To clear his mind, Court had ridden alone for most of the next morning, hunting and exploring the area, but he hadn't been able to shake his thoughts of Annal¨ªa. When he found a lake, he stripped, then plunged into the icy water, remaining until his skin was numbed and his desire for her cooled. At least to a manageable degree. Only then did he allow himself to dress and return.
Straight away, he knew something was off. The men were acting strangely, glancing at the sky when Court looked at them, most setting off at once to go fish or ride. He strode to the lodge, half expecting her to be gone, but he found her still in her room as he'd ordered.
She was pacing furiously, cheeks pinkened, and for some reason this morning, it just seemed cruel to confine her in such a small room when she was like this. Chit would get dizzy. "You can come outside if you want," he muttered. Once she swept from her room, he sat, forcing himself to read a dated newspaper and to ignore flashes of scarlet as she paced by.
When she stopped to stand just before him, he lowered the paper and found her glaring at him. "I desire a bath."
He wondered how he would react if she managed to ask him for something.
Court knew she was planning some little coup. Everyone on earth, save perhaps Liam and Gavin, would know she was. "There's a stream nearby." He folded the paper and tossed it away. "You can avail yourself." With almost all his men out hunting, and the ones who stayed caring for the horses, she would have privacy.
"You're not afraid I'll escape?"
"We're miles and mountains away from any village, and if you doona have a horse - or shoes - you will no' get far." And if I go with you and see you bathe...
"No shoes - ?"
She didn't get the question out before he'd risen, taken her by the waist, and plopped her in his seat. He set to her slippers, pulling them off for her. "Clear? No shoes."
"But my feet!"
She had good cause to worry. Like her hands, they were as soft as baby's skin. "The walk down to the stream is fine. It's only once you leave the trail that your feet will get sliced." He lifted her by the waist, then set her on her feet toward the door. "So doona leave the trail," he ordered as he swatted her backside.
She pivoted around, sputtering at the indignity. "You are no gentleman!"
She cursed him in Catalan, then, in a flurry of red, swished out of the room. She still hadn't returned when he'd finished attempting the paper and two very poor cups of coffee.
Mouthing a harsh oath, he stormed from the house to the stream and swung his head around. No sign of her. Christ, she chapped him. Any other woman would've stayed. The slate in the area was sharp and murderous on a horse's hooves, much less a lady's feet, and she damn well knew they were much too far into the mountains for her to make it out with no horse. She damn well knew he'd easily catch up with her.
Court sprinted back up the hill to the stable, his ribs paining him, bellowing for Liam to saddle his horse. He rode out to follow the stream, scanning the shoreline both ways, and spotted red some distance ahead well off the beaten trail. He prodded his horse, then dropped down just behind her.
When he put a hand on her shoulder and turned her, he found her eyes were watering, her bottom lip trembling - a sight that did odd things to his chest. Was she injured? "What's wrong with you, woman?" he barked.
"MacCarrick," she said softly. "I've hurt my feet."
He looked down. They were cut, bloodied, briars still embedded.
Without thought he dropped down on one knee. "Look what you've done, you daft little - "
Her knee shot up to his chin, snapping his jaw shut. He fell forward to both his knees, and saw from the corner of his eye her skirt swinging toward his face. Strange, the material was hard as rock as it crushed into his temple.
"Christ, witch!" By the time his eyes focused again, she'd abandoned the rock hidden in her skirt, run to the horse, and was in the saddle, trying to calm its rearing. Court loped forward, fell for the reins, and snatched them just as the horse was tensing to run. She had known she needed a horse.
He grabbed her by the waist, dragging her down in a froth of silk, petticoats, and flailing arms and legs. After he caught his breath and the world righted itself, he growled, "Ye wanted a bath?"
Her eyes grew wide. While she thrashed, he stalked to the closest pool, then dumped her into the frigid water. She sputtered, rose, and slipped back in repeatedly, soaking herself.
"You'll pay for this, MacCarrick!" She scraped her thick hair from her face. "Sleep with your eyes open, you bast - "
He plucked her out of the water to swing her over his shoulder. He walked like this, leading the horse, water flooding down on him from her skirts, as she screamed and writhed the entire way back to the lodge.
After he gave the reins to a perplexed Liam, Court adjusted her on his shoulder and ignored her blows to his back. Gavin, sitting back in a chair, smoking his pipe, nodded his approval. "Really the only way to travel with that lass."
In her room he set her down, more gently on her feet than she deserved. She didn't wince or cry out. He grabbed her under the arms and pulled up one foot behind her at a time as he would a horse. A single small cut on her foot. She must've smeared the blood around to make it look worse. What a calculating -
She sucked in a breath between her teeth. She'd begun shivering, her teeth chattering.
"Get out of the dress," he ordered as he set her away. When she didn't move he said, "Be changed by the time I come back," and slammed out of the room. Five minutes later, he barged in to find her shivering more forcefully, lips pale, yet still in that wet dress. "Damn it, lass, I'll strip you down if you will no' take it off yourself."
At that she reached forward to pummel his shoulder. "C-Can't! You ignorant brute!"
He whirled her around. The ties in the back were tight and intricate. She'd been stuck in this thing. With a frustrated growl, he set to work, but gained no headway. The laces were swollen from the water, and his hands were fumbling, clumsy against her slim back.
"Stay here," he barked, then stomped outside to his saddle bag for his hunting knife. When he returned with it, her eyes went wide, though she had to know what his intentions were. Was she truly afraid of him? Was the sight of him with a knife - albeit a very large knife - so frightening? When he again turned her, she resisted. "Stay still." She didn't. "If you doona I may end up cutting you." More struggling. "What is it?" he bellowed.
"I-I don't want you to s-see."
