The man that stood above me had not let my hands loose from his grasp. There was no strength in me that would compel me to look at him. My emotions were raw and laid open for all onlookers to see, and the realization crept in slowly . It had taken more than a few seconds for my brain to get past the initial shock and pain that seeing this man caused, but it finally sunk in that this was not the father of my son. Although he was not the man, the similarities were uncanny.
“So, my brother’s murderer shows up on my doorstep. How convenient.” His voice was arrogant and harsh as he nearly sneered at me.
The words played in my ears, creeping like slow molasses to my brain before it registered. “Murderer?” My head snapped upwards, staring this man in the face.
Pulling his hands up, he brought me up from my knees and forced me to come face to face with him. “Yes, murderer.” He gave a rough flick of his wrists, which caused me to half fly in the air and semi-stumble away from him and into someone else’s arms. “Take her to my office.”
There was no way I was going to allow myself to be anywhere near this man alone. Being alone with men like him meant bad news for me, and he did not look like he had anything but ill intent towards me from what I could tell. I thrashed and kicked, trying to nail the person that now held me fast against him in any area that might be remotely vulnerable. The crowd around me seemed to be more active, maybe even more agitated, if possible.
Garrett screamed over the crowd. “Let her go!” No one was listening, and the possibility of a murderous mob crept into my head. A gun went off, and my breath caught in my throat.
After a moment, when I had mentally assessed that it did not hit me, I breathed out and looked around the crowd. Those faces turned their same resentful expressions that I thought they only held for me towards where the shot had been fired. Now, I could see Johnny through a small chink in the once dense crowd, his pistol in his hand with his arm slightly raised to indicate that he would use it on anyone that advanced on him. His face was drawn, and his eyes were trained to look for any sort of movement to indicate further trouble.
“I said, let her go!” Garrett pushed his way through the crowd, but was still just out of reach.
The man that seemed to own the show cocked his head ever so slightly to one side, unphased that an officer was speaking to him while another wielded a gun. “I think you are out of your jurisdiction, officer!” When the tone of his voice caused Garrett’s jaw to clench, the thought that maybe he could rescue me started to sink. This man turned his head to someone just to his right. “Relieve them of their weapons.”
The man that was given the orders flashed his federal badge, pulling rank on my brother and Johnny. A few other men in the crowd converged on them, seizing their weapons. Now, there was no protection that we had to put in between us and them.
My body went still as I glared into the face of the man that seemed to have the control and authority here. Time ticked by as silence nearly consumed the room, all but the indignant remarks from my brother and Johnny. Using that time, I took in long, deep breaths. Some people let their emotions show, sometimes even the merest of peeks beneath an otherwise hardened stone exterior. But from this man, I got nothing. If he felt nothing, then why take Evan from me?
As I watched, I could not help but notice how easy the situation was for him. There was no strain for control, it was an expectation that he would have his way. He did not even seem surprised to see us show up at his own front door, so to speak. My eyes narrowed on him as my body strained against my captor. “You knew we would come!”
The arrogant man lifted a shoulder, and then his lip curled up at its corner as he turned to look at me. If not for all the effort to make himself look fierce, I might have found him irresistible. His dark hair was thick, and the waves that wanted to rule his crown were combed neatly away from his face. Those brilliant sapphires seemed to be illuminated from its very depths outwards, a golden glow firing around the edges of a pristine gem. As startled as I was at seeing those eyes the first time, seeing them on this man was even more impressive, if that was even possible.
His eyes roved over me, and I wanted desperately to hide from his survey. The luxury was not readily available to me, so I stood a little taller than I had, and raised my chin a fraction to show a confidence and defiance I was not sure I could necessarily back. When his eyes met mine once again, he finally replied. “I was counting on it.”
The words were hard to interpret. It was almost as if he held no emotion at that moment, or maybe it was more that he had played this scenario in his head enough times that he was able to mask any emotion he might have felt. Either way, it did not stop the words from letting the trepidation slide into my bones.
“If you were anticipating this,” I let my eyes move from him to where my brother stood. My eyes widened as they snapped back to him. “You would know I would not come alone.” It was not a question. “You planned this! You sent the photo!”
The slight upturn at the corners of his mouth was all the answer I needed, but he graced me with more. “Smart girl.”
I pulled hard against the man who held me in his grasp, trying to close the gap between myself and the man who puppeteered this whole fiasco. “What is it you want?” My jaws ached from the sheer pressure that I clenched my teeth with. Here, I wanted nothing more than to demand my son’s return, but my predicament had altered so drastically that the stakes had changed.
