Alternate Modern Universe
Christopher Larabee groaned as he settled himself into the cab. "Kennedy Airport," he called to the driver.
The vehicle swung into traffic, pressing Chris into the seat. He laid his head back and thought about the meeting he'd just attended. Four excruciating hours, trying to convince politicians that the taxpayers' money would be better spent on public programs than in their own pockets, all for naught. What a complete waste of time. Now he had to go back and relate his latest failure to his men and the company. This was the last in a long line of failures, flops and missteps. Maybe his inner voice was right and it was time to just let it all go. But that thinking was suited for a better moment, not now.
Shaking his head to draw himself back to the present, Chris glanced out the window and watched the city go by. Before he knew it, the taxi slid in beside the airport door. Holding his bag in one hand, Chris exited the cab, leaned over, and asked the cabbie how much the fare was.
"Twenty two dollars," the driver said, his voice soft but rough.
Chris pulled out a twenty and a five, handing them over before he actually registered the voice. "Keep the change." Recognition finally worked its way into his politician-numbed brain and Chris's head snapped up in a classic double take, looking closer at the driver's face, partially hidden beneath a ball cap. It couldn't be! His voice shook on a single word. "Vin?"
Blue eyes quickly looked away.
Astonished, the blond opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter another word, the cabbie slammed down his foot and sped away. Chris stood alone at the curb, staring after the disappearing taxicab. He memorized the license plate while he snapped open his cell phone. Two rings and a voice answered.
"Buck, I've found them."
Vin raced home, barely pausing for red lights. He knew it was only a matter of time before Larabee tracked him back to the cab company, and they had to get out before that happened. He slid into a space at the corner, racing across the sidewalk and up the four flights of stairs to the apartment. Crashing through the door, he ran into the bedroom and roughly shook the sleeping form.
"JD . . . JD, wake up, we gotta go." He flipped up the shade, flooding the room with light.
The young man yawned widely, blinking sleep from his eyes. "What. . .? What's wrong?"
"They've found us."
Chris caught another taxi to the headquarters of the cab company that Vin had been driving for. Thinking back, he wondered what went wrong. How had he failed? He still didn't understand; his thoughts jumbled and changed every second.
The past year had been pure hell. Not since the death of his family had Chris felt such loss and utter helplessness. Almost twelve months ago Vin had disappeared off the face of the earth and, to Buck's consternation, taken JD with him. No note. No explanation. No clues. All that remained was an empty loft.
Of course, they all had suspected foul play until a witness was found at the airport. She stated she saw the two men board a private plane together. Neither was being forced or coerced. They simply marched across the tarmac and climbed onto the small plane. JD was a remarkable pilot; he'd worked hard to get a license for both fixed-wing and helicopters.
The filed flight plan was false, and the pilot was found an hour later drinking coffee in the lounge, not realizing that his plane was gone. The plane showed up at a small private airfield outside of Regent, Tennessee, but no signs of them were found.
Tanner and Dunne had cleared out their bank accounts the day before their disappearance, which lent credence to the conclusion that they had, indeed, left by choice. The shattered group had hired countless private investigators, to no avail. It came down to Vin Tanner and his incredible skills. Vin had learned a lot in his days as a bounty hunter; he knew the ways to avoid being found as well as the ways to find people. It was pure chance Chris had seen him today.
Jerked back into the present by the slowing taxicab, Chris paid the driver and walked into the grubby main office. Sitting behind the desk was a middle-aged man with very few strands of his gray hair left, and an unsociable attitude that fairly screamed, "Don't bother me."
Using his vast resources of persuasion, a picture from his wallet, and fifty dollars cash, he got the owner, Frank, to "remember" Vin.
"Oh, Vince? Yep, he's my best cabbie. Wadn't even from around here, but he could always find his way around never got lost."
"That's Vince all right," Larabee said, using Vin's alias easily. "How long has he worked here?"
"'Bout five months." The balding man eyed Chris warily. "You say he took off?"
"Yes, he did."
"Guess I should report the cab stolen," Frank murmured to himself. "O' course if he ends up bringin' it back, I can drop the charges." He seemed to notice Chris was still standing there. "I'll be sorry to see him go. Good worker . . . and quiet."
"I was looking for another man, too. You ever see him around?" Chris showed the cab owner a picture of JD.
Frank nodded. "That's his cousin, Jack. Yeah, he'd meet 'im here for lunch ev'ry week or so."
"Really." Chris worked hard to maintain a calm façade while inside he was jumping for joy. "So, he didn't work here?"
"Nah, I think he worked over on Coolidge as a waiter." The cab company manager made a show of thinking. "Bartoli's deli?"
"Thanks, you've been a big help." Chris started for the door before swinging around. "Oh, one more thing, do you have an address for Vince?"
