“Thanks so much for this afternoon, Amy.” I turn to her before I reach for the handle of the car door. We just pulled up in front of my aunt’s house after meeting for lunch and spending some more time in the city afterward.
“You’re very welcome. I had fun too, and that was the most delicious pizza I had in a long time.” She rubs her belly with a content sigh.
“Yeah, I agree.” I bite my lips, trying to contain the chuckle that wants to escape, and I clear my throat before I say, “I question your choice of drinks though. I wouldn’t have picked an avocado-apple smoothie along with a pineapple-pepperoni pizza.”
She scowls at me, but an amused grin spreads on her face. “Pregnancy cravings are a bitch. The other night when I couldn’t sleep, I ate a whole can of sardines on Ritz crackers, and for dessert, I had chocolate ice cream on toast.”
“Hm, delicious.” I wrinkle my nose. ”I’ll have to remember that for my next midnight snack.”
Amy laughs. “What can I do? The baby wants what it wants.” She smiles at me before her expression gets serious again. She places her hand on my forearm. “Call me anytime if you need to talk, okay?”
I nod. “Thanks, I will. And thanks again for helping me take my mind off things.”
With a smile on my lips and warmth radiating through my body, I exit the car. I slam the door shut and wave when Amy drives off. With my hands buried in the pockets of my shorts, I look after her for another moment, before I turn the other way. Any minute, another car will pull around the corner and park a little farther down the street.
Aaron was right; I hardly noticed any of his friends’ presence. I spotted Oliver when I went grocery shopping, and today, Daniel was never far behind. I didn’t mention anything to Amy, and I’m sure she wasn’t aware of him, just like I wasn’t most of the time. I never sought them out either, even though I was close to approaching them more than once, ready to beg for them to take me to see Aaron or give me some news, but I didn’t go through with it because I’m sure they would have turned me down.
Once Amy is gone, I catch sight of Daniel’s car, and when he finds me standing on the curb, he stops next to me. He gets out, walks around the car, and leans against the hood.
“Hey, Daniel,” I greet him with a genuine smile. “I’m sorry, this must have been a pretty boring girly afternoon.”
He waves his hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
My smile widens. “Thanks for keeping an eye on us.”
"Of course." He pushes himself off his car as I get ready to turn around. “You want me to come in and check if everything is ok?” he asks.
I bite the inside of my cheek. Do I? I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of this, so I shake my head. “No, it’s fine. I think no one will come near me. You’re more than welcome, though, to come in for a drink—and escape the heat.”
He studies me before he nods. “Sure. Let me park the car, and I’ll be right in.” He turns and jogs around his car to get in.
Before he sits behind the wheel, I say, “Hey, Daniel?”
He straightens his back and tilts his head. “Yeah?”
I rub my forearm, not sure if I should ask. I sigh. Yes, I need to know. “Is he okay?” I whisper.
Bracing his hand on the roof of his car, he takes a deep breath and frowns. “He’s been better. You can be sure he’s doing his best to resolve this.” Before he gets in his car, he adds with a sympathetic smile, “You mean a lot to him.”
I lower my head, lips pressed together tight. As much as I wanted to hear these words, they hurt. The lightness I felt just a second ago slowly vanishes, making way for that familiar heaviness.
With a weary sigh, I turn around and walk up to my aunt’s house. When I step in through the front door, I welcome the cool air that meets me, and I take in a slow breath. I take off my shoes and place my keys and purse on the small cupboard in the hallway.
My gaze falls on the key rack with the spare key Aaron had and I took from him. Again, memories of us flood my mind, and the longing for him overwhelms me once more. I grab the edge of the cupboard, drawing in a long, steadying breath.
Ugh, I need some sugar. With a groan, I walk into the kitchen and take one of the chocolate chip cookies I made last week out of the cookie jar and finish it with two bites. After emptying a glass of water in one go, I grab another cookie and turn around to go over to the living room, but as soon as I face the door, I freeze. I manage a small gasp before my breath hitches in my throat.
Casually leaning against the frame stands a tall guy with his hands buried in the pockets of his dress pants. The sleeves of his crisp white shirt are rolled up, displaying his sinewy forearms. As my eyes are the only part of my body that will move—apart from my wildly beating heart—I look him up and down. The strong jawline, the high cheekbones, the crooked nose, and the jet-black hair that’s slightly graying at the sides—I’ve seen him before.
And then he speaks. “Hello. Kaitlyn, was it? What a pleasure to meet you again,” he says in a heavy Russian accent, and as soon as that ice-cold shiver runs down my spine, I remember where I know him from. He is the guy I ran into at the pub a few weeks ago. His intense stare is still as intimidating as it was that evening.
He pushes himself off the doorjamb. While I’m still rooted to the spot, he strides toward me, coming to a stop way too close for comfort. His lips stretch in a smug smile as he takes the cookie out of my hand and bites off a huge chunk. “Hm, those are delicious, dear.” He removes a crumb from his lips with his thumb. “I bet Aaron loves them too.”
I get dizzier with every rasping breath I take, and the pounding in my ears is so loud that I hardly understand what he says. I want to turn around and run, but the muscles in my body won’t obey. “How–” I croak. I clear my throat and try again. “How did you get in here? I thought– "
“That your boyfriend would protect you?” He snorts. “He’s not as smart as he thinks.”
