A shiver of fear moves through me, chilling my spine. She? She who? Is it Kate, or Mia, or even Grace? But the question that looms largest, that steals over me with cold fingers of dread, shocking me into action, is whether or not José is involved.
First things first, I tell myself as I concentrate on breathing through the blinding panic to come up with something useful, practical to do. Careful not to disturb his peaceful sleep, I scoop Chris into my arms and carry him off to bed. I hardly feel his weight with the adrenaline fueling my muscles, and when I close his bedroom door behind me, I trace my irate husband’s steps to the study.
I find two sets of equally squared shoulders, tight with tension, and a couple of gritted jaws as Taylor and Christian glare at each other over his desk. The room is vibrating with hostility as both men fight to keep their tempers leashed.
Standoff notwithstanding, I need to know what the hell has happened and their scowling match isn’t helping matters. Breaking the terse silence with a dry husk I make my presence known. “Who is missing?”
Twin looks of surprise swing my way when they realize they have company. Christian blows out a long breath and runs a hand through his hair. Lacing his fingers behind his head he looks up to the ceiling as if to seek help from a divine power. “Mia,” he states simply, snaring my gaze. The quiet in his voice is betrayed by the haunted look in his eyes. It doesn’t take the sharpest tool in the shed to tell that he’s worried sick.
Again I feel the unease freezing the blood in my veins, numbing me as it seems to set heavy in my limbs. “Mia? I just spoke to her today. How can she be missing?” The moment the words leave my mouth I realize what a stupid question it is, but my anxious brain isn’t firing on all cylinders.
Christian’s reply takes no heed of my flawed logic. “That’s precisely what I’d like to know,” he seethes, turning his slate stare onto Taylor once more and bringing us neatly back to the dual glowers I walked in on.
Taylor sucks in a steeling breath. “Sir, with all due respect, it’s damn near impossible to guard someone who refuses to be watched.” To underscore his point he tips his head my way – a reminder of me giving Sawyer the slip.
I don’t have time to feel wounded so I shrug off the dig as I turn my full attention to his words. “What exactly do you mean she refuses to be watched?”
For a beat he looks dumbfounded by my confusion, but he explains anyway. “She escaped from under his watch. She deliberately lost her tail.” To make his point he stabs at the air with his index finger before he continues his tirade. “One of the biggest challenges we face in personal protection is the cooperation of the person we’re trying to guard. With all the variables, it makes an already difficult job virtually impossible if the mark doesn’t play by the rules.” The look he throws Christian is imploring, urging his understanding.
Christian draws an audible breath to speak but I hold up my hand, interjecting. “You know she went with a date, right? Did she leave with him? Or did she vanish after leaving the hotel?”
Taylor frowns at me, tilting his head in silent question. “Yes, Mr. Reginald Gates, I believe. And no, Mr. Gates has no idea of her whereabouts. She disappeared from the party but we’ve found no evidence that she left the hotel. She excused herself to go to the bathroom and then – bam! Missing!”
“And Ethan? Do we know where he is?” Slowly a trickle of hope quells the worst of my concerns. Please, please let my hunch be right, I pray silently.
“Ethan Kavanagh?” Taylor asks, his brow puzzled.
When Taylor starts to speak Christian cuts him off. “What’s this about, Ana? If you know something, now isn’t the time to hold back.”
“I’ll explain in a minute,” I breathe, anxious for Jason to give me the info I’m desperate to hear. “Just please answer the question.”
“As far as I know, Mr. Kavanagh also attended the party.” He flips through the folder in his hand, clearly looking to confirm his thoughts on the matter. “In fact, I think Gavin’s report mentions that he spent some time with Mia while Reginald was busy networking.”
“Okay, but do we know where he is now?”
Taylor scans his notes. “Obviously we’re not keeping tabs on Ethan, but the report says that Mia left him at the bar to go to the powder room. Gavin was stationed outside the ladies’ room waiting for her, but after a while he became suspicious and went in after her. As far as we can tell, she slipped through the staff entrance of the bathrooms and that’s where her trail gets cold.”
