She believes she's going to die. Her eyes met Court's, her expression telling him so. His hand eased back to his pistol, but the Rechazado shoved the barrel harder against her, a move that ripped the breath from Court's lungs.
He put his hands out in front of him. "Take me instead," he bit out.
Llorente said, "Me for her."
The man ran the barrel down her cheek. "We'll return for you both later."
Think, God damn it, think!
Where the hell was Ethan, where was Hugh? From where he stood, the gunman couldn't see Hugh in the next room. Hugh could take him out - he'd been trained to kill so quickly.... "Hugh," he rasped in Gaelic, "kill him. By Christ, please do this. Please..."
He sensed his brother silently backing away.
The one with Anna opened the second door for another, who pointed his pistol at Olivia and indicated she should follow. She finally advanced toward him, but said over her shoulder, "It was still worth it, Llorente."
Both Rechazados backed down the steps, Anna stumbling in one's arms down the wet stairs, blinking from the rain but never taking her eyes from Court's. As if to gain courage.
"Doona fight him, Anna." He didn't know if she could understand the strangled words.
The fury was choking him, turning everything he saw black.
If the Rechazados got away, Court would find Annal¨ªa dead, discarded at the outskirts of the city.
"God damn it, Anna," he grated. "Just stay alive. Just hold on - "
A blast from the second floor. The man's head burst from one side. He tightened his arm in death around Anna as he collapsed.
The other whipped his pistol up at Hugh, but both Court and Hugh had already fired. He slumped to his knees, then onto what was left of his face.
Court knew he'd never forget what he saw for the rest of his life. Anna crawling from the body, eyes blank, lips parted. A bellow of rage roared from him as he ran for her, unable to get to her before her hands slipped from under her in the blood and carnage from both men and the cold rain pooling on the street. The low cries she made...
He slid down next to her, dropping the gun to snatch her into his arms, clutching her to him, his fingers tracing and retracing her temple, scarcely believing. "Anna?" He clasped her head to pull her to his chest.
She nodded faintly against him.
How long they stayed like this he didn't know, but Hugh had come from his vantage, and he and Ethan were outside, scanning for more.
Llorente was trying to take Anna from him. Court swung out blindly and connected hard with his face. Something broke beneath the blow.
Hugh took Court's shoulder. But he couldn't move.
"You doona want her to live through that, then die from chill," Hugh said.
The words made perfect sense.
"Come in, Court," Ethan ordered.
Only when she shuddered was he able to command his body to move. He drew her into him too hard and rose.
Once inside, in the bright light, when he saw the blood all over her, things became very clear. "Ethan?"
"They're taken care of, Court. Doona think on it."
Court swung his gaze to Hugh.
"Retribution?" Hugh asked.
"A thousand times."
"I'll ride with you."
Court shook his head. "I already owe you more than my life."
"We leave at dawn," Hugh said, ignoring the last.
Erskine called down in a high, panicked voice that a bath was waiting.
Court vaguely heard Llorente speaking. Not her husband. Must let her go. Can't care for her.
He faced Llorente, felt his teeth bared, heard the other woman snap, "Don't be stupid, Llorente! He won't hurt her."
Court had started for the stairs when Anna finally spoke, "I'll be fine. I am usually stronger during these things." Her voice was faltering, her words sounding hollow.
During these things. If she'd died, he would have meted out death and torment as they'd never known.
"Why is everyone acting so strangely?" Anna asked.
Olivia said, "Everyone is acting strangely because your pupils are the size of tea saucers, you're covered in blood, and you have gun oil smeared on your temple. You're also deep in shock."
"Oh," she answered in a small voice. "Courtland, put me down, or I'll become embarrassed. You've never reacted like this before."
Llorente yelled something from below, apparently restrained by Hugh. Monster, brutal, killer, blamed. The last thing Court heard was Hugh telling him, "You're lucky Court didn't snap your neck out there." Llorente was. The impulse had been there.
In her room, he set her on the foot of the bed, helping her sit up as he undressed her. He'd done this a hundred times, yet he could scarcely get the first button undone. He ripped at her dress - surprising how easily the fabric parted - until he'd stripped her. Lifting her in his arms, he set her in the bath, then knelt beside her.
