If You Dare

Chapter Twenty-four


When Court woke Anna early the next morning, she was slow to rouse, but when she did, she smiled shyly at him. He didn't even bother questioning why his chest reacted to the sight of it. "How do you feel?"

She sat up and gave him a surprised look, as if she'd woken in a foreign but more comfortable body. "I feel wonderful." She didn't seem embarrassed by her nudity, though the blanket bundled in her lap covered some, as did her hair falling over one breast. Which left one uncovered -

When she put her hands above her head to stretch, he ran his palm over the back of his neck, and grated, "Mind the arm, lass." If she were his, he'd always be there to see her stretch in the morning. And he'd make sure each night that she had no clothes on to conceal her.

"Oh, I'd forgotten about it completely."

He gave her a tight nod. "I'll leave you to dress. We'll go on the crossing soon."

Before he could escape, she asked in a small voice, "Why are you...different?"

Because he'd realized in the long hours of the night that she could never be his. Even if he didn't have a five-hundred-year-old curse shadowing him and even if he could somehow convince a fine woman like her to want to stay with him, Court could never have her. And now he cared about her enough that he refused to ruin her. "Because things will no' be the same between us once we reach England. We canna be together as we were last night."

"Then I want to stay here," she said, surprising him.

"No, you know we canna do that."

When she began to reply, he said, "Here. I almost forgot." He dug into his pocket. "I have your choker." He'd finally figured out the secret behind the choker, and held it with the length dropping down and swinging in front of her, hoping this would startle some sense into her about him.

He'd recognized it wasn't merely a piece of jewelry - it was a talisman that had been her mother's. Her mother wasn't buried with her father, but alone in Paris, away from Andorra and from her family in Castile. She'd somehow been disowned by both. By the way Annal¨ªa had acted after the grotto, he suspected he knew why.

She wore it so she wouldn't be like her mother.

To his bewilderment, her gaze flickered over it without interest, then returned, intent only on his face. "I don't want it. It doesn't fit any longer."

When she wouldn't accept it, he stuffed it into his pocket, then strode from the room. He shut the door and leaned back against it, thinking that once he got to London, his brothers would see that this woman had him twisted inside. They'd wonder how, if Court cared about her at all, he could let it get this far.

He wondered, too. How could he explain that as things developed between him and Anna, he hadn't felt that he was taking more than he ought?

He had felt that finally - finally - the pieces were falling into place.

Even the exciting steamer ferry trip across the channel did nothing to break up the tension between Annal¨ªa and MacCarrick.

He hadn't spoken to her in anything but one-word answers, except when he'd asked if she was seasick. She'd glanced around and seen that most everyone else was, but when she answered no, he appeared bothered, which hurt her feelings.

She scarcely cared that he was surly to her because she had much to think on. She wanted to memorize every instant of the night before because she never, never wanted to forget even the tiniest detail.

Before MacCarrick she'd gone about her life completely ignorant of the staggering pleasure a man can give a woman. She caught him scowling at her from the ship's railing and bit her lip. And the pleasure a woman could give a man. She'd seen it....

He'd always been in control, yet she'd wrested it from him with naught but her fingers, and made him yell and thrash with pleasure with every muscle in that huge body going rigid.

Just remembering made her breasts grow fuller and more sensitive, and simply looking at his talented fingers gripping the railing...She frowned. They'd tightened so much around the wood they'd gone white. She glanced up, caught him studying her as she'd been staring at his hands. She parted her lips, and a breath shuddered out. He turned sharply away.

This wouldn't do. She couldn't keep thinking of the night before without longing...without lusting. There. She could admit it. Annal¨ªa Llorente lusted for a ruthless Highland mercenary.

Yet she felt tied to him, too, bound to him by what they shared. Last night, she'd acted blas¨¦ about his leaving her behind, but to tell the truth, she hated the thought. She'd actually entertained the idea of keeping the Highlander. Did that mean she loved him? She couldn't say, but she knew she couldn't stand the idea of being away from him.

She'd had moments where she anticipated a future of his lovemaking and cajoled half grins, but she didn't know how she'd accomplish this since she'd never be allowed to marry MacCarrick even if he'd "ruined" her.

Not that MacCarrick wished for marriage to her. He'd made what he wanted clear. "Why have one when you can have many?" he'd asked, which made her angry. She'd rather not have him than have to share him. Where had that thought come from? She felt like a jealous schoolgirl who wouldn't share her ribbon. She knew better than ever to be proprietary over a man.

Only one thing could keep a man by a woman's side - she'd seen it in rare couples - and that was love.

When the steamer began docking, and he took her arm, she asked him, "Do you want to know what I was thinking?"

"Anna, every man on board knew what you were thinking about."

"Oh." Annal¨ªa hated being obvious.

"Every one of them would have taken you up on it." He sounded furious as he steered her toward a railed gangway.

He was furious? She was the one who had reason to be. She looked back at the ship and in an innocent tone asked, "Were any of them husband material?"

He glowered at her so fiercely any other woman would have quaked in her garters. After that, he said nothing, and his expression defied her to speak to him. Though she decided she wouldn't give him the pleasure, their next stop was proving unbearable.

