Why the hell hadn't she returned? Court thought as irritation sniped at him.
Vitale, the sometimes mute, sometimes caustic old Frenchman, had been by to warily bring food in and clean the room, but she couldn't be bothered to come again.
Court's body had at least ceased weakening, and he was becoming restless. He was finally able to dress himself, in clothes borrowed from Annal¨ªa's brother, or the "master," as Vitale called him. He'd scoffed when Vitale had said the garments would fit. The woman might be five and a half feet and had a tiny frame, and he couldn't see a sibling of hers even broaching six feet, but apparently this "master" was a big bastard.
Forays to the window marked Court's only exertion, but they no longer made his eyes swarm with black dots. He was never one to sit still, yet he'd done just that since he'd awakened four days ago. The only thing that broke up the monotony was watching her from the window. With not a thing else to do, he'd watched her a lot.
He could admit he enjoyed seeing her playing with the children in the courtyard, chasing the laughing bairn. No matter how tired Annal¨ªa appeared, each child received the same amount of attention, even when she looked like she wanted nothing more than to put her feet up.
Then there was spotting her returning from her morning ride, breathless, with her perfect hair finally fighting its bonds. He never failed to shake his head at the proud - no, the cocky - way she sat a horse. Welcome sights, when he could forget her disdain. For others she always had a smile, even when her eyes showed distraction. He often wondered if he was the reason her brow was drawn when she thought no one could see her....
When the unseen clock downstairs tolled eight, Court's body tensed like a dog that'd been trained, and he rose to drag on the pair of borrowed trousers. As he did every day at that toll, he scuffed to the window, because within five minutes the front door would groan open.
Right on time, she glided out the door, her slim hips swaying beneath her bright blue skirts. She always wore bright colored dresses. Not garish or overblown, but a world away from the subdued colors favored by the women of his clan. She wore them, he would wager, not to attract attention, but because she was so ridiculously feminine that she found them pretty.
Morning sun shone down, glinting off her hair, making it appear golden in places. As usual, it was braided up in an elaborate style, as intricate as any Celtic knot.
Next she would meet Vitale, who would have her hat that she continually forgot, and then they would speak for a few moments. He was impertinent to her and she allowed it, even sometimes cocking a hip out and looking up at the sky with clear frustration. They had an unusual rapport, but they obviously cared for each other.
Like clockwork, the old man met her on the path just downstairs. They didn't talk for long before she was off to the stable for her ride. Damn it, he wanted to look at her for longer. She always wore the choker, but something was different today. Was she wearing new jewelry? Earrings that dropped down?
Enough of this. He wanted more information, and he was getting strong enough to where he could begin demanding it. When she left, Court knocked on the glass and motioned for Vitale - who'd bemoaned Court's recovery and had placed his food on the ground "as was fitting for an animal" - to come up.
The old man gave him a lewd hand gesture, but the front door did sound soon after.
"Tell me about her," he asked when Vitale had unlocked and entered the room.
He cast Court a sour expression. "And why would I do that?"
"Because if you do I'll no' be so disposed to beating you down when I recover fully," Court informed him as he leaned against the windowsill.
Vitale swallowed hard.
"I ken what you're thinking, old man. You're wondering what harm could come of it. None could. I harbor no ill will toward the woman who saved my life."
"What do you want to know?" he asked hesitantly.
"Where's her family?"
"Her parents are dead and her brother is away." He added, "On business."
A vague answer, but Court didn't press. "No husband? No other family she could stay with?"
"She and her brother are estranged from their relatives. And she was about to be married when Pascal came to power. Now escaping his notice is our top priority. Since you are his hired killer, I suppose we should have escaped your notice as well."
Court ignored the last comment. "And why is this place so deserted?"
"Many fled Pascal. Some have gone to fight him. But you would know all about that, wouldn't you?" He shook his head. "I told her to take you back to the river and let you rot, but she never listens - "
"Pascal ordered this done to me," he interrupted. "How much loyalty do you think I have to the man who sought to kill me? I barely escaped into the river."
Vitale eyed him, clearly trying to determine if he spoke the truth, then asked, "Who beat you?"
Court admitted, "Two Rechazados."
