As Court made his way through the house, he tried to get a grasp of what had just happened. Staring at her eyes, at her plump lips, he'd had a hard time concentrating, but he'd known that she didn't want him - at least not at first. Her actions had been calculated. She'd had an agenda, and it had been a blow.
He'd finally gotten to kiss her, and he'd been left...empty. That she'd seemed to catch on fire like a wick soothed his pride somewhat. Christ, he'd spoken the truth - he'd had a real chance of taking her on the table. And he wouldn't have hesitated.
But now the emptiness turned to ire. He'd truly wanted her while she only wanted something from him - to what end he was sure he'd find out soon enough.
At the front entrance he paused, putting a hand against the wall beside the door, shaking off her effect on him. He curled his fingers against the plaster, willing his body under control, then finally opened the door wide to five of his crew.
"Court!" exclaimed Gavin MacKriel, the oldest of their band. "By God, it's good to see you."
When the man took his shoulders, Court frowned and slapped him on the back with his better hand, then again until Gavin released him and moved on.
MacTiernay, the one-eyed giant, looked him up and down, then punched him in the upper chest in greeting before walking past.
Court stared after him. That was more emotion than MacTiernay had ever demonstrated. Then Niall, his cousin, slapped him on the back, and Liam, the youngest, was about to as well until Court gave him a look of warning. The last inside, Fergus, who'd earned the nickname The Sleeping Scot, actually looked awake and glad to see him.
He showed them in and then on into the parlor. As if he owned the place. "Where are the rest?"
Liam had already nabbed a pear from a fruit-laden bowl in the foyer. At nineteen he was still growing and could eat double his weight in food every day. He took a bite and said between chews, "They have been searching for a body for your kin to bury."
"I appreciate the sentiment." Court took a seat at the main table, feeling weak from their greetings. Nothing like Highlanders striking you to get your mind off a woman. "You were that sure I was dead?"
"We followed your pair of Rechazados," Fergus answered as he eased himself into a seat, "then persuaded them to partake in one last conversation. They told us they'd killed you."
"That was the plan. You took out two? We're at forty-seven, then?"
"Forty-seven and counting," Gavin said. "I hope you told them we were coming to kill them."
"Aye, I did. It dinna have the effect I was hoping for, but satisfies now."
Niall stood to survey a wine sideboard. "After we got your message, I sent the rest of the crew to the smuggler's lodge to wait for us."
Niall was to take over their band if anything happened to him, and Court nodded his approval at Niall's decision. They'd stumbled upon the isolated lodge while exploring the back passes along the border with France. It was filled with long-abandoned luxuries, dust-covered crates packed with silver, porcelain, and crystal that some smuggler had never made it back for.
"And I brought your gear," Niall added. "You doona look like you're hurting for clothes, but I bet you miss your weapons."
"You've no idea." When he'd heard riders coming, he hadn't known if he'd finally brought Pascal's men down upon this place. He hadn't known how he'd protect her from them.
"So whose home is this?" Niall asked.
"An Andorran lass's." Court wondered if they could see he was thrown. No battle, no violence had ever made him off balance like this.
Niall gave him a razor-sharp look. "She's bonny?" Yes, Niall could see.
"Aye," he admitted. Moments ago, that beautiful woman had sunk her fingers into his muscles to get closer to him. He'd thought her reaction was real and reveled in it, but if she was willing to manipulate him...He caught them regarding him quizzically. "She found me half dead by the river and dragged me back here. No men around, so I've just been lingering on."
"Dragged you? So she's a big, bonny Andorran?"
"She and her horse dragged me. No, she's just a wee thing. You should see her - a good gust would send her reeling." Court noticed Niall studying him and changed the subject. "Have you heard any news?"
Niall removed a bottle of wine and whistled at the label before saying, "We heard word that Spain might come for its deserters any day now. And if they doona, France will."
"It's about bloody time." Court had been continually disgusted with the lack of action against the invasion. Yes, Andorra was small, but its location was critical, as Pascal well knew. "Where'd you hear this?"
