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The piercing ring of the phone made Stephanie Gage almost drop the box she was carrying. Her mind jumped to a horrible conclusion. Bittman had found her. Again. Now it would start all over, the phone calls, the flowers left on her doorstep, the feeling that she was being watched. Stephanie felt a flush of anger and shame. Her decision to work for Joshua Bittman had been disastrous. For her it was a job, for Bittman, the beginning of an obsessionand he'd stalked her steadily since she'd quit his employ two years before.
She tried to rein in the rampaging fear, to remember the courageous woman she used to be. How had he found her so quickly? Her new number was unlisted, her small Victorian, a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of the Mission district, quiet and anonymousor so she'd thought.
She was about to snatch up the phone and let the fury fuel her words when she recognized her older brother Victor's number on the caller ID. Chagrined at her own paranoia, she answered.
"I'm in the car," Victor said. "Took the scenic route along Highway 1. The view is spectacular and no traffic. Guess what, sis?"
Stephanie heard only joy in his voice. It reverberated through her like the cool breeze of the San Francisco morning.
"Brooke and I set a date for the wedding," Victor told her. "And our hard-to-please dad has given his stamp of approval, now that he's finally met her."
"Not that it matters," her father chimed in. "No one listens to me anyway."
She laughed, pushing back her messy black hair. "I'm listening, finally." Though she could force a brave tone, the mental scars would never fade, even if the memories did, if and when the fear finally abated.
"I don't think you've given up your rebellious side yet, little lady," her father added.
Little lady. She'd just celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday.
"Did you call Luca?" Her other brother had been close to marrying a few times, but now he was immersed in their activities at Treasure Seekers, the private agency run by the three Gage siblings dedicated to finding treasures for select clients. Luca would be just as pleased that Victor was tying the knot with Brooke, a woman they'd met during their last treasure hunt, whose father Victor had wrongly believed was a criminal.
"I'll call him next. He's probably busy trying to find our next case," Victor said.
"Hard to top securing a twenty-million-dollar painting."
Victor chuckled. "He was blabbering about an emerald collection when I left for southern California."
She marveled at his voice, so light and joyful. Somehow knowing Victor's heart was mended made her own broken relationship easier to endure. Pushing the image of Tate out of her mind, she forced a happier tone. "I'm thrilled for you." She spoke louder, over the background noise, which seemed to have edged up a notch on his end.
He started to laugh but broke off suddenly. "Hang on. What is ?" The noise swelled into a screech of tires.
Fingers suddenly icy, Stephanie clutched the phone.
Her heart fractured, along with the sound of shattering glass. "Victor!" she screamed. "Dad. What's happening?"
A hideous scraping tore at her ears. She yelled something into the phone, incoherent syllables, fear and helplessness making her words shrill. Tinkling glass, the protest of distressed metal, a massive thunk and the sound of tires sliding over gravel. She thought she heard her father cry out, and she squeezed the phone in a death grip.
"Answer me," she screamed, heart thundering against her ribs.
Then the noises faded into a soft crunch of gravel. Quieter, softer until there was no sound at all. No sound, except the violent hammering of her own heart. Her mouth would not form the words for a long moment. "Victor? Dad? Are you all right?"
Metal creaked, the sound of a door opening. Hope rose inside her. "Tell me you're all right," she whispered.
A voice came on the line. Cold, musical and chillingly familiar. "Stephanie, I have your father. There's something I need you to do for me. I will call you back in exactly four hours," Bittman said. "Mention me to anyone, and Wyatt Gage will die." The phone clicked off.
Her frantic call to the police revealed that a passing motorist had reported the wreck and a Lifeflight helicopter was transporting Victor to the nearest trauma center. Another call to her father's cell phone went unanswered. With numb fingers, she dialed Luca.
Joshua Bittman could not have her father.
Because if he did
"Hey, sis. What's up?"
She pictured him, a bigger, blonder version of their dark-haired older brother, his green eyes sparkling with mischief.
She knew Luca. She knew without question that if she told him the truth, he would summon the police and personally storm Bittman's Hillsborough mansion. But she also knew Joshua Bittman. He would not hesitate to kill Wyatt Gage and Luca in a heartbeat to get whatever it was that he wanted. "Victor was on the phone with me and he crashed," she said, stomach twisting. She gave him the details, leaving out any mention of their father being in the car.
Luca exhaled, voice tight with emotion. "Did you call Dad?"
There's no use, she wanted to shout. Bittman has Dad. The words stuck in her throat, but she finally choked out a reply. "No answer."
"My buddy's on duty today, he's a Lifeflight nurse. I'll call him on my way to the hospital and call you back."
He hung up, and she began to pace in frantic circles. The minutes slowed to a crawl as she tried to decide what to do that wouldn't make the situation worse. After what seemed like an eternity, Luca called again.
"My buddy said they admitted Victor and took him in for emergency surgery. He's been badly hurt."
The words lanced through her. Brooke and Victor were supposed to be starting a new life together, and Brooke deserved it as much as Victor, having seen her ailing father narrowly escape false imprisonment for a robbery. The Treasure Seekers Agency had recovered all manner of rich prizes, but their last adventure to locate Brooke's father's missing painting was far more treacherous than any they'd undertaken. Floods, tunnel collapses and a murder seemed like distant memories now.
Victor was the backbone of the agency. She flashed on a memory of him and their father, knee-deep in piles of old books, hunting out references to a priceless stamp. Terror about Victor's prognosis and her father's whereabouts made her hands ice cold, her breath short. She realized Luca was talking.
She jerked. "What?"
"I said I'll call Brooke and meet you at the hospital." He paused. "Keep it together, Steph. You're strong. Remember that."
