No reason under heaven excuses bad manners.
—Lady Annalía Elisabet Catherina Tristán Llorente
Might makes right.
—Courtland Eadd MacCarrick
The Principality of Andorra, 1856
“Yes, yes, very well then. Take out his heart.”
For the first time since his beating began, Courtland MacCarrick’s bloody sneer faltered. The general’s impatient command seemed unreal to him, the words sounding hollow and indistinct, probably because Court could see nothing, blinded by blood dripping from a gash on his forehead and by his swollen lids.
The henchmen restraining him wailed two punches into his stomach, unable to contain their excitement at the prospect of killing off a mercenary, and a rival at that. Court could do little to defend himself in his condition and with his wrists bound.
“If you kill me,” he bit out as he labored for a breath, “you know my men will avenge my death. You would no’ risk that over simply payin’ us what’s owed?” His voice was thick with brogue, as it hadn’t been since he’d left the Highlands years before.
“No one will avenge you, MacCarrick, because they’ll all be dead as well,” General Reynaldo Pascal said in a casual tone. Though he couldn’t see, Court knew the man had a thoughtful expression on his face. The Spanish deserter had never looked like a power-crazed zealot—more like a benevolent statesman.
“My kin will keep comin’ until they’ve stamped you out.”
The general sighed. “In any case…” Court could imagine him giving an impatient hand wave, signaling the end of the subject. “… do make it painful and prolonged.”
“You will no’ do it yourself?”
He chuckled softly. “You of all people should know I hire men to do my dirty work.”
As the two yanked him away, Court said over his shoulder, “Aye, but do the fools holdin’ me know that you doona pay them for it?”
They jostled him, heaving him from the room, then strained to pull him down the stairs and outside onto the rough slate street.
As soon as he felt the sun on his face, he heard a woman gasp; an older man said, “Mare de Déu,” but Court knew better than to expect anything from the people here other than a sharp turning of their heads and the ushering of children inside. Their fear of Pascal was ingrained. Court could be butchered in the town square and no one would lift a finger. Actually, that was a close estimation to what he knew was about to happen.
Yet he didn’t feel as though that was the direction they were moving in. He heard the din of rushing water, realized they were traveling to the river beside the village, and futilely turned his head toward the sound. “No execution in the town center?” he rasped. “Careful that I doona feel slighted.”
“We are being more circumspect with our … activities,” said the one on his left.
“Too late. Pascal’s already angered Spain.” He bit out the words with conviction, but in truth it was little more than a hope.
“And we will be ready,” the other replied, just before they slammed him up against what had to be a bridge railing. And Court couldn’t fight because he couldn’t see.
The water was directly below them, pounding furiously over a drop-off. The Riu Valira was always an angry torrent after rains to the north. He struggled to remember how high this bridge was. Would the Valira be deep enough?
He heard a knife being unsheathed. What choice did he have?
“If you do this now,” Court said in a low, deadly tone, “my men and my kin will descend on you. They live for killing.” And kill for a living.
Court knew he couldn’t talk them out of planting that knife. These weren’t merely two among the general’s army—these were assassins, part of the Orden de los Rechazados, Order of the Disavowed. Court just wanted time to get his bearings. A second stalled was possibility…
If he jumped, they wouldn’t chase him down the river. They would consider his battered condition, with his hands bound and with the impact of the powerful falls, and reason that he would drown for certain.
Unfortunately, they’d probably be right…
The knifepoint pricked his chest as though poised there—almost comforting because at least he knew where it was. Then … gone. Drawn back for the blow—
He shoved himself back, the force pitching him over the railing, tossing his feet over his head before he landed in the icy water.
The impact stunned him, his body taking the hit as though crashing into a wall. He sank down so far pain stabbed his ears from the depth, then struggled upward with bound hands.
Though it went against every instinct, he forced himself to reach the surface facedown as though dead. He sensed the pull of the water and realized that facedown in this case meant being swept from the falls’ pool headfirst.
The Rechazados shot just as the rushing water began propelling him over the rim of the elevated basin. The bullets ripped through the water so close to him he could feel their percussion, but he didn’t flinch even when he was forced to dive from above, then ride another series of falls into the main current.
The river boiled with rapids and swiftly carried him away. Just when he could stand it no longer, he raised his face for breath, but inhaled mostly foam.
