“I’m an adult. I’m in control. I can do this. He’s not that scary. He’s just a man. I’m an adult. I’m in control…” Ellie repeated the words like a mantra, her fingers clasped tight about the steering wheel, her eyes fixed on the road with a rigid stare that belied how very distracted she really was.
On the surface, Elliot Taylor-Chapman was a very composed young lady with an aristocratic kind of grace that turned heads wherever she went. Thanks to her family’s fortune she was one of the richest women under thirty in New York and so she had a great many reasons to be confident. Most people considered her to be above common phenomena like anxiety, for she had been trained never to give away any indication of discomfort, to be above it all, even when she was neck deep in it. Right now beneath the finely tailored and made-up veneer, she was a quivering mass of nerves.
She’d done her best to maintain the illusion the world had of her and was dressed impeccably in a white suit. She’d chosen a professional blazer and skirt combination in an effort to seem composed. Her shoes were perfectly white too, aside from their bright red bottoms. She’d checked herself in the mirror multiple times before leaving her penthouse apartment, ensuring that she looked flawless. Her blonde hair was tucked up neatly in a chignon, a style that added a little gravitas to her appearance. At twenty-five years of age, she was often mistaken for being younger. It was her round, full cheeks and wide brown eyes that seemed to confuse people, as well as her relatively short stature. The Taylor-Chapmans were not a tall family, but they were a powerful one.
Normally a driver would be conducting her through the traffic menace, but this was not a meeting she wanted anyone to know about. She was going to see someone she never thought she’d have to lower herself to be in the same room with again, a man so utterly frustrating and incredibly rude that she was surprised he had managed to be quite so successful.
She was so distracted by her nerves that she almost missed the building’s entrance, but managed to squeak her 911 onto the ramp that took her to the underground parking lot. There she finished her preparations, putting on her largest pair of sunglasses, paparazzi reflectors. It really wouldn’t do to be recognized here, much less photographed. She checked her lipstick before getting out of the car, replenishing the bubble-gum pink coat. It wasn’t as sophisticated as the rest of her outfit, but she liked the way it looked. It was the one little nod she allowed herself to how she felt inside, so much smaller and more vulnerable than her polished exterior conveyed.
Leaving the protection of her car, Elliot approached the elevator, already knowing where she was going. She’d looked this place up so many times. His offices were on the fifteenth floor, noted only by a minimalist logo: MM.
The initials stood for Mason Malone. One of the newest and most brilliant money hawks in the business. His fortune stood in the seven figures, so it was reported. She’d watched from an uncomfortable distance as his profile in her world rose. Others greeted him with open arms, but to her, he’d always be an interloper. Coming to him now made bile rise in her throat. Her gloved fingertip hovered over the elevator button. She had a sudden impulse to run back to the car and escape. Nobody knew she was here. She could still leave now without losing face.
No. She couldn’t. This wasn’t about her. There was more than her ego at stake. There was blood on the line. So she stepped into the elevator and stood stoic as she pressed the button for Mason’s floor, doing her best to breathe deeply as the doors closed and she was swept up toward fate.
It would have been hard to explain to anyone why she was so nervous. On the surface, this should have been a pleasant, fun reunion. At one time, Mason had practically been family. He was her only brother’s best friend, and all through high school he had been an annoyingly frequent fixture at their home. Elliot had never liked him. At first, it had been for purely shallow reasons she now had the decency to feel a little guilty about. He hadn’t dressed well, he never had anything with a label on it and his clothes were often worn. Aiden hadn’t cared about that, but she’d always noticed. Mason used to stick out like a sore thumb in their lavishly decorated home.
It hadn’t been his fault, she supposed. Mason’s family was poor. His father had died when he was young and he had been raised by his mother. Even back then though, he’d had a certain confidence that transcended his poverty. He was smart, attending the same school as Aiden by merit of scholarships. From the moment they met, he and Aiden had become best friends, and most of the way through school, he’d worn Aiden’s uniforms second hand.
She’d been the little sister to them both, and he’d treated her like a snot-nosed brat. She’d been a princess to everyone else, but never to him. The one thing she’d always had on her side was that she was rich and he was not—but now he owned half the city. It had been inevitable, people who’d known him back then said. He’d always been such a smart boy. She hoped he was still smart enough to help.
Stepping out of the elevator, Elliot made her way through frosted glass doors that bore his logo. She was greeted by a receptionist, a matronly woman who gave her a cool, appraising look.
