Authors: Sally Clements
‘Leave him alone!’
She dropped everything to jump onto the attacker’s back. Air whooshed out of her body in a painful rush. Their bodies slammed together and she clung to him, high heels swinging in the air. The self-defence course hadn’t covered this; it had all been about blocking an attacker, running away – not hanging on for dear life. And where were the good Samaritans? Despite the crowds, people hurried past with eyes averted as though from a family row.
The scrawny body twisted and turned in Tempest’s grasp, then the attacker bent suddenly. Her triumph morphed into dismay when she tumbled over his shoulder and the hard ground pounded her back.
Bony fingers dug into her upper arms. She wrinkled up her nose in disgust at the fetid smell of sweat. The man jerked her up, clamping a wet cloth over her mouth and nose. Then a fruity smell filled her nostrils instead. Tempest held her breath, and struggled in his iron grip. Her legs kicked convulsively, searching for a target. Surely someone would intervene and help her.
A fist thumped into her stomach. She groaned in agony, inhaling a lungful of sickly fumes. He tossed her into the back of the van like a bag of cement. Her hip jarred against the metal floor and fireworks exploded behind her eyes. The van shuddered at the weight of a heavier body, then the door slammed shut.
Her head was so heavy, she could barely move it. She traced her swollen lip with the tip of her tongue, tasting blood. Dizziness gripped, and her vision blurred. The engine gunned loudly, slamming her against the side of the van like a rag-doll. The tyres screamed, the van sped away, and everything went black.
Jake’s head was pounding like a jackhammer. His shoulders ached, and his hands were bound behind his back. He tugged, and the cold, hard metal of handcuffs cut into his wrists.
Well, at least I’m still alive
. It was small consolation as a blinding pain arrowed through his temples, but better than the alternative.
It was black as a moonless night. He breathed in the stink of damp, salty air. The only sound in the blackness was his own tortured breathing. A rotten, chemical sweet taste filled his mouth. They’d used a sedative on him. Probably chloroform.
As well as the handcuffs constraining his wrists, his feet were bound together. He was trussed-up like a turkey, lying on his side on what felt like a narrow bed. The hard metal, without the luxury of a mattress, cut painfully into his ribs and hipbones. He grimaced, taking painful stock of his situation. Two days in London, hardly enough time to get into trouble – yet already someone had grabbed him off a London street.
His English team had done a fantastic job installing his groundbreaking alarm system in the museum. Someone must have snatched him in order to jeopardize it.
His mind was swimming, unable to focus through his pain, but the urge to escape gave strength to his abused body. There was a small window of opportunity before they came back. Swinging his bound legs in tandem, he angled off the shallow cot, shifting so his feet could hit the floor.
Deadened legs gave way, and he fell heavily, jarring his tormented joints on the concrete. He pulled in a tortured breath, listening hard. If there were anyone else in the room, the noise of his fall would have alerted them to the fact that he was awake.
His voice echoed in the blackness. His ears strained, then focused on the sound of tortured breathing. Like a caterpillar, he writhed across the floor in an undulating crawl.
The breathing grew louder. He wasn’t alone.
Angling forward, his face touched something warm and firm. A smooth naked leg, tied to a chair. He worked himself up onto his knees and edged up the body to find out if his companion was bound too. Without the use of his hands, it was a tortuous process. The only sensations he could garner were by feeling with his face. It was like being a swaddled baby. Only a lot more painful. Jake edged up over knees covered in material to find wrists tied together with rough jute rope.
He breathed in the unmistakable scent of woman.
‘Can you hear me?’ he whispered.
There was no response. The woman’s muscles were relaxed and she slumped, still under the drug’s deadening influence. He struggled to her bound wrists and investigated the binding with his mouth.
All the muscles in her body stiffened suddenly to life. She was awake.
‘What are you doing?’
The husky voice was tinged with fear.
Jake raised his head from her bound wrists and breathed in the warm, spicy scent of her perfume. His ears strained for any sounds beyond the room. Invisible electricity arced in the air between them. He could feel her panic grow like a living thing, threatening to break free. ‘I was trying to see if I could free you. I had to use my mouth because my hands are bound.’
