Unexpected Temptation, page 15
Vanessa’s mind was spinning at the prospect of everything that was happening. She was overwhelmed.
“We can’t possibly go to that dinner tonight, can we?” she asked.
Suddenly, that didn’t seem like the smartest move.
“You shouldn’t, but I will. They’ll be expecting me to show up to broker the deal, but you’ll be safer back on the boat. If we split up, we’re also safer in that we can’t both get caught in a trap.”
“Right, you could. And I’m just waiting back on the boat,” she said, dismissing that idea. They were right back where they’d started.
“No, honey, you’re my backup. If I don’t check in with you, I’ll need you to be the cavalry. Get Mari’s husband, or any of the authorities, and let them know where I am and what’s happening.”
Vanessa felt her hands go cold when she realized what a risk he was taking.
“Okay, of course.”
“Find anything you need to bring, and let’s get going.”
Vanessa hurried to sort through the mess to find some of her belongings. It seemed like every few days, someone was trashing everything she owned, one way or another.
Vanessa wondered if life could ever be normal again. She didn’t feel like the same person anymore. She didn’t feel like herself, an ordinary schoolteacher from Florida. Too much had happened.
She’d deal with that later, like everything else.
Luke helped her gather her things, and soon they were back in the elevator, heading out of the hotel. Less than an hour ago, he’d held her in his arms in this same elevator. Had that been their last time? The thought brought a piercing sadness with it.
They hustled down to the main doors, where Luke asked for the car they’d been using. He tugged Vanessa close for a tight hug.
“Listen, we should split up. I called Mari to send a car for you, so you’ll be safe. He’ll take you directly to the boat. I’ll catch up with you as soon as I can. I need to contact Jake and I don’t want to do it from my phone or from the boat, where they could be tracking transmissions.”
She wanted to sound calm, reasonable, while ignoring the pressure in her chest that made her want to hold on to him and not let go. She felt as if something terrible was going to happen—again. But she also had to trust that he knew what he was doing; he was the professional after all.
“Okay, but hurry?” she said softly.
He framed her face with his hands, taking a long, long look into her eyes before he kissed her one more time.
“I will. I promise. Go straight back to Mari’s—I texted her that you’re coming. Go directly to the boat. Okay?”
She nodded. “Okay.”
Vanessa reluctantly let him go and went to the car, where the driver held the door open for her and helped her load her bag. It wasn’t Richard. The man introduced himself as Pedro and said he worked whenever it was Richard’s day off. She got into the car. The ominous feeling hit her again as she looked back one more time at Luke, who was already on his way down the street. For a second, she almost rejoined him, not wanting to leave.
But she was being foolish. Luke knew what he was doing, and for once, she needed to follow his lead. The car pulled away from the hotel and back out into traffic, heading out of the city.
Vanessa closed her eyes and tried to breathe evenly, settling her anxiety. She’d feel better when she was back with Luke again.
She almost started to nod off, the day’s activities and her recent lack of sleep wearing on her. But a couple lurching bumps in the road had her blinking awake again.
Glancing out the window, she frowned. The scenery wasn’t familiar, and they were going away from, rather than toward, the water.
“Pedro, are you sure you have the right directions?”
“Indeed, miss. We’ll be at your destination shortly.”
She settled back, but as they traveled deeper into a forested area, nowhere near the water, her heart rate picked up. Something wasn’t right.
Pulling her cell phone from her bag, she found she had no signal. That was strange, too—her cell signal had been fine all over the island, so far.
“Oh, no,” she said, sitting up frantically. “I forgot my prescription in the room. I have to go back. I can’t go without my medication.”
The driver said nothing.
“Pedro, did you hear me? I need to go back to the hotel.”
“No, miss. I can’t do that. I’m sure your medication can be sent to you.”
He knew she was lying.
“I want to go back. Turn around, please,” she said more sternly. Nervously.
This time, his only answer was to raise the divider between them, ignoring her.
Definitely not good. This man wasn’t Mari’s driver, or he had been bribed.
She calculated whether it was possible to jump from the car. As the trees sped by, she decided not.
Was Alfarsi planning to use her as bait to make Luke do what he demanded? Or was she being kidnapped by someone else altogether?
The car finally turned down a bumpy, sandy road, dirt clouding all around the car as they went. It made it impossible for Vanessa to see anything else.
They came to a stop, and she swallowed hard, unsure what she would find when the door opened. As it did, she hesitated, but then stepped out. There was no avoiding her fate now, whatever waited for her.
She thought of Luke, and then stopped. The idea of never seeing him again was too painful to bear. What if they had taken him, too? What if someone had told him that she was gone, and he had to do what they said, or else?
She stood, blinking as the dust settled. Two people crossed a lush lawn, heading toward her. They didn’t have to come much closer for her to recognize one of them.
Her sister was only yards away.
