"Courtland, you made this place sound awful!" Annal¨ªa Llorente MacCarrick said as she skipped along the winding walk to Beinn a'Chaorainn. "It's beautiful - I can't believe this is my new home!"
"Woman! Slow down," Court grated, limping after her.
Now that she was feeling stronger after two months of illness, he always seemed to be slowing her down, chasing after her bright skirts. With his still-healing leg, he was scarcely able to keep up - which made him a nervous husband.
What if she stumbled, and he wasn't there to catch her?
Yet once he'd taken her gently by the hips and glanced up, Court could do no more than stare past her.Whose home is this and what did they do with mine?
Squatters. Of course. Squatters with good taste clearly had taken over here.
The shutters and front door, which had been barely hanging on by their hinges, were new and painted. A shining brass knocker beckoned visitors, the gravel walk was free of weeds, and greens were planted in intricate, immaculate beds. The roof seemed to have been completely repaired, and through the spotless new windows he could see furniture and carpets. Had his mother done this? Who else would it be?
When he unconsciously squeezed Anna's hips, she laid her hands over his and gave him a flirtatious smile over her shoulder. "Again already?" she purred, her accent giving the words a lilt. "My lusty Scot."
He raised his eyebrows at her clear invitation, and just like that, the house was forgotten. His voice grew husky. "I dinna give you enough at the inn last night? Or this morning?"
She turned in his arms and whispered, "I don't believe I can ever get enough of you." She cupped his face with her wee hands. "Courtland, why did you tell me your home was so awful, when it's grand? Why did you say we'd have to live at the inn until you got itinhabitable ? I remember the words you used:decrepit ,dilapidated , and, um, what was the other? Oh, yes - sty."
"I...it was no' like this when I left it." He dragged his gaze from her face and pondered his home once more. He'd known one day it would be beautiful, had vowed to make it so, but he'd never imagined this.
And he didn't even know who to thank.
"I can tell you now that I was so uneasy," Annal¨ªa continued, "not knowing what brutal Scottish wilderness you were bringing me to. And with the baby..."
Court had been dreading this, especially now that they were starting a family - albeit unintentionally. Even had she not been carrying, he had cringed at the thought of bringing her here. But then, he didn't have a lot of options.
To keep her, he'd had to give up his life as a mercenary. Without doing that work, he had little money. It had been a conundrum that had crazed him. His inability to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed had been one of his concerns in marrying her, a wealthy and regal - literally - beauty. And after that first time she'd tried, she knew better than to offer money to him.
He'd planned to fix one room, then do his damnedest to keep her in it until he could afford to do more. Now Court felt like a weight had been lifted.
Anna tapped her chin, frowning in the direction of the freshly painted stables. "Courtland, isn't that the horse my brother gave to Hugh?"
Court followed her gaze. It was indeed. Aleixandre Llorente had given Hugh that stallion for bringing his "unique talents" to Andorra to help rid his country of the Rechazado. Even Court hadn't known Hugh could blow up a mountaintop, or that he'd do it, killing thirty men, without blinking.
Hughhad come here and done this for him? This was where he'd been? Court had scoured London for him and Ethan and sent messages through a dozen channels to tell them about theLeabhar and the curse and the future - as in, now the brothers allhad a future. He'd gone to Weyland to ask about Hugh's whereabouts, but the old man was cryptic, as usual.
And here Hugh was in the one place Court had never thought to look for him.
Court shook his head, remembering how indebted to Hugh he already was. First, Hugh had invested Court's money, giving him a steady income that freed him from having to ride with his gang. Then he'd come and renovated this property completely, knowing Court couldn't pay him back, at least not for a while.
Christ, he already owed his brother for something he couldnever pay back.
Hugh had also saved Annal¨ªa's life -
Something caught his attention from the corner of his eye. Turning, he saw a panicked young woman lurching from a side door, fleeing the house followed by some indistinct bellow. That couldn't be his brother's voice. Hugh didn'tbellow unless there was a sodding good reason.
When Hugh yelled once more, tension shot through Court. He drew out the pistol holstered at his back and pulled Annal¨ªa into the house, then straight to the stairwell. "Anna, get in there. Now! And doona come out until I return."
Eyes wide, she climbed into the closet tucked beneath the stairs.
He turned back with a glower for good measure. "Woman, I bloody mean it this time."
Once she nodded, Court made his way up the stairs quietly - thanks to a plush carpet runner and the absence of groaning and loose boards. He followed the sound of his brother's cursing, punctuated by slamming and crashing. Was he fighting someone?
Court lifted his gun, and with his other hand he cracked open the door.
His pistol hand dropped, in time with his jaw. Not only had someone replaced his house, but they'd replaced his brother as well.
Even-tempered, steady Hugh was unshaven, dead drunk, and regarding him with crazed eyes.
