Court lay in bed staring at the ceiling, more restless than he could ever remember being. Now that he'd sent word to his crew, he was stuck waiting, a task hard for a patient man and impossible to tolerate for Court. Worse, he waited with an old man he'd like to toss from the window and with a mysterious woman he wanted to tie up so she couldn't flee until he'd actually finished questioning her.
What in the hell had been in that letter and why had she been crying?
Court didn't like mysteries. To him, they had a taunting aspect, as if their mere existence accused him of not working hard enough to solve them.
He was used to doing as he pleased, and right now what would please him would be learning more about the secretive Annal¨ªa. She'd most likely be asleep, but her room could tell him much.
Rising from bed, he dressed, then ran his hand under his mattress to grab the ivory knitting needle he'd found in a drawer. His own lock hadn't withstood it, and hers shouldn't prove any different.
He strode down the landing, checking doors until he found one locked. When he stuck the needle point into the keyhole and pressed to the side, the corner of his lips curled at the click. Creaking open the door, he entered the room and approached her bed. The night had just a hint of breeze, with a growing moon shedding light inside.
He found her lying on her front with a thin sheet stretched across her back and her hair spilling across her pillow. Stunning. Thick, glossy curls shone in the moonlight, fascinating him, as did the feeling that arose when he realized, when he knew in his gut, he was the only man to have seen it loose and free. He had the urge to touch it, to smell it, but he forced himself to turn from her and investigate the room.
All of her belongings were stored with an obsessive neatness, and the ornamentations, like everything about her, were incredibly feminine. Lace predominated, but her bookshelf was like a man's: mathematics, botany, astronomy, and studies in four different languages. He spied another text beside her bed, this one on the Greek language.
An ornate display cabinet, polished until it reflected like a mirror, was the center point of the room and housed a porcelain collection arranged on glass shelves. He could see why Annal¨ªa might be unconsciously attracted to the pieces. They were bright and striking but fragile, which was exactly how she appeared. They were also unmistakably expensive.
An unfamiliar and wearisome feeling crept over him when he realized her hobby was worth more than he made in a year working tirelessly and risking his life.
His mood improved when he silently opened a drawer - not that he cared overmuch if he woke her, because what could she do? - and discovered a cache of steamy gothic novels in every imaginable language. He grinned. Lady Annal¨ªa's dirty little secret.
Beside the books was a thick bundle of letters. He drew it out, then crossed to the moonlit window to scan them. They were all from girls at a place called The Vines, which was apparently a school. The recognizable surnames were like a partial compilation of the world's wealthiest and highest-ranked families. He had to wonder even for Annal¨ªa's beauty and wealth, how she'd gotten in. He would return to the letters tomorrow during her ride and read them all by daylight -
She kicked off her sheet in the heat of the room, and his brows rose at what was revealed. Her nightdress was silk - he wouldn't have expected anything less from her - and rode up her creamy thighs, high. The lace edge brushed just below her backside, which was lush and full - that he hadn't expected. He hissed in a breath when she bent one knee and drew it up beside her so that her legs were parted, with only shadow concealing her.
His hands itched to run up the backs of her thighs to palm her curves...until she raised her hips to him with need and spread her knees...He fought to bite back a guttural sound and failed.
Though she didn't wake, she sighed something in Catalan and turned on her back, one slender arm stretching out to the side, her other hand resting on her chest. Perfect, generous breasts strained against the tight bodice, and he groaned, clenching his fists and crushing the letters. She'd hidden more than her hair from the world.
She was exquisite, sensuous, and when he left this place behind he knew he would never forget this image of her. Then from nowhere, a single word whispered in the back of his mind. More.
He froze, every muscle in his body rigid. No.
He'd been attracted to her - mightily so - but before when he'd imagined taking her, he'd envisioned pinning her arms over her head and driving into her hard until she cried out in pleasure and surrendered to him, until he could make her look up at him with something other than disdain.
Yet now he imagined seducing her into letting him lick every inch of her golden skin and the hours he could take tasting her sex. He wanted to seduce her into letting him spend deep within her, knowing he could never get her pregnant.
