Last night for the dinner welcoming several odious supporters of the general, Annal¨ªa had been given a demure yet luxurious gown. Tonight Pascal had sent her a wholly red, ridiculously low-cut farce to wear. While everyone else enjoyed the village festival, she and Pascal were to have a private dinner. Just the two of them. With a dress like this, Annal¨ªa could guess why.

She was endeavoring to work it higher over her breasts with hopping and yanking when Olivia entered without knocking. The witch strolled straight to the wardrobe to survey Annal¨ªa's clothes with an acquisitive gleam in her eyes. This morning her jewelry had suffered the same indignity.

"What do you want?"

"Tell me," Olivia said casually as she took out, appraised, and returned a gown, "why he is unmarried."

In an instant, Annal¨ªa had her whirled around and her hands clenched around Olivia's arms. "You've seen Aleix?" She could tell she'd surprised her. "Have you?"

Olivia shoved her arms loose. "Why isn't he married?" she stubbornly asked again.

Did her curiosity mean she was attracted to Aleix? All the women in the village thought he was handsome with his tall build and his somber, golden-colored eyes. Mare de D¨¦u, could this spawn of Pascal have feelings for him? And how could she use that to their advantage?

"He's a widower," she admitted, though she felt as if she dangled a bare foot to a viper. "His wife died in childbirth."

Olivia's face was a blank slate. Annal¨ªa couldn't read her. "He has a child?"

"No, his daughter died as well."

Olivia shrugged. So that Annal¨ªa wouldn't slap her, she forced herself to imagine that Olivia hiked her shoulders every time something particularly upsetting was said.

Advertisement..

"Why are you interested?"

She ran her finger across the coverlet on her way to the window. "I was merely curious about my father's prisoner."

"Let me tell you more," Annal¨ªa said as she perched on the edge of the bed. Olivia turned to stare out the window, but she didn't say no.

"Aleix is a good man, a strong man. He lives in a beautiful manor overlooking pastures filled with his champion horses. Each day he watches them run, and though he says nothing, I know how pleased he is with them."

Had her shoulders relaxed somewhat? "He's very intelligent and well read. He went to school overseas at Cambridge. He's somber now, but he wasn't always." Annal¨ªa decided then to divulge something she considered private. "He's just very lonely up on his mountain."

Olivia shrugged again. "I can't abide this prattle any longer." She crossed the room to the door.

"He's here, isn't he?" Annal¨ªa asked. "I'm in the far end of this house because he's in the other."

Olivia turned, with her gaze flickering over her, and Annal¨ªa could tell she was calculating her answer, knew she would never say anything unless it somehow served her. "Pascal wants you downstairs in five minutes. Do not displease him. Both of you will suffer for it."

She hadn't denied that Aleix was here! Though she hadn't said anything to confirm it either, Annal¨ªa was convinced. "Thank you for the advice. I'll give you some in return. You're about to be married, Olivia. And to one of those loathsome men last night."

"Hold your tongue. How would you know that?"

"In cruelty and killings, I'll gladly defer to you, but I know marriages. Pascal's in a tenuous position and he just happens to convene a meeting with his supporters? How convenient that each one is socially and politically well connected in Spain - and unwed."

Coach-and-six. A father would pay a surprise visit to his daughter at school, and when she walked into the drawing room, he'd introduce her to her new, rich, politically connected fianc¨¦. The man's looks and temperament would be incidental and would rarely match his prospects, but the commerce of marriage would've been decided before the girl ever had any idea she was leaving. With a handshake, her life was snatched from her.

Annal¨ªa didn't know that she could wish one of those men even on Olivia.

Olivia glared at her. "You won't manipulate me into dissension. I'll simply ask Pascal." She turned for the door.

"And I'm confident he'll tell you the truth," she called after Olivia before hurriedly tussling with the bodice one last time. Finding no success there, she made sure her choker - or her "collar" as the hateful Scot had called it - was in perfect place. With luck, her formal jewelry, which Pascal had insisted she wear, would be glittery enough to draw his gaze away from her breasts.

Though she dreaded being seen like this, she would never be late and anger the general. Her brother's treatment was to be commensurate with her behavior.

Annal¨ªa knew Aleix was in this house, and she planned to persuade Olivia to help them. Though Pascal had said he would kill any servant who helped them, surely he wouldn't hurt his own daughter if she were caught.

Annal¨ªa's brows drew together when she recalled how Pascal had smiled at her last night in a way she might describe as lovingly. She'd determined that how strong and proud and good he appeared was directly proportional to how evil he was. Remembering his charisma and startlingly handsome visage in the candlelight, she concluded that yes, he would harm his own daughter.

But then, Annal¨ªa thought as she rushed out of her room to meet him, she was ready to take that risk.

