If You Dare

Chapter Twenty-five


She'd eaten, she'd bathed, and now that she'd met him downstairs in the parlor, she was pacing, trudging back and forth across the plush carpets. Court sank back in a chair, knowing this wasn't a good sign.

"I need to go shopping," she informed him as she passed his chair. "For clothes."

"I just bought you clothing in the village."

"You know I can't go like that here."

He stared at her skirts swishing too high above her ankles and knew she was right. He also knew she wasn't leaving this house. "It's too crowded and too dangerous."

"Surely the assassins who want to murder me haven't caught up with us yet. And I'm not asking you to pay for them. I could finally sell a piece of jewelry."

"The hell you will." Did she think he fought her on this because of money? Did she believe she needed to sell her irreplaceable jewelry because he was unable to clothe her? "I'm no' letting you sell your things."

"Then I could go to my English friend's home and borrow from her."

He'd read some letters from that one, too. How many times could she drop that she was fifteenth from the throne? The idea of Anna asking for anything from that snob made his hackles rise - and his pride suffer.

While Anna was with him, it was his due to provide her with things she needed. He gave himself an inward shake when he realized that if she were his, he'd go into hock making her happy. "Forget it. I'm trying to protect you," he snapped. And hock it would be. He didn't have wealth like she saw here. This house was to be Ethan's. His eldest brother was laird and chief of the clan, and the title, the estates, and the family money were all his. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Court had returned to England with no income, no contracts, and no crew.

"Please let me send a note to her - "

"I said no."

She changed tactics. "I appreciate all you've done for me, MacCarrick, but I need to know that if I wanted to walk out that door and have my friends help me, I could."

"Damn it, Anna, no you could no'." He stood, catching her arm. "The only way you're leaving this house is when your brother comes for you. I estimate a week or two, so you'll just have to put up with me until then."

"Why? Our bargain doesn't seem to count anymore." She lowered her voice. "You said we can't be lovers. What exactly am I to you?"

What did she expect him to say? Did she want him to admit he desired more from her, when she only wanted to repeat the night before? "I made you a promise - "

"I'm a promise to keep?" she asked, giving him an expression as though she were disappointed in him.

"Aye. No." He made some growling noise. "Christ, I doona know. Then what am I to you?"

"Honestly, I don't know either." She twined her fingers in front of her. "But you won't let me find out."

When she turned for the stairs, he sank back to his chair again, dumbstruck by their exchange. Could she want more from him? And what did it matter since he couldn't give it?...

"A word, Court?" Hugh intoned from the doorway. He turned for the study, expecting Court to follow.

How bloody much had Hugh heard? Court stood and pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, walking without energy toward the study, but when he passed Erskine on the way, Court said, "Find a dressmaker or seamstress who will come here. A good one."

With a "Right away!" Erskine scuttled off.

Damn it, Court wasn't in the mood to explain Anna to his brother, but this appeared to be an opportune time to find out about his money. When he entered, Hugh was sitting at the desk, his face grave, his manner all business.

Court had barely gotten a glass of proper whisky and sat across from him when Hugh warned, "Watch yourself."

"It's good to see you, too." Court raised his glass. "Aye, that's right, brother. I managed to survive another campaign. Shall we discuss the investments made while I was away?"

"Later," Hugh said, plainly concerned with only one subject. "I've never seen you look at anything like you do her."

Court peered into his drink. "I can admit to some feeling for her."

"Want to tell me who she is?"

"It's a long story."

Hugh steepled his fingers. "She does no' look like she's going to be speaking to you this afternoon anyway."

True. So he detailed Pascal's treachery, Annal¨ªa's kidnapping and escape, and the danger she was in now. He related almost everything except what they'd done privately and how she had him so knotted inside he couldn't think when she was near.

When he finished, Hugh didn't have any questions, just said, "You're possessive about her. As if she's yours already."

"I will no' let those bastards get near her."

"It's more than that. I see it clearly." His voice went low. "I know because I've felt it clearly."

Yes, Hugh knew what he was going through. Hugh had wanted the same woman for years. Now that Court finally understood what his brother had been feeling all this time, he didn't know how he'd done it. Court had no doubt that years of this with Annal¨ªa would turn his mind to soup.

"So now that we know how you feel, what about the lass?" Hugh asked. "Does she care for you? It'll make it harder for you to let her go - "

"I doona think she'll have a problem once there's someone to take my place. Bring her a nice, wealthy gentleman and she'll be content."

Hugh grimaced as if in pain. "That bad?"

"She thinks I'm a brute. Lacking a Castilian's sophistication. You heard her - she's no' particularly keen on Scots in general."

His brows drew together. "She dinna seem averse to you like that."

Court drank deeply. "There were a couple of times with her when I was no' as strong as I should have been." And she sees no reason for those times to end.

"This woman obviously comes from a fine family."

Court muttered, "You have no idea."

"What do you mean?"

"Pascal wanted her because she has...well, she's a bit...royal."

Hugh tried to speak, then closed his mouth. On his second attempt, he grated, "Could you find any woman you were supposed to be with less? You ken you canna bed her without consequences."

"I have no' bedded her."

Hugh eyed him hard, then apparently decided he was telling the truth. "And you will no'?"

Court rubbed his hand over his face.

"You'd have to marry her."

"I know that," he snapped.

"Do you, Court? You and Ethan and I do a lot of questionable things among the three of us, but we've never gone about ruining young innocents. Consider the repercussions for a woman in her position."

"I would never ruin her."