The churning force drove him into rocks, the larger ones knocking him above the surface for lungfuls of air, but his weight quickly wrenched him down to the river bottom lined with jagged slate. The fractures snagged his clothes until they were in tatters, and then his unprotected skin. Each hit took him closer to oblivion.
Yet he continued to fight and managed to turn himself feet first. The water had washed away the worst of the blood, and the icy temperature had lessened the swelling, allowing him to see from the slit of one eye.
A high jutting rock approached; he lunged for it, looping his bound arms around it. The current hammered on relentlessly until the wracking pressure on the ropes snapped his wrist. He didn’t care—he gulped air. After only moments of rest, the bindings sliced away, leaving him to the mercy of the river once more.
He’d been in and out of consciousness for what felt like days when the current finally calmed. In the lull, he perceived that the freezing temperature had muted the worst pain of his injuries. In fact, he felt nothing but the subtle warming of the water as he drifted into a static pool by the bank.
Succumbing to the blackness was an overwhelming temptation now, nearly stronger than his will, but he forced himself to crawl to the stony shore on one hand and his knees. Free of the river, he collapsed onto his back and cradled his broken wrist.
The sun warmed him, taking away the worst of the chill, and for how long he lay there he didn’t know. He only noticed when a shadow passed before it. He squinted to bring a thin line of vision to his one good eye.
He must’ve sucked in a breath—his bashed ribs screamed that he did—because a woman with shining hair knelt beside him, peering down with widened green eyes. Her lips were parted in surprise, and an unusual stone glinted light from a choker around the pale column of her neck. When she tilted her head at him, a breeze blew a dark curl across her cheek.
Breathtaking. “Aingeal…,” he murmured as he resisted the blackness once more.
“Perfect,” she answered with utter sarcasm as she rose and put her hands on her hips. “Simply perfect. This animal’s alive.”
Annalía Elisabet Catherina Tristán, daughter of the family Llorente, had ridden out for flowers to brighten the afternoon tea. Where did the marsh marigolds grow best? By the river. By the cursed river, where apparently the cursed mercenaries wash to shore.
She hadn’t known what to think when she’d spied the body from afar. Perhaps a shepherd had fallen in the Valira during a storm to the north? Yet as she approached she’d recognized that this giant was no shepherd, and she hadn’t missed the nationality. Around his waist he had a thick, wide belt, the style of which was foreign. Attached to the belt had been a swatch of plaid left from some larger cloth.
Plaid meant Scot. Scot meant killer.
She bemoaned the situation yet again and tugged on the reins looped over her shoulder, trudging forward, pulling along Iambe, her hunter, who had two hundred plus pounds of Scottish deadweight attached to her. Neither she nor Iambe was used to such labor. Annalía sighed wearily—they were both thoroughbreds born for a different purpose altogether.
She was ill equipped for a rescue—or truly anything more involved than gathering flowers—so the conveyance she’d fashioned consisted of a rope tightened around his chest, pinning his arms to his sides, then another rope pulled under both his arms and tied to the saddle.
But why was she dragging him up the steep mountain incline to her home? Scots were hated in Andorra, and yet she was taking one straight through the narrow rock entrance—the only entrance—to the three higher plateaus separating the river from the manor. Her ancestors had gated the passage, and for five hundred years it had kept the horses on their ranch in—and strangers out.
Surely he was one of the Highland mercenaries brought here by Pascal. Their tiny, almost hidden country so high in the Pyrenees wasn’t exactly overrun with Highlanders. But what if he was the singular Scot who came here for other reasons? And she let him die? She thought he’d called her an angel, and he’d looked so relieved to see her, as if he had every confidence she would save him.
If he was one of Pascal’s men, she’d simply have to heal him, then kill him herself.
After plodding past the crystal lake Casa del Llac derived its name from, she and her baggage arrived in the manor’s central courtyard. “Vitale!” Annalía called for her steward but received no answer. Where was he?
Vitale leVieux peeked his craggy face around the side of the stable. “Yes, mademoiselle—” he began before he gasped at the injured man, smoke wafting from his open mouth. His crinkly gray hair bounced as he rushed to her side. “What have you done?” he exclaimed, his French accent sharp. “He’s Scottish—look at the plaid.”
“I saw the plaid,” she said in disgust. Spotting Vitale’s ancient dice partners lining up to see the spectacle, she said in a hushed voice, “We shall discuss this inside.”
Undeterred, he cried, “He must be one of the blood-drinking Highlanders the general hired!”
