When Annal¨ªa arrived in the village of Ordino, she heard dogs barking to each other from unseen vantages, yet nothing else stirred. Although it was early evening, the streets were eerily quiet.
She and Iambe clacked along the slate drive to the largest building, a sizable home built of ancient stone. She'd seen it before on visits here and wondered what had happened to the people who actually owned it.
She'd just reached the front entrance when a man strode from the inside. Her eyes widened. He was one of the Rechazados - she could tell by the cross tattoo on his bare arm. She'd heard of these legendary assassins, had heard they were every bit as evil as the Highlanders, but colder. Without warning he wrenched her down from the saddle, dropping her to her feet.
While he seized her bags, an unkempt deserter in a ragged Spanish military uniform arrived to take Iambe. She wanted to make sure he cared for her horse properly, but the Rechazado snapped his fingers for her to draw closer. She called on every ounce of bravery she had to walk toward him, toward what her whole being knew was a threat.
The women in the valley had said you never saw emotion, never could detect when they would strike. Another had admitted softly that the first hint her sister had that they were about to violate her had been when she hit the ground.
He snatched her arm to drag her up the steps to the front doors, then inside the dimly lit house. She reasoned with herself that the Rechazados were known to follow their orders to the letter. To the point of death they would fulfill their command, and surely Pascal would have commanded them not to touch her.
They climbed a sprawling staircase that led to an even darker landing. The room he shoved her into was the last, in the farthest corner of the house. Inside, he emptied her bags on the bed and rifled through her clothes. With a malevolent look, he exited, but he didn't lock her in. Of course there was no reason to expect her escape.
She exhaled a wavering breath, then surveyed her surroundings, surprised to find the room was large and looked comfortable enough with plenty of rugs and candles and a clean bed. The window was raised and overlooked a lantern-lit courtyard. Had she been expecting a cell? Yes, because she'd thought of herself as condemned.
She washed off the travel grime as best as she could with the water at the dresser, then changed from her mud-coated habit behind the door. After rinsing and repinning her hair, she folded her garments back into her bag, hung her dresses, which were severely wrinkled, then she did the only thing left to do - she sat on the edge of the bed and waited, having no idea what to expect.
An hour had passed - during which she relived her confrontation of the morning, envisioning scenarios where she could shock MacCarrick right back and leave him gaping - when the door opened. A pretty young woman about her age sauntered in, and Annal¨ªa's heart leapt. Was she coerced into being here as well? They could be allies!
"So you're to be my stepmother," the woman said with a dismissive smirk.
Pretty until she opened her mouth, that is.
Annal¨ªa hadn't foreseen this, but it made sense that the much older Pascal would have children. "If you're Pascal's daughter, then I suppose I am. What's your name?"
"And exactly how many more stepchildren am I to have?"
"All but me have been disowned or have fled him." She tilted her head at Annal¨ªa. "You look so distressed. Aren't you excited about the nuptials?" Olivia was taunting her.
"Would you be happy in my situation?"
She shrugged impudently, ignoring Annal¨ªa to walk to the window and scan the courtyard.
"Olivia, do you know if my brother is safe?"
For long moments, she waited, then turned, as if to size up Annal¨ªa and determine if it was worth it to spare a kindness to her. "Llorente lives."
"If he were dead, would you lie to me?"
"Yes," she answered without hesitation. "Now come with me. Your new lord awaits."
Annal¨ªa followed, but only because she was ready to get this meeting concluded. She couldn't imagine what the general would look like. He'd probably have a cruel face, with harsh angles as MacCarrick did. Perhaps that would be wishful thinking for him to have at least the Highlander's looks.
"He's in there." Olivia jerked her chin toward a door. When Annal¨ªa's feet wouldn't move of their own volition, it seemed, Olivia snapped, "Go on!"
Annal¨ªa pushed open the door, making her manner brisk. And was dumbfounded when Pascal turned to her.