Only now do I realize that Daniel should have been here by now. Or does it take that long to park a car? Oh, please, let him come in now and save me! My eyes flicker past the guy that’s still standing way too close.
He notices it and smirks. “Don’t worry. We didn’t hurt your friend. He’s just taking a small nap in the back of our van.”
My gaze shoots back to meet his piercing glance. “What do you want?” I ask in a weak voice. I’m surprised I am able to utter a coherent sentence because breathing is a real challenge. Without having any control over my body, I notice how I slightly sway backward, and he notices as well. He comes another step closer, placing his hand on the small of my back, causing another unpleasant shiver to run down my spine.
“Careful, dear. I need you in one piece,” he points out. “I’m here to pick you up. My boss wants to see you, and you probably miss your man. So put on your shoes; we are leaving.” He takes a step to the side and nudges me toward the front door.
Reluctantly, my shaky legs move forward. I’m hyper-aware of the guy’s hand that’s still on my back, but other than that, everything happens in sort of a blur. Panic and dread have a firm hold on me so I can’t process what’s going on. I have no idea how Scary Guy manages to usher me toward a black van a few feet down the street and tells me to get in the back—where there are no windows, just an unconscious and tied up Daniel.
Again my breath hitches in my throat, preventing me from screaming, when I’m forced to sit down on the bench. The back door closes, and I watch how Scary Guy gets in the car on the passenger side and exchanges a few words with the driver. A moment later, the vehicle starts moving. My wide eyes are glued to Daniel, and my hands clutch the edge of the seat. It takes me all I have to breathe evenly and not hyperventilate and pass out. Every once in a while I notice how Scary Guy turns around to check on me, making me wish there were a partition wall between the back and the front of the van. His intense stare is giving me the creeps.
My brain isn’t functioning too well right now, so I have no idea how long we’ve been driving when the car comes to a stop and the back doors open. Scary Guy grabs my arm to pull me behind him through the back entrance of what I can only suspect is a bar. It slowly dawns on me that this is probably the one where Aaron works—the one this Jackson-guy wanted to buy. We walk through a kitchen, where no staff is to be seen, and farther along until the guy shoves me into an office.
“Sit.” He points to a chair in front of the desk. “The boss will be with you shortly.” With that, he exits the room, and I hear the unmistakable sound of a lock clicking. Great, so I’m trapped in here, but I wouldn’t dare to move anyway. Damn, I hardly dare to breathe.
I have no idea what time it is. It could have been one hour or five since Amy dropped me off at home. All I can do is sit on this chair and stare ahead of me until the door swings open and in step who I assume is Jackson and the Russian guy. The latter closes the door and stands in front of it as if they were afraid I would jump up and run. I stare at him a moment longer before the other guy pulls up the other chair and sits opposite me. He has the audacity to stretch out his hand when he says, “It’s nice to finally meet you, Kaitlyn. My name is Jackson Greene.”
I gaze at his hand before I raise my eyes to meet his. I shudder at his intense glare—the same as his side-kick’s. Even when he sits down, he is huge and intimidating. He sure is taller than Aaron with his six foot three, and with the dirty blond hair and blue eyes, he looks like Ken’s evil twin brother.
When I make no move to take his hand, Jackson leans back in his chair with a chuckle. “I hope Victor made sure you had a pleasant journey here.” He glances at Russian guy who nods.
I snort, and my reaction makes Jackson laugh. A smug smile spreads on his lips as he leans closer. “Damn, you’re pretty. Aaron sure has good taste.” He lifts his hand to touch my face, but thanks to a sudden adrenaline rush, I scoot back my chair so I’m out of his reach.
“Don’t touch me,” I snarl.
Jackson studies me with raised eyebrows, the smirk still plastered on his face. “Feisty. I like that.”
I take in a long, slow breath through my nose. “Why am I here?” I ask through gritted teeth.
He rubs his chin. “Ah, gorgeous, good question. You see, I told Aaron I wouldn’t touch you—as long as he does as I ask him to, but I gotta be honest... ” He takes a deep breath. “I don’t trust him. There’s this big deal happening tonight, and we have to make sure everything runs smoothly, so we need you as our insurance. I need to know Aaron really is on my side, and not my client’s, and make sure he doesn’t help him stiff me. Because if Aaron tries to pull any sort of shit, he will regret the day he first touched you and thus dragged you into his world. He left me no other choice–”
A knock on the door interrupts him. An equally shady-looking guy sticks his head through the door. “They’re here,” is all he says.
“Excellent. Send Aaron in.”
The guy nods and closes the door behind him. Jackson turns to me. “Okay, gorgeous, let’s see if your boyfriend was smart enough to play by my rules.” He leans back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest.
With every minute that passes, my heart beats heavier in my chest. I plead, hope, and pray Aaron was smart enough to play by Jackson’s rules, and that we’ll get out of here fast—and unscathed.
I cringe when there’s a knock on the door, and I take one last deep breath, trying to ready myself for the imminent confrontation.
Jackson has the nerve to laugh. “Brace yourself, gorgeous.”
I have the sudden urge to leap out of my chair and knee him in his privates to tell him what I think of him calling me gorgeous, but the door opens and in walks the man I’ve been longing to see.
Relief is what I hoped to feel when seeing Aaron again, but instead, my heart stops and a sudden coldness hits me. Aaron recognizes me at once, and his posture stiffens and his eyes widen for a millisecond, and when I see the terrified expression on his face, I’m certain of one thing: