His to Take

His to Take

4.7 12
by Shayla Black
     
 

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New York Times bestselling author Shayla Black invites readers to explore the desires of her Wicked Lovers...

Racing against time, NSA agent Joaquin Muñoz is searching for a little girl who vanished twenty years ago with a dangerous secret. Since Bailey Benson fits the profile, Joaquin abducts the beauty and whisks her to the safety of Club

Overview

New York Times bestselling author Shayla Black invites readers to explore the desires of her Wicked Lovers...

Racing against time, NSA agent Joaquin Muñoz is searching for a little girl who vanished twenty years ago with a dangerous secret. Since Bailey Benson fits the profile, Joaquin abducts the beauty and whisks her to the safety of Club Dominion—before anyone can silence her for good.
 
At first, Bailey is terrified, but when her kidnapper demands information about her past, she’s stunned. Are her horrific visions actually distant memories that imperil all she holds dear? Confined with Joaquin in a place that echoes with moans and breathes passion, he proves himself a fierce protector as well as a sensual Master who’s slowly crawling deeper into her head…and her heart. But giving in to him might be the most delicious danger of all.
 
Because Bailey soon learns that her past isn’t the only mystery. Joaquin has a secret of his own—a burning vengeance in his soul. The exposed truth leaves her vulnerable and wondering how much about the man she loves is a lie, how much more is at risk than her heart. And if she can trust him to protect her long enough to learn the truth.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/19/2015
Terrifically tormented characters can’t mitigate the flaws of Black’s ninth Wicked Lovers novel (after Theirs to Cherish). Years ago, a five-year-old girl disappeared when her father was murdered for his secret genetics research. Bailey Benson may be that girl, all grown up and still harboring her father’s secrets. NSA agent Joaquin Muñoz kidnaps Bailey to protect her from LOSS, a group intent on overthrowing the government with an army of genetically enhanced soldiers. Joaquin receives help from an ex-SEAL who suggests that he bring Bailey to Club Dominion, a BDSM club run by sexually dominant warrior types, for safekeeping. Bailey initially views Joaquin as a threat, and after their romance sparks, she worries about his emotional baggage. Their mutual discovery of latent sexual needs is powerful, but the ridiculous premise and setting are beyond cliché. Agent: Kimberly Whalen, Trident Media Group. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Shayla Black
 
“Sizzling, romantic, and edgy, a Shayla Black story never disappoints!”—Sylvia Day, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of Entwined with You

“Shayla Black creates emotional, searingly sexy stories that always leave me wanting more.”—Maya Banks, New York Times bestselling author

“Scorching, wrenching, suspenseful, Shayla Black’s books are a must-read.”—Lora Leigh, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780425251256
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/03/2015
Series:
Wicked Lovers Series , #9
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
179,083
Product dimensions:
5.43(w) x 8.21(h) x 0.96(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Acknowledgments

Chapter One

NIGHT pressed in, along with the rage crushing his chest. As he crept through the unfamiliar house, it lay dark, silent. Every step through the shadowed family room cost him precious seconds during which more people could die.

If he didn’t survive this endeavor, he damn well planned on taking a deserving bastard or two with him. No way were these assholes snuffing out anyone else.

He found the hall and crept down its length. As he peeked in each bedroom, he gripped a SIG SAUER in his gloved palm.

Finally, he found the master bedroom. He stepped in, then frowned. Too still. No snoring, no audible breathing. Dead silence.

Peering through the inky space, he found the bed rumpled but empty and bit back a curse. Where the hell—

The feel of something hard and cold pressing against the back of his skull had him grimacing and holding in a curse.

“You have five seconds to tell me who you are and why the fuck you broke into my house at three a.m. or I’ll blow you away.”

Despite the grim situation, amusement lifted a corner of his lips. “You could, Hunter, but I think your wife would remove your balls if you started offing her family.”

“Joaquin?” the other man asked, but didn’t ease up on the firearm aimed at his brain.

“Kata doesn’t have any other brothers,” he pointed out.

A muffled feminine squeal sounded from around the corner. The turn of a knob and the yank of a door later, bare feet scampered across a hardwood floor.

“Damn it, woman!” Hunter Edgington bit out at his wife.

In response, she flipped on a light and ran at him head-on. “It’s fine, babe.”

Joaquin Muñoz flinched against the bright beams stabbing his eyes. As he adjusted, he turned to face his sister. She barreled toward him in a pink, gauzy nightie that brushed the middle of her thighs and clearly demonstrated the fact that she wasn’t wearing a bra.

Almost as bad, her very protective husband, Hunter, still pointed a gun in his face. No doubt the former Navy SEAL knew how to use it well.

With another feminine scream of delight, Kata reached him and launched herself into his arms. How long had it been since he’d seen her? Almost three years. A fucking lifetime ago, really.

Then Joaquin didn’t think anything as he felt her hard belly against his own. “You’re pregnant?”

Kata stepped back and rubbed a hand over her distended abdomen. “Yeah.”

“Thirty-one weeks.” Hunter lowered the gun, but the tone warned him not to upset Kata or there’d be hell to pay. “We’re happy.”

“We are,” she assured with a smile. “I’m due May thirtieth. It’s a boy. Please be happy for us.”

Joaquin didn’t get the whole pairing off and spitting out kids thing, but pregnancy agreed with Kata. Though she didn’t wear a shred of makeup, she glowed. Glossy chocolate hair covered her shoulders. Her smile wasn’t the only thing that revealed her apparently sublime joy.

If she was happy, he’d play happy for her. “Of course.”

Kata relaxed, grabbing a nearby robe and belting it above her belly. “What brings you here?”

“Yeah. In the middle of the night without so much as ringing the doorbell?” Hunter’s eyes looked chilly even when he was in a good mood. At the moment, they held the warmth of a glacier.

Kata elbowed her husband with an exasperated sigh. “Is everything all right? Do you need a bed? Can you stay this time?”

“Hold it right there, motherfucker!” Another Edgington blasted from the hallway, semiautomatic pointed in his face. Then he blinked. “Joaquin?”

“As you can see . . .”

“Logan, damn it!” Kata braced her hands on her hips. “Put the gun down. What are you doing here?”

“I was up helping Tara feed the twins when I looked out the window. Since that streetlight shines on your back fence, I could see someone sneak over. I found the French doors to the family room unlocked and I followed.”

When Hunter whipped a censuring stare at Kata, she winced. “Sorry. I forgot to lock the door when I came back in after watering the plants.”

“And you forgot to set the alarm,” her husband added. “Again.”

“Jesus, why didn’t you just knock?” Logan sounded almost as annoyed as his brother.

“I didn’t want to wake everyone in the house up.”

“Everyone?” Hunter quipped. “There was no one else in the house with me except your sister. And the damn dog that’s obviously sacked out. Freaking furball.”

Joaquin rubbed at the back of his neck. He’d kind of figured that. He’d wanted help, not a family reunion. Right now, the family thing was just in his way, but he smiled at Kata. “I wasn’t sure, and my time to be polite has run out.”

“Danger?” Hunter asked sharply.

Despite his golden hair standing slightly on end, the scars on his shoulder where he’d been shot in virtually the same spot twice, and a pair of low-slung gray sweat pants, Joaquin didn’t doubt that his brother-in-law could still kill a man with his bare hands. Exactly the sort of guy he needed now. Logan, also a former SEAL, was cut from the same cloth. He wore his dark hair a little long these days, and even though it curled up at the ends, Joaquin would never mistake Hunter’s younger brother for a pussy. The pair of them had identical Navy SEAL tattoos on their biceps—an eagle with stars-and-stripes wings holding a trident—and piercing blue eyes.

“Yes,” he answered his brother-in-law simply. “There have already been multiple murders, the last one less than twelve hours ago.”

“Shit,” Hunter muttered, then turned to Kata. “Put something on and go across the street with Logan.”

“I’m not leaving my brother.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “He just got here.”

“That is a very direct order, Katalina.” Hunter had become an immovable mountain.

Joaquin’s sister looked agitated and defiant. Given the little collar she wore at her throat, he didn’t think this was the simple request of a husband to his wife. It was the unequivocal command of a Dom to his sub. Interesting . . .

She drew in another angry breath, hesitated, then whirled on him. “If you leave again without saying good-bye, I’m going to kick your ass.”