“Hello, madam,” she said. “Do you have an appointment today?”
“My name’s Elliot Taylor-Chapman,” Elliot said as a pang of annoyance spiked in her belly. “I’d like to see Mason, please.”
The woman looked at her blankly, apparently not recognizing the name. Trust Mason to hire some low-rent secretary without the sense to recognize money when it was standing in front of her.
“Mr. Malone has a full schedule, I’m afraid,” she said in haughty tones.
“He’ll see me,” Elliot said with a tight smile. “Please, tell him I’m here.”
“You’ll have to make an appointment, madam,” the receptionist said. “There’s an opening in his diary three weeks from now.”
Elliot’s business couldn’t wait three weeks. Even if it could have, she would not have tolerated being told to wait. Taylor-Chapmans did not wait. They made other people wait. Gathering her purse under her arm, Elliot put her nose in the air and walked past the secretary’s desk and through the doors beyond.
“Ma’am! Stop! Madam!”
The annoyance in her tone put a smile on Elliot’s face—right up until the alarms rang out. In seconds, the hall she found herself in was occupied by two very large men made all the larger for wearing body armor under their suits. She may as well have tried to barge into a bank vault for the immediacy and intensity of the response.
“Stop right there, ma’am!” one of them addressed her in gruff, authoritarian tones that made her hackles rise.
“Get away from me!” Elliot screeched, irritated that they dared come near her. Their arms were outstretched, as if they had intention to take hold of her. She could not believe it. She was being treated like a common criminal by idiot oafs who didn’t have the sense to know who she was.
Her cry brought a tall, dark-haired man striding out into the hall. Her heart skipped a beat and then sank as she looked into the fiercely handsome features of the man she had come to see. His eyes met hers over the heads of the brawny guards and she saw them widen with shock.
“Help, Mason!” she called to him as she backed away from the oncoming guards. “Tell them to stop!”
“That’s enough,” he called out. “She’s fine.”
The men backed down, but stayed blocking her way, much to Elliot’s annoyance. She was effectively trapped between two lines of irritating underlings.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Malone,” the secretary said from behind. “I tried to stop her, but she just went through.”
“I bet she did,” Mason smirked. “Never were one for following the rules, were you, Ellie?”
“Call your dogs off, Mason,” Elliot said. “I’ve come to speak to you. Unarmed.” She flickered a scornful glance at the men.
Mason snorted. “Come in,” he said, gesturing toward his office. “Thanks, gentlemen, but I’ll handle this breach myself.”
“Paranoid about something, Mason?” She shot the question at him as he ushered her into his office, the security guards melting back through unmarked doors into whatever alternate dimension they had come from.
“I take necessary precautions,” he said from behind as he followed her into his office. “Can’t have just anyone barging in. Could be someone dangerous.”
“It is someone dangerous,” she said, turning to him with a pert smile.
“Yes,” he said in gravelly tones, folding his arms over his chest as he inspected her from head to toe. “I suppose it is.”
For the next minute or so, they did nothing but stare at one another. It had been a very long time since they’d shared a room, and a lot had changed, for both of them. Elliot had seen pictures of Mason on social media and in the papers, but he was even more impressive in person. Pictures didn’t capture the sheer energy of the man, the easy, confident dominance he exuded.
The years had definitely been kind to him. He was, what, thirty now? Five years older than her. Yeah. Thirty. He’d filled out, in a good way. He’d always been on the skinny side through high school, but he’d gotten broader. She could tell by the way the suit fell on him that he was well-built now. The hard line of his jaw suggested that there still wasn’t an ounce of fat on him.
He’d grown up, gotten big. In a lot of ways.
“Elliot.” His stern demeanor broke as he smiled, shaking his head in happy surprise. “I haven’t seen you since…”
“We don’t need to talk about that,” she interrupted him.
His smile grew a little broader, his hard cheek dimpling at the memory. Of course he found it funny. It had been over seven years since the last time she was in the same room as this man. It had been the night of her eighteenth birthday party, a grand affair. There had been hundreds of people there, hardly any of them were her actual friends, and most of them ditched the place for more exciting, less adult-filled venues. She’d been stuck there…
“I didn’t think you’d ever forgive me for that,” he said, interrupting her reverie. “Seriously, Elliot. It’s nice to see you.”
Had he always had such intense green eyes? Yes. Of course the answer was yes. He’d been popular because he was handsome, even then when he was too damn tall and far too spindly. Her friends had always come over on weekends just to be there when Aiden and Mason got back from lacrosse.
