Stirred from his nap by a sudden chill, Nick Vincelli opened his eyes and spied gray clouds blotting out the sun. Sitting up and glancing at his watch, he discovered he’d been dozing on the sand for almost an hour. When he’d run into the water for his daily swim the weather had been hot and sunny. After pushing himself to exhaustion, he’d dragged his weary body back to the sand and collapsed on his large beach towel. But now gentle waves had become choppy whitecaps, and ominous dark clouds loomed overhead.
Rising to his feet, he was about to head up to his beach house when a woman in the rough surf caught his attention. She was trying to swim parallel to the shore and she appeared to be having trouble. With conditions worsening and no lifeguards on the desolate beach, he picked up his towel and walked hastily to the water’s edge. But just as he was about to run in to offer help, she suddenly stopped, stared back down the beach, then abruptly ducked beneath the waves.
Darting his eyes around, Nick spied a heavy-set man dressed in a bright yellow shirt hurrying from an impressive home. As the man paused to peer through binoculars, Nick noticed a pot belly hanging over a pair of ill-fitting white shorts. He grinned. The man resembled an oversized canary, but when he abruptly lowered the field glasses and started yelling, Nick’s pulse ticked up.
Quickly turning his attention back to the woman, he found her frantically fighting her way through the rough surf toward him, and he was startled to see her wearing only a pair of shorts and a bra. The man was still yelling, and as he watched him march in his direction, Nick realized she must have bolted away before she could grab a top. A private detective, Nick knew domestic violence was fraught with danger. Emotions ran high, and people were unpredictable.
“Please, please,” the woman called, her voice desperate and breathless as she splashed through the shallow water toward him, “you have to help me. I must get away from that man!”
Her long, wet dark hair falling around her face accentuated her high cheekbones, almond-shaped deep green eyes, and full, pouty lips.
“Please, you have to help me,” she repeated, staggering up to him.
“I think you’d better tell me what’s going on,” he replied, quickly wrapping his towel around her shivering body.
“There’s n-no t-time,” she stammered with chattering teeth. “You d-don’t understand.”
“You’re right, I don’t. Give me something, anything.”
“I will, I p-promise, just g-get m-me out of here.”
“You there!” the man bellowed. “Police. Hold her.”
Jerking his head around, Nick saw him awkwardly striding toward them holding up an open wallet, as his bright yellow shirt flapped in the wind.
“Is he a cop?” Nick demanded, quickly turning back to her. “Yes or no?”
“Yes, b-but he’s a c-crook. P-Please, I’m b-begging you. “
“Stay here,” Nick ordered, instinctively believing her. “Don’t run, don’t do anything, just stay here.”
“B-but he’s d-dangerous. I’m s-scared.”
“I know, but you can’t run,” Nick said again, leaning forward and staring at her intently. “If you want my help, you need to stay put.”
Pivoting in the sand, he walked up to meet the overweight man, but as they drew closer Nick narrowed his eyes. With a flattened nose and a scar across his right eyebrow, the alleged cop looked more like a thug who had lost one too many fights.
“Nick Vincelli,” Nick said, studying the man’s grizzled, unattractive face.
“Detective Matteus Anderson,” the stranger exclaimed as he charged forward, “and I have no time for conversation.”
“Wait,” Nick said firmly, quickly stepping in front of him to block his path, “she’s scared to death.”
“Yeah, well, for good reason,” the cop gruffly retorted, pausing his step. “Tell me your name again.”
“Nick Vincelli,” the man repeated as if memorizing it. “Okay, Nick, you can call me Matt. Now as I was saying—”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Nick said hastily, “but if she’s under arrest, why isn’t she at the police station? And the house you’re in, I know the owners. It’s about to be put on the market. None of this makes any sense.”
“Hey, I don’t have to tell you shit,” the man growled.
“No, you don’t, but after you leave, I’ll be jogging back to my house and calling the local station. I have a few friends there.”
Nick’s bluff held the ring of truth. He had close ties to the force. He was also in great shape. Taking down the offensive man would be child’s play, and they both knew it.