"I don't know if I should be givin' that away." Frank squinted up at Larabee. "Maybe he had a reason for takin' off on you."
Five minutes later, and another fifty dollars poorer, Chris was on his way to where his friend had lived for the past few months.
"How'd he find us?"
"I drove him to the airport."
"You're shitting me!"
"What're the chances of that happening in a city this big? It's gotta be astronomical!" JD shook his head in bewilderment. "What was he doing here, anyway?"
"I don't know, JD. It ain't like I stopped to chat with 'im."
Vin parked his cab in the long-term parking lot at LaGuardia. He and JD grabbed their bags out of the car and locked it up tight. They hoped that their friends would think they grabbed a plane to somewhere, which would buy them time while they tried to work out what to do next. They caught another cab back into the city, directing the driver to one of the area's crappiest motels.
"We can't keep her here for long," JD said, wrinkling his nose. "This is no place for a kid."
"I know," Vin replied, his tone bordering on frustration. "I think we got enough saved to go ahead with the plan."
"What about Chris and 'em?"
"We'll stay here for a week or so. Hopefully they'll give up and we can take off."
"Yeah," muttered JD under his breath, "that'll happen." He looked around the room at the filthy floor, dusty dresser, and the equally dirty comforter. "First things first. We need to get to a store, buy some cleaning supplies and take these bedclothes to a Laundromat. No way am I keeping her here in squalor."
"You start on that, and I'll go pick her up."
"You sure they won't be able to trace us from there?"
"To them she don't even exist, and there's no way Tracey would tell strangers anything 'bout us. She's way too protective." Vin shrugged into his jacket. "Don't worry, I'll take a couple different cabs and busses there. Ain't no way to be traced back."
"I'll get this placed cleaned and ready. Good luck."
"It ain't luck, kid, it's skill." Vin smirked as he left, covering the worry he still felt.
Pieces of the Puzzle:
A hundred dollars got Chris into Vin's and JD's nearly empty apartment. They must've left hastily, otherwise he knew Vin wouldn't have left a trace for him to find.
It was a two-bedroom unit, but Chris could tell the sofa had been used as a bed. Why?
He found his answer in the second bedroom: a child's room. Stuffed animals stared back at him from different spots around the room while a toy doll rested near the closet doors. There was a crib in one corner, complete with a sea-life mobile and matching sheet set. Next to the crib was a tiny dresser, clothes draped over one of the open drawers. The haphazard display led Chris to think Vin and JD had left in a hurry, most likely because of him, taking what they could and leaving the rest.
The surroundings gave him an understanding of what they might be protecting, or hiding, but he still didn't understand why.
Chris flipped open his cell phone and hit redial.
"Did ya catch up with them?" Buck practically yelled when he answered.
"No. I found the apartment they were living in. Empty place, not much here."
"No sign of where they went?"
"Not a one. Bring everyone here," Larabee told him. "Screw everything else."
"I already have the jet fueling. We'll be there in a couple hours." Buck sighed. "Just what has Vin gotten JD into?" he asked, his angry tone ringing clear.
"We don't know the whole story, pard," Chris responded, familiar with Buck's resentment since their friends' disappearance. He glanced around the child's room.
"That's exactly my problem."
"I'll call once I find a hotel."
On the way back from the Laundromat, JD stopped at a drugstore, picking up three rolls of paper towels, a bucket, and a large bottle of Lysol. He set the clean bedclothes in a corner and rolled up his sleeves, getting to work. Filling the bucket with water and disinfectant, the young man ripped the plastic off the towels and tore off a bunch. Dipping in, he started scrubbing the room down. The monotony of the action left his mind open for memories to flood in.
He didn't remember how he had gotten enrolled into the secretarial program. Perhaps because the money left from his mother hadn't been enough for the computer courses he'd wanted to take. Wandering around the college, he'd seen the description for the course, liked what he'd read, and signed up immediately.
Through the grapevine, as he neared graduation, he'd heard about an opportunity at Four Corners Corporation. The president of the company, notoriously short-tempered, had fired yet another executive assistant, leaving an opening.
Since JD had been at the top of his class and a favorite, his professor had finagled an interview for the lad. JD chuckled when he remembered the interview. It had been such a disaster: he'd been too early, eager to make a good impression; stuttered through most of his welcome; and then spilled coffee on Larabee. He still didn't know why he'd been hired. Buck had come in during the interview after the spilled coffee incident and twenty minutes later he had a job. The best job he could ever want.
The executives at Four Corners Corporation were more like friends than coworkers, and even spent their spare time in each other's company. Somehow JD had been invited into their tight-knit circle and fit right in, finding his niche. During the two years of working for Chris and Buck, he'd become part of something special.
