Authors: Evelyn Adams
JULIE’S HANDS HAD GONE ALMOST numb. She barely felt it when mustache dragged her out of the back of the van and into an ancient service elevator. The guy in the glasses and ball cap who’d been driving followed them into the car. She could tell it was him by his shoes, and she heard him slide the metal door closed. Nothing about her situation felt good, but at least with the driver along she was less worried about mustache doing something to hurt her.
The car rose, but she had no idea how many floors they went up. It jostled to a stop, and she felt the familiar flip in her stomach before she heard the door open. The driver got out, and mustache pushed her after him. She stumbled on purpose, catching herself before she fell. She had to keep reminding herself that she wasn’t supposed to be able to see anything. And she couldn’t see much, just a thin sliver of the dirty floor and the feet of the men holding her, but she didn’t want to risk them finding out and taking away even that little bit of information.
Mustache took a tighter grip on her arm, steering her down a long hallway, and then she heard the voice that had haunted her since the day after Christmas.
“Miss Blake,” said the unremarkable voice. “It’s so nice of you to join us. Gentlemen, show our guest to a chair.”
Julie heard mustache laugh, a cruel sound she’d grown to hate, and felt something bump against the back of her legs. Rough hands pushed her, and she tumbled back into a chair that creaked under her weight.
“Cut the tie. I think we can trust Miss Blake to behave herself.”
Julie felt something cold and smooth slide between her wrists and then a quick tug. The blood rushed back into her hands, making her wrists sting and her hands ache. She forced herself to fight against the pain and work her fingers, trying to get the blood moving faster.
Someone yanked at the bandana covering her eyes, pulling her hair as they took it off. Keeping her eyes on the floor, Julie froze. She might not know much about the world of crime, but she knew kidnappers didn’t show their faces to hostages they intended to let live. For the first time since the start of the whole ordeal, she felt terrified. They never intended to let Caleb go, and if they were letting her see their faces, they sure as hell didn’t intend to let her go.
“I understand your hesitancy, Miss Blake,” said the unremarkable voice. He must be the boss that the driver talked about. “But you may look up. I don’t intend to hurt you. At least not immediately.”
She didn’t believe him. There was no way he’d let her walk away, but she couldn’t look down forever, and she didn’t want to cower in front of them. They’d already decided to kill her at some point, but they’d need proof of life if they expected to get anything out of Eric. She was marginally safe. For the time being. She’d just have to trust that Eric and Jackson would find her before time ran out.
Julie looked up and into the eyes of a man as unremarkable as his voice. If he disappeared, she’d be hard pressed to describe him – brown hair, brown eyes, medium build and medium height. His only distinguishing feature was his complete averageness. That and the flicker of something truly nasty in his eyes.
“Much better, Miss Blake.” His approval galled her, but she chose not to react.
“I did what you told me to. You have the money. Let my brother go.” It wasn’t going to happen. Julie knew that, but it was a place to start. The man chuckled, and she hated him.
“Funny, Miss Blake, but no. The rules changed when you became associated with Chef Auxtres. The man is a genius. You have excellent taste.”
It was like he was talking about a dinner party instead of kidnapping. His civilized demeanor made him that much scarier. He wasn’t like mustache. She had a feeling it would take a lot to make him lose control, but the impersonal calculation was somehow worse.
“No, Chef Auxtres definitely changed the rules and my price. And speaking of the good chef, we really shouldn’t keep him waiting any longer. I imagine he is very anxious for news about you.”
She was the stupidest person alive. What the hell had she been thinking? Had she really believed they would let Caleb go? That if she gave herself to them that it wouldn’t end up a hundred times worse for Eric? She was going to cost him everything and then she and her brother were going to die in this filthy building.
Unless Jackson found them. That thought was the only thing that kept her from screaming herself hoarse.
“Now,” said the unremarkable man. “Let’s motivate Chef Auxtres to act quickly. I have always found breasts to be a particularly effective motivation for a man. Hold her.”