He was taking her to London on a train. At the station, she had many questions, and she knew he could provide all the answers. It was like having a book in your hand with knowledge you wanted, but the pages were glued together. Sooner or later you'd want nothing more than to hurl it against the wall.

Then London was a chaotic snarl of noise and wares and food smells to be investigated, but he swiftly got them a hansom, and soon they were away from the city center riding into a charming residential area. Copious townhomes with late summer gardens queued along the brick-paved street. Trees abounded and lawns stretched in front of each with spotless perfection. "Fifteenth from the Throne" hadn't been lying when she'd said Brits had taste.

They stopped in front of a grand property with a stately red brick house. Large without being overblown, with every detail tasteful, the property bespoke the wealth of the owners. As was fitting.

"We're here."

She glanced at him, turned to observe the home once again, then frowned. "Did you give Aleix directions to this place?"

"Aye. He should find it easily enough."

"Do you know people who work here?"

He looked at her strangely as he opened his door. "Aye. I suppose I do." Then he was assisting her out and waltzing her up the freshly washed steps, directly to the double doors. The front doors.

"You can't just knock for entrance here, MacCarrick." If he had friends who worked here, he'd get them in trouble.

The skin around his eyes tightened as he rapped the huge ornate knocker. "I can."

Just as she was going to tell him to let her speak for them, one door opened to show a dour-looking butler, whose expression creased into a smile when he saw MacCarrick. "Master Courtland!"

"Erskine, it's good to see you."

As Erskine led them in, Annal¨ªa frowned at MacCarrick.

"Is this your home?"

"It's my family's. My home's in Scotland."

"Oh." And precisely why would the mercenary's family home be beautiful and luxurious? "Is yours as nice as this one?"

He gave her an unreadable expression. "Do you like me better now that you know I come from money?"

She poked her chin up. The nerve. She wasn't exactly a pauper. "No, to like you better, I would have had to like you some." Though her answer was dripping disdain, her words seemed to please him.

"Then no, my home is no' near to being this nice."

In the next room hung a large portrait of a woman, clearly the focal point. Annal¨ªa inspected it, fascinated with the beautiful redhead. "Who is she?"

"Fiona MacCarrick." He said the words as though reluctant. "My mother."

"She's beautiful."

He nodded tightly, giving her the impression that he wasn't close to her. She lingered, noting the quality of the work. The woman was posed in front of a piano, making Annal¨ªa wonder if the family had musical talent. "Does she play?"

"Aye, even a Scottish woman can learn to play the piano."

"MacCarrick! Don't take meaning from innocent questions. Pianos are rare in Andorra and denote wealth. A family would be proud to have one and would pose in front of it whether they played or not."

"Then I apologize."

Still piqued, she muttered, "It's not as if I questioned her posing with a book in her hand," then continued her examination of the home. As he guided her into another spacious area, she recognized that something in the house was...amiss. "Are there any women here?"

"No sisters. I have two older brothers."

"Any wives?"

His expression tightened again. "No wives."

"Your brothers are older than you and still not married? What do you people have against marriage?"

"This subject's ended."

She hated when he said that. How dare he? We are not kissing anymore. We are not touching. We are not talking about this subject. She stopped and refused to follow him, weary of his orders and of his coldness today. "Fine, I shall try to determine answers to my own questions. They won't be as factual or flattering as yours would have been. For instance, I shall say that none of your brothers are married because they are like you - thick-skulled, ill-mannered barbarians. Mal educat Escoc¨¨s! Rude Scots who couldn't hope to get a mate without a club - "

"Appears you've brought a guest, Court." A deep voice interrupted her.

She whirled around, then craned her neck up. And this would be one of the brothers she'd just been insulting. Yes, his brother was very like him, with the same black hair, the same dark watchful eyes.

"Aye, Hugh, this is Lady Annal¨ªa Llorente. She comes from Andorra and has no' yet been convinced of all my charms. Annal¨ªa, this is my thick-skulled brother, Hugh MacCarrick."

If he intended to embarrass her, he'd have to do better than that. She was a master at social situations, even uncomfortable ones. She glided over to his brother and held out her hand, smiling demurely. He took it and kissed it perfectly. "Delighted."

She turned to MacCarrick. "No, I would say he is nothing like you." When she smiled back at the brother, she saw the tight lines around the man's mouth relax for a moment and suspected that was the only indicator of amusement you'd see from him. She'd wager her Limoges collection that this one hadn't smiled in years. What an odd, solemn family.

She wondered if she'd imagined the subtle easing in his expression, because now he was all sternness. "We'll talk later?" the brother asked MacCarrick.

"Aye," he answered with a grim nod. "Later."

If she were fanciful, she'd swear there was some undercurrent between them, some unspoken...warning?

After their intense exchange, she and MacCarrick continued on. The rest of the house was just as lovely and spacious, the room she was to stay in stylish. MacCarrick had grown up amidst wealth. So what had driven him to become a mercenary? And why would his family tolerate such an occupation, even for the youngest son?

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