Unexpected Temptation, page 16
Vanessa felt sick, but she steeled herself. She had to find a way out of this.
“From what I can see, you’re the stupid one in this family,” she said, treating Max to the same kind of scathing looks he’d been bestowing on her.
He barked out a laugh. “Oh, really? How do you figure that?”
“Well, at least Julie saw the opportunity to use me. To include me in what you’re doing, rather than leaving a pile of dead bodies for the authorities to investigate. How far do you think you’d get? Luke is a bodyguard—with a high-profile company—and there are four more like him who wouldn’t let his disappearance, or mine, go unanswered. You’ll never truly be free. At least she had the brains to see it and think of an alternative. You left evidence at that bomb site—and do you think my disappearance soon after won’t raise some questions? Luke’s, as well?”
Julie stirred, groaning. Vanessa hoped that she wouldn’t disagree or somehow endanger them both.
“I’m not afraid of anyone,” her brother sneered. “No one will be able to find me.”
“I found you. Luke found you, and you might be interested to know that Homeland Security has found you, too. And if this is the big score you say it is, then you’d think you’d play it smarter. Get away clean. I can help you do that.”
His expression was mulish, but she saw the flicker of interest in his eyes as he crossed his arms in front of his wide chest. “Just for the sake of argument, how do you suppose you could do that?”
“I know where the software is. Luke will never bring it here for me, and he won’t give it up to you, even if his own life is on the line. But I can get it.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because she’s my sister, and I want her in my life. More than anything. I care about her more than I do about a stupid computer program. You have to know that’s true, all these years I’ve searched. I’d never do anything to hurt her. If I can get you the software, you can let us go. You can disappear, and Julie comes with me. We all start a new life.”
“And what about your bodyguard?”
She shrugged, hoping to appear uncaring, but she was trying to save Luke, too. If he came after her alone, he’d die.
“What about him? What will he be able to do? The software will be gone, and Julie and I won’t talk. We wouldn’t be able to tell him anything, even if we wanted to. We won’t know where you are, and I’ll have Julie, so that’s all I care about. You can disappear forever.”
Max was quiet as he considered her proposal.
“So you would get the software, bring it here? That easy?”
“How do I know you won’t screw me over?”
“I have no reason to. All I want is Julie, and I would never risk anything happening to her.”
“Even for Berringer?”
“Yes. Even for him.”
“Maybe I’ll just kill you both after I have it. What about that?”
She rolled her eyes, pretending impatience. “Like I said, you’d be hunted. It would scare off some of your buyers, for sure.”
Max nodded slowly, returning to his desk. She prayed that she’d finally gotten through to him.
“Here’s how it works. You get the software, and you deliver it here within two hours. I hold you both here until the sale goes through, and then we all go our separate ways. My men will take you to the software, follow you and bring you back.”
Vanessa felt a thrill rush down her spine as she faced off with her brother. This was working. If she could get out of here, she could get to Luke, and tell him that Julie was being forced to work for Max. He’d know what to do then.
“No. I get the software alone, so that Luke isn’t suspicious. We exchange the program for Julie in a very open, busy place. We’ll leave immediately, and you can do whatever you want to do.”
He wasn’t pleased with her counteroffer, and narrowed his eyes as he watched her. Vanessa held his gaze.
“You have more backbone than I thought. Maybe it does run in the family,” he said with a short laugh. “But this could work. Though you need to be clear that if you try anything, my men will shoot you, Berringer, whoever, on the spot. And I’ll take my time killing her,” he said with a nod to Julie, who watched them, looking terrified.
Max nodded to the men by the door, who seemed to understand their orders. Vanessa found herself taken roughly by the arm, and yanked toward the door by one of them.
She caught her sister’s eye and tried to let her know with a look that everything would be all right. Vanessa would make sure it was, or die trying.
* * *
LUKE HELD HIS breath as he crouched outside the window of the room, listening to Vanessa broker a deal with her brother.
It struck him in the gut. She was very convincing. He knew she was doing what she had to in order to keep herself and Julie alive, but he also felt the stab of betrayal that she would sell him out so easily. He tried to understand that she would, of course, value her sister over a piece of software—and over him—but the twist in his gut wouldn’t go away.
Worse, he suspected that Julie was still in on this charade. He couldn’t imagine she would be willing to go with Vanessa. Not when she knew that would mean jail time. He watched the two men take Vanessa out of the room and found his suspicions almost immediately confirmed.
Looking in, he saw Julie stand, rubbing her jaw.
“Did you have to hit me quite that hard, Max? Sheesh,” she said, rounding the bar. She poured herself a drink and threw it back.
“Sorry, Jules. But she had to buy into it. You called it—she’s willing to do anything to save you,” he said, laughing. “You’re brilliant. She’ll lead us right back to Berringer and the software. We can take it, and take care of them, right there on the spot.”