“It’s nice to see you too.” She forced the words, not feeling them. It wasn’t nice to see him. The only reason she was there was because she absolutely had to be, because the big brother she’d worshiped her entire life was in some serious trouble, and only Mason could help.
“Come, sit,” he said, ushering her further into his office. He had a view of the city, of course. She wasn’t impressed. She’d grown up playing in rooms just like this one, taking in vistas of unimaginable wealth and power as part of her natural background. She supposed he thought it all very grand.
“I’ve come to ask you for something,” she said as he perched at the corner of his desk, his legs still long under those designer trousers. Something made her eyes rise along the length of them to the apex of his thighs, where… it was the pinstripe, she figured. Yes. The pinstripe.
She didn’t like feeling this nervous in his presence. She’d always looked down on him. Now he was quite literally looking down at her.
She wasn’t entirely sure she knew who he was anymore. He and Aiden had lost touch over the last couple of years, and given Aiden had changed into an entirely different person in that time, the same could have been true of Mason for all she knew.
“It’s not for me,” she said quickly. “It’s for Aiden.”
“If it’s for Aiden, why isn’t Aiden here, asking for himself?”
She noticed a passing moment of disdain on Mason’s features. It wasn’t a surprise. Most all Aiden’s friendships had soured over the last little while. He didn’t have a lot of people to rely on now. Maybe Mason was one of the people who’d abandoned him, but she didn’t think so. They’d been inseparable for a long time, and that had to count for something.
“Aiden’s away somewhere,” she said vaguely.
“I don’t really think I should say.”
“I think you should say,” he said, his voice taking on a deeper timbre.
She felt her skin flush with sudden sweat. God. He was already having that embarrassing effect on her. She looked down at her hands and willed herself not to fiddle nervously with the hem of her skirt.
“Tell me everything, Ellie,” he said, using her childhood nickname. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what I’m helping with.”
“Aiden got into some bad habits,” she said, keeping her comments vague. It was hard to admit what had happened to Aiden, even to herself, let alone say it to him. “And he needs, well, help.”
“Ellie, it’s good to see you, but I’m a busy man,” Mason sighed, crossing his arms over his chest and cocking his head to the side. “You came to talk to me, so talk to me.”
How was he making her feel like a schoolgirl? She was Elliot Taylor-Chapman, heiress to the Taylor-Chapman fortune. Technically, so was Aiden. He should have been able to get himself out of trouble, but the trustees had cut him off from his allowance and he was practically penniless now. It had been made clear to her that if she supported him financially, she’d find herself in the same boat.
Being vastly wealthy wasn’t as simple as it had once been. The Taylor-Chapman fortune was walled by mass legislation and trusts, all protected by dogged three-headed accountants. Neither she nor Aiden had full access to it, and they never would. Their great-grandfather had made most of the money and had been certain to structure his wealth so that no single generation could fritter it away. There were billions sitting largely inaccessible, under their father’s control.
Mason had made his money himself. He didn’t need to go crawling to any trustees to put his hands on liquid capital—and that was what they needed now.
“Aiden got into some bad habits, with… you know.”
She hated saying it.
“Drugs?” Mason helped her out with the word that was still so difficult to form. Drug problems were for poor people as far as she was concerned. Poor people and celebrities, perhaps, but not men like Aiden. Aiden had no real excuse for a drug problem, but he still needed her help.
“Yes,” she said. “Drugs. And he couldn’t afford them after a while, and Daddy cut him off, so, he found another way to get money, from some people he knew. But they’re not very nice people and they’re threatening to do unpleasant things to him if he doesn’t pay them.”
“So you’re here for money.”
“I’m not here for money,” she said, offended. “I’m here to ask you to help Aiden.”
“And by ‘help Aiden,’ you mean bail him out,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know, Elliot. I don’t think that’s the kind of help he needs.”
“He needs someone to step in and stop him from being killed!” she burst out, her facade falling. She was desperate. Aiden had been calling her all week, telling her that people were coming for him, might even be able to get him inside the rehab facility. The panic and fear in his voice had been enough to drive her all the way, well, here, to the last man she wanted to be in a room with. “I know you hate me, Mason, but you and Aiden are practically brothers and…”
“You think I hate you?” he interrupted her with a frown. “Why do you say that?”
“We’ve hated each other for years,” she said with a snort. “We’ve never gotten on. I know that hasn’t changed just because I’ve come begging you for Aiden.”
