ZACH MANAGED TO MAINTAIN HIS CALM, PARADE-ground face right up until the moment he shut the door to the room he’d been assigned. Alone at last, he dumped his duffel bag on the floor, walked to the side of the bed, and sat. He barely noticed either the room’s pleasing color scheme or its opulent appointments. He only knew that his hands had developed a fine tremor, and he stared at them as he clenched and unclenched his fists in an attempt to stop the shaking.
His baby sister had been kidnapped.
“No,” he whispered in fierce denial. He couldn’t lose her. He’d been looking after her one way or another since the day his mother had put her into his arms and then put the two of them on an airplane, and he could not, would not, lose her now.
Except he hadn’t exactly done a stellar job of looking after her, had he? Maybe Lily was right. Maybe he had been concentrating on all the wrong things. Take Beaumont, for example. It appeared he wasn’t after Glynnie’s money after all. And even if he had been, suddenly that didn’t seem like the worst situation in the world. Zach had plenty of money—he’d happily provide for his sister and whoever else her little heart desired. Hell, he’d give up every red cent he owned if that would guarantee her safe return.
It didn’t help knowing that this was far from his first screw-up with her. He’d been happy enough to skip out on her the minute he’d turned eighteen. He’d delegated responsibility without a backward glance, and hadn’t once bothered to make sure Grandfather was teaching her the most elementary of life skills.
Nor had he bothered to really get to know her when he’d resumed charge of her after Grandfather’s death. He’d been so damned bent on protecting her from potential con artists out to drain her inheritance that he’d neglected to realize it was her own lack of knowledge that was probably her greatest vulnerability.
He’d made certain assumptions about Glynnis without taking the time to discover who she’d become. And now he was faced with a fair possibility he’d never get that opportunity.
No. Zachrose to his feet, teeth gritted. No, by God, that isnotan option, so don’t even think it . He would get Glynnie back. And Beaumont as well, if that would make her happy. Damned if he was going to lose anyone else he cared about—his life had been filled with too many good-byes as it was. He’d lost his parents, his grandmother, and more men whom he’d fought beside and counted as friends than he cared to think about. There hadn’t been anything he could do to govern those circumstances. But he’d move heaven and earth to get his sister back.
Not that he’d exactly made a great start. He should have insisted the police be called as soon as he’d learned about the kidnapping. Then again, his entire focus had been locked on not getting bounced from this house, because to do so would have cost him any chance of gaining control over the situation. Tomorrow morning he’d rectify that. Meanwhile, he wasn’t without resources of his own.
He picked up the telephone from the nightstand and punched in his calling card number with one hand while he fished his address book out of his duffel with the other.
A moment later the phone on the other end of the line rang three times before it was picked up by a machine. His friend Cooper Blackstock’s recorded voice began a spiel telling him to leave a message, then was abruptly replaced by a live voice that impatiently snarled, “Whataya want?”
Zach glanced at the clock and grimaced. “Oh, shit, Coop. Sorry. I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“Zach?” Coop’s voice wanned considerably. “That you?”
“Well, sonuvabitch, Midnight. How’s it going? I hear your sister has some woman who’s an absolute babe living off her. I think Rocket dug up some information on said babe, but he won’t discuss it with me, so I’ll have to let him tell you what it is for himself. And don’t that beat all? Who would’ve thought the guy who used to tell us way more than anyone ever wanted to know about his sex life could suddenly be so discreet?”
“Yeah, I know.” His warm laugh rumbled down the line. “Even Peter Pan’s gotta grow up sometime. But back to your sis, Rocket tells me she ran off with some guy. You disentangle her yet?”
Zach’s hand tightened around the receiver. Suddenly he didn’t want to say this out loud, because to do so seemed to make it more real. But there was no help for it. “I’ve got a situation here, Ice. I’m at her boyfriend’s home now on Orcas Island, and it seems Glynnie and Beaumont were kidnapped on their way here.”
