Read Final Touch Online

Authors: Brandilyn Collins

Final Touch (2 page)

2

W
here’s
Shaley?” Brittany pushed off the bed and peered out the window to the rear gardens. She couldn’t see the driveway, where Shaley was supposed to pick up the ring. “She’s been gone for seven minutes.”

Rayne sat in the chair, back straight. Her long red fingernails drummed against the chair’s arms. Clearly she was becoming more nervous about the ceremony with each passing minute. “She’ll be here. Maybe she stopped in some bathroom. Heaven knows there are enough of them in this house.”

Kim touched her white-blonde hair. “Maybe she saw someone she knows and stopped to say hi.”

“But guests are coming in the front door to the great room.” Brittany leaned toward the right side of the window to gaze as far left as possible. She still couldn’t see the driveway. “She wouldn’t be walking through there now.”

“Don’t worry.” Rayne waved a hand in the air. “I don’t think she’ll miss the wedding.”

Five minutes passed. No Shaley.

Something inside Brittany whispered dark thoughts.

Often in the past she’d had the ability to sense when something bad was coming. An inexplicable feeling in her gut. Brittany bit the side of her lip, telling herself not to listen this time. What could happen? They were on this beautiful estate with security guards everywhere, plus Rayne’s three personal ones. Mick and Wendell had worked as bodyguards for Rayne for quite a few years. Both of
them had been a lot of help during all the trauma a year ago. And Lee, whom Rayne had hired to replace Bruce after he was killed, had now been with the family for almost a year.

The ominous feeling within Brittany expanded, like a sponge soaking up black water. She glanced at the clock. Only thirteen minutes until the ceremony. “I’m going to find her.”

She slipped out of the room before anyone could stop her.

Barefoot, she hurried down the back stairs and into the kitchen, where she saw three women from the catering service. Brittany pulled up short. “Did you see Shaley come through here?”

“Yeah, about ten minutes ago.” A plump woman turned from the sink. “Went through that door.” She pointed toward the pantry.

“Thanks.” Brittany scurried toward the door.

Outside she blinked in the bright sun. Looked around. No sign of a delivery vehicle or Shaley. And not a soul in sight to ask.

Brittany hugged herself, suddenly cold in the warm afternoon.

Maybe Shaley was around the side of the house. That had to be it.

She started to walk up the driveway—and stopped after three strides. Her eyes riveted to a spot of coral and white about twenty-five feet away.

Shaley’s hair flowers.

Brittany ran toward them, feet slapping against the asphalt. She skidded to a halt and stared down, trembling. The rosebuds were smashed and dirty. As if they’d been stepped on.

No. No, no, no.
Shaley would never leave her hair arrangement like that.

Not far away, something caught Brittany’s eye. She leaned over and picked it up.

A broken fingernail tip, French-manicure style. Shaley’s.

The fat black sponge inside Brittany solidified and sank like a rock through her stomach.

She shook her head hard.
No!
There would be an explanation. Shaley was just around the corner. Surely, she was…

Brittany dropped the fingernail and raced up the driveway.

3

D
arkness swarmed around me, vibrating and smothering. Blanketing my head, then crumbling…blanketing…crumbling.

My eyes opened.

Still dark.

I blinked. Shifted my head.

My neck hurt. And my left cheek and eye.

I lay on my right side.

Where—

The wedding!

I gasped. Tried to sit up. My head hit something. Pain shot through my skull, and I collapsed back down.

Memories flooded. Meeting the van. The driver attacking me. His arm around my neck. Fighting him.

But this wasn’t the van. I’d seen the back of it, large and empty. Where
was
I?

Beneath me the floor rocked. I blinked again, forcing my eyes to adjust. I reached out my left hand and felt metal. Dropped my hand to the floor, fingers exploring.

Rubber?

All my senses gelled at once.
Car trunk.

No!

I cried out. Thrashed around, fear sucking the air from my lungs. How did I get from the van to this car? My arms hit the roof, the sides of the trunk. My dress tangled around my legs.

