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Chicago, 9:30 a.m.
The Colby Agency's conference room overflowed with staff members. All were present for this morning's meeting, except the newest investigator on staff. Well, the newest member until their recent hire of Merrilee Walters. J. T. Baxley had taken a bullet last night while serving on Victoria's personal security detail.
Victoria Colby-Camp sat at the head of the long Mahogany table, listening as Ian Michaels reviewed the tightened security measures. Last night's attack had confirmed the worst.
The risk to her granddaughter's safety was no longer mere theory or rumor. It was real.
Increasing fear pumped through Victoria's veins with every frantic beat of her heart. Nothing she or her people had done so far had given them the answers for which they searched.
Every lead turned into a dead end.
Yet, someone out there continued to attempt to get to her granddaughter.
Her loyal staff began filing out of the room. Victoria blinked, dragged her focus back to the present. She hadn't realized Ian had concluded his briefing.
Ian settled in a chair to her right; Simon Ruhl did the same on her left.
These two men were Victoria's most trusted associates, professional and personal. Yet, like her, they could only react to the threat. Whoever was behind this had burrowed so deeply beneath multiple ambiguous layers of disinformation that it would take timeprecious timeto ferret them out.
This was the first occasion in the Colby Agency's prestigious history that Victoria had no choice but to admit they were mystified.
"Last night" Simon kicked off the overview of the few known facts "an attempt was made to abductJamie."
The sound of a bullet shattering the windshield, killing the driver, echoed through Victoria's mind. Three were dead, including two unidentified males involved in the abduction attempt. Two others had fled the scene. Though J. T. Baxley had taken a bullet; he'd been treated and released at the E.R. Still, the risk to his lifeto her granddaughter's had shaken Victoria to the core.
"Have we learned anything new?" Otherwise she saw no need to go over those horrendous details yet again. Another image, this one of her pulling the trigger, ending the life of the man with the gun aimed at her face, erupted in her mind.
She'd had no choice . And still, the realization deeply disturbed her.
Rather than answering her question, Ian and Simon exchanged a long look. Now she understood.
"You believe it's an inside job." It pained Victoria to say the words.
"Yes," Ian confirmed.
"That's the only way anyone could have known your schedule for last evening," Simon clarified. "None of us want to believe that's possible."
"At this point" Ian picked up where Simon left off "we have to face that undeniable possibility."
Victoria took a breath, her chest tightening with the emotions charging through her. "Do you have a suspect?"
Her closest confidants shared another look.
She wasn't going to like their conclusion. Victoria wasn't happy with the concept in general, but obviously the answer was going to be even less palatable.
"J. T. Baxley," Ian stated.
J.T.? "I was at his christening." Victoria had just graduated from university at the time. One of her dearest friends had opted for marriage over college, and J.T. had been her first and only child.
Simon nodded his understanding. "We fully understand that you've known J.T. and his family for years. But he was one of the few who had access to last night's schedule."
That was true. J.T. had been a part of her security detail last night. And he'd paid the price.
Victoria shook her head. "This simply isn't possible." She had sought out J.T. when his mother had relayed that he had left the insurance industry. Victoria had hoped for years that she would be able to lure him to the Colby Agency. Only a few months ago that opportunity had arisen. He'd signed on as a member of her Reconnaissance group.
"J.T. ignored the all-hands call this morning."
Simon's announcement sent a new kind of fear throttling through Victoria. "Has anyone checked on him?" The man had been shot for God's sake. Though the shot appeared to have been clean, in and out of the biceps with no apparent serious damage, there was always the chance something had been missed. With any sort of penetrating wound, internal bleeding was always a concern. She'd thought nothing of his absence, considering what he'd gone through last night.
"I went to his home myself," Ian assured her. "He wasn't there, but the door was unlocked. There was no indication he'd slept in his bed. Nothing appeared to be missing. His cell phone was on the kitchen counter, and his car was in the garage."
"Then we should be concerned for his safety," Victoria argued, "not suspicious of his participation in this deception." The suggestion was preposterous. J.T was as trustworthy and reliable as the passing of time.
"J.T. may not have been a willing participant," Simon qualified. "We've learned some unsettling details regarding his former fiancée."
A frown worried Victoria's brow. J.T. had been devastated when his bride-to-be hadn't shown. He'd literally been left at the altar. That had been a mere two weeks ago. Rather than having him take on another agency assignment Victoria had allowed him to focus on trying to find out what had happened to the woman, who seemed to have simply vanished. The agony of watching his desperation play out tortured her even now as she considered his plight.