Vanessa stepped forward, but the driver caught her arm, holding her back. She started to object, and then she noticed his weapon.
Her sister was there, right in front of her, for real.
“Julie,” Vanessa breathed as she launched herself forward and threw her arms around her sister, forgetting about everything else.
VANESSA COULDN’T HOLD back tears as she wrapped her sister in another hug. No matter what happened, nothing else was as important as this moment. Julie was here, hugging her back.
Vanessa smiled brightly. She’d found her sister, at last.
“This makes everything worth it. I’ve missed you so much. I knew I’d find you sooner or later. I never stopped trying,” Vanessa told her.
“I know. I know you did. I wish you hadn’t,” Julie said.
“What do you mean? Didn’t you look for me, too? Didn’t you wonder? I always needed to know what happened to you and Max. Maybe together, we can find him, too. We could be a family again.”
“Vanessa, we haven’t ever been a family.”
Vanessa backed away. Something was wrong. Her sister’s face was hard, her features cut at sharp angles into a grimace. Any warmth she’d imagined was gone. Vanessa reached out to touch her arm, and Julie pulled away.
“I know this has to have been awful for you—being controlled and manipulated by these people, but we can put an end to it. I can help you. I want to help you. The clerk told me that you were being forced. That there was a man—”
Julie scoffed. “How do you think you can help me? You and Luke? He wants to help me right into jail. Do you think I didn’t know you were setting a trap for me? Helping him do exactly that?”
“No. It’s not like that, really, he—”
“Listen, I know everything about you, and I definitely know everything about Luke. And I know how a guy like him could play you, not having a ton of experience and all. But honey, really, if you’re about
Vanessa spared a sideways glance to the men who watched them.
Julie had a small bruise on her cheek, near her eye, but otherwise she looked fine. She didn’t appear fearful at all.
If she had been threatened, where were the people who were doing that? She didn’t sound like a victim, but Vanessa still felt that something was wrong.
“Who hit you? Are you being made to do these things? That will make a difference, you know,” Vanessa said, lowering her voice so that the men couldn’t hear.
Her sister’s face softened slightly, and Vanessa studied her. The wary calculation in Julie’s eyes seemed like a reflex, making her look older than she was. She was younger than Vanessa by almost two years, but her life was so much harder. It showed.
“Listen, this is the new plan. You’ll stay with me, here, and it won’t be too long until Luke knows you’re missing. If he brings the software, hands it over, and stops meddling in our business, you both walk. If not, well...” Julie looked away, taking a deep breath. “Things could go badly. For all of us.”
Julie started to back away, but Vanessa chased after her.
“Wait! Julie, you have to listen to me. We just found each other again. We can help each other. We’re sisters.”
Julie paused. “We haven’t been sisters since we were kids. You don’t even know me.”
She started walking again, and Vanessa hurried to catch up, grabbing her arm.
“I want to know you. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
Julie paused, turning to stare at her. “More than you want Luke Berringer? I doubt it,” her sister said scathingly.
“You’re wrong. Luke is—” she was about to say a mistake, but the word wouldn’t cross her lips. “Luke helped me. And he does want to find you, that’s true, but there has to be a way we can make this work. I’ll do anything for you. He’s...what we had, it was just convenient. But you’re my sister. You’re family.”
Julie’s gaze was cold. “I wish I could believe you.”
Julie was quiet for a minute, and then her expression relaxed a little.
“There’s something else you have to know.”
Vanessa frowned. “What?”
“Come with me.”
They took a winding path up to the front door of an old plantation-style house, the entryway and walk surrounded with the rich vegetation that made the island so beautiful, but this setting merely made Vanessa more wary. No one knew where she was. No one could see her, or find her here. The man who had driven her here, along with the other, walked behind them, preventing any escape.
Julie opened the door and let Vanessa inside first. Once inside the opulent entryway, Vanessa followed Julie down several hallways to an office. When they entered, a man sat at the desk. He looked angry when his eyes fixed on her.
“What the hell is she doing here?”
He stood and walked around the desk in front of them, hands on his hips. He wore a sleek black suit, gray tie. He reeked of wealth and power—and cruelty.
Julie was tense, her hands gripped together in front of her. Vanessa realized this had to be the man who was making Julie do the terrible things she’d been doing.
She met his eyes straight on, close-up, and time stopped. She knew those eyes. They were her father’s eyes—her biological father—except that they held none of the same humor or kindness.
“Max?” She could hardly breathe as she said his name.
No, it couldn’t be.
He swung his gaze to Julie. “Why did you bring her here?”
“She says she wants to help. She has a direct line to Berringer. And she’s family. Maybe we should bring her in—”
He pulled back his arm and hit her. Hard. Julie fell to the ground, not moving.
“Julie!” Vanessa yelled and stepped forward, but she stopped as her brother crossed in front of her, not allowing her to reach her sister.