Julie tried to jump up, but rough hands clamped down on her arms, pinning her in place. She kicked out, desperate to get away. The other man grabbed her flailing legs before she got in more than one or two sharp kicks. By the sound he made, she’d at least hurt him. It was cold comfort.
“I’m afraid this next part will be a little unpleasant for you, Miss Blake.” Pulling a small folding knife out of his pocket, he moved toward Julie, and she started to scream.
Jackson dropped two tiny jeweled fish into Eric’s palm. He knew them immediately and his heart clenched.
“They came off her bracelet,” he said. “The one I gave her for Christmas. Fuck!” He hammered his fist on the counter and squeezed his eyes shut tight, scrubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand. Claire stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders. Since the night she and Luke had shared with Eric, she’d been very careful about not touching him. The fact that she was willing to break that boundary emphasized how fucked up everything had gotten.
“This is the last number we pulled off of Miss Blake’s phone,” said Jackson, handing Eric a slip of paper with two phone numbers written on it. “It was an outgoing call, but the video didn’t show who made the call. Do you recognize the number or the one below it? That was used by the kidnappers to call in.”
“No,” said Eric, desolate. “Tell me you have some idea where she is.”
“We’re following some leads. I expect the people who have her to contact you as well. The outgoing message was your private cell. We’ll find them.” Jackson looked uncomfortable and took a deep breath, opening his mouth to speak. Before he got the words out, Eric’s phone rang with a new message.
Eric thumbed open the message and behind him Claire gasped and tightened her hands on his shoulders. It was a picture of Julie. She was sitting in a chair with some man’s hands holding her arms and tears streaming down her face. Her shirt and bra had been slit up the front and yanked apart, baring her breasts. Angry red splotches that could have been handprints marred her perfect pale skin. Eric felt his vision go dark around the edges. They were all going to die. The animals that did this were going to pay tenfold for everything they did to her. He would make sure of it.
And he’d get her back and burn away the memory of the violation with his love. Worshipping her until she was whole again.
Luke and Jackson moved to look over his shoulder at the phone and Eric yanked it away. He didn’t want them to see Julie like that – so exposed, naked, and scared.
“I’m sorry. I need to see that.” Jackson reached for the phone. “Every bit of information puts us closer to finding her,” he said when Eric hesitated.
He was right. Eric understood that. He’d do whatever it took to get Julie back, but he couldn’t watch Jackson’s reaction to the photo. Not without breaking something. Turning, he saw Luke pull Claire into his arms, kissing the tears from her cheeks before tucking her in against his chest. His heart ached, happy his friend had found love and at the same time desperate to hold Julie safe in his arms again.
The phone chirped with an incoming message, and Eric whirled around to see what fresh hell the message brought.
“They’ve made their demand.” Jackson held the phone out for Eric and the others to see.
Ten millions dollars in exchange for the beautiful Miss Blake. I will tell you where and when. Do not involve anyone else or she will die…slowly.
Eric’s mind started shifting through the possibilities. It would take some maneuvering but he could get his hands on the ten million. Even if he had to borrow some of it from Luke until he could liquidate his own assets. He could do it and get Julie back. He was so focused on logistics, he missed what Jackson was saying until the other man put his hand on Eric’s arm.
“Sorry, what?” asked Eric.
“I have to ask you one more time, sir. Do you trust Miss Blake? Are you sure she couldn’t be working with the kidnappers?”
Eric didn’t remember making the decision to move. It wasn’t until his fist connected with Jackson’s jaw that he realized he’d hit him. The other man rocked back on his heels, but he didn’t raise his fists or even assume a defensive posture. Eric could hit him again, and he wouldn’t try to stop him. That more than anything diffused the need to pound something.
“Easy, man,” said Luke, letting go of Claire to move to the security head’s side.
“It’s alright, Mr. Masterson,” said Jackson. “I would have reacted the same way. I understand, but I do need to ask the question.”
“You saw the picture. How can you think Julie’s helping them?” Eric couldn’t believe they were still talking about this instead of getting out there and finding her. His patience had run the hell out.
