"I've heard you've been going to Llorente's room each night. What is this about?" Pascal demanded.
Olivia answered easily. "When I can't sleep, I enjoy plaguing him." Her face was cold.
He scrutinized her for a moment, then gave her a smile of relief. "I'd worried. Some women might find him handsome."
"He is weak. I could never see past that," she said in a steady tone. She'd learned to be like this when her relatives first sent her to live with Pascal. She'd been ten and had just lost her mother, Ysobel Olivia, who had been her entire world.
Her relatives thought her an abomination, and treated her as one, frightening and confusing her because her gentle mother had adored her and showed her how much every day. Compared to them, Pascal hadn't seemed so bad once she learned that he wanted her to be like him.
She'd excelled, fooled everyone, fooled herself, until that one night last spring just before they were to leave for Andorra when she'd overheard the servants whispering about her mother. They'd talked of Pascal and his three favored soldiers riding into her mother's village, smelling of "blood and evil." Pascal had been instantly besotted with the beautiful widow Ysobel.
As ever, he'd taken what he desired....
"Perhaps you will refrain?" he asked Olivia, though they both knew it was an order.
She looked him in the eye, making her face like marble, her expression blank. He liked that about her. He'd never know the secrets her mind held. Like how she knew that the night he took her mother, he'd been feeling generous.
"Of course, Papa," she said, though there was only a twenty-five percent chance that he was.
After a dinner where he ate little and drank nothing, Court joined Niall outside on the porch, sinking onto a rough-hewn bench. The night was cool and the moon cast light as if it were day. Shadows framed every corner and tree, making it impossible to relax.
"How's the lass?" Niall asked. "Specifically, what state have you put her in?"
Court shrugged. She wouldn't even look at him when he brought her food, just sat on that unwieldy cot with her knees drawn up to her chest, body tense, and eyes glittering with fury. Her chin was scraped from his kiss.
She should be furious at him; he'd behaved like the beast she thought him and had no explanation for himself, much less for her. He'd never lost control like that.
She'd said Pascal hadn't touched her and he believed her, but had he kissed her? Had Pascal shown more restraint than Court had? Likely. And she'd chosen him over Court. She probably found the man attractive. He scowled at the thought, knowing every woman would find him so.
"Do you think she's planning something?" Niall asked.
"Count on it, after her stunt at the riverside."
"You'd have done the same thing in her position."
"Aye, but that does no' help me now. She'll keep trying. Do I go in there and force her to believe her brother is dead? I'm a bastard, but I doona know if I can shake that into her. Besides, Pascal and his daughter have her fooled."
"Hell, Pascal fooled us."
Court couldn't argue with that.
"Listen, your brothers'll flay me if I let anything happen to you."
"No' again," he snapped as he stood to lean against a splintery pillar.
"The curse, Court," he said simply.
Walk with death or walk alone. They'd all heard it.
"You know you can never have a woman of your own. And still, sometimes you look at the lass as if you'd like nothing more than to keep her."
"I doona plan to."
"Things have a way of happening outside of our plans."
"No' to me, they doona. Never in fact. And I've got a book to prove it."
"Aye, the book. 'Death and torment to those caught in your wake,'" he quoted. "Do you think the lass truly will be safe when we leave her in France?"
"Does no' matter, does it? I broke it and I'll fix it, then it's done. I dinna sign on to be her lifelong guardian."
"The idea of leaving her behind is no' sitting well with the men. Both MacMungan brothers said they'd take her to wed right now, and more are on their way. Even Liam said he'd take her if we're just going to throw her away."
Court's answer was a cruel laugh. Annal¨ªa, being so unusual and vivid, would wither like fruit on the vine among the dour MacMungan clan. Liam could never control her. "The only reason they'd be infatuated is because they've never encountered anything like her before." He couldn't fault them for freeing her for a morning even as his ire grew just thinking about it. He was responsible for this - he'd brought a delicate foreign beauty among a band of coarse Highlanders. "I wonder if they ever considered her unbounded hatred of Scots?"
"Aye, she mistrusts us, and finds our ways strange, but her prejudice amuses the men. They know she's no' a spiteful lass, she just does no' know better. Hell, when they asked to touch her hand, she even shyly allowed it."
That made him gnash his teeth. "And how'd you find it, Niall?"
He hesitated. "Softer than I could conceive," he finally said. "But that's no' what's important. You ken she's never been treated like this, and if you'd be a wee bit more gentle in your dealings with her, she might no' be so quick to believe the things she's heard."
"Gentle? She was no' gentle when she bashed my head yesterday."
"She was afraid," he said, waving it away. "A woman like that needs to be cosseted, which she's no' been. I saw her face."
Court exhaled, then reluctantly admitted, "I doona want to be so with her." But everything about her made him crazed. Her feminine mannerisms, her accent, even the way she blushed all combined to drive him mad. In a low tone, he said, "I want to be different with her, but...I canna seem to."
"Then why do you no' just ride ahead to Toulouse? We can meet you at the posting house."
That thought infuriated him. "No."
"Because I'm no' ready to be done with her yet."
"Christ, you can be a selfish bloody bastard. Sometimes I feel I doona even know you anymore."
"Of course, I can be. I'm still a mercenary and a killer. Hell, I'd sell my own sister. Is that no' what they say in the clan?"
"They say that because you will no' return - "
"I'll return when I've paid off my land - which I canna do now short of riding for Otto." At Niall's raised eyebrows, Court added, "Everyone needs that pay. I need that pay."
Niall gave him a disappointed look. "Life is not all about money. I thought you realized that when we broke from him."
"What is it about, Niall?" he snapped. Inside, two men glanced up from arm wrestling. Court lowered his voice. "If I canna have a woman and family of my own, and if I lose the land I've worked bloody hard for, then what exactly is my life about?"
"I doona know. You'll have to figure that out for yourself. But I do know it's no' about staying near a young woman until you destroy her life."
"You're that sure I'd destroy it?"
"Ethan did with his woman."
Years ago, Ethan had gotten engaged to Sarah, a girl he hardly knew from the neighboring MacKinnon clan. Her family had been eager, even after hearing of the curse, and Ethan's title demanded an heir, so he'd agreed. Sarah died at the age of nineteen, she died the night before the wedding, and no one knew how. "I'm no' Ethan, and I doona intend to get engaged to the chit!"
"And what about your da?"
Court swung around to face Niall, brows drawn, feeling as though he'd been punched. "I...We dinna mean..." He trailed off. What to say? That he and his brothers hadn't been responsible for their father's death? "You would remind me of that?"
"I'm sorry I needed to, Court." Niall put a hand on his shoulder before turning for the door. "You've much to consider."
To consider? Court would no more want to purposely revisit the morning his father had died than he would desire to truly contemplate his future. But hadn't he been doing both in the last few days? Since he'd met Annal¨ªa, he'd thought more about what he was missing than he had in the previous decade.
He started for her room, not knowing what he would say to her, not caring if she insulted him, but just wanting...something. He unlocked the door, then eased it open.
The air escaped his lungs, and he leaned his head on his forearm against the doorway. "Bloody hell."