“I’ve never hated you,” he said evenly. “And if you hated me, it’s only because you were raised to be just as spoiled as he was.”
“I’m not here to talk about me,” she said, blushing in spite of herself. She wished she could remain ice cold around Mason, but he’d always had a way of getting under her skin and apparently that hadn’t changed, though so much else had.
“Let’s talk about you anyway,” he said. “How have you been, Ellie?”
“My name is Elliot,” she said frostily. “And I’ve been fine.”
“Any husband?” He looked at her hands and she slid them away all too late. There had been an engagement ring on her finger up until two months ago. It wasn’t there any longer. Another sore spot that of course, he’d instantly honed in on. Six months ago, her engagement had been announced in every society circle. Everybody knew she was getting married. Except, of course, now she wasn’t.
“Any wife?” she asked the question back spitefully.
“No,” he said, his cheek dimpling with amusement.
“I suppose that makes us even.”
“It’s not a competition, Ellie.”
“Elliot,” she corrected again. “And no, you’re right, it’s not.”
“So defensive,” he said, frowning slightly. “You still don’t know how to ask for a favor, do you.”
“And you still don’t know how to… how to…” She stammered to a stop. “Can we just talk about Aiden, please?”
“Not yet,” he said, a deeper timbre in his voice. “I want to know what’s going on in your life.”
“I’m in college.”
He quirked a brow. The unspoken question, still? hung in the air between them. She should have graduated by now, but things hadn’t been straightforward for her either. She’d taken a year off after high school to travel, and one year had turned into two. She was twenty before she got to college, and twenty-one before she actually managed to attend a class. She’d been planning on dropping out and marrying the man of her dreams, before he turned out to be more a man of her nightmares. She didn’t want to discuss any of it with Mason. He’d gloat about her failures in life and love, she was sure.
“Yes,” she lied through her teeth. It didn’t matter what she told him about herself, she figured. She just had to charm him enough to help Aiden. Thus far, she hadn’t been that charming, but it was difficult. She didn’t feel like a sophisticated young heiress when she was in the room with him; she felt like an awkward teenager in trouble.
He gave her a long, searching look that made her begin to squirm where she sat.
“Look,” she said, gathering her purse into her lap. “Maybe you can’t help me. That’s okay. Aiden’s lost most of his friends already.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t, and I didn’t say I wouldn’t,” he said. “Did you really think you could just walk in here after all these years, have a two-minute conversation, and the problem would be solved?”
“I thought I’d tell you that a friend of yours needed help and you’d help him.”
“It’s not that simple, Elliot,” he said, his expression growing cold. She almost missed him calling her Ellie. She was pissing him off, and she couldn’t afford to do that. Aiden couldn’t afford for her to do that.
“I know Aiden’s in trouble,” he continued. “I tried to help him months ago. He didn’t want my help then, and I don’t really see why he’d accept it now.”
“Because if someone doesn’t help him, he’s going to end up dead. He keeps talking about people coming for him. I don’t know who they are, but he says the police can’t help him, and my father doesn’t believe a word he says anymore. He doesn’t have anyone left to help him.”
“But you think I can?”
“You’ve always been able to do things other people can’t,” she said. “If anyone can help him, you can.”
He smirked slightly. “I think that’s the first nice thing you’ve ever said to me, Ellie.”
“I’m not saying a nice thing. I’m just telling the truth.”
“Of course not. You still haven’t forgiven me.”
She kept her mouth shut.
“You deserved every bit of it,” he said. “I can’t believe you’re still sulking after all these years.”
“I’m not sulking,” she lied. “I just don’t have time to reminisce about the past. Aiden’s in real trouble.”
“I know,” he nodded, clasping his hands in front of him. “In fact, I know more about it than you likely do. The trouble Aiden’s gotten himself into isn’t just about money. It’s more than that, and fixing it isn’t going to be easy, or without risk.”
“But you’ll do it?”
He snorted. “Still living in a world where people jump just because you tell them to, huh, Elliot? It’s going to cost me a lot to help Aiden, and frankly, he hasn’t been the best friend over the last few years. My help isn’t going to come free of charge.”
Hope sprang up in her. If all he wanted was money, maybe some arrangement could be come to. Her father still liked Mason; more important, he still trusted him. “I can talk to my father, to the trustees, see if we can release some funds…”
“I don’t want your family’s money,” he said, holding up his hand to stop her in her verbal tracks.
“What do you want then?”
