If Pascal's first letter had been the judgment, his second had been the sentence. Annal¨ªa stood dazed at the oak desk, the paper in her hand crumpled and damp from her palm.
She'd waited for his instructions, more nervous than she'd ever been. The last four days had been more nerve-wracking even than when a coach-and-six unexpectedly crunched into the white gravel drive of her school. If a carriage came, no one raised an eyebrow. A carriage meant a day trip. But a coach-and-six struck fear into the hearts of the girls, and they would all tear across the schoolroom to look out from the balcony, praying their family's crest wouldn't be emblazoned on the door.
A surprise coach-and-six meant some girl's life was about to drastically change.
As drastically as Annal¨ªa's was.
Pascal had called for her. The hours had dragged by as she'd awaited his summons, hours made more miserable by hearing the Highlander restlessly stomping all over her home. He'd been like a loosed bull in the manor, which necessitated her behaving like a frightened hare to avoid him. Their game would end tomorrow. The general expected her to join him then and marry him by the week's end.
She wasn't even near Pascal, and yet already his hand stretched far to control her.
She burned the letter in the study's fireplace then paced until her legs ached and the sun had set, uncaring as to what her father would have thought. Apparently, she couldn't help it. She remembered another time when she'd been home briefly from school and he'd caught her at it. She'd been sixteen. That time his hard, weathered face had looked grave, his eyes full of pain. "Elisabet used to do that."
Of course, she would have. Everyone always said Annal¨ªa was just like her mother.
When Annal¨ªa had first arrived at The Vines, one of the older girls had whispered, "Watch out for that one with the gardener. She's Castilian." They'd regarded her and determined things about her that she hadn't recognized at that young age, and they hadn't even known that Annal¨ªa's mother had been caught making love to her family's former stable master. Before and after her marriage to Llorente.
She ran her fingertips over the choker at her neck. The stone attached was a reminder she was never without -
"Why are you pacing?" The Highlander. His voice was a rumble she felt.
She exhaled in irritation, then faced him. Her first impulse was to leave the room, but she'd tired of running in her own home, tired of him taking over everything that was hers, and instead she sat behind the desk. She ignored his question and asked, "Why are you here?"
"I want whisky. Occurred to me that even you people might have some."
She closed her eyes to get her temper under control. When she opened them, he was at the liquor cabinet, noisily opening the crystal decanters, smelling their aromas, then setting them down. The silver tags on each decanter clacked against the glass.
"You can read the labels rather than smelling each one. That is, if you can read."
"Canna read them in this light."
He was right. She'd bought them in Paris for Aleix, delighted with the flourishing engravings, but soon realized they were difficult to decipher even in daylight. Pretty but serving little use. No wonder she'd bought them. She almost laughed.
"By all the saints..." he said, finally finding one that kept his interest. He poured a generous draught into a crystal glass. And placed it directly in front of her. She stared at it as if he'd just positioned some dead thing there, something foul like what the barn cats insisted on gifting her doorstep, and vaguely heard him pouring one for himself.
Drink in hand, he sank into the spacious chair across from the desk. Llorente had always wanted whoever was on the other side to feel small and insignificant. She rolled her eyes. Of course, the deep chair fit the Highlander perfectly, and he leaned back, seeming surprised that it suited him so well.
Wait. He'd shaved. How had he...? He'd pilfered her brother's belongings! And his cast was gone? She'd probably find the remains of it chewed off beside his bed. Brainless man....
Yet after Pascal's letter, she just didn't have the energy to vent her annoyance. Instead, she stared while he swirled the whisky as if with reverence. His hands were large and callused, but he held the glass gently, his dark gaze fixed on its flickering colors by the candle's light. When he finally took a drink, he exhaled with pleasure.
The scene was like watching someone relish a meringue. Soon all you could think about was eating meringue. She looked on in horror as her hand shook its way to her glass. Brows drawn, she lifted it. She glanced at him; he smirked at her - the horse-thieving Scot - expecting her to back out.
Why not drink it? It was imperative to wipe that look from his face.
She'd never touched spirits, never overimbibed rare tastes of table wine. She'd never done anything she shouldn't have. And look where her life was culminating.
As Pascal's bride.
The glass shot up to meet her lips, her hand and head tilting far back. Fire rushed down her throat in a long continuous stream. Propriety demanded that she stop. Alas, she and propriety were losing touch. She continued until the glass was drained.
Refusing to gasp, she stared at him defiantly through watering eyes, then choked back a cough until she could reduce it to a gentle clearing of her throat behind her hand.
"A woman who likes her whisky," he said while refilling her glass. "Careful that you doona steal my heart, Annal¨ªa."
"It figures that the one requirement you'd have for your woman is 'whisky drinker.'"
"Aye, but that's only after 'walks upright.'"