“The picture is part of the reason,” said Jackson. “Hear me out. It’s definitely provocative – obviously designed to get a reaction, and it worked. But as shocking as it is, it isn’t violent. There isn’t any bruising or cuts on Miss Blake’s face and no weapon present.” He held up his hands, urging Eric to let him finish. “It’s possible, even likely, there’s a weapon we can’t see, but when you combine the unconventional ransom picture with the fact that the video makes it look like she went with them willing, it raises questions. The timing of you reconnecting and Miss Blake’s brother’s disappearance add to those questions.”
“She’s not involved.” Eric didn’t doubt her – not about this – but looking at it from the outside made it easier to see Jackson’s point. “I know she’s not,” he said, hating how much it sounded like an excuse.
“I’m on your side, man,” said Luke. “You know I am, but ten million is a lot of money. People do unimaginable things for that kind of money. How can you be sure?”
“Because I would have given her so much more.”
JULIE SAT IN AN ABANDONED office, clutching her ruined shirt to her chest and trying to stay calm enough to think. Her breasts felt hot and stung a little from where the ringleader slapped her, but they hadn’t really hurt her. When he came at her with the knife she’s been so scared, she’d screamed herself hoarse.
Instead of cutting her as she’d feared, he slit open her shirt and bra and then he smacked her just hard enough to make her pale skin red. Unlike when mustache had his hands on her, there was nothing sexual in the head guy’s touch. He was straight forward, matter of fact, unemotional. In some ways that made it worse. It seemed like he could slit your throat without feeling anything. The detachment made him scarier.
God, who was she kidding? The entire experience was terrifying.
She hadn’t seen any sign of Caleb and unless she thought of something soon or Eric showed up, she was probably going to die in this place. She hugged her arms tighter around her body and surveyed the room, looking for anything she could use to save herself.
An abandoned desk, the chair she was sitting in and a broken tray stand. Nothing that would help. At least they hadn’t tied her again. She’d gotten the feeling back in her hands but she still bore the marks on her wrists from the zip ties. Holding her shirt together with one hand, she started to go through the desk drawers, praying for an abandoned letter opener or something.
Except for a scrap of paper and an old receipt, the drawers were empty. She didn’t have a pen or anything to write with, but she wanted to leave Eric a message. If something happened to her, she wanted him to at least know that she’d been there.
Careful of the tender spots on her wrist, she grabbed one of the jeweled fish and tugged until the jump ring gave way, and she was holding the tiny thing in her hand. Her bracelet was starting to look like a mouth with missing teeth, but if he found the fish, he might at least know that she never stopped thinking of him. As far as Hansel and Gretel plans went it was pretty weak, but it was the best she could manage.
She slid open the top center drawer and pushed the fish in the corner – hopefully far enough back that someone would have to be looking for it and not so far back it would be missed if Jackson’s guys searched the room. She’d just closed the drawer when she heard the key rattle in the lock. She hurried to sit down, trying not to call attention to what she been doing. The door opened, and someone shoved Caleb into the room, locking the door behind him. Forgetting her ruined shirt and everything else for a moment, she threw herself into her brother’s arms.
“Are you okay? How badly are you hurt?” she asked, pulling back to look at him.
“Jesus, Julie,” he said, looking down at her appalled. “What the hell happened to you?”
She glanced from his face to her torn shirt and back. “I’m okay. It looks worse than it is. It’s you I’m worried about. I heard them beating you.” She put her hand on his cheek. He had a couple of day’s growth on his chin, and the stubble was turning into a beard. She searched his dark eyes, so much like her own and smiled. Aside from the beard and dirty hair, he didn’t look as bad as she expected. His face was unmarked – no cuts or bruises – which meant the damage must have been to his body.
“I’m sorry,” she said, letting go of his ribs. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
He hunched over almost as an afterthought. “I’m okay. It wasn’t that bad. I’m just sorry I got you into this mess.”
“Who are these people, Caleb?”
“Balducci – the head guy,” he said when she looked confused. “Started out as a client. I did a few small jobs for him. Nothing too illegal. Don’t look at me like that.” He shook his head.