Annal¨ªa had never seen a more beautiful man in her life.
Court stared into his just-poured glass, sinking back and propping his boots on a low table, attempting to relax after a day that had started out...wrong and had only gotten worse. At a table nearby, Liam, Niall, and Fergus played cards, though Fergus yawned repeatedly, while Gavin smoked a pipe full of expensive tobacco. MacTiernay rocked with his eyes - or rather his eye - closed, probably reliving old battles.
When Court had finally gotten control of his temper after the wine incident and had shaken his dogged hangover, Niall had suggested he put himself in Annal¨ªa's shoes. After all, they'd hit her property in a manner a plague of locusts would aspire to, and Court had spoken to her in a way that clearly no man had ever dared. Court also suspected that being fondled by his crew had made her...skittish. Creatures that got skittish always came out biting if backed into a corner, and she had.
So he'd taken Niall's advice and left her alone for the day. Though he'd wanted to see her later, Vitale had told him that the people here would "give" them until sundown to leave, and that the mademoiselle was so upset by "MacCarrick's vile proposition" that she was staying on the other side of the mountain for the night.
He could swear the chit was put on the earth just to make him feel guilty. Or try to. Luckily, he wasn't one to wrestle with guilt.
Usually on a night like this when they weren't working, Court would sit and dream about Beinn a'Chaorainn, his run-down estate in Scotland. He would picture the possibilities that no one else could seem to see, and he would count the days until he'd paid for it completely and all those hills, trees, fields, and the ancient stone keep would be his.
For a man cursed to have little else, Beinn a'Chaorainn kept him living. Yet now thoughts of Annal¨ªa somehow overrode dreams of his land. Damn it, so he'd treated her poorly. He was most likely going to get her brother for her tomorrow night, if Llorente was still alive....
A violent pounding on the front door interrupted his brooding. "Liam, go answer the bloody door."
Liam laid down his cards, then tromped from the room. Minutes later, he called out in a bored tone, "Court, there's a pitchfork rebellion here to see you."
"A collection of doddering old men, torches, and farm tools. I fear for our safety and advise fleeing posthaste."
With a weary exhalation, Court kicked his feet down to stand. When Gavin raised his eyebrows, and MacTiernay and Niall laid hands on their pistols, he shook his head. "I'll take care of this."
At the front door, he found Vitale with a half-dozen men standing behind him, spread out like a rickety fan. Their faces blanched at their first glimpse of Court's expression, and he thought he heard their knees knocking.
"We've had enough of your ill-treating the mademoiselle and stealing the master's belongings and we want you gone," Vitale declared in a moderately even voice. "You've no right to stay on here."
He almost answered, "Might makes right," and slammed the door. Instead, he asked, "Does she know you're doing this? Did she put you up to it?"
"Of course not! She warned everyone to stay clear of you, fearing what you would do."
Did she think he would hurt the people here? Did she fear him? Is that why she'd avoided him when they were alone in the house? He'd kind of thought of the last few days as a game they played. "Vitale, if you leave now, we'll no' hurt you. You know you canna fight us."
"We might not be able to, but we'll gather more and then you'll be sorry."
Liam piped in over Court's shoulder, "We're all aquiver."
Court gave him a look that made him skulk from the foyer. When Vitale opened his mouth to say more, Court's patience wore thin. "Vitale, doona make me kill you." Seeing the old man's eyes fill with dread, he felt like the bully he was. For the first time in many years, the feeling grated.
As he was shutting the door, Vitale cursed him in a diatribe of French. Court narrowed his eyes. His French was not as strong as it could be, but he thought Vitale had said...le mariage.
"Lady Annal¨ªa," Pascal said in a deep voice. "Welcome to my home." The room's lantern light reflected off his shining medals and his thick, dark hair.
He walked toward her with his perfectly manicured hands outstretched to grasp hers. He was so debonair, his heart-stopping smile so engaging, she raised them to him, until she remembered this man was a murderer and abruptly dropped them.
