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Sophie Brooks uncrossed her legs and tugged on her skirt hem as she watched her boss pace across the state-of-the-art kitchen of the lavish art deco home that housed Weddings Your Way. Rachel Brennan's soft linen dress swirled around her legs each time she turned. As soon as she'd walked in the door this morning, Sophie had seen that the beautiful, black-haired head of Miami Confidential was agitated.
Rachel snapped her cell phone shut and held her iced latte against her temple. "Mornings like this, I really miss Colorado. How can it be one hundred percent humidity?" Her sharp gaze lit on Sophie's black-stockinged knees. "I swear, Sophie, I would melt like the Wicked Witch of the West if I dressed like you."
Sophie gave a taut little smile and recrossed her legs. "I guess you can take the girl out of New York — "
Rachel snorted and took a long swallow of her drink, then looked in turn at the other members of the team seated at the table. "That was the hospital. Sonya Botero's limo driver has regained consciousness, but Sean Majors, Botero's chief of security, has given the hospital staff instructions not to allow any visitors until he has a chance to question him."
Rafe Montoya slapped the table with his palm. "Has he still got a twenty-four-hour guard on Johnson's room? I don't like it. Majors is holding too tight a rein over that guy. We know Craig Johnson is connected to Sonya's kidnapping. What's Majors trying to hide?"
Rachel pushed her hair back from her face. "I think he's just smarting over the fact that it was his man who allowed Sonya to be kidnapped. And he has a right to protect his employee. Let's wait. He's been cooperative so far."
"He hasn't heard anything more from the kidnappers?" Julia Garcia asked.
"He didn't say."
"So we still don't have a time or place for the ransom drop?"
Sophie heard the concern in Julia's voice. She'd been friends with Sonya Botero for years. She was understandably shaken by her friend's disappearance.
When Rachel didn't answer immediately, Sophie spoke. "You think we may not hear anything else, don't you?"
Everyone's head turned toward her and she saw on their faces that she'd voiced their fears. "That maybe they don't want anything except to torture her fiancé. If her kidnapping turns out to be part of the effort to stop Juan DeLeon from curbing the drug trade in Ladera, we're going to have trouble doing anything from here. And their legislature goes into session within a few weeks."
Samantha Peters sat forward. She adjusted her tortoise-shell glasses on her pert nose. "But there's another consideration. What about Juan's nutty ex-wife? Anyone of her family could be behind this. After all, they all have connections with the drug trade."
Sophie shook her head. "Why would they act now? They've had years to take revenge on Juan."
"But now he's more powerful. The bills he's sponsoring will affect their livelihood, too."
Rachel tossed her empty cup into the trash, frowning. "I know it's frustrating that we can't seem to nail down enough specific information to go on. And Sophie's right, we're limited in what we can do from here. One thing's for certain. We operate on the belief that Sonya is still alive. And everything we do must be aimed at bringing her back safely." Her brows knit together in a frown.
"And we've heard nothing else from the police, although that's probably a good thing," Rafe commented.
"True. I'd rather keep Miami P.D. out of it as much as possible. In fact — " Rachel glanced at her watch
" — I have a meeting with the commissioner this afternoon to address that very issue. So far we've been successful in keeping this out of the public eye, and of course the commissioner is being cooperative with the Confidential Agency, but the media is beginning to buzz about Juan DeLeon's presence here and Sonya's conspicuous absence from her usual social and charitable functions."
Sophie checked her watch. She had an appointment with a new client. Weddings Your Way was a very successful wedding planning salon, which provided the perfect cover for Rachel Brennan's Miami Confidential team. "I apologize, Rachel, but my client will be here in a few minutes."
Rachel nodded. "Fine. Go ahead. We certainly don't want to neglect any of our brides, or make them suspicious."
Sophie heard the front door bell jingle downstairs. She stood and straightened her black silk gabardine skirt. "There's my client. As soon as I can get her approval of my design for her wedding invitations and get her out of here, I'll touch base with my CIA contacts, find out if there's any chatter about Ladera, or activity off the coast."
"Good. Thanks, everyone."
Sophie descended the curved marble staircase, her sleek black pumps clicking. She put on a cool smile and greeted the young debutante whose biggest problem of the day was whether to use white, ivory, or pale lilac for her wedding invitations.
SEAN MAJORS ground one fist into the other palm as he watched his boss being wheeled into the large, darkly paneled study of his fortified estate. He didn't look forward to the next few minutes. He had good news for Carlos, but he also had some very disturbing news as well.
Carlos Botero had been a big, handsome, vital man until a few weeks ago, when his only daughter Sonya had been kidnapped. Now he seemed shrunken, dried-up. A stroke suffered on the day a vague and threatening ransom note had been delivered had sucked all the vitality out of him. Carlos's brain was still sharp, but physically, he was a mere shell of his former self and deteriorating daily.
