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Authors: Brandilyn Collins

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BOOK: Final Touch
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7

I
lay in a fetal position, face pressed nearly underneath the seat in front of me. My arms still hurt, as well as my hands and left cheek. Half of my fingernails were broken off, most likely lying in the trunk of that car. Dried blood flecked my hands. My left eye throbbed.

The kidnapper drove on and on. My mind hovered over one thought after another, not knowing where to land, what to believe.

I was so thirsty. And I had to go to the bathroom. Plus, my bare shoulders and legs were cold.

Long ago I’d untied the bow at my back, giving myself more room in my dress. The beautiful bridesmaid dress was ruined. Bloody. Dirty. Sweaty.

What time was it? I tilted my head up, wincing at the pain. The sky looked dusky. Had the sun set?

Where was he taking me? And
why?

But in my heart I knew why. I’d been kidnapped for money. The ransom would be huge.

It wouldn’t matter. Mom and Gary would pay it.

All I had to do was hang on. Be strong. Stay alive. Once the ransom was paid, I could go home.

Home.
Already it seemed light-years away.

I struggled to swallow. My throat was so dry.

“I need water.” It was the first time I’d dared speak since lying on his filthy floor.

No answer.

“I need water!”

“You’ll have to wait.”

“I can’t wait. And I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Another hour, we’ll stop.”

“I can’t wait that long.”

No answer.

I pled. My captor refused to reply. Finally I fell silent, too tired to say any more.

We drove.

I prayed. Begged God to save me, to keep Mom and Dad strong. And Brittany. And everyone in the band. And Mitch and Lee and Wendell.

And, Lord, show me how to hang on until the ransom is paid.

Endless minutes ticked by. My bladder ached, and my head pounded. As the miles slipped beneath the SUV’s wheels, I fell upon a chant to keep myself sane:
When he gets his money, he’ll let me go home. When he gets his money, he’ll let me go home.

The sky darkened. My world on the car floor fell into deep shadow, then near blackness.

When I thought I could stand it no more, the SUV slowed and turned.

“Here.” Something soft, thrown over the seats, hit me in the head. Then a second bundle landed on me. “Put these on.”

I sat up. We drove more slowly, lights from businesses filtering into the car. I held the pieces of clothing up, squinting at them. A pair of jeans. A man’s white undershirt.

“Hurry up,” the kidnapper commanded.

With shaking hands I pulled my dress over my head. Slipped on the plain T-shirt. Every movement hurt. Slowly I scooted around, stuck my legs out straight on the floor and wiggled into the jeans. They were loose in the waist and too long. I rolled up the cuffs.

At least my legs were warmer.

The SUV turned again. Then stopped.

8

S
even o’clock. It had been three hours since Rayne’s life had fallen off a cliff.

In shock, Rayne slumped in the same armchair in which a lifetime ago she’d awaited her wedding. Her beautiful white, pearled dress now hung in the closet, along with the train and veil. She wore the jeans and blue top she’d put on that morning, before getting dressed for the ceremony. On the table at the far end of the room lay all the bouquets, slowly wilting.

I still can’t believe this.

Everything had been so incredible this past year: Gary reentering Rayne’s life. Falling in love with him all over again. Their engagement and plans to marry. Shaley was happier than she’d ever been. And, with Shaley’s gentle prodding, both Rayne and Gary had turned to God, asking him to guide their new life together. God had given them a heavenly gift—each other—and both knew they’d mess up the marriage if God wasn’t at the center of it. With Shaley by their side, they’d prayed and become Christians.

They were still so new at it, but wasn’t God supposed to
bless
them for what they’d done? How could
this
happen?

Rayne watched Gary pace the room, unable to be still. Brittany, Kim, Morrey, Rich, Stan, and Ross sat in white chairs intended for the wedding guests, brought up from the great room. They, too, had changed out of their bridesmaid dresses and tuxes.

Rayne’s and Gary’s cell phones sat on a table near Rayne’s chair.
The sheriff’s department had wired both of them with portable recording devices in hopes that the kidnapper would call.

Both phones remained silent.

In the first hour following Shaley’s disappearance, they had learned that Pogh Jewelers’ van had been carjacked on its way to the estate. The driver had been knocked unconscious and left on the side of the road. He’d barely seen the face of his assailant. He would be in the hospital overnight for treatment.

Whoever stole that van had kidnapped Shaley.

Downstairs, many of the wedding guests still remained. One by one they were being questioned by the local sheriff’s deputies. No one was being allowed to leave until questioned, Rayne had been assured of that. This location had been a secret. Did one of the guests have something to do with Shaley’s disappearance?

Gary and Rayne couldn’t believe that. But at this point, the sheriff’s department would rule no one out.

