"Isn't the countryside lovely?" Annal¨ªa asked as she gazed out over a valley in Burgundy. The land was bedecked with patchwork fields of sunflowers and vineyards, and she smelled damp earth. When the sun came out from behind white clouds, a breeze blew, but swayed only the squares of towering blooms. And she couldn't stop smiling.
"Lovely," he agreed though he'd never looked away from her. He'd been watching her closely ever since her...indiscretion four nights ago, though Annal¨ªa wished he wouldn't read too much into her actions. She'd simply been reacting to the traumatic events of the day, and there'd been imbibing once more, but he acted as though something had changed between them other than the fact that she no longer detested him.
To be honest, she didn't even think she could manage to dislike him anymore. She'd seemed to grow used to him, becoming more comfortable around his size, becoming more aware when his sharp words were like teasing.
And she suspected that the impulses to be good to her and even possibly gentler with her were within him. Unfortunately, she also suspected that he didn't know quite what to do with those impulses.
She could nearly think of them as uneasy allies, except for the fact that his help would come at a price. Her knight slayed no dragons without a payment, one that he hadn't yet demanded.
As they rode through the first town in the valley, the bright colors of the homes struck her, and she thought she heard music. When she tried to work her coach window open, he quickly reached across her to shove it down with ridiculous ease. It was a gesture a Castilian gentleman might make. Except for the total destruction of the window rails.
With the breeze blowing in, she could hear the music carried along, could hear it even over the horses' hooves clacking on cobblestone. "I want to stay here tonight."
"There are hours until dark. We need to get farther on."
Each night he would take a room for her, just long enough for her to rest and change her bandage or get a bath and for Coachy to sleep on his bench. Making up for time lost to daily morning storms, MacCarrick pushed them well into the night and then had them setting out before dawn, though she never saw him sleeping.
She thought the only reason he'd stopped at all was because he didn't want her to get too exhausted. So she sighed wearily. "I just felt...faint," she lied. "From the arduous pace you've been keeping."
He gave her an irritated look. "You doona feel faint or I'd know it. Do you want to stay here so badly that you'd lie to me?"
She scrunched her lips. "Well, yes."
He scowled. A minute later, he called out new directions.
She gave him her most winning smile, which made him scowl deeper, but she didn't care. She felt the sun on her face and realized she was...happy, genuinely happy, and it startled her.
Her brother was not only alive, but he was free as well, which was a gift beyond measure. The man with her, whom she'd suspected of awful things, hadn't done them and was actually behaving for the most part like a gentleman instead of a Scot.
Was life perfect? No, she still didn't know what to do with the Highlander during those times when he did not act the gentleman, and she still feared the Rechazados. On the outside, she'd acted unconcerned about the attacks, but in reality they'd terrified her. That fear was part of why she wanted to revel today.
They passed a group of giggling young women strolling along the street with their baskets swinging and their pied skirts swaying, and a thought struck her. "I want clothes."
"I need clothes," she amended. "Mine are all gowns, except for my one decent dress, but even though it's been repaired it still reminds me of when I was shot."
Did he wince at that word? "How do you plan to pay for them?"
"You must buy them for me." They would be simple in a village like this, but she didn't care.
"And I would do that because..."
"You said you'd keep me safe. That was our bargain. Well, look at the clothing here. See those girls. Their garments move - I'd be able to move more easily."
"You're trying to convince me that new clothes equate to safety?" He looked at her as if he'd never understand her.
"Yes. How am I doing?"
"No' too well. But the way your mind works is intriguing."
Court was nonchalant with her, concealing the fact that nothing chapped him as much as Annal¨ªa giving him orders. She did it because she believed herself above him. He found it intolerable that she still looked down her little nose at him, that she still perceived him as a lowly Scot.
He wondered if there was ever a worse situation than desiring a woman who didn't even consider you a man. Because she was meant for better. Wasn't that what she'd said?
If she would simply ask him for something...Even as he considered it, the possibility made him distinctly uneasy. He'd discovered in the last couple of days that he wanted to be able to provide her with things she needed or desired. If she figured out how badly he wanted that, and that the only thing stopping him was her inability to ask, she would be merciless.
Once they'd arrived at the town's inn and he was securing a room, she said, "Perhaps we should have two rooms. I'm sure they have more than one and I'm recovered enough that - "
She raised her eyebrows at his tone.
"This place isn't protected." Everything about the inn that he saw as a liability she loved. The windows in their room were big and opened wide to a balcony. He didn't like balconies, especially not when thick, cloaking vines grew all along them.
But the desk in their room he could use. He called down for paper and ink.
"Are we going to write my brother?" She knelt atop the chair giving him an excited smile. "And send it to The Vines?"
The chit had a smile that made poor misbegotten bastards like him want to see it again. He shook himself. "Aye. I'm going to write directions in Gaelic, and I want you to copy them in your own handwriting."
