Authors: Sheri WhiteFeather
“Yes, ma'am. Will there be anything else?”
“No. Thank you.” She ended the call and shook her head, wondering what had possessed Ryan to traipse around in the dark.
His tumor, she thought. And the odd behavior it sometimes caused. Her husband wasn't himself.
With a sigh, she put a pan of milk on the stove, needing to drink something warm, something comforting. When Ryan returned, she would offer to go on his next walk with him, to share his late-night jaunts.
What else could she do? Reprimand a dying man?
After the milk was done, she poured it into a cup and carried it into the dining room.
Seated at the table, she sipped slowly, deliberately, waiting for Ryan. The back door opened and his footsteps soundly softly. Too softly, she thought. He was trying to sneak back into the house.
“I'm in here,” she called out, letting him know she was awake. He would panic if he didn't find her in bed.
Silence. More footsteps. Then a familiar voice.
A voice from hell.
“Lily, my love.”
She spun around and knocked over her milk.
Jason lunged at her, covering her mouth with a cloth. There was no time to scream. She smelled the chemical beneath her nose, felt its dizzying effect instantly.
Her brain floated outside of her body, trying to make sense of what was happening, of the confusion, the fear, the man whispering in her ear.
“I was coming to your bedroom, sweet Lily. Coming to take you with me. But here you are.”
“Ryâ¦anâ¦” She said her husband's name, but it was garbled, like a record on a turntable, moving forward, backward, spinning at the wrong speed.
“Don't worry about Ryan. I drugged him, too. Then I took his place. Your rent-a-cops thought I was him.” He tied a gag around her mouth and secured her hands behind her back. As she tried to pull away, a maniacal smile spread across his face, melting his features like wax. “I even waved to the security guards, like he does. And I'm wearing his shirt. They didn't know the difference.”
Jason pushed her onto the floor, where she flopped like a rag doll. She looked up at him, but his face kept getting more and more distorted.
He spoke quietly, even though Susan was sleeping in a different wing of the house. “Now all I have to do is call those imbeciles and tell them that my wife and I are going for a drive and we don't want to be disturbed.”
No, she thought. No. Most women who were abducted never came home. Getting into a madman's car was the kiss of death.
She looked for an escape, but she could barely move, the drugged sensation getting worse.
As Lily's thoughts spun in a confusing circle, Jason walked away and made the call, pretending to be Ryan.
“I pressed redial.” He came back, leering at her. “Brilliant, isn't it? I didn't even need the number.”
He went down the hall and suddenly she feared he was going to kidnap Susan, too. But he didn't. He returned with Lily's pocketbook, then dug through it, stealing her cash and retrieving her keys.
“We'll take your car. That shiny new truck of yours.” When he lifted her up, she stumbled, fighting a wave of nausea, the bile suppressed in the back of her throat.
He pulled her into the garage and shoved her into the front seat, where she sagged against the window, knowing she was only seconds away from losing consciousness.
From disappearing off the face of the earth.
he FBI was everywhere, Susan thought. All over the ranch, questioning everyone on the premises. In the main house, where she and Ryan were, they'd set up equipment, preparing to trace incoming calls.
Another team of agents was searching for Lily, but they hadn't found her.
Susan glanced at Ryan. At daybreak, a security guard had come across him, unconscious and hidden behind some shrubs. Of course by the time all hell broke loose, Lily had been missing for several hours.
Ryan had refused to remain at the hospital, where he'd been examined earlier. So here he was, seated beside Susan on a leather couch in the great room, still a little sluggish from the chemical Jason had pressed against his nose and mouth.
Her cousin knew it was Jason who'd drugged him. The other man had whispered in his ear, bragging about himself, while Ryan had struggled to fight back, a battle he hadn't been able to win.
He turned to look at Susan, and a myriad of emotions crossed his face. Pain, guilt, anger. She searched his gaze, but suddenly he seemed lifeless, empty inside.
He was lost without Lily.
Susan was lost, too, but she couldn't break down. Ryan needed her. Even so, horrible images kept sluicing through her mind. She had no idea what Jason would do to Lily; what he might have done to her already.
Chocolate came toward her, then settled down at her feet. He seemed confused by all the people. Earlier he'd roamed from room to room, as though he were looking for Lily, trying to find her in the midst of the chaos he couldn't begin to understand.
Susan shifted her gaze to the dining room, where Emmett Jamison was grilling the security guards who'd been on duty last night.
The special agent had been questioning them for what seemed like hours, but he continued his relentless pursuit. Was he suspicious of them? Did he think they were involved in the abduction? That they'd aided Jason? Or was he simply trying to piece together the puzzle, to gather every clue, to reenact the scenario in his mind?
Susan had no idea if Emmett was officially assigned to the case or if he was there on his own. The house was filled with FBI investigators, as well as members of a crisis negotiation team.
“I have to look for her,” Ryan said suddenly.