Ugh! I want to scream. The facts are just not coming fast enough. “Call your guys, Taylor. Find out where Ethan is,” I all but beg, then turn to Christian to explain.
I join both our hands and take in the haggard look on his face while Taylor makes the call. I can tell that he feels responsible and I hope with all my heart that this plays out as I see it in my head. “Mia has been trying very hard to get back together with Ethan, and tonight was her last effort to get him to man up to his feelings for her. I’m hoping that it went so well that they escaped for a little…. uhm, privacy.” Either that or she’s devastated by his rejection and wants to be by herself, I think with my stomach plummeting with a fresh batch of apprehension on Mia’s behalf.
His expression is incredulous, as if he’s finding it hard to process my words. “You think she ditched her guard to be alone with Ethan?” The pitch of his voice is an octave or two higher than his usual low rumble, and he’s verging on yelling.
“I don’t know for sure,” I bleat nervously, trying to sound soothing by keeping my lilt quiet, “but I’m hoping. Ethan may even have a room at the hotel so he wouldn’t need to drive back to the city tonight. They might be holed up in there.”
Half listening to me and issuing orders at the same time, Taylor instructs his agent to check the hotel register, then starts to pace the room while we wait for news. The strain he’s under is clear in the way he moves – restlessly, like a caged animal. His knuckles pale against the tan of his hand, his grip on the phone as fierce as the concentration on his pinched face.
“I fucking hope you’re right, but I’m going to skin her alive if that’s the case. Fuck!” Christian grits, giving in to another wave of agitation as he shoves both hands through his already messy hair.
Christian and I turn sharply to Taylor’s boom when he barks into the phone, our ears tuned in to every nuance of his voice. “He does?” He looks up to catch Christian’s gaze and gives him a small nod. “Then get your ass over there, ASAP! Break down the damn door if you have to!”
With the speakerphone on, he slams the handset onto the desk. He folds his arms across his chest, probably to keep himself from fiddling in his buzz of nerves. We hear the heavy breathing of our man on the ground as he runs to follow Taylor’s orders. A ding tells us that he’s entered the elevator and all is quiet while it climbs a few floors.
We issue a collective gasp when we hear the ding again, but soon realize it’s a false alarm when Gavin doesn’t start his jog. I hold my breath, hoping against hope that Mia is safe. With a squeeze to his bicep, I offer Christian a little reassurance amidst this sea of uncertainty.
Another ding and Gavin is on the move, briskly making his way down what I assume is a corridor. I don’t know about the others, but my heart has all but stopped beating, and my breaths are shallow. My lungs ache for a gulp of oxygen but I’m immobile. Our world is suddenly tiny, solely focused on the sounds emanating from the cellphone.
I jump when I hear Gavin’s fists bang against the door of Ethan’s room. “Mr. Kavanagh! Open up! It’s an emergency!” he yells before pounding the wood again. Silently we wait… and wait… and wait. Gavin tries four more times but gets no reply.
Oh no! Oh shit! Oh crap! I was so sure! Where the hell is Ethan?
Taylor grabs the phone, but this time he uses it like a two-way radio so we can continue to track the conversation. “Gavin, get management involved. I want that room searched.”
We listen to Gav issue his own string of commands to his team, obviously staying put at Ethan’s room. I know it’s really not that long before we hear him greet the manager in a terse voice because the clock tells me so, but it feels like a freaking lifetime.
My mind fills with abhorrent images of mangled bodies staring glassy-eyed at the ceiling. Stop it! I tell myself, giving my head a little shake to rid myself of the crime-drama turn of my imagination. I close my eyes and force a breath, concentrating on thinking only positive thoughts.
“I’m in,” comes Gavin’s robotic voice through the speaker. I make out the sound of the door slamming against the wall and then all hell breaks loose. We hear the shrill screech of a woman in distress. When Gavin’s phone clatters onto the floor, we get sounds of a scuffle and an incredulous what the fuck! shouted by a man whose voice I can’t place amid the noise and distortion of the chilling commotion.
My heart is hammering at a frantic pace. I cling to Christian’s side, holding on to his upper arm as if my life depends on it. Our eyes are all locked onto the phone, stretched wide, and our mouths are slack with horror, gaping. The images the audio conjures up are frightening. I’m sure Taylor and Christian feel every bit as helpless as I do right now, as if we’re caught in quicksand, desperate to help but maddeningly paralyzed.
“Mr. Kavanagh! Ethan!” It’s Gavin’s voice, strained but authoritative. “Stand down!” he roars, and I take my first full breath in minutes.
Whatever else is happening, Ethan is there and alive! My mind immediately jumps to the woman’s scream, but before I even have time to fully form the question in my mind we hear her again. “It’s okay, baby, he’s with me. Let it go,” she pleads soothingly.
It’s Mia! Oh, thank everything that’s holy! Thank you, thank you, thank you! My whole body sags with relief as I pray, and from the long exhales of air around me, it seems the guys are feeling it in equal measure.
Christian slumps into a nearby chair and takes me with him, hugging me tight. “Thank fuck!” he mumbles into my hair.
“Gavin, report back!” Taylor bellows, uncertain if Gav has retrieved the cell yet.
There’s a fumbling sound and then the much clearer voice of Gavin as he speaks directly into the handset. “All clear, sir. The mark is safe and secure.” He’s breathless from the scuffle but the sweet relief in his tone is unmistakable. “Report in five?”
“Roger that, Gavin.” Taylor replies dryly then ends the call. He tosses the device onto the nearest chair, happy to be free of it. He scrubs his hands over his face. “What an effing day!”
I snort. I know the non-swearing is for my benefit only, but within the context it’s very funny that he manages to remember even now. “That was some fucked-up shit,” I agree deadpan, and I can’t help my answering smile when Taylor cracks a small grin.
Christian, on the other hand, is not ready to let go of his anger, but it seems mostly directed at Mia’s noncompliance. She may be safe from the grisly dangers we imagined for her, but she’s in serious trouble with her big brother.
“Debrief when you’re done with Gavin.” Christian sounds tired, deflated. This thing with José, the constant potential of it and the unknowns surrounding it, is taking its toll on all of us, but mostly on him.
Taylor nods then turns to leave. He’ll want to be in his own office when Gavin calls back. “Thank you, Taylor,” Christian says quietly to his back.
Taylor pivots on his heel, acknowledging Christian’s gratitude with a small salute. “Only doing my job, sir. I’m glad she’s safe.”
An hour later Christian joins me in bed, and I’m pleased when he shares the details of the debrief with me unprompted. I’m happier still when it turns out that I was spot-on.
“But why didn’t Ethan open the door the first time Gavin knocked? Surely they must’ve heard all that banging.” That’s the only part of the story I still don’t get.
If Christian were the blushing kind I get the impression that he would have done so now. He clears his throat, looking decidedly uncomfortable. “Well… Uhm… No, they didn’t hear it. They were in the shower.”
Oh my! Go, Mia! I think, but try to keep my grin to myself. It’s obvious that Christian doesn’t appreciate thinking of his little sis as a sexual creature. Now that the potential danger is over I’m more than happy to replace all that worry with joy, thrilled that Ethan and Mia are finally getting their act together.
Both Kate and Mia call me on Sunday morning, similarly ecstatic about the hook-up we’ve all been rooting for. There and then I decide there’s nothing to be done but to arrange a postmortem with the three of us for lunch. A good old girly afternoon with all the juicy details, or as many as Kate can handle – Ethan is her brother, after all.
Even though Christian has had the whole day to shake off the drama of the evening before, there’s an edginess about him, clinging to him like the fragments of a bad dream. I suspect that it’s exactly what this whole thing must’ve felt like to him, not only the worry and fear for his sister, but also the reminder of the very real nightmare I put him through when I evaded Sawyer’s watch.
I can also not discount that it’s brought home the notion of how quickly and easily things can go wrong. In the blink of an eye your world can change, altering everything when a loved one gets hurt. It’s the perfect situation to bring out the worst shades of my control-hungry, despotic man.