Julie went to the window where Luke hid, staring outside, not a foot away from him. She murmured something, but Luke swore he saw her frown sadly. Regret, or grief—something terribly sad—was etched into her features. Then she turned away, moving to the other side of the room.
“She had a point, you know. Killing them will only make us more vulnerable, and could scare away the buyers. If we get the software, why not let them go? She’ll never be able to find us again. Not after this.”
“It’s better if they’re gone. The guys will make it look like a local crime. Don’t worry. We’re almost there.”
Luke gave Vanessa’s sister some minor credit for trying to change her brother’s mind about killing them, but as he stared at her through the window, then Max, Luke silently vowed to put them both away. It wouldn’t be hard, as he’d used his phone to record most of their conversation.
He was glad he’d put the tiny tracker on Vanessa when they’d arrived at the island. He didn’t think he’d have to use it, but when she hadn’t arrived at the boat as they’d agreed, he knew how to find her. And he had.
What he didn’t expect was that this was going to be a family affair, including Vanessa’s brother, who apparently was running the whole show. That had been a surprise. Or that they would send Vanessa after the software herself, with a plan to kill her at the hotel. But this could work, he thought, as he slipped back through the greenery to the front of the house.
There, Luke saw the two big men taking Vanessa down the walkway to the car. He had to move now. He couldn’t make it to his own car fast enough, so he had to prevent Vanessa from getting into theirs. Taking on the two large—and armed—men would be tricky, but he had the element of surprise on his side. Sneaking down behind them, he hurried to beat them to the car and confronted them as they approached.
Vanessa’s eyes went wide, and he hoped she wouldn’t give him away.
Luke grinned broadly, and wiped sweat from his face.
The two men stepped forward, ahead of Vanessa, forming a wall between Luke and her. One put his hand on his belt, clearly ready to do whatever needed to be done.
“Turn around. Leave,” the taller guy said.
“Are you kidding? You won’t help me out? What am I supposed to do? It’s hotter than hell out here. Can I use your phone and get some water? I have no cell signal—”
“I said leave.”
Luke cursed, shaking his head as he walked a little closer.
“Man. You guys suck. I thought the people here were friendly to tourists.”
Just then, the thug to his left grunted, and collapsed at the knees, falling to the pavement. His friend stepped back in shock, but Luke didn’t waste time, running forward to tackle the man, hitting him as hard as he could. The guy was too big to take down with a single punch, so Luke hoped that his body weight and the pavement might do the trick.
Not quite. The big man was stunned for a second, before he reared back and then forward, his head narrowly missing what would have been a painful headbutt into Luke’s skull and hitting his shoulder, instead.
Luke tried to grab the guy’s gun, but it was missing—must have fallen out of the holster, and he pushed back to his feet, looking around for it.
As he turned, he saw Vanessa struggling with the other man, until he pushed her down to the ground, where she gasped painfully, then went limp. Luke started to rush to her, searching for the other gun, when he heard the click.
His opponent was back on his feet, gun in hand. The other man drew his and pointed it at Vanessa. Luke’s blood ran cold.
“All I want is her. I don’t care about anything else. Let us go or take us back to town, and I’ll give you what your boss wants. If you kill us now, you can bet he won’t be happy. He’ll never get his hands on that computer program without me. She wouldn’t have been able to find it. It’s hidden in the hotel.”
The men looked at each other, and then him. The one by Vanessa put his gun back in his holster and picked up Vanessa, roughly throwing her over his shoulder.
Luke swallowed hard, hoping she was okay.
“Walk.” The man holding the gun on him directed him back up the path, and Luke had no choice but to comply. Now getting out of this was going to be harder, indeed.
LUKE SAT on the floor of the basement with Vanessa’s head resting on his thigh. She was out cold. A lump was prominent above her ear, but she was breathing steadily and her pulse was strong. Still, he was anxious for her to show signs of consciousness.
They’d been put down here about an hour ago. At least it was cool. Luke wasn’t sure how to get out of this. He wasn’t lying about having no phone signal, and no one knew where they were. He’d thought he’d had control of the situation, but apparently, that wasn’t the case. If anything happened to them—to Vanessa—it was his fault.
He couldn’t live with that.
Of course, whether he’d live through this at all was in question.
Vanessa made a soft noise, a moan and a sigh, suddenly shifting in his lap, pushing herself upward. He steadied her, making her be still.
“Shh, honey, stay quiet. Stay there,” he said soothingly.
“Luke, how...where are we?”
She blinked, trying to adjust her eyes to the low light.
“In the basement of the house. I don’t know what’s going on. No one has said a word, they just left us here.”