“What?” Tne humor left Coop’s voice. “Jesus. What can I do to help?”
“I don’t suppose there’s a chance you’ve interviewed someone in the Seattle FBI for one of your books?”
“No, man; I’m sorry. I don’t have a single contact there.”
“Then I think you’d better let me talk to John. I need him to tap some of his sources for me.”
“You got it. Hang on a second.”
Zach heard him calling Rocket’s name, then a low-voiced conversation in which Cooper must have explained the situation, for John picked up the phone a moment later and said without preliminary, “I’ll make inquiries with the Seattle feds, Zach—find out from the field agents there if their SAC is reliable and discreet, or one of those assholes who cares more about grabbing headlines than the safety of the abductees.”
It was an important distinction. Most of the kidnap victims their type of unit was charged with extracting were military, so it wasn’t often they dealt with the FBI. But they’d liberated enough snatched ambassadors and businessmen to know the personal agenda of the special agent in charge could make the difference between a victim being returned alive or shipped home in a body bag. The possibility of placing his sister’s life in the hands of some hotdogger out to make his name made Zach’s blood run cold.
As if John could tell, he said with unsentimental briskness, “Give me the particulars so I can figure out what else needs to be done.”
Zach recited them as if giving a report to a senior officer, and Rocket was silent for a moment. Then he said in a carefully neutral tone, “So you’re telling me Beaumont is the primary target?”
“That would be an affirmative.” Then he took the stick out of his ass. “Ironic, isn’t it? In light of my allegations against him?”
“Yeah. There seems to be a whole lot of that ironic shit going on around here lately.”
Whatever the hell that meant. Ordinarily, Zach would have demanded to know. He also would have picked up on the odd note in John’s voice and hounded him unmercifully until he discovered what had put it there. But right now he had more important matters on his mind. “You have any contacts you can tap around here? I know this is out of your usual area, but I need to know if there are whispers of anything going down.” He rammed his fingers through his hair. “God, John, I’m groping around blind—I don’t even know where Glynnie and her boyfriend were snatched. It could have been anywhere between here and home. The guy’s mother was too hysterical to give me any details.”
“So hopefully she’ll slam down a tranq or two that’ll guarantee her a good night’s sleep, and you’ll learn more in the morning when she’s had time to calm down,” John said. “Meanwhile, you try to get some rest, too, and I’ll get cracking and see what I can find. Let me have a number where I can reach you. No, wait, that’s probably not a great idea—you’ll want to keep the lines clear so the kidnappers can get through. Jesus, Zach, you gotta drag yourself into the twenty-first century here; you’re about the only guy I know who still doesn’t own a cell phone. But, okay, never mind that,” he muttered, and Zach could practically smell the circuits burning in Rocket’s brain. “We can work around it. Give me a call tomorrow, late morning, and I’ll let you know what I’ve found.”
“Thanks, John.” His gratitude was profoundly sincere, but to counteract the almost embarrassing degree of emotion that swept through him, he cleared his throat and said with deliberate lightness, “I could just plant a big wet one right on your lips.”
“Not in this lifetime, pal.” Then John’s voice went dead serious. “You keep the faith, Zachariah. And let me and Coop know if you require our physical presence up there. He says it’s about a five-hour drive from here. What?” A quiet exchange occurred off John’s end of the line, then he spoke back into the receiver. “Ice said to tell you we can be there a helluva lot sooner than that if we charter a plane. So let us know.”
When they said good-bye and hung up a moment later, Zach felt better. It didn’t make sense, since he wasn’t any closer to getting his sister back than he’d been ten minutes ago. But at least he’d started the ball rolling. And it was… comforting, somehow, to touch base with friends.
He paced his room for a while, then prepared for bed. He didn’t expect to get much sleep, but at least it gave him a goal, and after stripping down to his skivvies, he grabbed his ditty bag and headed for the bathroom.