He shot up, wobbling like a drunken sailor, constricting the air in Susan's lungs. She remained close, ready to catch him if he fell. Chocolate lifted his head, watching Ryan through puppy-dog eyes.
“Lily would want you to stay home,” she told him. “To wait for her.”
“But I can't stand it. I can't sit around and do nothing.” He held on to the side of the couch. “This is my fault. I'm the one who abandoned her.”
“No.” Susan shook her head. “You didn't do this. Jason did. This is his fault.”
“I shouldn't have gone for that damn walk.” His entire body vibrated. “I shouldn't have left her alone.”
“She wasn't alone. I was in the house, sleeping in another wing.” She paused, caught his gaze, felt her heart beat frantically in her chest. “Do you think it's my fault, too?”
His voice all but cracked. “No, of course not.”
“Then don't blame yourself, either.” She implored him with strength, with gentleness, with the guilt that was tugging at her own conscience.
Unable to remain standing, he slumped back down. He hadn't cried yet, but Susan knew he would. When he was by himself, when no one could see him.
Emmett stopped grilling the security guards, and a moment of silence ensued. He grabbed a dining-room chair and carried it into the great room, scooting it close to the couch. Chocolate gave him a curious look.
“We're doing our best to find your wife,” the agent said, speaking softly to Ryan. “We have a team of agents searching for her.”
“Did Jason say anything to you that might help us find her? Anything to indicate where he might take her?”
“No. Nothing. Only that he was making good on his threat.”
“To harm someone in your family?”
Ryan's voice quavered. “Yes.”
Emmett didn't react, at least not outwardly. But Susan suspected that his stomach was tied up in knots. His brother, his own flesh and blood, had just gotten away with another crime.
“As far as I can tell,” he said, addressing her and Ryan, “Jason acted alone. He's probably been casing the ranch, waiting for an opportunity to strike.” He looked at Ryan. “He must have known that you go for walks at night. He must have seen you on other occasions.”
Before Ryan could start blaming himself again, Susan reached for his hand, holding on to him, linking their fingers. “Jason has been on the property before?” she asked Emmett. “While the security team was patrolling the grounds?”
“Most likely, ma'am. This is a big ranch, with plenty of places for someone to slip through the cracks. We're still investigating the situation, but we think he's been camping in the hills, hiking his way down to the ranch and hiding out in the line shack when no one's around.”
“It doesn't matter.” Ryan squeezed Susan's hand. “If I would have stayed with Lily, if I hadn't given Jason the opportunity to impersonate me, none of this would have happened.”
“You had no way of knowing what Jason was going to do.” Susan tried to keep her cousin calm. But his emo
tions teetered on the edge, up and down, side to side, like a jackknifed seesaw.
When he gazed at her, she struggled not to cry. He was looking at her as if she were a teenager, the young girl who'd come to live with him all those years ago.
“He could have taken you, too,” Ryan said.
“But he didn't,” she responded.
“You need someone to protect you.”
“I'm going to be fine.”
“A woman needs a man in her life. Someone who cares, someone who won't leave her side.”
Susan's heart sank to the pit of her stomach. Ryan wouldn't stop blaming himself. “Wherever Lily is, she knows that you love her.”
“Yes, but it's not the same as protecting her.” Still holding Susan's hand, he turned to Emmett, his question laced with trepidation, with fear of the unknown. “What do you think Jason's next move is going to be?”
The agent came forward in his chair. “I think he's going to demand a ransom. But I'm not allowed to advise you.”
“I don't need advice, not about this.” Ryan steeled his emotions. “I'll pay him whatever he wants. Anything to get Lily back.”
“And that's what he'll be relying on.” A muscle in Emmett's jaw twitched. “Ransom-oriented abductions are rare. Most criminals know it's next to impossible to succeed, but I think Jason will be willing to take that risk.”
“He's cocky,” Susan said.
“And delusional.” Emmett's same muscle twitched, like a bullet beneath his skin. “We're not dealing with a rational man. Jason is hell-bent on enacting his revenge.”
A moment later he fell silent. Cautious about saying too much, Susan thought, about making things more difficult for Ryan. He wouldn't dare comment on the pain his brother could inflict, on what Jason might do to Lily. But she was certain that it had crossed his mind, too many times to count.
She wanted to cry for Ryan. And God help them, for Lily, the lost and beautiful lady who'd been fearful all along.
The love of Ryan's life. The heartbeat of his world.
She said a silent prayer and caught the FBI agent watching her, his eyes filled with intensity, with the rage he'd yet to express.
If push came to shove, he would kill his brother, hold a gun to his chest and make him accountable for his sins. That much Susan could tell.
“Jason did this to all of us,” she said, meeting his gaze.
“Yes, he did. And I doubt he's going to contact us right away. He'll probably make us wait. For as long as it takes,” he added, glancing at Ryan, telling him, without words, to remain strong.
To not give up hope.