His eyes went wide, scanning the room wildly. "My God, you'll bring them down on this house. Every day you're here already weighs on her terribly. If you are in league with Pascal, she fears you'll lead his men here. Now when I tell her what you've told me, she'll know that Pascal's assassins will be searching for you to finish the job."
Pascal would be searching, but there weren't enough of his prized assassins to spare. "He will no' waste any Rechazado for a task like me." Their order never numbered more than forty-nine based on a twisted reading of the seven letters of the Apocalypse, and if they lost men they still only inducted new ones twice a year. "Besides, they'll have thought I died."
Vitale marched to the second window to peer out though he couldn't have expected to see Annal¨ªa. Court knew she'd be well out of sight by now. "Why should I trust what you say?"
"You probably should no'." He unsuccessfully crossed his arms, too late remembering the bloody cast she'd forced on him. "I want to talk to her, but she will no' come back. Get her to."
"The mademoiselle? Attend you now that you're awake?" He snorted.
"If she will no' come to me, then I'll have to stumble out to find her." His expression turned cold. "You ought to warn her that I might feel...put out when I catch her."
He stepped back. "I will see that she comes tomorrow."
"After her ride?"
Vitale scowled at that. "If she knew you spied on her, she'd be very uneasy. She's an extremely private person. But yes, after her ride."
Court nodded. "I need to get a message to my men. If I give you directions, can you see that it is done?"
"Again, why would I do that?"
"The sooner I contact them, the sooner I can leave."
"I'll return directly with pen and ink."
Court debated how to handle Annal¨ªa when she came for their meeting, and had to admit he was at a loss with a woman like her. She seemed complicated and mysterious, which meant she wasn't like straightforward Highland women at all.
And as much as he was unused to a woman like Annal¨ªa, she was surely accustomed to gentlemen, to polite behavior and nonthreatening men. So he decided to stay in bed and act as though he couldn't rise easily, to appear less intimidating, but the gentlemanly behavior was proving elusive. Court didn't exchange pleasantries because he wasn't a pleasant person. He was brusque and direct. She would not respond well to brusque and direct.
When she glided in hours after her ride, smelling of the flowers she'd been tarrying among earlier, he bit out, "Good afternoon." He couldn't remember the last time he'd said that phrase, when in fact it hadn't been a better-than-average afternoon.
"To you as well." She appeared surprised by his gruff words, then suspicious. "Vitale said you desired to speak with me. What do you require?"
Her words rolled from her tongue in that foreign way, and he found he liked listening to her, even as her obvious reluctance to be near him grated. A woman whom he found beautiful and who was kind to others was disgusted with him. He felt like a caged animal she was wary of - and all because he was Scottish?
And perhaps he'd found the exact chink in her armor and had hurt her that first day, a voice in the back of his mind reasoned.
"I'd like to ask you a few more questions." Pleasant enough.
She gave one tight nod.
"How have you escaped Pascal's notice this far?" Court had never heard of this place and wondered why Pascal hadn't looted it.
She didn't hesitate to say, "Probably by not dragging his mercenaries into my home."
"I answer to him no longer."
"His ex-mercenary, then," she said with a flick of her hand as if the difference was trifling. "Vitale told me as much."
At his irritated look, she added, "I don't know why we've been spared." She was clearly lying, but he let it go.
"I have another question."
She remained there, though she didn't deign to meet his eyes, and he found the question he'd meant to ask forgotten, replaced by, "Why do you hate Scots?"
She blushed to the tips of her small ears, her skin pinkening against her crisp white blouse and her ever-present choker. "If you please, I would rather not discuss my dislike of Scots with a Scot."
"You can tell me. I will no' bite."
She gave him a wide-eyed look that said she wasn't sure on that count at all and hadn't thought about the possibility until he'd brought it up. Finally she said, "I've heard very unfavorable things about them - about you. Worse than any of the other outsiders Pascal has lured here."
Court exhaled, reckoning it might be time to admit that his crew's Highlander tales had worked too well.
