Annal¨ªa had awakened before dawn to wretched memories of her deeds the night before.
She'd known several unsavory things about her character. She'd realized flaws in her morality - apparently inherent flaws. Now she knew another fact: In the presence of whisky, the simple application of a man's lips to her own, and then to her chest, induced her to lose her mind.
And this morning she would have to ask that Philistine for his help in front of his hulking...associates. She would force herself to do it, even though she knew that if he did decide to help her, he would first make her...grovel.
But by no means did she count on his assistance. Before the sun had risen, she'd dragged Vitale from bed and instructed him to have Iambe ready. She was due at Pascal's today, and if she couldn't persuade the Highlander to help her, then she was gone. She'd left her travel bags in the stable, confident that if she needed to leave in a hurry, she could.
Yet Vitale had quarreled with her over her plan because he didn't want her to leave under any circumstances, whether she could sway the mercenaries or not.
Even lusty old Vitale feared what a monster like Pascal would do to her on their wedding night. She wasn't as nervous as she had been, though. She quite liked kissing, and that had been with a ruffian she loathed. The rumors had it that Pascal was very meticulous about his dress and cleanliness, so truly, how much worse could it be?
She'd returned to her room before the Highlanders had risen and had taken extra care with her hair and dress. Now that she heard them milling about, she descended.
When she approached the parlor, she had to bite her tongue to keep from screeching at their boots on the table, at the smell of tobacco cloying inside the room, at the food they'd already rooted through.
Mare de D¨¦u! There were empty bottles of wine everywhere. She glanced around, eyes wide. Had more Highlanders come in the night? No, just the six of them had run through the abundant supply in the sideboard and raided their collection in the cellar.
They saw her then, and she forced a smile to her face. "Good morning, gentlemen," she said, pleasantly enough. When they stood and seemed as if they might approach her, no doubt to touch her hands again, she backed to the doorway and pressed her palms against the molding behind her. "I trust you slept well."
"Aye. Thank you for your hospitality." She thought that one was Niall. They'd introduced themselves last night, but all their names had sounded the same, alike in their oddness and unfamiliarity. More ridiculous, every surname began with Mac.
"Should we no' cut through the chatter and get to what you wanted to ask me?" MacCarrick muttered. He appeared exhausted, his eyes bloodshot again, and when she'd walked in he'd been rubbing his forehead.
A brittle smile. "Of course, Mr. MacCarrick. Your directness is always...refreshing."
He raised his eyebrows. "Refreshing, is it now? How did you put it before? Aye, I remember. You said my people lacked delicacy."
She could feel herself blushing. These mercenaries looked embarrassed for her. She hated this man. Hated him. But she would do whatever it took to help Aleix. Remember that, Annal¨ªa. "I would like to hire you to help me and my family."
He smirked, clearly relishing her discomfiture. "And just what would you have us do?"
She was a private and mistrustful person by nature, and above all else she was proud, but she would have to overcome these traits for they didn't serve her now. "M-My brother, Aleixandre Llorente, has been captured by Pascal."
She scanned the room to see their reactions. The youngest one was about to say something, but then there was a sound under the table, as if he'd been kicked. He shut his mouth. What had he been about to tell her? Did he know something?
MacCarrick insolently waved her on, and with effort she continued, "He is the only family I have left, and he is in Pascal's jail. I would pay to have him freed. I would pay more than Pascal."
MacCarrick asked, "Why would you think he's still alive?"
She felt the blood leaving her face at the thought of Aleix dead, and to her shame her eyes watered. She found herself twining her fingers in front of her, then forced her hands to her sides.
The older man hissed something to MacCarrick in a foreign language.
MacCarrick shot him a look and snapped, "It's a valid question."
She didn't know how to handle these people. She'd been taught a perfect stitch and elegant table manners, but no one had instructed her on how to negotiate with ruthless men. Her idea of trying to manipulate MacCarrick with a kiss last night had been laughably far off the mark, but if she was as everyone thought, then why hadn't it worked? "He will be alive because he has value to Pascal. The people here love him and would do anything for him. The general will use that as leverage over them."
"Why does he need leverage over them, when he's already terrorized them into submission?" MacCarrick asked as he leaned back in his seat. He sounded gloating about the fact.
"He terrorized them? Or his lackeys terrorized them?" She regretted her words the second she said them.