Feeling guilty, though it comes naturally for me under these circumstances, is not the way for me to make up for past mistakes. For my husband’s sake, I work the tools Dr. Flynn has instilled in me: being supportive and not wallowing, holding on to all the good instead of focusing on the bad, staying positive, and affirming the love of the people in my life and how that translates to my self-worth. There is nothing I want more than to be what Christian needs me to be right now, even if it sometimes drives me nuts.
Kate and Mia arrive together, but I hardly get a chance to greet them before a grumpy Christian ushers Mia into his study. Considering his nature, there’s no way around the massive reprimand she’s in for, but I hope that he cuts her some slack. Being under round-the-clock surveillance is a drag at the best of times.
“What’s up with him?” Kate quips, pointing her thumb at the closed door of his office.
“You don’t know?” I gasp, eyes large.
When she shakes her head I give her the quick version. I’m sure Mia is too excited about being back with Ethan to bother mentioning Gavin all but beating down their hotel room door.
Kate winces when I’m done. “Ouch! I get why she did it but, holy Moses, I can understand why Christian went ape-shit!”
I can only nod, confirming ape-shit and then some before I gesture for her to make herself comfy on the couch. We’ll chat about the happy couple only when Mia joins us but, in the meantime, I’m keen to hear how my friend is holding up. “Hopefully he won’t be too hard on her. But tell me, how are you feeling?” Involuntarily my eyes are drawn to her belly before I meet her gaze again.
“Today?” she grins lopsidedly. “I’m just dandy. Not sure if it will last,” she qualifies with a sardonic arch of her brow, “but I’m enjoying the feeling for now.”
My smile is sympathetic. I know just how quickly female cyclical changes can rule a moment, the pinballing between happy and sad, angry and vulnerable. “Hormones, huh?”
Kate snorts. “Yes, progesterone, and luteinizing hormones, and follicle stimulating hormones.” She rolls her eyes, fluent in her new-found understanding of our reproductive system. “Shit, it’s a good thing we have shoes, and wine, and chocolate!”
This time I laugh. “Yes, and don’t forget the wonderful men in our lives.” I wink and give her knee a little squeeze, feeling grateful that we’re not alone in all of this.
Kate and I both turn to a slightly dazed Mia when she joins us a minute later. “Holy crap, that was rough!”
I grimace, but I understand Christian’s need to make her realize what she put us through. “We were so worried, Mia, and you know what he’s like.”
She flops onto the couch. “Look, I get it, but he was flipping brutal in there. I don’t know how you put up with it!”
My lips thin into a rueful line. “Understanding where he comes from helps, but it’s not always easy,” I admit.
“Well, all I’m saying is respect, sista!” Rapidly she knocks her fist to her chest then points a finger at me, the ganger gesture completely out of place, but so quintessentially Mia.
Our chorus of giggles rings through the room and mercifully sets the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Gleefully Mia tells us about Ethan’s double take when he saw her looking stunning on Reginald’s arm, only she doesn’t call him Reginald. She calls him Reggie-Wedgie, and soon the story has us in stitches.
She describes how she felt Ethan’s eyes on her the whole night, how every time she looked up he was there, staring, and how it took everything in her not to ditch the Wedgie and go to him, but she stood her ground and her patience paid off. When Reggie-Wedgie excused himself to work the room she found a spot at the bar and apparently Ethan all but dashed to the open chair beside her.
“He was so nervous, fumbling, and flustered. He asked me how serious things were with ol’ Wedgie, but I just gave him a small smile with a little shrug. You know, all noncommittal. I don’t know what he thought that meant, but the next moment he cleared his throat and that was that!” She looks down, almost coyly. Her hands are folded on her lap but there’s no mistaking the bright blush coloring her cheeks as she replays the previous evening’s events.
“Go on then, woman! Don’t keep us in suspense!” Kate prods playfully.
I get the feeling she’s downplaying the scene when she continues. “Oh, it was nothing much,” she quips with a Cheshire cat smile. “He just said that he was sorry for the way things ended between us, and that maybe he was reevaluating his feelings, and how we’re not getting any younger. That sort of thing.”