The gesture reminded her of all the times she’d told him to be careful or double check something, and he’d ignore her, leaving her to clean up the mess afterwards. It made her furious. As charming as he was, he managed to fuck up everything. She tamped down her anger. It wouldn’t help her get them out of here.
“Go on.” She’d give herself the option to kill him later after she was sure this Balducci couldn’t do it.
“The money was good, and he was pleased with my work. He asked me to do more complicated jobs.”
“Why didn’t I know anything about this?” Julie was familiar with all the accounts Blake Enterprises handled. At least she’d thought she was.
“It wasn’t exactly legal, and you know how you get. Besides there wasn’t any reason for you to know.”
“Fuck Caleb! Do I need to know now? They’re planning to kill us. That guy didn’t even try to hide his face. He doesn’t expect me to live long enough to identify him. And you’re still working an angle.”
He at least had the decency to look sheepish. “It’s not as bad as that. Your rich boyfriend will pay won’t he?”
Julie froze, her blood going cold. “How do you know about Eric?”
Something flickered across his face, but it was gone before she could name it. “I heard them talking about it. Eric Auxtres, huh? It’s been a long time.”
Julie didn’t want to talk about Eric while she was stuck in this filthy awful place. It hurt too much, and it wouldn’t help her get back to him. And she especially didn’t want to talk about him with her brother. If the kidnappers weren’t trying to squeeze Eric out of his money, she was afraid Caleb would be. She’d wanted to keep Eric out of the mess, and instead she’d dragged him into the middle of it.
“Not now,” she said. “None of that explains why we’re here. What did you do to make them take you?”
“Like I said. I did some work for them, and Balducci was please. When I needed a business loan, I went to him.”
“And he was happy to help,” said Julie, shaking her head unable to believe her brother could be so stupid.
“I don’t need you judging me.”
He shot her a glare, and the fact that he chose now, when they were likely going to die, as the time to argue with her, made it clear to her exactly what kind of relationship she had with her brother.
“I got in over my head, okay? I thought I could get things worked out on my own. The Smithfield account was going to help.”
The fuckwit was still trying to pin part of this on her. She’d take responsibility for her part of it up with Eric, but hurt or not there was no way she’d let Caleb pin any of his fuck up on her.
“What was the loan for?” she asked, knowing she’d hate the answer before he gave it.
“The car, entertaining clients, things I needed to do business. You have to look like money to make money.”
She couldn’t listen to any more. She’d kill him herself.
“Enough,” she said, holding up her hand to stop him while she clutched her ruin shirt with the other. “Give me your shirt and help me figure out how to get us out of here.”
Caleb glanced down at his shirt and back up at her, puzzled. “What am I going to wear?”
“I’m almost naked here,” she said not believing her ears. Instead of trying to protect her, he was still looking out for himself. “I need the shirt more than you do.”
“You can have my wife beater,” he said, stripping off his shirt and tank. “That will keep you covered. Handing her the tank, still warm from his body, he slid the shirt back over his head.
Not willing to argue, Julie turned her back to him, peeled off her ripped things and slipped on his tank, pulling her ruined Henley on over top. Without a bra, she still felt exposed. Her breasts had always been too full to go braless, but at least she wasn’t naked anymore, and she could think about something other than keeping her shirt together.
“Thanks,” she said and watched as he nodded grudgingly. “Any ideas on how to get out of here? How many guys are there?”
“Just three that I’ve seen. Balducci and the two guys that work for him. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to escape. They have guns. Eric will pay, right?”
He was kidding. He had to be kidding. He couldn’t think they were just going to let the two of them walk out of there.
“I mean I know ten million is a lot, but he’s worth more than that.”
Julie’s legs went limp, and she slid down to the edge of the desk. Ten million dollars. That’s how much her colossal fuck up was going to cost Eric. Because he’d pay it. She knew he would and she’d die anyway but not before she’d ruined him.
“Julie? He will pay won’t he? You guys are together, right?”
Caleb peered into her face, and it took her a moment to focus on him and another moment before she was struck by something else.
“How did you know how much they are demanding? I didn’t even know that.”