Then came the phone call.
"Yes, who is th . . . Nikki?"
"I need your help."
"Anything," JD replied instantly. He'd grown up next door to the Harris family. From three to eighteen years of age, Nicole and he had been almost inseparable. He loved her as a sister. Then his ma had died and he'd had to move. JD had no idea how Nicole had tracked him down, but he would do his best to help her with anything she asked.
Nicole gave a harsh chuckle. "You may want to rethink that." There was a long pause and a choked off sob. "I want you to kidnap my daughter," she finally whispered.
JD listened in shock while she told him how her husband, David Murphy, a prominent councilman in their small town, abused her. She couldn't go to the police again; she'd tried once before and been beaten severely for her effort. They didn't believe her word against her husband's. In their eyes, David could do no wrong. She'd also tried to run away, but he'd tracked her easily and brought her home. She was afraid for her life and also that of her newborn baby whose mere existence seemed to anger the man. He had recently started to make remarks about the child not being his, so she feared for the baby's safety as well.
Without a thought for his own life, JD made plans to meet her the next day. Hanging up the phone, he quickly made a list of what he would need to pull this off. The hardest part would be leaving his new family, but he couldn't refuse to help his old friend.
Somehow, Vin had found out what he was planning and refused to let him do it alone. The ex-bounty hunter knew how to get lost and, between the two of them, they made a clean getaway, with the baby.
Since the councilman had reported his daughter, Rose Marie, kidnapped, the men were officially fugitives from the law. To help disguise the baby, they changed her name. Fortunately, she was young enough not to notice. They started calling her Alexandra Leigh, the name Nicole had wanted in the first place, but that her husband had vetoed. They even came up with forged documents, courtesy of a man Vin knew from the "wrong side of the tracks." They were good enough to pass the most stringent checks; money had made sure of that.
JD and Vin used a private email address to let Nicole know how her daughter was doing. Taking pictures with a digital camera, they sent her an update every other week. The long-term plan was to save enough money to buy a house in a small town and set up Nicole and her daughter for life. Once they'd arranged everything, Vin would help Nicole vanish for good: an apparent suicide by a mother despondent over her still-missing daughter.
Things had been going along according to plan. Another few months and the two men would have saved enough money to set the ladies up well. Now JD wasn't sure what would happen. The only thing he knew for certain was that he couldn't allow Vin or anyone else to go to jail for his choices.
Chris paced back and forth around the center of the hotel suite, trying to put the pieces together and coming up blank. He'd really thought the seven of them had become close . . . like brothers. It made no sense why Vin and JD would leave.
His company, Four Corners Corporation, had been started on a wing and a prayer. An acquaintance of Chris' Nathan Jackson somehow convinced him that Jackson's latest invention would make them a small fortune, but he needed investors. Chris had some money saved, but not enough. He brought in his oldest friend and financial wizard, Brantley "Buck" Wilmington, and they created a business plan.
All three men went to Orrin Travis for startup capital. Surprisingly, it hadn't taken them long to convince the entrepreneur their plan was sound. Nathan became head of Research and Development. His friend, Josiah Sanchez, an ex-military commander, was hired as their head of Security. Ezra Standish was stolen away from a competing company, on the understanding that he would share in the company's profits. The smooth-talking salesman was put in charge of their Sales Department. The company wasn't large, but it was both affluent and powerful; Nathan's team made great improvements to already existing products, along with inventing and patenting new ones.
After Larabee received a death threat, Vin Tanner, from Security, was tagged to become Chris' personal bodyguard. At first, the company's president balked at the very thought. Having someone accompany him everywhere was unnerving, but Josiah had insisted. Over the next several weeks, Chris found himself drawn to the soft-spoken, longhaired man. Vin had the ability to blend into the background, almost become invisible, but always remaining watchful. Other times he would show his quiet strength, letting anyone around know that the CEO was protected. Josiah had chosen well. Once the threat was eliminated, Vin stayed on full time as the official executive protector.
Three years ago, a green kid, fresh out of college, had joined their organization. Larabee still didn't know why he'd hired the lad. Maybe because of the way Buck had reacted, instantly taking the young man under his wing. Chris had never before seen a reaction like that from his vice president and longtime friend.
Before long, the seven men were getting together more and more outside of work to go to the bar, or out to Larabee's homestead for a weekly poker game. Slowly, they had become more of a family than a business unit. Then, at the end of the two years, it had shattered into pieces.
In the middle of his introspection, there was a knock on the suite's main door. Chris strolled over and opened it. Josiah and Nathan strode in, followed closely by Ezra and Buck.
"Any more news?" Buck asked, dropping his bag on the floor and flopping onto the nearest couch.