Hugh pointed at the door, and the movement made him stumble. "That little witch took my goddamned whiskey."
Court applauded the girl for having the ballocks to do so, and then the sense to flee. "Aye, and it looks as though you'd be lost without it."
"Go to hell," Hugh said, but his tone was more tired than angry. He sank down on the edge of the bed, elbows to his knees as he hunched forward. "What're you doing here?"
Court stared at his brother. "This is my home. Or it was. Why'd you fix it up?"
"Because Jane wanted to. Never could deny that lass."
"You were with her here?" Court couldn't fathom her reason for wanting to fix uphis home, but he knew it wasn't out of any concern for himself. "I think it's time you explained everything," Court said, then listened in amazement as his brother recounted the threat from Davis Grey, the man's subsequent death - and Hugh's hasty marriage to Jane Weyland.
"...I sent her away, and now she hates me," Hugh finished. "But hell, you made the sacrifice for Annal¨ªa, so I could for Jane." He exhaled with a measure of weariness Court had only ever seen in Ethan before.
He reckoned this was probably not a good time to mention that as soon as Hugh had left him in France, Court had seemed to lose all reason and had sped back to Andorra to win his wife back - the wife presently stowed under the stairs.
In fact, after weeks of searching for his brothers, and now that he finally had the opportunity, Court hesitated to tell Hugh about Annal¨ªa's pregnancy. Once Hugh sobered up, Court would break it to him.
"I was on my way north to my place and found myself here for the last week," Hugh said, then looked away to mutter, "Miss her." Seeming to shake himself, he said, "You can have your house back directly. No' good for me to be here any longer." Then he frowned. "I thought you'd go east with your men."
"Changed my mind," Court said shortly.
"Seems you're reactin' to the loss of your woman better than I am. Damn, Court, you looked like hell when I last saw you. Got over her so quickly?" He ran his hands through his disheveled hair, then winced and swayed - no doubt from a healing head injury. The movement must have worn him out, because he rested his forehead in his hands. "Tell me how to go about that. And be smug about it."
"What the hell happened to your head?"
"Grey knocked me a good couple of hits."
"At least the bastard's dead."
Hugh nodded, his expression grim. "Court, I have to tell you something. About Ethan."
Court exhaled. "What has he done now?"
"He...Ethan is - "
"Courtland," Annal¨ªa said softly from the doorway.
Hugh's wild eyes got wilder at the sight of Annal¨ªa, but they seemed unfocused. He shot to his feet and roared, "What the bloody hell have you done?"He pointed a shaking finger at Court, advancing on him. "You vowed to me you would no' go back for her."
In her nervousness, Annal¨ªa fluttered her hands to her rounding belly - a gesture she'd assumed in the last couple of weeks - and the movement drew Hugh's gaze. Court saw when realization took hold.
He rocked forward, the heels of his palms shoved to his eyes.
Then he plunged backward to the ground.
An hour later, when Hugh shot up in bed, he reeled once more.
Court caught his shoulder. "Drinking while concussed! You bloody know better. What are you trying to do? Kill yourself?"
His voice hoarse, Hugh said, "It is no' yours?"
Court ground his teeth. As much as it infuriated him, he had expected this question, and when Hugh had appeared to be rousing, Court had made sure Annal¨ªa was out of earshot, leaving her downstairs with the recently returned housekeeper.
"It's my child," Court answered. "I know why you ask, know you doona want to hope. I trust Anna with my life, but for your benefit, I'll tell you that I was with her every hour, day and night, for weeks." He struggled to rein in his formidable temper. "I'll say that once. Doona ask again."
"But, she's...you canna. What about the goddamned curse?"
"It's no' what we'd thought. The last lines must qualify the others, cancel them out. The general consensus is that it's about finding the right woman."
"Consensus?Who else bloody knows?"
"Annal¨ªa's family and...Fiona."
"You're speaking to our mother?" Hugh gazed at him wordlessly for a moment. "I canna believe this."
"Aye, I know. But she regrets her actions so much, and she wants to talk to you. Now that I'm married, I see...I can see why losing someone you love would make you crazed."
And Fiona and Leith had been deeply in love.
"When did you figure all of this out?" Hugh asked.
"After you left, I replayed the words from the book in my mind," Court explained. "No' to know love. But I did. I was lost for Annal¨ªa."
"I thought that meant no' to know love from another."
Court shot him a guilty look. "I was no' thinking. Bit desperate. I was ready to convince myself of anything. Then, when I got there, she told me she loved me, too. And that she was having my babe. The curse is wrong, Hugh."
Court knew exactly when Hugh felt a glimmer of hope, because he grated a harsh oath. "Ah, God help me. I might have gotten Jane pregnant."
"Best hope you dinna," Court muttered.
