"Why...how...explain!" she cried.
With an impatient look, he dropped his hands to his sides.
She knew he resented her ordering him about, but she couldn't help it. She had to know. "K-Killed?"
"No, no. Your brother escaped."
She grabbed his shirt with both hands. "You tell the truth?"
She shook his collar until he raised his eyebrows. "That monster doesn't have him anymore?"
"No, Aleixandre Llorente escaped Pascal. In fact, you're in much more danger than he is."
She released him. "I must find him! Let him know I'm unhurt."
"How do you plan to do that? We just confirmed that you're a Rechazado target. That's what they're notorious for - never missing a target. They'll trail you for as long as it takes."
She held her forehead between her thumb and forefinger. "I don't know! I can't think." She began pacing.
"The posting house is up the road no' more than a few miles. You can eat, rest, and digest what's happened. And then you can plan."
He was right. They'd just been dragging bodies off the side of the road - a cup of tea wasn't an unreasonable thing to desire! She could feel herself shivering, could feel her bandage beginning to dampen.
When she nodded, he helped her onto her horse, then mounted his own.
Aleix is alive! her mind repeated like a mantra. And free! She felt lighter, she felt...hopeful. She would find her brother, and then they'd figure out a way to defeat Pascal.
For three days, she'd feared he'd been killed, but every second that had passed, she'd plotted to get away from MacCarrick in case he hadn't been. Now to learn her brother was alive and free...
But what if MacCarrick was the one who'd fought him? Biting her lip, she watched the Highlander ahead of her as he looked to the sky, no doubt determining from the thunderheads that they were about to get drenched.
If MacCarrick and Aleix had been enemies, who knew what this man's agenda was? For all she knew, he might be planning to recoup his money by ransoming her to her rich brother. Clucking her horse on, she trotted up beside him. "I have a question for you."
He swept a glance at her, but said nothing.
"I want to know if you attacked my brother and his men."
He didn't hesitate. "I never attacked your brother."
"You swear it?" she asked, looking up at him.
He met her gaze directly. "Aye."
"Why are you helping me now? Why not just ride on and leave me behind?"
"I plan to do that just as soon as I get you to this inn."
At least he was honest about that. If someone like him had gone on about duty or helping her from a sense of gratitude, she would've ridden away from him as fast as she could.
At his reply, she smiled up at him, and his brows drew together. "Still canna wait to get rid of me?"
Well, that depends on how you answer my questions... "MacCarrick, how did you come to contract with Pascal?" She knew why Pascal had hired his men - she'd learned much at the smuggler's lodge. The band had been together and successful for nearly a decade, their reputation notorious. They were to train the deserters and fight against Spain. She could clearly see their appeal, but why would MacCarrick sign on with a despot?
"He was hiring. We were between jobs."
"Would you have continued with Pascal if he'd paid you?"
"I canna say."
"The men told me that I had it backwards. That you quit first and then Pascal refused to pay you for the work you'd done - not the other way around."
"Did they now?" he asked without interest. But he didn't deny it.
They had, though she'd never quite believed them until now. "So why Pascal?" she asked. "Many thought his ideals were sound at first. Did you as well?"
He ignored her.
She wouldn't be dissuaded. She was about to make a decision and she needed facts. "Pascal had you beaten because you defied him. Because you thought what he was doing was wrong. Isn't that what happened?"
He shrugged. Again no denial.
Mare de D¨¦u, everything she'd heard from his men had been true. "Why won't you admit that to me? Why did you let me believe that you and your men were out stealing and killing?" She put her chin up. "You know what I suspect? That you're not nearly as brutal as people think."
He reined his horse in, cutting hers off, and stared her down, looking very brutal indeed. She swallowed and caught herself leaning back in the saddle away from him.
"You've been clever in our dealings, I'll give you that, but your first major mistake would be attributin' traits to me that are no' there. I am that brutal. I'm just selective in who enjoys it."
With that, he rode ahead, but not far away. He'd given her another warning, but this time she took his words the opposite of how he intended them. Perhaps she should stop attributing malice and studied murder to him, and see that he wasn't a fiend like Pascal.
She hadn't been completely mistaken about MacCarrick. He had killed easily and could be terrifying. The look on his face when he'd been about to question that one today...She shivered. She'd never seen anything so frightening - it was as though borrowed from a nightmare. No, she would never underestimate the seething power she'd sensed in him, a power that he'd proved he could unleash in the beat of a heart. But it was what was in addition to these traits that puzzled her.
Every one of the preceding nights, he'd seen to her wound, forcing her to remove her blouse, to undress in front of him. During these times, she'd been so full of hatred and grief that she'd thought his actions were just another indignity, a chance to see her in only her chemise. Now, thinking back, she saw other things. She recalled how he'd gone to one knee in front of her and how if she winced or hissed in pain, he grated, "Doona want to hurt you."
The night she'd been shot, she dimly remembered that he had talked to her on the jostling ride to France, sometimes in rough Gaelic, most times making no sense even in English, but it was as if he'd known she hadn't wanted to hear silence. She remembered that afterward someone had stroked her hair - someone with very callused hands....
She sighed, realizing that she was both free of any real grounds to hate him - and in need of his help in this perilous time. Lost in thought, her mind a whir of ideas, she scarcely noticed the first drop of rain. Or another splatting directly afterward.
When a full torrent swept down and she lagged behind, he rode back for her. "We need to stop under the next bridge."
"MacCarrick!" She blinked against the rain. She was freezing in her light jacket and only one thought was getting her through this ride. "I want a hot bath and I want to drink tea when I'm in it!"
He raised his eyebrows at her tone, then seemed to study her and the situation as if he didn't quite know what his next step should be. She could swear he was struggling to make a decision. The second she thought he might have, he plucked her from her saddle.
"What are you doing?"
He placed her sideways on his lap with her back against his arm, pulling her close so he could wrap the edges of his jacket around her. After he grabbed her horse's reins, he gently used his whole hand to turn her face into his chest.
"Hold on tae me," he murmured, "and mind your arm."
She was still protesting when he spurred the horse and they flew down the road, until she was forced to put her arms around him. His body was so incredibly warm in his jacket that soon she was, too. The rain no longer stung her face.
Out of the blue, she remembered one of her nanny's sayings. A bear is only a bear till you rub his belly. A wolf will eat from your hand if the treat is sweet enough....