She panted softly and shifted on the seat. A hushed sound telegraphed that she was trying to tug her wrists apart.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
Jake needed the woman calm and focused on escape, not frightened in the dark.
‘Tempest.’ Her body trembled.
‘Are you the man they snatched from the lane?’
Someone had rushed to his aid and distracted the thugs for a moment. A woman. This must be her, although why she would put herself in danger for a complete stranger was a complete mystery.
‘We met at the museum, I saw you in the lane.’
‘You’re the girl from the lift?’
A vivid picture flooded his mind, accompanied by an unexpected burst of pleasure that he hadn’t lost her after all.
The tremors were stilling, but her voice was still high and infused with panic. ‘Yes.’
‘Can you move your arms at all?’
Her voice became stronger. ‘No.’ Her muscles strained against his chest. ‘My hands are tied together with some sort of rope. I can move them up a little bit, but I’m tied to the chair and can’t move my legs.’
Whoever had kidnapped him must have only brought one pair of cuffs. They wouldn’t have expected a second captive.
‘My hands and feet are bound too. I’m trying to free you,’ he said.
He worked on the ropes with his mouth again, feeling her body shudder through his lips.
‘I worked that much out.’ There was a smile in her voice. ‘I was out for the count. Is there any sign of the men who attacked us?’
‘No, they chloroformed us, then dumped us here. There’s a sliver of light in the corner which I reckon is the door, but there aren’t any windows.’
‘I know. I’ve been awake for about half an hour and I haven’t heard anything except your breathing. They’ve cuffed my hands behind my back and tied my feet together with rope.’
Memories of the abduction flickered through his head. His fist had connected with the thug who’d rushed him, and then she’d launched herself into action. She would have been no match for those men. From what he remembered from the museum, she didn’t even come up to his chin. She must be crazy to have involved herself in this.
He didn’t even try to hide the disapproval in his voice. ‘What on earth did you think you were doing, getting between me and those thugs?’
‘Saving your ass, for one thing.’
‘That’s nice of you, sweetheart, but you don’t even know my ass.’
Through gritted teeth, she muttered, ‘I probably know it better than you think.’
‘You put yourself in danger and you shouldn’t have.’
Didn’t she have any regard for danger? His father had been just the same – a reckless character.
‘I’m not the sort of person who just stands on the sidelines and watches while someone is forced into a van.’ Her voice was sharp. Was she suspecting him of a lack of moral fibre? ‘I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.’
‘And now you’re tied up, god knows where.’ He shook his head in disbelief. He’d never put himself in danger for someone else. He knew better than that.
‘You could try and be a little bit more grateful, you know. I only wanted to help you. Instead of being critical, you could get us out of here.’
He felt her fists clench, and imagined if he could see, she’d have her pretty face twisted into a scowl.
‘OK, but first I need to loosen this rope around your wrists enough for you to get a hand free.’
An angry mutter. Like a stroppy teenager. ‘OK.’
‘I have to get closer.’
He manoeuvred himself into position between her thighs. Her breaths shallowed out when his teeth brushed the back of her hands, working the strands of rope with his teeth. The side of his jaw brushed her fingers, and they flexed convulsively against his lips. She hissed sharply.
Was she in pain or had she heard someone coming?
‘Everything all right?’
He lowered his head into her lap again, and she gasped as her knees flexed against his torso. He breathed out onto her fingers, and the answering tremble sent a flash of awareness through him. Oh, so that was it. The nuzzling of warm bodies in the darkness had affected her, just as it had him. They couldn’t see anything in the inky darkness, could only feel. It was a potent sensation, morphing fear into another, more exciting emotion.
He should ignore it, just leave it alone. But he didn’t. ‘What are you thinking about?’
‘How to get out of here, of course.’
Her body stiffened at his low rumble of laughter.
Teasing wasn’t fair, but the release of tension felt good. The pain tugging at his temples melted away. ‘I’ve loosened it. Try to pull your wrists apart again.’