He fixed his gaze on her in a way that was suddenly very intimate and very unsettling. “I want you, Elliot.”
“Me? You can’t have me. What does that even mean?”
“You want help for Aiden?”
“Yes. Please.” She said the words through gritted teeth, already hating him for how he was making her beg. She’d never been able to tolerate Mason, and now that she needed him, he was more arrogant than ever. He didn’t have to say anything, just the curl of his lip, the little sneering smirk made her want to slap his face. She couldn’t do that though, not as she had when she was sixteen and still immune from the consequences of her behavior.
“I’m a businessman, Elliot, so I’ll make you a deal. I will help Aiden. I’ll square his debt and get the people off his back, but you’ll be the one paying me back.”
“How am I supposed to pay you?” It was her turn to sneer. “You want me to sleep with you, don’t you. Ugh. Gross.”
“Sleep with me?” He chuckled softly. “That’s not the half of it. You’ll have to earn the right to sleep with me.” He leaned down, his green eyes holding her in a darkly enchanting gaze, and spoke in a low rumble that captured her attention completely. “You’ll be mine. I’ll own you. Every part of you. You’ll do what I say, when I say it. You’ll be at my beck and call, available for my use at any hour of the day or night.”
She stared at him, shocked to her very core. She understood the words, but she couldn’t believe they were coming out of Mason’s mouth, and she couldn’t believe he really wanted… that.
“Are you… serious?”
“Absolutely, Ellie. You’ve needed something like this for a long time.”
“I’ve needed to be treated like some kind of sex toy?” Her voice rose to a high pitch. “Mason, what are you talking about?”
“You’ve lived your entire life thinking you’re above everything, everyone. You don’t even know what it is to be a real person, Ellie. You walk into high rises and you make demands and you expect the world to fall at your feet. You need to spend some time on your knees.”
Her shock turned to outrage. Secretly, below her skirt, she could feel a fluttering sensation, a tightness and an excitement that didn’t make any sense to her. She crossed her arms over her chest, hiding the sudden rise of her nipples beneath her blouse. She was almost more shocked by her reaction than by what he’d said.
“That is absolutely not happening,” she said, her voice cracking.
He straightened and gave the faintest of shrugs. “Then Aiden is on his own.”
“Fuck you, Mason,” she said, filled with righteous indignation and fury. “Go to hell.”
She had to escape. She couldn’t stay in the same room as him, feeling this hot flash of desire and embarrassment rushing through her veins. Her mind was paralyzed, so she reverted to the one behavior she was most familiar with when it came to Mason: haughty derision.
She stood up, turned, and walked out of his fine office, slamming the door behind her. What was he thinking? She came to him for help after all these years, and he tried to turn her into some kind of slave? She ignored the receptionist’s scandalized look as she swept past. A slammed door was the least he deserved. She should burn this entire gaudy uptown place to the ground for what he’d dared say to her.
Elliot was still fuming as she got into her car and navigated into heavy traffic. Her phone rang, connecting through the Bluetooth. She didn’t recognize the number, but answered it just in case it was Aiden.
“Ellie…” His voice came down the line, silky smooth and…
“You’re a pig, Mason. I should never have come to you. Don’t ever talk to me again. Ever.”
She turned her phone off and drove home, smoldering with fury, and with a treacherous wetness between her thighs. The way he’d propositioned her had been so bold, and for what? Not even just to fuck him, but to be owned by him… less than a servant, even? She didn’t know exactly what that meant, but she could sense the humiliation he had in store for her.
Payback. That’s what this was about. She’d tormented him when she was a teenager and now he was getting his revenge as an adult. What kind of an asshole did that? She’d lowered herself to come to him and he’d tried to use Aiden’s situation against her. She’d always disliked him, but now she was pretty sure she hated him.
“One of these days, you’re going to get what’s coming for you, Mason,” she promised under her breath. “And if anything happens to Aiden, I swear to god…”
Tears started to fill her eyes as she thought about Aiden. Nobody else seemed to care about him anymore. He’d been the golden boy her entire life, but now that he’d brought shame on the family name, that was it as far as everyone was concerned. They were more concerned about their reputations than they were about his well-being.
She drove home in an angry haze, pulled into her garage, and ran up the stairs to her apartment. It was twenty stories up and she usually took the elevator, but she needed to move and work out her frustration and anger. When she got to the top, she unlocked her door and walked in, lazily throwing it closed behind her. She should have been glad to be home, away from him, but somehow she still felt as though he was with her, even though she’d left him behind in a high rise across town. Stalking around the room, she tidied this and moved that, making her place look nice. Of course, it already looked nice, and technically it wasn’t really her place. Like everything else, it belonged to the family. She was a tenant in her own life, just like Aiden had been before he was evicted.
