If You Dare

Chapter Thirty-four


"These are eggs?" Olivia asked Annal¨ªa again as she poked at them on her plate. Eggs shouldn't move as these did. She leaned down to peer at them at eye level. "They don't look like eggs."

Olivia glanced up to see the chit put her hand over her mouth. Her face was turning green again. If Annal¨ªa didn't eat something soon and keep it down, Olivia might have to do something drastic.

She could just see herself confessing to Aleix that Annal¨ªa grew ill on her watch. For some reason before he'd gone, Aleix had taken Olivia aside - not Ethan, not Erskine, not a stranger from the street - and asked her to take care of Annal¨ªa. She'd stared at him for long moments, wondering what he really was asking her, wondering if he was jesting, then realized he actually expected her to protect his sister. "How have you been living off this stuff?" Olivia pushed her breakfast tray away. "I haven't tasted a single spice since we got to Britain."

Annal¨ªa sat at the headboard of her bed, still in her dressing gown, knees drawn to her chest. "MacCarrick often sent out for food for me. He always knew what I liked." And there went the bottom lip trembling.

Olivia smiled pleasantly. "After I marry your brother, I will have the kitchen stocked with spices. Expensive ones." She picked up a book from the stack she'd plundered from the library downstairs, licked her thumb, and flipped through with desultory flicks of her wrist. "And we'll get a Spanish chef who knows how to use them. And who will sing opera."

Annal¨ªa's eyes narrowed. "I know what you're doing. Even as my mind refuses to believe it. Every time I want to cry you say something to provoke me."

Yes, Olivia had been doing that among other things. For Aleix, she was keeping his little sister from going mad or getting sick. When Annal¨ªa had woken that first morning and run downstairs, searching frantically for MacCarrick and her brother, Olivia had patiently explained that they'd left early, ready to get this fight won.

"Did MacCarrick leave me a message?" Annal¨ªa asked.

"He told me to tell you that they would be through in a few weeks. And that Ethan would see us down when it is safe," Olivia had answered, veering from the truth. Llorente had told her that; MacCarrick had given no such assurance or message. When Olivia had asked MacCarrick if there was anything he'd like to relate - and yes, she'd asked - he'd only grated, "Olivia, if you are unkind to her in any way..."

So ever since they'd gone, Olivia had hedged the truth - and met every sign of tears with snide comments and crude observations. Yet she could only stem the tide for so long, and even now Annal¨ªa's eyes watered.

Olivia slammed the book flat on the table. "That is one thing I'm not looking forward to - a watering pot for a sister. The embarrassment of it!"

"How would you feel?" Annal¨ªa demanded. "The man I love was letting me go, though I thought we would be together. I'd just found out he'd given Aleix to Pascal. I was nearly murdered. Then MacCarrick left me without saying good-bye!"

"One more time - your brother would be dead right now if MacCarrick hadn't put him away, and MacCarrick never lied to you about that. He merely omitted, a tactic I know well and use whenever I feel that I'm getting just shy of hellbound. Say good-bye? He was with you the entire night before he left. I'm sure he said quite a few things" - she raised her eyebrows accusingly at Annal¨ªa - "yet it's his fault you weren't awake to hear them?"

"He could have left me a letter."

"Now you're just being silly. He's a mercenary - he's not going to go about penning love letters, and really, what would he write? 'Anna...love you...grrr?'"

Annal¨ªa ignored the last. "I just wish I could remember that night! It's all so confusing. And I feel awful - I never feel awful." She clasped her forehead. "How can you stand the bloody worry?"

Olivia slid her nail file across the tabletop to drop it in her palm, then leisurely filed. "Oh, I'm not worried about your brother."

"What?" Annal¨ªa swung her head around, her undone hair whipping to the side.

"MacCarrick will look out for him. To please you." Olivia wasn't fearful for Llorente in the least. MacCarrick? She gave him a one in two chance. "I'm confident he'll be safe."

"MacCarrick would do that, wouldn't he?..." She sniffed.

"Annal¨ªa, don't you dare - "

"You would cry in my position!"

