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Under His Protection by Isabella Laase – Serialization (Part Three)

Did you miss Chapters 1-5? You can find them here.

Did you miss Chapters 6-10? You can find them here.

Chapter Eleven

For the first time since he’d moved to Maryland, he found himself wishing for a traffic nightmare to slow the trip, but they made it back to the city in record time. Neither of them spoke more than a word or two, his eyes glued on the road, and Victoria stared out the window at the suburban shopping malls and housing developments that dotted the freeway. He had no idea how he was going to walk away from her, but her life was hard enough. She needed a consistent message defining their relationship, and the only way he could deliver one was to try to figure it out in his own head first.

They stopped at her apartment to let her change into a conservative tweed skirt and navy blue blouse, abandoning the borrowed black cocktail dress as a dismal reminder of her misdeeds, so it took over an hour before they’d settled in the main living room on the second floor of the White House. President Bradford was meeting with several of his legislative aides, and he raised his eyebrow when he saw his daughter, nodding Cruz and Victoria toward a formal-looking couch to continue his conversation.

For a second, Victoria looked like she’d bolt, but she took a deep breath and sat to wait for what was probably going to be a very unpleasant scolding from her father, no matter how hard Cruz had spanked her the night before. He caught her eye to help settle her nerves, but she smiled weakly. “Don’t worry. This was my fault, Cruz. I’ve got this, really.”

“Good girl,” he said sincerely. His little spitfire was going to be okay, and he’d use his talents to figure out who was harassing her. From there, they’d just take whatever this was a day at a time.

While the president was focused on the demands of his job, a woman entered the room, causing Cruz to tense until he registered the identity of the thirty-something-year-old maid, Teresa Maddox. She and Victoria apparently knew each other well enough to exchange the small nod of acknowledgement, but Teresa didn’t respond with the same genuine smile as Victoria. Like all of the well-trained White House staff, she blended quietly into the background while removing a tray of empty dishes and coffee cups from the center of the conversation. She headed toward the side door to the president’s bedroom, pausing for a second to adjust her load, and the aides moved to a large table covered with more papers.

Given a small window of opportunity to talk, the president turned to Victoria and Cruz. “Sounds like you both had quite the evening last night. Maybe it’s time I got the details.” The president’s innocent expression made clear he was talking about the nightclub drama, but Victoria choked back a giggle.

Without warning, the explosion was so deafening that it took him a split second to react to the uncertainty. Accompanied by a pounding white light that temporarily consumed all of his senses, the acrid smell of gunpowder and a layer of confusing haze filled the room. Still unable to fully place the threat, he threw himself on top of Victoria, shielding her from debris and danger before rolling both of them to the floor between the couch and the big marble coffee table. She whimpered, curling into a ball as much as his weight would allow, but neither of them moved as shouting Secret Service agents came from all directions, the president immediately surrounded and pushed toward the exit and away from the billowing dust.

“Victoria,” he shouted over his shoulder. “I’m not leaving here without Victoria.”

“Go, Mr. President,” roared Cruz. “I’ve got her. We’re right behind you.”

Checking his surroundings, he saw Teresa’s body surrounded by a pile of rubble that used to be a brick fireplace. Ignoring the onslaught of more armed guards, guns drawn and tense expressions adding to the disorder, Cruz only had one job. “Are you hurt, little bit?” he asked anxiously, running his hands over her small frame. “Do you have any pain?”

“Only from where you’re lying on top of me,” she mumbled, wigging underneath him. She let go of her death grip around his neck to push against his shoulders. “Get off of me, I need to breathe, and my ears hurt. What happened?”

Still shielding her from the gruesome casualty, he didn’t answer. The blast had taken out the single interior wall leading to the president’s bedroom, clearly some sort of a small bomb, but other than a few cuts on the two legislative aides who were stunned into place, Teresa appeared to be the only serious victim. An agent was gently looking for any sign of life in her small, damaged frame, but his grim expression made clear that the attempt was a formality.

“Come on,” he said. “I’m getting you down to where they took your father.”

Lifting her to her feet, he held her close to screen her from any more emotional pain, but she looked over her shoulder toward Teresa’s lifeless body, lying in a puddle of blood and her leg at an inhuman angle. “No,” she said, flailing, trying to lunge from his arms. “That’s not right. She was nice to me.”

“Don’t look, honey,” he said gently, holding her tighter and turning her head back to his shoulder.

Her body went limp, and Cruz had to carry her to the hallway before setting her on her feet and taking her hand. Her skin was cold and clammy, and she was about as pale as she could get. “Eyes on me, Victoria,” he added, tapping her chin sternly. “I’m going to take you someplace safe.”

She nodded, and he squeezed her hand harder, very grateful when she returned the small gesture. Walking past several checkpoints guarded by tense colleagues standing as still as statues, he took them to the hidden staircase that led to the basement. The protocol for a disaster of this magnitude had been clearly outlined, as was the rendezvous point in the five-story-deep bunker underneath the White House, but when they reached the first of the heavy steel doors, Victoria whimpered, pulling back sharply on his hand. “I can’t go in there, Cruz. It’s too closed in. I can’t breathe.”

“I’ve got you, little bit,” he said, “and you aren’t trapped. I’ll get you out of there as soon as the situation is declared stable. I promise.”

But she pulled away from him to back into a wall and approached a full-fledged panic attack, her face pale and her voice trembling. “No. You don’t understand. I can’t do it.”

Even without the aftereffects of the attack, she’d always had a tendency to avoid closed-in spaces, cracking her bedroom door before falling asleep or opening the slider to her balcony even when it was hotter than hell outside. In restaurants and bars, she mostly chose a seat with her back to a wall, facing the room or the exit. But this was non-negotiable. Until the building was cleared, she needed to be safe and that wasn’t going to happen above ground.

He slipped his heavy dive watch off his wrist and wrapped it around hers. “We’ll start with fifteen minutes so that I can get some intel on what’s going on, and as long as nothing else dramatic happens, we’ll stick our heads back out here and make a decision. If we have to stay longer, I’ll get you some tranquilizers, but you’ll sleep like a baby and I’d rather keep you alert in case we need to move again. I’ll hold your hand, and I promise that I won’t leave you, but you need to do this, Victoria, I’m not asking.”

True phobias were powerfully debilitating, knocking a person from what should have been an innocent reality to an irrational state where nothing made sense to anybody, much less the victim. It was a testament to her faith in him that she took his hand with a weak nod, and they entered the bunker together.

Knowing that the president needed to see his child for himself, Cruz led them through a subterranean tunnel that connected the entire complex to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center located below the East Wing. In a covert building operation a few years earlier, a high-tech bunker had expanded the space dramatically, and the president’s entire staff could now be housed below ground for an extended period of time in the event of a major attack.

Bradford stopped speaking the minute she came into the room, briefly closing his eyes and offering a small prayer. Having been closer to the explosion than Victoria and Cruz, his hair and shirt were covered in a layer of dust, and he had a rough cut on his forehead with a persistent dribble of blood. Stubborn as always, however, he wiped it off with his sleeve, leaving additional bright red streaks smeared across the cuff, and waved away the medic who was trying to treat him. “Mr. President,” she insisted. “I need to examine you. Please, sit.”

Victoria let go of Cruz’s hand to embrace her father. “Are you okay, honey?” the president asked, alternating between holding her tightly and trying to find any sign of trauma. “Are you hurt?”

“I… just my ears hurt, Dad,” she said softly, running her hand along the latest trickle of blood. “But you were hit in the head. You need to let them check you out.”

“I’m fine,” he dismissed loudly, indicating that his hearing might also be off. “But when I find out who did this, there will be no end to my fury. The wrath of God himself can’t compete with a father whose child was put in danger.” Turning to the medic, he said, “Check her over first. I want a detailed report on her safety, then I’m going up to the Rose Garden and giving a statement to the press. The public needs to see me, and the bastards aren’t going to keep me in this hole in the ground longer than I have to be. And somebody, find me a damned clean shirt and tie. I’m not going to look like anybody’s victim.”

Victoria stared at the heavy closed door, her pale face acknowledging that there were several more just like it between her and any kind of serenity. Panicked tears returned, and her shoulders hunched forward, but Cruz was quickly by her side. Not caring who saw, he pulled her next to his chest. “I’ve got you, little bit. Ten more minutes unless somebody can give us a credible reason why not. Stay with me.”

Followed by several of his superiors, a grim Joe MacMillan entered the room, taking control of the situation and barking updates to the small crowd. “We’re bringing the vice president and his family to the White House under heavy guard, and they’re instituting emergency protocols at all federal office buildings, including heightened security at the Capitol and the Supreme Court. The dogs are running a sweep of the whole house, Mr. President, but so far, they aren’t finding anything. It appears to be an isolated incident.”

“How the fuck did they get a bomb past your security anyway, MacMillan?” roared the president.

MacMillan’s position as head of White House security clearly put the blame on his shoulders, and he was man enough to recognize it. “We still don’t know, sir,” he said with a nod of acknowledgment. “There’s one casualty, a maid, but other than that, everyone is fine.”

“One casualty isn’t fine,” snapped Victoria. “She has a name and deserves your respect more than your dismissal.”

MacMillan nodded a second time, but the set of his jaw showed a nonverbal seething at both reprimands. “Cruz,” he ordered. “Get back up there and see what you can find. I want to start drawing any connections to the threats against Victoria.”

“Victoria?” asked the president incredulously. “What makes you think any of this was aimed at Victoria? She wasn’t even expected to be in the White House today, and this had to have taken weeks of planning. Don’t waste your time on dead leads.”

Tonia Sukovich was MacMillan’s immediate supervisor, who had a calming influence that Cruz had come to respect. “Rest assured, Mr. President. We’ll follow every lead, but Cruz, go upstairs and see what you can find. You have a lot of military experience with detonation devices, and I’d like your take on what’s going on up there before the FBI shuts us out of the investigation altogether.”

Victoria buried her face in his chest with an almost imperceptible whimper, but there was only one answer. She was his world, his breath, and his future, and the job didn’t have a chance against that. “With all due respect, ma’am, I am not leaving Ms. Bradford today,” he said firmly, tightening his hold on her trembling body and kissing the top of her head to make clear his true role in keeping her safe.

MacMillan must have been waiting to pounce on any sign of insubordination. “Watch yourself, Cruz. That’s a direct order, so get your ass up there if you want a job when this is over.”

“Then I guess I don’t have a job anymore, sir,” he said, meeting MacMillan’s glare.