“Okay, I’ll tell you this much,” the detective said reluctantly. “She’s a key witness in an important case, and it’s my job to keep her out of harm’s way, but she’s not making it easy. I need to get her back inside before anyone sees her, and now, thanks to your interference, I’ll have to move her again.”
“What’s funny?” the man asked angrily. “You think this is a fucking joke?”
“Who’s going to see her? Look around. Do you see anyone? This beach is deserted, not to mention the five homes here are empty, except mine, of course.”
“Why do you think we chose it?” the detective retorted, pulling out his wallet and flashing his badge again. “See this? Regardless of what she might have told you, she’s under police protection and I have to take her back to the house. It’s a crime to interfere with an officer doing his duty. I can call for backup, and I will if you don’t get out of my way.”
As the wallet disappeared back into the man’s baggy white shorts, Nick’s mind raced. The girl was truly terrified, and while the cop’s credentials appeared to be genuine, something wasn’t right.
“I told you, call me Matt.”
“Okay, Matt,” Nick said, wondering why the detective wanted to be on a first-name basis. “Breaking the law is the last thing I want to do, but she’s extremely upset. Give me a minute to talk to her. I think I’ll be able to calm her down.”
“What makes you think you can manage that?”
“I’m not sure I can, but don’t you think it’s worth a try?”
“Okay. Just don’t take all day. It’s getting cold out here, and there’s some nasty weather coming in.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And don’t let her bullshit you. She’s here for her own safety. Understood?”
“Understood,” Nick replied, thinking the more the detective claimed he was trying to protect the girl, the more contrived he sounded.
Turning to walk back to her, Nick found she’d moved further away. Even though he’d told her to stay where she was, he was glad. If they kept their voices low, they wouldn’t be overheard. Hurrying up to her, he stood directly in front of her, purposely blocking Matt’s view.
“You’re not going to help me?” she whimpered, staring up at him, her huge green eyes brimming with tears.
“I didn’t say that.”
“But I can tell. He’s told you a bunch of crap.”
“Exactly, and I know that’s what it was. Crap. My name’s Nick Vincelli. What’s yours, and what’s going on?”
“So you are going to—?”
“Just tell me,” he murmured urgently, cutting her off.
“My name’s Bianca, and things are bad, really, really bad,” she replied in a hoarse whisper, “but I can’t possibly explain it in sixty seconds.”
“Your last name?”
“For fuck’s sake, tell me.”
“Albertini. Bianca Albertini.”
Her name was vaguely familiar.
“Listen,” she continued quickly, “if I manage to slip out tonight, can you take me to a hotel someplace away from here? Far away, like an hour or two. You can just leave me, you don’t have to stay.”
“Only if you promise to give me the whole story,” he said solemnly, wondering what the hell he was getting himself into, “and only if you’re sure it’s safe to try to leave again? How many guys are watching you?”
“Just that bastard until tomorrow; that’s why I have to escape today, and I think I know how I can do it.”
“Okay, Bianca, listen carefully. On the side of my cottage facing the neighbor, there’s a door. I’ll leave it unlocked,” he replied, though taken aback by her sudden transformation. The shaking, frightened girl who had staggered from the water had suddenly become a confident young woman with a plan. “Keep the towel around you,” he added quickly, not wanting the coarse detective to see her in just a bra and shorts.
“Thank you, I was going to ask if I could. The wind is so cold.”
“Time’s up!” the detective shouted.
Looking over his shoulder, Nick saw the oafish man lumbering toward them.
“She’ll go back with you, no problem,” Nick said, placing his arm against Bianca’s back and guiding her forward.
“You know, Nick, this is an isolated spot,” the detective remarked, fixing Nick with an unwavering gaze. “There’s no telling what could happen. I’m told there are rip currents, even sharks.” Then lowering his voice, he added, “You take care of your business, and I’ll take care of mine. Are we clear?”
Though he wanted to flatten the thug’s nose even more, Nick wordlessly nodded his head.
