As Annal¨ªa set out for her meadow, she passed Vitale with his friends playing dice and wished him snake eyes.
"You look different," he remarked as he squinted at her.
"Do I?" When she'd told Vitale she was carrying, he'd been delighted that another child would be running about the mountain, but he'd also confessed that he was pleased it didn't work out with MacCarrick. "I love you like a daughter," he'd said. "But following you to Andorra was one thing. There was no way I'd follow you to Scotland."
Now Vitale studied her. "You look...determined."
"I am." She patted her book on the Gaelic language. "Determined to learn Gaelic by next spring."
"Ach, lass¨ªe," Vitale quipped, still sounding terribly French. His friends laughed uproariously. She even chuckled as she continued on.
When she'd found out she was pregnant, she'd asked Lady Fiona for an instruction book. The woman had given her tomes, so delighted that Annal¨ªa was interested in their culture and language, so proud that Court had found her. Even as Fiona regretted the past.
Annal¨ªa was starting slowly. Luckily, she'd only just been digging into Greek when MacCarrick came into her life. She believed her capacity for languages had a ceiling of five.
Although she'd been making steady progress, she couldn't seem to focus today. The flowers in her meadow smelled too wonderful, and the sun teased her face until she wanted to remove her hat.
And she kept returning to the book to trace her finger over the definition she'd found of "Mo cridhe." My heart. That's what he'd called her.
"Neach-d¨¬olain." That's what she would call him. Bastard.
She resolved to take off her hat, and was just shaking her hair loose when she saw something that could not be right. She leapt to her feet, heart thudding, her hat falling from her limp hand. She'd just gotten to where she wasn't crying herself to sleep each night!
MacCarrick spotted her and rode toward her. He looked tired and worn. And resolute?
Wait! She was furious with him. She didn't even know if he was here for her. He probably left a belt or his favorite pistol or a lucky machete he needed to retrieve before he went back to work.
She knew that must be why he was returning - any man who could wish her well after what they'd had...Yet she was still dizzy. She inhaled deeply and rocked on her heels. Her brows drew together, and as she saw the sun straight ahead, she muttered, "Merda."
She just collapsed? Court felt like he'd had his breath punched from him even as he spurred his horse. He didn't wait for it to stop before he swung off and rushed to her, scarcely noting the pain from his leg. She never got sick. She must be injured. He'd kill Llorente. What good were the bloody guards down there when she was outside and alone up here?
Fortunately, she'd fallen into thick flowers. He grabbed her shoulders and drew her up to him. "Anna!"
Cradling her head, he frowned. She didn't look injured or ill at all. He ran the backs of his fingers over her cheek. Warm, golden skin. "Anna?" When she blinked open her eyes they were clear and bright and focused on his.
"What's happened tae you, mo cridhe?" His voice was hoarse.
Now she rolled her eyes in irritation and stiffened in his arms. "I'm fine, thank you." She pulled away from him and sat up.
He reluctantly let her go. "Why'd you faint?"
She hesitated, then said, "My dress was laced too tightly."
He swept a glance over her dress and found it was snug across the bodice. Finally, she'd put on some of the weight she'd lost. His gaze flickered over her neck, and he saw with pride that she wore the necklace.
"Women faint all the time," she added.
They did. Yet he could name ten instances when she surely should have fainted and hadn't.
"Did you forget something?" she asked crisply.
His brows drew together. "No. I wanted tae check on you."
"I appreciate your checking on me, but I'm doing fine."
"Aye, you are." She looked amazing, more beautiful than he had ever seen her. Had he hoped to find her miserable? Bloody hell, yes, he'd hoped that. Because he was a selfish bastard, and he wanted her to miss him as fiercely as he did her. She never could eat when she was anxious or unhappy, and yet without him she'd put on flesh, making her body softer and rounder. She'd been content. Why was he still here, then? Why wasn't he turning away?
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted her hand flitting in the flowers behind them. He peered over her at the book she was slipping under her skirts. "You're studying Gaelic?"
