The woman gasped in surprise, dropping her cloth, the cloth that had started on his body clinically and purposefully, as he'd awakened, but had soon skimmed over him in sinuous movements.
Her heels clicked on the polished wooden floor when she retreated. Court watched as she smoothed her already crisp dress, then the perfect knot of hair at her nape, then the choker at her throat with slender hands. At each of these tasks, her chin rose higher.
"I-I was merely caring for you," she answered in accented English.
Instead of coming to in a haze of pain, he'd woken to her breasts glancing over the hair on his chest as she reached across him, and to one of her soft, pale hands gripping his hip while the other rubbed over his skin. As he'd felt fat drops of water hitting the sheet, he'd caught the scent of her hair, making even his beaten body stir. "Then consider me still in need of your care."
Her cheeks turned pink.
He tried to sit higher in the bed, then grimaced in pain. As if in answer, all his other wounds finally sounded the call. He glanced down at his wrist to find a cast. "Who are you?" he ground out. "And where am I?"
"My name is Annal¨ªa Elisabet Catherina Trist¨¢n. I am mistress of Casa del Llac, where you abide now, and daughter of the family Llorente." Her accent told him English wasn't her first language, though she spoke it perfectly and without hesitation, the words rolling from her tongue in a manner that was pleasing to the ear. She'd said the name Llorente proudly, as though he'd recognize it. He did feel as if he'd heard it before but couldn't place it.
"Where did you find me? And how far are we from the village?"
"Straight down this mountain on the banks of the Valira, four mountain passes to the south."
Four passes away? He wondered if his men thought him dead. He needed to send a message -
"I would ask the name of my...guest." She indicated him with a nod.
He studied her face, noting the high cheekbones and bright hazel-green eyes that matched the green-gold stone at her neck. She looked familiar to him - though he didn't see how he could ever have met then forgotten her - and he had a vague impression that she didn't like him. So why was she "caring" for him? "I'm Courtland MacCarrick."
"You are a Scot."
"Aye." At his answer, he could have sworn there was a flash of sadness in her eyes.
"And you are in Andorra because..." She trailed off.
The truth whispered in his mind: Because I was hired to tyrannize the people here. "I was just passing through."
The sadness he'd sensed disappeared, and she said in a haughty voice, "You chose to pass through a tiny country in the Pyrenees known for some of the highest mountain passes in Europe? For future reference, most simply go around."
Her condescending tone annoyed him, and his body was rapidly becoming a mass of pain. "I'm a Highlander. I like high lands."
She glared at him, then turned to leave, as if she couldn't wait to be away from him, but he needed information.
"Was I out for an entire day?" he hastily asked.
She looked longingly at the door, but then faced him. "This is your third day here."
Christ, three days? And from the feel of his ribs, he'd be another week healing before he could even sit a horse. "How did I come to be here?"
She hesitated before saying, "I found you on the shore and dragged you up here."
She looked like a stiff wind could blow her away. "You?"
"My horse and I."
His brows drew together. "There was no man who could do it?"
He was nearly six and a half feet tall and weighed more than seventeen stone. He could imagine how difficult it had been to haul him back even with the horse - especially if she lived high on the mountainside.
"We managed fine."
Court owed her a debt of gratitude; he despised being indebted in any way. He grated, "Then you saved my life."
She peered at the ceiling, appearing embarrassed.
Forcing the foreign words, he said, "You have my thanks."
She nodded and turned to go, but he didn't want the lass to leave yet. "Annal¨ªa," he said, unable to remember anything else from her catalog of names.
She whirled around, eyes wide, no doubt at the use of her given name. In a flash, he remembered her. Her beautiful countenance and curious expression had waned into sharp and glaring by the riverside. He rubbed his forehead with his good hand. In fact, she'd lamented the fact that he lived.
"That is Lady Llorente to someone such as you! You would do well to remember that."
His eyes narrowed. He'd been right. "Why did you call me an animal? Because I was so beaten?"
"Of course not," she said with an incredulous look. "I could tell you were Scottish."
Court wrestled with his temper. "Scottish?" Many people held prejudices against Scots, and some hated them sight unseen, but no context on earth gave an Andorran the right to look down on one. "Then why would you save 'someone such as me'?"
She shrugged her slim shoulders. "I would spare a mangy, rabid wolf suffering - "
"So now you think me a mangy, rabid wolf?" His head had begun pounding on both sides of his skull.
She stretched out one hand and studied her nails, a perfect picture of disdain. "If you'd let a lady finish her thoughts, I would have added that I lowered my standards to accommodate you."
He'd be damned if he'd allow this prig-arsed Andorran to look down her pert little nose at him. "A lady?" He snorted and glanced around the room. "Alone with me. No chaperone." He lifted the sheet to glance down before giving her a smirk. "And you got quite a gander. If you're such a lady, then why were you two seconds away from takin' me into your hand?"
She looked as though she fought for breath. "I...I was - "
"Granted, you doona seem like you're used to entertaining men in their rooms." He looked her up and down, not bothering to hide his blatant perusal. "But I'd wager you'd be a natural at it."
She stumbled back as though hit, her lips parting.
When she rushed out of the room, with her shoulders, which had been jammed back, now slumped, his brows drew together. He was puzzled as much by her behavior as by the unfamiliar seed of guilt that lodged in his chest. As he tested to see if he could rise from the bed, he wondered why a coldhearted bastard like himself would regret his treatment of a woman who thought him no more than - no, worse than - a beast.