He stopped inside the door. Wonderful. Just his freaking luck. It wasn’t bad enough he and Lily had been given rooms right next door to each other, but they shared this bath, too, and she’d obviously already put it to use before him. It was warm, steamy, and fragrant with woman-scent, and she had stuff spread out from one end of the counter to the other. Zach simply stood and stared at the clutter for a moment, recalling Coop saying that John had information on her, which Zach had then failed to collect. It wasn’t like him to let the details slide.
Then his shoulders hitched in a minute shrug. So big whoop. He’d find out what it was tomorrow. Reaching out, he picked up a fancy little pot and turned it end for end to peer at its labels. He unscrewed its lid and sniffed the contents before closing it up again and setting it back where he’d found it. Next, he picked up a shiny golden tube. Damn. He shook his head as he pulled the top off a creamy red lipstick and swivelled it up to its full extension. Women sure as hell packed a heap of shit with them. His own ditty bag was downright spartan in comparison.
Carefully he restored and replaced the lipstick, then took a step back with his hands up to keep from messing with anything else. He reached for his own bag and hauled out a toothbrush and toothpaste, then brushed his teeth and knocked back three aspirin. Glancing at the damp towel spread out over the curtain rod across the tub, and at the water-massage shower-head beyond it, he decided to put off his own shower until tomorrow. But around four in the morning, when he got tired of flip-flopping from one side to the other for what felt like the hundredth time, he got up and took a long, hot shower after all. By the time he finally dropped off it was nearly five a.m.
The sun beat down on Zach’s head, and the airfield’s tarmac beneath his feet felt soft and gooey in the fierce African heat. He was hot and sweaty, and his arms ached from holding his squirmy, five-month-old baby sister. She’d drooled all over his chest, she kept chewing on the pocket’s flap, and everywhere her sturdy little body touched his, a furnace-like heat molded his white cotton shirt and khaki shorts to his skin in soggy, misery-producing patches. To top it off, the bug bite on his left leg just below her drumming foot itched like crazy. His stomach churned with such queasy anxiety he feared he might throw up.
He swallowed to hold down the nausea and ignored his discomfort as he stared up at his parents. “Don’t make me go,” he pleaded one last time. They were sending him away from the only home he knew, and he’d give anything, do anything, to change their minds. “The flight attendants can take care of Glynnie.” He stared imploringly at his father, then his mother. When he caught her glancing at her watch, he knew his entreaty had fallen on deaf ears in that quarter. So he concentrated on his dad. “Please, Papa. You said yourself that Grandfather will be waiting to meet the plane. Let the flight attendants hand Glynnie over to him. You don’t need me there for that.”
“She’ll be growing up in a strange land, son, and you’re her big brother. I’m counting on you to keep her safe.”
Zach’s chin jutted. “It’s not fair! I’m eleven; what the heck can I do? It’s not like I know this Philadelphia place the way I do the veldt. It’s Grandfather’s territory. Let him keep her safe.”
“He will. But he’s getting up there in years, so she’ll need your strength and stamina as well.”
“But if he’s old, don’t you think two kids might be too much for him? Girls are easy—just send him Glynnie. Boys are nothing but trouble. They wear a body down.” He should know, he’d heard his mother say so often enough.
She frowned down at him now. “Don’t argue with your father. You’re going, and that’s the end of this discussion.” But, bending, she kissed his forehead, and he closed his eyes to savor the unusual caress.
When she straightened she smoothed back a lock of his hair that had fallen forward. “It won’t be so bad, darling.” Then she looked at his father. “Peter, we should be going; I want to check that appendix in the village. Zachariah, be a good boy for your grandparents. Take care of your sister. We’ll come see both of you very soon.”
Suddenly he was on the airplane, buckled into his seat with the damn baby back to gnawing on his pocket as he pressed his face to the porthole window. He watched his parents walk away before the plane even taxied to the runway. Turning from the sight of their departing backs, he glared down at his sister, hot resentment rising in his throat. This was all her fault. Things had been fine before she was born. If it wasn’t for her…
But when her lip quivered and she started to whimper as the plane hurtled down the runway and rose into the sky, he pulled her up against his chest to comfort her. Her damp little arms clung around his neck, and he cuddled her close and whispered reassurances as, staring out the small window, he watched everything he’d ever known dwindle to the size of a dime, then disappear.