Carlos waved a hand weakly, shooing the male nurse out of the room. The nurse sent Sean a look and Sean nodded slightly. Javier would be right outside if Sean needed him.
"Mr. Botero, I have some good news."
Carlos turned pale. "Sonya?"
Sean winced. "No, sir, not Sonya. I'm sorry." He should have played it differently, should have been more considerate. But two significant events had occurred within the past twenty minutes and Sean's brain was racing with plans and concerns.
"Craig Johnson has regained consciousness." Carlos sank a bit deeper into his chair. "The only thing good about that news is that now he can be forced to tell the truth about his involvement with my daughter's abduction." Botero's gray eyebrows lifted and his sharp eyes bored into Sean's. "Find out what he did."
Sean nodded and dropped his gaze. Carlos was no fool. If he knew what Sean was thinking, he'd be even more upset. Sean hadn't yet revealed to Sonya's father that Johnson had been overheard by a member of the Weddings Your Way staff making a telephone call, a call that was traced to a number in Ladera.
"I plan to, sir. I've left word with my guard not to allow any visitors until I have a chance to talk with him." Sean took a deep breath as his gut clenched.
"Mr. Botero — "
Carlos sat up. "What is it? You have something else to tell me?"
Sean pulled a plastic bag containing a plain block-printed sheet of paper from his coat pocket. He'd just picked it up from the guard station at the entrance to Carlos's estate.
Sean had been on his way to the hospital to see Johnson when the guard called to say a taxi had delivered the envelope. Sean questioned the guard about the taxi, then called the dispatcher, but she had no record of a delivery to Botero's estate. The guard had written down the cab number, though, so Sean had dispatched a member of his security team to track down the driver and question him.
Sean retrieved the note himself when he arrived and bagged it, even before he read it. He didn't want even the tiniest bit of evidence contaminated.
"Is that a second note?" Carlos asked, his voice thready with excitement.
"Let me see it."
Sean held it out so Carlos's unsteady fingers could grasp it.
WE HOPE YOU HAVE THE TWO MILLION. PLACE THE CASH IN A CLEAR PLASTIC BAG STACKED IN BUNDLES OF 10,000 AMERICAN DOLLARS. WAIT FOR INSTRUCTIONS. BUT BE WARNED. ONCE YOU HEAR FROM US, YOU WILL HAVE TWO HOURS TO COMPLY. NOT A MOMENT MORE. "Mr. Botero, it may be time to call in the police or the government — "
"No!" Carlos's hand jerked and the bagged note fluttered to the floor. "No police!" He groped ineffectually for Sean's arm and only succeeded in plucking at the sleeve of his suit.
"The note. It does not mention my daughter."
"No, sir." That worried Sean. It sounded more like a payoff or extortion than a ransom for Sonya's safe return. Sean was afraid the kidnapping and ransom was a ploy to keep Juan DeLeon out of Ladera and distracted about his missing fiancée until the crooked Laderan politicians could shoot down DeLeon's legislative bills.
He was also afraid that Sonya might already be dead. But he would never tell Carlos that. It might kill the old man Sean had come to care about very much during the ten years he'd worked for him. His job was to carry out Carlos's wishes and keep him safe.
Of course he'd been charged with keeping Sonya safe, too, and he'd failed.
"Sir, the country of Ladera is a time bomb. Sonya's kidnapping is almost certainly related to the activities there. The appropriate authorities should be contacted."
Carlos tugged at Sean's sleeve. "No! I care nothing for corrupt politicians. I care only about getting my daughter back. I trust her safety only to you!" Carlos yelled. "Promise me — "
The nurse stuck his head in the door, but Sean waved him away.
"Mr. Botero, I can't tell you how sorry I am — "
"Do not apologize. Just promise me you will leave the authorities out of this. I depend on you."
"I'll do whatever you want done, sir."
Carlos's black eyes burned into Sean's. "I want my daughter back. Sonya is my heart, my only remaining child. I cannot bear to lose her."
Sean patted the older man's hand. "I give you my word as a father that I will do everything in my power to get your daughter back safe and sound."
Carlos relaxed minutely. "Thank you. Thank you. If my old friend Esteban were still alive, he could help you. But now Javier has taken on the additional duties of bodyguard." Carlos took a breath and got choked. He started coughing.
Sean quickly called for the nurse. It pained him to see his robust, vital boss so ill and weak.
After the nurse brought Carlos some water, then wheeled him out, saying it was time for his massage, Sean sat down behind Carlos's massive carved desk and put his head in his hands, replaying for the tenth or the hundredth time what had happened on that day in June when Sonya Botero was abducted in front of Weddings Your Way.