"Greek or Gaelic. Really, what's the difference?" she said airily, but at his look she added, "Very well. I have no personal connection whatsoever to Greece, but I've been treated shabbily by a Gael."
"You could've written. I would have responded that everything was well and saved you the trip."
"I wanted tae see you."
"You wanted to see me. You can't just go in and out of my life whenever you please because of what you want. You left without even a good-bye. After all we'd been through together, you wished me well."
"If I saw you, then I would no' be able tae leave you. I left you for you."
She tilted her head. "I don't understand."
"I need tae explain something."
"If this is about the curse, then your mother's already told me."
He lowered his voice to say, "She told you about...about the Leabhar?" When she nodded, he said, "It's no' something she has ever talked about since my da's death. Do you know what it says?"
"Yes, I read it."
He couldn't believe Fiona had allowed Anna near it. They would have words over this. "That's what I thought I would bring to you. The more I cared for you, the more I knew I had tae leave."
Her smile was cold. "Yet you're here now? What does that tell me?"
"Aye, I'm here. Because something that is in the lines has been proven false."
"What would that be?" Annal¨ªa asked, feigning nonchalance. She didn't want him to come only for the baby. He must've already gotten Aleix's missive to Groot's, but how so soon? Perhaps his mother had written before she and Olivia had even left. Annal¨ªa would always wonder in the back of her mind.
He was thrumming with some emotion, tense with it. "It says I will no' know love." He stood and ran a hand through his hair. "But damn it, I do."
Her lips parted.
His face was hard, intent, but his eyes..."Above all things I love you." His expression tightened. "I could be out of my mind. I want you so badly that I want tae believe the rest is false. I could be hurtin' you right now." His brogue was thick. "Maybe it means I'll no' know love from another." He winced, apprehension clear on his face. "I had no' thought of that."
He looked so guilty, she found herself easing to her feet and murmuring, "That's false, too."
He took her shoulders. "You told me once. But you were half asleep and hurting, and I dinna dare believe it. You could even after I left you?"
Her brows drew together. He was nervous. She laid her hand on his chest, curious. The simple touch made him close his eyes.
Nervous. Beneath her palm, his heart was thundering.
With that, the resistance she'd thought she could hold on to slipped from her fingers. The truth left her lips, "Your leaving hurt me. Badly. Even though I was so confused and afraid, I never stopped."
His eyes opened, and she saw they were full of pain. "I wish I had no' hurt you. I never wanted tae."
"I know," she said with a sigh. He'd always wanted her happiness, had always hated the idea of her hurt. How the attack must have seemed, the blame he would've placed on himself...
"I still feel that I canna risk your safety. I canna settle in with the idea," he said. "Though everything in me wants tae."
"MacCarrick, I really don't believe there's any risk."
He leaned in, putting an arm around her as though to shield her from being struck down. "We canna scoff at it," he warned in a low tone. "It is very real. And I've lived my life with that hangin' over me. It made me what I am."
She pushed him back to face him. "Then I thank it! But I must respectfully demand its exit from our lives. What we could have together is stronger than anything dire in that book."
He shook his head. "So much of it has come true. None of us with children because the book ends with our generation - "
"It ends with your generation because our children will make their own fate!"
His dark eyes revealed his regret. "Anna, you know that I will no' have - "
She took his hand and placed it on her belly.
Court grew very still. "What are you sayin'?" His hand on her began shaking. He'd kissed her there, caressed his fingers over her, and he knew that there to the touch was the slightest rounding.
She pushed his hand away. "I'm saying the book seems to be getting everything wrong when it comes to you. And that you're getting more than you bargained for."
"You're..." He swallowed hard. "You are..."
She put her chin up. "I'm carrying your child."
I bind you to me. The first night - the first night he'd made love to her. He had bound her to him and claimed her. At the same time, he'd felt that everything he was became hers as well. They'd done this then.
She was carrying his child.
He stood, staggered. She was right. He was getting more than he'd bargained for. He'd only had a faint hope today of finding a way to be with her, and yet he'd discovered that she loved him. How the hell she did, he couldn't imagine, but he knew better than to question such fortune.
