Authors: Evelyn Adams
“We can fix it, cher. Whatever it is.”
“I don’t see how, and I’m afraid getting you involved will just make things worse, but God, I don’t know what else to do. I’m out of options.”
She climbed off his lap and went to retrieve her phone. As he watched, she thumbed through a few screens, before handing it to him.
“I woke up Christmas night. I’m not sure why, but I heard my phone vibrating on the counter in the kitchen. I got up to check because I was worried something might have happened to my dad. I couldn’t imagine why else anyone would be calling me. I found this.”
She handed him the phone, and he glanced through the string of text messages all of which repeated the
money for your brother
mantra. He still didn’t understand why she left instead of waking him so that they could deal with it together, but the pained expression on her face told him now was not the time to talk about it.
“Have you made contact with them? Is Caleb okay?” Eric remembered her brother from their time together on her family farm. He was a likeable enough guy if a bit lazy. He couldn’t be more different from his serious, hardworking sister.
“Yes, I called. I had to make some kind of arrangement to pay them. I don’t have a hundred thousand dollars. I don’t even have the twenty-five thousand I promised them to buy myself some time.”
She sounded bitter and tired, and he hated her brother for putting her in this position, but she wouldn’t have to deal with it alone anymore. He’d take care of her and Caleb and then after the nightmare was over he and Julie could have a talk about trusting each other to help when things got difficult and not running away.
“I’ll give you the money, cher.”
Her face fell and for a moment he thought she might break down.
“Oh Eric,” she said, collapsing onto the couch beside him. “I love you for wanting to do that, really I do. But I can’t take money from you. And these people absolutely can’t know we’re connected or they will never go away.”
She was right. His pockets were a lot deeper than hers. Anyone blackmailing him would have asked for much more. But that only made him more determined to help her. He’d gladly pay anything to see her safe and happy, but he didn’t want the thugs that had taken Caleb to slink off only to resurface later. He wanted them gone and the threat to Julie neutralized. He was going to need some help to do that.
He pulled her into his arms and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Go pack a bag. There is someone I need to call and then I’m taking you home with me. Don’t argue,” he said when she opened her mouth. “It’s not negotiable.” He could see she wanted to fight him, but after a moment where he watched her emotions storm across her face, she climbed off of the couch and went to pack. Eric pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and hit the first number on his speed dial.
“Luke, I need a favor. Can I borrow Jackson for a couple of hours?”
JULIE STILL COULDN’T BELIEVE HE’D come to her apartment and that now she was on her way back to his penthouse. If she’d imagined him coming to find her, she would have known he’d take over. A man like Eric Auxtres didn’t get to be a world renowned celebrity chef by leaving anything to chance. She could have fought him on it, but honestly what other option did she have.
She doubted the people who had her brother were going to be very understanding about her paying them twenty grand less than what she promised. And as much as she hated the situation, it felt good to have someone who was willing to share the weight with her instead of leaving her to fend for herself and the rest of her family. But God, she hated the idea of dragging Eric into the mess her brother had made, and she was worried about what would happen if the kidnappers found out she was connected to Eric. A hundred thousand was a lot of money to squeeze out of her, but Eric probably kept that kind of money in his sock drawer. If they realize who he was, they’d never go away.
He was quiet while they drove the hour and a half back into the city and his penthouse above Comme Ci. She could tell he’d wanted to say something about her leaving in the middle of the night, but he’d restrained himself, probably because he was more worried about her feelings than getting answers for himself. That didn’t mean he didn’t deserve them.
She could imagine what she would have felt like if the situation was reversed and he’d been the one to leave. She doubted she’d be so quick to go after him and offer her help. Reaching over she snaked her hand under his arm and the hand resting on the gear shift to lay her hand on his thigh.
“I really am sorry. It killed me to walk away from you.”
She felt the muscles in his thigh flex and tense and saw the tightening around his jaw. Definitely not okay.
“Let it go for now,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road, only pausing every so often to glance in the rear view mirror. “We can deal with that once we’ve gotten this sorted.”
“I didn’t know what else to do. The last thing I wanted was to drag you into this mess.”
“I am not talking about this now, Julie.” His jaw looked tight enough to crack.
She wasn’t ready to be done talking, but she knew she wouldn’t get anywhere by pushing him. He’d always had a stubborn controlling streak. And she was the one who’d fucked up even though she’d convinced herself her intentions were good. Keeping her hand on his thigh, she leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes for a moment. She’s hardly slept since she got the first message and the exhaustion weighed her down. Sitting in Eric’s car was the safest she’d felt since this whole mess started, but she couldn’t let herself fall asleep.
