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Breathe deep. Take it all in. Salt. Sand. Palm trees. Wet wood with barnacles. Feel it all. And then focus on the beautiful blonde.
The thrill of the chase shot down the back of his neck, making him tingle from the tips of his fingers to the bottom of his bare feet. He swallowed twice, calming the trippy excitement fuzzing his thoughts.
Through the view of his night scope, she moved from the bright yellow kitchen to the whitewashed deck. He zoomed in, knowing exactly what he would find. She would eat chicken tonight, just like last night.
The drink, white zinfandel. The napkin, linen.
Her entry alarm code, one-two-three-four. Predictable. No imagination, even with the code.
Her schedule was the same every day. He declared her life boring.
A mosquito buzzed past his ear. He fought the distraction. He wouldn’t give in to the mosquito’s demands. The heat, the rain, and the impossibly tiny insects could all attack, but he would hold firm and keep her in his sights.
He only had a few days to learn her ways. The time spent getting to know her was much shorter than he thought it should have taken. This woman, this beauty of beauties, should have been more of a challenge. But no such luck. Instead, this woman sucked.
The investment weighed heavily on his mind. He could step away. Leave her be. But that would be failure on his part, and he wasn’t a failure. Time to move forward. Not that he would take her from her bed. No, he would make her ache with desire. Make her want to come to him and relax into his arms before he showed her exactly what she was worth.
The interest was there. The other day at the grocery, he’d seen her shy glances aimed his way while she pretended to inspect the tomatoes. Of course, the store run-in had all been pretense. Just like at the restaurant and the morning jogs. Lost in the memory of the grocery event, he closed his eyes, savoring each thought, rolling it around his mind like a treasured pearl. She wore white slacks and a yellow top that showed too much cleavage. Desire sparked in her eyes when she saw him. No question about it, the girl wanted him. Her eyes filled with smoky desire, all lustful and needy. Something significant had happened in the store, a connection that couldn’t be denied no matter how hard the beauty would try later when he took control of her.
He blinked, forgetting his surroundings for a moment. It was dark out, not overly lit like the store. Disorientation socked him in the gut bringing a round of confusion that left him wobbly. A quick check on his prey showed that she’d almost finished dinner. Damn it, the fantasy had lasted too long. Concentration was key to this operation.
Maybe he should take a break, rest for a few weeks before he took her. But no, his distraction wasn’t his fault. It was hers. The woman wasn’t exciting. Boring was more like it. He focused and concentrated on the girl. He vowed to the heavens, not that he believed in God, that he wouldn’t blow this one. He needed a smooth operation. Restraining himself, he forgot the store and the way she’d looked at him, her doe like eyes and her pouty mouth. Instead, he focused on the mission, watching her, waiting for her to succumb to his prowess.
All alone, no one to share the evening with, her manners didn’t falter. Her back stayed ramrod straight, her fork and knife held in such a way that even the most snooty and etiquette-obsessed person couldn’t find fault. A small sip of white wine then a pat with a dry-cleaned napkin across that dainty pink slit of her mouth.
Soon, he would have command of every inch of her body. First on the agenda, strip her bare. Not only of her clothes but her defenses, too. She would see that everything she knew was false, and that every block she built her life on was crumbling sand that would wash away under his barrage of truths.
Her phone rang, but she didn’t answer. Most likely her ex-boyfriend, Randall the loser. It had been easy to break her confidence in him. A well-placed note. A photoshopped candid and the boyfriend was history.
Ahh, dinner was finished. He ignored the mosquitoes and raised his bottle of water, mimicking her motions, saluting and cementing their relationship. He chuckled, relishing the triumph of victory. Tomorrow the games would begin.
Doing nothing but lying on the beach would have driven Delanie Skhye crazy a year ago, but after shooting four straight films and enduring the publicity surrounding her shattering breakup with Rhye Hamilton, the nothingness scheduled for the next month felt wonderful. The little green dot of land she called home, at least for a while, was a welcome respite to the crap she usually put up with. Blissful silence filled the island, no excitement and no problems. Heck, the crystal whitecaps and the smog-free air were enough to make her want to stay, but the solitude equaled paradise in her mind and sealed the deal. No horns honking, no angry drivers and no spying neighbors. The owner mentioned she might see a boat in the distance, but this was the Bahamas and there were bound to be boats.