Gavin scratched his neck. "From Otto."
"Otto, huh?" Court's eyes narrowed. "Now why would he be contacting us?"
Gavin hesitated, then said, "He's...overextended again."
"He usually is." Which was why Court had broken from the Prussian's company years ago and formed his own. "What's it this time? Sixty against five hundred?" Otto kept his band winnowed down and repeatedly contracted for huge jobs. Great way to make a lot of coin. Sure way to get killed.
"Could be that many," Niall said absently as he returned the bottle and selected another. By the look on his face, this one was even more valuable. Not that Niall was such the wine expert, but he had an uncanny sense for money and could perceive value like a dog could scent a trail.
"And he's coming to us hat in hand?" Court didn't like where this was going. Some of his men didn't mind playing the odds, no matter how bad they were.
Gavin nodded. "We might be able to recoup some of the pay we lost here."
Court shook his head firmly. "We have no' lost it yet."
"No shame in cutting bait," Niall said. "Another crew, those Tyrolean sharpshooters, left without pay."
Gavin added, "The region's unstable and everybody's tails are twitching. No one wants to go head to head with Pascal, especially no' after what he did to you."
Niall removed his gaze from the wine to study Court. "They banged you up good?"
So much that Court was still astonished that he'd lived. "Them and the river. I had to jump blind into the falls, then ride them headfirst."
"And your wrist?" Niall asked. Court had never met a more sharp-eyed person than his cousin. "Looks odd and you're favoring one hand."
His wrist should look odd, since it was very stiff and sorer than usual, due solely to the fact that ten minutes ago he'd had both hands splayed on Annal¨ªa's lush bottom. "Broke it. Had a cast on it. I think another week till I'm right."
"A cast?" Niall asked with disbelief. "What's wrong with leather between the teeth until it stops paining you? Casts are for bairn and lasses when they fall off their ponies."
Only Liam and Gavin laughed. The impassive MacTiernay had never indicated he was capable of it, and Fergus had already crossed his arms over his chest and was slumped back asleep.
"I dinna have any say on the cast." Court gingerly flexed his fingers. "The Andorran did it when I was knocked out." He frowned at Niall, who was returning to the table with the bottle uncorked and a clutch of wine glasses. Perhaps they ought not be drinking this bottle if it was dearer than the one that Niall had whistled over.
"So how long were you out?" Niall asked as he poured a round.
"Two days." Though Court wasn't normally a wine drinker, he accepted a glass, curious to see what it'd taste like. His drink of choice was whisky because it rendered him as jovial as he'd ever get. Wine? Not so much. "I'm just surprised Pascal dinna find me in all this time."
"He's searching the countryside, but not as he might in the past because he's been busy. Hark this - he's taking a bride," Niall said. "She's some Spanish aristocrat, supposed to have royal blood or some such. Marrying her will give him more claim to Spain than any of the generals before him."
Gavin drank and gave Niall an impressed look as if he'd grown the grapes, then added, "Rumor is that she's happy about the nuptials."
Court leaned back, disgusted. "Then they deserve each other."
Liam drank his glass in one gulp. "So where's this cast-making lass?"
"She'll be in her room." He surveyed his men, trying to imagine what she'd think of them, and added, "Most likely for the night."
Liam got a sly look on his face. "You tire her out so much that she canna leave her bed?"
He scrubbed a hand over his mouth and couldn't help saying, "I wish."
Niall raised his eyebrows. "A lass Court MacCarrick canna have? That breed does no' exist."
He exhaled loudly. "It does in the Andorran mountains."
They'd simply taken over the house, ransacking the wine cellar, flipping through books, pilfering a stash of tobacco, and Court suspected they'd already cleaned out the larder. Two hours and over a dozen bottles of wine between them later, Court was discovering that the stone of weight he'd lost ensured he was drunker than usual.
