Come Hell or High Water

come hell or high water

Chapter One

You know that feeling you get watching #epicfail videos — like this will not end well and I should be doing something more productive with my time… as soon as I see what happens next. On a side note, why are there so many bad drivers in Russia, and why do they document and share their stupidity? I digress. Frequently. My eyes flicked between the body of my father, fragile, bruised, and filthy to the back of a filthy t-shirt stretched across shoulders worthy of Atlas. The t-shirt was painted in mud, leaves, and possibly spider webs like an abstract painting. Maybe a Kandinsky or a Miro? His shoulders were worthy of a Roman gladiator. He was Goliath to Michelangelo’s David. Atlas would be jealous of those shoulders.

This was not good. I should not be concerned about the gladiator. Or the way the leaf fluttered with each expansion of breath, as if it was trying to gain the man’s notice. Like me. The man was bigger than any man I’d ever met, personally. His dark cargo pants were lashed to lean hips by a black-webbed belt, and the pockets bulged with secrets. Regardless of the asymmetrical clutter on his back, or the funky smell that announced his presence; his body was perfect.

And he’d found my father and returned him to safety.

For three weeks my father had been held somewhere, apparently muddy, while we arranged for the ransom exchange. In reality, we hired Garza security which brought the gladiator and his men into my home, and my life. They’d made no promises, charged a hefty fee, and said they’d be back.

I should have felt relief, even joy. Instead my body was coiled, waiting for something more to happen. My brothers and step-mother were talking rapidly, firing questions at the gladiator, who said nothing. My father said little, his voice gravely and tired.

I stepped forward, hugging my father’s frail frame and whispered, “What do you need?”

He patted my back. “A shower and to sleep in my own bed.”

“Of course,” Belle, my stepmother cooed. “Yes, of course. Robert, Neil, help your father upstairs. Mr. Garza, thank you, Marina will assist you with anything you need.”

The gladiator turned to face me, amused brown eyes slid from my bare feet to my calves. His head cocked to the side as his gaze continued upward, taking in my bright red Saloni shirt dress, stopping briefly at my breasts and then finally to my eyes.

Asshole.

I raised an eyebrow, stared at his crotch, which I swear to god saluted me, and shrugged with what I hoped appeared to be disinterest. I turned around, quickly glancing down to make sure all the buttons on the front of my dress were fastened before hastening to the kitchen.

“Did you want coffee, or a sandwich?” I asked over my shoulder. No response.

I turned around and he stopped a fraction of an inch behind me. I jumped back, startled the gladiator was so close. I pulled a small stick, maybe a pine needle, off the front of his shirt and looked up.

“Sandwich and water, please,” he said. His voice was soft, quiet, but easy to hear in the still house.

“It speaks.” I turned again and busied myself with his request. He brushed past me to the kitchen sink, washing his hands. Even his forearms had muscles that danced when he moved.

“What?” His voice was like a caress to my ears.

And I’d been caught ogling. Surely he was used to women staring at him. No one looked like he did without trying. I handed him a dishtowel to dry his hands and ignored his question.

“Thank you for finding my father.”

He nodded.

“Do you know why he was kidnapped? I mean, we’re not the richest people on the block.”

He shook his head, his eyes remained looking at mine and not my breasts. He folded the towel and set it on the counter.

I handed him a cold bottle of water, which he accepted with a nod. He gracefully twisted the cap off and tilted his head back as he swallowed. Even his jaw was attractive. Dirt was smeared on his neck, his hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in days, and quite honestly he smelled a little goatey.

I turned back to the task of sandwich-making and slapped it on a plate along with an apple. He took it and handed me the empty water bottle.

“Would you like another?”

“Yes, please.”

I pulled another out of the refrigerator and recycled the empty one under the sink.

“Mr. Garza,” I said.

“Call me AJ.”

“AJ, I was wondering if we could talk in private?”

He glanced around the empty kitchen. My family probably remained in my father’s suite of rooms upstairs, pestering him with questions, which was fine, but I wanted to know what AJ saw when he found my father.

“Please?” I prompted him for an answer.

“You gotta shower in your room?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “I’ll follow you.”

I froze, my comprehension sluggish. “You’ll follow me to my room?” I clarified.

He rolled his eyes and sighed. “Lady, I’m officially off the clock. You wanna talk, we’re gonna do it my way.”