With a sharp inhalation of air, Zach jerked awake. He blinked, his eyes stinging with unshed tears and his stomach hollow with a remembered sense of abandonment. Then he just lay there, staring blankly up at the ceiling as he sucked in and blew out deep, even breaths to bring his heart rate back down within its normal range.
Christ. Back when he was a kid, he’d relived that awful time in so many dreams he’d lost count. Loneliness had been a way of life in those days, with only his grandmother’s sweetness and his baby sister’s laughter to alleviate his sense of isolation. Mother’s promise to come see them had turned out to be just so much hot air.
He had really hoped, during his first and even second year in the much-hated Philadelphia mansion, that his parents would suddenly arrive out of the blue and admit they had made a mistake sending him and Glynnie away. Eventually, though, he’d become a teenager and put away his childish dreams. His folks had abdicated the role of parenthood to Grandfather and Grandmama. They’d only ever bothered to visit a grand total of four times, and hadn’t hidden their impatience to get back to their work all that well even then. The plight of a bunch of strangers in remote African villages clearly held more importance for them than Glynnie or he ever would.
But that was then. He was no longer a scared eleven-year-old and hadn’t been for what seemed like a thousand years now. It had been a fucking age since he’d woken up crying like a baby over an even so far in the past he could barely even remember it—except in his dreams.
Irritated, he rolled over and looked at the clock. Great. Seven forty-five—he hadn’t even gotten three hours sleep. But there was work to be done, so he crawled out of bed and made his way into the bathroom, where he shook out more aspirin for his headache and tossed them back with a glass of water. It didn’t take a shrink to guess what had resurrected the dream after all these years. The face reflected in the mirror was grim as he reached for his razor and the travel-sized can of shaving gel. Once again he’d failed his sister—and this time it had potential life and death consequences.
But it wasn’t a failure written in stone, and he would, by God, rectify the situation come hell or high water. Ten minutes later, he let himself out of his room.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs, the plainer of the two sisters he’d met last night was just entering the foyer carrying a fully loaded tray. She looked up and gave a start, which made the items shift with an ominous rattle.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said. “You gave me a start.”
“Sorry. Here, let me take that for you.” He relieved her of the tray. “You’re Jessica, right?”
“Yes. I was just taking breakfast into the dining room.” Eyeing the tray he now held, she grimaced. “Such as it is. Won’t you join us?”
“Sure.” He followed her into the room across the foyer. Mrs. Beaumont and Richard were seated at a long cherrywood table, and they looked up at his entrance, giving him subdued greetings.
Jessica directed him to a sideboard where she unloaded the tray he carried of its pitchers of milk and orange juice, a silver salver stacked with toast, and a crystal bowl of jam.
“It’s not much, I’m afraid.” She waved him to a stack of plates and bowls. “But there’s cereal over there, if you’d like, and fresh coffee.”
Zach shrugged. “It’s fine.” He didn’t particularly feel like eating, but supposed having something in his stomach might help his headache. He discarded the tray, then slapped a dollop of jam on a piece of toast, poured himself a cup of coffee, and carried his meal over to the table.
He ate the toast, then looked across at Mrs. Beaumont as he sipped his coffee. “You look more rested,” he observed. “Are you up to discussing strategy for getting Glynnis and David back?”
She gave a regal nod. “Certainly.”
“Good. Then the first thing we need to do is alert the authorities.”
Panic immediately transformed her bearing. “No!”
“You saw the note yourself. They said they’d kill David if we called in the police!”