He took them anyway, though she turned her face away, recoiling.
"My dear, Annal¨ªa." He rudely called her by her first name as though their engagement had lasted more than one week and wasn't born of coercion.
"Pascal." Her tone was scathing.
He drew back, releasing her hands to scrutinize her. "I didn't think you could be as lovely as they've said, but you are."
She stared at the ceiling and he tsk-tsked. "Won't say thank you? Now where are your famed manners?"
"Quite. All the Andorrans love to whisper about the royal concealed in their midst. How else do you think I found out about you?"
She gave him a blas¨¦ look.
"They say other things about your simmering Castilian blood," he murmured, drawing closer. "I can hardly wait to get to the bottom of the rumors."
"My manners?" she hastily asked. "Is that why you chose me?"
He moved to a polite distance, but gave her a look that let her know he was patronizing her. "No, I will wed you because marrying the daughter of the oldest family in the land is strategic."
"Why all this trouble for tiny Andorra? I can understand why someone like you would set your sights so low, but why not Monaco?" She tapped her cheek. "Isn't the Vatican a country?"
He chuckled. She hadn't meant to entertain him - she'd meant to make a point.
Taking a seat behind his desk, he motioned for her to sit as well. She didn't. He motioned more sharply, and something unsettling flashed in his eyes.
Gritting her teeth, she sat. "You want Spain, don't you? Those are the rumors."
"Yes. After I've solidified my place here."
She gave a sharp scoffing sound. "How original. What would you be? The sixth general du jour to try in the last two decades?"
He laughed again, seemingly delighted with her, and the smoothness of the sound grated on her nerves. "I'd be the sixth general to succeed in the last fifteen years. But unlike my predecessors, I will have something that the others didn't." He stood to approach once again, then touched her face, and she knew every fear she'd had about him was true.
The queen and her general weren't good rulers, but they had to be better than Pascal. If she could get a message to Aleix, he could warn the outside. "You said in your letter that you would free my brother and his men as soon as we marry. How can I trust you to keep your word?"
"Because my first priority will be your happiness," he said so suavely.
She raised her hand to stop him. "I've agreed to this charade, but I refuse to pretend when it's only you and I."
He inclined his head. "Very well. Llorente will be my supporter. He's descended from kings - he'll be a worthy enticement in the eyes of the people."
"Just as you would never agree to marry me?" He smiled down at her. "I've found that all it takes is the right incentive to make anyone do as I wish." When he touched her lip with a too-soft finger, she cringed. "Now there's a dress laid out for you in your room. Go upstairs and get ready for a dinner tonight. We are having guests."
Ordered. Another cretin was ordering her. She rose and regarded him with all the arrogance bred into her, then turned to leave.
"And Annal¨ªa?" She froze, shoulders tensing. "Any servant found helping you communicate with your brother will be publicly eviscerated."
She turned back to him, lips parted, aghast. His seemingly genuine smile was still in place, his expression earnest. His broad shoulders filled out his uniform and his medals were colorful and proud. Her future husband was perfect.
A perfect monster.
Well into the night, Aleixandre Mateo Llorente pounded on his cell door, yelling until his throat - and the bottoms of his fists - were raw. Today Pascal had notified him that they would be brothers.
Annal¨ªa was going to wed a killer thinking to save him, but Aleix knew he would never leave this windowless, dank room alive.
He also knew nothing would prevent her from going through with it, and that conviction ate at his gut. The marriage would only damn them both. How he wished for one minute with her - to convince her that she was no martyr, especially for such a lost cause, to shake some sense into her. "God damn you all," he bellowed. "Open this door."
And then someone...did, but the shock of light blinded him after so many days of darkness. When his eyes painfully adjusted, he found a young woman there with her hair free and clad in nothing but a gauzy nightgown. His breath whistled in. She was beautiful, even with her eyes heavy lidded as if she were still half asleep. And even with the gun she had trained on him.
