"Stop your caterwauling," Court snapped. "Your sister's was as bad as this, and it dinna stop her from glaring at me with hatred for even a second. She never shed a single tear."
Truth was that Llorente's wound was a wee bit worse. The bullet had torn past his side leaving a sizable gash. Court himself had collected a good-sized shard of glass, and since it was wedged into his calf, sitting seemed much preferable to walking, even if he had to do it with Llorente. Hugh had found the two of them propped up against separate walls, drinking whisky and sniping at each other. He'd sent Liam to fetch a physician, then stood guard as they waited.
"She really dinna cry?" Hugh asked as he pressed his shirt to the ragged slashes on his face caused by the splintering rock. Though successful, Hugh had returned, shaking his head and mumbling, "Slate. Who knew?"
Court sounded proud when he said, "Bravest lass I've ever known." Of course he was proud, but he didn't get to be. She wasn't his any longer. His head fell back against the wall, and he stared at the ceiling.
"God damn it, Court" - Hugh kicked his good leg - "I'll no' tell you again to keep pressure on your shoulder."
"How could you do that?" Llorente bit out the question for the fifteenth time. "Make him shoot me?"
"I figured my aim was better than his. Looks about right to me."
"He bloody shot me!"
"If you had killed the others we would no' be in this situation."
"That one had a gaping hole in his stomach. How did he live through that?" Llorente set his bottle down as if he'd just comprehended something. "You've now done everything you bloody could to wreck my life."
Court swigged, then said, "I swear to you, man, Anna is no' the one who should wear skirts in this family."
Finally, Llorente appeared furious.
"Hugh, tell him what Pascal would've done if I had no' shot."
"He would've pulled the trigger soon. He was baiting you, and his aim would've been colder."
"Did you hear what he said about Olivia?" Llorente's words were a touch slurred.
"Aye," Court admitted.
"I'd wondered about her loyalties, could never quite see why she'd do this to her father." He added to himself, "She'd been loyal all along to her mother," then frowned. "Think I love her." He winced when he tried to move.
Court shook his head at Llorente's wound. That one truly needed to get sewn.
He could hear Niall and the others yelling and laughing in the distance as the shots became fewer and fewer. They were going to tear apart this place tonight looking for Pascal's stash of goods and coin.
Court figured they liked playing the heroes because they'd decided almost to a man to restore everything to its rightful owners before Andorra's typically harsh winter came to these people. Lucrative bounties made it easy to be a hero, he supposed.
"I'm going to contact Ethan now," Llorente said. "Ask him to send them home with escorts."
"Your brother said to leave it to him - not to you - when the time came. Now that we've won, is there any reason I shouldn't be bringing my sister and Olivia here?"
Both Llorente and Hugh waited for his answer. "No. No reason no' to. Ethan will make sure they're safe."
"You'll ride before then?"
Court felt a muscle in his cheek twitch.
Each hour that had passed on the way home was agony, but at least during the trip Annal¨ªa had stopped throwing up everything she ate. With every mile closer in that coach, she and Olivia had bickered, even after Olivia had said, "As far as spoiled heiresses go, you're not too bad," and Annal¨ªa had responded, "As far as conniving witches go, I've met worse." But truly, if they hadn't bickered, what else would there have been to do?
And though Olivia seemed unaffected by the news of her father's death, Annal¨ªa had kept her occupied in any event. "I keep replaying the scene we'll have when we ride into the courtyard," Annal¨ªa had told her. "I'll rush to MacCarrick. Aleix will push you into the lake. It will be perfect."
"Keep up your teasing. I don't care," Olivia had responded. "But after I tell Aleix how nasty you've been to me, what incentive will he have to be civil to your unsuitable mate?"
She'd had a point, but fortunately she suspected Olivia wouldn't tell Aleix anything.
And now, today, they were finally here. When the coach stopped and Ethan's guards deemed it safe to clear room, Annal¨ªa tumbled out and ran to the house. She tripped in breathless and hugged Aleix, who'd come to greet them.
