Pressing her lips together, Jennica breathed through her nose. She preferred killing her marks to taking them captive. It was efficient. Captives meant listening to them beg for their worthless lives.
When he made no attempt to stand, she turned her face to the dark clouds stifling the mid-morning sun. Thick, cold rain drops hit against her skin, running down her neck and under her collar. She couldn't blame her irritation on him. It stemmed from something much darker.
Jennica dropped her gaze back to the prisoner, to his left hand. The gold ring he wore, stamped with the image of a ship and an eight pointed star, reminded her what she'd lost and she fought the pull of her past. She'd never intended to become this. What would her father say if he saw the wickedness that had grown in his daughter over the past year?
Sighing, she glanced sideways at William. His coat clung to his lanky frame and water dripped from his dark hair.
"Whatever Matthew wants with him had best be worth it." The irritation in William's voice mirrored hers.
He'd done nothing but complain since the moment they'd set out to retrieve the man. Her lips curled as she studied him. How much of her ire stemmed from being stuck with his company for the past five days?
He grabbed the man's arm and hauled him to his feet. Their prisoner shivered. He hadn't been dressed for the weather when they'd taken him and Matthew never said anything about delivering him unharmed.
She shook off the lingering tendrils of the past and let her darkness slither through her. Cold detachment was all that kept her conscience from sinking its teeth into her. The mud sucked at their boots as they navigated the rest of the filthy yard. Jennica pulled open a door and William guided the man inside. She followed, a grey wolf slipping in beside her.
The wolf stepped closer to William and shook, sending water droplets flying from his thick pelt.
"Keep your damn mutt away from me," William growled, aiming a kick at the wolf's side.
Nakama dodged and snapped his jaws.
Jennica fought the urge to draw one of her knives. There was no love lost between her familiar and William and she took the insult personally. Nakama was a reflection of her and he was all she had left.
Jennica's fingers skimmed the wolf's head as he maneuvered past her in the narrow hall. You should have bit him, she spoke silently to the familiar.
And that would have caused more trouble for you, Nakama responded.
Brushing back her hood, Jennica ran a hand over her damp braid. A spark of warmth kindled in her chest, pushing against her darkness. Her familiar was right.
She took several steps down the hall before realizing William wasn't following. She looked over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow. The rain, William's complaints, and the prisoner's incessant pleading had worn on her. She wanted to be done with this business, to be done with this man who reminded her so keenly of what she'd lost.
He gave the man a gentle push. "Surely you can handle him from here? You don't need me to keep him subdued, do you?"
Jennica whirled, her fingers tightening into fists. "You're the one who nearly let him escape."
"And I'm the one who caught him." He placed a hand over the man's wounded shoulder and squeezed. The prisoner winced, his knees trembling.
"If you were any good at doing your job, you wouldn't have needed to put an arrow in him," Jennica snapped. She backtracked and grabbed the prisoner's arm.
William shrugged and gave a mocking grin as he started in the opposite direction.
Wind and rain rattled against the windows as she pushed the prisoner through the halls toward Matthew's study. William's departure fed her frustration. He'd barely raised a hand over the past five days.
I hope Matthew's interrogation is quick, she growled to her familiar.
Nakama didn't respond, but she sensed his disapproval. The prisoner wasn't the sort of mark she usually went after. Most were criminals in their own right, not a principled businessman. Truth be told, the man's pleading had gotten under her skin. Two days had been enough time to learn more about him than she'd ever wanted to know. He had a family--two children with a third due in another month. Even threatening to cut out his tongue hadn't silenced him.
With each step, she distanced herself from who she was, who she wanted to be again. She didn't fight the cold embrace of her wickedness. Until she could find a way to escape the blood contract that bound her to this brutal life, it was easier to give into the darkness that lurked in her soul.
The door to Matthew's study was open and she guided the man through, pushing him towards the desk at the opposite end of the room. Matthew stood as they approached, a look of disgust on his face as he took in the man's soiled clothing.
Jennica dug her fingers into the tender flesh of the man's wounded shoulder. He moaned and collapsed, his knees striking the stone floor with a satisfying crack. She pulled the gag from his mouth.
"I expected you back last night." Matthew's assessing gaze turned to her. Dark hair framed an intelligent face and he was impeccably dressed, looking more a noble than the charlatan he was. He prowled around the massive mahogany desk with animal grace.
Jennica unbuttoned her coat, peeling it away from her lithe frame as she strode towards the hearth. Her familiar trailed after her and settled near the fire. She stepped nearer to the flames, her shoulders relaxing as warmth seeped back into her body.
"Blame Will," she shrugged.
Matthew's pale blue eyes were colder than the wind outside as he studied the prisoner. "Do you know why you're here?"
The man shook his head.
"Your brother-in-law wants you dead. Something about taking over the shares you own in a shipping company."
The man blanched. "He wouldn't--"
"But he does."
Jennica untied a leather purse from her belt and tossed it to Matthew. "His brother in-law's payment."
Matthew caught it and weighed it in his palm. "However, it seemed only fair to offer you the chance to outbid him."
Jennica raised her eyebrows. Matthew didn't need the wealth. What could the prisoner possibly offer that would justify this ruse?
The man's expression glimmered with hope. "Name your price. Anything."
"What do you have to offer me?" A quiet smile tugged at Matthew's lips.
She bit back a warning. The man didn't know Matthew well enough to recognize the malice in his eyes. To know that the kinder he became, the more cruel his intentions.
"I can give you double whatever he paid."
"It's going to take more than money. What else?"
The man licked his lips. "I have ships."
"How many?" Matthew considered.
"Fif-fifteen. I'll sign them over to you."
Jennica raised an eyebrow and glanced sideways at Nakama. When did Matthew decide to take up piracy?
Why not? Her familiar's voice rumbled through her mind like thunder. It would be a step up for him.