He'd said the words in his customary low and threatening voice, making it sound cutting, but she felt warm, and her lips slowly tugged into a smile.
He stared at her lips, at her smile, and strangely his jaw tensed, bulging at the sides. He had such a squared jaw. Far too masculine.
"Opposable thumbs rate high as well," he said, shooting her a significant glance, but she didn't know why. Opposable thumbs? She wasn't familiar with the phrase in English. Her English was flawless, as was her French, Catalan, and Spanish, her vocabulary in each language stellar. For this brute to know something she didn't rankled.
He probably made it up.
Still, the way his gaze moved over her, lingering, with an expectant look, made her blush all the same. She felt it heat her face and creep to her neck.
Immediately, he asked, "What's the stone you wear at your neck?"
She brushed her finger over it. "Peridot. It's called peridot."
"I've never seen the green-gold color. It matches your eyes."
Embarrassed, she quickly murmured, "It was my mother's. It's said to have been Cleopatra's favorite gem."
"You have something in common with the lusty Cleopatra?"
"I didn't say I liked the stone," she bit out.
He raised his eyebrows at her tone, as if noting her reaction, then changed the subject. "So whose whisky am I enjoying? Your father's...?"
"No. My father is deceased."
He inclined his head to her slightly. In a moment of insight, she thought that's how a gruff Highlander might say, "I'm sorry to hear that."
"Your brother's, then? The big bastard whose clothes I wear?"
"He's no bastard!"
Studying. "It's a figure of speech. No' literally."
Her face colored again, and she brought the glass to her lips. "Oh. Yes, it's his."
"And where is he, leaving you alone like this?"
She set the glass down. Had it wobbled? "He's away on business, but is expected to return this week."
"Is he, then? This very week?" he asked, plainly disbelieving her.
"Is that not what I just said?" She sounded exasperated.
"How is it you speak English as well as a native? Spanish and French, I understand, but no' the queen's English."
She frowned at the abrupt change in topic. Polite conversation followed rules. Topics were sequential, orderly, and flowed from one to the next like a gentle current when all those conversing were skilled. Why deliberately disrupt it? She sighed in a put-out way, then replied, "I went to school abroad and learned it there. English, you might not have heard, is the worldwide language of the nobility."
The truth was she'd had to learn it to communicate with many of her schoolmates. The Brits and Yanks couldn't seem to string together a foreign phrase to save their lives, though everyone else was at least trilingual. Worse, the Yanks polluted the language with irregular phrasings and slang that were difficult to keep pace with. As difficult as they were secretly amusing.
"It's very exclusive. I'm sure you wouldn't have heard of it." She absently tapped her nails against her crystal glass. Apparently, he took that as a sign to refill it. Since it was empty.
"It's called Les Vignes."
"Aye, The Vines. Just outside of Paris in Fontainebleau."
She just stopped herself from dropping her jaw. How had he heard of it?
He smirked. "Aristocrats and heiresses."
"Indeed," she said in a pained tone. His gloating look rattled her, but also simply thinking about the school made her yearn for her time there. Life had been simple then. She'd loved it there, loved acquiring knowledge, but most important, Annal¨ªa had attained her coveted aura of worldliness.
Unfortunately, this worldliness was, as yet, a façade. She'd never been farther north than Paris or farther south than just past the border with Spain. She had never even seen the sea. The Highlander, just by virtue of his traveling from Scotland to Andorra, was worldlier than she.
But MacCarrick would never know it because she could put on a grand show. She'd learned contemporary American sass and slang from a princess of railroad royalty, fashionable disdain from a pouty French inheritrix of some medical patent, and British loftiness from a "fifteenth from the throne" duke's daughter.
"It's very exclusive," she repeated absently. In fact, she'd scarcely been received. Annal¨ªa wasn't so closely related to a throne, unless you followed Pascal's insane despot logic, of course. However, she was distantly related to eight of them.
"Yet you were born and raised in archaic Andorra."
Her expression felt brittle. She should have known he would cut through the façade and go straight to the heart of her insecurities. When she didn't answer, he continued, "I've always said there are just no' enough Andorrans in the world."
"And what makes you so sure I was raised here?"
"I've heard you speak Catalan to the people here. You've never spoken it to anyone outside of Andorra, have you?"
She'd yearned to visit other Catalan-speaking countries, but Llorente had forbidden it. "Why do you ask that?"
"This country hasn't changed much since medieval times and neither has its language."
"Are you saying I speak with a medieval dialect?" She couldn't.
He leaned back and nodded with obvious enjoyment.
"And with you being a Highlander, I'm sure you recognize medieval when you come across it." Ha!
His lips curled at the side. Not quite a smile. "So the Scot and the Andorran. We're no' so different."