Joaquin smiled faintly. “As safety permits and Hunter allows, I will.”

Was Kata keen to see him because she was on some family kick now that she was starting her own? He didn’t get it. Blood aside, she’d gone her way. He’d gone his. He wished her all the best, but a picture-perfect, greeting card sort of brother he’d never be.

“You need more backup?” Logan asked. “Should I call someone to watch the girls?”

Hunter slanted a glance Joaquin’s way, deferring to him. A little bit of a shock, but he supposed it was because he alone knew the situation.

“I think that’s wise,” Joaquin advised.

“On it.” Logan pulled a phone from his belt and called someone named Tyler as Kata grabbed her slippers and her purse—sighing, banging, and slamming all the way. They disappeared out the door, and Hunter followed to the front window, watching them cross the street.

“When did you move into this place?” Joaquin asked his brother-in-law to pass the time until Logan returned. He didn’t want to explain the hell going down more than once.

“Almost a year and a half ago.” The man watched his wife like a sentry, not really breathing until Logan escorted her into the house and shut the door securely behind him. “I won’t bother asking how you found me.”

Yeah, he had ways. “And your brother lives across the street?”

Hunter nodded. “He and his wife, Tara, moved in about three months ago, just before their twins were born. We figured it would be good to have the kids close together.”

More family closeness. Maybe Kata’s desire for it had rubbed off on her husband. The concept of that much togetherness gave Joaquin hives. These days, he couldn’t see past his anger. But he kept that fact to himself and shrugged. “Nice.”

Within minutes, a big blond guy in a black truck pulled up and, piece in hand, knocked on Logan’s door. The hulk entered. The other Edgington headed back toward Hunter’s place. Now they could get down to business. That was a relief because he needed justice and . . . he really didn’t know what to say to his youngest sister.

Logan let himself in and locked the door. Hunter secured the French doors and set the alarm. In the kitchen, he flipped on lights, started the coffeemaker, then looked at Joaquin expectantly. “Talk. Are you in danger?”

“No. But I need to figure out who might be this killer’s next victim.”

“Are you working a case?” Logan demanded.

He hesitated. “Not officially.”

The brothers exchanged a look, like they had some sort of private speak that only they would ever understand. Finally, they broke contact, and Logan gave a little nod.

“Were you followed?” Hunter asked.

“No. I was careful. But if I don’t move fast, we’ll have more dead women on our hands.”

Logan frowned. “Serial killer?”

“Not exactly, though the man wielding the implements has clearly had both training and practice. But if he were a simple serial killer, I would leave that to the police.”

As the scent of coffee filled the air, Hunter opened a cabinet and withdrew mugs. “Cream? Sugar?”

Joaquin frowned. “Do I look like a pussy?”

“Hey!” Logan objected.

Hunter barked out a laugh. “Ms. Thang likes cream in his coffee.”

“Fuck you both,” he groused.

“No thanks.” Against his will, the brothers amused Joaquin. He missed this banter and camaraderie. Nate had been a great friend, probably the closest thing he’d ever have to a brother. Joaquin still couldn’t believe he was gone. The loss fueled him with fury all over again.

He shoved the blinding anger down and focused on the case. Nate had done the same until his dying breath.

“So what’s going on?” Hunter asked, filling the mugs with hot brew and sliding them across the counter.

Letting out a breath, Joaquin settled onto a bar stool and leaned in, elbows surrounding his steaming cup.

“I have”—shit—“I had a friend. I worked with him before he left to become a P.I. He took this case . . . A young woman came in, saying she felt as if someone was following her. She never saw anyone, but ‘knew’ she was being watched. According to my pal, Nate, she wasn’t involved with anyone and she couldn’t think of any enemies. Even though he thought she was a bit paranoid, he took the case. It was a buck.” Joaquin shrugged. “Then . . . about thirty-six hours later, he couldn’t find her anywhere. No one had seen or heard a thing. She simply failed to report to work. So he called the cops. Her place had been turned upside down. Signs of struggle were everywhere, but no unidentified prints. No DNA. Nothing. The next day, she turned up dead. Tortured hideously before she died.” He flashed them the crime scene photo on his phone.

Logan grimaced. “Then?”

“Nate was a good guy,” Joaquin said, pocketing his mobile. “He thought he’d let this girl down. He was determined to figure out what he’d overlooked and solve her murder. He went through all her records. Financials looked good. Nothing wrong at work. Her phone records were pretty clean, just one number he looked into. But it turned out to be a burner phone, so IDing who it belonged to was as ineffectual as porn in a roomful of blind men.”

Hunter snorted. “After that? ’Cause it doesn’t sound like Nate is with you anymore.”

“No.” Joaquin clenched a fist and tried to breathe through the fresh grief. “He called the number. Got nothing. Didn’t leave a message. He asked me to see what I could find out. I did and I got an earful.”

“Earful?” Hunter prompted. “If you couldn’t trace it—”

“NSA.” He shrugged. Normally, Joaquin wouldn’t tell anyone what he did or who he worked for, but if he wanted help, he was going to have to be uncomfortably forthcoming.

“That clears up the mystery,” Hunter commented. “Kata has always wondered. Go on.”

Joaquin spared them the boring history lesson about his previous few jobs. He’d worked for different fingers within Uncle Sam’s tight grip. The NSA had simply been the latest.

“I tapped into the signal. And the conversation I heard between these two men shocked the fuck out of me. I tried to call Nate and tell him that he was onto something dangerous.” He cleared his throat, wondering why it was clogged suddenly. Had to be his damn allergies. “He didn’t answer, so I went to his house. He’d been shot execution style.”

The scene had been branded in his memory. Nate’s hands tied behind his back and his brains splattered all around him. Joaquin choked on a violent urge for vengeance. He’d repay these assholes, no matter what it took.

“Shit,” Logan muttered.

“I must have interrupted whoever killed him. They’d started digging into his office, but hadn’t touched the rest of the house yet. Given what I’d heard, his murder coinciding with this woman’s wasn’t random.”

Logan cursed. “Did you find something yourself? Turn the evidence over?”

“I found a treasure trove of shit Nate had recently dug up. I swiped it from the crime scene and took it to my superiors at the NSA. I was told to stop using all the cool gadgets at work for my personal shit. Murder isn’t their jurisdiction, so if what I found didn’t involve eavesdropping on potential terrorists at home, I should drop it.”

“But you didn’t.” Hunter didn’t know him well, but the guy understood him enough not to phrase his reply as a question.

Joaquin scoffed. “No. A woman was mutilated so badly they had to use the serial numbers on her breast implants to identify her. My best”—and only—“friend is dead. From what I’d overheard, none of that was going to stop.”

Hunter polished off his coffee, poured another, then looked at Joaquin and Logan. They both shoved their cups forward for refills. He tipped the pot. The dark liquid flowed. Joaquin had the feeling the elder Edgington was collecting his thoughts.

“Can you tell from the evidence who’s responsible? Any theories?”

“No. I could use your help. Nate’s dead client hadn’t known who’d been after her. Nate himself hadn’t figured it out, either. I overheard incriminating conversations conducted on that burner phone, but the two assholes never exchanged names. Nor did they state who or what they represented. One called the shots while the other did the dirty work. But to uncover their identities, I’d have to have approval to subpoena phone records, and with a disposable device, the odds of getting that information are long. I was hoping that if I figured out why someone killed them, that would lead me to who.”

Logan nodded. “If you’ve got nothing else—”

“I don’t.”

“Then that’s your best option. So no one you worked for gave a damn about these dead people and . . . ?”

“I’ve been suspended for a month. I’m pretty sure that when I go back I won’t have a job, but I’m not giving up. I will figure this out. Which is where you guys come in.”

“What do you need?” Hunter sipped at his brew again.

“Resources. Anything you can give me to help me find out who did this and why.” Joaquin shrugged. “I figured you two would have ways.”

Logan smiled smugly. Hunter’s expression was almost a mirror.

So that was a yes.

Joaquin continued with his story. “The woman being followed was twenty-one, obviously of some sort of Anglo-European descent, probably Eastern bloc, but born in the U.S., and adopted in December 1998, somewhere around the age of five. When I found Nate’s notes, he’d been working this furiously and found a string of mutilations over the last two weeks spread across the country. Four in total, but no one had connected the dots yet. All the women were the same age with the same ethnic background, adopted about the same time. The phone call I overheard between the two men indicated that they’d compiled a list of every female in the U.S. who met these criteria. They said they’d find Tatiana Aslanov if they had to kill a hundred women looking for her.”