“Batten down the hatches,” the cop continued as he grabbed Bianca’s arm and started walking away. “It looks like this will be one helluva night.”
“I sure hope so,” Nick mumbled, watching the brutish man head back to the large, modern home, “but what the fuck have I just agreed to?”
“Try that shit again, Bianca, and you’ll be fucking sorry,” Matt warned ominously as he bustled her across the sand.
“Lay one finger on me and you know my father will hunt you down, and we both know you’ll end up being the one who’s sorry. In fact, I’m going to tell him all kinds of things. Yeah, Matt, you’ll end up regretting this bullshit, and that’s a promise.”
“Hah. With the money I’m getting I’ll be on a private jet flying to the other side of the world by the time he sees your face again. He’ll never find me.”
“If you’re so sure about that, why haven’t you messed with me?”
“Keep it up and I fucking will,” Matt hissed as they reached the oversized patio. “Now get inside.”
As he opened the sliding glass door, Bianca hurried past him and ran across the chic living room to the stairs. Taking them two at a time, she hurried into her bedroom, closed and locked the door, then let the towel fall from her shoulders.
“Thank God,” she whispered under her breath.
Desperate for a shower, she moved into the bathroom, turned on the faucets, then hastily peeled off her wet clothes and stepped into the stall. She hadn’t wanted to give her handsome rescuer her real name, but as the hot water streamed over her, she knew she’d done the right thing. If she’d lied, and he’d found out, she would have lost his trust, and for the moment his trust was all she had. Letting out a long, relieved sigh and closing her eyes, she began to shampoo her hair and think about her handsome hero.
He had a surfer’s tan and the body to go with it. Wide shoulders, a six-pack she could scrub her clothes on, and muscled arms. His chiseled features and dark brown eyes reminded her of a runway model she’d once drooled over in New York. But the most surprising thing about him was his confidence. He hadn’t seemed the least intimidated by Matteus, though the crooked detective not only carried himself with a menacing air, his ice blue eyes were filled with malice.
Rinsing out the shampoo and stepping from the shower, she lifted a towel from the rack and began to dry herself off. The hint of a smile crossed her lips. For hours she’d been praying fervently for help, but she never expected it would be offered in the form of a gorgeous guy. Even his name was sexy. Nick Vincelli. But if she was to escape, she had to stay focused. Getting to know him better… that would come later.
Back inside his small beach house, Nick had dropped a pod in his coffeemaker, and was watching the hot, dark liquid fill his mug. Adding cream, he carried it to his desk, placed it carefully next to his laptop, then sat down and entered Bianca’s name into the search engine. News reports instantly appeared on his screen. After reading the opening sentences of the first one, he leaned back in his chair.
Things are bad, really, really bad.
“You weren’t kidding,” he muttered as her words echoed through his head. “Fuck. Am I’m completely screwed?”
The threatening weather swept in from the ocean with fierce winds and torrential rain. Standing at the picture window looking out at the dark night, Nick wondered if the storm was a harbinger of the days ahead. Fate had thrown him a curve ball, one he could never have seen coming.
Bianca Albertini was the daughter of legendary mob boss Lorenzo Albertini. The tough gangster was based in Las Vegas, and according to the news reports Nick had read on the internet, Bianca had disappeared several days before. He assumed she’d been kidnapped by the loathsome detective, but who in their right mind would snatch the daughter of a feared and powerful man like Lorenzo Albertini?
Nick had no illusions about the danger he’d be facing if he tried to whisk her back to her father in Las Vegas. The people who had snatched her would move heaven and earth to get her back. Or kill her. She’d be able to tell her father exactly who they were. But in spite of the risks, Nick felt compelled to help, and he was uniquely equipped to deal with the perilous situation. It was almost as if fate had thrown her into his path.
Glancing up at the clock on the fireplace mantel he saw it was almost eleven o’clock. He was hoping and praying Bianca would show up soon. It wouldn’t be easy to trudge across the beach in the storm, and it seemed to be gaining strength. But on the plus side, it was the perfect night for a getaway. Anyone trying to follow him would have a tough time, and the Porsche Macan was packed and ready to hit the road.