The real kicker, no one knew where she’d gone. The paper trail connected to her name was non-existent. She’d inked her name on nothing tying her to the island. The new identity matched her new hairstyle. Ms. Blonder-than-she-paid-to-be had gone dark, at least temporarily dark. The temporary dye job had already started to wash out and would be gone in a week or less, revealing her trademark blond locks.
Thank goodness the coloring had done its job. The pilot and the airline knew her as Misty Blake, not the world famous actress, Delanie Skhye. Of course she used stage makeup to hide herself from prying eyes on the trip over. God, she’d looked awful. But the ruse worked. The legalities of her actions were sketchy, but she would get her lawyer to work it out if she got into trouble, not that anyone would ever know she was here. Well, except for that pesky Customs agent, but other than him, she was here secretly.
The reward for her deception was a month of glorious freedom. She couldn’t believe her luck. The last time she lived without the paparazzi parade making a fuss over her was five years ago, right before Life Control hit big. The movie made her a household name, rocketing her stardom to dizzying heights.
The spectacle of her movie career had drained her, though. A short break would make all the difference in the world for her mental acuity and her looks. The exhaustion of working nonstop had put laugh lines on her face and she hadn’t even been laughing that much. This month she hoped to smooth out some of the lines, thus making her more desirable to the throngs of moviegoers who craved another movie with her as the star.
Last night as darkness settled across the island she grabbed a book, snuggling on the couch under a light blanket and started reading again. And then as if a miracle had happened, inspiration shined from the heavens, opening her mind and giving her an amazing plan, allowing her to work through a rough outline for a script. Her insides quivered as she wrote. Of course, her blondness would hinder her quest for writing and directing, but the powers that be in Hollywood would eventually take her seriously.
Early in her career, she’d used the dumb blonde act to her advantage. Just over the horizon of her career, not too close, but close enough to scare her, she could see the need for her brains to be the main attraction, not her face. Financially, she could afford to never work again. Mentally, the lack of direction would drive her bonkers.
Delanie rolled over and let the sun warm her back. The tropical trees swayed around her in the gentle breeze leaving her with a bit of melancholy. Being alone was what she’d wanted, right? She breathed in deeply, the scent of the ocean clung to her nostrils and competed with the fragrance of the frangipani and marlberry. Her eyes slid closed, and her mind slowed. This month of rest and relaxation would give her the edge she needed. Forget the loneliness, the longing to speak to another and focus on her future, her writing and her life.
The skin on the back of her neck crawled. Her head popped up as she opened her eyes, looking through the trees, out into the deep blue of the water. A boat drew close to the island, its white sail snapping in the wind. Maybe they would leave, but then again maybe not.
In one angry motion she jumped off the chair and pulled on her T-shirt. A thrill of excitement at having guests wound through her then she squelched it. They could be anyone. She really wanted nothing to do with guests. Time to go down to the dock and run them off.
* * * *
William Sterling Rowland the Third rolled his squeaky chair back and kicked his feet up onto his desk. His black Hugo Boss oxfords were scuffed and worn, no more than what a normal person lived with, but he was a Rowland, and Rowlands dressed to the nines, even at six in the morning. The fact that he was wearing Hugo Boss and not Testoni would make his sisters faint, but he didn’t give a shit. Wearing Testoni in the office would probably get him shot, and not by any of the criminals he worked so hard to catch.
It gave him great pleasure that he’d disappointed his family. He sure as hell couldn’t expect them to be proud of the fact that he actually worked at a real job. So if wearing scuffed shoes made them agitated, then he was all for it.
One thing he wouldn’t play at was the insistence that everyone he worked with or knew called him Bill. He hated the pretentious nature of his full name and the baggage it brought along for the ride. By all accounts, he shouldn’t even have been an FBI agent. Rowlands didn’t hold jobs. If he’d been a lawyer or a judge, his family might have forgiven him for signing up to be a slave to others, but only if he promised to run for senator or president one day, but he'd wanted to get his hands dirty. His parents fought hard to get him out of the FBI, even calling in favors from a few of their pet senators. Unfortunately, he’d already been accepted into the academy and was halfway through training before he told his family what he’d done.
It took some fast thinking and quick talking on his part to get the senators to back off and give the FBI brass a break. His notoriety hadn’t earned him any favors in the Bureau, but he didn’t mind the extra blood and sweat he had to put into his job just to get half the recognition his peers garnered. Recognition wasn’t what he craved, anyway. Results were what kept him working awful hours with negligible pay.