Hunter and Logan shared another quick stare, but neither said anything right away.

“What do you know about her?” Hunter asked.

“Nothing. All the usual searches turned up empty, as if she never existed.”

“Some people would like to keep it that way,” Logan asserted.

“You know about this girl?”

“We do,” Hunter answered. “We’ll get into it as soon as you finish your story.”

Joaquin nodded, glad he’d followed his hunch to come here. “About fifteen hours ago, I overheard the two assholes talking about hunting the Aslanov girl. Then suddenly, they went silent, as if they knew someone listened in. Or maybe they just cycled out their phones. Whatever. But the conversation stopped abruptly. Another body fitting the description turned up in Atlanta this afternoon. Whoever’s looking for this woman is looking hard.”

“And obviously not finding who they’re looking for,” Hunter speculated. “If they were, they wouldn’t kill their victim and move on to the next.”

“Agreed.” Joaquin nodded. “From what I gather, they want information. It makes sense that if a woman isn’t who they’re seeking, they dispose of her. After all, they can’t let her blab.”

“Exactly,” Logan agreed.

“But why end her so brutally?” Hunter looked perplexed.

“My gut? Just because he can. This prick probably enjoys torture. I’ll bet he gets hard hearing a woman plead for her life.”

“Sick fuck.” Logan’s contempt couldn’t have been more obvious.

“This creep started around D.C. and swept down the Eastern Seaboard, struck as far south as Miami, then headed back west. Every single one of these bodies is . . .” Joaquin shuddered as the crime scene photos flashed through his head, each more shocking than the last. The terrible deaths these women had endured made him flat fucking sick.

Logan slapped him on the back. “’Nough said on that. How can we help?”

“These killers are two steps ahead of me. I need help compiling a list of women who fit the profile so I can warn each before they become victims.”

“We can help with that,” Hunter promised.

“And that’s everything I’ve got. Now tell me what you know about Tatiana Aslanov.”

“Not much about her specifically, other than her name. I’m more familiar with her father’s work.” Logan cocked his head. “Do you know Callindra Howe?”

“The heiress who was missing for, like, a decade? I know of her.”

“Yeah. I know her personally, so I know what she went through to escape the bastards pursuing her because of Viktor Aslanov’s research. There’s more to the story than they’re saying on the news.”

“You seriously know her?” Joaquin was about to call bullshit.

“Before he got married, he had the chance to know her up close and personal,” Hunter added.

“And you passed that up?” Now Joaquin just wanted to call the younger Edgington an idiot.

“Hey!” Logan objected. “We were both in love with other people.”

Was this guy for real? “So? That pic someone caught of her and her former ‘boss’ looking mighty cozy in Tahiti a few months back?” That had been one hell of a lip lock. “She looks insanely hot in a bikini. As long as her fiancé gets some, too, I kind of see why he just looks the other way.”

The Edgington brothers exchanged another glance. Okay, they knew something else he didn’t. He’d come back to it later. Right now, his goals were to avenge Nate and stop other women from dying, not worry about some pseudo-celebrity.

“So through Callindra Howe, you know something about the Aslanov case?”

Logan nodded. “Callie’s fiancé, Sean, still consults with the FBI. What we know is that the bureau is convinced that no scientist, especially one doing Aslanov’s sort of groundbreaking genetic work, would intentionally hand over every scrap of his research to her father, knowing that he would only destroy it.”

“What?” Joaquin hadn’t had much time to devote to the news lately, and he was a little embarrassed to admit that he knew more about how Callindra Howe looked on a beach wearing next to nothing than about her case.

“Her father, Daniel Howe, hired Aslanov to find a DNA-based cure for cancer when Callie was a little girl,” Hunter explained. “Howe threw millions at the Russian geneticist to try to save his wife from dying of ovarian cancer. When that didn’t work, he pressed on, hoping no one else would have to suffer as he and his family had.”

“Right.” He remembered that part.

“Then when Howe figured out that Aslanov had stumbled across other genetic markers that had nothing to do with the grant he’d funded and the scientist had sold that information separately to make a buck, Callie’s father demanded that Aslanov turn over his findings since it had been created on his dime. Aslanov supposedly gave Howe every bit of research he’d ever conducted with the funding. But the end of their business relationship was contentious, and the scientist had to know that the billionaire was going to turn his life’s work into dust. Which is exactly what he did.”

“But everyone thinks Aslanov left a copy somewhere else?”

“In his shoes, wouldn’t you?” Logan challenged. “Would you endure years of advanced schooling, being ostracized in your own country for your controversial experiments, and work like a dog for a dozen years so that you could hand everything over and know it would all go up in smoke?”

His pride would never allow that. He didn’t think most men’s would, either. “No.”

“So the FBI is speculating that another copy of this genetic-altering research is somewhere. What we know is that Aslanov sold his initial findings to some well-funded, fuck-all-crazy separatist group with delusions of a super army. They experimented with some U.S. soldiers they abducted in South America. When these loons came back to Aslanov for the rest of the research, the Russian told them he didn’t have it anymore. They shot his family deader than dead—wife and two kids. They tortured him mercilessly for nearly two days before they killed him, too.”

Joaquin absorbed all that and let it rattle around in his brain. “That’s all terrible, but what does it have to do with my case?”

Logan clapped him on the back. “Well, the separatists never got their hands on all that research. Aslanov had three children, but authorities only recovered the bodies of two. This organization might seem insane, but they aren’t stupid. I’d bet they found the obscure news story of a little girl covered in blood and walking a dirt road the same November day as the murders, less than a mile from the crime scene, then decided that she was Aslanov’s missing daughter.”

“So you’re saying that’s Tatiana Aslanov and she’s still alive?” Joaquin’s blood started to spark and race. Finally, after a frustrating few weeks, he might be onto something.

“Exactly. But you won’t have an easy time tracking her down. According to Sean, the adoption records have been sealed tight. What we do know is the five-year-old girl wandering the side of the road was in shock and couldn’t remember her name. The couple who found her took her to the local sheriff. She was adopted out shortly thereafter.”

“She must be the one these people are after, just to learn what she knows about her father’s research or where he might have hidden it.” Joaquin blew out a breath. “I’ve got to find her.”

“Before they do,” Hunter added.

“Which means we don’t have much time. Days at most. Probably more like hours.”

Hunter plucked his cell phone out of the pocket of his sweat pants and made a call. Logan’s materialized from his jeans. Within a few minutes, the place was crawling with people. First to show up was a big blond mountain of a man Hunter introduced as his brother-in-law, Deke.

The big guy shook Joaquin’s hand. “I may have to leave suddenly. Kimber started having contractions this afternoon.”

“My sister,” Logan supplied to Joaquin, then frowned. “She’s not due yet.”

“We’re only at week twenty-eight, so it’s a concern. They’ll stop her labor . . . if they can.”

“No worries,” Hunter assured him. “If you’ve got to go, just go.”

“Jack’s on his way. Morgan isn’t due for months, so he shouldn’t have any problems being here for the duration.”

Joaquin frowned, staring at the men. What the fuck? A bunch of tough dudes all into their wives and kids. Were they trying to double the population of Lafayette, Louisiana, singled-handedly or go for some fucked-up record in that big Guinness book?

“Your wife is pregnant,” he said to Hunter. “And so is yours,” he addressed Deke. “This Jack guy’s wife is expecting, and . . .” He turned to Logan. “Your wife just had twins.”

“Yep.” Logan flashed him a cheesy grin. “Don’t forget my buddy, Xander. He and his brother are waiting for their wife to give birth, too. Six weeks to go.”

Their wife?”

Logan nodded, giving him a stare that dared him to say more.

Honestly, he didn’t care much how these guys rolled, but . . . “What the fuck is in the water around here? If I get laid while I’m in town, remind me to tell her not to drink it.”

Deke barked out a laugh. “It’s not the water. We’re all just horny.”

Logan grimaced. “I don’t want to hear that about my sister, dude. Eww! I need ear bleach.”