Whenever they arrived in a new area, his men spread rumors to the people underlining the Highlanders' brutality, their lust for blood, and their enjoyment of torture. Then, when the thirty-five Scots in their company, some painted, some in kilts, all nearing or exceeding six feet tall, gave a savage battle yell and charged with the requisite crazed look in their eyes, the combatants ran. They almost always ran.
The farmers and ranch hands in Andorra had fled so fast that even his quick cousin Niall could barely swat the last one on the arse with his sword.
Only one leader and his men had stood their ground....
Court's eyes followed her slim hand when she smoothed an already immaculate crease in her skirt - today a bright red one. "And what did you think of Scots before we came here?"
She frowned, appearing genuinely confused. "I didn't think of Scots."
He scowled at that. "And now?"
"Now that you've come, you've shown yourself to be the epitome of all I've heard."
He waved her on with his cast.
She crossed her arms over her chest and took a breath. "Violence surrounds you, as shown by your beating, but also by the gashes on your fingers. I'd wondered how you could receive such a peculiar injury, then concluded you'd cut them on someone's teeth when you hit him in the face."
Court nodded, extremely impressed. That was exactly what had happened. He nearly smiled remembering the satisfaction of splitting the Spaniard's lips, of the blood he'd spat for at least an hour afterward....
"You have a history of it as demonstrated by the scars covering you. I'd heard that your people live in bands - "
"Clans," he grated. "They're called clans."
She shrugged. "And that these clans fight with each other constantly because you are a bloodthirsty people more concerned with warring than with culture or refinement." He noticed she'd begun pressing one finger after another against her crossed arms as she ticked off points. "You are mannerless. Your halfhearted gratitude to me for saving your life bespeaks a sense of entitlement - "
"It bespeaks lack of practice in being beholden."
She raised her eyebrows in an expression that said if he continued to talk, she would cease. "You look like a blackguard. Except when you are angry. Then you look like a brute that could readily kill me. Your insulting me that first day was hurtful and uncalled for. I've heard it's that way with your people - a complete lack of delicacy. There's little thought behind your eyes...."
"I've heard enough," he snapped when she appeared to be just gathering steam. Many held these misimpressions, and he and his men played on them with the stories they spread, but to hear them voiced back to him by an Andorran?...Scots were a thousand times prouder and more accomplished than these medieval crag-of-a-country people cut off from the changing world.
She blinked as if taken aback by his seething tone, then turned to walk out, tossing over her shoulder, "Indeed, your vocation may be the least of your failings."
Damn it, I wasn't finished talking to you....
Though the movement pained him, he reached out and grabbed her wrist. She gave a startled cry, snatching her hand from his. It flew to her mouth, but he still heard her hiss in Catalan, "B¨¨stia," before she dashed out the doorway.
Court knew Catalan fairly well, and he definitely knew the word for beast; he'd been called it the first day his cadre had arrived and had heard it in whispers daily thereafter.
She had to try the key several times before getting it into the lock. He'd shaken her. Unfortunately, Court knew he looked like a beast. He'd studied his reflection this morning, imagining how this woman might see him.
The vessels in both eyes had exploded, so the whites were red. The right side of his face was still mottled black and blue, and his normally squared jaw looked even more so with the swelling and with a week's worth of beard highlighting it. She was highborn to her toes - she'd probably never seen a man in this condition before.
Just now, when she'd peered at him as she might at something on the bottom of her boot, he'd felt like a barbarian, like the animal she'd called him. He was beginning to despise her condescending tone and her sharp looks of disgust, even as he struggled to comprehend why he could possibly mind enough to be bothered by either.
Today had been the first time Annal¨ªa had faced the Scot with the definite knowledge that he was a mercenary.
Before Vitale had confirmed her fears, she'd hoped MacCarrick wasn't a killer for hire because she'd felt some small, minute - piddling, really - spark of curiosity about the intractable man. But no longer.
During their meeting this afternoon, she had focused on the injuries still marring his face, reminding herself that it didn't matter if he and Pascal had had a falling-out - the evidence of their history was glaring. MacCarrick's every day here was a risk and it was one she refused to take to help a boorish, pawing mercenary like him. As soon as he was able, she'd demand he leave her home....
"Mademoiselle," Vitale called from the doorway behind her, interrupting her thoughts.