MacMillan took a step closer with his fists clenched, and Cruz moved Victoria to his side, fully prepared to punch the arrogant bastard in his miserable face. She grabbed his arm, bravely adding, “No, Cruz. I’m fine. I… I can do this… You go.”

He kept his glare focused on MacMillan. “No. I said that I’d stay, and I’m going to honor that promise. She’s mine. I’m not leaving, not on two feet, anyway, and I promise you that dragging me out of here will be about as ugly as it can get. As a matter of fact, fifteen minutes are almost up and, if nobody has any objections, I’m going to take Ms. Bradford outside for a minute. The confinement down here is difficult for her.”

“Oh, for god’s sake,” thundered MacMillan, pushing Cruz’s shoulder and bumping Victoria, who was forced to take a step backwards. “Somebody else can take her. Get your ass up there. Now.”

Cruz grabbed MacMillan by the lapels of his requisite navy blue suit, but a few agents intervened before he could knock the bastard’s teeth out, separating the two of them by force with Sukovich shouting, “Stop, both of you. Everybody take a deep breath and calm down. This is the last thing we need right now.”

“Cruz stays with Victoria,” said the president. “And that’s a direct order if any of you want a goddamned job tomorrow.”

The medic had finished bandaging his forehead during the altercation, but a check of his vitals revealed an elevated blood pressure and pulse. “Mr. President,” said the exasperated medic. “I think we should move you to the hospital for a complete checkup.”

“Of course my blood pressure is up!” he responded angrily, slipping into a clean white shirt with an aide’s help. “It happens when somebody tries to blow you up in your living room. And I’m not going to any hospital until I’ve at least given my statement to the press. All we need is some Constitutional crisis because people think I died in here today. Then Cruz is going to get Victoria the hell out of here. Find them a car and some FBI safe house, but I want her someplace secure before she goes to bed tonight.”

“But sir,” rambled a still frustrated MacMillan. “Nothing is safer than the White House. She should stay right here and once we clear the building—”

“Do you even hear yourself, you moron?” bellowed the president. “If you have to clear the building then somebody on your team let down a dramatic barrier to my safety, and Victoria was almost killed because of your gross incompetence. I want her and Cruz as far away from here as you can get them in a day.” Looking toward Cruz and Victoria, he lowered his tone. “Take her, son. They’ll get you everything you need for a few days while we figure out what the fuck went on here. I trust you with her life, and right now, you’re about the only one.”

Victoria pulled slightly on his arm to focus his attention on the layer of clammy sweat that had broken across her pale face. She whispered miserably, “I think I need to throw up, Cruz. I can’t stay here.”

Nodding slowly to Sukovich, he said, “Set it up. We’ll be ready to go as soon as the car gets here.”

Chapter Twelve

They left DC with nothing except a few personal items from her third floor bedroom, a couple of backpacks filled with toiletries and spare clothes provided by the FBI, and five thousand dollars in cash that her father had slipped to Cruz in a plain brown envelope. Darkness had taken firm control of the city, but DC was the kind of place that never truly fell asleep. Cruz passed quite a few cars crossing the Bay Bridge, but the dull gray sedan blended them into the light traffic, and an extra heavy tint on the windows kept her secrets from the sleepy nighttime public.

On the Maryland side of the Chesapeake, the bright lights of the busy commercial district quickly gave way to heavy black shadows on two-lane roads that defined the middle of nowhere. The occasional porch lights complemented the dark houses filled with sleeping families waiting for sunrise to return to their daily routines, but everything had changed; they just didn’t know it. Twenty-four-hour news stations were already broadcasting details of the attack, and tomorrow would bring a new round of journalistic investigations, taking the invasion of her family’s privacy to a whole new level.

She needed to move, but the car was too small, too stifling, to allow the random pacing she’d done for hours in the White House. She’d changed into comfortable jeans and a soft sweatshirt before they’d left, but nothing was calming her nerves. Pulling her knees to her chin, she constricted her muscles and curled herself into the tiniest ball possible, allowing the blood to rush through her ears.

“Keep breathing,” he said, patting her hand. “We’ve only got another few hours before you can get to bed, and they’ll have the grounds secure enough to bring you back to DC in no time.”

She nodded, but couldn’t form any questions despite her need to understand what was going on. The minutes before and after the blast still came in bits and pieces without any clear timeline or continuity. The blood on her father’s forehead and the memory of the rubble that used to be his bedroom wall had left her rattled, but it was the loss of a life, the beautiful, quiet woman that was truly crushing. Cruz had shielded her as best as he could, but the finality of death was so powerful that you didn’t need to see all of the evidence to feel the horror.

“Did she have children?” asked Victoria, the question coming without context.

“Yes,” he said, his attention on the car’s mirrors and the road in front of them. “I know what you’re thinking, but this may not have anything to do with you.”

“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” she responded softly. “Murder is terrible under any circumstances, and I don’t think it would make me feel any better to find out that I wasn’t the target. Any one of us could have been killed—you, my father.” She shuddered openly. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe again.”

He squeezed her hand before gently kissing the back, the effect as powerful as if he’d enveloped her entire body with his, just like he’d done when the bomb exploded and again in the bunker when he’d declared his commitment to her in front of all of those people. “Stay with me, little bit,” he said gently. “You’re strong. You’ve got this.”

But she didn’t feel strong. “Are we going someplace scary?” she asked, feeling very much like a lost little girl. “It’s so dark. I don’t think I can go to a dark place.”

“No, honey. We’re heading to a high-rise resort complex on the coast of Delaware. Most of them are rentals, so there’s a heavy, touristy turnover every week. They’re putting food in the fridge, and there’ll be agents nearby to help us if we need anything else. We’re even getting a nice ocean view with a balcony in case you start to feel closed in, but we’re going to stay inside the condo until we get the all-clear.”

Short of knocking her out with some tranquilizer, he’d done everything possible to support her during those miserable few hours below ground, even holding her hair while she’d vomited in a trash can in front of a dozen high-ranking government strangers, but never once did he criticize or berate her weakness. “I’m sorry about freaking out back there,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek. “I’ve always had a little trouble with closed-in spaces, but never like that. I should have been braver.”

“You’re one of the bravest women I’ve ever met,” he responded with a smile. “I was damned proud of you this afternoon when you stood behind your father while he gave his statement to the press. I know how hard that was, and I guarantee your choice meant more to him than you’ll ever imagine. But even brave people have enough sense to get scared when confronted by violence.”

They rode in relative silence for hours, listening to the soft rock music station before the dark farmers’ fields and small neighborhoods gave way to deserted restaurants and mini-malls. Cruz pulled into the huge parking lot of the only high-rise as far as she could see, the coastal scents of fresh salt air and marshy depth making clear their location despite not actually seeing any water. A large van and a nondescript SUV pulled in behind them, but Cruz just gave them a quick glance. “They’re FBI, aren’t they?” she asked quietly.

“Yeah, they’ve been with us since we left the White House. I told them to give you a little space.”

The two-bedroom apartment at the end of the long, open-air hallway was a throwback to the nineties with shiny brass light fixtures, square white ceramic floor tiles, and a pale blue laminate on the kitchen counters. The well-worn furniture and carpet was a neutral sandy brown and the walls a shade darker in the same earthy tones. Cruz sat one of the backpacks on the kitchen table. “This one has extra guns and some ammo,” he said, taking off his sport coat to reveal his familiar holster over the red sport shirt that he’d put on that morning. “Everything we brought with us was cleared by the FBI for tracking devices, but I don’t have a place to secure the weapons. Promise that you won’t touch them, or I’ll blister your ass.”

“Fine,” she said, moving to the living room. “I don’t want to even look at a gun. You can make them all go away.”

“Not this time,” he said absently, checking out the rest of the small apartment. The brassy, decades-old wall unit in the living room held a cheap television, a few beat-up board games, and somebody’s old DVD collection, but the small apartment was too stark and impersonal to provide any true comfort. Unsure how to counter the emptiness, she awkwardly stood in the middle of the room. “Are you okay?” he asked gently. “You seem to be stuck in one place.”

Shaking her head to erase the cobwebs, she pointed to the balcony. “Can I go out there?”

“At night? Yeah,” he said, opening the slider, “but leave the curtains closed to block the light.”

She moved to the outdoor space and leaned against the railing with Cruz close behind her. The complex’s pool was between the condo and the beach, deserted at that late hour, but a few landscaping lights broke through the darkness that stretched forever. Even the unique scents from the salt air and the gentle sounds of waves crashing against the beach did nothing to calm her nerves. “Am I safe here, Cruz?” she whispered, closing her eyes tightly.

“Yes,” he said, wrapping his arms around her from behind, his gun pushing into her shoulder. “I wouldn’t have brought you here if it wasn’t safe. They’re adding cameras in the hallways, and that big van down there is filled with heavily armed, FBI thugs just waiting for something to jump on. Even the Secret Service wasn’t told where you are.”

“That must have gone over with them like a lead balloon. And you tell me that I have a temper. You shouldn’t have tried to hit that guy back there. Do you even have a job anymore?”

“That guy was my boss,” he said simply. “And I have no idea if I have a job when we get back, but I’d do it all over again to keep you safe. No matter what I tried telling myself back in my apartment, there’s no way I can walk away from you, and I hope that you’ll forgive me for causing you any sadness while I figured that out.”

“Forgive you?” She twisted around to face him. “You should be forgiving me for bringing this whole crazy shit-show to your doorstep. You can’t give up your career over this. Apologize to him. Tell him that you were in shock or something over the explosion. They have to give you some leeway under the circumstances.”

“I don’t want any leeway. Maybe the job will work out and maybe it won’t. My grandmother used to tell me that for every door that closes, another one will open, but if you’re too busy being angry or resentful, you’ll never see it. Just like being here. I know that you aren’t happy, but it’s just a small step. We can do this, together.”

From the seventh floor of her latest prison, the darkness and lack of escape made the space just as debilitating as the underground hell in the White House bunker. The heavy panic returned out of nowhere, blocking access to any rational thoughts and turning her stomach. “No,” she said, pulling away as her heart rate began to pulse. “I… I can’t stay here.”

“They’ll clear everything out in a few days,” he said calmly, “and then we’ll go back. You’ll be fine.”

Fine. She’d never be fine again. Teresa’s lifeless body. The noise. The blood. The destruction. Pushing past him, she grabbed the keys off the counter and headed toward the door, but he caught her by the wrist before she could turn the knob. “I’m getting pretty tired of arguing with you over closed doors,” he said wearily, removing his shoulder holster and laying his gun on the kitchen counter. “Just breathe, so we can talk about this.”