“Get over yourself.” Deke punched Logan in the shoulder. “My wife is hot.”

Hunter rolled his eyes. “I’m ignoring your comments about my sister. Personally, I think everyone is trying to keep up with Tyler.”

“This will be baby number three for them,” Logan agreed with a nod.

“Delaney wants a girl this time.”

Personally, Joaquin didn’t give a shit, but just about the time he opened his mouth to remind them they had a case to work and that lives hung in the balance, Jack Cole showed up. He brought along a guy he introduced as Stone, who had a heavy brow line, a square face, and almost dead eyes.

Joaquin brought the newcomers up to speed. Within five minutes, they had multiple workstations up, humming on a super-secure Internet connection. Several of the guys were on the phone with their contacts as they quickly took Joaquin’s list of all girls adopted in December 1998 at age five. Stone’s fingers flew over his keyboard. He might look like a caveman, but the guy was definitely high-tech. In moments, he began whittling the list of names down to a handful that fit Tatiana Aslanov’s profile.

Finally, as dawn crested over the Louisiana skyline, Logan made one last call, to a guy named Mitchell Thorpe. The name sounded familiar, but Joaquin couldn’t place it.

“Callie with you?” Logan asked the man.

“Right beside me,” said the voice on the speakerphone. “Aren’t you, pet?”

A little feminine sigh, followed by a giggle. “Yes. Stop it!”

“Would you like to change your tone and rephrase that? It sounded a whole lot like a demand,” said the man with the commanding voice.

“Sorry.” She sounded almost contrite . . . but not quite.

“Because she’s a little minx,” said another man on the other end of the phone.

Joaquin frowned. The Callie on the line was Callindra Howe? Apparently. So Thorpe was with Callie and . . . who else? Her fiancé?

“Did you need to talk to her, Logan?” Thorpe asked.

“With your permission.”

Permission? Did all these guys swing just left of normal? Whatever. If they could help him solve these murders and give him justice for Nate, nothing else mattered.

“Of course.”

The speaker rumbled a bit, then a woman’s voice took over. “Logan?”

“Hi, Callie. Sorry if we woke you.”

“We’re just being lazy. Sean’s half-asleep, but you’ve got me. Tara good?”

“Absolutely. I called for your help.”

“Anything. Name it.”

“I might bring Kata’s brother to Dallas to talk to you. How soon is the wedding?”

“Next Saturday.”

“Can you squeeze a meeting in before then? I’m sure it’s a crazy time, but it’s about Aslanov. I don’t think this shit is over. We’re onto a new angle here.”

“What do you mean?” The second male voice resounded over the phone again, sounding sharp.

“Half-asleep, Mackenzie?”

“Wide awake now,” Sean grumbled. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“Time is of the essence, and I don’t want to get into too much over the phone.” Logan winced.

Joaquin nodded. Never know who might be listening . . .

“We’ll make time for a meeting,” Callie assured Logan.

“Thanks, hon. We’ll be in touch when we’re headed in that direction.”

“Excellent,” Thorpe assured him. “We’ll be waiting.”

Logan hung up and looked Joaquin’s way. “They’ll have information no one else will. You can interview them, see if anything helps your case along.”

“Thanks, man.”

Logan nodded. “No sweat. I hope we’re able to stop anyone else from losing their life.”

“I got it,” Stone said into their discussion.

Since the guy barely talked, Joaquin had kind of forgotten he was there. Well, except for the constant tap, tap, tapping of his keyboard.

“You’ve got a list?” Jack asked, clarifying.

“Yeah.” Stone nodded sharply. “I narrowed it down to women who fit the profile and are still alive. I went further and searched for women with blue eyes, since the only picture of Tatiana Aslanov I found shows she had them. She was only two at the time, but I’m rolling with it. That leaves us with four possibilities: Caitlyn Wells of Mobile, Alabama. Emily Boyle of Norman, Oklahoma. Bailey Benson of Houston, Texas. Alicia Allen of Casa Grande, Arizona. I pulled together brief bios of them all.”

As Stone printed everything out and handed it to him, Joaquin stared in awe. “Where did you come from?”

The man never broke expression. “Prison. Jack just pays me to put my skills to good use now, instead of hacking into Uncle Sam’s panties or department stores’ customer payment records.”

Joaquin didn’t think Stone was kidding. On top of being good with a computer, between the ink covering his arms and the slabs of muscles lurking under his T-shirt, he just looked like a bad motherfucker. Nice to have the ex-con on his side.

“Thanks.”

Stone inclined his head, his severely short hair like a dark paint over his scalp, matching his expressionless dark eyes. “By the way, Logan said you were wondering if you still had a job. You haven’t been fired yet. I looked into it. There’s a meeting on the subject this coming Tuesday.”

Fabulous. “I appreciate it.”

Jack slapped Stone on the back. “Good job.”

Joaquin stared down at the list. The obvious would be to head to Mobile first, but what if these violent bastards changed their M.O. or skipped around the country for some reason? “Any chance I can convince y’all to split up this list with me?”

“I’ll hop on a plane to Mobile,” Jack volunteered with a grin. “There’s a place there I know with fabulous biscuits and gravy, so when I’m done, I know I’ll have a great meal.”

“I’ll take Norman,” Logan said. “I’ve been before and I know my way around. Shouldn’t take me long.”

“I used to live in Houston,” Joaquin pointed out. “I’ll be able to get in and out of there fast.”

“I guess that leaves me with catching the next flight to Arizona,” Hunter quipped. “Where is this place?”

“Halfway between Tucson and Phoenix. I passed through there once.” Joaquin shrugged. “Look on the bright side. It’s not a big town. It’ll take longer to get there than to search it.”

“Whoever finds her, I think we should take her somewhere with a lot of security, where we can watch her twenty-four seven. Like Dominion.” Logan turned to Joaquin. “It’s Thorpe’s club in Dallas. Callie and Sean will be there, too. We can ask them questions at the same time.”

“Club?”

“BDSM.” Logan set his jaw. “You got something to say about that?”

Why would he? “Not a word.”

“Excellent.”

“I highly recommend you keep it that way.” But clearly, Hunter wasn’t suggesting.

Whatever. Impatience burned a hole in his gut. He just wanted to get this show on the road.

“Check in as soon as you’ve reached your target and either eliminated or identified her,” Joaquin said.

“What do we do with the women we know aren’t Tatiana? We can’t just leave them to this sadistic fucker and the prick giving the orders.”

A heavy pall fell over the group. No one wanted to upend lives . . . but they all refused to leave another innocent woman to suffer so brutally at these killers’ hands.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Logan suggested.

“All right.” Joaquin didn’t like it, but he agreed. “Now we need to get going. The more time we waste here, the more time someone else has to die.”

Chapter Two

AFTER five hours of sleep and another four on the road, Joaquin drove through the historic Houston Heights neighborhood, cruising slowly past Bailey Benson’s address. As sunset dipped closer, the golden glow backlit the cozy bungalow painted a pretty blue-gray with fresh white trim. Original stained glass graced a transom window over the front door. The little porch and dark wood front door gave the place charm.

It didn’t look like a house where a murder could take place, but looks could be deceiving.

He didn’t see a vehicle parked in the carport to the left of the house, but a bicycle was tethered to its back post. Vaguely, Joaquin wondered where this girl was now. He read the sketchy bio information Stone had given him again—more about dance than anything else. Nothing that told him precisely who she was.

As he scoped the house to find the best entrance to sneak in without being spotted, his phone buzzed. Logan.

“What did you find?” Joaquin didn’t waste time with chitchat or preambles.

“I just got to Norman. Bad news. Emily Boyle was reported missing shortly after noon today.”

His stomach balled and dropped. “Shit.”

“I’m going to keep looking around, help if I can. But from what I can tell, she left her job as an assistant in a real estate office to grab some coffee this morning and didn’t return. Of course, the police won’t consider her an official missing person for another fifteen hours, but . . .”

“We know what happened, most likely.” Joaquin sighed into the phone. “We’re too late.”

“As much as I hate saying it, the situation doesn’t look good. But I’m not giving up yet. I’m trying to retrace Emily’s steps and talk to anyone who saw her just before she disappeared.”

“Thanks. Keep me posted.”