“Let me out! Let me
out!
” I banged on the roof until my fists hurt. Kicked with my bare feet. “Let me
ooouuutt!

Nothing moved. Nothing gave way.

Still I screamed and hit and kicked—on and on, until all my energy drained away.

I melted against the floor, breathing hard.

A thousand thoughts filled my head. The wedding. Mom. Dad. What were they thinking? They must be going crazy right now, looking for me.

The van driver. I thought I’d seen him before. Who was he? Why did he do this?
Why?

This had to be a nightmare. Any minute now I’d wake up in Ed Schering’s mansion. It would be the morning of the wedding…

Panic shoved its fingers down my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I was going to
die.

Screams tore from my mouth. Once again I pounded and raged, begging to be let out. What if other drivers on the road had their windows down? Would they hear me?

I yelled louder. Kicked harder. This time my energy didn’t last as long. Soon my veins felt like they were filled with water. My knuckles and arms and legs throbbed. I brought fingers up to my face and felt something sticky.

Blood.

No more strength in me to fight. None. And no one to help. What was going to happen?

I would die here. I. Would.
Die.
Here.

I sank against the floor of the trunk and sobbed.

4

B
rittany raced around the corner of the house. No Shaley. Heart in her throat, she sprinted up the driveway and rounded the corner to the front of the building. Down the length of the mansion she saw parking attendants and last-minute guests. Mick and Wendell stood at either side of the wide marble porch. They were dressed in suits for the wedding, but Brittany knew they carried guns at their waists. Radios were attached to their lapels.

Still no Shaley.

Brittany ran toward the bodyguards. “Wendell! Mick!” Her yells pierced the air. Guests turned.

Both men’s heads snapped in her direction. Instantly they hurried toward her. Wendell reached her first. “What is it?” His deep-set eyes scanned her face, the bare feet. The sun shone on his spiky, gelled black hair, turning it almost purple. Wendell was short for a bodyguard, only five eleven. But he was muscular and hard-bodied, and Brittany knew he would stake his life to guard Rayne and Shaley.

“Sh-Shaley…” Brittany couldn’t force the words out.

Mick pulled up beside Wendell. He was taller, a former Marine. “Brittany, what’s the matter?”

“Shaley’s gone.”

Mick gave her one of his squinty-eyed looks. “What do you mean, gone?”

“She was supposed to pick up the ring around back. Did you see a delivery truck?”

Alarm creased Wendell’s face. “A van. We waved it on down there. It came back up a minute later.”

“It’s gone?” Brittany’s throat tightened. “Shaley never came back to our room. And down where she was supposed to meet the van I saw her hair flowers on the ground. Crushed. And a broken fingernail!”

For a split second both bodyguards stared at her, open-mouthed.

They broke into action, both running down the driveway toward the back of the house. Brittany raced after them.

They rounded the corner, Brittany now sweating. Strands of her once perfectly put-up hair fell against her neck. As they pulled up before the flowers, Brittany pointed. “See?”

Mick squatted down and looked at them, then pointed a thick finger at Shaley’s broken nail. He twisted his head up and locked eyes with Wendell.

Mick searched the ground around the area. He stilled. Pointed again. “Is that blood?”

Blood?
Brittany gasped. She leaned over, telling herself no. It was something else.
Anything
else.

She saw two little drops. Red.

She reared up and backed away, palms out. If it hadn’t been for the trauma a year ago—the two murders, Shaley nearly killed, Rayne hit by a car—Brittany could have convinced herself this wasn’t real. But life hadn’t been the same since. Tragedy
could
happen, even with bodyguards all around.

Not a word could squeeze from Brittany’s throat.

Wendell grabbed his radio. “Front gate, come in.”

“Front gate here.”

“That delivery van for the ring. Is it gone?”

“Yeah. A while ago.”

“Did you check in the back before you let it out?”

The question hung in the air. Mick stood up. Brittany couldn’t move.

“No.” The security guard at the front gate sounded surprised.

“We checked it when it came in. We knew it was expected.”