Now he had the task of finding killers. His work not only gave him purpose, it offered up a satisfaction that no amount of money could supply. Stopping the senseless destruction left behind by homicidal maniacs gave him joy that overrode any gratification he could find with his family money. Maybe joy was too happy of a word, but his job created a unique satisfaction that filled him with pleasure all the way down to his gut.
Bill sifted through the stacks of paper. One sheet stood out. Four Americans had disappeared overseas recently. Specifically, young and beautiful citizens of the United States had gone missing in the Bahamas, all female.
Approaching footsteps outside his cube interrupted his concentration.
“Hey Bill, you coming for lunch?”
He looked up from his work, squinting at the intruder, Al Jackson. “Hmm, maybe. You got a minute?”
Jackson pulled up a chair and slouched down into the seat. “Can this wait? You know lunch--”
Agitation twisted in Bill’s gut. “Just give me two minutes.”
“Shoot, but my stomach sucks at solving cases,” Jackson said.
Bill resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Okay, so I’ve got this paper from the state department.”
Jackson spit into Bill’s trashcan, a disgusted look marring his features. “It’s junk. Toss it out. Those guys are clueless.”
A wave of annoyance washed over Bill. He wanted to shoo Jackson away, but he needed a second opinion. Well, maybe he didn’t need so much as want another opinion. “Yeah, well, anyways this paper is detailing four women who disappeared while traveling overseas.”
“Hmmm, those women, they probably ran off. You know, hooked up with a dude. Let me guess, single but beautiful babes.”
Bill glanced at the paper again. For some reason, beautiful women weren’t taken seriously. They were blamed for crimes against them, taunted and teased by the system and treated badly by almost every circle of law enforcement he knew.
“They were good looking, but I don’t think any of these women flaked,” Bill said.
Bill huffed out a breath, mulling over his thoughts, looking for the right word to say to make someone take this seriously. “They were all young and beautiful, I’ll give you that.”
“Like I said, probably ran off.” Jackson’s chair squealed as he stood. “Listen, are you coming?”
Bill shook his head, wincing from the pain developing behind his left eye. He wished others had his drive for justice. More than once he’d been disgusted by the aimlessness he found in other FBI agents. Not that they were lazy, but the American work ethic, or lack of work ethic, drove him crazy.
“Nah, I need to look into this. There’s more to it than meets the eye.”
“Waste of time. Not your area. Won’t have any say in the case.” Jackson turned and began walking away.
“Maybe so, but I’ll obsess if I don’t check it out.”
Jackson stopped by the stairs and called across the empty bullpen. “Just remember to get your other stuff done or Baker will throw a fit.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about Baker. I know how to handle him.”
“I’m sure you do.” Jackson snorted as he stepped into the stairwell.
There were elements of this job that Bill hated. Working with office politics left him feeling dirty. Having to figure out the correct path to avoid the minefields of the Bureau wasn’t fun.
Bill spent the next thirty minutes calling the different hotels where the four women stayed. One of the women had returned to her hotel three days after her scheduled checkout. Too much partying and recreational drug use made her lose track of time. In other words, she’d flaked. Women like this made his job harder. But one bad apple didn’t make the whole bunch rotten.
His personal cell phone chirped. His wife’s ring tone jarred him out of the zone. An involuntary hesitation kept him from picking up the line for two more rings. He blew out a deep breath and hit talk, dreading the command performance he knew she would demand of him. “Darling, I’m glad you called.”
“Really?” Shana’s attitude said she didn’t buy it. She knew how he felt about calls during work hours.
“Yes, really. We still on for tonight?”
“I was calling to make sure you knew.” Her voice sounded strained, like she didn’t believe him for a second.
“Of course. Five forty-five.”
“Don’t be late.”
The warning hit him hard. Playing these games drove him crazy. Divorce wasn’t an option he wanted to consider. He wished it would all go back to the way it was before. “I wouldn’t dream of it, sweetheart.”
“You’ve said those exact words on many occasions then showed up two hours after our last guest departed or don’t you remember.”
His teeth clenched. Shana seemed to be well versed in remembering all of his failings, pushing them out there in every conversation where she wanted to get her way. He forced his body to relax as he spoke the next words. “I’ll do everything I can to be on time.”
“You should quit.”
Fuck, the exact subject he wanted to avoid. He was loaded. Even if they had five children who had five children, his grandchildren could live off of his trust fund without ever having to work a day in their lives and grow old never having to live frugally. But that wasn’t the point. “Shana, I can’t talk about that now.”
His shoulders went tight, his teeth clenched again. “When what?”