Never in a million years would she have thought the soft-faced, redheaded boy she remembered would have become this monster. Max’s head was shaven now, as if he had removed as much of his family resemblance as possible. His lips drew into a taut, mean line as he leaned in.
“Hey, sis,” he said with a leering drawl, looking her over in a way no man should ever look at his sister.
Vanessa had to hold herself stiffly to avoid cringing.
“I don’t understand. How can you be...are the men who are forcing Julie making you—”
Max laughed heartily. “Hardly. You are such a sap. You always have been. No one forces me to do anything,” he said. “She works for me. I’m the boss.”
Vanessa blinked as she tried to focus. “You mean that you...”
“What? No hug for me?” he said with smirking malice. “I guess not, especially after I tried to blow you up. Too bad that didn’t work out. It would have solved a lot of problems. But we can take care of that now. In fact, it’s almost better seeing the expression on your face first.”
Vanessa shook her head in denial, taking several steps away from him. This man could not be her brother.
“No,” she said more to herself than to him.
“At least this will end it once and for all. Do you know how completely boring it’s been keeping track of you all these years? Making sure you didn’t mess things up or lead anyone to me? At least I won’t have to do that anymore.”
Vanessa stilled. “You’ve been watching me? You knew where I was? Who I was? All this time?”
He laughed, as if anything she said was hysterical.
“I’ve known since you were in college. I found both of you, but at least Julie had some potential. She knew the score. I wouldn’t have bothered with you if you hadn’t been so intent on shoving your nose in our lives. Why couldn’t you just mind your own business? When you showed up here, I knew you’d try to throw a wrench in things. I’d hoped to get rid of you and Berringer in one big boom, but oh, well. Can’t win every time. But now I have you, and pretty soon I’ll have him, too.”
Vanessa was still trying to believe what she was hearing—that her brother was the cause of all of this. The boss, as he put it. That he’d known about her and Julie for over ten years. He’d victimized Julie and made her do horrendous things. He’d watched Vanessa look for them and had known about her all this time.
And now he was going to kill her. And Luke. He’d probably kill Julie, too, when he was done with her.
“How could you be like this? There has to be some part of you, something left, that’s decent. Mom and Dad would—”
Max’s face screwed up into a mean scowl. “I barely remember them. What I do remember is that they left us on our own, with no will, no money, no guardian. Nothing. Wards of the state. I ended up in one hellhole after another because of them. Sure, you lucked out—you found some decent people. Goody for you. Julie and I had to do whatever it took to survive. That’s okay, though. It got me where I am now.” He gestured to the house, their grand surroundings.
“You blame them for what you have become? I don’t think so. You’ve made your own choices, and they would be ashamed of you.”
He appeared unmoved, shrugging. “I couldn’t care less. Soon, I’ll have more money than I can spend in a lifetime, and I won’t have to worry about you, or her, or Berringer anymore. I’ll be rich, and you’ll all be dead.”
He said it with such relish that her stomach turned. Vanessa’s heart broke, again, and she choked on regret and sorrow, but she was also frightened out of her wits. How could she get help now? What had she done? They would all be killed. By her brother. She had only wanted to find her brother and sist
Vanessa had never imagined this.
She had to keep him talking as she sought an escape. If she could get close, hit him, or try to take him down and then run into the jungle. Bring Julie with her. It was a long shot; she couldn’t take him on physically, especially not with the other two thugs in the room. “Why Julie? Why would you kill her? You work together.”
“She’s been useful, but once she knew about you, she started balking. I was clear that if she didn’t go along, if she double-crossed me, I’d kill you. Simple as that. Not that I didn’t plan to do that, anyway, but you know, it helped to keep her in line.”
For Vanessa, his words were like a silver thread being cast down from the sky—a thin bit of hope. Her sister had been trying to save her. Julie had been sacrificing herself, going along with Max, so that he wouldn’t hurt her.
The realization gave her new strength, and she noticed that Julie had started to move, pushing herself up from the floor. Julie was no doubt confused and afraid, controlled by Max for so long.
Had she heard Max? Did Julie understand that he was going to kill her, too?
“So you would kill both of your sisters for your own gain?” she asked again.
“Um, yeah. I would. I just said that. And your bodyguard friend, too.”
Max grinned, tipping her face up to him as he pinched her chin painfully between his fingers. “You should have seen her back in the day, with your Luke. However, he sure took a liking to you, as well. I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you to please a man like that. Maybe he was reliving old times.”
She held his gaze, though he disgusted her. And frightened her. “You don’t know anything about Luke. Or me.”
She had to keep him talking. Julie was almost to her feet.
“I know enough. Berringer might have contacts in high places, but I have friends in even higher ones. You see, while my childhood sucked, I did form some bonds with other kids who suffered as much as I did. Some of those kids ended up in top-level government jobs and large corporations...all over the world. All willing to help me when I asked, and when I paid them well enough. Believe me, I know more than you can ever imagine.”
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