After a few moments, Eric raised her hand to his lips and brushed a kiss over her knuckles.
“I’ve got this, cher. Don’t worry.”
When she felt the Jag slow down and turn, her eyes fluttered open. She must have dozed off because they were in the parking garage of Eric’s building. He pulled into a slot and jumped from the car to help her out, snagging her overnight bag from the trunk before leading her to the elevator.
As the elevator went up, she couldn’t help but think about her tear filled ride down in the same car – was it just a day and a half ago? Eric kept his hand on the small of her back, never breaking contact as the doors slid open, and he guided her into the alcove in front of his penthouse. He punched in the code, and the door opened on a scene remarkably unchanged from the one she’d left Christmas night.
The tree he’d gotten for her stood dark in the corner covered with the ornaments they’d hung together and the paper stars she’d made for him. She glanced over at him and fought the urge to apologize again. Their time together had been so beautiful, and she’d fucked it all up.
“Don’t say it.” He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight against him. She felt every angle and the barely restrained strength of his lean body. “We’ll work it all out later.”
She nodded, her cheek pressed to his chest, and breathed in his spicy earthy scent, new and at the same time so familiar. “Okay. Later.”
“Good girl,” said Eric, lifting her face for a kiss. Before they could dissolve in the heat of it, the doorbell sounded, and Eric tensed.
“Are you expecting someone?”
“Yes, but not someone who knows the code to the elevator. I should have known he couldn’t stay away. Wait here.”
He came back in a moment followed by a man as tall and broad as Eric wearing a suit that had to have been cut just for him and a guy who looked like ex-military and current bad ass, carrying a black duffle.
“Julie, this is Luke Masterson and his head of security.” Eric ended the introduction with a question and looked at the man dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, a jacket covering the bulge at his waist.
“Jackson,” said the man, nodding but not offering his hand. “I hear you’ve gotten into a tight spot.”
Julie let out an unladylike snort. “I suppose that’s one way to describe it.”
“Why don’t we sit down and you can tell me everything you know.”
While Julie sat on the couch and filled Jackson and Luke in on the details of what had happened, Eric watched her and tried to force his feelings into manageable compartments. She’d tried to apologize for disappearing in the middle of the night, and although he hated the way she’d done it, part of him at least understood why. That didn’t change the fact that she’d left him again, and despite her words to the contrary, it seemed to be her fallback position. They’d have to have it out if he was ever going to get to a place where he could trust her. That would have to wait until they got things sorted with her brother, and he was sure she was out of danger.
“So the men holding your brother are waiting for you to call them tonight to get instructions for how to deliver the twenty-five K?”
“Yes,” said Julie, sounding miserable. “But I don’t have twenty-five. I only have about five. I emptied my savings, but Caleb already pulled the extra cash out of the business.”
Eric’s regard for Julie’s brother dropped several notches. If the kidnappers didn’t kill him, Eric was going to beat the crap out of him for putting Julie through this.
“I’ve got the hundred thousand,” said Eric. “Can we set up a way to give these assholes the money, get Julie’s brother back and get rid of the fuckers so they can’t mess with her again?”
“Probably,” said Jackson. “But tell me, is there anyway the kidnappers could know about your relationship with Miss Blake. The low ransom amount makes it seem unlikely, but if they found out it would definitely change things.”
“I don’t think so,” said Eric. “We’ve just reconnected. Before Christmas Eve we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade.”
“Good, and from what you’ve described to me, they don’t sound like criminal masterminds, more like opportunistic thugs. That should make them easier to catch. When we do, what would you like to happen to them?”
“I want them gone,” said Eric. “I don’t want them popping up in six months to make more trouble for her.”
Jackson nodded. “Alright.” He bent and unzipped the duffle. “Give me a minute to set this up and then you can make the call, Miss Blake.”
“I don’t want you to give me the money,” said Julie.
“I don’t care. You need it. I have it. It’s as simple as that,” said Eric. “And if Jackson is as good as Luke says he is, we’ll get the money and your brother back. Relax, cher. Let me take care of this for you so we can move forward.”
Julie nodded, but he could tell that she wasn’t happy about it which was just too damn bad. There was no way in hell he’d let her deal with any of this on her own.
“I think we’re ready for you, Julie,” said Luke, looking up from the gear Jackson had spread out on the coffee table.