Stressed and frustrated, she turned her phone back on. Aiden would probably be in touch soon. When her phone came back online, there wasn’t any message from Aiden, but there was one from that not so unknown number: CALL ME, ELLIE. WE NEED TO TALK.
All caps. A demand from a man who now thought he could order her around just because she’d spent five minutes talking to him.
How the hell did he have her number? She didn’t remember giving it to him. She’d been too mad to wonder about that while she was driving, but now she was worried. He’d said he knew more about Aiden than she did. How much did he really know?
Before she could puzzle that out, her mother rang. Elliot answered.
“Elliot?” Her mother’s voice came strained down the line. “Have you heard from your brother?”
“No, Mom, I haven’t,” Ellie said. “Is everything okay?”
“I don’t know,” her mother sighed. “We’ve just come up to see Aiden at the…” she paused for a moment, “…farm.”
“It’s a rehab facility, Mom. You can say rehab.”
“Yes, dear, well, whatever you like to call it, he’s not here. The staff hasn’t seen him since last night apparently. They’re saying he may have unofficially discharged himself.”
“You mean run away.”
“I suppose,” her mother sighed. “Really, Ellie. We can’t keep up with these antics of his. They’re so very tiresome. The Jessops were asking all sorts of questions at the polo club, and it was very embarrassing.”
“Mom, they’re not antics, he’s addicted to…”
“Yes, yes, we all have our little foibles, don’t we, dear? No need to blow them out of such proportion.”
“Let us know if you hear anything, dear. We’re off on the boat for the next two months.”
“Mom, now really isn’t…”
“Kiss kiss, sweetheart. See you in December.”
With that, her mother hung up. Elliot white-knuckled the phone and restrained the impulse to throw it through the damn window. Aiden was missing now and nobody cared, not even her own parents. There was nobody to help her. Nobody to help him. All the money in the world and it didn’t matter.
She tried calling Aiden, but of course he didn’t answer. He never answered his phone anymore. He’d probably thrown it away again. He was paranoid that he was being tracked, babbling about how he couldn’t take the battery out and so ‘they’ were following him, listening in on his conversations. At first she’d thought he was just having some kind of breakdown, but then it became increasingly obvious that he was getting involved with the sort of people nobody should ever be involved with. Thoroughly frustrated, she threw her phone across the room. It landed on the couch, unharmed.
She turned around, cursing under her breath. The city was laid out at her feet, but instead of feeling on top of the world, she felt more powerless than ever before.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
A knock at the door made her start. Who was that? Was it Aiden? Had he made his way to her place? She doubted it, but she hoped so. Her heart sank when she saw the panel by the door showed three strange men standing outside the door. She didn’t recognize them, but was pretty sure they weren’t from the building. They were wearing long dark coats and had an air of menace about them that made her uncertain.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Miss Chapman! We know you’re in there!”
She put the safety chain on, just to be sure and walked away. They’d get sick of knocking, she figured. Besides, there was no way they knew she was actually home… unless they’d been watching her come home, in which case… she shook her head. She was getting to be as paranoid as Aiden. They were probably Mormons. Or Witnesses. Or maybe they were selling cookies.
The knocking grew louder, the rapping of knuckles turning to the pounding of closed fists. Her heart started to hammer in her throat as she backed away from it. The hair on the back of her neck was standing upright, her mouth dry as fear began to creep into her bones. Something didn’t feel right. She could sense aggression and danger seeping through the wood.
The pounding at the door grew louder.
“What is it? What do you want?” She tried not to sound scared, but failed.
“We’re looking for Aiden.”
“He’s not here. Go away, or I’m calling the…”
The door burst off its hinges in a shower of wood shards.
She screamed at the top of her lungs and ran for refuge as three large men burst in, two of them armed. The sight of two guns trained on her made her freeze, her eyes wide. There was a gun in a drawer next to her bed, and there was a panic button in every room, but she was too frightened to make a move toward any of them.
“Elliot Chapman?” The man in the middle didn’t bother to pull out a weapon. He wasn’t as bulky as the other two. He had round spectacles, a bald pate, and the sort of face you’d associate with an analysis of the economy. He looked harmless—except for the malevolence in his stare and the men flanking him with weapons.