"What? Why's that?"
"Imagine your new wife delivering the babe of a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Highlander, and tell me if that is no' enough to keep you up nights for nine months. If I'd had any idea I could get a babe on Anna, I'd never have done it.Never ."
Hugh's brows drew together at the warning. "If it's no' already too late." Rising a shade more slowly this time, he bit out, "Going for her."
Court pushed him back and assured him, "There's plenty of time for that." Now that Court knew what it was like to have a good woman's love, he wanted it for his brother as well. And certainly there were better women out there for him than Jane Weyland. "Hugh, how can you be sure it'sher ?"
Hugh's grip on Court's wrist was shockingly strong. "Are you...are youjesting ?" Hugh cast him an incredulous look. "I've wanted her for a third of my life, I'm presently married to her, and I'm so bloody in love with her it pains me."
Lost for that woman!There was nothing to be done for what Court was seeing now. "You will no' make it to the property line in your condition," Court said. "So you'll sleep this off and leave when I think you can ride."
Hugh stubbornly shook his head, rising once more.
"Do you really want to face Jane coming off a drunken bender and still recovering? And I doona like to say this - but what makes you think she'll welcome you as her husband, just because you slept together? You said that you sent her away and she hates you now."
"Aye, and I know I hurt her. But the lass told me she loved me. She did. She has since she was a girl." Hugh glowered. "Doona look at me like that. I ken how unbelievable it sounds." He walked unsteadily. "She believed we were to be married, then thought I'd abandoned her."
Court whistled through his teeth. He had never seen that one coming. "That'swhy she teased you? Then, brother, you've got an uphill battle ahead of you, I fear."
"Tell me something I doona know," he mumbled as he began scouring the room for clothes.
All the clan thought Court was the volatile one. Ethan was considered cold as ice. Hugh was supposed to be the even-tempered, logical - and neat - one. If they could see him now, grumbling about his injuries and sniping complaints as he quickly dug for clothing from haphazard piles on the floor, they wouldn't recognize him.
"You're no' up to this yet," Court insisted. "Just do me a favor. Stay here until dawn."
"No' a chance."
"Then for a meal and coffee? You need to sober up." He gave Hugh a pained expression. "And, brother, a bath would no' go amiss. You do know there are hot springs out back?"
Hugh stumbled over a boot, then coughed into his fist. "That so?" he said, flushing for some reason.
As Hugh neared London after a day of rail and riding, he fought a sense of urgency so strong it knotted his gut. After struggling against his feelings for so long, to give them free rein now was nigh overpowering.
And the crushing presence of the curse was...gone. Hugh finally believed he could have a future with Jane. He had seen Annal¨ªa, and he trusted his brother's judgment. On the subject of theLeabhar , Hugh trusted his mother's as well - and Court had said she believed as he did. At last, Hugh could reconcile that sense of rightness, of inevitability when he'd been with Jane.
A storm was whipping up to match his turbulent mood, but he didn't care - he'd still reach her on this very night. All he had to do was get to her and win her back.
One mile down, another mile closer. He leaned into the wind, frowning to realize that the only thing that stood in the way of his keeping Jane was how well he could persuade her.
Hugh had rarely had need of that skill. He usually got his way by intimidation or force.
He'd have to convince her that he would make an effort with her family, and that he could fit into her life. If he took it slowly, instead of a sudden immersion like he'd endured at Vinelands, he could get used to them.
He'd bloody figure it out.
Though she'd promised not to take him back, right now, anything felt possible to him. In fact, he hadn't even told Court about Ethan because, for some reason, Hugh had a strong sense that his older brother still lived. He would continue to search for Ethan, unleash runners to investigate, then make a determination one way or another before he heaped more apprehension onto Court's plate.
Court was already dreading the upcoming birth - Hugh had seen him eyeing Annal¨ªa's belly guiltily, even as she was unmistakably delighted.
Hugh had never thought about worrying for a wife in labor before - he'd never believed he was meant to have a wife or children - but now the idea of Jane going through that made him shudder.
Even as he reassured Court that women had bairns all the time, Hugh was promising himself he'd be talking to Robert, the laughing quack, and asking him exactly what the best way was "to wait" to have bairns - if she wasn't already pregnant.
By the time Hugh reached London, the rain had let up, but he hadn't. His horse's hooves clattered as they raced down the wet streets of London. A life with Jane, free of this constant dread, depended on his skills of persuasion. He swallowed.
Hell, Weyland might not even let him in the house.
Hugh owed the man yet another huge debt. Weyland was the only bloody one who'd seen so clearly that Hugh and Jane needed to be together that he'd taken steps to see it done. He'd forced Hugh to confront his feelings - and, Christ, he'd prevented Jane from becomingengaged to another man.
Hugh had repaid him by sending his daughter packing.