“I don’t want to talk, Cruz,” she whimpered. “I want to go home. Please. I promise I’ll listen to everything you say, but I want to go home.”

Home didn’t mean her apartment, and it didn’t mean the White House. The fact that she didn’t really know where home was increased her anxiety to a boiling point, and she pulled a little harder against his grasp. Cruz wrapped himself around her small frame to effectively restrain her, but it didn’t calm her. She fought him, striking out against his rock-hard chest and firm shoulders, but there was no venom in her attack. She had no true desire to leave because there was no place to go.

Ignoring her completely, he picked her up to move her toward the couch, easily slipping off her shoes and socks as he walked. Unsnapping her jeans, he sat her on his lap. “Come on, little bit. Slide out of these, and we’ll take care of this attitude problem.”

“You can’t possibly spank me?” she asked incredulously, wiggling furiously until she was allowed to stand between his legs. “I can’t do this tonight. Please, let’s just go back to the car. I need to get out of here.”

His grip tightened around her wrist to keep her from moving. “You asked me to be your dom. If you have trust and faith in me, you’ll what you’re told. Let’s take off your pants. Now.” Holding her between his legs, he worked her jeans and panties to the floor and slipped her out of the worn sweatshirt. Unhooking the simple cotton bra, he tossed it aside, leaving her small and naked frame exposed to both the slight breeze from the open slider and his irritation. “Over the arm of the couch, little bit,” he grumbled.

“Cruz…” she started to protest.

There was no hint of a smile on his handsome face. “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way, but you’re getting over that couch one way or the other, so you pick how it’s all going to go down.”

Trying to keep her gaze on him, she settled her tummy over the arm of the ugly beige fabric, but he turned her face to the wall and moved her arms over her head, resting her palms on the couch cushions to force her nipples against the roughness. Sliding his hand between her legs for leverage, he moved her feet off the floor and pushed her ass upward, a quick reminder of their previous night’s kinky scene. The overall vulnerability defeated some of her stress and focused her attention on her immediate problem. “Don’t spank me, Cruz,” she whimpered, her submissive responses returning without warning. “I’m sorry.”

She fully expected him to restrain her before finding some sort of weapon to paddle her ass, but instead, he massaged her back, deep, powerful caresses working up and down her spine and around her neck, slowly relaxing her muscles’ tense hold before moving onto her arms, thighs, and calves; nothing was left untouched. For a good fifteen or twenty minutes, time was her ally as he sculpted her toned body. Her mind slowed its race of confused thoughts, her serenity returning under the sound of his voice.

When he started to massage her bottom, she wiggled, arching her back to bring him closer, but a stern spank quickly settled her to his chosen position. “Don’t start getting greedy there, little girl. I’ll decide when we move onto the next step,” he said quietly, moving with both hands down her thighs. “I’m sorry that I don’t have any oils, but how does this feel?”

“That feels nice,” she said a little bit sleepily. “Warm. You know, you could probably just rub my ass every night to get it all cozy and happy. You don’t need to spank it to get those nerves moving.”

“Where would be the fun in that?” he asked with a chuckle. “A maintenance spanking is a valuable tool to use on naughty little subs, especially when life is out of everybody’s control.”

She turned her head with a questioning frown as his palm smacked her ass, the spank a perfect addition to her already toasted bottom, morphing her skin into a river of heat without the lingering bite that his spatula had delivered a lifetime earlier. Gentle. Soft. Strong. Painful. He alternated his message with a deeper kneading of her ass, uniting her frayed nerves until her breath grew steady.

Spreading her thighs to tickle her already wet channel with a single finger, he moved upward to rub her tight, private hole, grumbling, “No more threatening to walk out on me, or I’ll take your ass with something a hell of a lot bigger than my plugs. There’s a limit to how much patience I have, and I’m not going anyplace. Do you understand?”

“I’m sorry,” she said as he allowed her to stand, her ass as warm as her face. Like anytime he’d moved his hands over her body, the overwhelming stimulation had started a wet quivering through her labia. She wanted to rub against her mons to erase the effect, but she was pretty sure he wouldn’t support the move. “I wasn’t really going to leave. And I have a confession to make. I wasn’t going to make it easy for you to walk away from me back there in your apartment. I’d kind of planned on stalking you until you took me back.”

“Stalking me, huh,” he said, pushing the single loose hair behind her ear with a gentle touch. “There would have been some punishment involved in that, but I need to fuck you, little bit. I know that you went through a lot of emotions today, but I could have lost you, and I’m not going to sleep until I get as close to you as I can. Either I have a job or I don’t, but there’s only one you. And I want you. Now.”

“I’m sorry that we don’t have any toys to play with,” she said shyly. “You should explain to those FBI guys that we want to move back to your place so we can fuck like bunnies.”

“What kind of store-bought dom do you think I am?” he asked darkly, pointing toward the open door to the big master bedroom. “Lie down on the bed and wait for me. I want to slide my hand between those legs, so they’d better be open when I get in there.”

He came to her with an armful of household treasures, listing each one as he dropped them on the bed. “I found some candles so we can have a little romantic lighting, a few potato chip clips to smarten up those nipples, some clothesline, another trusty spatula because we both know how much fun that was, and a banana.”

Her eyes grew wide and her mouth formed into a speechless oval before she slid her bottom along the mattress until she reached the floor at the opposite edge of the bed. Holding out her hands like she had some chance in hell of stopping him, she mumbled, “What do you think you’re doing with the banana there, buddy boy?”

“I’m going to eat it,” he said with an arched eyebrow, peeling the banana and taking a bite. “Did you just get off that bed without my permission?”

“I, uh…” She looked hard for any hint of teasing, but the man was a model of steel resolve. She slipped back to his desired location, but he tossed the banana peel onto the end table and crossed his arms until she wiggled uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said, unable to withhold a tiny whimper. He could melt a freaking glacier when he looked like that, and she trusted that he had every tool he needed to make her even sorrier.

“Apparently you’ve forgotten my only rule,” he said, arms still crossed. “I tell you what to do, and you do it. No questions asked. Maybe I need to put these expensive paraffin candles to a better use than a little mood lighting, but I don’t want to start any fires, so I need to make a few adjustments to this scene.”

He twisted her loose locks back to a rough ponytail with a lot of stingy hair pulling, cutting off a piece of the clothesline with his pocket knife to tie it in place. Twisting the rest of the soft rope around her naked frame, he created an intricate series of twisting length and knots until her arms went over her head. Her thighs were opened to expose her mons, and with an unnecessary smirk, he restrained her to the bedframe to hold her in place.

Running his hand between her labia and her breasts, he tweaked her sensitive nipples until she cried out. “Hush,” he demanded with a growl. “Or I’ll give you something to whimper about. I’m only getting started, and I don’t want you moving. This game is way too much fun, for me, anyway.”

Returning to the kitchen, he was gone for a long minute or two before coming back with a small fire extinguisher and escalating her panic. “Wait,” she shouted, pulling against her restraints. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“What’s not a good idea?” His tone was calm as he fondled her over-sensitized breasts, warming the skin all the way to her belly before he teased the thatch between her legs. “Do you mean the part where I have you tied up so you can’t move, just waiting for my dick to enter you in all sorts of fun places? Or do you mean the part where I’m going to dribble this hot wax on your wet cunt just to hear it sizzle?”

None of it, she thought to herself. All of it. The fear was growing stronger, and she ran her safe word over and over in her mind just to make sure that she still knew what it was. She controlled this scene, she reminded herself. She could stop this anytime she wanted. But when he lit the candle, the tiny flicker of flame caused her to beg. “Please, no. I don’t want to do this.”

He held the candle away from her, giving her a minute to breathe and nibbling across her belly with tiny bites until he reached her nipples. He latched onto the first one, rolling his tongue over the edge and scraping his teeth with just enough pressure to spark a shock of heat straight to her core. “There’s only one way to stop this,” he said, “and you know what that is. And since I don’t hear any safe word, I’m going to keep playing with you.” Sliding his hand between her legs, he added with a laugh, “My god, you’re so wet. I’m a lucky man, little girl.”

As hard as she tried, she couldn’t look away from the candle that he held about a foot and a half above her belly, its inherent danger magnified tenfold due to her lack of control. His hands continued to rub her tummy, increasing her warmth despite her overt fears, and the first drizzles of burning heat hit her less sensitive outer thighs. The bite was sharp enough to force her whimper, but the pain dissipated almost as quickly as it started, leaving the soft liquid to harden to a crusty, opaque layer on her skin.

“See, little bit,” he said softly. “You like that, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer and continued his game, trickling the wax closer to her breasts, and leaving a fiery, intricate pattern across her stomach and down her sides. Her body writhed in a futile attempt to avoid him, but he continued, still speaking calmly. “Good little sub,” he said encouragingly. “Look how well you’re taking this. It feels good, doesn’t it? All those little red marks are going to look beautiful.”

By the time he allowed the wax to tangle into the curls between her legs, she’d started angling her body toward him, but he quickly tweaked her nipple with a sting. “You’re not asking for me to do this your way, are you?” he asked dangerously. “Because I only have one thing around here to give you a good ass punishment for getting too pushy, and I’m pretty sure you won’t find that pleasant.” She rolled back into position, her face burning a beet red and her vulva filling with her swollen clit.

When his hot mouth covered her nipples, the effect split her attention between the heated wax across her skin and the sensitivity from her nubs, reducing the rest of the room to a blur until he drizzled the liquid heat across her breasts, and she cried out. His hand slid between her legs, but he didn’t have to nudge them apart. She was open and ready for him, the effect so warm and smooth, slipping through her channel with her wet response providing the necessary friction. Rubbing, prodding, he explored her sex until he located her clit. With the wax still finding virgin places to torment her, he vigorously rubbed along her labia, pinching and pulling until her belly tensed, the pleasure building to send spasms rolling through her middle.

The overwhelming force from the coming orgasm made her fear she’d roar like a slut, and she tried a second time to pull away from him both physically and emotionally, but his voice was as stern as she’d ever heard. “Stop fighting me, little sub,” he whispered darkly. “You have no idea what I can do to make you scream, in pain and in pleasure, so fucking come for me so I can hear what it sounds like.” His finger entered her wetness, first one, then two, harsh invasions reaching the hidden depths of her empty pussy. She groaned as the spasms defeated her fighting, and she gave into him completely, letting go with a scream, her cunt pulsing with pleasure.