He roughly ran his hand over the front of his trousers. Apparently he wanted her furiously. But a woman that fine wouldn't desire him, and he would never force a woman.
Court was a bastard in anyone's book. He did things that made other men unable to live with themselves, and he did them without a heartbeat's hesitation. But even he wasn't so far gone that he would remain alone in a house with an exquisite virgin, when right now waking her with his tongue against her sex seemed a brilliant idea.
If he stayed, he would try to bed her at every opportunity even as he knew he shouldn't. He was sick of waiting anyway. The best course would be to leave this place and go find his men.
Though it took will to do so, he turned from her. He was a disciplined man, and damn it, he could do it. He tossed her letters back in her drawer, then kicked it closed, daring her to wake, but she slept on. The entire way out of her room, he opened and clenched the shaking hands that had been so ready to fondle her.
With long strides he made it outside to the stable. The horses recoiled in their stalls as if they sensed the violent turmoil within him.
He didn't want to take her horse, not the one that he'd seen her touch foreheads with while she murmured to it. He couldn't see very well, so he went for a larger horse. After much coaxing, he led out a stallion, vaguely noting it felt superior, and found a saddle for him, using his good hand and the inside of his other arm to carry it. The black dots blurring his vision when he hefted the saddle and tightened it should have warned him that he was pushing too fast, but he continued as though chased.
He glanced back at the house, saw the curtains flickering in and out of her window as though beckoning. Remember how you felt when you saw her crying, he told himself. Gritting his teeth, Court put a boot in the stirrup and stepped up.
The black dots returned and exploded.
Chiron, the ranch's primary stud, was missing. After several hours and to Annal¨ªa's horror, they'd found the horse, still saddled, merrily impregnating a mare that had not been in the ranch's schedule.
Now, armed with the knowledge of an attempted horse theft - of a stallion worth his weight in gold - she followed a thick trail of hardened mud directly up to the Highlander's room. Her outrage escalated with each step.
Of course, the door was unlocked. She marched in, fury making a door slamming seem a worthy gesture.
At the sound, he cracked open bloodshot eyes. "What?" he grumbled as he turned on his back.
Mud everywhere. The lace coverlet ruined. "Rolling in the mud, MacCarrick? What a fitting recreation."
He put his good hand behind his head, insolently leaning up on the pillow and peering at her with a too-sly expression, a far too...familiar expression. As if he knew a secret she didn't. Was he staring at her breasts? "You were just going to steal away in the night? And I do mean 'steal,' since we can add horse thievery to your extensive list of shortcomings."
He waved her statement away with his cast, which was also streaked with mud. "I was going to send it back."
"Is that why, of all the horses in the stable, our ranch's stud was found saddled and with a-a...he was saddled and wandering?"
"No, I took him because - " He broke off. "Just forget it."
"I want to know why!" Why that and why he would just leave. Without a word of thanks. And why should that nettle her so much? She wanted him gone.
"And I said" - he leveled a forbidding glare at her - "to forget it."
Obstinate man! "I want you out of my house today."
"And how should I accomplish that, since I could no' sit a horse last night and barely got back inside?"
"I don't care if you have to roll down the mountain. Pascal's men will come for you, and when they do, we will all pay for your selfishness."
"Unlike you people, I canna run up and down sheer mountains all day - like bloody mountain goats - when I am strong. Much less with bashed ribs and a stone of muscle lost."
"If you could make it outside last night, you're well enough to leave a place that holds no welcome for you."
He crossed his arms, his eyes growing darker.
"So, MacCarrick, if you have no other objections - "
"No. I meant no, I'm no' leaving."
Remain calm! Ignore the increasingly familiar urge to close in on his face and screech at him. "You will, because this is my home."
"Who's going to throw me out? The old man? The bairn? No' a single man in sight who can do it."
Mare de D¨¦u, she wished he'd stop saying that. Because he was right. He could stay for as long as he pleased. Wrestling with her temper, she forced herself to say in a soft voice, "I saved your life, and I'm asking you to leave my home. If you are a gentleman that must count for something."
"If I honor your wishes, you'd have saved my life in vain. So it's bloody convenient that I'm no' a gentleman."