Ezra moved into one of the rooms to deposit his bags.
"Should we call the cops?" Nathan asked.
"No," Chris said, with a shake of his head. "I'd rather not involve them unless necessary. Vin and JD must've had a reason for their actions."
"Besides, they'd be considered low priority," Josiah stated. "They are adults who left of their own accord, after all."
"I agree." Ezra walked out of the bedroom, straightening his tie. "We will have to find our wayward associates ourselves."
"Any ideas where to start?" Nathan asked.
"I could go back and talk to that guy at the taxi place," Josiah offered. "See if the car was found yet."
Chris nodded. "Good."
"I shall discover whether there are any small aircraft missing from any of the area's airports."
"Yeah," Buck agreed, "maybe they pulled the same trick again."
"Who's minding the store?" Chris suddenly asked, realizing the company's entire administrative staff was here.
"Francis has it covered for now," Nathan said, referring to Francis Corcoran; he'd been hired as an executive assistant after JD left. "I called Orrin. He'll be flying in and will take care of major decisions for a week or so." No longer connected with the day-to-day workings with the company, Travis still liked to keep his fingers in the pie. "I can head over to the apartment, see if I can find anything," Jackson offered.
"No!" Chris said, a bit too forcefully. "I mean, I figured I would take Buck over and show him."
Nathan shrugged. "Sure, Chris, no problem. I'll go over and interview the people at the deli JD worked at."
"All right, that's a good idea. Why don't you guys unpack and I'll order us some grub." Chris moved toward the phone.
A few curious glances were exchanged, but the men moved off as directed.
Buck hung back from the group. He moved close to Chris and whispered, "What'd you find at the apartment?"
The blond glanced around, making sure no one else was listening. "A kid's room," he responded in a low voice.
"Shush," he quietly ordered.
"Do you think one of 'em has a kid?"
"Anything's possible," Chris answered. "But I can't believe either would've kept it from us."
"Like you wouldn't believe they could take off without a word and disappear?"
"I'll go see the room for myself." Buck jerked his head toward the room. "We'll have to tell the others, though."
"I know, I know. I'm just not sure what to tell them."
"You'll think of something, pard." Wilmington slapped his friend on the shoulder as he walked past. He grabbed his bag and took it into the farthest room.
"Yeah," Chris muttered to himself. "I'll think of something."
"We can't stay here any longer," JD said, looking at the dingy surroundings in contempt. He had laid Alexa down for her nap on the farthest bed. Moving around the obstacle, he sat down on the desk chair across from Vin. "It's been five days. You think it's safe?"
"Safe as we're gonna get," Vin replied. "I'll go and get the money, you pack up. We'll rent a car to get us out of the city, and then buy one to get us the rest of the way." He stood up and snatched his jacket from the bed.
"Where're we headed?"
"South." Vin hesitated at the door. He knew his question would spark an argument, but he would try one last time. With his hand on the knob, he asked without turning, "You think we should tell the guys? We could use their help."
"No, no way!" JD refused adamantly. "I didn't even want you involved, but you wouldn't let me leave without you."
"'Course not." Vin whipped around and faced his friend. "You weren't going nowhere all alone."
"I told you before, I don't want to drag anyone else down," JD continued quietly. "I don't know if this is gonna end well, and I can't have the fact that I put you all in prison on my conscience."
"You didn't make me do anything. I chose to come with you. Hell, I forced you to take me along."
Dunne chuckled. "Yeah, right. I'm sure that'll convince the authorities."
Tanner shrugged, giving an embarrassed grin in return. "It's worth a shot," he countered. Exiting, he called, "I'll be back in an hour or so. Be ready."
"Yes, sir," JD snapped sarcastically. He smiled at the hand gesture sent through the door, just before it closed. The weight of reality quickly returned, and the smile disappeared as he grabbed the nearest duffel bag to fill it.
Josiah Sanchez let out a sigh of frustration. Nearly a week in the city, and they were no closer to finding their missing friends. No one at Bartoli's Deli had known anything of use, all small planes were accounted for, and there was no proof the two had flown out. After two days of searching, the men had been stymied.
That's when Ezra had spotted the bank. It was on the same block as JD's and Vin's apartment, and a likely, convenient place for the two to do their banking. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only bank in the city there were twelve more branches. Left with no other option, the five men decided to stake out the various bank offices, hoping against hope that Vin or JD would need to return to get money out. Since there were only five of them, they took turns with the different branches, regrettably leaving various offices un-watched some days.
Josiah lurked in a coffee shop across the street from a branch near the deserted apartment. He had been there since 7 a.m., and after six hours of consuming coffee, could honestly say he should be able to run home when this was over. Luckily, his intentionally unfriendly aura had kept the coffee shop workers from asking too many questions about his interminable consumption of caffeine.