She was still moaning when he slipped out of his clothes, his erect penis still tantalizingly out of her reach, and the sight of his smooth hardness sent a spasm of wet release spurting through her channel. Despite her orgasm, she wasn’t done, and she’d have taken him anywhere he demanded. Straddling her breasts between his thighs, his cock remained a tantalizing few inches from her lips, dramatically awakening her salivary response to prepare for him. He rubbed her lips with his erection, and she tried to grab him with her mouth, but he stayed just far enough out of her reach that she was reduced to using her tongue, licking him over and over until he granted her his entire shaft. She finally latched on, sucking and pulling, rewarded by his groans and tiny taste of his pre-cum before he pulled out.

Untying a few of his ropes, he rolled her to her side, stretching her shoulder muscles to accommodate his remaining restraints and settling her between his thighs to drive his unsheathed shaft into her pussy with a single force. Filling her channel with his breadth, he moved in and out of her wet cunt, returning her to the edge of uncontrolled pleasure. The effect reduced her breathing to steady gasps and her hips rocked in unison with his before she came again. Her pussy was still pulsing when he roared, filling her with his seed to leave a sticky residue staining her swollen lips and her aching thighs.

There were only a few hours left until daylight, but she didn’t care. They were miles from everywhere and everyone who would bother them. From their distant spot in the parking lot, the FBI would keep them safe, but Cruz was the one with whom she placed all of her trust. He wouldn’t rest until he found out what had happened in the White House, and he’d be there for her, knowing what she needed even when she didn’t fully understand it herself.

Holding her tightly, he spoke softly. “I love you, Victoria. You’ve made me the luckiest man in the world.”

“I love you too,” she said as she buried her face into his firm shoulder. She fell asleep in his arms, the one place in the world where she felt safe, at home.

Chapter Thirteen

They spent two of the best days of his life in that plain little condo, cuddling on the couch or working on the big Christmas-themed jigsaw puzzle they’d found in a back closet, and learning even more about each other’s past experiences and future dreams. Their kink continued as well, providing him with new information to deliver the most pleasure and identifying more of the small cues to indicate she was approaching her max. He remained alert, but felt safe in that thousand or so square feet. Few people knew where she was and, if the news accounts were any indication, few people were looking for her.

By their third morning, he knew he’d have to contact the waiting FBI agents for more supplies. The essential nondescript vehicles in the parking lot had provided twenty-four/seven monitoring of the surveillance cameras surrounding the small apartment, but he postponed the call as long as he could. The outside intrusion would destroy the magic, pushing them back to a harsh reality where questions needed to be answered about jobs and fates. He had no idea what any of that was going to look like when this was all over, but with Victoria sound asleep on his lap, it would most definitely involve her.

Careful not to disturb her, he used his FBI-issued cell phone to check the status of the ongoing investigation, but public information was all he had until he could reconnect to his sources back in DC. All of the reputable news agencies told the same, non-descriptive story, making him think that the feds were holding onto key evidence until they could put all of the pieces together. There were a few interesting accounts about Teresa Maddox, however, that included allegations of heavy drug use, hinting that there might be more to her than he’d originally been led to believe. He’d show it to Victoria when she woke up. As much as he wanted to protect her from the drama, she trusted him to share all that he knew.

But another Google search led to an obtrusive headline across his screen, causing him sit up. Where is Vicky Ann? included an unflattering picture of Victoria showing way too much skin. The source was The Party, a successful, post-college venture run by a bunch of rich kids in their late twenties. Cruz had enjoyed the page’s political stand and smart writing in the past, but they always seemed to have a lot of quotes from Victoria and not all of them had portrayed her in a positive light.

Since the explosion, a few alternative media sources had questioned her location, but this one quoted a ‘close friend’ of Victoria’s. “She’s feeling guilty over the whole thing because she thinks they were trying to kill her. She was a personal friend of Theresa Maddox’s and now she’s been forced into seclusion to some safe house a few hours from here. She’s completely isolated from everybody.” But the next quote was credited as Victoria’s. “I trust in my protection detail to keep me safe, and I don’t want people to worry about me. I’m fine.”

The article included the standard response from the White House press secretary that asked for privacy for the president’s extended family, but it didn’t help his temper. He shifted his body a second time, and the move was enough to rouse her, slowly, like a little girl waking up from her nap. She gave a few of those adorably cute kitten moves, stretching her back with her arms over her head and succumbing quietly to a big yawn before sitting up and curling into his side with a shy smile.

“Good timing,” he rumbled, studying her reaction carefully. “What do you know about this quote?”

She looked a little confused, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, but the bright brown ovals grew damned wide when it registered that the article was about her. “I don’t know anything,” she exclaimed. “I haven’t talked to him in weeks, honest.”

“Him? Who’s him?” he asked with a growl.

“You’re kind of cute when you get all jealous,” she teased, “but Trevor King is sort of Amanda’s boyfriend. I was actually surprised that she didn’t move to Boston to be closer to him after we graduated, but she came back to DC instead. Don’t worry about him, he’s harmless.”

“This is serious, Victoria,” he scolded. “That information is way too close to being accurate. Who exactly did you talk to after the explosion?”

“Nobody,” she said defensively. “You didn’t even let me bring my phone out here, and you carry that FBI one around with you like it’s an infant. I haven’t been near it.”

“Watch your tone,” he warned. “What about before we left DC? You wandered off a few times at the White House when I was setting all of this up. Did you talk to anybody then?”

“Why are you being so suspicious?” she said, pulling away from him. “I saw some of the housekeeping staff. Most of them were pretty shaken up and a few of them were crying. We talked. We hugged. That was about it. I didn’t even call Amanda, but I’ve been feeling guilty about that. She must be really worried about me.”

“She’ll manage,” he said dryly. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it’s unusual for the White House domestic staff to talk to the press. The article is vague and, under the circumstances, what he did get accurate could have been a good guess. He could have made the whole thing up.”

“Trevor’s not some scumbag reporter,” snapped Victoria. “It’s a reputable paper. If he used the quote, he got it from somebody.”

“You aren’t making the case that you’ve kept your mouth shut,” he responded in the same dry tone. “Either he made it up, or you talked to somebody. How does this guy get all of your quotes, anyway? Do you two have some kind of an agreement?”

“Okay, well, maybe he got the quote legitimately,” she said with a frown, “but the person who gave it to him lied. That could have happened. And yes, he does get a lot of real quotes from me, and he probably does have access to White House staff through Amanda. She spends a lot of time there, but he’s a friend. We talk politics, and he encourages me to be my own person.”

“That’s ending today,” he said sternly. “There are way too many leaks in your life, and we’re going to plug away at them, one by one, starting with this one.”

Pointing her finger at him dramatically, she stood with her temper starting to boil. “You know, we need to get something straight. I understand all about this BDSM dom thing, and it’s great for the bedroom, but I’m still an adult and the scenes we play aren’t going to extend to my real life. I’m going to make my own grownup decisions because that’s what grownups do.”

“I agree,” he said darkly, also standing. “I never said that I wanted to run your whole life. A relationship where the sub has no personal choices is too close to abuse for my tastes, but I’m not going to sit back and watch you make poor decisions. I may not be your bodyguard anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give fuck about what happens to you.”

She stared at him for a second before the tiny smirk appeared. “You really need to work on your romance skills, Cruz. This whole little lecture would probably have gone down a lot smoother for you if you’d said up front that you cared about me and don’t want to see me hurt.”

“It’s implied,” he said dryly. “And this arrangement is going to be a lot less painful for you if you remember that I’m not the kind of boyfriend who’s going to be all gushy and sweet. I’m the kind of dom who’s going to beat your ass if you piss me off.”

“Yeah, Agent What-the-Fuck?” she asked in a sassy tone. “Exactly what are you going to do about my attitude?”

Damn, she had a way of turning on his dom side; the snarky little girl was just asking for him to take her to task. He was more than willing to give her what she needed, but he had a lot of ways to make sure that it wasn’t what she wanted. With a growl, he moved toward her, watching her face fall when she’d realized exactly how far over the line she was. “I can think of all sorts of ways to keep that mouth of yours under some kind of control,” he said darkly. “And you’re not going to like any of them.”

After days without any real contact from the outside, the high-pitched trill of the cell phone’s ring tone startled both of them, and he was shocked to find Joe MacMillan on the other end. “Cruz,” he said without any greeting. “You two need to come back to Washington. The White House is clear, and there’s no reason to stay away.”

To give Victoria firsthand information, Cruz put the call on the speaker phone with his finger to his lips to keep her quiet. “How did you get this number, MacMillan? I thought only the FBI knew how to reach us?”

“Everything was given to us about an hour ago,” said MacMillan dismissively. “It’s over. They’re pulling your FBI extras right now. Get her back here, and that’s an order, so don’t give me any of your shit. The maid received a large deposit of cash from some offshore account the day before the explosion, so she’s their number one suspect. Logistics revealed a faulty timing device, so I’m guessing she just fucked it up and got herself killed. Nobody with any credibility is taking credit, and that’s unusual, but everything else supports the theory that the president was the target, not Victoria. She’s fine. I’ll expect you back here by six tonight, and we’ll talk about the next steps.” He hung up before Cruz could say anything else.

Cruz wasn’t ready to take orders from MacMillan, but he couldn’t think of a single reason to keep her removed from her DC life. She gave him a few seconds of reflective silence to think about it, but he finally sighed. “Let’s pack. You probably will be better off in DC.”

It only took a couple of minutes to prepare for their departure. With one of the backpacks over her shoulder, Victoria spoke sadly from the door of the condo. “Maybe all of this is going to work out. He made it sound like you still have a job, but I feel bad about Teresa. As much as I want them to figure out who did this, I really don’t want it to be her.”

“Yeah,” he agreed absently, gently pushing her through the door. “And as long as you move back to the White House, I won’t worry as much, but under the circumstances, the Secret Service job probably isn’t the best place for me. I’ll pull my resume together, and I have some cash put aside to get me through the interim. It’ll be fine.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said with a sigh. “But I’m guessing that you won’t listen to what I have to say, anyway. I’m just glad all of this is over.”

“I’ll always listen to what you have to say,” he said, tapping her nose gently. “But watch how you say it because we’re going to be back in the city in about three hours, and there are a few lessons you still need to learn about submission in my world.”

But no matter what she said, it wasn’t over. The nagging, underlying uncertainty that had haunted him for weeks refused to dissipate, and MacMillan’s phone call had come out of nowhere. Despite the fact that the guy was a dick, Cruz had a hard time believing that the veteran Secret Service agent had anything to with any of this, but he’d completely contradicted Cruz’s understanding about their security. He also had a boatload of unanswered questions concerning Victoria’s safety with the press, and the semi-accuracy of the King quote bothered him more than he could explain.

