Authors: Adrienne Giordano
“We’ll put her in a vest and helmet, to be sure. I hate it as much as you do. Last thing I want is her in harm’s way.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll look like a peanut in Kevlar. They won’t see me as a threat.”
Vic assumed his arms-folded-don’t-mess-with-me stance that drove most people to urination. “I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to.”
Janet held her hand out to shut Gavin up. “Vic, you have to see the possibilities. If you can do that, you’ll realize this is the best way to ease tension and ensure Roxann is okay.”
Vic stared at her, but kept quiet.
Come on, boss. Let me do this.
“You’re okay with this?”
She jerked her head. “Yes. I can help and if it keeps the situation level, I’m absolutely okay with it.”
The man was still her immediate supervisor and she wanted him to sign off. For whatever reason, she yearned for his support.
“You’ll wear a vest and a helmet and take a radio.” He turned to Gavin. “I want a show of force. We’re putting an army of guys at the end of the driveway, in full gear, making sure she stays safe. I want them to see us and know if they hurt her, they are going down. Do your head-shrinking and convince them it’s for her protection and if they don’t fire, we won’t.”
That, at least, sounded reasonable.
Gavin nodded. “I’ll work it out. Get her into a vest and helmet.”
He went to the phone and initiated contact.
Janet approached the house on trembling legs. She focused on the front door and, as much as she despised her own weakness, fear quickly gobbled every ounce of bravery. How did Vic’s guys do this all the time? Some people might thrive on it, but this experience proved she wasn’t one of them.
No. What she wanted was to set this food down, see Roxann and run like hell.
“You’re doing great,” Gavin said via the earpiece in her right ear.
She breathed in.
Sure Joe Smith promised she wouldn’t get hurt as long as she came no closer than fifty feet, but who knew if he could be trusted? The man was a kidnapper. She concentrated on the weight of the Kevlar protecting her and pushed her shoulders back.
Even if they shot at her, chances were she’d survive. Doing this had been her idea and now she wondered if she’d live through it.
With each step she ignored the growing urge to glance behind her where Monk, Billy, Bobby and four other team members stood behind the cover of an SUV dressed in riot gear, weapons ready. Gavin and Vic sat in the car on the edge of the property, but she didn’t look. Didn’t need to. She knew they were there. Her immediate task was to estimate fifty feet from the house and leave the food. Then she’d raise her arms, the hostage takers would open the front door and allow her to see Roxann.
She kicked a stone, watched it fly and said a silent thanks for the distraction. Three more steps. Fifty feet or not, the covered front porch was just ahead and her hammering pulse told her to stop. She’d leave the food and back up until the kidnappers opened the door.
This is it.
Slowly, she set the food and drinks on the ground. With even more care, she straightened and raised her arms.
“Food is set,” someone said through the radio.
Don’t think about the fear.
She counted the seconds until the front door opened.
Two, three, four, five…
Inch by inch, the faded blue front door opened, but no one could be seen.
And then Roxann stepped into the doorway. If she’d gotten closer, Janet imagined she’d see lines of fatigue on Roxann’s face, but from this distance—God bless her—she still managed to look amazing. Her long blond hair was pulled back and she wore black shorts and a summer-weight white sweater. Right. She’d been on her way to the lake house.
“Hi,” Janet called. “Are you okay?”
Roxann turned her head to the left and her mouth moved. Probably asking permission to answer. She turned back to Janet. “I’m okay. Tell Michael I love him and I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. We’re working on getting you out.”
Someone reached from behind the wall, grasped Roxann’s arm and yanked her from the door before slamming it.
Just that fast, a woman she’d grown to admire, to respect for her demanding career and her ability to lead a staff composed of mostly men, a woman Janet dreamed of growing into, had been snatched from sight. Completely unfair.
All Roxann had done was marry a powerful man. That, combined with working her ass off to succeed in her own high-profile position, made her a target. Add in her pregnancy and the harsh reality of this horrid event and—man-oh-man—it fired a spitting, seething anger that charred Janet from deep inside.
