“What the hell do you think you are
doing?” shot Shane. His threatening glare matched Justin’s,
much to Nicole’s dismay. Both men stood with legs braced apart,
arms folded boldly across their chests. Flustered, the raven-haired
beauty glanced hopefully at Justin, but found no hint of compassion.
“I… I was coming back to reconsider
your offer, Shane, when I heard voices. So, I waited out in the
“With your ear pressed to my door?”
he quipped. “Lucky for me, I have nosy neighbors. You can
imagine my surprise when the lady across the hall called to notify
me of a certain young woman listening outside my door.” Nicole
gave an innocent shrug of her shoulders. “Sit down, Mata Hari,”
ordered Justin. “You’re going to be here for a while.”
“I most certainly am not! I have important
things to do and—” She gasped as she was lifted off
the floor like a weightless toy and plopped onto the sofa. Standing
before the flabbergasted female, Justin shook his finger in warning.
“Don’t you dare move!” Exasperated, Nicole muttered,
“For heaven’s sake! What crime have I committed?”
“Eavesdropping,” he reminded
her, taking great delight in turning the tables. “Something
you accused me of only a minute ago!”
“I was acquiring much needed information.
There’s a difference.”
If she didn’t look so solemn, Justin would have burst out
laughing; as it was, he merely smiled. Nicole misread the sign and
rose to leave. Both men grabbed an arm. “Not so fast,”
Shane said. “What did you hear?”
“Muffled voices,” she lied.
“How would I know?”
“Oh, you know, all right!” interjected
“Know what?” Nicole faked.
Shane cursed and left her in Justin’s hands while he paced
the floor. Nicole innocently batted her thick lashes. “I really
don’t understand what the fuss is all about?”
“Cut the act,” Justin muttered.
“It’s pathetic. When you trade fighting for flirting,
I know you’re up to something.”
Nicole gave him the evil eye, then pulled
her arm out of his grasp and strutted over to Shane. “You!”
she scolded, waving her finger in his face. “You have no right
discussing my personal life like a tabloid reporter,” she
swung around to point at Justin, “and to him, of all people!
Why, I’ve known alley cats with more manners than you. You’re
nothing more than vermin… you… you snake! And another
Shane listened to the shrieking, the ranting
and raving, until he could endure it no longer. Covering his ears
with his hands, he pleaded to Justin, “Make her shut up!”
and walked from the room, at which time Justin quietly stepped forward
and clamped a firm hand over Nicole’s noisy mouth. Only when
silence prevailed did Shane reappear, none too happy with the situation.
“What are we going to do with her?” he coolly asked.
“We could tie a nice, hefty rock around
her neck and pitch her into the ocean, but with all that air inside
of her I doubt she’d sink.”
His voice sounded so far away to her, or was it that she was silently
shutting him out? In her mind, she was no longer inside the jeep.
She was enclosed in a deep, dark dungeon. Nicole began to build
invisible walls around herself, building them higher and higher,
forcing the truth to remain a safe distance away, at the outside
of the fortress walls. Only she could control what entered... who
entered... Alone in her fortress, she was safe. Or was it the dungeon?
She could no longer tell.
Cristoff suddenly got to his feet and put
a little distance between himself and Nicole. The young woman eyed
him suspiciously. “Cristoff? Why do I get the feeling I’m
not going to like what you’ll say next?”
“Because… ” He backed
up a few steps, then mumbled something inaudible.
“What? I can’t hear you, Cristoff.”
“I said I hired Justin.”
It took a few seconds for the name to register. Nicole’s heart
skipped a beat. She jumped to her feet, screeching, “You what?!”
and slowly advanced towards the retreating man. Cristoff held his
hands out in front of him as if he were stopping an oncoming locomotive.
“Now, Nicole, just wait a minute.
Let’s sit down and talk this over like two civilized human
“You wish!” she exclaimed, breaking
into a jog. Cristoff turned and hightailed it to the woods without
a backwards glance. “Come here, you coward!” she screamed,
returning to snatch the blanket and bridle before darting off again.
The General galloped serenely past the flying woman, clearly enjoying
this new excitement. “Come here, General!” she now called,
hoping to board the winged Pegasus. But her stallion, true to his
nature, sided with his male companion and promptly increased his
speed until he had left Nicole running in his dust.
Tiptoeing to the bed, she resumed her original
position on top of the floral spread, thankful the mattress and
box spring hadn’t squeaked, and closed her eyes. If her hearing
was accurate, there was only one man entering the room. Outside
the doorway, another called, “Is she awake?”, prompting
this intruder to bend over and lift one of her eyelids. She tried
like the dickens to stare straight ahead without any movement of
her eyeball, praying he’d be fooled. It must have worked,
because, assuming she was still unconscious, the man’s fingers
moved to slowly comb through her long, thick hair. Nicole sprang
up from the bed, nearly knocking the man backwards, and grabbed
his throat with both hands.
“She’s awake!” he sputtered,
struggling to subdue the ferocious feline so he could catch his
breath. Nicole’s hold on him tightened. Suddenly, several
pairs of hands were pulling her off the half-choked victim. She
was tossed back onto the bed, where she quickly got to her feet,
standing upon the comforter so she could flee their grasp if they
pursued her. But they didn’t. Except for the man she had nearly
strangled, the rest were quite content to stand still and chuckle.
She felt like a caged panther in a zoo being gawked at by strangers.
“Easy, baby,” grinned one of the five, his words giving
away his identity.
“You!” she hissed through clenched
teeth. “You were at my ranch.” Tigress eyes darting
from one man to the next, she felt all hope drain from her body.
These men were built like football players! They were huge, much
too big for her to tackle. No wonder they laughed at her ability
to choke one of their friends. It was probably the only time a female
had gotten the upperhand with the guy. Realizing the disadvantage
facing her, Nicole simmered down; she had better save her energy.
“Call the boss. Tell him she’s
awake,” said the largest of the five. At their reluctance
to move, he shouted, “Out!”, gesturing with his finger
until each one filed out of the room. Upon noticing he was also
going to depart, Nicole quickly called, “Wait! Who’s
your boss? Where am I? Why am I here?” She may as well have
been talking to the wall. He turned his back on the distraught female
without so much as a grunt.
The morning began with a heated discussion
with Justin over his sister. He had taken Nicole into a private
area of the stable to voice his concern about Jan’s recent
collection of boyfriends. “It was only a few nights ago that
the two of you went out,” he frowned, “and now she has
men calling her at all hours of the night!”
“And you think this is my fault?”
“It most certainly is!”
“Your sister is getting the attention
she wants. She has a level head. You should be happy for her.”
“Happy?” he scoffed. “She
has a date book now, for crying out loud, filled until next month!
She’ll be out every evening.”
“If I had to live with you, I’d
be out every evening, too,” murmured Nicole.
Robert Downing and Switch are two criminals holding Nicole hostage.
Downing is speaking first:
“Until today, those guys in the Road
Runner were probably looking for Daniel, not us. So we ditch my
car, get another and split to the next state.”
“But the money is here,” Switch
reminded him. “We can’t close out the whole account,
either. If we bring the girl, at least we can get some ransom money.”
“What good’s that? There has
to be a dropoff point. Her boyfriend will probably have the cops
stationed there for when we arrive. I say let’s pull out as
much cash as we can, ditch Nicole, and take off.”
“Ditch… you mean, kill!”
The two men locked eyes, Downing cracking a smile and shaking his
head. “Switch… don’t be going soft on me, pal.
We can get you a new woman to warm your bed.”
“And when will the killing stop, Robert?”
“After she’s cold and six feet