In the midst of all this, she now chose to be the prim little lady again. Where was that lady when she kneed his chin? "You're no' in a position to get what you want. You forfeited any say you had when your rock met my temple. Understand?"
"I-I can manage!"
In a low, menacing voice beside her ear, he said, "In five seconds, I'm taking this thing off even if I have to put you face down on the cot, your wrists in my hand and my knee on your arse."
She went perfectly still but for her shaking. Carefully, he rent the dress. It sagged, but she caught it up to her front. Another cut and her petticoats plunked heavily to the floor. "Step out of them."
She shook her head.
"You prefer on the bed, Annal¨ªa?"
She stepped out of the material. He peeled the sodden dress from her, leaving her in her corset, pantalettes, and shift.
All of which were wet, two to the point of transparency.
It was as though she'd hit him again. Her body was slight but strong, and she was rounded, perfectly rounded, in all the right places. Her nipples were hard and pink, pressing against the clinging fabric. His mouth watered thinking of how he longed to lick them, now when they were wet, and he scrubbed a hand over his mouth as he took a step toward her.
She crossed her arms over her chest, hands on opposite shoulders in an X, and cried, "Not again!"
Her expression was one of complete disgust. His desire for her brought out disgust, yet she was ready to bed Pascal. Had chosen Pascal over him. He hid his anger and gave her a bored look. "I'm a man - you're a woman I want to tup. Get used to it."
When MacCarrick stormed from the room, Annal¨ªa dove for her clothes. Undressed like this! Here, with no lock on the door! She yanked one bag to the bed, casting away the bunch of bound wildflowers she'd hastily hidden behind it. One of the mercenaries had given them to her this morning, and she hadn't wanted MacCarrick to know his men had let her outside.
But MacCarrick returned not a minute later with a towel. He tossed it to her, and as she'd known he would, he glanced past her, scowling at the flowers on the floor. "You were outside with them?"
"How deductive you are!" she exclaimed, wrapping the towel around her.
"Who gave those to you?"
"I don't know." Some younger, fairly handsome redhead had. "Someone called Mac-something."
"They're all called Mac-something."
"Which is precisely why it is so difficult to differentiate, and hardly of any account anyway" - she skewered him with a look - "since you are all the same."
He looked like he'd throttle her. "Is that so?"
"Aye," she said with a sneer, hating him so much it burned inside. She'd had enough.
Before MacCarrick had returned to toss her into an icy stream and strip her by knife, his men had freed her, apparently for their entertainment. They'd towered over her, and on Liam's suggestion, they'd wanted to touch her "wee, soft hands," fondling her like the clan's new bizarre pet.
They'd wanted to hear her speak Catalan and French. A few asked to smell her hair, like animals, and the rest thought that a fine idea, but she'd peered up to the one-eyed giant helplessly, and he'd drawn the line. Literally. Over his throat to tell the others without words to behave. Enough.
"Who?" MacCarrick's huge fists were clenched, his sleeves rolled up so she could see bulging ridges in his arms.
She had to wonder if her better prospect might be letting the horde smell her hair.
"I don't know who." As the giant had shown her around, the entire scarred lot of them had come up to her and introduced themselves, and of course all the names had sounded the same. She exhaled wearily. "Mac-something."
"An entire morning with the crew?" His tone was deceptively calm and all the more terrifying for it. "They're no' a modest lot. Far from it. I bet you saw sights you'd never seen before."
She felt her face flush, which seemed to make him even angrier. It wasn't as if she'd sought to watch brawny Highlanders without their shirts, sweating and fighting in the sun. But yes, she'd continued watching, even when one tripped another to the ground and she'd discovered that at least one Scot wore nothing beneath his kilt.
She'd watched not only out of dazed curiosity - she'd also been noting where and how they hit each other. "I will concede that I saw...things a proper young lady should not."
"A proper young lady, then?" he asked as he closed in on her. "You've decided that I'm nothing but a lowly Scot and a brute, but I'm no' quite convinced what you are." He grabbed her by the waist, making her cry out in surprise, then carried her to the table in the corner. When he dropped her on the edge, the wood snagged the material of the bath linen. "Tell me, would a proper young lady kiss the first lowly Scot to come into her home?" He grasped her chin in between his thumb and forefinger. "Would she clutch his shoulders so the brute would no' stop tasting her skin?" He put his lips directly by her ear. "I doona believe she'd moan when he shoved himself between her legs and took her mouth."
She turned away, humiliated, but he laid his coarse hands on her cheeks and forced her to look up at him. At length, she said, "You are correct."
His eyes narrowed. He had the devil's own eyes. And when his face was drawn like this, the deep starburst scar below his temple whitened. When he'd first come to her home, she'd run her fingers over it. Tenderly. She was not being treated tenderly in kind.
"I'm not the lady I strive to be. Clearly I'm flawed. I might even be so improper that I would welcome one of these men into my bed, though I was meant for better." She pulled from his hands but still met his eyes. "But it would never be you, MacCarrick. Mai en la meva vida!"
"Never in your life? But it would be Pascal? Did you let him kiss you?"
She shut her eyes to that.
"Did you? Did he touch you?"
"No, but he will! And I'd let him before you any day!"
"You've just sealed your fate." His jaw tensed and his hands landed on her hips, his fingers biting into her flesh. "Because he will no' before I do."
He leaned forward against her pushing hands, and slanted his lips over hers. The kiss was punishing, forceful, the stubble on his chin scraping her skin until her eyes watered. "No!" she said against his lips as she struck him with her balled hands.
When he drew back, heeding her, as somehow she'd known he would, she wiped her lips. He watched her, brows drawn, then slowly raised his hand as if to brush her stinging face. She flinched.
Then he was gone, leaving her trembling and confused and burdened with more hatred that she'd ever grappled with in her entire life.