“When are you going to talk to me about this?”
Pain shot from behind his eyes to the base of his skull. “It’s not that simple.”
“It seems that simple to me.” She was too calm. Her voice should be going high by now. She must be near someone she knew or wanted to impress.
“You knew I was an FBI agent when you married me.”
“Stop.” Bill took a moment to think before he spoke. Shana hadn’t known about the money when they married. The prenuptial agreement his father insisted on had made her laugh. She thought Bill had some money, like a million socked away, but she never guessed the truth. Really, he’d been avoiding the money talk from the day he met her. He saw the issue as a non-issue, the amount of money he had shouldn’t have mattered. Boy was he wrong about that. “I will see you at the restaurant tonight before six.”
He disconnected, not waiting for her to respond. Dropping a call like that made him feel like shit, but she wouldn’t listen about his job. Being an FBI agent was more than just a paycheck for him. The job soothed his soul and gave him satisfaction that nothing else in the world ever would.
When the riverside killer had taken his aunt, Bill had vowed to do something about crime in the nation. Above and beyond the initiatives he supported for underprivileged kids and teens, he also wanted to physically take matters into his own hands.
Now he lived his dream job every day. If only his wife and family could support him. It hadn’t always been that way with Shana. She loved the idea of a husband in the Bureau, that is, until the infamous weekend.
His office line rang and he scooped it up on the first ring. “Bill here, what can I do for you?”
“Oh good, the brain is there.” Baker’s voice grew loud. “Bill, I need you to go over a new case. Pronto.” The line disconnected.
Great, some big wig must be in town needing a special profile built up. Not only was Bill rich beyond belief, he was also smart. Valedictorian was a title that came easy to him in high school, his undergraduate courses and graduate school. Studying wasn’t really necessary. That had pissed Shana off too.
Bill grabbed his cell phone. On second thought, he tossed his personal phone into his briefcase, not wanting to field anymore questions from his wife. He loved her, but sometimes she was a bit too much.
* * * *
A bleak, gray dawn broke over the bow of the ship, mirroring her thoughts. A chill snaked down her spine, and she tried to stop thinking, but her mind churned and roved, wondering about what could have been if she had stayed home or gone out with friends or any number of possibilities that would have placed her anywhere but at that bar with the cute guy who now disgusted her.
At least a dozen days had passed since they’d left port, maybe it was less, maybe more, she didn’t know. Why had she gone with him? Maybe it had been his cocky grin or his perfect abs, or the fact that he paid attention to her. Or maybe it was that cute little twinkle in his blue eyes that made her want him more than the protection of staying near land where she could place a call or maybe even escape. Then again, protection had been the furthest thing from her mind when she’d boarded his sailboat.
A sharp fin rose above the waterline then slowly sank into the deep. The sight of the large, white nose below her sent a shiver racing across her flesh. Could that be a true great white? Maybe today would be the day the torture stopped, and he would allow her to die.
Escape was no longer an option. The ocean was needy, and only death would bring her the relief she craved. At least the sun wasn’t blasting her with its fiery heat, yet. Once the clouds burned away, the sun would fry her crispy. In the mornings, once the chill of the night burned off, the weather was hotter than hell and at night when the sun sunk below the horizon the chill crept in. Hot then cold then cold then hot, that was her life.
The bastard had given her enough water so she hadn’t succumbed to heat stroke, but the sun had blistered her hide. If she lived, her body would never be the same. The worst was the previously white strip her bikini used to cover. The bastard had turned her every so often, making sure that her breasts blistered as well as her bum. He was an equal opportunity fuck-head.
Desperation had driven her to this point. Everything in her life had seemed fulfilling from the outside. People actually thought she was happy. But she hadn’t been. No one had known the truth of her existence. She’d been depressed, sad beyond belief, to the point that the thrill of excitement with a stranger had drawn her away from safety to this hellish place.
She heard him stir somewhere below, or maybe it was her mind playing tricks. Either way, he would eventually skip up the stairs and out the hatch. With an overly bright voice, he would shout out a jovial greeting, declaring how wonderful the day would be. Sick bastard.
His attitude nauseated her. Sure, he had a wonderful day of torture planned for her, but that meant she would have a shitty time, hell more than a shitty time, but after what he’d done to her she’d found it difficult to measure the torture with appropriate words. Today, of all days, she wished he would hit his head, fall overboard, and die. Not that today was special, but she was sick of being his prisoner, sick of the heat and the cold and the unknown. If she died...