He'd just pushed aside his last glass when he heard the front door groan open. "I'll be back," he said, his words just shy of slurred as he dashed out of his chair.
He caught up with Annal¨ªa on the path and took her shoulder. "Where do you think you're going?"
"To sleep elsewhere." She flung her shoulder back to break his grip.
"No, I doona believe you will," he drawled, finally releasing her.
"You think to order me in my own home?"
He said easily, "Aye."
She smoothed her hair. She'd put it up again, but it was looser. He suspected she still might be drunk.
"It's one thing to remain in a house with an incapacitated patient," she said, with her accent thicker than he'd ever heard it. "It's quite another to be an unmarried young woman staying with a gang of mercenaries."
"Ah, Annal¨ªa, you have no' even met them." Suddenly, he wanted them to see her, to understand what he'd been tempted with. He took her arm.
"What are you doing? MacCarrick?"
He hated that he liked hearing her say his name. She'd whispered it in his ear while testing her wiles on him - wiles that infuriated him because he knew if she'd had any experience...
He swung her inside and into the parlor, announcing, "And this would be the lady of the house. Lady Annal¨ªa Llorente."
The men rose and her eyes widened at their size even as their eyes narrowed at her. When Court moved to sit and watch, they advanced on her until she backed to the wall.
"'Bonny' was a bit of an understatement, then?" Niall said over his shoulder.
Court shrugged and retrieved his glass.
As Gavin introduced himself, he took her hand and kissed it. Court could see he was rubbing her skin with his thumb, and he wondered why that raised his hackles and why he now regretted showing her off. Gavin told the others in Gaelic that they had to feel her hands.
They did so, one at a time, introducing themselves, with Liam exclaiming, "You have yourself some wee, soft hands."
Niall alone didn't touch her. Probably because he'd determined exactly what Court was thinking.
Their petting seemed to put her in a panic, but her reaction to the men didn't surprise him. They were all huge and scarred. Fergus was missing fingers and MacTiernay was taller than all of them and had only one eye. She'd been intimidated by Court, too, but she'd still initiated a kiss. Whatever she wanted of him, she wanted it very badly indeed.
"Lady Annal¨ªa, thank you for allowing us to stay here," Niall said.
"She didn't," Court informed them. "She wants all of us gone."
She put her chin up. "Mr. MacCarrick, my first priority is to the people of this place. Even if you are not allied with Pascal any longer, your presence still jeopardizes everyone here."
Court gave a harsh laugh. "Now that sounds very noble, but why do you no' tell them what you told me at the door? You want us gone to preserve appearances."
She didn't back down. "That is important as well. If my reputation is tarnished, I will not be able to make the match that is expected of me."
Niall muttered, "Court, she's right - "
He interrupted, "You were planning to ask me for something tonight, were you no'? Do it now."
She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it and turned her face away.
"Perhaps in the morning you'll be inclined to make your request. Perhaps we'll be inclined to hear it - if we stay here."
She faced him again. "Very well, stay. We can speak when I return - "
"You stay here, too."
She straightened her choker, appearing so miserable he almost relented. He could feel his men watching him and her, knew they were confounded by his behavior.
She swallowed and then said in a pained tone, "Yes, of course. I extend my welcome to your men and look forward to our meeting."
"Go to bed, Annal¨ªa. You'll need your rest after the night we've had." She looked like she'd been struck, gasping a breath before sweeping from the room.
Niall didn't wait until she was even out of earshot. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Doona start on me. She's no' as helpless as she appears and she's been insulting me regularly for a week." When Niall looked unconvinced, Court added, "She's calculating and she's spoiled, and tonight she sought to manipulate me, cutting her teeth and testing her wiles." He ran a hand over the back of his neck, uneasy because he knew if she'd had any experience...she could've worked him like dough. "It was no' right."
Niall shook his head. "I doona believe I've ever seen you treat a lass this poorly."
"That's because you've no' met a woman like her. I'm telling you, you've never known such an arrogant female in your life. Tomorrow you'll see."