Rayne stared at her phone, silently begging it to ring. Her eyes burned. Her body felt numb, like she’d gone to sleep and woken up in a thick, cold fog. She could barely move, yet she wanted to be
doing
something to find Shaley. But right now all they could do was wait. The local sheriff’s department had called in the FBI for help, knowing this case would be highly publicized and require more manpower than their department could handle. An agent from the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office was on his way and would meet with the wedding party as soon as he arrived. Rayne was glad for all the help they could get, but they’d been expecting the agent for hours.

A
whop-whop
sounded overhead. Gary caught Rayne’s eye. “Helicopter.”

She managed a nod. “Think it’s the sheriff’s department or the media?”

“Probably the media. The sheriff’s helicopters are out looking for the van.”

“They should have found it by now.” Morrey ran a hand through his shoulder-length black hair. One of his tattooed arms was around
Kim’s shoulders. Morrey and Kim had been dating for a number of years. Rayne had thought their wedding would be next.

Now there would be no “next” anything. The world had stopped.

“Someone will find that van soon.” Ross pressed a pudgy hand to his forehead. He sat forward in his chair, legs apart, staring at the floor. “The whole country’s already looking for it.”

The local sheriff’s department had moved into swift action. Already they’d printed flyers of Shaley and were posting them around the area. A forensic artist was now interviewing the security guard who’d been at the front gate to create a drawing of the van driver’s face. As soon as that was done, the drawing would be released to the media.

“How did he know?” Brittany’s long blonde hair had long since fallen from its swept-up coiffure, and her makeup was streaked from tears. “The man who carjacked the van. How did he know Shaley was supposed to meet the driver—unless somebody at the jewelers told him? I mean, any one of us could have picked up that ring.” Her voice dropped. “I wish
I
had.”

“Brittany, you can’t blame yourself.” Kim’s hair was down now as well, the flowers taken out. Her mascara and heavy blue eyeliner were smeared.

“No, you can’t,” Rayne whispered.

She’d done enough self-blaming of her own. If only she hadn’t been so set on having that ring for the ceremony. If only she’d instructed one of her bodyguards to bring it upstairs. But Shaley had insisted she pick up the ring herself, since she was responsible for it during the ceremony. She’d called the jewelers that morning, reminding them to give it to no one but her. Now that seemed like such a silly thing for her to do.

But who could have known it would lead to this?

Rayne closed her eyes. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I shouldn’t have let her meet anyone without a bodyguard.
Why
did I do that?” She bent low, fresh tears stinging her eyes.

Gary knelt beside Rayne and drew her into his arms. “You couldn’t
have known. None of us could.” His voice sounded flat. “This estate was so secure. We’ve been running around it since we got here last night. Shaley and Brittany didn’t have a bodyguard with them every minute. We even had security watching the guests arrive.”

“I know.” Rayne cried in his arms. Her mind was about to crack in two. How was she going to stand another
minute
of this? “But still…”

Gary stroked her hair. “We’ll find her. It’ll be okay. We’ll find her.”

A knock sounded on the door. Rayne’s head came up.

“Yeah,” Ross called.

The door opened. A tall African-American man entered, dressed in slacks, a short-sleeved shirt, and tie. Around him hovered an energetic authority, as if his mere presence promised that something good would finally happen.

The FBI.
Rayne stood on shaky legs.

“Miss O’Connor.” The man nodded to her. He looked around forty, lean, with a long face and short-cropped hair. His eyes were hazel brown. “I’m Special Agent Al Scarrow.” He shook Rayne’s hand, then Gary’s.

Hope flickered in Rayne’s heart. “Thank you for coming.”

Gary introduced the agent to everyone in the room.

Mick appeared at the door, carrying in a white chair for the agent. Al sat down. Gary pulled his chair close to Rayne.

Al leaned forward, hands clasped. He focused on Rayne. “I want you to know we’re doing everything to bring Shaley back home. We’ve already got other agents from our office coordinating efforts with both the sheriff’s department here and the Santa Barbara Police Department. Just before I got here I learned that the suspect composite is done. It’s now being printed and will immediately be disseminated to the media.”

“What about the van?” Gary’s face looked tight and drawn.

“We’ve got units on the ground and in the air looking for that vehicle. We aim to find it, and soon.”

Rayne nodded. Her mind still felt like it was wrapped in cotton. “We think the jewelers have something to do with this. They knew the ring was being delivered—” Her throat closed up.

Whop-whop.
Again, a helicopter sounded overhead.

Al’s eyes lifted. “That’s probably a local TV station. Your location somehow leaked. Not surprising, with all the wedding guests leaving.”

Bitterness rose within Rayne. “Why is a TV station so worried about getting a story
here?
They should help! They should be out looking for the van.”

“I understand.” Al pumped his clasped hands up and down. Rayne could tell his brain was jumping a dozen directions at once. “The media can be a real annoyance, but they can also be very helpful in getting the word out if used correctly. We’ve already got a spokesperson dealing with the media. Of course they want to know far more details than we’re giving them right now.”

“I’ll bet.” Rayne had her own love–hate relationship with the media. Especially the paparazzi.