He couldn’t stand the thought that a young woman was probably, even now, being strapped down and scalpeled, punctured, then dismembered until she either admitted to being Tatiana Aslanov or she bled to death. Either way, she’d die eventually. If she wasn’t the scientist’s daughter, they’d snuff her out with no compunction. The best he could do was focus on Bailey Benson, hope she was the missing girl, and save her in case these brutal bastards came her way.

Then take them down for what they’d done to Nate and the other women.

Jack and Hunter had both climbed on planes to their respective destinations. Something between anticipation and dread bit into Joaquin’s stomach. He hoped they’d have better news than Logan, but everything looked bleak.

As soon as the sun slid below the horizon, he drove a few streets over, slipped on a ball cap, and shrugged into a long raincoat. He climbed from the car and locked it, then strolled down the street, pretending to be a resident out for an evening stroll.

It didn’t take him long to reach Bailey’s little house. He ducked behind a row of hedges and crouched, following it to the side of the house, testing every door and window. He gave her credit for keeping the doors locked, but he found a loose knob on the door into the kitchen. A quick turn of the multi-tool he kept in his pocket, and he stripped away the hardware. From there, it wasn’t hard to reach through and unlock the door. Predictably, no one had retrofitted the house with a security system.

Once inside, he reattached the doorknob and tightened it before making his way through the shadowed space, looking for a good hiding spot. He hoped like hell that she actually made it home, instead of disappearing like Emily Boyle. But since she wasn’t due to work at the dive where she waitressed until Tuesday, he wasn’t sure where else to find her but home.

Joaquin cased the place. Because the house was older, it didn’t have a walk-in pantry or closet he could slip into. Nor did Bailey’s place have a living room in the normal sense of the words. What it did have, however, was two walls of mirrors, gleaming hardwood floors, and a ballet barre.

The woman liked her dance. He’d never been to a ballet. Neither of his sisters had been into that sort of thing. His sister Mari had been a volleyball player. His mother had enrolled Kata for a time, but his younger sister had preferred to be one of the guys. Football, softball, soccer, even lacrosse . . . If Joaquin played a sport, Kata had joined in.

A jangling noise alerted Joaquin that someone had unlocked the front door. He dove into a floor-to-ceiling armoire Bailey had set up in one corner of the space and arranged himself around some ragged toe shoes, a few leotards, some tulle-like things, and a musty collection of old playbills from past ballets in a box.

Just as he settled with his knees somewhere near his throat, he heard a commotion at the front door. It opened, shut. Keys clattered onto a nearby surface.

“Blane, don’t be that way,” the voice said. “You know I love you.”

Joaquin couldn’t hear what the voice on the other end of the phone said, but Bailey laughed. “Of course no one is more wonderful than you. Didn’t I follow you around like a puppy when we first met? I tell you all the time how incredible you are.”

She paused, and Joaquin heard her footsteps drawing closer. The rustle of plastic told him that she had set a bag on the counter of the kitchen, which was open to her dance room. He leaned around in the cabinet until he caught a glimpse of her through the tiny sliver of space between the armoire doors.

Bingo!

Bailey Benson appeared, phone pressed to her ear, wearing a smile and a pair of killer dimples. She looked so fresh-faced, with rosy cheeks and her light brown hair in a loose bun. Wavy tendrils caressed her neck. He’d never seen a woman with such delicate shoulders and hands. Her fair skin would surely bruise easily. Even when she extracted apples from her grocery sack, the movements were graceful. He could look at a girl like her all day long.

Blood rushed to his cock like a flood, and he gritted his teeth. A man would have to be careful with a woman like that beneath him. He definitely liked sex physical and a little rough. Breaking her would be too easy.

He shoved the thought aside, reminding himself that he wasn’t here to get Bailey into bed, but to save her. Because if this asshole Joaquin chased managed to abduct and torture her, he would be far more than a little rough.

A protective surge punched Joaquin in the gut.

“Aww, come on,” she crooned into the phone, pursing a full pair of lips that he could imagine plump and rosy and wrapped around him as she sucked him deep. “It’ll be great. You’re gorgeous, Blane. We do hot and sweaty really well together. You know it.”

Well, hell. She was talking to her boyfriend about sex. Joaquin didn’t poach, and getting excited about some girl into another guy wasn’t his speed. The fact that he currently spied on her through her armoire doors made him feel like a pervy letch. He shook his head.

She giggled. Her blue eyes sparkled. Fuck, she really was gorgeous. Then again, he shouldn’t be surprised. She was young, blue-eyed, and nubile. And despite her conversation, she had a startling air of innocence.

“All right. I’ll wait until tomorrow night. You’re terrible to string a girl along and leave her panting, you know?”

The douche on the other end had turned down sex with her? Scratch that. That guy wasn’t a douche, but a complete fidiot.

Bailey laughed, then hung up. She finished putting away her groceries, then stashed her purse on the kitchen counter and made her way to the open space of her dance studio. As she bent to retrieve a pair of toe shoes scattered on the floor, Joaquin got his first look at her form south of her shoulders.

Holy fuck, what a pretty thing. She wore some sort of gray spandex dance garment that covered her from shoulders to ankles yet revealed every dip and slight swell of her body. Along with the delicate shoulders, she had pert breasts that curved her leotard gracefully. Her narrow rib cage funneled down to an even smaller waist. The slight flare of her hips was just enough to be feminine. Firm thighs, muscled calves, and tiny feet that looked even smaller in those torture chamber shoes.

The woman weighed about a hundred pounds. She wasn’t tall. God, had he ever even kissed a girl that fragile? No. But her lips looked like the least delicate part of her, pink and puffed. Soft. Sex ready.

Shit, the thought made him even harder.

As soon as Bailey finished lacing up her shoes, she ran back and grabbed her phone, then flipped through her playlists and chose a song. She set the phone down and struck a pose. Classical music filled the room, and she danced like a butterfly, flitting, floating. She looked so light. The woman came damn close to defying gravity. How could anyone stay in the air that long with her legs in the splits? How could anyone turn on the tips of her toes seven or eight times like that without losing her balance, getting dizzy, or throwing up?

Through the thin, stretchy fabric, Joaquin witnessed every bunch of her thighs as she leapt, every ripple of her shoulders as she waved her arms in graceful expression. And her face . . . He had no doubt that she was never happier than when she was moving with the music to express the beauty of the dance and song together. Simply stunning.

He wasn’t a dance sort of guy, but watching her made him fucking ache to touch her.

Time seemed without meaning, almost endless. When she pirouetted out of his vision, it frustrated him . . . but then she came back, and the sight of her was like something that soothed the savage beast inside him. The control she had over her body astounded him. Bailey lifted her leg, cradling her foot in her hand and hoisting it above her head, turning as she did, head flung back, eyes closed, as if in ecstasy.

Damn it, he was about to bust out his zipper.

One song bled into the next, then another. Even her graceful fingers turned him on, and he imagined his big dark hands all over her fair skin, enveloping her slight form as he drove into her sweet, tight cunt.

He drew in a deep breath. Mission objective: Save the girl from being horrifically murdered. He had no business thinking about sex with her. She had a boyfriend. He was a foot taller and outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds. The grooves on his face revealed the harsh danger in his life she would never understand. Bailey would probably take one look at him and scream.

As she raised her leg behind her, arched her back, and made some graceful sweep with her arms, the phone in his pocket buzzed. Thanking fuck that the music covered the sound, he pulled it from his pocket. Jack Cole. Caitlyn Wells’s body had been discovered about four that afternoon. He’d thoughtfully included a picture. As he saw it, Joaquin hissed in a breath. She’d received the same treatment as the others—broken, sawed into pieces, mutilated almost beyond recognition. If Logan and Hunter’s theory about who was behind all this was right, these separatists were working faster. Or maybe they were just losing patience. Either way, it wasn’t good. They’d be done with the girl in Oklahoma soon. And they’d be heading down to Houston—if they weren’t on their way already. Then they’d abduct Bailey and— Fuck no. He couldn’t even think about that. It wouldn’t happen on his watch.

He tapped out a quick curse to Jack and added that he’d call later.

About that time, Bailey turned off the music. Perspiration dripped down her neck, disappeared between her breasts. Patches of moisture discolored the back of her leotard. Her hairline was soaking wet. Joaquin found himself just as fascinated. Did she work that hard in bed with a lover, chasing pleasure with him to create an unforgettable experience?