“Okay, fine.” I turned and walked toward the East wing. “My name is Marina,” I said stiffly.

“Why are you on the servant’s side of the house?” AJ asked mere inches behind me, startling me.

I whirled around. “Stop doing that!” I stamped my foot.

“Doing what?” he asked with amusement.

“Sneaking up on me.” I crossed my arms. I wanted to hit him, but he really was dirty.

He spread his hands out in exasperation, keeping the sandwich and apple balanced on the plate. “You knew I was following you.”

I turned around and pushed open the door to my room.

“Why are you in the servant’s side?” he asked again, closing my bedroom door behind him and locking it.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I’m gonna take a shower and I don’t like taking my gun off unless the door is locked.”

“Oh.”

He raised an eyebrow and stood there, waiting for me to answer him. He put the water bottle and plate down on my dresser and ate the sandwich in four bites.

“We rented the house for the project. My oldest brother brought his wife and kids, it made more sense for them to take the rooms on the East wing. Besides, it’s just a bedroom.”

He opened the bottle of water, and looked around my room while drinking. His eyes noted the sparse furnishings, and the closet, organized by color and style and overflowing. But very organized. His eyes widened and his lips twitched.

“I’m not autistic,” I said stupidly.

His lips twitched more, and he walked to the bathroom. I swear I heard him mutter, “Admitting it is the first step.” He put the now empty water bottle beside the sink.

Asshole.

“It’s a very small closet,” I argued. “If I didn’t organize it I’d never find anything.”

He pulled his shirt off and dropped it to the floor.

Oh sweet heavenly hosts…

He was muscly, nothing like my brothers who weren’t fat but in our family muscle definition was found in the dictionary not in actual practice.

He bent over, untied his boots and kicked them off. He dragged his socks off and tucked them inside his boots. His butt was perfect. I wondered if he was doing that on purpose like Neil’s girlfriend. The woman contorted herself into the oddest positions in order to make her b-cups appear larger.

“I thought you wanted to talk.” He opened the shower stall door and turned on the shower.

“I wanted to have your opinion about the kidnappers.”

His eyes narrowed. “What about them?”

“Well, do you think they were paid to kidnap my father? Do you think they were smart enough to come up with it on their own? Why was my father a target? What was the place like where you found him?”

“It was in the jungle. A small campsite, crude, and new.”

“New? What do you mean?”

His hands moved to his belt buckle and I lunged forward, placing my hands over his. “Wait a minute, please.”

He shook my hands off. “We’re on my time now. You wanna talk, fine. I’m taking a shower.”

“You can’t give me five minutes?”

In answer he turned, I closed my eyes and heard the zipper slide and then his pants thunked to the floor. Apparently the gun was in one of the pockets. My eyes cracked open and I saw him step – gloriously naked – into the shower.

It was a small shower.

I momentarily considered joining him.

Instead I handed a wash cloth over the door. He opened the door slightly and steam filled the room, billowing out. Sweat began to bead above my lip and between my breasts. I offered the wash cloth through to doorway, and his hand grasped my wrist and yanked me inside.

His other hand covered my mouth and muffled the surprised yelp.

“Turn around,” he said as he maneuvered me to the far wall. I faced it, dripping wet and furious. His hand still covered my mouth, and his lips were next to my ear. “Now, if you wanna fuck, take your dress off. You wanna talk, talk.” He stepped back, and the water struck me from different angles after ricocheted off his muscles. His very muscly muscles.

I reasoned my sexual attraction to him was purely Darwinian based, and I certainly could overcome the lust with logic. Plus, he’d ruined one of my favorite dresses.

“You are such an asshole. Why did you pull me in here? I could have easily talked to you and remained dry.”

“Nope.” The fragrance of my shampoo filled the small space and I could hear the water sluicing off his back. I refused to turn around, instead pulling at the front of my dress, which was transparent when wet. Probably why it was dry-clean only.

“Tell me about the campsite,” I said.

“I did.”

“How many people were there?’

“Three. All men, looked like hired mercenaries, and not very good ones, late forties.”

“Why would someone hire mercenaries to kidnap my father?”

“Money.”

I turned around and the water bounced into my eyes. I shielded my eyes from the oncoming spray, but not before noticing that he was definitely ready for the sex option he previously mentioned.

It was distracting – and mesmerizing. “Um, do you think you can find out who hired them?”