Cupping warm water over her shoulders, he asked, "Anna, are you all right?" He didn't recognize his own voice.
"Of course." She was looking straight ahead. Her eyes wouldn't adjust. So bright in this room, and her pupils wouldn't recede. When he determined she could sit up by herself, he rushed to the lamp to turn it down, then strode back beside her.
He took a cloth and brushed at the blood on her face and neck, scrubbed her wee hands. "There's a good lass," he bit out as he washed her hair. The oil at her temple didn't want to come clean, and he couldn't rub much harder.
She would already have a bruise from the barrel. He shuddered violently.
"Courtland? You must try to be patient with Aleix." Her voice sounded confused. "He is not like my fierce Scot. The fighting is new to him, and he thinks he'll lose me as he lost Mariette and the little baby girl. I am his last family."
"Mo cridhe, you know I will do anythin' you ask of me." He put his forehead against her shoulder.
"I do know that," she said softly.
He felt her relaxing, then tensing as she fought sleep, so he rinsed her hair and body, then placed her on her feet to dry her. A cursory glance around the room revealed a nightgown and some of Court's clothes laid out for them. He dressed her in the gown before bundling her in the bed under several blankets.
The sight of his clean clothes reminded him that he had blood on himself as well. Fearing she'd be alarmed later, he stripped and rinsed with the remaining buckets of water. He swiftly dressed then pulled a chair over so he could sit beside her.
"I don't know why I'm so sleepy." She reached out her hand for his. "I've been so tired lately." He took it, put his elbows on his knees, and leaned forward to press his face down against her palm. When she slept, he didn't let it go.
Llorente walked in shortly after. Court glanced up without interest, vaguely noticing he'd broken at least Llorente's nose.
"I want to see my sister." His voice was thick, from either emotion or injuries.
Hugh came striding in directly after him, most likely to protect Llorente.
"Hugh, relax, I will no' hurt him any longer," he said, but he eyed Llorente crossing to the other side of the bed to study her face.
Apparently assured, Hugh said, "We need to plan. Ethan wants to speak with you. I can stay with her."
"Tell him to come here. I'll no' leave her." Court noted his hand had tightened on hers.
"He's with Olivia."
"Bring her as well, then, but I'm no' leaving."
Hugh glanced at Anna. "We will no' disturb her?"
"No, she will no' wake."
When Hugh left the room, Llorente said, "And you would know that because you've been sleeping with her?"
"Aye." He defied Llorente to say something about it now.
The look in his eyes must have dissuaded Llorente from that subject, becaused he asked, "Are you certain she wasn't injured?"
"She's bruised. She's in shock. No more."
Hugh and Ethan returned with a table and chairs, Olivia following. Erskine brought the coffee service and then exited without a word.
Court reluctantly relinquished Anna's hand and tucked it under the blanket. After he tugged the cover higher to her chin, he strode over to sit.
Llorente pulled a chair, uninvited, to the table, studying them. He would have to be wondering how Hugh could shoot like that, would have to be wondering about Ethan's lethal demeanor and how he'd received his twisting scar. Though Court knew Llorente was baffled by all this as well as Court and Anna's relationship, he wisely asked nothing.
Court began, "Ethan, I need you to stay here with her." He caught Ethan's eyes, showing him how much he was entrusting to him.
"Aye. I'll bring in some men as well," Ethan said.
"If we doona come back, you must take Anna to Carrickliffe among the clan. Make them swear to her."
"And what of Olivia?" Llorente asked. "She must stay with Annal¨ªa."
Court swung a glance at him. "You can take care of Olivia."
"If you're hunting the Rechazados, I'm going as well." He ran a sleeve over his still bleeding lip.
"You stay here," Court said.
"That's my land and my people. I need to be there if you're going in."
"He's right, Court," Hugh said. "He'll just follow us down anyway."
Court shrugged. "You'll get in the way of what I'm after only once."
Llorente narrowed his eyes at that, then said, "And Olivia?" He didn't understand what he was asking for.
Hugh said, "Ethan, just agree to it. They'll need to be together."