As more guests continued to arrive, Jane smoothed the silk of her new emerald green gown and pasted on a fake smile. She was preoccupied, restless, and bored at this party her father had manipulated her into hosting - her and Claudia's own going-away celebration.
Though she and her cousin had decided weeks ago to take a trip to Italy, her father had stalled them at every opportunity. Finally, they were departing by steamer in the morning.
Though her father was furious with Hugh, she knew he still had hope for them, believing Hugh would return for her. Yet without receiving a word from him for weeks, Jane knew better.
When Freddie and Candace arrived, Jane's smile turned genuine. Not only was she happy for the laughing and obviously adoring couple, she also experienced a renewed sense of relief that she hadn't wed him. Once she'd greeted them and they'd moved on to speak with someone else, she breathed a sigh.
"Why the serious look, Janey?" Claudia asked, handing her a glass of champagne. "You always liked elegant parties."
"I know." She loved the scent of the rose arrangements all over the house, the glitter of their chandelier fully ablaze, and the tinkling of crystal flutes kissing champagne bottles.
"Has anyone said anything about your marriage?"
She shook her head and took a sip. "No. Everyone's been tiptoeing around it." Most everyone here - a crowd of family and good friends - had heard rumors of Jane's hasty marriage, and just as hasty separation, but no one except her London cousins had dared to ask her about it.
"Well, then, cheer up! Tomorrow begins the adventure. We're actually going to leave this sodding little island."
"Claudie, won't you be sad to leave your groom behind for months?"
"His eyes watered today," she admitted, glancing away. "And I had a moment when I thought about backing out. But we're not getting any younger, Jane."
Jane exhaled. "That's too true."
When Belinda and Sam joined them, Claudia resumed taunting them. "Admit it, you old matrons, you're jealous of our trip. We leavetomorrow , sailing toward sun, cuisine, and virility...."
From across the room, Jane caught her father's glance, and he gave her a quizzical look. She smiled at him in answer - she'd made an effort of late to be cheerful again, to get on with her life, but he'd been keeping a close eye on her tonight. He was continually worried, had been since she returned, and it showed. He'd barely agreed to let her go to Italy, until she'd reminded him that she didn't need his consent.
Suddenly, his face broke into a wide grin - which he immediately checked. His expression grew stern just as the crowd went silent.
She heard a commotion in the hallway - a banging, then arguing, then the booming:"I'm here for my wife."
Loud, striding steps echoed down the hall behind her. No. It just wasn't possible.
"My God," Belinda murmured. "Janey, what did youdo to your Scot?"
Jane turned slowly to find Hugh at the doorway, seeming to fill it. Her eyes went wide at his appearance. He was soaking wet, his boots covered with mud, and his neck was bleeding readily from shallow lines where a branch must have struck him as he rode. He'd lost weight and his wet hair whipped across his face - his unshaven face.
But his eyes were what held her attention - they were black as night and burned with intent. He caught sight of her and his body tensed, like he was about launch himself at her.
Everyone was silent or gasping. Hugh just continued to stare at her as if he couldn't do anything else, his brows drawing together.
At length, when he finally dragged his gaze from her, he surveyed the crowded party in progress, swallowing because everyone here was dressed to the nines.
Except for him.
His expression turned grim, and his shoulders went back.
He'd just walked into a room full of people - normally punishing enough. But to look like hell washed over - and to be clearly embarrassing her? He swallowed again, wiping the rain from his face with his sleeve.
An older woman tittered. "Thatis Jane's new husband?"
Jane swung her gaze on the woman and snapped, "Oh, shut up."
So it's to be another trial by fire?
Didn't matter. Hugh was prepared to do anything. He strode toward Jane, past speechless guests, who stared at him so hard he could feel it.
He held out his hand for Jane. "Come, S¨¬ne. I need to speak with you."
Her cousins were glaring at him, urging Jane to demand that he leave, telling hernot to go with him. She didn't appear to be in any danger of the latter.
"I am sure this can wait," Jane said. Had her accent ever sounded so crisp? "Come backtomorrow . Afternoon."
When some people nervously laughed at that, Hugh glanced around, brows drawn.
He met Weyland's gaze, trying to read the man - who was clearly trying to read Hugh as well. "I just want tae speak with her, Weyland." His brogue had never sounded so thick.
But then he spiedBidworth strolling into the room. Hugh gnashed his teeth, having never considered that Jane might take back up with her suitor. He'd also never imagined that Bidworth wouldn't heed Hugh's warnings to stay the hell away from Jane. The man caught sight of Hugh, blanched, and made a strangled sound.
If Bidworth had dared to touch Hugh's wife...With his fists clenched, Hugh strode forward.
Bidworth backed up to a wall. "Bloody hell. He's going to hit me again, isn't he?"