“It’ll cost you,” he said. His hand reached out and his forefinger touched the top button of my dress.

“I have money,” I said as I slapped his hand away.

He laughed, his abdomen contracting, his cock bobbing, my eyes followed it like it was a metronome.

“Lady, you know you want to touch me.”

I curled my hands into fists at my sides and tilted my chin up, staring directly at him. “Of course I want to touch you. You’re extremely physically attractive and you know it. You’re also an asshole.” I didn’t add I had standards. I did have standards, of course. I was also so out of my depth when it came to men like him, give me an actuarial or an engineer and I was fine. Men with muscles? They didn’t even like to talk about the weather.

His eyebrows shot up and then furrowed, as if comprehension was an issue. It definitely caused his “resolve” to flag, slowly deflating like a balloon with a small leak.

“Eyes up here, lady,” he said softly.

“It’s Marina.”

“Yeah. Your name suits your eyes.”

I blinked. Was that a compliment? My eyes were green-blue or blue-green depending on the day. They were my only feature I liked.

His hand slid behind my neck and tightened. Threatening… and yet not an unpleasant sensation. Twenty-two years old and now I find a man attractive and he’s a non-communicative Neanderthal.

Damn Darwin and sexual selection.

His lips hovered over mine as he whispered, “I haven’t slept in three days and I need to fuck. We can make a trade and both win.”

“A trade?” I leaned closer but he edged back.

“One night in your bed. I’ll leave in the morning and find out who hired the kidnappers and email you. You won’t get a phone call, and I won’t be back. Just one night.”

The water was now luke-warm and his free hand turned off the shower, turning his body slightly. One night, no awkward embarrassment over my lack of experience because he’d be gone. His idea had merit.

“One night,” I clarified. “You’ll be gone before my family wakes up?”

“I’ll leave at six.” He watched me warily, his eyes studying my face before dropping to my chest. “Is that a black bra?”

I nodded and he rolled his eyes. “The first time is gonna be quick, but the next time I’ll go slower.”

“I didn’t say I agreed,” I said tartly. My cheeks heated and I knew I was blushing. The thing was, I didn’t actually have sexual experience with a man, or any other human for that matter. We moved too much to get attached to people and well, the batteries for my BOB were universal and he was much easier to travel with, and never complained, and I didn’t have to worry about bed-head or bad breath.

The gladiator chuckled. He actually laughed – at me!

I narrowed my eyes and pushed him. He opened the shower door and stepped out, grabbing a towel and wrapping me in it. He grabbed a second and leisurely stroked the towel across his body.

“Unbutton your dress,” he said quietly.

I glared at him and he tied the towel around his waist. He lifted my robe off the back of the door and held it open. “Come on, take off the wet clothes. You’ve got to feel miserable.”

“I do,” I admitted crossly. “You’ve ruined my dress.”

“It’s an ugly dress.”

I stamped my foot and turned around, quickly working the buttons down the front of it. I shrugged it off my shoulders and looked over my back. He stood, my robe clutched in one hand, his other stroking himself. His towel laid forgotten at his feet.

“Wow,” I whispered. My dress fell off my arms and I turned around.

“A thong?” His voice sounded choked.

“That’s really big. It wasn’t that big in the shower.”

“You weren’t half naked in the shower.”

Grower versus shower made sense now. “Huh.” I grunted softly, mesmerized by the rapid and fluid motion of his hand. “That’s a lot, um, rougher than I expected.” I couldn’t stop myself from reaching forward and trailing my fingers over the top. I pulled back quickly when he growled.

“Fuck,” he grunted and covered himself with my robe, jacking off furiously. He looked up sheepishly, a half smile and one dimple giving him a little boy look that probably got him out of all sorts of trouble. “Sorry about that.”

My mouth opened and closed. “Did you just… did… That was my robe!”

“Yeah,” he said and smiled. “The silk was hot.” He winked. “I’ll make it up to you.”

He balled up my robe and threw it on top of my ruined dress. He cocked his head, his nostrils flared. He ran his fingers through his hair and shook, the droplets striking my skin and cooling it. He stood tall and proud, rolling his shoulders back. He was truly a specimen worthy of adoration.

He seemed like a man who would make good on his promise to make it up to me.