Was this what dedication to the job resulted in? Janet had spent immeasurable time worrying, thinking, worrying more about her career and what people thought of her. How they
her. In the end, would it really matter? At this moment, did it matter to Roxann?
Afraid to turn her back to the door, Janet walked backward. What a sight.
“You’re almost there,” Gavin said in her ear. “Doing great. Just don’t trip,” he cracked.
If she wasn’t shivering from fear and that fierce, scorching anger she’d blast him.
“We’re ten steps behind you,” Monk said via the radio.
God, she loved that guy. Leave it to him to find a way to make her feel protected while avoiding making her a cry-baby.
And then she was there, stepping behind the SUV between Monk and Billy.
Mission accomplished. Roxann was, for the most part, okay. And no one was dead.
Gavin jumped out of Vic’s SUV and opened the back door for Janet. Cool air wrapped around her and she swiped at the sweat on her neck. Whether that sweat came from fear, anger or heat—maybe all—she couldn’t be certain. Gavin stood, the open car door at his back, watching her as she swung her helmet off, tossed it on the seat and went to work on the vest. Despite her appreciation of its function, she absolutely hated that thing. The idea of wearing something that stopped bullets freaked her out. Seeing Roxann a prisoner freaked her out. The whole damned situation freaked her out.
“I’ve got Mike on speaker,” Vic said and, not wanting to waste time, Gavin jumped into the backseat with Janet.
His knee bumped hers and he grabbed her leg. “Sorry.”
Janet stared straight ahead.
Didn’t feel a thing.
That little buzz was adrenaline. That was all.
“Did you see Rox?” Michael asked.
Good. Concentrate on Michael and his pregnant wife
. “She looks good. Tired, obviously, but, you know your wife, she’s a powerhouse. I think I want to be her when I grow up.”
Silence drifted through the phone line. “Did you talk to her?”
“I did. She said she was fine and to tell you that she loved you and she was sorry.”
Again, he stayed silent. Janet didn’t like that. This man was their leader, their safe-haven when the atrocities they faced overwhelmed her, and she didn’t want him in pain. Not for one second.
Fill that quiet.
“Michael, for what she’s going though, she looked amazing. I think, as crazy as this will sound, they must be treating her okay.”
Aside from the fact that they have her chained to a bed.
He didn’t need that 411 though.
“What’s next?” Michael wanted to know.
“Head-shrinker, I’ll take you and Janet back to the barn. I’m gonna rotate teams here and take alpha team out to our farm. I’ll leave Monk, Billy and Bobby V. with you. Monk will take command while I’m gone.”
Vic taking the team to Taylor Security’s training center would not be good news for Gavin. Having worked around these guys, Janet understood how hard they trained and practiced and practiced more for takedowns.
“We’re not there yet,” Gavin said.
Vic drove to the barn, but didn’t bother parking. “Understood, but I want them sharp if something comes up. Mike, what have you got on the HT?”
“He has a nine-year-old son with a former girlfriend. They were college sweethearts, but broke up when the kid was ten months. His coworkers say he’s a loner. Eats lunch at his desk. Rarely joins them unless it’s a company function. Sometimes not even then.”
Gavin jotted notes on his pocket notepad as Michael spoke. As a certified geek herself, Janet made an educated guess that Joe Smith, with his love of reading and playing on the computer, had probably been a bullied kid who found solace on his own.
“Got it,” Gavin said. “Anything about who’s raising the boy?”
“Shared custody. It seems loose. The neighbor said the boy is around a lot. Then she clammed up. She didn’t believe I was his distant cousin.”
“Nice,” Vic said.
Gavin finished his notes. “Thanks. I can work with this.”
“Vic,” Michael said. “I’ll meet you at the farm.”
Once again, Janet marveled at the strength it must have taken for Michael with his abundant protective instincts, to stay away from the place of his wife’s imprisonment. Realistically, the husband of a hostage, no matter how controlled, brought emotional chaos to an already toxic situation. Michael understood that.
Gavin pushed the car door open. “We’ll keep you updated. Vic, tell the guys they did good. Not that they need to hear it from me, but they should know.”
