They weren’t the only ones affected.
This guy didn’t even look at me, but I felt his attention. I felt that if I moved even a strand of hair, he’d know. My insides were turned inside out because, whoever this guy was, I already felt owned, and I hated that.
My body was warming. A fire was in there, building. My throat felt parched.
I felt zapped, all my nerve endings already at the ready, and it was just because this guy walked into the room.
He nodded to both detectives, who dipped their heads in return.
A chair scraped against the floor. A click of heels and both detectives were gone.
The door slammed shut behind them.
The brevity of the situation hit me hard, right in the sternum, and I swallowed over a sudden lump in my throat. I wasn’t sure if it was a good lump or a quivering one, but here we were.
It was me and him. We were alone in this room. And then another fact hit me square in the forehead. It hadn’t been my father watching. It was this guy.
Who was this guy?
He’d been the one on the other side of that camera. I felt it, the hairs on the back of my neck standing upright. Tingles shot through me, sweeping through me, making me feel more. Just … more.
I wasn’t sure if I liked this “more.”
He looked at me squarely, and I was pinned in place.
Then he spoke. “My name is Kashton Colello, and I am an associate of your father’s. No, your mother does not know about me, and yes, I am aware of who you are. I know what happened to you earlier tonight, and I am here to give you two options. You can leave with me, meet your father and your siblings, or you can disappear into a witness protection type of program with your mother.” He paused, just one beat. “Leave with me, meet your father, or disappear with your mother.” The corner of his mouth tugged up in a smirk. “Your choice.”
I stared at him, standing by the table as he was sitting, waiting, and I felt slapped across the face.
It took me two seconds to know my response. That was it.
I stepped in, placed a hand on the table, leaned in, and breathed on him.
* * *
I was given twenty-four hours.
I had a day and a night to decide. That was it.
Mr. Stick Up My Ass Kashton Colello hadn’t even seemed insulted by my response. There was no reaction on his face before he nodded. “Fine. Your mother is outside, waiting in an SUV. We’ll have you taken to a nearby hotel. You can decide tomorrow morning.”
I wanted to give him the middle finger, and just about did. I was raising my hand when he spoke again, his voice so goddamn cold. “There have been other attempts.”
If I felt slapped by him before, those words punched me. Hard. Right in the gut.
He didn’t wait to let me process it, saying, still so fucking cold, “They tried to take your father. They didn’t succeed. Security doubled. They moved to your siblings. They came close twice. Security tripled.” A brief pause. “They’re going for the outliers now, the ones who aren’t protected.”
That was me. An outlier.
“They got the littlest one for ten minutes.” He stood. “And this is what we know about these types of people. They will try again, and they do not care about the ex-girlfriends or ex-mistresses, so while your mother will be safe, you will not be. If you return to Brookley, the quaint small town it is, they will try again. If you leave with me, your mother does not have to have her life upended. She can return there, live her life happily but away from her daughter, while you give us time to search out your abductors and eliminate this threat.”
* * *
And here we were, heading to a hotel.
We had two SUVs with us.
There was no word to describe this.
Everything was different.
I glanced over to my mom. Chrissy was gazing out the window, a slight excited smile on her face. When I got out to the SUV, she looked at me, but I only said we’d talk later. I might’ve growled it. Or grunted it. I didn’t know. I was still peeved, so I had transferred from the Numb Train to the Not Giving a Shit Train. Either way, she just seemed relieved.
We were driving through downtown Chicago, so her eyes kept going up, her neck craning to see the tops of the buildings all around us.
I recognized the look in her eyes.
She thought everything would be fine now. She was relieved, more than anything else.
I twisted my hands together in my lap.
Brookley had her job. Bingo night at the local VFW. My aunt Sarah. Chrissy was a godmother to two of my cousins. My two uncles. My grandparents. Her younger sister. There was a family tribe there, and they all had their own friends, who were my mother’s friends. Yes, there were issues and divides, but she wanted to be there.
My mom was tough. Hardworking. She never wanted a handout, refused them 102 percent of the time. She got into nursing school, dropped out for a year to have me, then finished the next.
I took that one year from her.
How could I take everything else from her?
“Oh!” Her hand grabbed my arm and squeezed. “Bailey.”
We were pulling into a hotel parking lot. The Francois Nova. It was one of those skyscraper ones, a hotel that could’ve been in a magazine. I might have been impressed a day ago.
Now it was just the last time I’d see my mom.
For a while. That’s what that asshole had said. He needed time. Things would get safe, and I could go back.
Right. I was going with that. It didn’t make my insides feel like they’re being ripped out of me.
“We’re here,” Chrissy said, just as the doors on both sides of the SUV opened and we clambered out.
We were surrounded by cement on a dark parking ramp.
Six guards stood around us, most facing outward, but one went to the door connecting the hotel to the parking ramp. He knocked once, and it opened.
Another two guards stood on the other side, along with a hotel employee. Make that two employees. A woman with her name pinned to her shirt, a pencil skirt, and hair pulled up in a tight bun waited for us. Another employee stood behind her, a bellhop. He was in full hotel uniform, even wearing white gloves.
The woman took us to our room, but it had to be inspected by the guards first.
My mom went inside, and I turned to look at the guards. They all watched me back, their faces impassive. I was going with my gut here. “You guys work for him, don’t you?” I didn’t know the setup, the hierarchies, but while my father might’ve been the big boss, I knew Asshole Kashton was their boss, too.