“Y-yes… that’s me,” she stammered. “Wha-what do you want?”
“We’re not here for you. We just want to know where your brother is.”
“I don’t know! He was in rehab, my mom just called to say he’s run away, but we don’t know where he is.”
“We found his phone,” the man said. “There were fifteen missed calls from you.”
“Well, that tells you, doesn’t it! I’ve been trying to find him. Just like you. I don’t know where he is!”
They all moved closer, a pack slow-stalking their prey.
Fear lurched in her stomach, her head spun. These were dangerous men, and all the protections that were supposed to keep danger from ever approaching her in the penthouse had disappeared. They’d gotten past the security without trouble, and now there was nobody to save her.
They advanced on her and she retreated until the backs of her knees hit the couch and then she collapsed in graceless fear. The men gave each other looks, dark looks that suggested they were thinking dangerous, awful things to do to her. She scrambled to push her skirt down, wishing it was longer. She’d chosen something above the knee to try to get Mason on her side, but it left her vulnerable to others, these sharks of men with their dead eyes and nasty grins.
“Start talking,” the middle man said. “Or we’re going to get nasty.”
“No, you’re not.”
Five minutes ago she would have sworn she never wanted to hear that voice again. Now it practically made her burst into tears of relief. Through a narrow gap between the men’s shoulders, she saw Mason. He was standing in the broken doorway, looking fucking furious. Elliot suddenly had an incredible sense of just how tall and broad he was. He practically filled it, the top of his hair brushing the frame. Even the big men with guns looked small compared to him. They turned toward him with violence in their eyes, but the moment they looked at him, they seemed to deflate. Surreptitious, guilty glances passed between them. In seconds, they went from the most intimidating people Elliot had ever seen, to looking like naughty schoolboys caught being bullies.
“Get out,” Mason said. “Now.”
“Now.” He growled the word.
There was no more discussion, no attempt at argument.
They made their way toward the door, practically shrinking in order to avoid contact with him. Before they could actually leave, he held up his hand and stood blocking their way. The hand became a finger pointing at Elliot.
“Apologize to the lady first,” he commanded.
There was a very brief hesitation, and then they obeyed.
“Sorry, Miss Taylor-Chapman,” the middle man said. The others rumbled words that might have been apologies. She didn’t really understand them and truthfully, she didn’t believe them. The fear they’d put deep into her belly wasn’t going away with a couple of gritted ‘sorry’s.
They left the apartment, but Mason remained, looking at her with an expression she couldn’t quite parse. He seemed angry, though she didn’t know if it was at her, or the men, or Aiden…
“I told you to come back,” he ground out. “You didn’t listen.”
Instantly defensive, she threw an accusation right back at him. “You sent men after me! With guns!”
“Those weren’t my men, Ellie.”
“Then why did they listen to you?”
His glower did not abate one bit. “Unlike you, they know when it’s best to listen.”
She stared at him, confused. “They were going to shoot me, or hurt me, or do something… and they just… stopped when you came in. There’s no way they don’t know who you are.”
“I didn’t say they don’t know who I am. I said they weren’t my men.”
“Well, whose men were they?”
“That’s not your concern to worry about. Pack some things, Ellie. You’re coming with me.”
“Why? Because you’re not safe anymore. Because your brother has managed to save his skin for another day, and put yours on the line instead. Now do as I say, Ellie. Pack whatever you’re going to need, whatever you don’t want to lose.”
“Whatever I don’t want to lose?”
“This apartment is likely to get a lot of visitors soon,” he said. “And not all of them will be as respectful as your first guests.”
“I don’t want to lose any of this though!”
She had closets full of clothes and shoes, none of which she’d happily sacrifice.
“Anything you don’t have in hand in two minutes is getting left behind.”
He was being unfair, but she didn’t have time to complain about that. She had the feeling he was serious, and she didn’t want to be dragged out of her apartment leaving everything behind. Elliot ran to the bedroom, pulled out a suitcase and started throwing clothes and shoes into it.
“You’re not going to need much in the way of clothing,” he said, following after her. “I was meaning things like your passport, money, credit cards, things of that nature.”
“You told me to take what I didn’t want to lose… there’s a lot I don’t want to lose.”
He strode across the room, took her by the hand, and tugged her away from the case. “We’re leaving that behind,” he said firmly. “Where’s your passport?”
“I don’t know! Who knows where their passport is? Why do I need my passport?”