They said they’d kill both David and Glynnis, and Zach wasn’t exactly wild about having his sister’s endangerment ignored. But he reined in his impatience. It was clear Mrs. Beaumont’s hysteria wasn’t as well under control as he’d first assumed. ‘That’s standard op for this type of crime, ma’am,” he informed her patiently. “Of course they don’t want the police involved—the chances of getting caught go up exponentially whenever they’re brought in.”
“They said they’d kill him!”
” Them ,” Zach corrected in a hard voice. “Kill them . It’s not only your son whose life is threatened.” Then he shook his head and softened his tone. “But that’s not the point. The threat itself is pure terror tactic, ma’am, specifically designed to keep you from calling in the police, or in this case—since state lines may have been crossed—the FBI. Historically, though, victims have always stood a better chance when the law is involved. The authorities need to be informed.”
“Yes,” he said flatly. “This is not negotiable.”
“How dare you tell me what is and isn’t negotiable, young man! I will not put my darling David in jeopardy. And if you call the police over my objections, I’ll… I’ll…” She seemed to look inward for a moment in search of a threat big enough, then suddenly raised her chin and looked him straight in the eye. “I’ll deny they’ve even been kidnapped!”
Zach stilled. “You’ll do what?” he demanded in a dangerously even tone.
“I’lltell the police I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I’ll ask them to remove you from the premises.”
It took everything he had not to come out of his chair. He wanted to reach across the table and grab her by the neck—and wasn’t that a sorry state of affairs. He’d taken verbal abuse from the best, had drill instructors who’d yelled in his face that he was lower than the shit on their boots, and he’d never so much as blinked an eye. But this middle-aged woman strained his patience to the limit.
Even so, this was no time to go off half-cocked. He took a couple of deep, steadying breaths. “That would be a mistake, ma’am,” he said with quiet authority. “Who do you imagine they’ll be more likely to believe—a hysterical mother, or the man who’s spent his entire adult life dealing with just this sort of situation? More importantly, Mrs. Beaumont, removing me will put your son and my sister at unnecessary risk, and the idea here is to lessen the jeopardy they already face, not exacerbate it.”
“Please, Aunt Maureen,” Jessica said in her very soft, I-don’t-want-to-bother-anyone voice. “I think you should listen to what he has to say.”
“Why?” Mrs. Beaumont demanded querulously. “What makes him more qualified than, say, Richard here?”
Was she freaking nuts ? Zach stared at her incredulously for an instant before composing his expression to display nothing beyond a cool professionalism. But his voice was flat when he said, “Eighteen years in the United States Marines, ma’am, during which a large portion of my job was extracting kidnap victims.”
“And excuse me for pointing this out, but it took me less than a minute last night to disarm your nephew. What makes you assume he’d fare any better with a criminal?”
Richard flushed, but to his credit he patted his aunt’s hand and said, “He has a point, dear.”
Her lips trembled, but her eyes were stubborn. “I will not have the police called.”
“All right,” Zach agreed. “We won’t call them.” For now . He could tell this was a deal breaker for her and if he had to bring the feebs in over her objections, it could conceivably add to the danger Glynnie and David already faced. So he’d back off for today, find out what Rocket had to say, then hit her with his demands again tomorrow. “But understand that I’m in charge of this, and that is not up for debate. I have the best chance of bringing David and Glynnis home safely.” He gave her a hard look. “Are we agreed?”
She nodded begrudgingly, but it was an agreement nonetheless, and he became all business. “Good. Then we need to lay out some ground rules. I don’t care who answers the phone, but no one talks to the kidnappers, no one negotiates with them, but me.”
“But what if that makes them angry? They could hurt David.”
She was starting to seriously piss him off. What the hell did it take for her to understand her fucking precious David wasn’t the only one who stood to get hurt?
But his voice was calm when he said, “They won’t be angry if you handle it right. Pretend you’re the maid, pretend you’re the butler, pretend you don’t speak English.” He gave each of the Beaumonts his sternest listen-up-and-listen-good master sergeant stare, “I don’t care how you do it. But if I’m not right here, you put them off and come get me.”