He glanced at his watch again. Four more hours until the bank closed, and another day wasted. Silently sending up a prayer, he resumed his observation. Apparently, the Lord was feeling generous, because Josiah spotted Vin strolling into the bank. The man had a ball cap over his hair, but there was no mistaking that walk.
Quickly dialing his cell as he made his way across the street, Josiah failed to see the relief on the faces of the coffee house workers at his retreat.
"Chris, it's Josiah. I've found Vin."
"Tenth Street branch."
"Okay, follow him, but make sure he doesn't see you. He'll bolt."
"Yes, brother, I know. I'll call you back."
"I'll let everyone else know to head your way."
The security expert signed off and closed his phone. Sanchez waited patiently while Vin conducted his business inside. Ducking around a corner when the man in question came out, Josiah watched as Vin checked each direction before heading west. Vin was being cautious, but Josiah was determined not to let his friend disappear again.
After twenty minutes of skulking and stalking, Sanchez saw his prey go into a shit-hole no-tell motel. He dialed Chris' number again, gave him the motel name and cross street, and then melted into the nearby building's shadows to wait.
This time finding Vin's room didn't cost Chris a dime, due solely to the combined intimidation abilities of Buck and Josiah. Room number obtained, they charged up the stairs to the third floor, but Larabee hesitated at the door, holding everyone back.
"Go on, pard," Buck motioned. "'Least they owe us some explanation."
Chris nodded, determination wiping out the apprehension on his face. The lack of a peephole would work in their favor. He knocked on the door. Muffled voices could be heard from inside and then footsteps came toward the door.
Chris held his breath as the doorknob turned, and jerked slightly when the door opened. He hurriedly stuck his foot into the doorframe, just in case it was slammed shut.
But all Chris saw on Vin's face was resigned acceptance.
Tanner's head dipped down and he called over his shoulder. "JD, we got company."
"Who is it?"
Vin looked directly into Larabee's eyes as he answered, "The devil and his pissed-off minions."
Dunne looked up from where he was changing Alexa's diaper to see five men troop into the now-teeny motel room. "Oh, shit."
Chris didn't get to say a word before he was pushed aside by his taller, angrier, oldest friend.
Wilmington got right up in Vin's face and yelled, "Who the hell do you think you are, dragging JD along with you on your 'big city' adventure? Did you think this was a game? We've been worried sick, thinking something had happened to you both, and you guys have been playing house!" Every word he spoke was louder than the previous, and he stepped closer and closer until he towered over the longhaired ex-bodyguard, leaving no space between them, glaring down with fury etched in his features.
Vin remained rigid through the verbal assault, not saying a word, not moving a muscle.
Fastening the diaper, a furious JD picked Alexa up and balanced her on his left hip, thrusting himself between Buck and Vin with his right shoulder. The young man's free hand snapped up, tapping his finger to the bigger man's chest. "Now you listen here, Buck. Vin isn't the one who left, it was me." JD continued to poke at his friend with one hand while holding the baby in the other. "I tried to go alone, leave y'all out of this, but he was a friend, and a stupidly stubborn one, too, who wouldn't let me be an idiot by myself."
Buck held up his hands and backed off. "All right, kid, all right." Flustered and chagrinned, he stammered an apology. "S-sorry, Vin."
"It's okay." Vin gave a slight, sad smile. "You was just worried."
Then Buck looked over at the little girl in JD's arms and raised a brow. "Something you wanna share?"
"Not really, no," Dunne admitted with an awkward smile.
Buck's responding chuckle released the rest of the men to welcome their own back into the fold. Wilmington grabbed Dunne in a hug, careful not to squash the little lady in his arms.
Larabee snatched Vin by the scruff of the neck and brought him forward. "You leave again and you're fired," he growled, pulling him into a quick embrace.
"Yes, sir," Vin answered with a choked voice as he accepted the hold for a moment before drawing back.
Then Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah stepped up and took their turns hugging and slapping the backs of their reunited group.
"First thing we need to accomplish is leaving this repulsive lodging and returning to our more austere accommodations," Ezra offered, eyeing the tattered surroundings.
"So what're we going to do?" Nathan asked. The group of seven plus one had returned to the nice hotel suite.
JD had explained the situation, and, after yelling at him again for his recklessness, the men had sat down to discuss the situation. Buck made funny faces at the girl on his lap.
"We have to find a way out of this so these two idiots don't go to prison," Chris said. They needed a way to help Nicole, and do it without getting the two "kidnappers" brought up on federal charges.
"I knew what I was doing when I did this," JD objected. "I'll turn myself in and say I acted alone."
"Not gonna happen, kid," Buck said, cutting off any other protest. "I just got you back, I ain't letting y' go again."