"If you don't shut your mouth," she snapped. "I'll kill you myself."
This he never expected. "I apologize if my wish for freedom - and my wish not to die - have disturbed your sleep."
She shrugged. "I reside directly above you. You must cease knocking on the door."
"Who are you?"
She frowned. "What purpose would it serve to tell you?"
"A dying man's last wish?"
She shrugged again. "I am Olivia."
She couldn't be his daughter. "Olivia Pascal?" he asked in a low tone.
Her chin went up either proudly or defensively. "S¨ª."
"I should take your threat more seriously then. If your blood is any indication, you are capable of any atrocity."
Her smile was a cruel curve of her lips. "Very capable. I'm also capable of whistling for the guards to beat you again just on a whim."
In a heartbeat he started for her. She took one step back, but coolly cocked the hammer, her hand steady. "Don't be a fool." Her voice was hard, her face like marble. "I'll do it just so I sleep better."
Assured she would, he moved to lean against the wall, arms crossed. "I've never heard of that. Someone who sleeps better at night because they killed someone."
"Who said killed? I only have permission to maim you until your sister is wed." She began closing the door. "But I promise to wish them well for you."
Court's hand shot out to wrench Vitale through the doorway. "What did you say?" he demanded as he slammed the door behind him.
The others raised their eyebrows when Court dragged Vitale to the parlor, then tossed him into a chair.
"I said you are a pig, an ingrate. My mistress saved your life - "
"You said something about a marriage."
He refused to answer so Court jostled him until he said, "That's where she's gone!" He gestured heatedly. "To save her brother. The general was holding him to force her."
"She's gone to marry him?"
When Vitale nodded, Niall said, "Aye, Court, a real spoiled, calculating woman. Marrying Pascal to save her brother's life. She's chilling."
"This canna be right. The rumors were that he was marrying some Spanish royal. Not Andorran nobility. How do you account for that?" Court recalled her snapping to him, I'm Castilian, but royal?
Vitale hesitated. "Why should I tell you?"
"Because if you do, I might just decide to go get her back."
His eyes widened and he blurted, "She and her brother are the last direct descendants of the ancient House of Castile. They hold the last titles."
"That's impossible. Her father was no' Castilian."
"The titles passed through the mother."
When Court still looked unconvinced, Niall added, "Some houses can pass down matrilineally."
"This is insane. That would make her.... That would mean she's..." Court could barely believe what he was hearing, even while thinking that this would handily explain her arrogance. "Why did she no' plead for her family's help?"
"She did. As I told you before, she and her brother are estranged from the family and shun that life, but she swallowed her pride and attempted to contact them. We think the message never made it out of Andorra."
Niall whistled and said, "Pascal's a clever bastard. He's going after Isabella's crown."
"But that would mean Annal¨ªa's useless to him while her brother's still alive. The minute he has her, Llorente's dead."
"No, he won't be," Vitale declared emphatically. "Pascal will try to use Master Llorente as a figurehead."
"Wrong." Court shook his head, giving Vitale the same expression he knew his five men were giving him as well. "Your master's going to be killed if he is no' already."
"And you just ensured she'd go," Niall muttered from behind him. "Good on you, Court."
He shoved a hand through his hair. "Damn it! Why did she no' ask again or explain everything?"
Vitale cast him a black look. "She told me just before she rode for Pascal that she would rather be a murderer's wife and possibly have access to free Llorente than be a mercenary's whore and have to trust a fiend like you with her brother's life. She said six or half a dozen - either way was unbearable."
When Court pictured her alone and afraid in Pascal's always darkened home, he had an off feeling in his chest, like a painful shifting. "Oh, bloody hell, Vitale. You might've mentioned this earlier."
"Six or half a dozen?" Niall swore under his breath. "Court, you really are cursed."