Evening came with a hush, with no news of Lily. Patrick Fortune, Susan's seventy-year-old uncle, arrived at the ranch to stay with Ryan. Patrick had recently retired as the president of Fortune-Rockwell banking, but he still had access to the company. Susan suspected that he was going to help Ryan gather the ransom whenâor ifâa ransom was demanded.
What if Emmett Jamison was wrong? What if Jason
had abducted Lily for the sole purpose of hurting her? What if money wasn't a factor? There would be no reason to keep her alive.
Susan wanted to pound her head against the wall, to shake those horrible thoughts from her brain, but she knew it wouldn't help. Her mind kept straying, betraying her, making the fear worse.
Patrick sat across from her at a glass-topped table in the inner courtyard, sipping decaffeinated coffee. Rosita, the housekeeper, was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher. She'd served a casserole to everyone, including the FBI agents who remained at the house. No one had eaten much, but it had been a “comfort” meal, food for anxious souls.
Susan hadn't spoken to Ethan. She hadn't even seen him. But she knew he'd been sequestered by the feds. The occupants who lived at the Double Crown weren't permitted to leave their homes, not until the agents completed their interviews. And on top of that, the FBI was taking media-control precautions, making sure that Lily's kidnapping wasn't leaked to the press. Of course family members had been notified, and they'd been worrying themselves sick.
Just like Susan.
“Ryan wants you to stay with your young man tonight,” Patrick said.
She glanced up. “What?”
“The veterinarian. Ethan,” he added, using the name Ryan must have supplied.
Trying to ease her nerves, she inhaled the nighttime fragrance, the jasmine scenting the air. “Why would he
want me to stay there?” she asked, even though she knew. God help her, she knew.
“He seems to think you'll be safer with Ethan.” The lights in the inner courtyard cast a warm glow on Patrick's hair: the deep red, the hint of white. He leaned forward, his voice a level above a whisper. “Ryan wants you to have your own special protector.”
She closed her eyes, squeezing them shut. How sweet and gallant and sad, she thought. “Ryan feels guilty for not remaining with Lily last night. For going for that walk.”
“I know. But what harm can come from you staying with Ethan?”
She opened her eyes. “He's not my lover.”
Her uncle sat back, calculating her words. “Yes. Ryan told me. But he already called Ethan and spoke to him about looking after you tonight. And this young man promised that he would respect you.” He angled his head. “Do you think he's blowing smoke? Telling Ryan what he wants to hear?”
“No. I think he's being truthful.”
“So you trust him?”
“He wouldn't take advantage of you?”
“Are you as close to him as Ryan thinks you are?”
She thought about the phone call last night, remembering how she'd listened to his voice and imagined his arms locked around her waist. “We're extremely close.”
“Then what's wrong with going to him, Susan? With giving Ryan a small measure of peace?”
Her pulse lurched. The idea of spending the night with Ethan warmed her to the bone, but it scared her, too. “He only has one bed.”
Patrick shifted in his chair again, creaking the seat. “He already agreed to sleep on the floor. To keep a proper distance between you.”
“Yes, but if you don't want to do this, I'll explain it to Ryan. I'll convince him that it's better for you to sleep here.”
“No.” The word came out before she could stop herself. “I want to stay with Ethan. I've always wanted to be near him, in any way I could. And he's always wanted to protect me.”
“Then maybe Ryan is looking after your emotional needs. Both yours and Ethan's.”
She gazed across the table at her uncle. His glasses were glaring, shielding his eyes. “I came here to give Ryan comfort, to help him cope with his tumor. But he keeps comforting me instead.”
“You're comforting each other. That's what family is for.”
“Take care of him tonight. Don't let him keep blaming himself for what happened to Lily.”
“I will. But remember that I'm here for you, as well. Call my cell phone if you need anything. Ryan's been using his cell, too. The FBI doesn't want anyone tying up the other lines.”
“I'll give Ryan a kiss before I go.” She came to her feet, preparing to pack an overnight bag. “Did the FBI interview Ethan yet?”
“Yes. He passed their scrutiny. One of their agents is going to drive you to his house.”
“Okay.” She took a deep breath and thought about Lily, about the heartache of being frightened and alone.
A heartache that made Susan want stay with Ethan even more.
Ethan waited on his porch for Susan to arrive, and when the FBI agent dropped her off, he wanted to grab her and never let go. He'd been sitting on pins and needles, waiting to see her, to comfort her, to talk to her about Lily.
Susan exited the agent's car and opened the back door for Chocolate. The dog jumped out and barked, and she walked toward Ethan with a leather satchel over her arm.
He met her at the bottom of the wooden steps and they stood in the yard, as still as stone statues, with Chocolate dancing around them in dizzying circles.
Ethan could see the man behind the steering wheel watching them. Unable to help himself, he reached out to touch Susan's cheek, to feel her skin beneath the tips of his fingers. A connection steeped in fear, in grief, in the beating of their hearts.
Her eyes turned watery, and he sensed that she'd yet to cry, that she'd been hiding her tears before now.
“Let's go inside.” He took her bag, relieving her of the cumbersome burden.