Moving into the kitchen, he made a sandwich and brewed a cup of coffee, then filled two thermos travel mugs. As eleven o’clock came and went, he began to worry. By midnight he was sure something was wrong.
Striding to the window, he flicked on the porch light. The storm was at a fevered pitch. Possibilities raced through his mind. She could have fallen and sprained her ankle, or worse, the goon had caught her trying to escape.
Deeply disturbed by the thought, he hurriedly scribbled a note in case she showed up, then walked quickly into the garage, pulled on his all-weather jacket, and climbed into his Macan. The Porsche SUV was a powerful speed demon and Nick loved it, but turning onto the empty street he didn’t put his foot down. The weather and circumstances called for extreme caution.
The five homes facing the ocean were set apart, rare for a beach community. His was the only house that hadn’t been renovated. Though it looked incongruous next to his wealthy neighbors, he liked the old fifties vibe, and being at the far end of the dead-end street, he was somewhat removed. Driving past the first two houses, he rolled to the side of the road and parked directly behind the home in which Bianca was being held. Lifting the hood of the slicker over his head and tightening the drawstring, he stepped out into the torrent, crouched down, and hurried to the side of the house.
Staying close to the wall as he moved forward, he found a modicum of cover from the wind. Spying light coming from a ground floor window, he slowed his step as he approached, then slowly raised his head to peer inside. To his great relief, the detective was asleep on the couch. Taking a breath and continuing on, Nick discovered a window cracked open. He couldn’t believe his luck, and retrieving his small, powerful flashlight from a zippered pocket, he sent the beam through the glass. He found himself staring into a lavish bathroom, a perfect point of entry. Placing the steel cylinder between his teeth, he cautiously slipped his fingers through the narrow opening and pushed. The window glided silently up.
Nick was a great believer in momentum, and he sensed it was behind him.
Climbing inside and quickly removing his coat, he closed the window behind him and grabbed a towel to wipe his face. Knowing how slippery wet leather could be, he also wiped off the bottom of his shoes. Dropping the flashlight into his pocket and rolling up his jacket, he tucked it under his arm, cautiously opened the door, and stepped into a wide hallway.
Moving quickly forward and passing the snoring detective, Nick found a kitchen, dining room, and a home theater, but no sign of Bianca. Hurrying up the stairs and cautiously opening the first door, he poked his head in—and caught his breath. Bianca was lying on a bed wearing a T-shirt and gray sweatpants, her wrists were handcuffed to a brass headboard, a scarf covered her eyes, and another had been stuffed into her mouth.
“Bianca, it’s me, Nick,” he said softly, hurrying to her side and swiftly removing the blindfold and gag.
“I can’t believe it,” she whimpered, staring up at him. “Am I dreaming?”
“You’re not dreaming,” he replied, retrieving a small wallet from his back pocket and selecting a thin steel tool to unlock the cuffs. “What happened?”
“Matt realized I’d slipped sleeping pills into his coffee and he did this before they took effect. He’d been giving them to me every night, but I only pretended to take them. Did you see him? Where is he?”
“Passed out on the couch downstairs.”
“Nick, thank you,” she exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck as he freed her. “I can’t believe you came. I just can’t believe it.”
“When you didn’t show up I knew something was wrong. But Bianca,” he said solemnly as he pulled back, “I read about your disappearance on the internet. I know who you are—who your father is.”
“Shit, you haven’t tried to reach him, have you?” she asked urgently.
“I thought I’d leave that to you, but—”
“Thank God,” she muttered, cutting him off.
“He must be worried sick. Why don’t you want to get in touch?”
“I’ll explain later,” she replied, sliding off the bed. “What now?”
“My car is packed and ready to go, I just need to stop at my house for a quick second,” he said as she disappeared into what he assumed was a closet. “I left a note in case you showed up. I sure as hell can’t leave that behind.”
“But they’ll know it was you,” she called back.
“Be that as it may, I don’t want to hand them proof on a silver platter. Are you ready?”