She disappeared, and he saw the shoes fly across the room, back into the corner. The patter of footsteps over the hardwood floors grew quieter, fainter, until they disappeared. The creak of the old house’s water pipes sounded in the walls next. Bailey had probably gone to shower.

Easing the armoire door open, he peeked out. All the lights were on and the coast was clear. Excellent.

First order of business: Secure the location.

Joaquin unfolded himself from the cramped space and backtracked to the front door. He wanted to throttle her when he found it unlocked. Was she insane? Even if she didn’t know about the danger breathing down her neck, any run-of-the-mill rapist or killer looking for an easy thrill could just walk right in while she was in a tile box with her eyes closed and so damn vulnerable.

Shit. He’d never quite understood the urge to spank a woman, but he was starting to get a clue.

After locking them in tight once more, he swiped her phone and schlepped back to her bedroom. Sweat-damp clothes littered the floor. Running water pelted the walls and floor of the shower. She sang in a high, lilting soprano. He didn’t recognize the song. Something about eternal love—vomit—but she could carry a tune. That shouldn’t surprise him. She was both musical and talented.

Tucking himself behind a plush chair in a corner of the room, he prowled through her phone, just waiting for her to emerge from the bathroom. She didn’t password protect the device, so he could see the name of her last caller. Blane looked young, fit, and boyishly handsome. They’d exchanged a series of texts with lots of flirting and hearts.

Somewhere in the back of his head, Joaquin wondered if her boyfriend would pose a problem by doing something inconvenient like dropping by unexpectedly tonight. Joaquin would almost wonder what she saw in a guy like Blane, except it was both obvious and irrelevant.

The phone in Joaquin’s pocket buzzed again. He pulled it free to see a message from Hunter. The girl in Arizona was in Africa on a mission trip for the next six weeks. They exchanged a few texts, agreeing that she was safe for now and that if the case was still up in the air when Alicia Allen returned, they’d deal with her then. Hunter said he was catching a return flight home tonight. Giving him the thumbs-up, Joaquin had shoved his phone in his pocket again when he heard the bathroom door open.

Along with a cloud of perfumed steam, Bailey emerged. He caught a glimpse of her barely covered in a yellow towel, little water droplets raining down her pale skin as she scurried across the room.

She stopped right beside the bed, and a moment later the TV flipped on. She scanned a few channels, then paused.

“Welcome to Callindra Howe,” said the male announcer with the buttery voice. “Thank you for being with us. Your story of survival and courage has inspired many in the face of adversity, and everyone is thrilled that your story has a happy ending.”

“Thank you for having me here.”

“In case you’ve been living under a rock . . .” The voice-over went into an explanation of Callie’s history, surviving the murder of her entire family and repeated attempts on her own life. The backstory included a description of Aslanov and his research, along with a hint that this played a role in her tragic past. A little gasp escaped Bailey.

Joaquin inched his gaze above the back of the chair. She stood stock-still and staring. What had her so mesmerized? He cocked his head to see the TV. A picture of Viktor Aslanov appeared on the screen. He whipped his stare to Bailey again. She looked spooked and pale.

Suddenly, she made a frantic grab for the remote on the nightstand, stabbing her trembling thumb furiously against one of the buttons. Nothing happened on the first two tries.

“Damn it,” she muttered, staring down at the device in her hand, her body taut.

“My story has a happy ending,” Callie said on the screen. “But my mother’s didn’t. Every woman can live a longer, healthier life by having regular female exams. Pay attention to your body and report anything out of the ordinary to your doctor. If you can’t afford a regular exam, please contact the Cecilia Howe Foundation. Besides cancer research, we’re trying to help women with limited resources get the care they need.”

“That’s an admirable goal,” the announcer said in praise. “Contact information is on the screen, folks. But let’s talk about something very happy, Ms. Howe. You’re marrying Agent Mackenzie soon. What can you tell us about the wedding?”

Bailey jabbed at the remote again, and the TV finally went dark. Into the shadowed room, she emptied her lungs. That action seemed to deflate her whole body. She clutched her towel to her breasts, shaking, looking like she’d seen a ghost.

Maybe she had.

Because she was Tatiana Aslanov?

Right now, that likelihood seemed pretty promising. With one possibility dead, one missing, and the other in Africa, Bailey Benson was his last hope for uncovering the truth and stopping these ruthless savages from killing again. Even if she wasn’t the scientist’s daughter, this sweet little ballerina wasn’t equipped to deal with the danger about to knock on her door. Joaquin knew he had to be aggressive and act fast to keep her safe. Fuck the consequences.

*   *   *

RED splattered her once-pink shirt. She pressed her lips together to hold in a scream. If she couldn’t stay quiet, something bad would happen.

Terror made her heart thump in her chest, drum in her head. As she looked around the ransacked house, splashes of red marked the walls in nearly every room. She was afraid to look closer. Time to get out. But as she ran down the hall, she slid in more of the red stuff, nearly losing her balance. It lapped at her toes, warm and sludgy. Some scent she didn’t like tinged the air. Her stomach turned, but she kept running.

Finally, she made it to the door and reached for the knob. But her hands were covered in red. Horror assailed her.

The wind blew the back door open. With a silent screech, she darted outside. Cold. Snow had fallen recently. The ice bit into her feet, but she kept charging as fast as she could, until she couldn’t breathe, until the tears turned icy on her face. Until she came to another road.

She walked what seemed like forever, past animal pens and pastures and dormant trees. Her feet had long ago gone numb. Quiet smothered her. The absence of noise—even the call of a bird—somehow scared her more.

Where was she going? Where could she hide? She didn’t know. Would she walk forever and never see anyone again?

Then an old blue sedan pulled over. A woman with a kind face and brown hair opened the door and gave her a look that held both pity and horror.

“What’s your name, little girl?”

She didn’t know. She should, but all she knew now was that she felt cold and shivering and afraid.

The man dashed around the side of the car with a phone mashed against his ear. Concern creased his face as he held out a hand to her. She reached for him, praying he offered warmth and safety, but she caught sight of her hand again. The terrible red had seeped into her skin, dripped under her fingernails . . .

Bailey’s eyes flew open and she gripped the sheet. That damn nightmare. Again. Even in her warm nightshirt, she shivered.

Panting in the silence, she looked around the room frantically. The dream still flashed vivid images in her head, as it always did. She’d been having these same visions almost nightly for as long as she could remember. Her parents had told her repeatedly it was just a dream, assured her that no part of it was real. Even the psychologist they’d insisted she see as a kid had explained that the subconscious can confront a person with their greatest fears and make the dream-state experience seem very real, yadda, yadda, yadda. But everything about the nightmares sure felt as if she’d been through that hell.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Bailey tried to compartmentalize the fear, remind herself that it wasn’t genuine or rational. She lived alone in a little house close to downtown Houston, not in the middle of farmland somewhere snow fell thick and heavy. She’d never been covered in blood. For heaven’s sake, she’d grown up in suburban Houston with every advantage a kid with two attentive parents could have. Mom had homeschooled her until ninth grade. Dad had worked for a small company that believed in family, so he’d been home for dinner every night. She had been to every dance class they could afford, then attended a high school for the performing arts. Everything had been picture-perfect in life—except their deaths in a car crash shortly after high school graduation and these damn dreams.

Why did the visions plague her almost every night when she closed her eyes?

Whatever. She refused to let the fear drive her from bed again. She’d danced hard today and she had another round of grueling rehearsals tomorrow. No way she’d get through it without sleep.

Roll over. Cuddle up to your pillow. Think of something happy.

Bailey sighed. That tactic hadn’t worked before. It probably wouldn’t work now.

Flinging her blanket aside, she opened her eyes, pondering what might be on TV. Maybe she’d just go into the kitchen and make some popcorn and watch a movie.

Suddenly, a shadow eclipsed her—one in the shape of a man. Before she could scream, his hand clamped over her mouth. She tried to scream around it, but the sound came out like a whimper. A thousand terrible possibilities pelted her brain at once. She remembered hearing on the news last week that there was a serial rapist in the area.

Oh, please God, no . . .

His other hand came closer. Would he rip her clothes? Defile her? Bailey tried to writhe and thrash. Escape—she had to. Somehow. She was an athlete. A fighter, damn it.