After the ordeal of dinner was over, and Pascal had escorted her from the table, Annal¨ªa asked for permission to go to her room to rest for an hour. He assured her that she would need her rest for he had much to teach her at week's end, then leaned in to kiss her.

When she dared to give him her cheek, patting his chest before turning toward the doorway, he chuckled behind her. "Ah, Annal¨ªa," he sighed as she strolled from his sight.

Once alone, she sprinted up the stairs to her room, then wedged a chair against the doorknob. She scrubbed her face with water before sitting at the mirrored vanity, staring blankly. She would become a shell of her old self under Pascal's "tutelage."

She'd said six or half a dozen, but now that she knew Pascal, if she had to relinquish her innocence to one or the other, it would definitely be to MacCarrick. At least she wasn't personally aware of his atrocities.

The general was more handsome than the Scot - more handsome than any man she'd ever imagined - but it didn't matter. Next to Pascal's engaging smile, soft hands, and murderous impulses, the Highlander's scarred face, blunt speech, and aggression were practically seductive.

And still the hours until her wedding kept creeping by. My wedding.

People had wondered how she could be around Aleix and Mariette, so completely in love and devoted to each other and not crave her own marriage. It was because of their love that she couldn't. She'd seen what God in heaven had had in mind for a man and a woman, had seen their fidelity to each other, and never would she have knowingly slighted herself with a loveless marriage.

Especially not to the degree that I'm about to... She couldn't think like that! She was able to help Aleix now. She had a value with which to bargain -

Guns went off, their shots popping, making her jump. The lowbrow revelry of the deserters consisted of drunken yells and shooting pistols in the air. Adding insult to injury, her hair was curling, escaping its pins. She reached for her brush. She liked the clacking sound her bracelet made as she raised her arm, and the strokes across her hair were soothing.

Her mind drifted again to thoughts of the Highlander. "I'll no' work for you for anything less than you," he'd said in that rumbling, gruff voice. Despicable man. She prayed Vitale would heed the last command she'd given before riding away - that he stay clear of him. She wished she had.... She froze, the brush halting in midstroke.

On that night in the study, had MacCarrick said he'd seen her hair? He had! Her hair and the other treasures she'd hidden.

She slammed down the brush. The only place she wore it loose was in the bedroom. MacCarrick had spied on her while she slept! Why would she expect anything different from an ill-mannered ogre like him? He would always do what he wanted regardless of other people's desires and without respect for their feelings.

Annal¨ªa was sick and tired of men running roughshod over her. What about her wants? She hated having no control. She confined her hair more tightly than usual, then adjusted her choker, tightening it, still furious -

Something scraped outside near her window. The music trilled on, punctuated by shots, but she thought she heard a noise coming from just below the sash. Maybe the breeze had stirred a lantern.

A huge boot slipped in through the window, followed by a man unfolding to his full height. She scrambled to her feet. "I know you! You were with MacCarrick." He was the oldest one. "Tell me why you're here or I'll scream!"

Another followed him into the room. Oh, not the whelp!

"We're here to take you to safety, lass," the first said as he advanced on her. "And you ken they canna hear you scream."

"To hell with you both!" Mercenaries! Bloody, cursed mercenaries. Taking her to safety, her foot! When the young one captured her wrist she screeched, "Why can't you all just leave me alone?" then lashed out, her nails and teeth bared.

"Ach, Gavin!" he exclaimed, releasing her. "She bit me. I say we tie the little witch!"

"No, no, son, let me handle - Bloody hell! She got me, too! And he forced this task on us to avoid the fighting?" Gavin muttered angrily as he reached for her again. "Lass, we will no' hurt you, you ken? We're saving you."

"If I leave here, you're condemning my brother!" She kicked at his legs, but her skirts got in the way. "So I'm not leaving!" When he seized her wrists she struck wildly, yet it was only a matter of time. To her fury, he bound her hands.

"Listen - MacCarrick is checking the jail for him right now. If he's there you'll both be freed and we'll take you to a safe place."

Her stomach roiled. "But he's not in the jail!"

Gavin frowned at that. "Truly?" he asked as he forced a gag on her. "Well, we'll, uh, we'll let Court figure this one out."

She shouted against the gag and swung her bound hands at him, but he deflected the blow.

"Liam!" - he jerked his chin at her traveling bags - "Grab those and stow some clothes."

Liam set to work punching ball gowns and lace and stockings without a care.

She shook her head forcefully and spoke against the cloth. Idiot! Pascal would kill him!

"Ach, wee one, we will no' treat you poorly. Everything will work out as it should," Gavin assured her, as he tossed her over his shoulder.

She dug her nails into his back with every ounce of frustration she felt. When he tensed but continued on, she screamed in fury yet only heard a pitiful, muffled sound.