"Let's get out of here and go back home," Josiah stated. "We can work on it there."
"We will all become accessories after the fact," Ezra cautioned.
"Worried?" Vin asked him.
"No, my friend, merely stating the truth." Standish smoothed his hair back and gave a smile, showing off his gold tooth. "Good thing we have a private jet," he added, smirking.
"Pack up, boys," Chris said, "we're going home."
Nicole Murphy sat on her bench and looked out of the bay window to the street beyond, wishing once again that her life had turned out differently. But, with luck and patience, perhaps she might one day achieve the goal she desired happiness with her daughter.
The garage door opened and she jumped up, checking the clock. What was David doing home so early? She hurried to the kitchen to start preparing the evening meal. She stood at the counter, slicing carrots to put in the stew to simmer. From behind her, she could hear his footsteps approach, and hoped they would continue on past.
She was brought out of that illusion by a hand grabbing her hair and yanking back hard. The knife flew out of her hand and clattered on the floor. Nicole tried to stop herself from making noise as she was turned around; David hated when she did. Her eyes watered in pain and she risked a glance up at his face.
What she saw there turned her blood cold. In his eyes, she saw her own death.
"What is this?" he screamed in her face, holding up a picture of their daughter, playing in the park.
It was a picture JD had sent a week prior and she hadn't been able to bring herself to delete yet. David must've hacked into her computer and found the private email account. She cursed inwardly at her own foolishness for letting it stay there. Her brain synapses fired rapidly, trying to recall exactly what the message had said . . . how much he knew.
Her inner monologue was interrupted by a forceful slap, and her neck snapped back brutally.
"I asked you a question!" he roared. "Is this Rose?"
After another painful slap, she whispered, "Yes." She was confused until she remembered that the emails never mentioned her baby's new name. He had no idea that Rose was no longer Rose.
"I want her back!"
"You can't have her!" Fear for her daughter's safety lent her courage. "She's safe."
"But you . . . are not."
One quick punch to her stomach was followed by another, until the pain blurred her thoughts. The pain continued until, at last, she eagerly embraced unconsciousness.
JD sat, watching while Alexa played in the small wading pool Buck had bought as soon as they'd returned. The big man had merely shrugged when the little girl squealed in delight and jumped in.
"Every kid needs a pool," Buck said. "And I ain't digging one for her."
Dunne laughed at his friend's "tough" exterior. They all knew Buck had fallen head-over-heels with Alexa at first sight, even if he pretended otherwise. And the little girl had done the same. Vin and JD joked with each other how they had been with her for a year, and yet the older man had won her love in a few minutes.
The young man muttered, "Animal magnetism," under his breath as he watched her splash in the very shallow water.
Everyone else was back at work, and Ezra was talking to the company's law firm, attempting to work out a legal solution for the two kidnappers. JD's private cell phone rang, breaking the early afternoon tranquility. Knowing there was only one person who knew this number besides him and Vin, JD answered it.
"Yeah, it's me. I need to see you."
He could tell she was on the verge of tears. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine," she quickly assured him too quickly. "I want to see Rose."
"Now?" JD was confused. Why was she calling her "Rose"? She'd been referring to her daughter by her new name.
"Please, I need to see Rosie."
Something was definitely wrong. Nicole would never call her daughter "Rosie." Hesitantly, JD said, "I've flown back to Arizona. I can send you a plane ticket."
"No!" she practically yelled. "I I'll find my own way," Nicole assured him in a lower voice.
"All right," he conceded. "I'm staying with a friend." Thinking fast, JD raced through his limited options. In this difficult situation, he wanted the "home field advantage." He gave her Buck's address. "When are you going to be here?"
"I'll be there sometime tomorrow," she said. And after a moment's pause, added, "Take care of her."
Nicole hung up and JD was staring at the phone in mystified concern. There was definitely trouble coming, and this time he would ask for help.
JD sat across from Vin in Buck's living room. He tapped his hand against his thigh in a staccato rhythm.
The nervous gesture continued for a couple of minutes until Vin finally yelled, "Knock it off, JD!"
"Sorry. Sorry." JD clenched his hand into a fist. The quiet lasted about three minutes before the tapping resumed.
Tanner sighed and rolled his eyes.
A pager went off and JD nearly shrieked. With shaky hands, he brought out the device and read the page: GFI. "She's okay," he said. It was Buck's code meaning, "Go for it!"
Vin sighed in relief and smiled. He looked at his watch. "What time do you suppose he'll be here?" he asked.
"I'm guessing about ten minutes."
The longhaired man nodded as he checked his watch again. "Okay."
Within a few minutes, the two heard a car come up the driveway and park. They exchanged a glance but remained seated, waiting for the trouble to come to them.