"They'll probably have a dictionary at the school, and if no' they'll be able to lay hands on one. Any Rechazado who might intercept this will no'. It must be in your handwriting, so he'll trust it." After the maid brought writing supplies, he scratched out a missive, then watched as she nibbled her lip, struggling to decipher his handwriting and copy it. "This is the oddest language I've ever seen."
He gave her an incredulous look. "You were bloody studying Greek."
"Oh, that's right, you were in my room. Did you enjoy my things?"
"Aye," he answered shamelessly. "I did when I slept in your soft bed."
She glanced down, blushing, then quickly said, "Did you see all my clothes?"
He almost grinned at her segue. "Forget it."
"I don't understand why you are being so difficult."
"You doona need to be out on the streets."
"But you will keep me safe," she answered, as though he'd uttered something foolish.
He strode for the door. "No, you need to rest. I'll have a bath sent up and wait outside till you're done."
Just as he had his hand on the door handle, she said, "MacCarrick, would you please buy me just a few new garments?"
He froze. Christ, she'd actually done it. This was the beginning of the end.
She stood and lightly touched his elbow, an unnecessarily cruel and unfair tactic. "I can repay you."
He closed his eyes. He'd just have to deny her. Or put a price on them she wouldn't want to pay. He turned with a lecherous look. "Lass, you ken they will no' come cheaply."
No angry words, no scathing retorts. "I also now know you won't take advantage of a girl under your protection with no money and no family here to care for her."
He bit out a harsh curse under his breath. "Do you no' need to rest?"
"Dresses, MacCarrick," she reminded him gently.
Once the seamstress had finished up a quick hem on her new skirt and the vivacious shopkeeper had packed her purchases, Annal¨ªa crossed to the front of the store, where MacCarrick prowled outside, pacing back and forth, and called him inside to pay.
When he entered, he went no further than the tight doorway, standing there with her as he surveyed her simple blouse and skirt. He stared at her face and her breasts and all the way down and up again, unhurriedly. This wasn't the first time he'd examined her so rudely, but this time his lingering gaze didn't infuriate her. This time, it felt like a touch.
The shopkeeper murmured, "I envy you the night you're going to have."
MacCarrick must have heard her because he turned away from Annal¨ªa with a cough into his fist. But what kind of night did his look promise? Why would the pretty woman envy her that?
Both the shopkeeper and the seamstress had told Annal¨ªa she was lucky to have such a "handsome Scot." The seamstress had added, "Scottish men are such lusty devils!" as if this were a good trait.
When MacCarrick went to the counter to pay, the shopkeeper bent forward to present the bill - and her cleavage - to him. If Annal¨ªa hadn't been here with him, would he have kissed the eager woman? Taken her into what would've been solely his room and bedded her? What an unusual, infuriating thought. She sauntered up to him, then took his arm, giving the woman a glare. She winked at Annal¨ªa.
On their way back to the inn, she was acutely aware of every woman who sneaked a glance at him. She'd never seen him around women like this and didn't like it, even though he seemed oblivious.
When in Paris, she'd seen gloriously handsome men walking by, and though she didn't sigh out loud like her girlfriends, she'd noted them appreciatively, but the looks these women gave MacCarrick were more sensual, more lascivious.
More...knowledgeable? They knew something about him that she didn't, which was maddening. So she kept his arm, and he didn't seem to mind. When she pointed out something and accidentally brushed him with her breasts, he hissed in a breath. His reaction to such a small touch was surprising and thrilling. She would make sure she did it often.
Now she gazed up at him, studying him as they walked along. He was exceedingly tall and broad shouldered. Of course, she'd known he dwarfed most men, but she'd always found his size intimidating, not attractive as other women seemed to see it. Though to be honest, there were things she did find attractive about him, now that she could look at him without...blinding hatred.
He had incredible eyes. Black like jet, but now she noticed they were flecked with silver. His face was hard, with rough features, but when these were put together, it was attractive, if one liked brooding and scarred. His hair was black as his eyes, and thick. She liked that, too.
She found herself asking, "MacCarrick, why did you become a mercenary?"
He scowled at her question. "What does it matter?"
"I'm curious about you," she said. When he didn't answer, she added, "I will answer any question you have, if you answer this one." No response.
She squeezed his arm, and he finally said, "Highland regiments were returning from far-off places talking about the money to be made abroad. After their service, some of the soldiers signed on with a foreign crew, and I joined them."
"It didn't bother you? Killing for money?"
He tensed and grated, "That's a second question."
"Then ask yours."
He pulled her into a shaded area and put his fingers under her chin. "Do you think about the night I kissed you in the study?"
She could feel her face heating.
"Do you?" he asked again.
"I might from time to time," she said, striving for an airy tone. "It was my first kiss."
"And when I touched you at the posting house? Do you think about that when you stare out the coach window?"
Her lips parted. How did he see so much? "MacCarrick," she began in a steady voice, though she felt anything but, "that's a second question."
"So it is." He shocked her by brushing the backs of his fingers across her cheek before taking her arm again. "But I have my answer now."