Ethan hesitated for several seconds, then inclined his head. And with that, a man considered wicked by so many - often rightly so - would now risk his life for both of them. "Court, what do you know about the order?"
Court leaned forward, struggling to become cold, to focus on what they had to do. "They prefer to stay as a unified corps, dispatching smaller groups. If we could get close enough to where they camp, we could take them out at one time."
"There will just be new ones enlisted," Llorente said.
Court shook his head. "If you take out all of them, who's to pass on their orders?"
Hugh added, "I've read about them as well" - read about them, no doubt, in a thick dossier with the instructions "engage at will." "Even if you canna take them all, if you eliminate their leader, it's like cutting the head off a snake."
"But it won't matter if Pascal lives," Llorente pointed out. "He'll keep sending men. He's got an army of deserters wanting to rise in the ranks."
"Then we have to kill them to a man," Court answered, obviously surprising Llorente. Court gave him a look of disgust. "Did you possibly conceive that I would leave a single man alive who would hurt her?"
"You're talking about the Rechazados, the deserters and Pascal. In one campaign?"
Llorente nodded slowly. "We'll need more men."
Hugh said, "No' for the Rechazados, if they camp together and if we have the right...gear." Explosives. "So we'd need men only for the deserters. Court, can you contact your crew?"
"I've tried and have no' heard back. They probably went east with Otto."
"I'm no' sure they did." Ethan said. "Weyland and I have been working to get the deserters out of Andorra for months. Which was how I'd known you'd chosen...unwisely to ally with Pascal. Weyland's pressured the British ambassador, who's pressured the Spanish to raise the bounties on the deserters. Exponentially. If I know our cousin, Niall would've determined how lucrative it could be. With Court's crew, it'd be like shooting fish in a barrel."
"You think his mercenaries are in Andorra?" Llorente asked. "That's good news."
"Aye. Good for us," Court said. "Bad for your house."
Llorente raised his eyebrows. "Should I ask?"
Hugh quickly said, "No' if you've any sense."
Llorente prudently returned to the matter at hand. "I've studied the deserters and you know the Rechazados, but I don't know Pascal and know you don't either."
"No," Court admitted. "He alters routines, moves domiciles. I could no' find a pattern."
Olivia coughed delicately. They turned to her, saw her admiring her reflection in a silver spoon. "But I have."
When the others had retired, and Court took his chair beside Annal¨ªa again, Llorente remained.
"You care for her. Obviously a great deal," he said, taking a chair on the opposite side of the bed to face him. "Why didn't you marry her before I got here to tell you no?"
"Because I care for her a great deal."
"You kidnapped my sister and forced her into a different country. Apparently, you took over my home - while I was rotting in a cell that you had put me in. You stole from me. You bloody broke my nose. It's hard to imagine that you could do much more."
"But I have."
"Yes, you have. She could be with child."
"She will no' be with child."
"How can you be sure?"
"Canna have bairn." Normally he would never have revealed this to someone like Llorente, but now it seemed so insignificant.
"I should believe that?"
"Aye, it's true, though I dearly wish it was no'." Odd that men always thought if they got a woman with child then they had to marry her. If Anna could be with child, Court would get to marry her.
Llorente hesitated, then said, "Is that why you wouldn't marry her? Not that I would let you anyway, but that's a plus in my mind."
Anna had said he'd lost his wife and daughter. Must've been childbirth. "No, that's no' the reason. Just leave it alone."
Llorente put his elbows on his knees and stared at the floor. "When we finish this I will have to go to Castile hat in hand and ask them to contract a sympathetic match for her. She will hate me for it, but it must be done."
Court gnashed his teeth at the thought. As if she sensed his anger, Anna turned in sleep. "Courtland?" she whispered. "On ¨¦s ell?"
"She wants to know where you are."
Did Llorente not think Court could understand? Of course he didn't. Court was an ignorant Scot. "I can speak Catalan," he snapped under his breath. Then, dismissing Llorente, Court raised her hand to his lips to reassure her.
"T'estimo, Courtland," she sighed.
Llorente said in a dumbfounded tone, "Then you know that for some ungodly reason she just told you she loves you."