He was determined to find the reasons for both reactions.
Annal¨ªa had feared she was one of those women ever since she'd known of their existence.
She'd feared that she could be one among those who lusted and acted on their passions even to their own ruin. Her discovery that the Highlander's brawny chest could fascinate her for hours had been dismaying. Realizing that each glimpse of his private place, outlined beneath the thin linen sheet, made her heart race had been devastating.
Now, worse than her own fear, a thick-skulled, barbaric Scot had looked her over and concluded she was a "natural."
Just as her Castilian mother had been.
Denying her true nature had been easy before. If she heard whispers about her "hot blood" in the village, she ignored them. She kept herself busy with the estate and with the people here. But after the Scot had come, each night became a struggle.
Just last night, she'd lain in bed thinking about his body - all of his body, which she'd studied and touched - until she'd slowly unbuttoned her nightdress and bared her breasts. The meager breeze fluttering past the curtains had grazed over her heated skin, making her shudder, making her...long.
She'd never known what to call the urges she'd felt in the night - not lust, because they never had been focused on any one man. So she'd thought of them as longing, but not last night. She'd truly felt lust, and it had been so strong she'd finally run her fingers over her own breast and down her belly.
A noise had startled her - just the house settling - but she'd jerked her hand away, ashamed.
Not only was she one of those women, she was alone in the house with a man who knew it....
When she'd finally guided the shaking key into the lock of his door, she'd fled outside, hurrying in the direction of the meadow in front of her home.
Vitale met her on the path. "What has happened? You're white as a sheet."
"It's nothing. The Scot woke."
"He's a mercenary?"
"I'm almost positive, though I am convinced he's an obnoxious man." At least he'd be gone soon. She was sure that he'd be eager to return to indiscriminate killing and sharpening knives and practicing pistols and whatever else mercenaries did.
"Did he frighten you or threaten you?"
"You never listen to me!" Vitale cried with a volley of Gallic hand gestures. "You've been too sheltered - can't comprehend that there are bad people in the world that shouldn't be saved! You're too...soft!" He said the word with disgust.
"I am not soft!"
"When I saved you from that footpad, you were too stunned to give him your choker and you quaked like a little girl."
"I was a little girl and I wasn't quaking." Nor had she been too stunned. The choker had been her mother's, and she'd already known how much she needed it.
He eyed her. "The Scot will still be weak enough that we can throw him back like a bad catch."
"Vitale!" Unconsciously, she drew her hand over her neck. Frowning, she glanced back at the house, puzzled at her uncanny feeling that she was being watched. There was no way he could have risen. No, not with those injuries.
The sun was directly in her eyes, and she could see nothing. After a last squint, she said, "Vitale, he'll be out of our lives soon enough. One day we probably will find him - and our silver - gone." With that, she walked on.
Once in the meadow, she sank into the carpet of narcissus cladding the entire shelf of land. She'd always been able to lose herself in the scents and daydream as she gazed out over the lake and farther beyond to the twining river.
On the next plateau down, their champion horses played and jumped, their copper coats gleaming in the sun. On the lowest plateau skirting the river, rose of Canolich swathed the ground in yellow. But here, a cloud of white blooms. She plucked a flower, brought it to her nose, and inhaled, closing her eyes with pleasure....
He'd said she was a natural! Her eyes flashed open. What was it about her that made people continually come to this conclusion? She'd saved his life, and he made disparaging comments? When one is nursing a man, contact is made and...parts are seen.
Especially when they were drawing attention to themselves. She shivered.
She would simply forget the scene, banishing it from her thoughts. She might be one of those women, but she'd been trained to be a lady. Burying uncomfortable thoughts was one thing at which ladies excelled. She looked down to find the flower crushed in her hands.
Soon he'd be gone, and life would return to normal. Unfortunately, even then her existence would be anxious and cheerless. She continued to await some news from her brother Aleixandre, the only family she had left. She had heard nothing for more than a week, and worry preyed on her.
A strong breeze blew for the first time in days, it seemed, flattening the grass in waves and teasing a lock of hair loose from her tight braid. Out here, the compulsion to rake it back into place wasn't so pressing, but still won over. She smoothed her hair and picked another flower.
Even when her brother routed Pascal and returned, she still would be in a vulnerable position. This fight had only postponed Aleix's desire that she wed. When their father died two years ago, she'd been brought home from school so that a marriage could be contracted for her. Just as Aleix had begun narrowing the choices, Pascal had arrived.
Before he'd shown his true nature, Pascal had surprised them by asking Aleix for her hand, though they'd never met. Aleix had refused, incurring the general's anger, but her brother had never trusted the man even before his vile army of mercenaries and deserters had taken over the area.
Aleix repeatedly lamented the fact that he hadn't forced her to marry earlier. At twenty-one, she was more than old enough, and she'd been born and raised for it, but she'd never met a man she wanted. She never could imagine doing the perplexing things the girls at school had whispered about, those painful, aggressive things done in the dark - no matter how much she longed. Whenever she'd envisioned those acts with any of the men she'd been introduced to, she'd cringed.
Besides, she'd been so content to help care for Aleix and Mariette's baby that no man tempted her.
Yet now there was no baby, no Mariette, and all the happiness that had been in Aleix had died with them.
Annal¨ªa turned sharply toward the house. The feeling was back. When a cloud passed the sun, she held her hand to her forehead and scanned the windows.
The curtains in the Highlander's room swayed - to the side - then settled back into place.