One of Vitale’s friends mumbled, “Highlander, you say?” When Vitale nodded emphatically, his compadres called good-byes and shuffled off with their canes for hills unknown.
Apparently everyone had heard the tales of their brutality.
“Why would you save him?” Vitale demanded when they were alone.
“What if he isn’t one of the mercenaries?”
“Oh, of course, he must be here for the…” He trailed off, scratching his head as though stumped, then flashed an expression of realization. “I have just recalled—there’s nothing here to see!”
And everyone wondered where she’d gotten her sarcasm.
She gave him a lowering look. “Are you going to help me? I need you to get the doctor.”
“The doctor went north to join your brother’s men.” Vitale looked the man over, all nine feet of him, it seemed. “Besides, we bring the injured to you.”
“You bring injured animals and children to me, not beaten-senseless giants bleeding from every limb,” she corrected. When Annalía was younger, her Andorran nanny had taught her to treat some injuries—broken bones, burns, cuts, and the like, but then she’d probably never envisioned a patient like this one. “It’s not proper for me to attend him.”
He gave her a patronizing smile. “Perhaps mademoiselle should have thought of that before dragging the enemy into our home? Hmmm?”
Lips thinned, she replied, “Perhaps mademoiselle is displaying the same compassion she showed when she hired Vitale the Old.” Though they both knew her taking him in from the streets of Paris to her home in Andorra hadn’t been simply because of kindness. Gratitude had compelled her.
He sighed. “What do you wish me to do?”
“Help me put him in the room off the stable.”
“We can’t lock that room! He could slit our throats while we sleep.”
“Then where?” He opened his mouth to answer, but she cut him off, “And don’t you dare say back to the riverside.”
He closed his mouth abruptly. They both looked down at the man as though searching for the answer.
Vitale finally said, “We should put him in the manor house so we can lock him in a bedroom.”
“Where I sleep?”
“Mademoiselle has demonstrated compassion”—he smiled too serenely—”which is but a slippery stone away from hospitality.”
She ignored his expression. “The only room downstairs that locks is the study and that’s private. I don’t want him to know our business affairs.”
He gave the man a rousing kick in the hip. When no response came, he cackled.
He turned to her with an impassive face. “So mademoiselle suggests upstairs?”
“We simply can’t do it. My horse had problems pulling his weight.”
Some of the ranch hands’ children ran by then, eyes wide, reminding Annalía of the state of the man’s clothing. Most of it had ripped away. A tear spread up his thigh, close to his… She straddled his legs, sweeping her skirt over him for cover. “Run along.” Her voice was strident.
They looked to Vitale, and though he rolled his eyes, he told them, “Untie the ropes and go take care of poor Iambe.” Facing her, he said, “If you’re insisting it must be upstairs, we can attempt it. Besides, do we really care if we drop him?”
So by dint of strategizing, straining, and yes, using the children she’d pleaded with to return, they managed to get him to the nearest guest bedroom and transferred onto the bed. Though she was exhausted, with her palm jammed into her lower back like a washerwoman closing the day, she knew she still had to tend to him.
While Vitale shooed the curious children from the room, Annalía assessed her patient, noting the broken wrist and the possibility of a couple of broken ribs. She removed her riding gloves, then ran her hands through his thick, damp hair past his temple and along the side of his head. She discovered a nasty knot, and the same inspection on the other side revealed a second head injury. His eyes were so swollen she doubted he could open them when awake. To cap it all, ragged cuts covered his skin, no doubt inflicted by the river bottom.
“Vitale, I need some shears. And some bandages. Bring two big wooden spoons and some hot water as well.”
He exhaled as though very put out. “Forthwith.” He added something in a mumble. Even his mumble could convey a heavy Gallic sarcasm.
When he returned with all the supplies, she scarcely noticed him. “Thank you,” she murmured.
He said nothing, just bowed, turned on his heel, and abandoned her.
“Fine! Go,” she called. “I have no need of you anyway….”
And then she was alone. With the big, terrifying Scot.
She really should be having tea right now.
She billowed a sheet over him, then blindly endeavored to cut away his ruined trousers underneath it. Frowning in concentration, she placed the shears only to yank her hand back. She was fairly certain she’d stabbed his waist.
Focusing on the opposite wall, she tried again, but pushed the sharp tips into his skin once more. This time he moaned and she jumped back. She’d bet her Limoges porcelain that any red-blooded male would rather die than have an exhausted, unseeing woman cutting near his groin.