The front door to Buck's house was locked, but David Murphy kicked it open and walked in as if he owned the place. He looked around, and saw the small, dark-haired man who had been in the picture with his missing daughter. "Where is she?" Murphy demanded, rushing into the room.
JD was accustomed to powerful men, and this coward didn't instill any fear. He stood up and faced the threat head on. "Who?" he asked in a reasonable voice, looking up with an impassive expression at the taller man.
Vin stood behind his friend in a protective stance, remaining silent.
"My daughter, Rose!" Murphy screamed. "I know you have her!"
"Why do you think that?" JD kept his tone light and even, something that was obviously upsetting the intruder.
"I saw a picture, and you were with her. I want my daughter, you son of a bitch!"
JD ignored the man's question, preferring to challenge him. "How did you find this place? I only told Nicole, and she would never tell you."
"Oh, she didn't want to, but after a few hits. . ." Murphy clenched his fist. "I showed her who was boss."
"You mean you beat her senseless," Dunne translated.
"She shouldn't have kept secrets from me." He gave a smirk. "I just taught her the error of her ways."
JD held his temper, but just barely. He could feel the fury emanating from Vin behind him as he stated, "Since we had the mother's permission when we took the child, technically there was no kidnapping."
"Ask Nikki," JD snapped. "Where is she? I tried calling her, but there was no answer."
"She's not at home," Murphy answered easily. He watched Vin warily, but his attention was riveted on his pint-sized interrogator.
"I don't think that she would want to go anywhere with you voluntarily," JD mused. "Did you force her?"
"She's my wife. I told her where she was going, and that was that."
"So she was made to cross state lines against her will. That's kidnapping, ain't it, Vin?"
Vin nodded. "Reckon so."
"I'll make you a deal, Dave." JD started to stroll around the living room, his hands clasped behind his back. "You walk outta here now, go home, forget you ever had a family, and there won't be charges pressed against you."
"Are you insane?" Murphy laughed, a cold, hard sound. "No deal. You two kidnapped an innocent, defenseless baby. Who do you think is going to believe you?"
At that moment Ezra Standish stepped into the room. "I think the jury will after they see this." He held up a video camera.
The wife-abusing politician looked around at the three slight men and apparently decided he could handle them. Flexing his muscles, he moved forward, intending to teach them a brutal lesson. He charged at JD and started to swing when his arm was grabbed and he was yanked back forcefully. Murphy whipped around to face a giant of a man, and an angry one at that.
"You aren't very smart, Dave," Josiah informed him with a feral grin.
Comprehension dawned quickly to the dazed man. "This was all a setup!"
"'Fraid so," Vin said. "And it worked," he added cheerfully.
"So the deal is this: you leave your wife alone, sign divorce papers, and give up all parental rights to your daughter. . ." JD sent Murphy a formidable look that would've done Larabee proud. ". . . and you won't go to prison for twenty years."
"I prefer to think of it as legal blackmail," Standish countered. "Something a fine upstanding politician like yourself would understand." He presented a set of papers for Murphy to sign, contracts drawn up by their lawyers, legal and binding. "Think what this tape could do to your political career, Dave."
Sanchez growled, "You will agree to these things, or we will destroy you. Make the choice."
Faced with the wall of irate men, and the threat of a long prison sentence or political ruin, David Murphy for the first time in his life decided discretion was the better part of valor. He signed the papers and reached for the video camera.
"Ah-ah, not so fast," Ezra said, holding it out of reach. "This stays with us, in a safe place. Just to ensure you don't attempt to renege on the contracts."
Josiah stepped between Standish and the enraged man. "You need to get some help. If I ever hear of you touching another woman in anger I will become very upset."
JD leveled a look at the man who'd caused his friend such pain. "And if you ever cause any problems for Nicole, or your daughter, the tape will be used."
Murphy stormed from the house, cursing the lot of them.
Josiah and Ezra followed him out, intending to make sure the coward left town without any trouble.
A few minutes later, Nicole burst in through the back door, carrying Alexa. She ran up and hugged JD and then Vin, thanking them both profusely. Once she stepped back, JD could see the proof of David's beating. "Oh, Nikki," he said mournfully.
"I'm fine," she assured him, grabbing his hand and holding it tight. "You've seen to that."
Chris, Buck, and Nathan had followed her in and stood by, watching the tearful reunion.
"She wouldn't let me check her over until she saw that you two were safe," Nathan informed them. Although not a doctor, the dark-skinned man had put himself through college part-timing as an EMT, and still maintained his certifications.
"Now you can see we're safe," JD told her. "Let him look at you."
Nathan checked Nicole over and reported that, although she was heavily bruised, nothing was broken. She'd refused to go to the hospital, and Jackson grudgingly agreed she would heal with some rest and care.