“That’s it?” I moan, feeling cheated, but still, her expression says there’s more to come.
“Yep, that’s basically it,” she confirms, but this time she’s biting her lip to hold back a beam I’m sure will top all beams.
“Mia!” Kate and I both cry, growling our exasperation.
Unable to contain her elation any longer, she squeals. “And then he asked me to marry him!” She holds out her hand, showing off an over-the-top flower ring, a costume jewelry piece made of glass beads.
Mia gets a wide-eyed shut up! from Kate and a breathless no way! from me. We’re psyched for her, overjoyed in fact, but we’re staring at the ring, unsure what to make of it. It’s pretty, for sure, but where the hell is the diamond?
When she sees our perplexed faces she laughs, loud and long, chuckling from deep within her belly. “That’s not the REAL ring!” she bellows through her streaming tears, slapping her thigh.
Kate catches my eye, mystified but smiling. I’m also amused, but I can only shrug. We’ll have to wait for her to settle down before we get the full story.
“You guys kill me,” she croaks, wiping the tears of mirth from her eyes. “Obviously none of this was planned,” she says dramatically, winking at me.
I chuckle. Of course, not planned to the letter, but I think poor Ethan would faint if he knew the effort that went into helping him see the light.
Taking a shaky breath after her hysterics, she restarts. “I was getting ahead of myself, but I just couldn’t wait any longer to tell you!” Again she beams, shivering with pleasure. She’s clearly over the moon.
“So, before he popped the question he asked if we could steal away for some private time, that he wanted to talk to me alone. That’s when I devised my little plan to shake off poor Gavin.” She scrunches up her face when she looks to me, almost – but not quite – apologetically.
Grinning, I shake my head. Only Mia.
“I made my way to the service elevator and went upstairs to meet Ethan in front of his room. He barely closed the door before he had me against the wall. His kiss made my toes curl!”
We issue a collective sigh. Nothing like white-hot desire and years of separation to ignite sleeping passions, I muse to myself. That’s definitely something I know a thing or two about.
“Oh, Mia. I’m so happy for you,” I sigh.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re thrilled! Now tell us about the crazy ring!” Kate grumbles good-naturedly.
Mia giggles and blushes. It’s delightful to see her being her happy and bubbly self again. We watch her expression change from blissful to dreamy. “It was so romantic. He ended the kiss, dropped to one knee, and grabbed my hands. ‘Mia,’ he said, ‘I’m not fucking wasting any more time. Marry me or have my misery on your hands for the rest of your life.’ He fished the ring out of his pocket and slipped it onto my finger without even waiting for me to reply. He closed his big hands over the ring and just held it, like he could make me agree if he just kept it on my finger.” She closes her own fist over her free hand, holding it to her heart as she stares into space, reliving the poignant moment.
“Awww,” Kate coos along with me.
“Apparently, while I was ducking away from Gav, Ethan spotted the ring on one of the guests, approached her, explained the situation, and she happily gave it to him! It’s so sweet!”
Kate harrumphs. “I hope you told that tightwad brother of mine to buy you a real diamond!”
“Kate!” we admonish in a singsong drawl, giggling.
“Give the guy a break. I say full marks for creativity!” My words draw more laughs from everyone. I can almost feel the surge of happiness between us. One down, one more to go, I think as I ponder Kate’s pregnancy results, due on Tuesday.
The new week settles into an uneasy routine. This cat-and-mouse game José is playing – or not playing, for that matter – is getting to me. I hate that I catch glimpses of movement from the corner of my eye in places where I know I’m alone. It’s enough to make anyone feel unstable, and the whole debacle with Mia’s disappearance underscores the fact that we’re far from being out of the woods. If there even is a woods…
Ugh! I almost wish he would just make his move so we can get it over with. The uncertainty has us all on the brink of madness. Tuesday morning is particularly bad. I don’t know if it’s Kate’s impending results that are making me feel so twitchy, or this feeling of foreboding churning in my gut.
Even though I’m waiting for the call, I virtually jump out of my skin when my cellphone rings. I steel myself when I see Kate’s face on the screen. This is it….
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