"Explain," Victoria prompted her closest confidants.
"We don't have in-depth details as of yet," Ian offered. "But we have uncovered a number of aliases she has operated under during the past six or seven years. From all appearances, Eve Mattson is a serious scam artist. She may have been playing J.T. as a part of setting the stage for Jamie's abduction."
Victoria looked from Ian to Simon. "Find J.T. Whoever this Eve Mattson is or was, we owe it to J.T. to give him the benefit of the doubt. If he's in trouble, we'll back him up."
Victoria would not let J.T. down. If he had somehow been drawn into this plan against Victoria's granddaughter, it would have been unknowingly and certainly unwilling.
"Also, find out who Eve Mattson is," Victoria went on. "I promised J.T. I wouldn't interfere with his search for his missing bride-to-be, but this news changes everything. If Eve Mattson is involved in the plan to harm my granddaughter, I want her found and the truth extracted." Fury detonated inside Victoria. "Whoever is behind this is going to rue the day they picked the Colby Agency as a target."
If it was the last thing Victoria did, all involved would pay the fiddler a hefty price for this dance.
J.T. groaned. He heard the sound wanted to open his eyes, to wake up, but his throbbing brain just wouldn't make the necessary transition.
He needed to wake up. Something was very wrong.
His eyelids cracked open, but bright light slammed them shut once more.
Wake up, damn it!
With tremendous effort his eyelids split open again.
Where was he?
His booted feet rested on a stone or concrete floor. Nylon twine tethered his ankles to what looked like chair legs.
Raise your head.
Slowly, his head moved. Pain shattered his skull.
What the hell had happened to him?
His eyes opened a little wider. Stark gray walls. He tried to reach up and touch his head. The throbbing above his right ear roared. His fingers fisted in reaction to the pain. He twisted his wrists, couldn't move his hands.
He blinked, focused his gaze on his hands his arms.
His wrists were secured to the chair's arms with that same orange nylon twine.
Okay. Think! He was manacled to a chair. In an empty room. He forced his head to move ever so slightly, ever so slowly from side to side. Yep. No furnishings.
Where was the light coming from?
He moved his head back, peered through squinted eyes at the ceiling. A single bare bulb glared at him from a high ceiling.
How had he gotten here?
J.T. closed his eyes and summoned the last details he recalled.
He'd been working Victoria's security detail. There had been a shootout with four unidentified gunmen. One had escaped, two were killed. Three counting Victoria's driver.
J.T. had been shot.
Instinctively he tried to lift his right hand to inspect his left arm. Couldn't. Clean shot through the left biceps.
As if the memory had prompted the pain, an ache speared through his biceps.
After J.T. was treated at the E.R., Ian had driven him home. He'd waved as Ian drove away, walked onto his porch, and unlocked the door. J.T. remembered going inside and then
Pain detonated in his skull once more.
Someone had attacked him.
Fury bolted through him. He jerked at his bindings. Gritted his teeth against the pain.
If this had something to do with Victoria or her granddaughter, his captor should just go ahead and kill him. No way was he giving away any information, much less participating in whatever the scheme might be.
Sweat streamed down his face as he struggled to free himself.
He twisted, squirmed, pulled.
Eventually the fatigue and pain forced him to surrender the battle.
He wasn't going anywhere.
The slide of metal against metal brought his head up.
Setting his jaw hard against the pain, he used his body weight and his waning strength to shake and jerk the chair to the right. The door was at his back. He needed to turn around so that he could see the enemy coming. A little farther. Move, he commanded.
Harder and harder he jerked and twisted. The chair scooted and swayed precariously.
As the door opened, he managed a final jerk, hauling himself and the chair to face that direction.
A form appeared in the doorway. He blinked. Told himself to look again.
It couldn't be.
"I see you're still alive."
Fury exploded in his veins. "Eve." The name left a bitter taste on his tongue.
She closed the door behind her and leaned against it. "I thought you'd be happy to see me."
"I don't know what the hell you think you're doing," he growled even as the agony screamed in his skull. A shudder rocked through him. "But if you want to survive this, you'd better cut me loose."
She cocked her head. "Hmm I don't think so."
"Who put you up to this?" The demand echoed in the deserted room.
"No one." She pushed away from the door and started toward him, one slow, measured step at a time. "This was entirely my idea."