never had a chance with him. A man couldn't change his nature.
She'd worried about the decision she would have to make, but it had never been about her choice. He would let her go, and she was about to burst into tears.
"Very well," she murmured as she turned for her brother. "I'm ready."