“I overheard them talking,” he said, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
It was the exact same way he’d acted as when they were kids, and he was lying about something. The hairs on the back of her neck raised.
“What’s really going on here, Caleb?”
Eric watched the abandoned warehouse come into view and tightened the straps on his Kevlar vest. Jackson insisted on the vest when Eric said he’d be coming along on the raid to get Julie. He wasn’t going to do anything to get in Jackson or his men’s way, but he also wasn’t about to wait for one minute longer than he had to to find Julie and hold her again.
Figuring out that Jackson’s men had been trailing the empty money case in the back of a pickup instead of the car carrying Julie had been a blow. But it hadn’t taken long for them to catch a break. Footage from a news helicopter that had been in the air when Julie was taken caught a match for the floral van. Jackson had been able to trace the registration through a dummy company to the real estate holdings company on the warehouse deed.
It had been surprisingly easy to track things from there, and even Jackson had to admit that the kidnapping seemed more like a crime of opportunity than a well-planned operation. Eric knew Julie wasn’t involved, but having the security head come around loosened something in his chest. They still didn’t know much about Caleb’s part in it or about the men who’d taken him, but all of that could wait. Eric couldn’t think about anything beyond getting Julie back in his arms.
“We’re moving in,” said Jackson through the radio on the dash. “Wait for my all clear, Mr. Auxtres.”
Long minutes passed with no contact, and Eric fought with every ounce of his control to keep from racing from the car and storming into the building to get her. Only the knowledge that his presence would make the team’s job more difficult and put Julie at risk kept him in the car.
More time passed, endless minutes with no word from inside the building. He had his hand on the car door ready to abandon his resolve when the radio sprang to life.
“Clear,” said Jackson. “I have her. Third floor. ”
Eric didn’t wait to hear what else the security head had to stay. He was already out of the car, moving through the building, desperate to get to Julie. Not willing to wait for the ancient elevator, he bolted up two flights of stairs and through the door to the third floor hallway. He heard the voices – Jackson’s and one he recognized as Caleb’s – and then her heard Julie’s soft and shaking, and he lost he mind.
He had no idea how he got from the doorway to inside the room. He didn’t stop to think or reason or even breathe. Not until he had Julie in his arms, crushing her against his chest. She let out a sob. He tried to lean back enough to look at her, but she wouldn’t let go of him, pressing her face against the black nylon of his vest.
“Are you okay, cher?” he asked, his voice rough. “Did they hurt you?”
He felt her shake her head, and something in chest relaxed a fraction. He wouldn’t be okay until he got her home and made sure she was really okay. Bending, he slid an arm behind her knees and scooped her up.
“Take care of the rest,” he said over her head to Jackson. “I’m taking her home.”
He saw Caleb open his mouth to speak but Eric ignored him, walking out the door with Julie in his arms. Out in the hallway, one of the security team saw him coming and punched the button for the ancient elevator.
“Do you need medical assistance, sir?” the man asked, nodding toward Julie.
“No, I just have to get her home. Thanks,” he said when the man held the elevator door open for them and pushed the button for the ground floor.
“I’m okay,” said Julie. “I can stand.”
“Let me hold you, cher. I need to hold you.” He brushed his lips over the top of her head, breathing in the familiar scent of her shampoo.
His heart slowed another notch, and by the time the doors opened on the ground floor, he was breathing normally for the first time since she’d been taken. He carried her to the car, only letting go of her for long enough to open the door and settle her into the passenger seat.
The drive to his building felt like it took much longer than the half hour it actually did. Julie didn’t say anything. She sat in the seat next to him, holding his hand on her lap. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks. He glanced over at her every chance he got, trying to decide whether to pull over or race to the privacy and safety of his penthouse.
Fingers white knuckled on the steering wheel, he drove as fast as was safe to the basement parking lot of his building and slid the car into his spot. He was out of the door and around the car before she had a chance to undo her seatbelt. Pulling open her door, he crouched down enough to take her face into his hands, holding her like she was the most precious thing in the world. Because to him, she was.