She struggled with the damp fibres.
‘There’s definitely a bit of movement but not enough to free my hand,’ she grumbled.
‘It’s fraying. I’ll keep at it for a while and see if I can tease it further apart.’ She’d seen the men; maybe she could shed some light on their abduction. ‘Tell me what happened. Did you see anything?’
‘I was behind you in the lane and saw the whole thing. The gorilla was waiting behind boxes in the lane, and sprang into action the moment the van pulled up.’ She hesitated for a moment, then voiced the question which had been niggling at him since his senses swam into consciousness. ‘Do you have any idea why they snatched you?’
Jake raised his head, searching through the possibilities rattling around in his brain.
‘Money,’ he said flatly, ‘it’s always about money.’
‘More likely for leverage. My mother is a curator in the British Museum. She’s in charge of the Egyptian Exhibition.’
Jake wasn’t surprised by the astonishment in her voice. He took after his tall American father, and long years in the States had erased any trace of his childhood French accent. Yet it was so unlikely this reckless whirlwind of a woman knew his mother that he couldn’t keep the disbelief out of his voice. ‘You know my mother?’
‘I met her earlier today,’ she admitted. ‘In the museum. I’d just come from a meeting with her when I bumped into you outside the lift.’
A meeting with his mother? Maybe she was applying for a job. She sure looked the part, in tight skirt and killer heels. They had a large staff of administrators at the museum, although he wouldn’t have thought his mother would be involved at interview level. Teasing out the answer started his head pounding again. It didn’t matter anyway. What mattered was who had kidnapped them, and
‘I think they’ve snatched me to put pressure on her. She’s the only one who has unfettered access to all areas of the museum.’
Once voiced, the tenuous theory solidified.
Tempest whistled softly. ‘And if they wanted to pull off the robbery of the century, the Rameses exhibition at the museum is the only place to be, with all that gold. The security must be incredible though. I don’t know how they think they’ll get around it.’
‘I do,’ he muttered wryly. ‘Try it now.’
The bindings yielded a bit more at her frantic tugs. She groaned, rotating her wrists. The rough jute must be agony on her soft skin. Eventually, after much effort, the fibres parted.
‘That did it!’
A butterfly touch of soft fingers brushed against his jaw. His flesh reacted as if burned. He swallowed and battled down the unfamiliar sensation.
‘Undo your other hand, and then see if you can untie yourself.’
The hardness of the concrete floor, unyielding against his knees, sent pain shooting through him, and Jake shifted his weight to relieve it.
Her body shifted and turned as she struggled for freedom.
‘How can they overcome security at the museum?’ she asked. ‘They’ve just put in a new alarm system which is absolutely state of the art.’
He hesitated as doubt bloomed in his chest. She was very well informed. Too well informed for someone attending an interview. Alarm bells started ringing in his brain. There were too many coincidences. She’d walked out of the elevator right in front of him dressed in a manner guaranteed to get the attention of any red-blooded man. She’d followed him down the alley. Maybe getting abducted was part of the plan. She could be working with the kidnappers, trying to get information from him in a more subtle manner. He clenched his jaw tight in the darkness. He wouldn’t give her any information she wouldn’t already know.
‘The system is foolproof. I know, I developed it. My company specializes in security.’
He held his breath, waiting for her answer.
‘You’re Jake Delon then?’
‘Forrester, Jake Forrester,’ he corrected.
‘Oh, Forrester Systems. Your alarms are supposedly the best.’
His gut tightened. Her answer gave him nothing. She could be involved or she might be an innocent bystander, whisked up accidentally into his personal nightmare. It was impossible to tell without more information.
‘The system I’ve installed in the museum is the most advanced ever developed. The user has to signal all is well before gaining access to the vault, and there’s no way a duress code can be detected. There is only one flaw, the human factor.’
He groaned as he tried to get more comfortable on the cold concrete. If she was involved, she’d know his mother wouldn’t activate the duress code. She’d never put him in danger. Since his father’s death he was all she had left.