"No, I emphatically would not. I'd scrounge something to eat in this blasted British house, and I'd take care of myself so that when I saw him again I wouldn't be skin and bones with eyes red from crying. And if I had questions about MacCarrick that couldn't wait, and I was stuck in a house rife with answers, I'd find them."

"What do you mean?"

"The servants. Servants know everything."

"I tried! Courtland often said a Gaelic phrase to me, and it signified something important - I know it - but when I repeated it to Erskine and the cook and the maids and the footmen no one would translate it for me."

Olivia snorted. "I wouldn't have taken 'no' for an answer."

Annal¨ªa glared. "Should I have held them down and poured boiling water over them until they talked? Really, I'd like your expert advice."

Olivia rolled her eyes. "Of course not. You would use boiling oil."

In a sighing voice, Annal¨ªa asked, "Why are you being so nice to me?"

Take it back, Olivia almost sputtered. "I'm not being nice to you, I'm acting nice to you. Your brother seems to think I can behave appropriately to certain people." She began filing her nails again. Annal¨ªa had told her that they'd be more attractive if she didn't file them so sharply, and she'd cast her a long-suffering look. A woman's nails had nothing to do with attraction. "I'm merely testing Llorente's theory."

Annal¨ªa pulled her legs in closer and rested her chin on her knees. "You told me how the 'engagement' came about, but you should know that Aleix had vowed never to wed again."

"I did know that." Olivia blew on her nails. "So it's a good thing I came along to force his hand."

Annal¨ªa tilted her head at her and scrunched her lips. An open book.

"I can see that you agree."

"If you are what makes Aleix happy, then I will have to tolerate you."

"Oh. Since I was awaiting your approval."

Annal¨ªa exhaled a long breath, her gaze settling blankly on the opposite wall. "MacCarrick never told me he loved me."

"What did he say when you told him?"

Annal¨ªa bit her lip.

"You never told him?"

"I wanted to. I was going to," she said as she stood to pace. Olivia wondered yet again if the trembling bottom lip or the pacing was worse. "I just wanted the perfect time and...and, very well, I lost my nerve."

"Would you have been able to tell him if you were pregnant? You could be, you know," Olivia said, wondering if Annal¨ªa would finally admit to her condition.

Annal¨ªa stilled. "That's impossible. We can't have children."

Olivia's lips parted in shock and she dropped her file. Can't have children? Oh, the devil's red boots, this was getting worse and worse. The chit had absolutely no clue she was pregnant. No wonder she didn't understand why she felt so poorly - or why her emotions were roiling.

Olivia had thought she was keeping it a secret, but no, Olivia was going to have to explain, and in terms more delicate than "In another month, I'll be the only one wearing your clothes." She repeatedly knocked her forehead against her hand on the table. Llorente owed her this marriage.

"I suppose it's a good thing," Annal¨ªa offered.

Olivia wearily raised her head.

"Since he was just going to let me go."

"You clearly want to be with him" - Olivia leaned forward as if imparting a secret - "so don't let him let you go."

"Don't let him - ?" Annal¨ªa's brows drew together. "That's what you're doing with Aleix."

Olivia sat back and propped her half-boots on the table. "So far it's working. He has to return to me because I have his sister hostage." She briefly put her fingertips to her lips. "Did I just say that? I mean I'm protecting the baby sister and earning his trust."

After a few moments more of pacing, Annal¨ªa admitted, "I must say this is better than crying."

Olivia threw her hands up. "What have I been telling you? And you've got it even easier than I do. Llorente doesn't love me - yet - but MacCarrick loves you."

Annal¨ªa frowned, then said with increasing conviction, "He did love me. I might be inexperienced to a ridiculous degree, but I should be able to tell, right? A man couldn't simply pretend that."

He could with ease! But Olivia knew that wasn't the case here. "Right!" she declared with a firm nod. "Now you stew over your plan of attack while I go find some food in this place. If we have to subsist on tea and biscuits, then we'll start hoarding tins up here." At the door she turned back. "And, Annal¨ªa, if I come back and see that you've been crying" - Olivia made a clawing gesture with her "unattractive" nails - "I will give you something to cry over."