Wendell’s jaw hardened. “Shut the gate. Don’t let anyone else in or out. All other guards—be on the alert. Shaley’s missing.”

But it’s too late,
Brittany thought. The van was already gone.

Mick whipped out his cell phone and punched in 9-1-1.

5

I
lay on my back in the car trunk, no more tears to cry. No more energy. My hands and arms and feet throbbed from trying to beat my way out. My neck hurt where the man had grabbed me, and my left cheek…Had he hit me there? That side of my face was so tender. And my left eye felt swollen.

How much time had passed? I didn’t know how long I’d been unconscious, or how long I’d been awake. Nothing made sense. The minutes drifted in and out, the car drove on and on, and darkness tried to swallow me whole.

My mind barely functioned. It couldn’t comprehend anything at all. How did I get from the day of my dreams—to
this?

I thought of Mom and Dad. Brittany. They had to be out of their minds with worry. Had they figured out what happened?

God, please help them. Help me. Let me live. Let me get back to them—

The car stopped.

My muscles tensed. I lifted my head up, and pain shot through my neck. My head sank back down.

My heart beat so hard it shook my body. Breath backed up in my throat.

I heard a car door slam.

Were those footsteps? Coming around to the back?

Some noise. A key in a lock?

My roof opened up, and a man loomed over me. Light stabbed my eyes. I whimpered and squeezed them shut.

Rough hands pulled me up. I tried to scramble away toward the back of the trunk. My arms lashed out.

“Stop it!” It was the voice of the man from the van. I looked up, trying to see his face. He grabbed me by the neck with one hand.

A long white cloth—pillowcase?—came down over my head.

“Fight me again and I’ll make you sorry,” he spat. “Hear me?”

I managed a nod but didn’t know if he’d see it under the cloth. “Y-yes.” My throat felt like sandpaper.

“That’s a good girl.” His hands moved to my sides. “Now get out.”

The cloth over my head was thin, allowing light to seep in. I just could make out his form, towering over me.

Fear layered me in a cold sweat. What was he going to do to me? Would he kill me right here? “Wh-what do you want? Where are we going?”

“Shut up.”

He pulled me awkwardly over the lip of the trunk. I started to fall, but he caught me. He righted me and lowered my shaking legs to the ground, then turned me around. “Walk straight ahead.”

My ankles barely held me. I stumbled. He grabbed my arm and held me up. Pain tore from my wrist to my shoulder.

“Ah!” I shrank away.

“What’s the matter with you? I’m just trying to help.”

He’d kidnapped me, and he thought he was trying to
help
? What kind of crazy man was this? “My arm hurts.”

“What?” He grasped my hands, hurting me more. Air hissed through my teeth. The man turned my hands over in his, as if examining them. I peered downward, seeing only my bare feet on grass, and the tip of one worn brown shoe.

“You did this to your own hands.” He sounded disgusted. His shoe moved out of my sight.

Like this was
my
fault.

“Trying to get out didn’t work too well, did it? All you’ve done is bruised yourself up.
Don’t
do that again.”

As if
he
hadn’t bruised me at all.

“Move.” He pushed me forward. I stumbled along, watching grass slide by beneath me.

“Stop.” He yanked me to a halt. I felt him move around me. Heard the click of a car door opening. The pillowcase was pulled off my head.

I blinked. Before me lay the dirty beige interior of a big SUV.

“Get in.” He pressed against my spine. “Go back to the third row.”

Everything in me wanted to run. But where would I go? He’d catch me in a few steps. My legs weren’t strong enough to take me anywhere.

I struggled up the step and into the SUV. Moved behind the long second-row seat and toward the third.

“Lie down on the floor.”

The floor carpet was dusty and stained. “There’s not much room.”


Do
it.”

Tears filled my eyes. Why had God let this happen to me?

I lay down on my left side, head resting on my arm—and cried.

The door slammed shut. Seconds later the driver’s door opened. I heard the swish of clothes, a seat creak as my kidnapper got in.

The engine started.