He smiled down at her and then at Olivia when she entered. A peculiar smile for Olivia. A loving smile? She'd never really seen them together. Oh, Olivia did not just blush?
Annal¨ªa waved her hand in front of him. "Where's MacCarrick?"
He faced her, his expression turning grave. "Annal¨ªa, he's...well, he's ridden from here. He went north, I believe."
A wheezing sound passed her lips as she sank down onto an ottoman. "I don't understand. Why would he do that? Didn't he know we were returning?"
Olivia walked up behind her. "Did he say anything?"
"He wished Annal¨ªa well."
"Wished me well?" Her voice was strident. She hadn't stopped throwing up. She believed she would right now.
"He's not exactly a man of many words, as you know. Annal¨ªa, he and I decided it was for the best. He wasn't the right man for you."
Her eyes narrowed. "You and he decided? The two of you decided my future? Coach-and-six!" she cried as she shot to her feet. "You...You coach-and-sixed me!"
He looked at her as though she'd lost her mind. She felt the blood leaving her face, and her legs buckled, forcing her right back down.
Aleix rushed to her and grabbed her shoulders. "What's wrong with you? What did he do?"
She dimly saw a hand snake from behind her to slap his sharply until he released her.
"Annal¨ªa, this is for the best. He's from a completely foreign culture and doesn't have wealth to keep you as you should live. And I don't know if he told you or not, but he can't father children."
She stared up at him, tears welling. "I beg to differ."
"Court, are you all right?" Hugh asked with a snap of his fingers.
"If your horse had no' sidestepped, that limb back there would've taken your head."
Court jerked around for a look. He'd never seen it. He'd been lost in thought wondering where she was right now, what she was doing, and knowing she was happier than he was. She had to be. He faced front again, surprised they'd already arrived at the drive for Groot's - though he shouldn't be surprised. They'd made good time since Hugh had led them off the main road to follow a shorter horse trail. Hugh hadn't taken any chances that Court might pass Annal¨ªa on her journey home.
"I was thinkin' about her," Court muttered. "Miss her."
"Aye, I know."
"I miss her so bad it's like..."
"Grief?" Hugh asked, as he swung from the saddle.
He nodded slowly.
"Court, I wish I could tell you it'll get better." Hugh gave him a weary look. "But it does no'."
If this wouldn't get better, if everything continued to remind him of her...
"Where's the pretty Andorran?" Groot asked the minute they entered the posting house.
"Safe at home," Hugh answered for him when Court could only scowl.
"Good to know," he said absently as his wife called him to help with guests. They had another full house. Court sank down on a bench because his leg was paining him, and thought to himself that the seat wasn't too uncomfortable. He'd sleep right here before he took the room he and Anna had shared before.
Hugh crossed to the bar and helped himself to pouring two whiskies.
"You know, Hugh, got a missive for you," Groot said, leaning in to add, "From Weyland himself."
Hugh's brows drew together and the bottle slammed to the bartop. "Now, Groot."
When Hugh ripped open and scanned the message, he went rigid and his face grew tight, the lines there deepening. The new jagged gashes on his forehead and the side of his face twisted.
"What the hell is it?" Court had witnessed Hugh once in a killing fury, and it was a memory he would never forget. The savage look on Hugh's face right now was so far beyond that - it was chilling. Court rose, then limped over to work the note from a hand clenched so hard it was white.
Jane's life is in grave danger. Come quickly.
"We ride now," Court said as he turned for the door.
"No, Court." When he looked back, Hugh shook his head hard. "I go alone."
As if Court didn't understand what he was capable of. "I owe you a debt greater than I think you comprehend. And I'll be payin' it now."
"God damn it, Court, no. You're injured, and I'll need two horses, which means yours as well."
"Of course, but - "
Less than a minute later, Court stood outside with the wind swirling around him as he watched Hugh ride off at a reckless clip. Court was confident he'd reach her in time, and could almost pity whatever force had jeopardized Hugh's Jane. In fact, his only concern was if Hugh would be strong enough to resist his feelings for her. For Hugh's sake he hoped the shameless chit had outgrown her teasing.