And, I’d never have to see him again…

And while my BOB taught me what I liked, I wanted to know what a man would like. He could be my tutor, for just one night…

“Prove it,” I whispered.

His whiskey-colored eyes studied me. “One night, no strings.”

“Right.”

His brows furrowed. “I’ll find out who hired the kidnappers even if you don’t want to fuck.”

I cringed at his language. I stepped closer and put my finger against his mouth. “It’s probably better if you say less.”

His tongue reached out and licked my fingertip, sending a shiver through me, making my stomach coil in anticipation for what would happen next.

“Whatever the lady wants,” he said with amusement.

Chapter Two

What did I want? I reached forward and placed my hand over his heart. It beat steadily under my cool palm. I tilted my chin up and my breath caught in my throat at the expression of pure lust on his face. Lust, for me… Insecurity choked me. How did one go from standing to the bed? Was I supposed to do something?

“Shh.” He hushed me, placing his index finger on my forehead. He grinned, bent slightly and a moment later I was dangling over his shoulder with an excellent view of his butt.

Woof. His shoulders, while broad and sexy had nothing on his perfect ass. I wondered if he did special exercises to get it so well-defined, high and tight. My stomach lurched as he dropped me on to my bed, the springs creaking ominously.

He grinned wickedly and ran his hands from my shoulders down over my breasts to my hips.

“You’ve got great tits,” he said appreciatively.

“Your ass is nice.” I said dryly.

He chuckled. “Right, less talk…”

In a move that would require a high-speed camera to see, he lifted my torso, unhooked my bra and drew it off my arms. I fully expected him to say ‘ta-da’ at the magical disappearance of the lace. Instead, he leaned forward, running his tongue from my navel up. He blew his hot breath across my skin and I wriggled under him. His lips covered my nipple and his whiskey colored eyes watched me as he tugged, suckled and bit.

“Holy cow!” My back arched off the bed in pleasure and his wicked grin graced his face.

“Holy cow?” He cocked his head to the side again. “How old are you?” he asked quietly.

“Twenty-two.”

He smirked and turned his attention to my other breast, his fingers rolled my nipple, pinching until I was wiggling again. I reached for his shoulders, stroking down his back and lightly scratching.

“Yeah.” He grunted in approval. He was so comfortable in his own skin, I was a little jealous. He took my hand in his and covered his cock, stroking himself with my hand. “Like that,” he commanded and then continued to massage my breasts. Gripping them and kissing them, sending shivers through my body that heated me instead of cooling.

I liked the way he felt in my hand, how he flexed under my palm, the way he bit his lip when I spread his fluid over the top. Too soon he pulled my hand away, his breathing was more ragged and his mouth was hanging open.

Thank god I could effect him too.

I was panting and moving restlessly under him. I wanted to slide my naked skin all over him.

He moved back and I pouted, missing his heat and weight. His thumbs hooked under the thin straps of my thong as he peeled it off. He stood at the foot of the bed looking at me. Apparently he was visual learner… Did I pass his inspection? Could we do this under the covers?

I edged away and pulled at the covers.

“Stop,” he said quietly. He knelt down, hooked his hands under my calves and pulled me to the edge of the bed. He tossed my knees over his shoulders and wrapped his hands over my thighs, effectively pinning me in place. I watched, propped up on my elbows, hoping I didn’t see disgust on his face.

He smirked, one hand edged toward my nether-region…

“You’ve got a pretty pussy,” he said. I snorted. He narrowed his eyes. “What do you call it?”

“I don’t,” I whispered.

He chuckled. “Oh lady, say it. Say, ‘I’ve got a pretty pussy,’ and I’ll reward you.”

“Why?” I wiggled trying to get away. I didn’t want judgement or humiliation, that was the point of one night only. Why did he have to keep talking?

He stilled, studying me closely and then shook his head. “I’m not making fun of you. I think you’re sweet. I think I’d really like to fuck you, listen to you call out my name.” His thumb slid from my opening, up and around my clitoris. “You want me to fuck you.”

“Yes,” I whispered. I was no longer wiggling to get away. Instead I was rocking against his thumb.

He grinned. “You’ve got a body made for fucking. Big tits, and your clit is fucking huge.” He put his thumb in his mouth. “And you taste fucking delicious.”

I made a weird noise, part shock at his crassness, and part desperation wanting more.

His devious smile was back as he placed his thumb back on my clit and teased it, up one side, down the other. He slid his index finger inside me and groaned as I tightened around him. The sensation was so much better than a vibrator.

I could forgive his language… the man knew how to work my body. I fell back on the bed and enjoyed my body’s response to him. The tightening of that coil, the way my legs urged him closer, the pleasant tingle that morphed into a need of more… His tongue replaced his thumb, and I bolted upright. He read my body language, his finger sliding noisily in my juices, his tongue flickering against my clit until I broke, whimpering and biting my lip.

“AJ,” I whined and he moved slightly, easing off my sensitive flesh and sensitizing new area. The coil tightened even more.

“Ohmigod, AJ!” My toes curled and the coil broke, sending me into a spectacular spiral of bliss. I went from grinding up against him to placing my feet on his shoulders and pushing away when it got to be too much.

He grunted and released me. He headed for the bathroom and returned a moment later, his cargo pants in one hand, his other searching through one of the pockets. I was limp and languid. I didn’t want to move, and yet his cock stood proudly up, ready for more. I was ready for anything at this point. Sex with a gladiator should be on everyone’s bucket list. He found what he wanted and dropped his pants again.

He tore the plastic off a condom package and rolled it down his shaft. He stalked to the bed and grunted. It was my turn to smirk. He grabbed a pillow from the head of the bed and set it in the middle.

“Roll over.” He motioned with his chin. I slowly stretched up and began to roll over. Apparently too slow for the gladiator. He grabbed my hip and turned me over. He stuffed the pillow under my belly and pulled my hips up. Doggie-style would be how I officially lost my virginity.

Woof.

“You want this?” he asked as he pushed my thighs apart and knelt between them.

“Bring it,” I said.

He positioned his cock at my opening and thrust in so quickly the breath whooshed out of me.

“Fuck, you’re really tight.” He rotated his hips, settling himself deep inside me and covered my back with his chest pushing me against the mattress. My hands gripped the comforter on either side of my face.

I answered him, “You’re just a lot bigger than BOB.”

His hands covered mine and his pelvis stopped moving. “Bob better be your dildo.”

“Yes,” I hissed as he slowly drew out and slid back in.

“You okay?” he asked, his voice strained.

“Oh yeah… although, could you move a little faster?”

He chuckled. “Whatever the lady wishes.” He began to move, the feeling of fullness was so much more than I expected. Of course, the whole experience was different. No romance, just lust. His fingers linked with mine and all I had to do was lie there, which was really good because I was still overly relaxed from the last orgasm and had no clue what I was supposed to do anyway.

Maybe, if he was up to it, we could try a few other positions later… Like a science experiment or something. That idea had real merit and my body responded by tightening my internal muscles around him. He groaned, which caused them to tighten more.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he stopped moving for a moment and his grip tightened on my hands. He released a long breath and I heard him slowly draw in a breath.  I tightened my muscles around him again and his voice lowered. “Stop.”

“Am I doing something wrong?” I asked hesitantly.

He bit my shoulder and then lifted off me. He rolled me over, easily maneuvering my legs over his shoulders and slid in again. He grabbed the pillow and stuffed it under my hips. As he slid in he hit my g-spot and I tightened around him again.

“I didn’t mean to,” I whispered.

He grinned. “It’s okay, go for it.” Two dimples framed a beautiful smile. From this angle I could watch his reaction and it added to my excitement. A climax began to build, and even though I felt like I was folded like a pretzel the position was doing amazing things to my insides. He moved, leaning more forward and resting his weight on his hands. I had to concentrate to not drop my legs. Sweat beaded on his brow and I tightened my internal muscles.

His eyes squeezed tight and he stilled. When they opened he shook his head and smile. “Jesus, you’re so fucking tight.” He moved again, now kneeling and pulled my feet up to his chest. His hand wrapped round my thighs and his thumb slid over my clit.

“Oh…” I mumbled. I was overwhelmed with sensation. This was sex. Really, really, good sex. I could never manage this on my own, regardless of how many batteries I had. There was definitely a benefit to having a second player.

His thrusts were stronger and I slid up the bed. I reached over my head to the wall and braced myself.

“Fuck, yeah,” he growled and really began to move. I might have bruises on my butt tomorrow. His thumb was diligent, stroking, kneading, massaging. Right when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, I felt the orgasm flare out. My muscles tightened on their own, even my thighs trembled.