He drove forward. I felt a little bump as the wheels hit pavement. He turned left and we sped up, taking me farther away from my life and family.

6

W
ith Mick still on the phone to 9-1-1, Brittany ran through the back door into the kitchen, shouting, “Has anybody seen Shaley? Has
anyone
seen Shaley?”

The caterers stopped their work, eyes wide. “She didn’t come back through here,” one of them replied.

Brittany barely stopped. She careened past the women, into a hall, through the dining room, headed for the great room. Over the slap of her own bare feet she could hear the chamber orchestra playing, the rustle of guests. Lee, Rayne’s newest bodyguard, hurried toward Brittany through a passage leading to the arched entrance of the great room. The overhead light shone on his shaved black head. Brittany pulled to a stop, breathing hard. “Have you seen Shaley?”

His dark eyes searched her face. “No. I’ve checked this area and in the great r—”

Ed Schering appeared, concern etching his lined forehead. He pressed a hand to the lapel of his black tuxedo. “What’s going on? The guests just coming in are whispering about Shaley.”

“She’s gone.” Words flooded from Brittany in one jumbled sentence. “I think the van driver took her Mick called the police I saw her flowers and there’s blood.”


What?

No time to explain. The wedding was supposed to be starting. Brittany whirled and ran toward the back staircase. She had to get to Rayne.

How to tell her? Brittany’s mind screamed as she pounded up the steps. How to tell Rayne Shaley was
gone?

But she wasn’t gone. Not really. Any minute now they’d find her. Somewhere.

Brittany burst into the second floor hallway. At the door to the bedroom she stopped, dragged in a breath. She had to be calm for Rayne.

She pushed open the door. Rayne’s head swung toward Brittany, eyes widening as she saw Brittany’s disheveled hair, the sweat and fear on her face. Rayne rose instantly. “What’s wrong? Where’s Shaley?”

“I don’t know. She’s—” Brittany’s throat swelled shut.

Time spun into chaos. Rayne pulled the horrible information from Brittany and snatched up her cell phone. She called Mick, who confirmed what he’d seen. Rayne ripped off her veil and pressed both hands to her mouth as Kim unsnapped her train. She ran out of the room and down the wide, open passage spanning the length of the balcony, not even glancing at the guests below, who were straining their necks up to watch. Brittany followed. Around past the first curving staircase they went. All the way across the connecting balcony, past the second staircase. Around the corner and down the hall to the room where the men were waiting. Rayne flung the door open. “Gary, Gary!”

In seconds, Brittany spilled her story once again. She couldn’t bear to look at Rayne and Gary. Rayne so beautiful, so perfect, made up for her wedding, now clutching her beaded gown in disbelief. Gary, tall and handsome in his tux, holding Rayne, telling her everything would be all right. His gray eyes looked terrified. Like Brittany, they both knew how quickly tragedy could strike. Morrey, Rich, Stan, and Ross crowded around, firing questions.

Ross barreled toward the door. Everyone else piled out after him, hurrying down the nearest staircase. Guests now stood up, clamoring to know what was happening. Brittany ran along with Rayne, Gary, and the others past the guests and down the length of the great room, headed for the back of the house. She understood
their wanting,
needing
to see the rear driveway, Shaley’s flowers, the hope that if they viewed the scene they would see that it wasn’t real, and Shaley would be right there.

If only it could be true.

Ed Schering paced through the lushly flowered great room, calling for all the guests to take their seats and be calm.

Before Brittany, Rayne, and Gary reached the back doors opening out to the gardens, two deputies from Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department strode through the front entrance. Then there were questions and more questions, Brittany telling what she saw, breaking into tears as she led the deputies to the rear driveway, pointing to that awful, terrible place on the asphalt. She heard Rayne saying, “No, no, no,” and saw Gary shoving his fingers into his sandy hair.

“We’ll find her,” he declared. “She’s here somewhere, we’ll find her.”

When the deputies stretched yellow crime-scene tape to cordon off the rear driveway, Rayne and Gary collapsed into each other’s arms and cried.

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