There was no doubt that bringing my brother had been a gamble. However, most jurisdictions locally tended to extend a professional courtesy to officers that ventured into their territory. Even if it was not always the most friendly reception, they grudgingly allowed it for the sake of any collaborative cooperation that they may need extended to them from time to time. But, this man had no inclination to extend any such courtesy...to me or my brother. Firing a round in the air in a crowded room would not be looked upon lightly, no matter the reasoning. Johnny might have thought he had good reason, and I for one would have supported his sentiment, but these federal men were no doubt in this man’s pocket. I could only guess at how many others this man had in his pockets, and what they would do to Johnny. No doubt, at the very least, they would attest to the inappropriateness of Johnny’s actions. How could I let that happen? We were ten hours away from any reinforcements that we might have been able to get, and a judge that might give consideration as to why Johnny discharged his weapon in a crowded room. Our word against all of theirs.
As I waited for his answer, I heard my brother cursing at the agents as they shoved him brutally against a wall. Johnny was flat on his stomach as his arms were pulled a little too sharp behind his back. They were both treated with so little respect that it appalled me as much as it ripped at my gut for being the one to put them both in this mess.
“They leave. You stay. You have things to answer for.” His eyes had moved past me, to behold the sight beyond us to where my brother and his friend were.
Anger and defeat warred within me. This man stole my son and was able to find a way to legally assault us, and all I could do was give in. How was that fair? There would be no justice in any of this if I was not able to get my son back.
“And my son?” My eyes narrowed. I did not want him to think I would give him an inch without having some assurance of my son’s safety. The determination to get my son back had never ebbed or waned, only now I had to consider other options to remove him from this place.
“Once you have sufficiently answered for yourself, I will take you to see him myself.” Once said, he turned his head slowly to me before locking eyes with me. “For now, he is perfectly safe and amongst family.”
My mouth popped open to lay into him, to let him know that I was his family. Me, my brother and his family was all my son really knew, and we had always surrounded him with love, and protected him. How this man managed to take him from his daycare was beyond me, and it was on my list to find another place to care for my son.
A yelp from my brother caused my jaw to slam closed and my lips to press together so firmly they turned white. I let my body slack beneath the hands that still clutched me. With a long slow breath, I released the tension that seemed to hold me rigid and immobile. My head dropped to look at the ground as I slowed my breathing. It was not much, but a fraction of the pressure that had held me taut slipped, and I reacted.
Letting my weight fall forward against this man, I kicked a foot behind me hard to strike him on the side of his prominent knee. It was certainly something that would have lesser men crumble and howl as they fell to cradle their wound. This man loosened his hold and growled harshly at me, but it was enough that I could escape his hold. Marching up to this man, several of those around him stepped forward before he held his hand up warding away further action. His mouth turned up at the corner, and I wanted so much to wipe that smear of knowing that marked his face. Instead, I gritted my teeth. “Fine,” I finally managed.
With that, I swiveled on my heels and moved past the crowd to where they were still bracing my brother against the wall. My fists were nothing compared to these walls of men, but I threw them as hard as I could manage against them, fighting my way through. A few growls rose from them, but something called the dogs off. No doubt that beast of a man behind me was the reason.
Garrett’s clothes were disheveled, and it was definitely not how he was used to presenting himself. There was a fire burning in his eyes, and if I had not been in front of him I could only imagine how many of them he intended on tearing through to gain his pound of flesh for the abuse he suffered. I placed my hand gently on his arm as I made him look at me. “You and Johnny have to go.”
“No, Cat. I am not…” He had grabbed my arms as if he was going to drag me right out of this blasted place, but I planted my heels deep and refused to let him budge me.
“Think about me as something more than just your little kid sister, will you? I am a mother, and he has Evan.” The tears started to burn the back of my eyes, and I bit back a swear. “You know as well as me that we have to change tactics here. You have to trust me, please. For me...for Evan.”
He moved a hand to the back of his neck as he let it move across the tight knots that had formed there. “You cannot trust that he will keep his word. He is a criminal! He kidnapped your son!”
Looking past my brother, I caught the man’s eyes. His hands were in the pockets of his designer slacks, and he just watched me with a deep frown burrowing on his face. There was a sadness at the corners of his eyes that I had not noticed before, and knowing as little as I did about him, I could not imagine he meant for it to show.
“I love you, Garrett, but you have to trust me.” Moving up to my tip toes, I squeezed my brother as hard as I could around his neck. The holster that held the pepper spray was secured around his waist, and I moved closer as I gave him a quick peck on his cheek. “Thank you for the loan,” I whispered to him as I slipped the pepper spray from his belt into the waist of my jeans. I let my shirt and woolen vest fall back over it before I stood once again looking up at my brother and smiled.
For once, he smiled back as he shook his head. “I sure as hell hope you know what you are doing.”
I nudged him with my shoulder. “I learned from the best.”
The others had already released Johnny, and he was spouting off and fuming at those that were creating a wall that kept him from us. Garrett walked towards Johnny, a following of those with federal badges on his heels to ensure he vacated the premises. I was about to follow when a woman around my age had appeared from out of nowhere and touched my shoulder.