“I want her to tell them she’s got the hundred K.” Julie looked at him with wide scared eyes. “Hear me out,” Eric said, pulling her closer and tucking her in against him. He loved the way they fit together. He couldn’t wait to be done with this crap and get her naked and underneath him again. Against the wall of her apartment hadn’t done a thing to sate his hunger for her. “If you give them the twenty-five we still have to figure out where Caleb is. If we set up a transfer of the hundred for say the day after tomorrow that will give Jackson a chance to set the trap and we won’t have to go looking for Caleb. They’ll bring him to us.”
“What am I supposed to tell them when they ask where I got the money?” asked Julie.
“Tell them you got the bank to give you a loan. That’s why you need the extra day. It’s hard to push a closing through over the holiday but you’ve got a friend at First National who’s willing to do you a favor.”
“It might work,” said Jackson, looking skeptical. “The extra day definitely helps, but you can’t do anything that makes them suspicious, Miss Blake, The last thing we want is for them to find out about Mr. Auxtres involvement. That would up the stakes considerably.”
“So what do I do?” asked Julie.
“Make the call. Ask to talk to your brother and stall as long as you can without being obvious. I need to try to get a fix on their location and that takes time.”
“You can do that?” Julie looked at the head of security like he was some kind of wizard.
“If we’re lucky, yes,” said Jackson. “When they cut off your time with Caleb, tell them that you can have their money – all their money – for them the day after tomorrow, but you want to make the swap in the parking garage at the Harris Court Mall. They have a First National bank branch. It’s Mr. Masterson’s building and easier for me to control the variables. You suggest the place first – again try not to raise their suspicions but insist on Harris Court or at the very least, a public place.”
“Wait a minute,” said Eric, leaning forward. “There is no way Julie’s making the exchange. I don’t want her anywhere near these people.”
“I understand that,” Jackson said patiently. “I honestly do, but the kidnappers are unlikely to agree to anyone else making the exchange, and we don’t want to risk showing our hand. If they think Miss Blake is getting help from someone, they are going be much more careful and that much harder to catch. We can keep her safe. I personally will not let her out of my site.”
“I can do this, Eric,” said Julie. “I can.”
“I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. If anything happened to you…” He left the rest of the sentence unfinished because the thought was unimaginable. He hated even entertaining the idea of putting Julie in danger, but Jackson was right. Using someone else for the exchange would make them suspicious. He wanted them gone and this wrapped up so he could move forward with Julie. He pulled her into his arms, tipping her face up so that he could brush a kiss across her lips. “I hate taking a chance with your safety,” he said.
“I know. Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.” She stretched up to press her lips against his. “I will.”
“You don’t take your eyes off of her, and if there’s even the hint that things might go wrong, you pull the plug. Understand?”
“You have my word,” said Jackson. Behind him Luke watched Eric and Julie, appraising.
Eric let out his breath, praying he wouldn’t regret this. “Make the call.”
Julie sucked in her breath, counting to ten as she exhaled. When she was fairly certain she could talk without her voice shaking, she picked up her phone and looked at Jackson.
“We’re ready, Miss Blake.”
Julie hit the send button and waited two rings before the man with the unremarkable voice answered the phone.
“You’re cutting it very close, Miss Blake,” said the voice she’d already come to hate. “I do believe your brother was starting to worry. Do you have my money?”
“I’m not sure what makes it your money,” said Julie. “But yes I have it. I want to talk to my brother.”
There was a thud and some shuffling and then Caleb’s voice came through the line. “Julie?”
“I’m here. Are you okay? Did they hurt you?” Even after everything he’d done, he was still her brother and she loved him. The idea of him being hurt or scared twisted something low in her stomach.
“I’m okay. I was afraid you weren’t going to call. Do you really have the money?” His voice sounded small with none of the bravado it usually held. That got to her almost as much as anything.
“Yes, I’ve got it. All of it. I’m going to get you out of there.”
She heard move scuffling and then the other man was back. “As lovely as these brother and sister times are, I’m running out of patience. For your brother’s sake, I hope you have the twenty-five thousand we talked about.”
Jackson moved his hand in a keep going motion, and Julie paused to draw out the time before she answered.
“I have the full hundred thousand.”
“Do you? I’m intrigued. Your brother seemed concerned that you wouldn’t be able to come up with the twenty-five thousand. Tell me, how were you able to come up with the rest? You haven’t found a sugar daddy have you? I’d hate for you to have to do something distasteful for the money. Unless of course you were doing it for me,” he said with a chuckle.
Julie watched Eric clench his fists, and Luke put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.