“Yes, all set,” she answered, stepping back into the room.
She had changed into jeans, cowboy boots, a forest green cashmere sweater, and her glossy dark hair was falling around her shoulders, Nick tried not to stare. She looked sexy as hell.
“Wait, I have an overnight bag,” she added, ducking back in and reappearing a second later. “We need to get out of here. I don’t know when the other guy will show up.”
“Didn’t you say you and Matt were here alone until tomorrow?”
“I did, but after Matt tied me up he called someone and ordered him to get here right away.”
“Now you’re telling me?” Nick exclaimed, striding up to her. “Move, dammit,” he said tersely, landing a spontaneous smack on her backside and grabbing the small suitcase.
“Ow, I am moving!” she retorted, running ahead of him to the door.
“Why did you take the time to change when you know someone could show up at any minute?” he demanded, following her to the top of the stairs.
She didn’t respond, but trotted down ahead of him, then stopped at a hall closet to grab a long parka.
“Do you mind if I take a second for this? The weather isn’t great,” she said sarcastically, glaring at him as she hurriedly slid her arms in the sleeves.
“This is no time to cop an attitude.”
“Sorry,” she muttered, dropping her eyes. “I guess I’m a bit freaked out.”
“You can freak out after we’re on the road. Where’s your phone?”
“Uh, Matt took it,” she replied, zipping up the front of the coat. “Should I fetch it? He won’t wake up. He’ll be asleep for hours.”
“Yes, and do you know his number by chance?”
“I do. I heard him give it to someone just yesterday. I have a great memory for stuff like that.”
“Great, leave your bag and fetch your phone. Make it quick,” he ordered, turning her around and giving her a slight push toward the living room.
“Okay, I’m going, but what about his? It will be in his pocket.”
“I don’t need it. Just go!”
As she hurried away, he flapped open his slicker, put it back on, and was picking up her small suitcase when she returned.
“Got it,” she exclaimed breathlessly, holding up her large screen iPhone. “Follow me. I know the quickest way out of here.”
Turning and walking swiftly down the hall and through the kitchen, she stopped and unbolted a door, but he stepped in front of her before she could open it.
“I’ll go first,” he ordered. “Stay behind me.”
Stepping outside, he discovered a high, solid wall sat surprisingly close. With the house on one side and the wall on the other, they had considerable shelter. Moving swiftly to the street, he paused his step, checked for any new vehicles, then hit the car’s remote to unlock the doors. The SUV was close, but the storm was raging.
“Bianca, are you ready? It’s pretty bad.”
“Yeah, go for it.”
“I’ll hold the door for you.”
Pushing his way through the heavy gusts and pouring rain, he reached his Porsche, dropped her bag, then struggled to keep the door open as she climbed in. But lifting the tailgate wasn’t a problem. Tossing in her case, he dashed to the driver’s side. Though the ferocious winds made it difficult getting in, he finally slid behind the wheel and closed the door. Quickly turning the SUV around, he headed back to his house and rolled into the garage.
“I’ll only be a minute,” he promised, switching off the engine and pressing the remote to close the garage door behind them. “Is there anything you need? Anything you might have forgotten?”
“No, I’m okay.”
As she looked at him with wide eyes, he knew her bravado had been a facade, and it was slipping away.
“Hang tight,” he said, softening his voice. “I’ll be right back.”
As Bianca watched her hero disappear into his house, a chill rippled through her body, but the shiver wasn’t from the cold. It was fear pricking her skin. Her escape from the evil Matteus Anderson had been a miracle, but he and his partner wouldn’t just throw up their hands and walk away. They’d hunt her down using any means necessary. Fighting a sudden need to cry, and oddly claustrophobic in her heavy, wet coat, she hastily climbed from the car, pulled it off, and threw it on the back seat.
“Are you okay?”
She spun around, startled by Nick’s voice. He was stepping into the garage wearing a different jacket and carrying a large plastic bag.
“Sorry,” she said quickly. “I guess I’m a bit jumpy.”