“I figure they want us both out of commission when they auction off their copy of the software. They leave us here, get their money and then probably have their goons dispose of us after they quit the island. Nothing can trace back to them, and with us gone, the alternate copy of the software becomes a non-issue.”
Vanessa muttered a very unladylike curse and struggled to sit upright. This time, Luke helped her.
“How’s your head?”
“I’m not sure. It feels like I have about five of them all hurting at once.”
“You probably have a concussion. Sit tight.”
“We have to get out of here.”
“Yeah, that would be ideal. But neither of us could fit through those tiny windows, and the only other way out is that door, locked, obviously. Phones are dead.”
She stood, slowly, but straightened and brushed the dirt from her clothes the best she could. He was proud of her, and angry with himself for not leaving her back in Tampa, where she would be safe.
“How did you find me, Luke?”
“I was outside the window, and I saw them bring you out.”
“I mean, how did you know I was here?”
He knew what she meant, but really didn’t want to have this conversation right now.
“I put a tracker on you. Back when we arrived at the island.”
“But how? I change my clothes, my bag—”
“It was in your drink the night before we arrived. Don’t worry. It’s completely safe, small as the head of a pin and completely biodegradable.”
She frowned as she stared at him. “You made me ingest something?”
“It’s harmless, Vanessa. A safety precaution. Without it, I never would have been able to find you here.”
“You suspected they’d kidnap me?”
“It was a possibility.”
“Or was it that you thought I’d seek out Julie on my own? That’s how you found me that day, when I was out looking for her. You could see where I was at any time.”
“I was right, wasn’t I? You did take off on your own to look for her when you snuck away from Mari’s, and here, you made it clear you’d do anything to save her. I heard you.”
“I was trying to save all of us.”
Luke stood, too, and faced off with her. “I know that. On some level, I understand that you were doing what you had to. But I also believe you would have handed over that program or have done anything else you needed to in order to protect her.”
Vanessa shook her head, walked away from him.
“She’s my sister. Max is the bad guy here—he’s been the one orchestrating everything, forcing Julie to do the things she’s done. He probably would have killed her, too. He probably forced her to do all of the things she did with you. We have to help her.”
“That’s not completely true. Your sister is not a complete innocent.”
“You are so blind when it comes to her!” she shouted, clearly frustrated. She winced in pain.
“Hey, calm down. You should sit.”
“We have to figure out a way to help her, Luke.”
“Sit, Vanessa, and listen.”
She held out for another second, but even in the low light, Luke could see how pale she was. She nodded, sinking to the floor where she sat against an opposite wall, distant from him.
She was going to hate him even more for the whole truth, but she had to hear it.
“As soon as you were out of that room, she was up on her feet. It was an act, for your benefit. They were setting you up. I heard them distinctly discuss how they used your sympathies for her to make you betray me. They planned to kill you as soon as you got the software from the hotel.”
She was quiet for a minute, but he saw the hurt stamp itself on her expression. “No. I don’t believe you. I saw him hit her, and I saw the bruises she had from before. She’s not doing these things willingly.”
“I’ll admit, she appeared upset at his plan to kill you, and she even tried to talk him out of it, briefly, but she didn’t argue too hard. Ultimately, she went along with him. He may be the master
“You would do anything, say anything, to turn me against her.”
“You don’t think you can trust me? But you will trust them? A pair of killers?”
“You didn’t exactly trust me, did you, planting a tracker in my system?”
They fell silent again, deadlocked.
“What did you think would happen, Vanessa, if you had saved her? That you two would walk free? Julie would end up in jail and she knows it. She would never have come back with you, even if what you say was true. She would have taken off again. She’d use you to get away from Max and then—”
“Stop it! How can you know—”
“He’s right,” someone said softly, breaking into their argument.
Luke flew to his feet, facing the door, where Julie stood, watching them.
“I did tell Max that if we could get you here and make you retrieve the software for us, you would do it, to help me. If you thought I needed help.”
Luke held his breath as he watched Vanessa stand, clearly shocked.
“Why? Why would you do anything for him? I saw him hurt you. I know he’s hurt you before.”
“It was like Luke said, for show. Just part of the game, big sister.”
Luke wasn’t sure what to do. Vanessa looked stricken in a manner he’d never seen before. He thought she might collapse on the spot.
He wanted to go to her, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Julie. She seemed so different—he wondered how he could have ever mistaken Vanessa for her. Her tattoo was still there—the one he’d looked for on Vanessa on the night they’d met—but that was all that was really familiar to him. Julie looked worn down and not at all like the woman he’d been with six years before. He could almost feel sorry for her. Almost.
“What are you doing here? Did he send you to kill us? Is this some sick, twisted fun the two of you cooked up?” Luke asked.
“Actually, that sounds like something Max would enjoy. But no. He’s in a meeting. An important one. It won’t last long. This is our only chance to escape.”
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