Court ran a hand over the back of his neck, considering his own situation. Damn it, Hugh had been all that had gotten him out of Andorra. If his brother hadn't been there to warn and rail and commiserate with him, Court doubted he could've left. Now the temptation to return and find her was nearly overwhelming.
He watched the setting sun through a veil of darting leaves, but everything was dead to him, the colors muted. He had no plans, had no idea what he would do. He could go east with the others and ride for Otto or head north for home. He could go south....
Anna was better off without him. Established. But was she happy? Or was she as bloody miserable and bad off as he? Was she dreading her trip to Castile?
He'd given his oath to Llorente not to see her. Vowed not even to go near her.
And Llorente had proven himself a decent man. He'd presented Hugh with a fine steed for his help. To Court he'd offered a handshake, which was "much, much harder to part with."
In return Court again had given his word.
Hugh and Ethan had accepted their fates. But Court had dared to defy it for a time, and that was the only time in his life truly worth living.
He thought of the ten lines that had been seared into his mind the first day he'd seen the Leabhar, and narrowed his eyes. As the wind picked up again, rattling the trees, he turned to the south.
Court had a feeling he'd given Llorente his word as a gentleman.
Which was bloody convenient.
Autumn had arrived here on the mountain, and as regular as a clock, the meadow turned indigo with blooms. Annal¨ªa sank into the flowers to watch the sun go down - and to get away from Aleix and Olivia as they vainly tried to hide their feelings for each other. Annal¨ªa wanted to shout at them that she was enceinte, not stupid.
She plucked a bloom, then pulled the binding from her hair. Why not let it flow free? Would people talk? The way she was growing, in another month they'd have much more to talk about....
In response to the news of her condition, Aleix had wanted to kill the Highlander or drag him back here and "force him" to marry her. Another dismaying option he'd talked about was going to the family in Castile. "Should I take her there?" he'd asked Olivia. Asked Olivia!
Annal¨ªa answered again and again, "I don't want to marry anyone you'd have to force to the altar or anyone sight unseen." Besides the fact that she was still miserably in love with MacCarrick, Annal¨ªa refused to go to Castile, the very image of her mother, carrying a bastard.
Olivia's solution? Do nothing until they found MacCarrick. "His mother will tell him soon enough that Annal¨ªa is pregnant. He'll know the book is wrong, and then he will find her wherever she may be. If she is wed, he will kill the unfortunate groom for touching her and collect her regardless."
"Yet it could be months before he returns to London or receives any message from us," Aleix had pointed out. "Years, even, if he rejoins his men to the east. Her child will be a bastard in seven months if we don't get her married!" But fortunately, he'd taken her advice. Olivia usually did give good advice.
Since they'd arrived home, Olivia had settled in here, which wasn't that difficult since the people at the ranch were grateful to her for freeing Aleix. Even Vitale liked her. Annal¨ªa could only guess that he sensed a hardness in her, a fellow survivor, and respected her....
"It's getting chilly," Aleix said from behind her as he pulled a shawl over her shoulders.
Before long, the snow would come, sealing them in from the rest of the world as though in a cocoon. "I just want to watch the sun go down."
"The guards don't like you out after dark." Aleix had hired the men Ethan sent down, as they'd planned, until everything was settled in their country and around. She rarely saw them. Mostly they stayed at the foot of the mountain at the narrow passage to the plateaus. "How are you doing?" he asked.
She tried to answer lightly. "Besides being unmarried, with child, and abandoned, I'm far too splendid." She'd merely accomplished sullen, and sighed. "I believe I've topped even Mother's...peccadilloes."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Her affairs." She waved her hand as if she didn't care. "Everyone always said I looked just like her, that I was just like her."
"Affairs?" he choked out.
She faced him with a frown. "I've heard the rumors. I know she abandoned her family because of...passion."