At least her most-hated member of the paparazzi, Cat, had finally been convicted for stalking Shaley last year. In fact, Cat had been the first suspect Rayne thought of when Shaley disappeared. But the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department had checked. The man was just where he was supposed to be. In jail.

“Rayne was right earlier,” Gary said. “The jewelers had to be in on this, or at least they told the wrong person. Whoever carjacked their van had to know the driver was meeting Shaley.”

Al nodded. “We’re taking a good look at that. We’ve got people interviewing the owners and employees of the store—” His cell phone rang.

Rayne jumped, even though she knew it wasn’t her own cell.
Why
wouldn’t hers ring?

“Excuse me.” Al unclipped his phone from his belt, checked the ID, and answered. “Al Scarrow.” He listened. Rayne’s gaze glued to his face. She looked for any sign of news in his expression, but he
gave away nothing. Wild frustration barreled through her. This agent was on their side. She and Gary
needed
him and all the forces behind him. But how could he be so
calm and controlled
about everything?

“Okay, thanks.” Al ended the call and looked at Rayne. “They found the van.”

9

A
s the SUV’s engine cut off, I sat up. From the floor I could just see out the window. Sickly white overhead lights and gas pumps.

A service station.

There were few cars on the road running past the station. I leaned close to the window and looked far behind us. Were those signs for a freeway? Had we just come off of it?

Longing and fear and wild hope surged through me. How fast could I get to the other side of the SUV? Open the door and fling myself out? If I screamed, someone would hear me—

“Shaley,” my kidnapper barked from the front seat. The sound of his voice drained the sudden energy from my limbs. Who was I kidding? If I so much as moved toward the door, that monster would be on me. Did I want to get beat up again?

“Shaley!”

I swallowed. “What?” My voice sounded dead.

“Put this on. Tuck your hair up in it.”

A dirty blue baseball cap sailed over the seat in front of me and landed on my lap. It was the one he’d been wearing. I picked it up and stared at it stupidly. My thoughts jumbled together.

“You hear me?”

My bladder hurt so badly. I just wanted to get to the bathroom. Then get a drink of water. “Yes.”

“Once you put that on, I’m going to come around and get you out. Take you inside to the bathroom. You’re going to walk beside
me and look down. You’re not going to make a sound or talk to anyone. One word from you, and I’m yanking you back out of there. Got it?”

I studied the baseball cap. It said
San Diego
on the front. “Yes.”

“You want to see your family again?”

“Yes!” The word caught in my throat.
Anything, I’ll do anything! Just let me go home!

“Then do what I say. Or you’ll never see them again.”

“Okay.”

I pushed my hair up under the baseball cap. “Ready.”

The driver’s seat squeaked as he got out. I listened to his footsteps go around the front of the car. The door opened. “Come on. Hurry up.”

I half scooted, half crawled toward the door. My whole body hurt. Shaking, I climbed out.

“Look down.”

I did as I was told.

He gripped my elbow, shut the SUV’s door, and walked me toward the station. Chin low, I sneaked looks right and left but saw no one.

We stopped. He opened the glass door, ushered me inside. Ahead of me I could see a row of shelves with chips and candy bars, but I heard no voices. The man veered right. I found myself in front of a door. He tried the handle, and it opened. “Go in.” He kept his voice low. “Be quick.”

I stumbled inside and headed for the toilet.

When I was done, I could barely stand up again. I forced myself to my feet and searched the room with my eyes. Was there a window somewhere? A vent I hadn’t seen? Some way out other than going back to the man? Disappointed, I shuffled to the sink. Looked into the mirror. Breath backed up in my throat. My knees went watery. I grabbed onto the side of the sink as I gawked at the reflection.

Was that
me?

Beneath the bill of the baseball cap, my left cheek and eye were red and swollen. Mascara and eyeliner had run in rivulets down my cheeks. My mouth turned down, lipstick smeared. I looked like a zombie.

Hatred and panic washed over me like a tidal wave. How had this happened? In just a few hours—look what I’d become. I’d landed on another planet, in another person’s body. I didn’t look like Shaley, feel like Shaley. I felt…dead.

My mind drifted somewhere else. It couldn’t stand to be there. My hands reached for the water, washed themselves of grime and blood. I bent over, cupped a palm, and took long drinks.

The next thing I knew I was outside the bathroom, the man’s hand gripping my elbow once more. “Bend your head down.” He walked me out of the building. I didn’t see one other person. Somebody had to be behind a counter somewhere in the store, but I heard no voice, no greeting. The employee was probably at the other end. Couldn’t even see us.

The world had forsaken me. Left me with this monster.

“We’re going to make a call,” the monster said. He guided me around the corner of the building to a pay phone.

My heart clutched. “To my parents? They’ll pay. Anything you ask. Just…please let me talk to them.”

He chuckled low in his throat, an amused, evil laugh. “You think I stole you for
money?

BOOK: Final Touch
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