So she tugged the sheet down to his waist to shear away the remains of his shirt. His boots they’d discarded as unnecessary weight on the stairs. Which again left … his trousers.
Biting her lip, she unfastened and pulled free his sodden belt, noticing that his torso was flat, the ridges of muscle pronounced, with a thin trail of black hair leading down.
He was so heavy and yet he hadn’t an inch of spare flesh on him. A strong body—he would heal fast if she helped him. But she’d never seen a grown man wholly nude before. No one here swam unclothed. There simply wasn’t the laissez-faire attitude about nudity here as in neighboring Spain and France. And he was about to be completely unclothed, where she could see if she chose.
She would not choose! Disregard these thoughts, she commanded herself. Putting her shoulders back, she assumed a brisk attitude. She was a nurse today, and a lady always.
She opened the front of his trousers, ignoring the foreign, remarkable textures, the fascinating shape she brushed. With the fastening undone she was able to pull and cut around until they were off, always striving to keep the sheet between him and her eyes. And mostly succeeding.
Wiping perspiration from her brow, she began on his wrist, splinting it with the spoons and tight linen strips until she could cast it with flour in the morning. When she finished, she lay his arm back above his head and spread the other arm out to the side to wrap his ribs. Again and again, she pulled the cloth around him, tightened it, then forced the material under his back. His chest was deep, and bandaging it meant reaching over him, grazing him.
When she was done, she was oddly irritable and fidgety.
Though she wanted nothing more than a bath and her bed, her gaze kept returning to his good hand. Finally she gave in to temptation and leaned beside him in the bed to lift it. The fingers and back of it were as scarred as the rest of his body and the palm was abrasive. Her brows drew together as she placed the palm flat against her own.
She marveled at the size of his hand, at how it could swallow her own, and pressed each finger against his matching one. If he was a mercenary, and he must be, judging by all the battle scars, she wondered how many guns and knives and swords he had wielded with it. Had he ever used it to strangle the life from someone?
Had she been completely crazed to bring a man like this into her home?
For the last two days Annalía had wondered if he’d ever wake up. She’d browbeaten Vitale into washing the man each day—there were just some things she refused to do—and into helping her set his wrist with a cast. Afterward, she’d settled into a daily routine where she would check the Scot’s ribs and wrist and grapple to pour broth and water down his throat.
Each day some of the swelling around his eyes and jaws receded, but she suspected that even uninjured he still would look like a ruffian.
This morning had already heated the casa miserably. The wind was absent, and even the usually cool mountain nights had been balmy this summer. Though she’d already checked on him, she should probably return and make certain that Vitale had locked up after he tended to the man earlier.
Who was she fooling? Vitale was still convinced the Highlander would murder them all in their sleep without the proper precautions.
She would go because she was restless and watching the even rise and fall of his chest was … agreeable.
As was touching him. Every day she would trace the starburst scar just below his temple, along with each mark across his broad chest and down his muscular arms. She’d memorized them all and had imagined a scenario for each.
Though he was surely her enemy, his presence broke up the monotony and loneliness in the house. Since war was on the horizon, many of her people had fled to mountains even more remote than this one, and she could only get cooks and maids from the valley to come by a few times a month. With her older brother away fighting Pascal and her parents dead, Annalía had been living alone in the main house. She’d invited the ranch hands’ wives and their children to stay, but they were ill at ease in the luxurious home. Even Vitale declined.
Before the Scot, she’d been alone in the echoing house, and she’d hated it.
When she unlocked the door, she saw he tossed in bed, with sweat beading his forehead. After a check of his rib bandages and cast, she felt his skin but found no real fever. He was probably just hot from the stuffy room. The window was open but offered no relief. She nibbled her bottom lip wondering if she should cool him, try to make him more comfortable.
Decided, she poured water into the bowl at the dresser, then soaked a cloth. Returning to the bed, she ran it over his forehead, neck, and chest above his rib bandages.
After guiltily looking around her, she pinched the edge of the sheet on each side of his hips and tugged it down, placing it, arranging it perfectly so his privates were just covered. Her hands shook as she lifted the cloth to the strip of skin below his bandages. She ran it across his hard stomach, and frowned when the muscles rippled and dove in reaction.
When she inadvertently dripped water on the sheet over his groin she could see his manhood outlined beneath it. Could see it even more than she’d been able to on the previous days because it was larger, harder.
She tilted her head, wondering what it would feel like to—
“Tell me, lass,” the man’s voice rumbled, “do you like what you see?”