"You think that's why Mother wasn't here?" he asked, his voice incredulous. "She had an affair with a man - a good man named Nicol¨¢s Beltr¨¢n - whom she'd been in love with her entire life." When she shook her head in confusion, he continued, "They were caught eloping, and the family sent her away. It would've been as if someone had forced Mariette away from me the night before our wedding to marry an older stranger in exile. Mariette would've wanted me to come for her and nothing would've stopped me."
"But what took him so long?" she asked, becoming completely lost in the story.
"When the family was through with him, he was penniless and in ill health. He had no idea where she'd been taken, and it took him years to find her."
She gave him a bitter smile. "Yes, but when he did, she left me, her own daughter, for him. It didn't affect you as it did me. You were grown, but I was devastated."
"Annal¨ªa, she didn't go voluntarily. When Llorente found them together, he disowned her, forbidding her to come near you. Beltr¨¢n took her to France, where she wrote daily to Llorente, begging him to let her see you. She journeyed here again and again, but he always intercepted her. She didn't stop trying until she died, a year later."
"B-But I always thought she'd left me for a man. I thought she chose him over her own family. That she'd never looked back and had crushed Father with her indifference."
"At Mother's funeral, I talked to Beltr¨¢n. She had been telling him she would never leave her children when Llorente found them together."
Annal¨ªa rose to pace. "That bastard! How could Father keep my mother from me? How could he let me think she had many lovers? Aleix, he warned me that I would be like that!"
"Though I make no excuses for him, I know he was devastated because he'd believed she'd grown to love him. Annal¨ªa, I never suspected Llorente would poison your thoughts like that or I'd have taken you away myself."
When she paced faster, he said, "We should discuss this later. Once you're feeling better."
"I've waited sixteen years for this! She'd told Beltr¨¢n no?" She was still shaking her head, disbelieving that everything she'd known was a lie. "She didn't leave me of her own will?" She took her necklace between her thumb and forefinger and felt the stone.
"I was well old enough then to see that no mother could love a daughter more...."
She sank down and when the tears fell, she did nothing to stop them. "I wasn't at her funeral! I never put flowers on her grave." She leveled a watery glare at him. "Why didn't you tell me all this?"
"I never knew." He appeared dumbfounded. "You were so young when this happened, and since you never asked me about her, I thought you scarcely remembered her."
"I must go to her grave. I must give her the respect I never have."
"You know I can't leave until things settle here. But we'll see how you feel after the baby comes."
She wiped at her eyes. "I'd always thought about going, but I was so angry and so afraid that I would do something like she did. Or what I thought she did."
"Mother was a good woman with a kind heart. And you are just like her. I see it more every day. Tomorrow afternoon, when I get back from the council meeting in the village, I'll tell you everything I know about her, but you need to come in now. You're to be a mother now, too."
She exhaled a faltering breath. "Aleix, what am I going to do?"
"You're going to have a child that will be loved. We take care of our own."
"Then what? Will I grow old here on the mountain waiting for him?"
"Annal¨ªa, let's get through one thing at a time. All I know is that these choices are yours. And that I won't repeat history and try to marry you off to someone you don't love."
"Thank you for saying that," she murmured.
"Now you need to concentrate on being healthy. On caring for your new one."
He rose and offered her a hand, but she said, "Just a minute or two longer."
He patted her head, then turned for the house.
When she was alone, and the last light of the day was mirrored in the lake, she rubbed her barely rounding belly, frowning. "My new one," she said aloud. Mine, she thought. And new. She'd been so busy feeling sorry for herself and thinking of her condition as though she were ill, as though it were lamentable.
Now that she knew her mother had loved her, had never wanted to leave her, Annal¨ªa saw everything differently, as though she'd been looking through a filmy glass that had just been smashed away. She could be a good mother. She would be a good mother and would love as apparently Elisabet had. "I'm having a baby," she whispered as the full truth struck her for the first time.
If the Highlander couldn't take part in this because he was off warring for years, or if his mistaken beliefs were so strong that he ignored what was in his heart, then so be it.
He wouldn't be in their lives. And it would be his loss.
Because she and her baby were going to have a glorious time of it.