Janet jumped from the Tahoe—where exactly was her stepladder? So damned short. She felt like a five-year-old.
Gavin grabbed the tac vest from her. “The thing weighs more than you do.”
She laughed at that. At least something made her laugh.
He pulled the barn door open and she stopped, stared inside a minute. Call her selfish, but she didn’t want to go back in there. As if not going in would make the situation disappear.
Gavin leaned into the barn door and crossed his arms. “It’s understandable. To be unnerved.”
Oh, oh, oh, unbelievable how well this man could read people.
Now a shrug. “Nothing. You seem upset. I wanted you to know it’s okay to give in to the stress. Some of the toughest guys I know would be terrified to do what you just did.”
Total God. That’s what he was. So much for her quest not to turn stupid. Ignoring him, she walked into the barn. He followed and closed the door behind them. Odd. With this heat, any additional air in the musty old barn would be a blessing. He dropped the vest on the large folding table and she held her hands out. “What now?”
“We wait. Let them get their bellies full and then I go at them again. Food tends to relax people. You did great, by the way.”
She smiled at him and yes, maybe she was staring. She couldn’t help it. After all that fear and the crazy adrenaline it unleashed, something inside her blew open.
This raging need must be what the guys felt after seeing action. Talk about a meltdown. And the thing she wanted—right now—was to be free of the accumulated searing heat and sadness and anger. She stepped forward.
“It did freak me out. Seeing Roxann like that. As women go, she’s my hero. She’s everything I’ve never been. Tall, beautiful, savvy, successful. She won a gold medal in the Olympics and now she’s a pregnant hostage. For all of her strength, she’s as vulnerable as a woman can be. It’s not fair.”
His gaze still on her, Gavin stepped closer. “You’re right.”
“And I’ve spent all this time worrying about my career and what people think of me. Trying to prove I’m not the geeky, awkward girl hiding behind a computer because I don’t understand people. I mean, what am I doing? I’m not a teenager. When I looked at Roxann, I realized none of it should matter. For all her success, she might not walk away from this. I don’t want to waste my life worrying about dumb…dumb…
when it could all end at any time. I’ve spent years trying to be the unslut.”
He shook his head like he didn’t understand.
Join the club, big guy.
“It’s the reverse of slut. I don’t sleep with the operators. Some women in this company do. I mean, yeah, from a woman’s point of view, I can see why, but I’ve worked too hard to destroy my career by not keeping my legs closed.” She met his gaze. “Until now.”
Yeesh. So confused.
What am I doing?
Nothing like making oneself look truly pathetic. She waved it off. “Ignore me. Emotional vomit.”
Smart girl gone stupid. Somehow it always involved Gavin.
“Slow down and give yourself a break. All those things you said about Roxann? Some women would say that about you. You work with guys two and three times your size and you’re not intimidated. Every guy on Vic’s team knows not to screw with you. They understand your value and that your skills will and have saved their lives. Those women in the business office? They’re jealous. You earned your job with your skills, not because you got on your back. They don’t understand that.”
He knew about the witch twins. She opened her mouth. Nothing. Nada. Not one coherent sentence.
He huffed. “Yeah. I know about them. They’re vile women who thrive on gossip and you don’t need them. They know it and that’s why they hate you. It has nothing to do with you being a geek, and everything to do with you not kissing their asses.”
Total head-shrinker. She didn’t care.
Stupid, stupid girl.
She stepped to him, got close enough to feel the heat of his body. “I’m all screwed up.”
He leaned back. Only a little. “I respectfully agree with you.”
Inching forward, she tugged on his shirt. “But I’m done thinking.”
He held up his hands. “What are we talking about here?”
Finally, an easy question. “Sex. If you ask me,
been thinking too much. Maybe we just need to get it over with. Get it out of our systems.”
He laughed. “You think
what we need?”
She flipped the button on her pants. “Yep.”
The button got his attention and he stared at it a second before looking back at her. “What if we don’t get it out of our systems? What then?”