Holding her hand tightly, they went to the parking lot to find that the FBI vehicles were gone. Before he could open the car’s passenger door to put her inside, she pulled back. “I’m going to miss this place. Can we put our feet in the ocean before we go? I’ve been at the beach for almost three days and haven’t even touched sand. Maybe we can buy one of these condos and fix it up the way we want. It’s an easy drive from DC, and it’s a great place to continue with our, uh, slightly kinky arrangements.”

Cruz sighed, pointing her toward the beach. “You do know that there’s nothing ‘slightly’ kinky about what we do, don’t you? We can check out the water, but we’re not talking about buying a vacation place while I’m unemployed. I’m not going to let anybody say that I went into this relationship for your money. We’re going to keep some boundaries.”

“And that,” she said with a smirk, “is probably the most romantic thing that you’ve ever said to me. We really need to work on your dating skills.”

“I have all the dating skills I need, little girl,” he said with an arched eyebrow. “Maybe I should take you back upstairs and show you some of them before we leave?”

Laughing out loud, she took off like a bullet, leaving him with their bags and throwing that blonde hair over her shoulders as she ran. “Hey,” he called out with a grumble, still unwilling to use her name in public. “Wait for me.”

It took him a few seconds to secure the luggage in the trunk of the car, especially the one filled with FBI-issued guns. Moving quickly, he closed the gap between them as she reached the pool area leading down to the beach, his palm twitching slightly with eager anticipation of how she’d pay for the sassy maneuver. An earlier pop-up thunderstorm had soaked the chairs and decking, leaving big puddles and few tourists except for a small family with two blonde-haired preschoolers in matching blue ruffled bathing suits splashing happily in the kiddie pool. Slowing her pace, Victoria passed the adults on lounge chairs, offering them a brilliant smile and a friendly hello on her way to the beach and turning long enough to give him a smart-assed wave.

The van was parked on the grass about twenty yards ahead of her, the idling engine immediately put him on edge, but he didn’t have time to call her back before a stranger stepped from behind the wall and grabbed her by the hair, a small-caliber Glock in his right hand. With a shout, Cruz drew his gun and ran toward them, but the distance was too large to cover quickly, and with the panicked family in his sight line, he had no clear shot at anything. “Federal agent,” he shouted to the parents. “Get the kids down.”

On her own, Victoria was fighting for her life, scratching and punching at the bastard’s eyes and landing a few solid kicks to his groin, but before the perp could get her to the van, he pushed her to the ground and fled without her. Cruz ran past the young parents who were frantically grabbing their children, reaching Victoria just as her assailant jumped into the vehicle.

Breathing heavily from sheer adrenaline, he stood between her and the van, his gun still drawn between two steady hands, but there was no way he’d leave her to give chase, and the sparse crowds on the beach still denied him a clear shot. The suspects took off, leaving huge ruts in the grass before hitting the pavement with a squeal of tires. He mentally took down the plate, make, and model, but had a pretty good suspicion that either the vehicle or the plates were stolen. Still on edge, Cruz surveyed his surroundings for additional threats. With big dark eyes full of fear, she’d stayed frozen on the ground until he nodded, a silent approval that all was well.

Returning his gun to his holster, he helped her to her feet, and she forced a smile toward the wide-eyed little girls. “That was a lot of people playing hide and seek, wasn’t it?” she asked in a strained tone. “I’II bet it was almost scary.”

The shaken family quickly saw her reasoning, and the mother held her voice steady. “It sure was. I don’t think I want to play with those mean boys anymore, though. They were too rough.”

The giggling little girls introduced Victoria to an entire flotilla of identical rubber duckies while Cruz went to the parents. “I’m glad you’re all safe, sir,” he said gently, shaking the man’s hand. The young parents wouldn’t sleep anytime soon, but the little girls had already eliminated the frightening scene from their memory.

“Do you know who I am?” Victoria asked the trembling mother who nodded without speaking. “If you have a piece of paper. I’ll write down my private address and phone number. Call me in a few weeks. I’d love to set up a personal visit to the White House and a photo op with my dad for the girls. Let that be something they remember, not this.”

“That sounds wonderful,” said the little girl’s mother sincerely. “Stay safe, Ms. Bradford, and take care of yourself. And thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied softly. “It’s nice to use this crazy notoriety of mine for something positive for a change. And I have the best Secret Service bodyguard in the whole country, so don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

Despite her bravery in front of the little girls, Victoria’s hands were shaking when they walked back to the parking lot. He dropped the FBI cell phone in the back seat of the car, holding his finger over his lips to keep her from speaking. Returning to the apartment seemed to be another bad idea, so he directed her to a small bench in front of the condo. The extra-long sight line relieved some of his tension, but it didn’t eliminate his fears.

“Are you really okay?” he asked again in a tight voice. “Does anything hurt?”

“Really, I’m fine,” she said in a shaky voice, rubbing her head where he’d grabbed her by the hair. “I think I did more damage to him than he did to me, but I also don’t think he expected you to be there. He seemed surprised when you yelled and that was enough to make him lessen his grip, and I could pull away. But none of this makes sense. You said that the FBI were the only ones who knew where we were. How did anybody find us?”

“MacMillan knew where you were,” said Cruz without emotion. “And that’s one more person than I knew about when I woke up this morning. And why did they find you as soon as the FBI thugs left? Were they waiting out here these past three days, just hoping you’d show up unsupervised, or did they time this attack to coincide with the FBI withdrawal?” She wasn’t going to like the question, but he had to ask. “Are you sure you didn’t tell anybody we were here?”

“You’ve got to stop asking me that,” she said with a frown. “I told you, no. Besides, I didn’t even know where we were going when we were back in DC. You didn’t tell me until we got in the car.”

“Then that takes us back to either a government leak or a tracking device. A tracking device would explain all the media leaks, too, but the FBI either gave us our supplies or checked our possessions for surveillance equipment before we came to Delaware. What did you bring with you besides your clothes?”

“But that’s crazy,” she said, standing nervously. “Why would anybody in the government want to track me? My Secret Service detail almost always knew where I was, and the only other thing I brought with me was a few bucks and my driver’s license.”

The first piece of something solid finally came to the table, and Cruz froze. “Did you give your wallet to the FBI to check before we left DC?” She easily could have forgotten to give them something so small. She also took it everyplace she went.

“I don’t remember, everything happened so fast,” she stuttered, reaching into the back pocket of her jeans and handing him the gray piece of leather.

It was small enough that it would carry maybe a credit card or two, her license, and a few dollars, but the undefinable lump in the back side caught his immediate attention. It was almost inseparable from the original design, but it was there if you were looking for it. Turning away from her confused face, he took his pocket knife to carefully slit open the seam.

“Hey,” she protested. “That was expensive, and it was a gift. Do you really need to do that?”

“Look at the stitching on the inside,” he said, pointing his finger along the seam. “It’s not the same as what’s on the outside.” Slicing it open the rest of the way, he manipulated the edges until the small electronic device about the size of a quarter fell to his palm.

She stared at him with her mouth open, and he continued with a growl. “That’s how people tracked you, including the press, and this is the only tie we have to the guy who just tried to drag you into a van. Who gave this to you?”

“That’s ridiculous,” she protested vehemently. “My mother gave me that wallet. For all I know, my parents put that thing in there. It might not have anything to do with any of this.”

“Did you have it the day you disappeared after fighting with your father? He said that it took hours to track you down that day, but if he’d had this, it would only have taken him a few minutes.”

“I don’t remember, Cruz…” She was getting overwhelmed and nervously shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I don’t know. And what does this have to do with the government? None of this is making any sense. I bet that my father did this.”

“Think, Victoria. Did you have your wallet the day you fought with your father? That was the same day we met in the Oval Office. You didn’t have your bag with you when I spanked you.”

“I… yeah…” she admitted slowly. “I drove my car that day, and I took it to a friend’s house that night. I probably had my big bag because my keys are buried in the bottom, and it has some overnight stuff when I make last-minute decisions. I would have put my wallet in the bag, but I usually leave it all in the car when I’m there so you wouldn’t have seen it.” When he raised an eyebrow, she defended herself with a wave of her hands. “Oh, come on. Don’t give me that look! Who’d steal my car at the White House?”

“Then this wasn’t planted by your parents because your father would have found you a lot faster. And what about the feds? Did you give the wallet to them to check out before we left DC?”

“I think I did,” she said. “It was probably in my backpack, as long as they saw it, but I guess it could have been in my jeans, too. I’m really not sure, but I still don’t understand. What good would anybody get from tracking me, except to make my father’s life more difficult, and that’s a long way from planting a bomb next to his bedroom.”

“Maybe the tracking device is related to the bomb and maybe it isn’t, but none of this rules out some rogue agent who’s pissed off with the world.”

“Like MacMillan?” she asked slowly. “I’ve seen him before. I think I’ve seen all of you guys at least a few times, wandering around the buildings.”

“He’s one, but there are dozens of others. Then there’s the possibility that the FBI just did a shitty job checking your things, or you didn’t show it to them, which sets up another whole layer of nongovernment suspects, your friends, their friends, a random party you went to and left your bag unsupervised for the fifteen minutes it took to slip this into your wallet. Shit, if your mother gave you this, then this thing could have been planted in high school.”

“The whole publicity storm didn’t get bad until I was about halfway through college,” she admitted, “and that was long after my mom died. The press respected that ban on bothering presidential children until then.”

“There are way too many unknowns,” he said, standing next to her, “and until I find out what the hell is going on, I’m holding everybody under suspicion. We’re leaving here tonight, and there’s no way I’m taking you back to DC. Nobody’s going to know where the fuck we are, and we aren’t coming back until I get some real answers from people I trust.”

Chapter Fourteen

That single piece of metal had shaken her almost as much as the heart-stopping stranger who’d grabbed her hair to pull her into a waiting car and the explosion at the White House that left behind nothing except blood and death. Individually, each one should have forced her to hide behind a bottle of her father’s scotch until she’d numbed the emotions to a manageable level, but together, they’d morphed into a fear with no name and no boundaries, the terror running so deep that she struggled to contain it.

She’d long since self-identified as a strong woman who was capable of taking care of herself, no matter what the world dropped at her doorstep. But this was all too much. Everything she’d ever taken for granted, from her faith in family and friends to the integrity of the US government, had come under suspicion. And for a frightening few seconds, she’d stared at his profile, questioning his commitment in a life where allies and enemies had become indistinguishable. “What are you feeling right now, little bit?” he asked gently, using the intuition that never ceased to amaze her.