She was decidedly different from everything that he was. "I'm Castilian," she snapped, surprising herself. That information rarely came out sounding like a declaration. Next to a Scot she could be proud of anything, she supposed.
"A hot-blooded Castilian, then? Collared with Cleopatra's jewel." Never taking his eyes from hers, he lifted his glass and growled over the rim, "Fascinatin'."
She barely prevented her lips from parting in disbelief. Straight to the heart. How did he manage to brush so closely to her secrets? He didn't know her. He knew nothing. He was merely provoking for reaction....
The next several minutes were odd. If she tilted her head, his eyes narrowed. If she touched her hair, he scrubbed his good hand across the back of his neck. When she drank more, he stilled, as if awaiting something. That was one thing she realized about him - he was always scrutinizing, always weighing, and deciding. She wondered what he'd decided about her.
Here she sat drinking with her worst enemy - well, worst after Pascal - but not because she wanted to be near the man. Certainly not that. And not because she'd forgotten what he was. He was a Highlander, and it was because of people like him and his miserable kinsmen - those cursed killers for hire - that the general had enough power to force her to his will. He was her enemy and she didn't care.
She'd heard that liquor made one brash, but now Annal¨ªa knew it also made one uncaring. Underhanded, even.
Because she would use him.
What if she could hire him and his men to help her? What if she could tempt him to want to help her? If she was one of those women - if the whispers about her were true - then surely she could have some effect on a man.
What did she have to lose by trying?
Before her courage failed her, she stood, then walked around the desk toward him. When he quickly stood as well, she stopped and reached back for her glass - just one more little sip for courage.... She turned back and he was directly in front of her, looking at her face in his intense, watchful manner.
He took a gentle, shuffling step closer, as though he didn't want to frighten her away. She backed up to the desk, but he kept drawing nearer, surrounding her with his body, with his appealing scent. And some common, base part deep inside her reveled in his size, reveled in the heat she could feel from his skin.
His gaze caught hers, as if he couldn't stop looking at her. Up so close, she could see how much his eyes had cleared, could see how remarkably dark they were, the irises black like obsidian. And the way he looked at her...as though he was hungry for her. As though he lusted, and understood like no man had before how incredibly much she did, too. She felt like she'd caught fire.
She set her palms against the edge of the desk, wrapping her fingers around it, then nervously licked her lips, unsure of what to do. He must have realized she wasn't leaving, wasn't moving from this spot, because he appeared baffled, his brows drawn. It was as though she could hear him thinking. She knew he was suspicious of her behavior. She also knew he would decide to enjoy now and figure it out later. As if on cue, his expression changed to one of intent.
As she'd seen women do on bridges across Paris at sunset, she brushed her hands up over his chest and then rested them on the back of his neck. When her fingers twined behind him, his breaths hastened. "MacCarrick," she murmured. "Do you...like me?"
His gaze was flickering over her face, sometimes resting on her lips, but now meeting her eyes. "Right now I like you very much."
She threaded her fingers in his hair. "After tonight, do you want to be my...friend?"
His voice was deep and husky when he said, "Among other things."
"Can I trust you?"
He nodded slowly. "With this? Aye, I'll no' tell a soul."
She frowned at his comment, but went forward with what she had to do. "If I asked you for something, would you want to give it to me?"
He seemed to stiffen at her question, and a muscle in his cheek twitched. Then she had the impression that he was forcing himself to relax. "Anna, I will give you something that you want."
Though he'd turned her words around, she still murmured, "MacCarrick..." He bent lower to hear her better, and she whispered against his ear, "Kiss me, MacCarrick."
Her breath against his ear made this mercenary react so strongly? She wondered what her touch might do. If she was the type of woman people accused her of being, then maybe she was also the type of woman who could "bring a man to his knees." She rather liked the thought.
He put his palm on the back of her head, drawing her in. She thought he would kiss her, but he hesitated, as if to let her body grow accustomed to his, as if savoring that he was about to kiss her as he had savored the whisky.
The second he placed his lips on hers and slanted his mouth, heat shot through her body. When he kissed down the side of her neck, she sucked in a breath, staggered by the feelings. His hands found her backside and he yanked her into him - hard - until she could feel his erection, huge against her belly. This is wrong - His lips were warm and firm and quelled the thought.
He molded her backside with insistent fingers, squeezing her into him, then grasping her around the waist to - oh, Mare de D¨¦u - move her pelvis against him. Wrong! her mind cried.
Just as she would pull away, he gathered her closer to kiss her earlobe, and she wondered, mystified, why she'd deemed this so terrible. They weren't doing more than pressing bodies together. Of course, he wouldn't make love to her.