Once assured she would be all right, everyone settled in the kitchen. Nicole wanted to hear exactly what had happened and how the men had managed to accomplish what she considered to be a miracle.
The floor was yielded to JD, the most loquacious of the seven, to start the explanation. "Well, when I received your phone call, I knew something musta gone wrong and called the others for help."
"The first smart move you've made in a year," Buck admonished.
"So," JD continued, ignoring him, "we got together to figure out what we could do to help you and keep Vin and me out of jail. We decided to send a guy who works for the company, Francis Corcoran, to Tennessee, to keep an eye on you and Dave. He took the company jet out there, rented a car, and sat nearby, watching the house . . . kinda like a stakeout. Then he called early the next morning to say that you were both on the move and he followed you to the airport."
Buck took over the story. "We knew the approximate times of the flights coming in, so Chris and I waited at the airport for y'all to show up. JD showed us a picture of you, and Francis gave us a description of Dave." He didn't say how Corcoran saw her being dragged to the car and then through the airport. She'd seemed reluctant, so Murphy had surreptitiously twisted her arm behind her back, making it look like he was hugging her around her waist. "We had hoped he would bring you here, but we wanted to be prepared, just in case." Buck cleared his throat and looked down at his clasped hands.
Chris saw his oldest friend was getting worked up again. Of the seven men, Buck tended to be the most sensitive when it came to women. Although Wilmington was thought of as a ladies' man, Chris knew the mustached rogue sincerely admired women, and believed each to be special. They were the closest things to saints as anything on the planet in his eyes. That was why the thought of a woman being abused and willing to part with her daughter for an extended period in order to protect her, had struck such a deep chord with the big-hearted man.
Larabee interrupted, "We managed to spot you two in the airport and tail you to the motel. When you both went into the room and only he came out, we waited a few minutes to be sure he wasn't coming back before we went in." He stopped before recounting the fact they'd found her tied to a chair and gagged. A grateful look from Nicole cemented his decision. Chris directed his next statement to JD and Vin. "We got her out of there and took her over to Nathan's to get Alexa."
"How can I ever thank you?" Nicole hugged her daughter, sitting on her lap. "But now I have to get a lawyer and get rid of that son-of-a-bitch once and for all."
"No, you don't," Vin told her.
Her confused expression went from man to man before settling in on the grinning Dunne.
"Here's your ticket to freedom," he said, showing her the signed contracts. "You and Alexa never have to see him again."
"Oh, my God! I can't believe this!"
"Believe it," Nathan said with a smile.
"Ready for the best part?" Vin asked. When he looked at her holding Alexa, he revised his statement. "Okay, ready for another really good part?"
"My heart won't be able to make it!" Nicole exclaimed, shaking her head and closing her eyes. "I don't think I can take anymore today."
"You have to, darlin'," Buck cooed. "'Else we can't make your dreams come true."
Larabee pulled out a large manila envelope. He dumped the contents on the table and spread them out. He pointed to a picture of a two-story colonial house, cream-colored with red shutters. He placed a picture next to the first, showing the backyard of the house, complete with a colorful plastic jungle gym.
Nicole stared at the pictures for a long moment. Hope was shining clear on her face, but with a touch of hesitancy. "Wha?" She cleared her throat and started again. "What's this?" she whispered.
JD leaned over and put his arm around his old friend. "Your new home. It's kinda like our version of the Witness Protection Program," he quipped.
"Will you need anything from your other house?" Larabee asked her.
Nicole shook her head as she hugged her daughter, tears streaming from her eyes. "I have all I need right here," she sobbed.
Josiah and Ezra arrived to see the teary-eyed woman and the smiling men. "We missed it?" Sanchez asked.
"Don't worry," Nathan answered, "we'll give you the play-by-play."
"Mr. Murphy went directly to the airport and left for home, without even checking on his wife," Ezra said.
"That's my husband," Nicole said, mournfully.
"Not anymore," Vin said. "He's someone else's problem now."
"Ready to go see your new place?" JD asked her.
"I'd love to," she said with a smile, shaking off her melancholy.
The entire group went outside and saw them off. JD took Nicole and Alexa to make certain everything was set up properly, and Buck went along because he claimed he wasn't letting Dunne out of his sight for at least three years.
They stood and waved as the car drove out of sight. Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan walked back into the house while Vin and Chris remained outside.
"Glad to be home?" Larabee asked him.
"Good. But if you ever disappear like that again, I'll shoot you," Chris calmly explained.
"Don't worry, I won't," Vin responded. He saw some of the tension drain from his friend and couldn't resist adding, "I'll disappear in a whole new way." He took off running, an enraged blond on his tail.
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