In the next instant, Bailey noticed something in his darkened hand. He brought it closer. Before she could fight or flee, she felt a prick in the side of her neck.

Shock jolted through her system. Then . . . nothing.

Chapter Three

BAILEY floated in and out, feeling hazy and in no hurry to wake up. Something nagged at her that she should. But rehearsal wasn’t until later in the day, right?

Toasty warmth and a heavy head dragged her back under. She couldn’t remember her bed ever being quite so comfortable. She still slept on her childhood mattress, which had always been too soft. But this felt firmer and a little bit perfect. She melted into it. Well, except her shoulders. Why were her hands above her head? It was making her nightshirt bunch around her hips. Something dug into her forearms. She never slept in this position. Weird . . .

She tugged to pull her arms down, but nothing. They were stuck. No, tethered. Restrained.

The realization jolted her eyes open, and she found herself staring at an unfamiliar room, unable to move. Her heart started thundering in her chest. She bit back a scream.

A black down comforter covered her. The walls were some shade of gray, as was the leather ottoman at the end of the bed. Everything else was a blend of woods. Floor-to-ceiling shutters in a cherry tone, a dresser in some rustic finish, the darker hardwood floors dominating the large space, even some of the art on the shelves. A nightstand with modern lines and a contemporary light fixture sat next to the bed. Nothing else. Not a personal picture or memento anywhere. Spartan. And totally alien.

Cold fear snaked through her system. The attacker in her house last night rushed through her memory, and the truth set in: She’d been taken.

Bailey couldn’t hold her terror in anymore. She screamed.

The door flew open, and a man busted in, slamming it behind him, then rushed to her side. No hint of warmth softened his dark face or greenish eyes, though he appeared surprisingly concerned for a kidnapper. Looking more than a little rugged, the short, sharp cut of his black hair accentuated his severity. He stood tall, about six and a half feet. Muscles bulged everywhere under the tight black T-shirt seemingly painted over his chest. God, he was huge. Scary.

“Calm down, Bailey,” he rumbled in a low voice that incited a shiver of fear.

Hell no! “How do you know my name? Who are you?”

“I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.”

Said the spider to the fly . . . “Where am I? What do you want?”

“To save you.”

From what? Was he planning to kill her in order to “save” her from the cruel world or whatever? Terror made her tremble again.

“I was doing fine on my own. Let me go. Please! I won’t tell anyone about this.”

Compassion tempered his face for a moment. “Even if you didn’t, you’d be in far more danger. I know you’re scared. I’m sorry I had to get this drastic, but there’s a lot going on that you don’t know.”

“You have me mistaken for someone else.”

“I don’t. Just hear me out.” The man’s assurance rattled her even more. “We’ll start at the top. According to your records, you were born Bailey Katherine Benson. You came into the world twenty-one years ago on December fourth in Houston. But I don’t think that’s true.”

What? Obviously he was a few sandwiches shy of a picnic. “No, that’s exactly who I am. If you’re looking for someone else—”

“I’m pretty sure you’re not, but let me finish telling you my theory.”

“Let me the hell out of here!” she demanded, struggling against her restraints. But he didn’t budge—and neither did they. “You have to let me go. People are going to miss me.”

“Not the people you know as your parents. They’re ‘dead.’” He made air quotes.

“Yes, they are. Why are you doing this to me?”

“The identities of Jane and Bob Benson are dead, but I suspect the people behind them are very much alive. Didn’t you ever think those names were a little too simple?”

“For what, good parents?”

They’d been supportive of her academically, except her weird love of science. Her mother had called that unladylike. Artistically, they’d been in favor of dance. They hadn’t been the sort of parents to hug or tease her a lot, but at least one of them had dutifully attended every recital. Her dad had sometimes been preoccupied, wrapped up in his career, she supposed. Her mom had passed her time constantly gardening or sewing—neither of which had appealed to Bailey.

“I’ll bet they were FBI agents with aliases whose mission it was to raise and protect you, but I’ll check on that.”

“No.” The denial slipped out automatically.

Still, his words echoed in her head. She hadn’t looked like either of her parents—not even a little. She hadn’t shared any interests with them, either. As she’d gotten older, they had insisted she learn to defend herself, to fire a gun, to hunt and cook her own game, to box. She hadn’t taken much of it seriously. Instead, she’d been hurt, assuming that her dad had wanted a son, and when he hadn’t fathered one, he’d tried to morph her into one instead. But federal agents?

No, they’d been her parents. Maybe they hadn’t been perfect, but they’d been hers. She wasn’t going to let this psycho tell her otherwise.

“I’m not having this conversation with you.”

He sat on the edge of the bed and leaned close, his face looming just above hers. “You are. You’re cuffed, remember? I swear I won’t hurt you, but you’re not going anywhere until I let you. It’s for your own good.”

She bit her lip. He might have her in a bind—literally—but that didn’t mean she had to share any part of herself with him. “Fuck off, creep.”

He grabbed her chin in a firm but not painful grip. That surprised her. If he wanted to cause her pain, he could do it easily. She had no way to stop him, and he was certainly big enough. Then again, maybe he was toying with her or biding his time until he got whatever he wanted from her.

“Are you forgetting who has the upper hand?”

Like that was possible. “Why don’t you tell me what you want so we can get this over with and I can go home?”

His big fingers left her face. He dragged them up her arms and curled a hot path around her manacled wrists, pinning her deeper into the mattress. A manly spice wafted from him. Cataloging it momentarily distracted Bailey. The fact that Mr. Tall, Dark, and Menacing smelled good just seemed wrong.

He scanned her face. Trying to decide how to proceed? “What’s your earliest memory?”

Disturbing dreams. “Memories? I thought you’d want money. I don’t have much, by the way. Let’s not play this stupid game.”

“You don’t want to answer me? All right. I can wait. I’ve got all afternoon. How about you?”

“Afternoon?” She blinked at him, then cut her stare over to the long windows on the other side of the room. Sure enough, behind the closed shutters, golden sunlight seeped in between the slats and under the frame.

“It’s almost noon,” he provided, easing back and releasing her wrists.

How had she lost nearly twelve hours? Horror spread through her, cold and thick. “Please let me go. I have a rehearsal at two. I have to be there. Next week, I’m supposed to audition for a part in Dallas for one of Texas Ballet Theater’s upcoming shows.”

“Then I suggest you talk fast,” he growled. “Your earliest memory?”

Bailey couldn’t believe that he’d abducted her to ask the first thing she could remember. Did he know how crazy he sounded? But if it would satisfy his weird curiosity so he’d release her . . . “Falling on the playground and losing a tooth.”

“How old were you?”

“Five, I think. What does this have to do with anything?”

“Who was with you?”

Why did it matter? “I don’t remember.”

He stared at her with eyes narrowed, dissecting her. She didn’t think he believed her.

“Look,” she began. “I hope you find whoever you’re looking for, but I’m not her. I really am Bailey Benson from Houston, just like the records state. I’m preparing nonstop for the biggest audition of my career. I’m also expecting company tonight, and he’s really special, so—”

“Blane?”

When he ground out her friend’s name, she froze. “How did you know that?”

“I was in your house for a few hours last night. You really should lock your doors and windows better.” As she gaped at him, he sent her a little smirk. “By the way, I secured your house as much as I could before we left. You need better locks and a security system going forward.”

Bailey wanted to ask why he even mentioned it, but that wasn’t the most important question of the day. “So you were the one in my room, hovering over me in the dark?”

She remembered that heavy presence, just before she’d felt the prick of a needle in her neck.

“Yes. Why did you have a reaction to Viktor Aslanov’s picture on TV?”

“Who?”

“The infamous scientist. He was murdered. They showed his photo in the montage during Callindra Howe’s interview.”

Bailey couldn’t answer her captor’s question. She’d seen Aslanov’s image before. Every time, it upset her in a way she couldn’t explain. “I don’t know. Why did you take me from my house in the middle of the night?” Another terrible thought occurred to her. “Are you going to rape me?”

The big man reared back. “The idea of forcing a woman makes my skin crawl. Besides, I was mostly raised by a single mother and I have two sisters. They’d all have my balls if I even tried.”

“A-are you going to kill me?”

He tossed his hands in the air. “Were you listening earlier when I mentioned that I’m trying to save you from winding up six feet under?”