She didn’t answer right away, but she knew that he’d expect the truth. “Broken,” she responded without inflection. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

“I know that all of this is pushing the limits of believability,” he said, taking the back of her hand and kissing it gently, “but I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe, and the best way to do that is to surround you with people I trust. Right now, that isn’t going to happen in DC.”

She was smart enough to realize that nobody could guarantee her safety, and she appreciated the fact that he didn’t make promises he couldn’t keep. She also knew with one hundred percent certainty that he would protect her, even at the cost of his own life. That nightmare did nothing to make her feel any better, but it did force her to take a deep breath, reconnecting slowly to her feelings for him and the security she’d always found by his side. “Nobody is getting killed,” she said with a weak smile. “Nobody else, anyway, but especially not you, so don’t do anything stupid. But you can’t just disappear with me. People will look for us.”

“Except for the guns and the cash, we’ll dump all of our stuff and the tracking device back in the condo. As soon as I can get a burner phone, we’ll let your father know that you’re safe and that should take any legitimate government agencies off our tail. But the first thing we need to do is ditch the car where they won’t find it for a few days. We need about an eight- or nine-hour head start.”

“Then where are we going?” she asked, rubbing her toe aimlessly in the dirt. “I’m not sure that I really want to know, but it seems like the right thing to ask.”

“I was stationed in Dover for a few years and the Florida boy in me came down to the beach pretty regularly, so I have some idea where we are and where I want to go next, but let’s just take one step at a time. The less we say out loud until we get away from here, the better I’ll feel. But you need to understand that this isn’t going to be easy. You might not agree with, or even understand, every decision that I make, but you’re going to respect my right to make it. And to do that, I need to hear you say that you trust me.”

“I do,” she said quickly. “For a few seconds there, I didn’t think I’d trust anything or anybody ever again, even you, and it took me a few minutes to reboot. It’s just that, I don’t know, it’s hard to find faith when somebody is literally trying to kill you, like over and over again.”

“We don’t know that,” said Cruz. “None of this could be related or all of it could be. We can theorize, but don’t let the theories destroy your strength. And if nobody can find you, nobody can hurt you.”

They drove in silence, heading south on the beach road toward Ocean City, Maryland before turning away from the coast, passing small resort towns filled with families enjoying the last few warm days of September. With big bags of popcorn or drippy, messy ice cream cones, they looked so content and happy that she felt like an alien, weighted by drama that she’d never imagined.

In a huge housing development off the main road, he pulled into the parking lot of a high-rise facing one of the big bays. Gathering the single backpack filled with weapons, he took her hand to move her down the road. She stayed quiet for almost twenty minutes, waiting for something, anything, to happen, silently wiping a few stubborn tears that had stained her cheek. She had her hair up under a baseball hat and the requisite sunglasses further hid her identity, but each step away from the little gray car felt as though she were walking into some sort of a void, the unknown bringing too many unsettling mental images of more danger, but finally, she spoke. “It’s never going to be the same again, is it?”

“What isn’t going to be the same, little bit?” he asked, his attention on everything around them in full Agent Cruz mode.

“I know that I’m struggling to visualize any safe place right now, but I also know that this isn’t it. Why do you think that this two-lane road is so much safer than DC with the all the people my father has to protect us, or even that condo back there that looked just like this one?”

“We aren’t staying here, but anybody with a government connection will be looking for that car so we need to get away from it. With any luck at all, it’ll take them a few days to find it here. Big lot and no parking permits required.”

“But I don’t want to go any further,” she said, pulling back on his hand and allowing the rare whine in her tone. “What are we going to do, walk the whole way?”

“Nope,” he said, snapping his fingers and pointing at an old red pickup parked in front of a small cottage. “There’s our ride. Come on.”

“We’re not going to steal a car! That’s illegal. Besides, don’t you think somebody will miss that thing and start looking for it? We’d be better off in the one we had. Let’s go back and get it.”

“Keep your voice down,” he warned, looking around at the empty street. “We’ve got to get out of here, and I can’t rent a car with either one of our credit cards. And look at it. It’s a fifteen-year-old, beat-up truck that they probably keep down here just to play in the sand. The house is all closed up with hurricane shutters and the weeds look like they haven’t been touched in weeks. These people don’t live here. It’s a vacation place, so even if they do show up, we probably at least have until the weekend, and we’ll be long gone by then.”

“You could get arrested, Cruz!” she persisted, taking a few steps away from him and this whole crazy plan. “I’m not letting you steal a car!”

He took her by the elbow to hold her in place. Lowering his voice even further, he growled, “I know that this is hard, but you need to listen carefully. We have no idea who is out there. The further off the grid we are, the safer you are. I’ll get the car back to them, and with any luck at all, they’ll never even know it was missing.”

“But come on!” she insisted, failing to pull away from the firm grasp that burned her skin. “We can’t commit a felony.”

“The felony was committed when a guy with a gun tried to pull you into a van by your hair. I’m not playing games anymore. This isn’t some BDSM scene you’re controlling with a safe word. They’re expecting us back in DC soon, and we need to be long gone before they realize we’re missing, so you’re going to fucking do what I say, and you’re going to do it quickly.”

A trickle of fear ran down her spine as she tried to pull away from him a second time, but he held on even tighter, giving her a small shake. “Do you understand what I’m saying? This is my decision, not yours. If we get caught, you need to make that clear to the authorities, and if you give me even a remotely hard time, I’m going to pull that stolen car onto some dark, deserted road and beat your ass so you can’t sit uncomfortably for the rest of the trip. Are we clear?”

It took a few seconds for the rolling waves of fear to dissipate enough to reason. He was giving her the chance to deny all culpability for the theft. All she wanted was for him to take her into his arms and rub her back until the fear went away completely, but time was clearly their enemy. He was right. Either she trusted him, or she didn’t. It was that simple, and the answer was just as simple.

“Fine,” she said, willing her voice to sound strong. “I understand. But there’s no way that you’re going to take a kidnapping charge in addition to grand theft auto. I’m joining you of my own free will, so you need to just shut down this whole manly, protective charade.” The veins had started to bulge on his neck to mark his growing temper, and her ass twitched in quiet rebellion against her stand. “Relax, Agent Cruz,” she said quietly. “You’re the one who said I was strong, and you don’t get to turn that off just because you want to be all macho.”

The small smile appeared at the corner of his mouth to assure her that she’d deflated his temper. Pointing toward the car, he added, “Then get your ass over there, Bonnie, while Clyde figures out how to start the damned thing.”

Expecting some crazy hot-wiring skill, she nervously kept an eye out for any potential witnesses, but instead, he jimmied a garage window to let himself into the house and came back with a set of car keys. “What?” he asked innocently when she raised her eyebrow. “The keys are going to make this a lot easier. Let’s go.”

“How many felonies do we plan on committing, anyway?” she asked dryly. “Because I think I should know how long my prison sentence is going to be.”

“Stop worrying. Besides, your dad carried Maryland in the last election, so there’s something like a fifty-one percent chance that the owner’s a supporter. That might keep me out of jail.”

The four-lane highway heading north had a lot of stop and go traffic from the approaching rush hour, and they were about an hour down the road when he reached behind him to grab the blanket they’d found in the back of the extended cab. “I’m going to run into the discount store up here. Climb in the backseat and get down on the floor. Cover up with the blanket, and I’ll be back quickly.”

“I don’t want to stay by myself,” she said in a small panic. “Let me come with you.”

“I’ll be fast,” he promised. “I need to buy a burner phone and a few things. You’re too easily identifiable, and I don’t want to take any chances that we don’t have to take. If I had any other options, I wouldn’t do it, but we aren’t going to get too far if I can’t call Matt or your father.”

“Who’s Matt?” she said with a sniffle.

“Matias, actually,” corrected Cruz. “He’s my brother. Right now, I need my family, and he’s first on my list. All we have to do is get to him.”

“What makes you think your brother’s going to help us?” she said sadly. “We’re driving in a stolen car and people are trying to kill me. That whole message doesn’t exactly scream, ‘Come to our side! We’re fun people!’.”

“He’ll help,” said Cruz simply. “We need to call your dad, too. I’m guessing that they’re just starting to realize that we aren’t coming back to DC. I’ll be as quick as I can.”

It was the longest twenty minutes of her entire life as that tiniest bit of strength she’d managed to access since leaving the condo disappeared with him. The dirty blanket made a hot and stuffy cave, and the floor of the beaten-up truck was covered with fifteen years of sand and dirt. She clutched his dive watch the entire time, fully prepared to give up on her promise to stay put, no matter what the painful consequences, but the strange voices she heard in the parking lot were enough to keep her in some weird prison.

He finally returned, speaking quietly and dropping a plastic shopping bag next to her. “Stay where you are until I get out on the road. Too many people are right next to the car, but I bought you something special for being such a good listener.”

It was a brown, plush bunny with floppy ears and big brown eyes, all wrapped in a soft purple bow. Pulling him out of the bag, she allowed the tears as she pulled the stuffie to her chest, embracing his softness and warmth to settle her nerves. “Do you like it, little bit?” he said. “I tried to find you a monkey to match the one you had on your bed back at the White House, but they didn’t have one.”

“He… He’s perfect,” she stuttered as the car pulled away from the spot. “I love him.”

“I’m glad that you like him. I know that this is really hard, but you’re doing a great job. You can sit up now. Nobody is paying any attention to us, so come back up front and put your seat belt on before Clyde turns Bonnie over his knee.”

“It’s not funny,” she insisted, sitting up and pushing away the hair escaping from the damaged ponytail. “You could go to jail over all of this.”

“Let it go, little bit,” he warned. “I meant what I said and with everything that’s going on, I’m not going to have the kind of patience I had back in DC, so don’t push me.”

Despite the drama, she snorted in a failed attempt to stop laughing, but he made eye contact in the rearview mirror. “What?” she asked. “Don’t glare at me like that.”

“And what exactly do you find so funny?” he asked in an even tone.

“Come on,” she persisted, climbing inelegantly over the console to return to the front seat. “Do you really think you had a lot of patience in DC? You spanked my ass the first time you met me. That’s not exactly what I’d describe as patient.”

“Well, patience has a whole new meaning with you around. Open up that other bag on the floor by your feet. I got you something else.”

A pair of hair-cutting shears and a box of light brown hair dye left her confused. “I don’t understand. Are you going to cut your hair? It’s like a quarter of an inch long. I don’t think it needs it, and I don’t think you’d look good with brown hair.”

“No, silly,” he said. “We’re going to cut and dye your hair. Those blonde curls give you away for miles. If somebody happens to see us when we get to New York, you’ll have a nice short brown bob and with your sunglasses and hat, we should remain peacefully anonymous.”