“Finally. Fuck, yes,” he hissed. He grunted, thrusting harder than before, grabbing my hips to hold me against him until he finally relaxed.

“Jesus, what a ride,” he said, slightly out of breath. He slid out and sauntered to the bathroom. My legs unfolded, blood returned to my arms as I lowered them. I heard the sink run and I rolled over, tossed the comforter to the end of the bed and crawled under the sheet.

“Fuck.” AJ’s tone was not happy. I pulled the sheet up to my neck and looked up at him. “The condom broke. I swear I’m clean. I’ve got proof if you want to see it.”

I shook my head.

“What about you?” he asked, his head cocked to the side.

“Just BOB,” I said quietly.

He rolled his eyes and came into the room, opening the bathroom door so the light streamed across my face. “Did you get tested after your last boyfriend?” His voice was soft, quiet, but his demeanor was that of a man ready to do battle.

I shook my head. “I haven’t had a boyfriend.”

He narrowed his eyes and stepped closer. “What do you mean?”

I shrugged, my cheeks flooding with heat. “I haven’t been with anyone.” I said softly.

“You were a virgin?” His voice was quiet again. He grabbed his pants and pulled them on. “Look, lady, this isn’t funny.” He buckled his belt and then ran his hands through his hair. “Fuck. You’re on birth control, right?”

My stomach fell, he looked so angry. At me. I nodded, unable to lie out loud. I did the math in my head and I reasoned I should be safe from pregnancy.

“I’m covered,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”

He stuffed his hand into one of the pockets and pulled out a t-shirt. As he pulled it over his head my embarrassment turned to anger.

“I don’t know why you’re so angry. We both got what we wanted. I expect you to still investigate the kidnappers.”

“You’re a real piece of work, lady,” he mumbled. He went back into the bathroom and came out a few minutes later, boots on, and ready to leave.

He unlocked my bedroom door and said, “I’ll email you the info. Don’t expect to hear from me otherwise.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Garza.” If I could kill a man with a glare, I tried. His jaw clenched and he thrust his chin toward me in acknowledgement and then left.

I didn’t expect snuggles.

I didn’t even get a kiss…

Chapter Three

I dreamt of AJ fairly regularly. Unfortunately, they weren’t sex dreams. No, I relived the look of anger and disgust on his face. I knew, logically, that his anger was most likely not directed at me. I certainly didn’t do anything to tamper with the condom and he had enjoyed himself up until the discovery of broken condom. And my lack of experience.

It might have been my insistence that he fulfill his end of the bargain. Maybe gladiators didn’t like to be reminded of their oaths.

Maybe he realized there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I’d spent so much of my life in my family’s shadow, maybe it was for my protection, like they insisted. Maybe I was destined to be the spinster aunt that died in the company of her cats.

But I was allergic to cats. And I refused to accept that my entire life would be in my father’s household.

I received a short email eight days after AJ left.

Enrique Javier.

I deleted the message immediately.

I followed Belle’s schedule and looked for Enrique Javier at every spa, restaurant, shoe store, and boutique she frequented. She was quite active for living in a new country. I gave up following her and instead, audited her spending habits from the day we arrived in Columbia. There was a furniture store that charged her ten thousand US dollars and some change.

The estate we rented was furnished.

The furniture store was not in the best neighborhood and rather than stop in and ask for Javier, I drove by and went straight to the financial district. I opened a bank account and transferred all the money from the account I had since I was twelve to my new account. My father still had access to that account since I started it as a minor.

He would never know I emptied the account, the man never paid attention to money, that’s what I was for. I was his accountant, and I’d run the house and handled the expenses since I was twelve. The benefit of being a math genius was a certain amount of respect. It was limited respect due to my gender – at least that’s the way my brothers and father treated me. It was only in the last year that he married Belle and I no longer handled the household finances.

I wondered how long she had been planning and why? My father was an educated man, slightly prejudiced in his wealth, but generous. What was her motive?

I spent the next month holding on to that secret, and the one that I was pregnant. In a Catholic country, it proved difficult to get Plan B. Once I was over the initial shock, I didn’t mind the idea of being a single mother, it actually felt right, somehow. I called the baby Atlas Junior because I had no idea what AJ’s real name was, and it fit. I didn’t have morning sickness, instead I had more energy and a tremendous appetite.

And focus.