The babe would be his permission to keep her, and proved that the Leabhar had something else in store for him entirely. He felt the weight of that worry lifting for the first time since he'd read it. Suddenly, falling to the ground seemed like a bloody fine idea.
"Your mother says early spring."
"Yes. She is very sorry about the past and wants to speak with you soon."
The only way he'd do it would be if Anna asked it of him, but he feared she might just. "How is she reconcilin' it, then?"
"Olivia came up with a theory." Impersonating Olivia's accent, she said, "'The ten lines begin with death and misery, loneliness and suffering, et-cet-era, et-cet-era, until the last two, which obviously say all of these unpleasant things will occur, until the blockheaded Scot comes to Andorra to pluck the spoiled little ninny from a mountain.'" She grinned. "Your mother believes it's something along those lines but nicer - perhaps about binding with the woman fate meant to be yours."
"And what about the man meant for you? Would you want tae be marryin' someone like me?" His voice was gruff.
"I can't say." She turned from him and said over her shoulder, "I need to know what type of life we would live. I won't have you going away all the time risking your life."
"Then I'm retired," he quickly said, striding in front of her.
She gave him a soft smile. "That's what I wanted to know."
But he continued on, "I've got a place in Scotland. Beinn a'Chaorainn, it's called. A long-neglected keep that needs work, but a lot of land. It's hilly, with mountains in the back, so you might like it. I vow I will make it so you do."
"Are you trying to convince me, Courtland?" She jabbed her finger at his chest. "Do you honestly think there is any way you will be leaving here without me?" He was stunned and didn't bother to hide it. At his expression, she grinned and ran that finger up and down his chest. "What does the Beiiinnn-something mean?" She was touching him playfully as if she'd missed simply being with him, an idea more gratifying to him than she could know.
He felt the corners of his lips curl. "Beinn a'Chaorainn means...Land of Marsh and Pestilence."
"Oh." Her face fell, but then brightened. "You said it needs work." She asked hopefully, "Does that include draining swamps?"
He put his hands on her shoulders and stroked the sides of her neck. "I'm teasing you, mo cridhe. It means Hill of the Rowan Tree."
She cuffed him with the back of her hand, then returned it to his chest. "Hill of the Rowan Tree. Pendant del Roure," she said, rolling the r's in that voice he'd longed to hear, making his home's name her own. As she should.
"I do think you could like it there, but if you doona, then I'll take you wherever you can be happy."
She went to her toes to nuzzle her face against his neck, again stunning him. "I'm happy where you are."
His eyes closed from the tenderness in the gesture. She wants to be with me, he thought in amazement. Damn, if she doesn't want to.
She drew back and said, "But on the way there, we'll need to stop in Paris."
He swallowed and nodded. "Anna, I'll deny you nothing." If money was the only obstacle between them, he'd bloody well rob trains.
She tilted her head. "Oh, you think I want to go shopping."
He made his expression stoic.
But sadness flashed in her eyes. "Thank you for the offer, but I'll have to decline. This stop is of an entirely different nature." When his brows drew together, she said, "I'll tell you on the way. But if we're going to Scotland, then you have to get me over the mountain before I get too big to fit through the pass." She glanced around and added conspiratorially, "Trust me, you do not want to be stuck here for the winter with Aleix and Olivia mooning over each other."
He grinned and leaned down to put his forehead against hers. "Anna, I'll take you away whenever you please. I still canna believe that you...that we...I thought I'd lost you."
She twined her arms around his neck. "I don't suppose you can lose the woman fate decided was to be yours. You only needed to find her."
"I have found her. And I'll no' be lettin' her go." He laid his hands on her cheeks and gently kissed her.
"Actually," she murmured against his lips, "I found you."
Not to marry, know love, or bind, their fate;
Your line to die for never seed shall take.
Death and torment to those caught in their wake,
Unless each dark one finds his forechosen mate.
For his true lady alone his life and heart can save....