He glanced around to the men with his eyebrows raised as if she'd just proven some theory, then his lips curled into a mean, mocking smirk. "Run along, Annal¨ªa. We'll be here for only a few days more."
This cretin was ordering her in her own home, and yet she pleaded, "But I will pay you!"
"Do you have coin on the property?"
"No, but I have jewelry. Priceless jewelry."
He gave her a patronizing expression. "And where could we sell that around here?"
"Then my fortune. If you free Aleix, he can get it for you. I'll give it freely."
"Canna imagine your 'fortune' would be the kind of money we usually command."
"That's because your imagination is limited!" When the man called Niall and two others chuckled, she again commanded herself to bite her tongue. "Take anything you like in this house, anything! I'm sure you could find your pay here."
"Anything, then?" he asked with a strange expression. Niall shook his hung head, then rose to leave. The four followed him out.
Still she nodded eagerly. "Just name your price, Mr. MacCarrick. I will gladly pay it."
"Then it's settled." He looked her over shamelessly. "I want you."
"You heard me. I can sense desperation and you're there. You were willing to kiss me last night to sway me to your cause, and I'll bet you're willing to do more than that. Why no' do it with me?"
Her eyes went wide. Hate you!
"I will free him, but before I do, I'll get to enjoy you," he said, his tone smug. "Those are my terms."
She bit out each word when she said, "There is material wealth here that could satisfy even you."
"You mean 'someone such as me.' Forget it, then." He unfolded a dated newspaper, shook it out to read, then kicked his boots up on the table. "I'll no' work for you for anything less than you," he said behind the paper.
Her brows drew together in bewilderment. Those were Aleix's boots, stolen. And they were carelessly propped on her table. Hers and Aleix's table. She and her brother, who was more like a father to her, had breakfast there each morning and talked about the ranch. Aleix was gone. No one would help her and she didn't understand why.
The other men returned and sat. She dimly noted that they appeared angry.
The realization struck her that for the first time in her life she truly needed help and had asked for it, and no one would give it to her. For the first time in her life she'd been...vilely propositioned.
As he continued reading, ignoring her, MacCarrick crossed his ankles, and a bottle by his feet drew her attention. She recognized that particular wine because it had been bottled the year of Aleix's marriage to his beloved Mariette and had been stored with great care. They had saved it to toast the birth of their first baby. The wine never, never should have been drunk.
Yet it sat on the table, opened and nearly full, forgotten among the refuse they'd scattered.
She began to move, and frowned because she had little idea of what she was doing. She watched her feet advancing her toward MacCarrick, and perceived her hand closing hard around the bottleneck just before she raised it high and poured the wine on his head. The growling noise in his throat was getting louder and louder, and still, when the bottle was empty, she dropped it, hitting his thick skull. She thought he bellowed, thought someone might be restraining him. She said in Catalan to no one in particular that the wine had had meaning for her and that they could all go to hell.
The grandfather clock struck eight. She plucked up her skirt and waltzed from the room. She grabbed her gloves at the table by the door, then strolled to meet Vitale in the stable.
It was time to go riding.
MacTiernay and Niall wouldn't release him until they saw through the window that she was riding away. Court had been so shocked, he'd hardly comprehended what she was doing. Then, when he'd lunged for her, MacTiernay snagged him as Niall caught his other arm.
He shrugged them loose and whipped his drenched head around to find Niall glowering at him.
"Again. What the hell is wrong with you, Court?"
"With me? Did you no' just see the most arrogant woman ever to live pour a bottle over me?"
"You deserved it, every drop of it. Talking to her that way after she asked us for help."
Gavin added, "And turning her down? Granted, we doona go about doin' good deeds, but there's wealth here like I've never seen. She could pay us just as well as anyone else."
Court wiped his sleeve over his face. "In case you dinna realize this, she never asked for anything, and in case you dinna understand, she just told us all to go to hell." He shook his hair out and wine splattered everywhere. "Still, I was going to help her. Niall, you ken that I would. I would have before this. I only wanted to bait her a bit. Just for a day."
Niall's expression was incredulous. "I've seen you happily snap necks and slit throats, but I've never seen you be callous to someone who is weaker than you and in such a vulnerable position. Her only family is in that bastard's cell, and you would use that over her? To bait her?"
Court ran his hand over the new knot on his head. "God damn it, I said I'd get him out."
"Aye. Because you're the one who put him there."