I realized the ransom money still sat in their household account. One million dollars that belonged to the company and should have been returned. That was a discussion to be brought up at the dinner table where my brothers would take an interest, since they owned half of the business.

Belle made it sound like she had been nursing my father at his bedside for the last month and hadn’t had time. Robert insisted after dinner that he would accompany her and help her transfer the money back, in case she experienced difficulty. Honestly, I wasn’t sure she knew how to transfer money. She was good at accepting it, and the payment to a furniture company was obvious. Maybe she just wasn’t that bright.

I underestimated her.

She threw a dinner party that would rival any embassy’s to celebrate my father’s recovery. She invited everyone of note, dressed to the nines, and introduced my father to ambassadors, generals, and billionaires. He ate it up.

Then, during the after dinner cocktails, she led me around and introduced me to every single man. Every. Single. One. Old, fat, stupid, short, as long as they were unmarried and rich, they were introduced and invited to join us for a more “intimate” family dinner.

The bitch planned on marrying me off and getting me out of her hair.

I was furious.

She expected me to be the obedient daughter. A role that I had been comfortable with, but now it rankled. I was going to be a mother, and Atlas changed everything.

I excused myself politely, and escaped to the privacy of my room. I was grateful I lived on the opposite end of the house. I walked down the darkened hallway and slipped into my room, locking the door behind me before I turned on the light.

AJ lay on my bed, hands clasped behind his head and watching me warily.

“Nice dress,” he said casually.

I stepped out of my shoes and put them in the closet. “What are you doing here?”

“Want help with the zipper?” he asked silkily.

I crossed my arms and narrowed my eyes, and waited.

He rolled his eyes and stood up. “You find him?”

“Nope.”

He nodded, crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side. “You look good.”

So did he, dammit. Black t-shirt, black cargo pants, sexy dimples. I probably got pregnant just looking at him the first time. It was nice to see him without that angry glare that haunted my dreams.

He wasn’t the kind of man you fell in love with, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to raise Atlas. Atlas needed a father who would be there at dinner every night, not off playing Peter Pan in some snake-infested jungle for cash and giggles.

His brow furrowed and he dropped his hands. “You’re not going to find him.”

“Why?”

“Because yesterday he hung himself.”

I sighed, disappointed I had lost the only proof I might find that Belle was responsible. “If you knew where he was, why didn’t you give me his address in the first place?”

He shrugged.

“Any other information you wish to share?”

“Nope. What’s going on out there?”

“My step-mother is son-in-law shopping.”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re getting married?”

“Not ever,” I said seriously.

His lips twitched.

My brain tripped, and I stepped closer to him, poking him in the chest. “Why didn’t you just email me?”

“It’s not secure.”

“How did you know he committed suicide?”

“I didn’t say he committed suicide,” AJ said evenly.

I rolled my eyes. “Okay, in conventional English, please explain who hanging one’s self is not suicide.”

His lips twitched again. “Lady, you don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Fine. You tie a noose around the victim, tie the other end to second floor newell post. Then you give him a choice. Jump or your entire family will be murdered.”

“How do you know that?” I whispered.

He shook his head. “The point is, the risk to your father didn’t come from Javier. Where do you think it’s coming from?”

“My stepmother.”

He chuffed and shook his head. “I’d put money on your brothers or a competitor.”

There it was… the look of disbelief and judgment that often followed when I stated my opinion. Me, a mere female. Was it any wonder I rarely said what I really thought?

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said evenly.

“You sure I can’t help you with the zipper?” he asked again.

“Ugh.” I rolled my eyes and went to my bedroom door, unlocking it and swinging it wide. “Goodbye, Mr. Garza.”

He chuckled as he walked toward the door. He leaned close and whispered, “You don’t fool me. I saw my shirt under your pillow.”

Dammit.

I stood tall. “Did you want it back?”

He stilled. “No, you can keep it,” he said softly.

My brain moved slower than my mouth, the words falling out without thought. “Thanks, it makes a great night shirt. Don’t read anything else into it though. One night was all I wanted, and I still feel that way.”

His eyebrows rose in warning… which I ignored.

Dammit.

“Do I owe you anything for this visit?” The moment I said it I froze, hating the tone of voice I used.

He took a breath and shook his head slowly. “No. Don’t worry, you won’t hear from me again.”

He left.

Again.

This time, I cried…

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