When he heard Ethan's men arriving near dawn, Court rose from his chair. Of course he hadn't slept - he'd taken every minute he could with her after Llorente hesitantly left them last night.
Court lightly touched her cheek, glad at least that her color was back and her skin was warm.
He wanted to kiss her and tell her how much he didn't want to leave, but if she woke and asked him what was happening, how could he answer?
I broke your brother's face last night; we're going to Andorra to stamp out anyone who would hurt you; and afterward, because I took your innocence, you'll be forced to Castile. We won't see each other again, though I'd intended to marry you.
If the Rechazados didn't kill him...
When he brushed her hair from her face, the bruise at her temple stood out starkly. He flinched and a coldness settled over him...enabling him to walk away. "Is tu mo gr¨¤dh thar gach n¨¬," he murmured to her before he clenched his hands and left. I love you above all things.
Downstairs, he found Ethan preparing for war - Court had expected no less - with Hugh directing the packing of supplies. Both left him with nothing to work on.
So to gain strength for what he was about to do - abandon Anna - he stole into the study and retrieved the book. He'd never voluntarily touched it before, and hated the feeling of it now, but he wanted to read it, and curse it to hell where it belonged. He'd just turned to their page when Llorente walked in.
The timing. Court was really beginning to hate him.
"Ethan told me I'd find you here."
"Did he, then?"
"MacCarrick, I've thought about this all night, and I want you to marry Annal¨ªa before we go."
This was unexpected, but still..."No."
"For some inexplicable reason, she loves you, and she won't want to go to Castile. As much as it grieves me to even consider you, I must."
"Do you think this is easy for me? I'm a proud man and I despise you - the very idea of being related to you pains me. Remembering the prestigious suits I smugly turned down only to be asking you now appalls me. But I will swallow my pride to see her happy."
Maybe he didn't hate Llorente. Had to admire the man's doggedness. Broke his nose last night and Llorente was asking him to marry his sister the next morning. For her. Must be difficult as hell.
"She has her own fortune."
Court's jaw clenched, and he gave him the look his comment deserved.
Llorente appeared surprised. "I apologize if I offended, but you are a mercenary."
The man wasn't going to give up until Court hit him again, which he could no longer do. He would give his explanation, and if Llorente scoffed, then he'd have tried.
"See this book? This is why I will no' marry her." He opened it to the last page and stabbed his finger against it.
Llorente advanced to the table, skimmed over the lines, then faced him with an expression of astonishment. "You believe you're cursed?"
Court sank back in his chair. "The things it says have all come to pass."
"Like what?" he asked, his tone almost amused.
"It says that none of us will have children and none of us ever have."
"Your brothers believe this, too?"
"Then it's a bloody good thing you can't have children, because lunacy obviously runs in your family. My God, my Andorran grandmother wasn't this superstitious."
He looked disgusted and Court couldn't blame him. Court had looked the same way until they'd found their father dead.
"And your father? I suppose his thread was cut?"
"Within a day of our reading the lines."
But Llorente was hardly listening to him. "This is why you didn't marry her before we arrived?" He snatched up the book, as if to hurl it. He froze, slowly turning his face to his outstretched hand. He placed the book down as though it were as delicate as eggshell. Then crossed himself. "Return to the page."
When Court leaned forward and did, Llorente read again, his expression growing more furious. "There's blood there."
"A warring clan stole the book hoping to cripple us. There was a battle to get it back."
"You don't know what it says? Have you tried to wash it - ?"
"The blood will no' be lifted."
Llorente shook his head. "But what it says could be heartening."
Court let out a breath. "Or it could be worse."
Llorente's eyes narrowed. "Yesterday. Do you think that was...?"
"Do I believe Anna was crawling through an assassin's blood in the gutter last night because of my fate? Maybe, maybe no'. But I will no' risk the scarcest chance." Whenever that image of Anna arose in his mind, he struggled to replace it with an image of the future he would ensure she had. He saw her safe in warm Spain, among her own people, with golden-skinned children playing about her skirts. "She will be free of them and free of me."
Llorente glared at the book, read it again. His face was tight when he turned to him. "Then you must swear it."
Court hesitated, then finally nodded. "Aye, my word. Let me finish my tasks first, and I'll never have to see her again."