“Getting you out of the country could be a very good idea,” he said. “Where is it?”
“Maybe in a drawer?”
She looked at him blankly. She’d last used her passport on a trip to Nice, and she couldn’t remember where she’d put it when she came back.
“I mean, I think, hmm… I mean… hmm… It’s…” She pointed her finger around the room, gesturing to somewhere in the house.
He grabbed her purse and rifled through it.
“Hey! Stop that!”
He pulled out a slim blue booklet and waggled it at her. “This is what we need. We’re going.”
“No! Just let me…”
He grabbed her by the hand and strode toward the door. She was forced to trot after him, his long legs outpacing her easily.
“Mason! Hey! Mason! We have to call the superintendent. I can’t just leave my apartment open like this, people are going to freak out!”
He stopped and turned toward her, pulling her close, speaking in a harsh whisper. “Elliot, your life is in danger,” he growled. “People freaking out is the very least of your concerns.”
She stared at him with a blank horror. “Why is my life in danger?
“Because Aiden’s never met a mess he couldn’t turn into a disaster,” Mason growled. “Let’s go.”
They rode down to the parking lot, where Mason’s car was parked next to hers, a sleek black Maserati crouching like a prowling cat in the midst of the other vehicles. Compared to that, her Audi looked about as sexy as a bus. He opened the passenger door for her and ushered her in, his hand on the small of her back.
“Watch your head,” he said, sounding like a police officer as he guided her down into the low seat.
Elliot eased herself in and sat there sullenly, clutching her purse as he walked around the car. She didn’t know what was going on, but she knew she didn’t like it.
“Seat belt on,” he said as he got into the driver’s seat.
She did as she was told, folding her arms over her chest. She didn’t even have a change of underwear with her, though she supposed she could always buy more. Still, it was an inconvenience. He could at least have let her pack an overnight bag. No emergency was so dire that a woman shouldn’t be able to get her cosmetics. She had some lipstick and mascara in her purse for touch-ups, but that wasn’t going to get her very far.
Her mind filled with minutiae, she was vaguely aware that she should be freaking out about the men who had seemed to be on the verge of shooting her, but it was easier to think about her underwear and makeup and, well, anything else other than the fact that she was in trouble.
As they were pulling out of the garage, two black SUVs with fully tinted windows pulled in. They were rolling at a decent speed, but they slowed to a menacing crawl as Mason’s Maserati pulled past them, then out and into the thick flow of traffic.
“Just in time,” Mason murmured under his breath.
“Who was that?”
“People you don’t need to know. People you should never have known about at all,” he said, his jaw clenched in a way that showed he was still irritated, probably at her. She didn’t like that. It made her feel uncomfortable and guilty and small. So she started an argument.
“You followed me home.”
“Actually, they followed you home,” he said. “I saw them following you as they left, so I had your address looked up and went there, hoping you’d gone home. You’re lucky you did. You’ve been leading a conga line of gangsters across the city, Elliot. You have got to start being more aware of who is around you.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t raised to have to watch my back every two seconds like some people.”
“You were raised to be a spoiled little brat,” he growled under his breath. “An ungrateful one too.”
“I’m not ungrateful!”
“Aren’t you?” He shot a brief, piercing look at her. “I haven’t heard a single expression of gratitude from you yet.”
Maybe he had a point. If not for him… she couldn’t even bring herself to think about what would have happened if not for him.
“Thank you,” she mumbled. “For saving me from those men.”
Another one of those quick whipping gazes came searing across the car at her. He made a soft grunting sound, but didn’t acknowledge her comment further. It had come a bit late, she supposed. Probably would have sounded more genuine if she’d said it before being prompted.
“I am actually grateful,” she added, fiddling with her fingers. “I’m just… I’m in shock. I can’t believe things are really this bad. “
“We’ll talk when we get to my place,” he said, indicating onto the motorway.
She was silent for a time, until she noticed that they were definitely heading out of the city. The traffic started to thin a little as the motorway lead onto the highway. Mason increased his speed a little and the purr of the Maserati’s engines lowered to a delicious baritone.
“Where are we going?”
“To my place.”
“You don’t live in the city?”
“I have a place in the city, but I don’t want you there right now. We’re going to need a little more space and a lot more privacy.”
He didn’t reply. He didn’t even look at her. He kept his eyes on the road as they sped away from the danger of the city to… what? She didn’t know.
“This isn’t going to be… what you talked about in your office, right?”
“We’ll talk about it when we get home.”