Before she had any comprehension of what he was doing, he'd unfastened the top few buttons of her shirt and would've done more if she hadn't seized the next button in her fist. He made some noise as if her action amused him, but he didn't continue. He spread what he'd opened, uncovering her upper chest to her chemise, then placed his hands on her back to arch her to him. To her bewilderment, he groaned deeply and rubbed the side of his face against the tops of her breasts. She felt the low guttural sound, and it frightened her, but not more than it exhilarated her.
Her brows drew together as she watched him - he kissed her skin as if he'd lost himself. That's what had happened to her - she'd lost herself. Her mind was separate, as if looking on, noting her body's response as he set her atop the desk to stand between her legs. Her breasts were growing heavy and sensitive, and her own panting breaths sounded loud.
She was embarrassed that he heard her like this, and that he was the cause. Embarrassed that he saw her with her skirts hiked up her legs nearly to her garters and her blouse partially unbuttoned.
"Let me see your hair." He rasped the words against her damp skin, and she trembled. "I know the treasures you hide. I've seen them."
Hazily, she wondered when, but then he kissed at the line of her chemise, and she couldn't bite back a soft moan, the pleasure was so intense. He raised his face to brush his lips over her ear, and she could feel his warm breath there. He'd begun loosening her hair, and she wanted him to.
With each kiss, Annal¨ªa wanted to show this brutal Highlander more of her, to bare her breasts and let her hair down so he could run his fingers through it. But when it fell about her, he didn't touch her so gently. He wrapped the ends around his fist as his lips returned insistent against her neck. His tongue flicked her skin, and her eyes flashed open, then slowly slid closed.
But he tensed and drew back, releasing her.
"Qu¨¨ li passa?" she murmured. As if coming out of a daze, she opened her eyes and repeated in English, "What is it?"
She heard it then - the coming of riders into the manor's courtyard.
"Stay here," he ordered, his face more menacing than she had ever seen it. "Lock the door behind me and doona come out for any reason. Do you ken?"
In the space of a heartbeat, the fierce look of intent had vanished, replaced by one of barely controlled fury.
When she didn't answer, he grabbed her shoulders. "Anna, do you understand?"
"Yes," she began, but the voices of several men sounded, just before a pounding on the front door.
They were Scottish.
"We're looking for Courtland MacCarrick," a man shouted.
MacCarrick relaxed and put his forehead against hers. His hand rested on her face and his thumb stroked her bottom lip. "They're no' known for their timing."
More of them? The thought of additional Highlanders traipsing across her property made her insides roil. She prayed Vitale wouldn't wake.
Now that the fire in her blood had cooled, shame set in. With fumbling hands she pulled her blouse together and turned her face away. He drew back from her and seemed angered by her reaction.
"Aye. We'll stay until I can ride."
"Stay?" She choked out the word. "They don't have permission to be on this mountain. You will tell them to leave."
"Always imperious. One day you'll learn that I doona take orders. You might also ken that men like me doona appreciate it when lasses like you try to play with them."
She'd been buttoning her blouse and slowed at his last comment. She knew she'd made a mistake, but still cried, "But they're not welcome here!"
"You said I was no' welcome as well," he grated in an impatient tone. "Yet you were moments away from gladly taking me into more than your home."
She gasped. "I was not! A kiss is a far cry from lying with a man."
"No' just with 'a man,'" he bit out. "With me." He pushed forward once more, forcefully wedging himself between her closed knees. His body was hot against her even through her clothes.
"Then I certainly was not going to!"
His lips curved into a cruel smile. He put his hand against her backside again, trapping her closer, and growled the words, "I was about to enjoy you on this desk. Rip aside your skirts and take you here like the animal you called me."
"A-Against my will?" she responded unevenly, almost rendered speechless by his words. She tried to inch back on the desk. "Because that's the only way it would happen."
He leaned in to say at her ear, "No' against your will. You'd be begging for me inside you." He lingered there, as if to make sure she heard him, then lightly touched his face down her neck.
She gasped again, her shame deepening because even his words stirred her, made her want his lips against her breasts again, his breath hot against them.
When he drew back from her, his expression was cold. "If you ever try to use your wiles on me again, expect that I'll use you back a thousand times - "
"Court? Are you in there?" one of them called from outside. "Is anybody home?"
He exhaled a long breath, then eased her legs closed to brush down her skirt with great familiarity, as if he knew her, as if they'd done this a hundred times. Strangely, that gesture was more confusing to her than anything he'd done before.
"Listen to me. We will no' be long here. Just a couple of days." He turned to walk away.
"And I should take your word for it?" she whispered, but he heard her and strode back once more, his hand shooting out to palm the back of her neck and force her to look up to him.
"Know this, Annal¨ªa. You should never take my word. When you trust me, you will regret it."
"I don't want them here," she said in a low voice. "Any more than I want you."
His expression darkened ominously. "The only thing we respond to is force." He raked his gaze over her. "And you doona have any."