“I’m not cutting my hair.” She dropped the bag on the floor with a finality that she hoped he understood. “I just paid two hundred bucks with one of the best stylists in DC, and I’m not letting some random stranger touch it. It took me years to settle on this color.”

“Actually, I’m not talking about some stranger,” he said evenly. “I’m going to cut it. And you can pick whether we do it the easy way or the hard way, but with both Matt and me available for muscle, you’re getting your hair cut.”

“You?” she shouted. “No freaking way. Cutting hair isn’t like cutting the grass or trimming bushes.”

“My dad’s a landscaper,” he said simply. “So I’m pretty good at yard work, too. And my mom was a hairdresser when we were growing up. She retired to start keeping the books when my dad’s business really took off. I’ll leave it long enough so you can still pull it into a ponytail. I have sisters. I know what’s important.”

She pulled out the hair band to smooth out her infamous locks before reintroducing the perfect ponytail. “Yeah, well, my father is president of the United States, but that doesn’t qualify me to sign any bills into law. You’re not cutting my hair, Cruz. Find another plan.”

“I don’t know,” he deadpanned. “I bet you’re pretty good at signing your name. Seriously, Victoria, look what you’ve trusted me with in the last few hours. I can’t believe you’re even thinking about drawing a line over a box of hair dye and a pair of scissors.”

“Are you oblivious to what’s important to me? My hair is pretty much my identity. It’s the first thing people think of when they think of me.” But as soon as she spoke, she realized that, not only was she making his argument for him, but how incredibly shallow she sounded. Reaching into the bag with a frown, she pulled out the pair of scissors, trying to wrap her head around the whole crazy plan when she saw the label. “My god… they’re pet scissors! Couldn’t you even buy people scissors?”

“I didn’t have time to walk all over a giant discount store,” he dismissed her. “Stop being such a brat. You’ll be fine. Scissors are scissors.”

“Cruz!” she started, the first step toward a category five tantrum. “There is no way in hell you’re going to touch me with dog scissors.”

“Do you remember me explaining that you’re going to have to trust me, Victoria?” he said, pointing his finger at her nose. “Don’t make me stop this car, because I guarantee that you won’t like the results.”

She waited a moment before mumbling under her breath, “You sound just like my father.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said dryly.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” she snapped, dropping the scissors and dye to the floor.

“Make me tell you one more time that this is going to happen, little girl,” he dared loudly. “And don’t let this car ride lull you into some false sense of security because there are a boatload of empty, isolated roads less than ten minutes from this highway, and I assure you that I’ll find someplace to put this whole dilemma in perspective.”

He wouldn’t dare paddle her on a public road, no matter how angry he got. But when she prepared to continue the battle, the desolate woods surrounding the highway suddenly seemed ridiculously endless and the tingling across her ass convinced her that he probably wouldn’t even hesitate. Kicking the bag with a grumble, she turned her back to him as much as the small cab would allow.

“Good,” he said with a finality that she wasn’t going to touch. “This conversation is over. Now, call your dad on his private number. He needs to understand that you’re safe. He shouldn’t send anybody to look for us, and we’ll call him again in a few days with an update.”

Her call went to voicemail, and she left the message exactly the way he’d dictated. But at the end she added, “I love you, Daddy. Don’t worry about us. I mean, me. We’re both fine.”

“Nicely done, little bit. Now I need you to dial Matt. Put him on the speaker so you can hear what he says, too.” He gave her the telephone number, but the voice who answered sounded so much like Cruz that it was almost eerie. There were no pleasantries after Matt’s initial hello. “Matty,” he said quietly. “It’s me. I need your help.”

There was a brief silence before he responded. “How bad is it, bro?”

“Bad. Off the grid bad. I’m not sure who’s going to be looking for us or how deep their pockets run.”

Another long silence. “I’m guessing this has something to do with the cute little president’s daughter we talked about. You’ve been with her since the explosion?”

“Yep,” he responded.

Despite Cruz’s cryptic short answers, Matt seemed to understand everything, but Victoria was getting frustrated. “Tell him—” Cruz cut her off with a glare, and she shrank back into her seat with an obvious pout.

“She’s there, huh?” said Matt with a chuckle. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, little lady. What do you need, Alec?”

“Food for a week or so, clothes to fit me and about a size eight wom—”

“Size six,” she hissed, sucking in her stomach.

Cruz glared at her a second time. “Buy a boatload of the ugliest sweats and t-shirts you can find in large. That should do the trick.”

“And what about protection?” Matt added with a chuckle.

Victoria looked at his crotch with her mouth open, and Cruz sighed. “He means weapons, Victoria. Stop visualizing me naked.”

Despite the seriousness, Matt laughed out loud. “Good god, Alec. What the hell have you gotten yourself into? I’m guessing you have your own little store of both types of protection. I’ll take care of everything else. You thinking Aldi’s place?”

“Yeah. We’re still about eight hours away, though.”

“I’ll be there in four. Should give me enough time to get everything set. And I’ll call Christian and Casey, too, so they can keep an eye on Mom and Dad and the girls. If the press gets wind that you’re missing along with her, they’ll be all over them.”

They settled on a few more details before Matt hung up, and Cruz dropped the phone on the console between them. She didn’t speak. One mile of highway became the same as the last and darkness settled over the cab, offering a small sense of anonymity from the light traffic. Despite her nerves, the entire day had been too much, and she fell asleep curled into a ball with her bunny clutched to her chest.

She was in a deep, unsettling slumber filled with nightmares that were real when Cruz gently woke her, leaving her unhappy and grumpy. The flat woods and commercial highway along the Delmarva Peninsula had been replaced by a mountain shadowed expressway in the middle of nowhere. Rubbing her eyes, she had no idea where they were, and truthfully didn’t want to ask.

“Climb into the back of the cab again,” he said. “We were lucky enough to have almost a full tank back there, but I need gas up ahead, and I’ll bring you something to eat too. I have to pay in cash, so I’ll be a few minutes. Stay in the car. Keep the phone and call 911 if anything happens while I’m gone. I’ll keep an eye on the truck from the window, but it’s the best we can do.”

“I’m going to have to pee sooner or later,” she mumbled. “You can’t keep me in the car for hours without going to the bathroom.”

“You already know that’s going to involve some bushes and the side of the road,” he said with a sigh. “I’m not even sure why you’re bringing it up.”

She couldn’t even respond to that indignity, but when he left her alone in the truck, the silence was deafening. She tried to be still, but the small burner phone was the first window to the real world that she’d had for days. With only a moment’s hesitation, she dialed Amanda’s number.

“Hello?” said the comforting, familiar voice.

“Manda,” she said, her voice breaking slightly under the emotional weight. “It’s me, Victoria.”

“Tory,” she exclaimed in a rush. “Where the hell are you? I’ve left like a bazillion messages, and I even had my dad reach out to your dad, but he was completely brushed off. Are you safe?”

“I… I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “I’m with Cruz. He’s amazing, and we’ve grown… close… but I don’t even know what to think anymore.”

“Close?” she responded. “Like in, you’re sleeping with him?”

Those two sentences didn’t belong together. No matter how good the sex was, it wasn’t a game-changing part of their relationship. Her feelings ran much deeper, but there was no time to explain to Amanda. “I’ve got to go, honey,” she said softly. “He’s going to be back in a minute. I just wanted to hear your voice and tell you that I was okay.”

“Wait,” shouted Amanda. “You can’t hang up on me. Where are you? I can come to you and support you. Just tell me where.”

“I don’t even know. I think we’re heading toward New York City, but I have to hang up before he comes back. He’s crazy into secret keeping, so don’t tell anybody I called, okay?”

“Of course not, but this isn’t right. Please, Victoria, tell me where you are. You shouldn’t be alone with everything that’s going on.”

“I’m not alone, really. I’ve got a lot of support, and I’ll try to call later if I can get his phone away from him again, but I really have to go. Goodbye, Amanda.”

She ended the call and deleted the record from his calls log, the touch of guilt burning a small hole in her tummy. Wrapping the dirty blanket further around her, she pulled the bunny next to her cheek and closed her eyes as tightly as she could to stop the tears.

Chapter Fifteen

She was out like a light when he bumped the stolen car down the rutted, unpaved driveway that led to his buddy’s wooded cabin in the Finger Lakes region of New York, but he didn’t try to waken her. While they weren’t miles into the Alaska wilderness, with no street lights or sidewalks in sight, his little city girl might be happier if she didn’t realize exactly how far off the grid they were until daylight.

Matt was leaning against the railing on the front porch when Cruz parked the truck on the gravel driveway next to his brother’s SUV. Moving to the passenger side, he quietly opened the door and tried to lift her into his arms, but she startled, her eyes wide with fear. She instinctively punched out with a well-placed right jab that connected firmly to his jaw. “Easy, little bit,” he said softly with a small grimace while Matt laughed. “It’s just me.”

The calm tone settled her enough to cuddle her head to his chest. “I need my bunny,” she whimpered in a dramatic return to her little girl self, and Cruz shifted her weight to grab it from her vacated seat.

She remained quiet while he moved her through the semi-dark great room to the bed tucked underneath the second story sleeping loft. Slipping off her jeans and sneakers, he snugged her between the sheets before collapsing beside her, his muscles slowly lessening their tense hold. His intent was to stay awake long enough to talk to Matt and gain any new updates, but the stress that had accumulated in his system for days finally defeated him. Knowing that his brother had their backs, he fell into a deep slumber.

By the time he woke up, the sun had been around long enough to evaporate the morning dew, leaving a chilly September morning. The leaves were starting to show signs of the changing season with the real color explosion still a few weeks away, but fall was one of his favorite times of the year to be away from the city. Putting his arms behind his head, he took a few minutes to connect to the expansive view out the floor-to-ceiling windows in the two-story great room, the green meadows and small tree line reaching to the horizon before catching a glimmer of Keuka Lake in the distance. Matt sat on the deck with his back to him, watching the view with a cup of something steaming.

He quietly slipped out of bed, pulling the covers a little closer around her shoulders to help counter the warmth she’d lose when he left. He showered before finding a clean pair of jeans and a navy blue t-shirt in a bunch of discarded shopping bags and joined his brother with his own cup of coffee and a dry bagel from the kitchen counter.

“You the only one up?” asked Matt with a grin.

“It will be good for her to sleep a little,” he said, moving Matt’s sweatshirt to take the heavy Adirondack chair next to him. “The last few days have been life-changing. What are we looking at around here?”