During Olivia's absence, Annal¨ªa had time to bathe, dress, and conclude two things. First of all, there was no way she was giving up MacCarrick without a fight. She quite liked this idea of simply not allowing him to throw away what they had. It gave her a feeling of some control over her life.

Second? Though she still had concerns about Olivia - Annal¨ªa couldn't determine if Olivia was intermittently evil or handily the strongest woman she'd ever met - Annal¨ªa knew she would've gone bloody mad in this tense, foreign household without her future sister-in-law to berate her....

Olivia returned then, breezing in the doorway, her arms full of biscuit tins. Evidently, they were, in fact, hoarding. She stowed her loot inside the wardrobe, then drew out a smaller package from her skirt pocket, tossing it to her. "This came for you."

Annal¨ªa caught it. From a jeweler but addressed to Court?

"The guard dogs downstairs opened it, of course. Well, go on. I want to see jewelry."

Annal¨ªa pried open the velvet box and found her mother's stone inside, though without its ribbon choker. Instead, he'd had it set on a chain so delicate, so precious, it was like gossamer.

Olivia swiped it from her hand. She didn't cackle and abscond with it as Annal¨ªa expected, but whirled Annal¨ªa in front of the mirror, to fasten it around her neck. "I remember this stone. I considered owning this stone. The necklace makes it more valuable. Good for you," Olivia said, as if she'd earned it from MacCarrick.

Annal¨ªa stared in the mirror. He'd somehow figured out what it meant to her, what its significance was, and he'd turned something hurtful into something beautiful for her. The necklace was so exquisite it was like a caress over her neck and chest. God, she missed him!

Did he send this as a good-bye?

"You know that Gaelic phrase you were telling me about?" Olivia elbowed her from the mirror so she could try on the rings on the dressing table, modeling her wiggling fingers in the mirror. "What would you give me if I told you what it means? Would you give me an antique ring once worn by a queen?"

"Right now, the best I'll offer is that I won't slap you if you tell me."

Olivia raised her eyebrows, obviously impressed with the threat of violence. "Very well, I will tell you." She paused dramatically. "It means, 'You are mine. I bind you to me always.' According to my sources, if MacCarrick told you that, then you're a breath away from being married."

Annal¨ªa's eyes widened. "You lie! How do you know that?"

"I asked the Scottish woman downstairs. I wouldn't have asked for you, but I truly did expect you to give me one of - "

"What Scottish woman?"

"A new one."

"I don't believe you."

Olivia caught Annal¨ªa's eyes in the mirror. "I swear on all that is valuable that I own."

Annal¨ªa rocked on her heels. It was true! Her thoughts came hectic. He had planned for them to be together! Why hadn't he told her? He should have. She supposed he did repeatedly, but not in any language Annal¨ªa could discern. She'd learn Gaelic! She'd dreamed he'd come to her that last morning and tenderly brushed her hair from her face. Maybe not a dream? She took a deep breath, wondering why her stomach felt so unsettled. Last night she'd mindlessly eaten something kippered or coddled or some dish sounding equally as foreign and unsolid, and she must be paying for it now -

"So you are Courtland's," a voice said from behind them. "The servants wrote telling me as much. But I scarcely believed them."

Annal¨ªa whirled around, feeling dizzy. She'd stopped whirling, but her head seemed to delight in continuing. A tall, beautiful woman stood there. The woman in the portrait, Annal¨ªa realized with a gasp.

"I'm his mother, Lady Fiona." She was very genteel as she offered her hand to Annal¨ªa, but her eyes were lifeless and dark. And suspicious. "And you are Lady Annal¨ªa Llorente. I attempted to garner information about you from Olivia" - she cast Olivia a puzzled glance - "but after tea I realized I'd somehow divulged more than I'd learned."

When Olivia gave her a convincingly innocent expression, Lady Fiona returned her attention to Annal¨ªa. She tilted her head and examined her as if she were a stray - not cruelly but with detachment. "I never thought of Court falling for a tiny Castilian. Even one as pretty as you. But by all accounts - and even by his own words - he has." The woman's expression grew stern. "It matters naught. Lass, do you ken that you canna have him?"

Annal¨ªa, formerly the most gracious woman in social situations, the mistress of all decorum, promptly threw up all over the woman's skirts.

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