"We both know that's not true." She'd collapsed when Tate Fuego had walked out of her life, descending lower and lower until she found herself fully entwined in Joshua Bitt-man's nightmare world.
"Steph? Are you there?"
She heard the edge of a deeper concern written in Luca's voice, underneath the calm exterior.
Could it be that her father had been injured but made it out of the car? Was he wandering around the crash area in need of help? Her heart leaped. Maybe Bittman was bluffing. Maybe he hadn't snatched him after all, and she was wrong.
The hope lasted less than a minute before it dried up and disappeared. The truth left a sour taste in her mouth.
Bittman did many things, but one thing he did not do was bluff.
He also did not threaten.
He punished. He was a billionaire many times over, and she'd suspected he'd paid officials to look the other way on his business dealings. Worse, she'd known people who'd crossed Bittman to simply disappear with no evidence on dirty Bittman's well-manicured handsvanished as if they'd never existed.
She checked her watch. Three-and-a-half hours to go. As the little hand ticked away the seconds, something shifted inside Stephanie. The fear coursing through her body coalesced into another emotion, white-hot and razor sharp. She would not sit by while Bittman turned her life upside down again.
She was done running, done hiding. He would pay for what he had done to Victor. He would deliver her father unharmed.
"I have to go somewhere," she said.
She braced herself. "Go to the hospital. I'll call you when I can."
"Steph," he said. "You're in trouble. I can hear it in your voice. Whatever it is, let me help you." Not this time, big brother.
A few minutes after two o'clock, Tate Fuego pulled his motorcycle to a stop in the shelter of massive trees lining the gate that circled Joshua Bittman's mansion. The building itself was a domed-top monstrosity of white stone, flanked by stretches of impeccably manicured lawns and a rectangular pond that reflected the building. A long driveway was empty except for a mint condition Mustang GT 350 and a black Mercedes.
Tate saw no sign of his sister Maria's car, though he knew she'd been a regular at Bittman's place. Her phone call three days prior scared him. Her normally upbeat personality was gone, and the woman on the line sounded irrational and unsteady, though she would not tell him why. Then nothing. No response to his texts, and no one answering the door at her apartment. He ground his teeth. She shouldn't have gotten involved with Bittman in the first place, and if he ever got a chance, he'd take Stephanie to task for introducing them.
The breeze teased ripples into the water of the pond, mirroring the discomfort in his own gut at the thought of Stephanie. Her dark eyes flashed in his memory, and he blinked away the pain. At the sound of an approaching engine, he rolled his bike farther back into the shadows. A van rumbled slowly by with American Pool Company printed on the exterior. When it pulled to a stop at the intercom, the driver, a stocky, crew-cut man with a face corrugated by wrinkles, leaned out to speak into the box.
"Pool service," he heard the driver bark, with a Spanish accent.
Tate grabbed the handle to the rear doors of the van and eased it down, wondering if he would be caught. In a moment he was safely inside. The guy parked the van and headed for the pool with a water test kit. Tate slipped out the back and ran for the nearest side entrance. In a place this ritzy, he knew interior security cameras would pick him up quickly, but he didn't need much time. One minute with Bittman, he thought grimly, was all he'd need.
He found himself in a gleaming kitchen, which was thankfully empty. The place was quiet, eerily so. Not one housekeeper in sight? No butlers or maids? Strangest of all, no burly security personnel barreling toward him.
His instincts prickled.
Muscles taut, he crept up the stairs and heard a murmur of voices. Heading swiftly along the hall, he came to a large window that looked down on an atrium. Trees that had to be at least twenty feet thrust upward toward the enormous skylights that bathed the space in pale sun. He was startled when a blue blur whizzed by his face. A parrot with feathers the color of the sky and intense yellow eyes peered at him from a branch. Below, through the screen of foliage, something else moved, this time of the two-legged variety.
Tate retraced his steps downstairs, skirting the lower floor hallway until he found the entrance to the atrium. The glass door was closed but not locked. Opening it as quietly as he could, Tate entered the warm, humid enclosure.
The parrot noises were varied and loud. Shrieks, raucous squawks and even some words rang through the space. An Elvis song, Maria's favorite.
Teeth gritted, he ducked between the spiked leaves and headed deeper into the bizarre tropical room. Branches crackled on his left, and he froze. Bird or Bittman, he could not tell. He passed a long metal pole with a mirror affixed to the end, leaning against the wall. Some sort of device so Bittman could check on his nesting birds? He turned to head back to the door when he felt a cold circle of metal pressed to his neck.
"Turn around," a voice growled.
A burly man, a head shorter than Tate, held a gun level with Tate's chest. He spoke into a radio. "I've got a guy in the aviary, and the girl is breaking down the door on the second floor."
Breaking down the door.
His brain filled in the rest. His sister. Kept here. That explained why she didn't return his calls, why she was no longer using her cell. The man was pointing him toward the door, and Tate could see the muscled arms under the suit coat.
He stepped back and raised a hand. "I don't want trouble. I'll go."
After I find my sister.
He moved toward the door, Suit Guy a couple of paces behind him. Tate edged closer to the glass wall until he was alongside the pole he'd seen earlier.
"Get going," the man grumbled.
Tate did, as he grabbed the pole and swung it in a wide circle, knocking the man to his knees. When he completed the turn, Tate raced to the door. Pole still in his hands, he cleared the doors and pushed them closed, wedging the pole through the double handles. He made for the stairs at a dead run, ignoring the pain shooting up his leg.
The pole wasn't strong, and the guy was burly. He'd be through in a few good pushes.
Clearing the stairs, Tate charged toward the sound of splintering wood.