“I’ve got a trip line started around the cabin but didn’t want to finish it until you knew where it was. Motion detector cameras in the front and back send alerts to my phone, but I had to hack into a neighbor’s Wi-Fi to make it work. Plus I have enough blankets and fabrics to block out the lights, even in the great room if you want more privacy. That old barn would probably take both cars.”

“I don’t know,” Cruz said. “Neighbors could wander past, and people can see the cabin from the lake if they looked hard enough. It might be better to let them think we’re just normal people visiting. You don’t have your sheriff’s vehicle, so it should be fine.”

“You’re not on the news yet,” Matt said, “and I haven’t heard anything from Gray, either, so I don’t think anybody official is looking for you.”

“I’m glad she’s still working for the FBI. You should have married her when you had the chance.” Cruz would never find words to express his appreciation for Matt’s unquestioning support, but he had to try. “This means a lot to me, Matt. Thanks for being here.”

Before Matt could respond, the back slider opened and Victoria came out wrapped in the big white fluffy blanket off the bed, her hair tousled from sleep and her eyes a little blurry. There were plenty of other seats on the expansive deck, but Cruz patted his lap and she came to him with a small pout and settled into his arms. “Where the hell are we?” she mumbled grumpily, setting her head on his shoulder before taking his coffee cup for herself. “I thought you said we were going to New York.”

“We are in New York,” he responded. “Upstate, near the Finger Lakes. That’s Keuka Lake in the distance and when the leaves fall off the trees, you can see the lights from Penn Yan to the north. This place belongs to a buddy of ours who’s stationed in Germany for another year. He told us we can use it anytime we want, so we aren’t breaking any laws. And don’t drink all of my coffee. I’ll get you your own cup.”

“I thought you meant New York City,” she continued to grumble. “I’m not exactly the outdoorsy type, in case you haven’t noticed. Are there bears and mountain lions around here?”

Matt laughed. “There’s a lot of New York that isn’t in the city, little lady, so never insult an upstater by mixing the two. Hi, I’m Matias Cruz, it’s nice to meet you when you’re wide awake and not punching my brother’s chin.”

“Hi,” she said, holding the coffee cup out of Cruz’s reach when he tried to take it back. “You look like your brother, but you’re even bigger than he is. Was he always this bossy? Because he drives me nuts sometimes.”

“Worse,” admitted Matt with a grin. “Does he still do that thing where he says that he’s being calm, but the look of fire in his eyes is enough to light up half of Orlando? He really never developed his listening skills, either, even after I got big enough to kick his ass.”

“Right?” said Victoria, leaning closer to Matt’s side. “I mean, he gets something in his head and there’s—”

“You both remember that I’m still here, right?” asked Cruz, rolling his eyes. “And for the record, Matt’s never managed to kick anybody’s ass. Come on, let’s get you some breakfast and me another cup of coffee since I don’t think I’m getting that one back. Matt bought you some new clothes too, so you can take a shower.”

“See what I mean,” whispered Victoria dramatically while Matt nodded his head in agreement.

She slid the blanket off her shoulders revealing the same jeans and shirt she’d worn the day before, but she was shivering when they went in the house. “It’s freezing in here. Can we turn on the heat?”

“There’s no furnace,” said Matt absently. “They shut everything down in the winter. I had to flush all the antifreeze out of the pipes yesterday.”

“How could there not be a furnace?” she asked tentatively. Her next question held a touch of panic. “Is there hot water?”

“Plumbing and limited hot water, yes; furnace, Wi-Fi, internet, cable, no,” said Cruz, popping her bagel in the toaster. “What did you think off the grid meant, anyway? This is a four-star resort compared to where I could have taken you.”

“I don’t know… third floor walkup, maybe,” she mumbled.

“She’s adorable, Alec,” said Matt with another laugh. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

“Adorable,” repeated Cruz flatly, cutting some apples at the kitchen counter. “But let’s lay down the rules right now so there isn’t any confusion.” Pointing the small paring knife in her direction, he lectured. “One. You don’t leave this cabin beyond the trip wire that we’ll show you after breakfast. It’s designed to warn us about intruders but it can work as a little boundary reminder for you, too. Two. You’ll obey Matt’s instructions as though they are my own, and three… Well, three is to just behave yourself. Don’t get snippy even when you get bored.”

“You sure you don’t want to add an electronic dog collar to that little mix?” she mumbled.

He chose to ignore her, and she started on the bagel and fruit without saying a word, but he recognized the pouty, grumpy little girl that was just waiting to break into a tantrum. He handed her a grocery store quality donut hoping that the sugar would help her mood, but after twenty minutes, she still looked pretty immovable, and he had one major hurdle to overcome. “Before you take a shower,” he said casually, “let’s get your hair taken care of.”

She jumped from the chair and took the half dozen steps to stand in front of the big stone fireplace with her arms crossed. “I already told you that you aren’t going to touch my hair.”

“I’m not spending the next few days arguing with you about everything,” he said, trying to keep his temper under control. “Get your ass over here, or I’ll tie you down to do this, but one way or the other, we’re dying your damn hair.”

“Why do you have to be such a bully?” she shouted, picking up a book from the coffee table like she was prepared to throw it at him. “You aren’t using dog scissors on me, either, like I’m some sort of poodle.”

Before he could respond, Matt stepped in smoothly and wrapped his arms around Victoria. “Yeah, Alec. Why do you have to be such a bully? You’re scaring her.”

“Be careful,” said Cruz with a sigh. “She bites when she doesn’t get her own way.”

“No, she doesn’t,” said Matt soothingly. “Come on, kitten. Let’s talk about this whole hair thing. Let Matt help you fix it.”

Victoria sniffled a little, but she took a deep breath and dropped the book back on the table, the simple action simultaneously calming both of them. Short of tying her up and butchering her hair when she moved all over the place, a relaxed Victoria would make this a hell of a lot easier and if Matt could help, more power to him.

“He wants to chop off all my hair,” she whimpered. “With dog scissors. But I love my hair. It’s been part of who I am forever.”

“Poor thing,” soothed Matt, patting her back while she buried her head in his shoulder and shed a few more tears. “If it’s so important to you, why would he want to cut it? It doesn’t sound very nice.”

“Be-because he’s mean,” she stammered. “And because people might figure out who I am if they get too close to the cabin and…” She stopped talking when she reconnected to that whole horrible message. Wiping her nose with the back of her hand, she sighed. “I need to do this, don’t I? But does he really know what he’s doing? I don’t want to look like I’m ready for the Westminster Dog Show.”

“I’m sure the scissors are fine, but it wouldn’t have killed him to get the real thing, would it?” said Matt firmly. “And yes, he can cut simple, straight lines, and you can get it professionally trimmed when this is all over. And the dye is easy to change back to that pretty color as soon as you get home.”

It was a much calmer few hours than he’d imagined with Matt holding her hand and sharing stories about the Cruz brothers’ childhood, most of which made him look like an idiot but it was nice to see her smile a little. The dye job went smoothly, but the six solid inches of wet autumn-brown hair hitting the ground almost made her whimper. They didn’t show her what it looked like until after she’d showered and dressed in clean, size eight jeans that were a tiny bit loose and a long-sleeved Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, Matt’s favorite team.

“It’s boring,” she mumbled with a frown, carefully checking out the finished product in the bathroom mirror. “I look like everybody else, but I guess that’s what you wanted. And I guess that you did an okay job, even if there aren’t any highlights.”

Compared to that little drama, the rest of the day remained anticlimactic. He and Matt spent hours finishing up the final security details and making a few phone calls to get the latest information from Matt’s sources, but it was apparent that his little spitfire was unhappy. Each time she touched her hair, her face fell, making him feel more like a jerk than her protector. After a dinner of sirloin steaks and baked potatoes that she pretty much picked at, she washed the dishes while Cruz dried them. She still spoke very little before moving to the deck where she curled into a ball with her legs pulled up to her chin and the blanket over her head with only a small opening for her eyes to face the sunset.

Rummaging through Matt’s food supplies, Cruz found a box of soft chocolate chip cookies and joined her. She didn’t move when he took the chair next to her, and he held out the open box to let the cookies speak for themselves. She sniffled a little as though she might have been crying, and when she moved in the chair, her bunny fell from the blankets. Cruz handed it back to her, and she snuggled it into her cocoon before taking a cookie.

“I’m sorry, little bit,” he said sincerely. “It’s been a long few days for me too, but I should have had more patience over your hair. I know what it means to you.”

“No,” she dismissed awkwardly, allowing the blanket to fall to her shoulders. “As hard as I try to forget sometimes, I’m an adult and you were right all along. I don’t want to be so shallow that I’m defined by something superficial like hair color, but I feel like I’m ten years old. I think that’s the last time my hair was this short and this color. Don’t worry about me, and I’m sorry I was a brat. But disagreeing is going to happen in any relationship, isn’t it?”

“Probably. But I can still feel guilty over it. I don’t like making you unhappy.”

She thought for a minute, taking tiny little bites out of the cookie as though she were prepared to make it last. “You know, if there were some milk to go along with that box of cookies, it would help. Dramatically.”

“I think I can handle that,” he said with a smirk, but he didn’t move. Taking her hand, he leaned back into the chair to watch the sun set with a fiery display of color that glistened off the distant lake. He squeezed her hand a little tighter, adding, “You know, as long as you’re in that chair next to me, I don’t care what your hair looks like. I plan on hanging onto you for a long time. I’ll work on the rest of it.”

For the first time in days, she truly smiled. “Thank you, Agent Cruz, but you don’t need to ever change. You’re the jerk I fell in love with, so there’s no take-backs, got it?”

“Got it,” he said with a chuckle. “How are you feeling out here? Is it still tough?”

“Not as bad as before,” she admitted. “I’m sure there are people nearby, but not being able to see any of them helps. Two Cruz brothers and a boatload of guns helps, too.”

“Matt did a good job of securing the place,” said Cruz. “He’s former Navy counter-intelligence, so I knew that he’d be the best man for the job. And his old girlfriend is pretty high up in the FBI, so she’s been a great source of information. The investigation is still pointing to Teresa’s connection to an anarchist group called Hardcore who’s hated the government in general for the last three presidencies. We gave her the plates on the car that tried to nab you, but I’m not holding my breath. Only an idiot would attempt a kidnapping and use their own car.”

“I’ll be glad when this is all over,” she said, taking another cookie from the box. “I bet I’ve already gained ten pounds with all of this sugar, stress eating.”

“We’ve got a lot of good people working on it, Victoria. We’ll get a break soon.”

“Something’s got to give,” she said sadly. “I just don’t want it to be me.”

That’s all until next week’s installment! If you’re aching to finish right now, though, just click below and buy the book!

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