How far had she fallen? She’d actually begged in the beginning. Every ounce of composure and etiquette that flowed through her veins had been wiped away and drained from her being. She’d do anything to gain her freedom.
Her birthday should be any day now. Maybe it was yesterday or tomorrow. Hell, maybe it was next week, she didn’t know. The frequent loss of consciousness left her delirious, making the days run together. Maybe today would be her last day on this earth then she could celebrate at least one thing.
How had she gotten so bitter? She knew the answer but didn’t want to admit that being tied up and abused for what had to have been two weeks, or however long it had been, had altered her so drastically. Now her body was as close to broken as she could get.
She tried to sneer, but the pain of her sunburn was too much. Betty Proctor would never go out on a sailboat with a stranger. Heck, Betty Proctor wouldn’t do a lot of things. Betty Proctor had been a good little girl, teacher’s favorite in school and all that.
Why the hell had she thought of Betty Proctor at a time like this? Her mind was wandering too far. Nothing like torture to make you look at the world differently. What she wouldn’t give for the chance to have tea with snooty little Betty Proctor right now. Maybe if she’d been friends with the little goodie two shoes, she wouldn’t be in this mess.
“Would you look at that sunrise? The color is amazing, don’t you think?” His voice cut through her muddled ramblings, chilling her blistered skin. Grey, the fucking idiot liked grey. She tried to laugh but nothing came out.
She no longer cared about pleasing him. Her eyes didn’t move to look at him, nor did she speak as he came closer. His legs were only inches from her, but she did her best to ignore him. Then the flash of something shiny caught her attention. She turned her head ever so slightly and gasped as he tossed the blade from one hand to the other. Fear spiked then ebbed away. What else could he do to her? A quick plunge of the knife between her ribs was the relief she craved.
After a few moments of his strutting around with the knife, she mentally shrugged and dropped her head, no longer interested in his machinations. Death might as well come from a blade as a shark. At least with the blade she’d be dead quickly.
“You think I’m going to slice you with this? Don’t be too disappointed with me. I’m actually going to cut you down.”
Elation and hope bubbled in her chest. Thoughts of home filled her until she realized he wouldn’t let her live. Even if he did show a few minutes of kindness, he could never let her off this boat.
With the flick of his wrist, the ropes fell. She dropped into his arms, cradled like a baby. He lowered her to the hard fiberglass decking, taking care not to let her head bounce.
Pain flashed for a second then the numbing bliss of too much stimulation took over. Not caring about the pain did wonderful things for her memory. She quickly forgot the agony of hanging by ropes and replaced it with fear of what was to come next.
He grabbed her by the arms and dragged her down the steps then pushed her into the small bathroom. “Shower now. You stink.”
She stepped into the small cubicle, numb to the events taking place. The words should have made sense in her brain but they didn’t. A shower seemed like a luxury she would never enjoy again.
He chuckled. “This is going to hurt.” He turned the water on full blast. Pain ripped through her as the icy water ran over her dry and cracked skin. He shut the door, leaving her alone.
With her mouth wide she turned to the spray and gulped at the refreshing liquid, loving how it bathed her tongue. The relief was minimal, but it gave her enough energy to begin cleaning herself. After shampooing once and washing her body as gently as she could, she turned off the water, waiting for his next set of instructions. She didn’t dare take any initiative. His punishment had taught her that much.
He pushed open the door and tossed her a towel. “Come now.”
She tried to dry herself as she followed, but the pain proved too much. Depression quickly replaced her desperation. The nightmare just kept going, awful turned to horrific then so bad she couldn’t contemplate so her mind started to shut down. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t run. Life had winnowed down to this small sailboat and the two of them.
In the tiny cabin he pointed at the bed. “Sleep.”
Her feet stalled. Images of atrocious acts he might do to her filled her mind. Her eyes clamped shut as she tried to block out most of the horror, but her small act of defiance didn’t stave off the thought of rape and beatings. Stop thinking!
“Lay down and go to sleep,” he commanded.
She shook her head, but knew she didn’t have a choice. He led her to the bed and guided her to lie down. Gently, he pulled the covers over her and turned out the lights. The door shut softly behind him.
Her heart thundered and her mind flipped through the possibilities. What had just happened? This was crazy. Could he be letting her go, or was this just another sick game made to keep her off balance? She fought sleep, staying awake as long as possible, but the long days and nights of torture had taken their toll. She passed out before she could think of any means to escape.