“Understandable,” he remarked, placing the bag on the floor in front of her seat. “I thought you might like a hot drink. There are two travel mugs of coffee in there, and some muffins and other snacks.”
“Thank you, I’m starving,” she managed, then lowered her gaze and tried to swallow back the unexpected heat burning the back of her throat.
His strong fingers wrapped around her forearms, but she was sure, if she dared to speak, she’d be unable to hold back the heavy swell of emotion about to engulf her.
“Hey, you’re safe,” he said softly, abruptly pulling her against his chest and holding her tightly.
“S-sorry,” she blubbered, losing the battle. “I’m n-not like this.”
“There’s no need to apologize. I don’t know everything that’s happened, but I’m sure it’s been terrifying. The good news is you’re with me now, and I know how to deal with shit like this.”
“You d-do?” she sputtered.
“I do, and right now we need to hit the road.”
As he loosened his hold, she let out a heavy breath and stepped back.
“I don’t usually f-fall apart,” she stammered, her tears still falling as she wiped her hand over her wet face.
“You can fall apart any time you want, but if you drink some coffee and have something to eat, it will help.”
“Th-thank you, I m-mean, really. You’re amazing.”
“I was just in the right place at the right time, and I think fate may have had a hand in all this. Jump in and let’s get out of here.”
“Yes, let’s g-get out of here,” she repeated, beginning to feel a semblance of control, but climbing into her seat and watching her hero walk around the SUV, she didn’t know what to make of him. He was a complete stranger, yet he’d set out through treacherous weather in the middle of the night to find her.
“Drink that coffee and eat something,” he repeated, climbing behind the wheel.
He’d sounded like he was delivering an order, and she flashed back to the sharp slap he’d delivered in the bedroom. Intrigued by his take charge attitude, and wondering what he did for a living, she lifted the grocery bag onto her lap.
“Just so you know,” he declared, backing out to the street, “I work in security. I know what I’m doing.”
“Really?” she said, wanting to add, and are you a mind reader as well? but held her tongue and pulled out one of the mugs. Seeing tiny containers of cream and packets of sugar, she added both, took a long drink, then leaned back her head and let out a sigh. “You make great coffee.”
“Thanks, but it’s pod coffee. I can take no credit.”
She turned her head and stared at him. “What you said about fate—maybe you’re right, but I still have to ask, why did you come to my rescue? You may know my identity, but you don’t know me, and Matteus looks like a brute. Why would you take such a huge risk?”
“I’m going to answer that question with a question,” he replied. “Why did you ask me to help you?”
“Uh… I was desperate.”
“Exactly,” he said solemnly, “and I knew that the moment you came out of the water. The clothes you were wearing told me you’d bolted away the second you had a chance, and you ran into rough seas even though you’re not a strong swimmer. Matteus flashed a badge, but I knew he was lying when he said you were under witness protection. When I searched your name on my laptop and found out you were Lorenzo Albertini’s daughter, there was no way I could leave you at the mercy of him or whoever he’s working for. But even if I hadn’t found out about your family, I still would have done what I did, though that piece of information escalated my sense of urgency.”
“Why didn’t you just call the local police?”
“You know the answer to that,” he replied, shooting her a look.
“Yeah, I do,” she mumbled with a sigh. “Matt may have already paid them a visit.”
“Exactly, but we’re about to reach the main road. Take the sim card out of your phone and toss it when I tell you.”
“But it has—”
“Do you want them to find you?” he interrupted sharply.
As he turned on the coast road, she opened the phone’s case and lifted out the tiny card.
“Now,” he ordered.
Lowering her window barely an inch, she let it drop. A second later, he did a U-turn and headed in the opposite direction.
“Where are we going?” she asked, alarmed by the sudden change in direction.
“To a place I know you’ll be safe. You eat, and I’ll drive. I need to stay focused in this crazy ass weather.”
“You’re not taking me back to Vegas?”
“Hopefully that’s what they’ll think when they find your card. At the very least, they’ll believe we’re headed in the opposite direction. Once we arrive at the house where we’ll be staying, I have to know exactly what’s going on, and I mean every last detail.”