"So you'd risk this woman's safety?"

"You think I doona go over again and again that she's in danger because of me? She was attacked three times and shot on my watch. She's been targeted for murder because of my actions. I know she would've been better off if she'd never met me."

"Then what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to fix her life. Then I'm going to get out of it."

"Why did you no' eat more?" MacCarrick asked as he escorted Annal¨ªa to her room that night. "You canna afford to miss many meals, lass."

Though she'd been put out with him earlier, his obvious concern for her over dinner mitigated her irritation. "I just have to get used to the different foods," she answered. "I've never had Saxon fare." Raised on a mountain, Annal¨ªa had never been overly fond of seafood. And the Brits seemed to eat little else.

"Be glad it was no' Celtic fare," he mumbled.

She glanced up at him. "Is Scottish food strange?"

He gave her a short laugh. "For you? Aye. It would be."

When he grasped her elbow and steered her up the stairs, she said, "The tension between you and your brother at dinner was thick. Did you fight with him?"

"I did," he finally admitted.

"Will you tell me why?"

He hesitated, but she suspected he wanted to tell her. At length, he said, "Hugh did something high-handed with my property. I dinna appreciate that he acted without my permission."

Though a vexing urge arose to point out that it must be extremely high-handed for him to think it so, she instead asked, "Did he have good intentions?"

"Oh, aye. But that's not the point. He thinks he knows what's better for me than I do for myself."

She couldn't help but grin at his surly tone and reached over to touch his hand at her elbow. "I thought that was a sibling's prerogative to think that way. Aleix is the same. When he makes a decision for me, I try to remind myself how fortunate I am just to have someone so concerned about my welfare - like you have your two brothers. I remind myself of this, then I set about thwarting him." Her look of amusement faded. "MacCarrick, are you sure Aleix will find me here?"

"I've no doubt. He'll travel to your school and receive the message and then it's only a matter of time until he arrives here."

She nodded slowly, lost in thought as they reached her room. He placed his palm at her lower back to guide her inside, but she paused in front of the bed, blushing from memories of the night before. She perceived his thumb faintly rubbing her back, and wondered if he realized he was doing it. When she turned to face him, his hand trailed along her waist before dropping abruptly.

"MacCarrick, will you think of me after I leave here?"

His face was impassive, concealing his emotions, but she sensed conflict within him.

"Anna," he began with an exhaled breath as if he were about to give some kind of an explanation. Yet after a long hesitation, he said simply, "Aye, I will."

Before she could respond, he said, "I'll be sitting right outside the door, so call me if you need anything."

"You're not staying?"

"No, I've made sure your room is safe - "

"But...But you've slept in the room with me every night." She hadn't anticipated this. They always stayed together. That was simply what they did.

He gave her a look as if riled with her - as if he wanted to stay but she prevented him. "No' any longer, lass," he snapped, turning for the door.


He didn't turn back when he answered, "Because I might try to...I might do something we'd both regret."

"Why do you think I'd regret that?"

She saw his shoulders stiffen, saw his hands clench. "You doona know me, Anna." As he shut the door behind him, she barely heard him mutter, "If you did, you would no' waste your interest on me."

Alone, she stared after the door. "You would no' waste your interest..." Too late - her interest was firmly engaged. With his words in her mind, she readied herself for bed and lay down.

Though she was exhausted, her skin was sensitive against the fine sheets when she remembered the details of last night. It felt like a lifetime ago that MacCarrick had kissed and touched her so passionately. It seemed a dozen lifetimes ago that she'd first found him by the river. She'd had no idea how much that man was going to change her life.

Part of her wanted to seduce MacCarrick just to make sure she could. Another part was curious about that final step that he was denying her. Still another part of her was constantly aware that he wouldn't leave so easily afterward. She didn't understand why the thought of their never seeing each other again didn't affect him as it did her.

She'd been honest today when she'd said she didn't know what he was to her - the situation was so new to her - but one thing she was certain of was that each day her feelings for him grew. Where would that leave her by the time Aleix arrived?

She kicked off the covers, too warm to sleep. Wasn't it supposed to be damp and cold in England? Must make the best of it. She rose to crack open a window. When she pulled aside the heavy damask curtains and reached for the sash, she stilled.

She stared for long moments as if the site before her was utterly foreign and inexplicable. But it was foreign, and comprehension came slowly, and with it a sinking feeling in her belly.

He'd nailed her windows shut.

She tilted her head and contemplated the sight with detachment. The nail heads were matte against the glossy white painted wood. Around each nail the paint was unharmed. Of course, it would be. He had a steady hand.

With a ragged breath she released the cumbersome curtains. The understanding that she was a target had always been there weighing on her, but with the odd tableau she'd just seen, awareness seeped in until she thought she'd choke on it. She hurried to light a candle to chase away the darkness as she hadn't done since she was a little girl.

Even though the room was warm, she burrowed under the covers, hot, afraid, and lonely, and hours passed before she finally fell asleep in the unfamiliar room.

Instead of her usual dreams of riding across fields or, of late, MacCarrick wrapping her hair around his fist as he tugged her close to kiss her, she dreamed of her death.

She bolted upright in bed, out of breath, shuddering. Her hand flew to her face and she felt wetness on her cheeks. Why would she have nightmares now when she was the safest she'd been?

Because before he'd always been with her - every night she'd felt his presence, felt him watching her as she drifted to sleep.

And because deep down she'd finally recognized a truth that she'd desperately fought. A fourth attack would be the last.

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