How long had she been ambling mindlessly through the house? She turned, dismayed to see the sun setting behind him.
When Vitale met her, he was crushing his hat in his hands. "The boy from the village has brought a letter for you."
"Is it from Aleix?" she asked, heart in her throat.
"It is not. But it might contain information about Master Llorente."
As he pulled it from his vest pocket, she murmured absently, "Please get the boy a nice dinner and a soft bed." No reason under heaven excused bad manners.
"I've already seen to it." He handed over the letter, his face drawn.
She nodded and turned for the study, walking with a stiff spine and unhurried steps, but once Vitale was out of sight, she sprinted down the hallway, sliding on the rugs. Tripping inside the room, heart thudding, she nearly ripped open the paper before she got there.
Impertinent Vitale followed her in, which meant he'd heard her running, but she couldn't be bothered with that now. Her brother hadn't written in weeks, and waiting for word had been unbearable. He was the only family left to her since her father's death, and Aleix had been more of a father than Llorente had ever been prepared to be.
She didn't care what men said - waiting for someone to return from battle had to be much, much worse than the battle itself.
Her nerves were taut.
At the old oak desk, she shoved back the leather chair and lit a candle, chasing away the growing darkness. Then, letter opener in hand, she flipped over the missive.
The room spun. She stared blankly at the sender's name - General Reynaldo Pascal.
Instead of tearing it open, she now cut it slowly. She had to scan parts of it several times because her hands shook so wildly - and because she could scarcely believe the content.
"What does it say?" Vitale asked anxiously.
By the time she reached Pascal's arrogant signature, bile had risen in her throat. Her hands went limp, and the letter fluttered to the top of the desk, nearly catching the candle flame. In a daze, she sank into the chair.
Vitale snatched up the letter as if to read, even though he'd refused to learn how to. "Tell me what it says!"
She hardly recognized her own deadened voice when she related, "Pascal defeated Aleix's men more than a week ago, capturing them all. Aleix is imprisoned, his life in the general's hands. There is only one thing that can convince Pascal to spare him."
Vitale sat back into the oversized chair opposite her, looking very small and weary. "He wanted to wed you before. Is he demanding to now?"
She nodded. "I just don't understand how he found out who I am." When Pascal had asked for her hand, she'd feared he'd discovered she was the last female descendant of the House of Castile, but Aleix had assured her the general had probably become infatuated after he'd seen her at a village festival. Now, looking back, she realized Aleix had always known and had tried to spare her worry. In the back of her mind she wondered what else he had spared her....
"Maybe some of the villagers remember when your mother came here, and they told Pascal."
She nodded, lost in thought. Her mother, Elisabet Trist¨¢n, had been banished from Castile, Spain, to the mountain cage of Andorra, married sight unseen to Llorente, the wealthiest count there. Elisabet, the daughter of a princess, had been given to the much older man and exiled into a land that might as well have been an island, so isolated was it. Because she'd let passion guide her.
It ultimately destroyed her as well.
She glanced up. "Of course, that must be it, the villagers. I'd just believed we'd been so circumspect, remaining here, avoiding that connection." She and Aleix had never drawn attention to themselves and had forgone any of the benefits their positions might afford, partly because they shunned that kind of life. Yet Annal¨ªa's isolation wasn't only to avoid notice. Fearing she would be like her mother, Llorente had kept her secluded as much as possible - in fact, only Aleix had persuaded Llorente to send her to school instead of a convent.
"The rumors that Pascal plans to take Spain must be true." Vitale shook his head slowly. "The damned fools have allowed an army to build up right on their border because no one cares about tiny Andorra."
"I thought he wanted to take control over Queen Isabella like the other generals who have, but that's not it. Think about it - if he wants me, then he doesn't want to simply control the queen."
"You think he wants to replace her?"
She nodded. "He probably plans to use me to control Aleix, setting him up as a figurehead of some sort."
Vitale frowned. "But you've told me your house has no claim to that throne."
"Well, no real one. At least not in the last hundred years. But Isabella's hated. Mare de D¨¦u, if she thinks we are exerting..." She put her hand to her neck, for once not to check her choker.