Startled, I found that my eyes searched for the man with the beautiful eyes, but I could not see him anywhere among the many eyes that were focused on me. “Hi. Cat, was it?” I gave a slight nod. “Al-Gavin wants me to show you to his office.” When I grimaced at her, she smiled. "He is not a bad guy, he has just had a hard time of it lately." She walked a few steps ahead of me with her hand in the crook of my arm, guiding me towards the destination that man had in store for me. Her face was illuminated with a beautiful smile that made her brown eyes sparkle, though I was not sure if it was mischief or excitement that made them sparkle. “Alright gentlemen, step aside and let a lady through.”
One of the men called out to her. “At least you are aware that there is only one of you.” The men surrounding him laughed as they clapped him on the shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah, Tak, keep it up! You will get what is coming to you.” She played right along with the others, and the demeanor in the room shifted just a bit.
The men continued to laugh, though not everyone was ready to join in the jovial attitudes. There were still many of them that glared at me with an intense dislike that baffled me. They have my child and I am the bad guy? Oh yeah, murderer? Isn’t that what that Al-Gavin said?
“So, does Al-Gavin welcome all his guests like this?”
“Oh, it’s not Al-Gavin.” A flush crept across her hairline. “I misspoke. You know how your brain sometimes works faster than your mouth?” She smiled wide as though conspiring. “It’s just Gavin. And, the answer to your question is no. He does not treat all his guests like this.” Then her lips twitched. “I suppose you are just special to him.”
“I see,” I said softly, when actually I did not see at all. Special? Did he really think I was a murderer? If he thought I was, why not sick his federal agents on me? Why this elaborate ruse to get me here? After letting her gently tug me through the crowd, I finally pulled my arm away as I smiled at her. We had reached a set of stairs that led to the second floor of the bar. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.” Here I was just letting this woman drag me to my captor’s office, and I did not even know her name.
She halted her progress up the steps, and let a frown furrow over her brow before she shrugged. “Cordelia, but everyone here calls me Cordi.” Turning around, she had already started to propel herself back up the stairs to an office that lie somewhere beyond, her hand gliding against the rail.
My feet were not as willing as hers, and I started up the set of stairs tentatively. The staircase was nearly as wide as I was tall, and the railing was a decorated oak that had been smoothed and varnished to a high shine giving it a satin smooth feel as I let my hand slide against it. The stairs themselves were a smooth oak that peeked out from each of the edges, but had a beautiful runner that ran its length in hues of tan and brown. It had a very high class country feel, and the carpet itself had been maintained and did not carry the worn look or the stench that some bars had at being exposed to alcohol and drunks over a long period of time.
After taking a few more steps up, I hazarded a glance back. Loud country music was now blaring from somewhere below, and a small huddle of about six men lingered at the foot of the stairs. Their gazes followed us up the steps as we gradually made our progress, their expressions leary. “Well, Cordelia, I don’t feel very welcome, and I certainly don’t feel special.”
Not noticing that she had halted her progress, I closed the gap that had come between us on the stairs in a hurry. I had to stop short to prevent myself from running into her. With eyes wide, I looked to her face. Her brows were raised. “Of course you are special. You are Evan’s mother.”
It was said so matter of fact I could not help but wonder at the simplicity of her words. With my mouth gaped open, I stared at her before I finally found my voice once more. “I realize that he is amazing, but anyone can be a mom.”
“Only someone special could have been his mom. Become a part of our family.” Her hand swung around to encompass all the people that occupied the confines of the bar, but it seemed to imply something much larger than that. Was this some sort of cult? Had she been brainwashed?
My jaw flexed, though it was not for her. It was for the man that allowed his cult of a family to be so accepting of his actions. “Family does not take a child from his mother, or the only family he has ever known.”
Cordelia turned back around to continue to move up the stairs. “Gavin has his reasons. Just because you don’t know what they are yet does not mean that they are not legitimate.” Though she tried to maintain an easy going nature, I could tell there was an edge there that wasn’t there before.
The scoff fell before I could stifle it. Her head turned and her eyes flicked my way before turning away once more. I ran an agitated hand through my thick, wavy strands. The blonde hair caught in a ring that I had worn for a few years now, and I flinched as I jerked it free. Maybe I should not upset my prison guard. “I am sorry, Cordelia. It was not my intent…”
We had already reached the top of the stairs and were ready to enter into a door at the end of the hallway. Before she opened the door, she reached out for my hand. “It’s okay. I can only imagine the things going through your head. Can’t say I have ever seen anyone face Gavin that way before.” She grinned and winked at me before shoving the door open and nearly dragging me into the room behind her. “Hopefully, you will find that we are not all so serious all the time, though we are very protective.”
All I could do was smile at her. She actually seemed genuine, and it was hard to believe that she belonged to the same family as those below us. “In the meantime,” she continued, “I am sorry.”
“Sorry about what?” Now it was my turn to be naive. I had let my guard down in a den of wolves, so to speak.
“For this.” There was a pinch at my shoulder, and a burn started at my skin to work its way into my muscle. “I hope you can forgive me.” Already, my ears had started to ring, and her words drifted to me in what seemed like a tunnel. Whatever was in that needle she stuck me with was working quick.