She stood to pace. Ever since she could remember, she'd always paced when upset. Her prickly Andorran nanny had complained of her wearing thin a rug when she was only five. She recalled that a few years after her father had caught her. He'd been so angry, so...disappointed in her. "People pace because they have no control," he'd said, his voice laced with iron. "Will you be one of them? Or will you be a Llorente?"
The memory made her drop down into the chair as though pushed, but without the soothing rhythm - the pacing forth and then the always dependable back - despair set in. Fighting tears, she stared at the paper and the broad, scratching strokes of ink within. She couldn't think of all this now. All she wanted to know was if Aleix was hurt. Was her courageous big brother fearful at all?
"Vitale," she murmured. She was about to cry, and it would pain her for him to see it.
He knew her so well, he didn't ask, just reached forward to squeeze her hand over the desk. "We will talk tomorrow. Ring the bell up here if you need anything."
She waited until she could be sure he wouldn't come back and then when she finally blinked her eyes, two fat tears spilled over, followed by more. After several minutes of struggling, she gave in and put her head in her hands.
"What's in that letter, lass?"
Annal¨ªa raised her face, astonished to see her patient up and roaming freely. She frantically dashed at her eyes, mortified that he'd seen her like this. No one saw Annal¨ªa Llorente crying. This was far too personal. How had he escaped?
"Tell me what makes you cry so."
He sounded angry that she cried. Not disappointed or disgusted but angry. She frowned. How puzzling. His eyes were focused on the letter as though he would kill it. Focused on the letter.... She caught it on the candle flame and tossed the burning page into the empty fireplace.
He gave her one tight nod at the action as though she'd impressed him. "That's the only thing that could prevent me from reading it."
"Obviously manners and respect for privacy hold no sway over you." She was still drying tears, trying not to shudder with embarrassment. "How did you get out?"
"Picked the lock. Now what did it say?"
"It's none of your business," she said tartly. Her face was finally dry, but now felt tight. "Please leave me alone."
His expression hadn't changed. He had the same expectant look as if he'd just asked the question again and she would answer.
"It doesn't concern you," she felt constrained to say again. And it didn't concern him. Not for certain, at least. But what if the Highlanders were the ones who had defeated her brother's men? What if this one was responsible in some way?
And she'd saved him.
She had to get away. Shooting to her feet, she grabbed her skirt and swished around the desk. When he saw her approaching and didn't step aside, she decided she must forgo manners as well and barrel right past him.
He blocked her exit, putting a stiff arm in front of her.
Fury snapped hot within her. "Stop this, this instant, and let me pass!"
He looked unmoved, his watchful gaze flickering over her face, studying her as if learning her reaction. "What's upset you?"
"Let me go or I will scream."
He bent his arm and leaned into it, looming closer to her. "And who'll come to your rescue? Vitale? I've noticed there are no other men about who are younger than he is."
She'd feared he would come to this conclusion, and he was absolutely right. All of the ranch hands had followed Aleix. And were now captured or dead. Her hand rose to her lips as the thought arose.
Studying, watching her. She cast it down.
"I asked nicely," he grated. "My patience wears thin."
His patience? "As does your welcome!"
"I want you to tell me."
"Why would you even care?" For the life of her, she couldn't imagine.
"Maybe I doona like to see a pretty lady cry."
Utter frustration robbed her energy. "And what would you do about it?" she asked in a deadened voice. "Solve my problems? Slay my dragons?"
His brows drew together as if he'd just realized he shouldn't, in fact, care.
She gave him a disgusted look in return. "What you should be concerned about is leaving my home and removing the threat you pose to everyone here." She feinted left and ducked under his right arm.
As she hastened away, he called, "You're bonny when you're angry, Anna."
At his mocking use of her given name, she stumbled, shocked to the core.
Back in her room, after locking her door, she stood thrumming with indignation. She would have thought that this heinous encounter, coupled with the crushing news, would have made her weep beyond measure.
Strangely, the anger invigorated her. The Highlander might have seen her cry, but she'd never again give him the satisfaction of seeing her weakness - no eyes swollen from tears or face wan from pacing until the moon set.
When she cast him from her home tomorrow like the morning rubbish, she'd look like the princesses her foremothers were.