“And what? I’m just supposed to believe you?” She gaped at him. “If you’re such a stand-up guy, why are you drugging an innocent woman—you did drug me, right?”

“Sedated. It wasn’t like I spiked your drink at a bar to take advantage of you.”

No, he’d just injected her with some unknown substance that left her unconscious for half a day. Because that was so much more virtuous. “What exactly do you want from me, Mr. . . . What’s your name?”

“Not relevant. The only thing that matters is that my goal is to prevent you from winding up like this.” He shoved the screen of an iPhone in her face, and from corner to corner it was filled with one of the most gruesome images she’d ever seen.

Bailey screamed. “Oh . . . What the hell?”

Someone had punctured a young woman’s rib cage multiple times with something that made symmetrical, seeping holes. They’d cut off her ears, ripped out teeth, snipped off toes. God, she couldn’t look anymore. Why would anyone do that to another human being?

“She’s not the first victim. In fact, she’s the fifth. They should find number six soon, sadly. I was just hours too late to save her, but you . . .” He swallowed as he pocketed the phone again. “I refuse to let that happen to you.”

“Why would you think anyone would want to hurt me? How do I know that’s not your handiwork?”

“You mean besides the fact that I’ve already told you I’m busting my ass to save you? If I wanted to torture you to a slow death, why would I show you my intentions first so you’d fight me more?”

“I don’t know! If you’re a deranged killer, you’re not exactly logical.”

He shook his head, looking as if he were grappling for patience. “Let’s just say that I work for a government agency and that I’m the one wearing the white hat in this scenario. I generally try to avoid bodies, unless they belong to bad guys. Ballerinas don’t usually fall into the ‘most wanted’ category.”

“Then explain this to me. You drugged me—”

“Sedated,” he corrected.

“Whatever. You take me from my house and life without first uttering a word to me. If you’re the good guy here, why didn’t you just try to talk to me and explain the situation?”

“Let’s role-play this scenario. I walk up to your door and knock. You answer like I’m a pesky salesman or someone trying to change your religion. You ignore me. I doubt highly you invite me into your house so we can have an in-depth conversation about dead bodies.”

Okay, he had a point. “So you just abducted me? You didn’t even try the logical approach.”

He sighed. “We’ll continue the scenario. After you slam the door in my face, then the real killer either breaks in or draws you out, and next thing I know, I’m looking at another gruesome crime scene photo. You don’t like my methods. I get that. But I’m not going to apologize for wanting you alive.”

“What’s the rationale for trying to convince me I’m someone other than who I am?”

“A little thing called the truth.” He sighed and shook his head. “Sorry. I know you’re confused. This situation is difficult and stressful. It doesn’t bring out the best in either of us. I’m not trying to be harsh or behave like an ass. We’re up against someone sick, and time isn’t on our side. So when you challenge me, I get flippant and sarcastic. This isn’t how I wanted our discussion to go. I know I’m asking you for a lot of trust. I wish this was easier and we had more time to debate, but we don’t.”

The apology disarmed her, and Bailey wasn’t sure what to make of him. Yeah, he’d behaved a little like an ass, but what if anything he said was true? What if someone was coming for her?

“If I listen to you and I can prove that I’m who I claim to be, will you let me go?”

“As soon as I can figure out who’s responsible for all the bodies and stop them, sure.”

“Why are you doing this? Why aren’t the police involved?”

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for Shayla Black
 
“Sizzling, romantic, and edgy, a Shayla Black story never disappoints!”—Sylvia Day, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of Entwined with You

“Shayla Black creates emotional, searingly sexy stories that always leave me wanting more.”—Maya Banks, New York Times bestselling author

“Scorching, wrenching, suspenseful, Shayla Black’s books are a must-read.”—Lora Leigh, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Meet the Author

Shayla Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 30 sizzling contemporary, erotic, paranormal, and historical romances, including the Wicked Lovers Novels (Wicked Ties, Decadent, Delicious, Surrender to Me, Belong to Me, Mine to Hold, Ours to Love and Theirs to Cherish).

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His to Take 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Marie1MB More than 1 year ago
Marie's Tempting Reads ARC Review: What can I say about His To Take by Shayla Black? First off, other than being wickedly delicious and filled with suspense and the sensual BDSM we enjoy from Miss Black's Wicked Lover books is that the characters are a bit different compared to previous characters in this series. However, I am NOT saying this is in anyway a bad thing, in fact I found the characters beyond likable and may well be my new favorites in the series. We got the sexy yet stern, Joaquin who wants to save another woman from getting tortured and killed like his friend had. He risks EVERYTHING, including his job to protect Bailey the sweet and seductive ballerina who is the next target from the horrendous bad guys that are after her for secrets she doesn't quite remember. After taking her to Club Dominion, things get heated between captor and captive and they both learn a few things about themselves that they didn't realize were inside them the whole time. I loved how intricate and well woven His To Take was. It had the perfect blend of suspense and romance. The love scenes were both sensual and deliciously erotic. I LOVED how we got not one, but TWO characters new to BDSM. Luckily we have some previous Wicked Lover characters that both guide and teach the newbies what they need to know. I was also amazed because both characters have great instincts when it comes to BDSM play but neither one has any issues taking some guidance from others to make sure everything is safe and pleasurable. I really liked Bailey. She is a wonderfully talented ballerina with a body I envy. She is also a sweet submissive. She just doesn't realize it until arriving and exploring the popular BDSM club she is being kept in. Now Joaquin is a very stern man. He also happens to be a Dom. It takes him experiencing feelings and instincts he never thought he had, until Bailey came into his life. After talking things out with the club's owner, he starts to realize himself, that he always liked the control in the bedroom but he never gave much thought to it until Bailey shows her almost bratty and fiery side. This is when things heat up and become more then a job to Joaquin.  Sex between Bailey and Joaquin are inspiring, sexy, and oh so good as they both explore the different dynamics in BDSM. Not only do we get this sinfully addicting romance, but when danger gets closer, the action intensifies and the suspense becomes edgy, just the way I enjoy these books! His To Take was SO GOOD that I had to make sure I gave it the rating it deserved. I thought this story was well written with some sexy as sin scenes and a edgy storyline that giving this story ANYTHING less than a FIVE SHOOTING STARS was impossible! His To Take was worth EVERY. SINGLE. STAR. I gave it. Bottom line. This book was sincerely good and I enjoyed reading every page! Well done Miss Black. Well done. 
Justpeachy1 More than 1 year ago
His To Take is the ninth book in Shayla Black's Wicked Lovers series. Readers who are familiar with Black's erotic series, will find a lot to like with this one. Nearly all of the Wicked Lovers books feature either the hero or heroine with a previous BDSM background, not so with this one. In a refreshing change of pace, Black makes her latest couple only curious about the lifestyle and in a position to explore together. But things don't start out quite the way you would imagine, since our hero is a kidnapper. A great new book in a great series! Shayla Black never disappoints when it comes to her ideas about the BDSM community. Some writers over-sensationalize it others over-trivialize it, Black however, seems to have a real understanding of the kinds of people who find that this lifestyle is for them. I liked the fact that neither Joaquin nor Bailey had previous experiences with BDSM. Some might say that this is one of Black's tamer books, but I think it was very fitting for the level of intimacy of the characters. BDSM is often times dependent on trust and that has to be earned and built. I thought Black did a wonderful job with it here. Joaquin is an interesting hero. First he kidnaps the heroine... LOL! I wasn't quite sure what to think about that, he even uses a tranquilizer on her. Good grief what a way to meet someone for the first time. It was of course for her protection, but I would think that might cause Bailey to have a red flag or two about this guy. She has some deep dark emotionally scarring memories that she has basically repressed. But she isn't the only one harboring secrets, Joquin's past isn't a walk in the park either. I thought they made a fantastic couple. Both filled with a lot of pain and a lot of loss, yet together they were a force to be reckoned with. Black does such a wonderful job of making her characters realistic. I think Joaquin fits that type-A, alpha kind of personality that needs to be in control in one way or another. The fact that he is really seeking vengeance here really comes across well and readers will be able to believe that this is what it is all about for him. He just has that aura of command. That also plays into his curiosity about BDSM. Bailey is also very strong heroine. She is expected to learn and take on a different idea of what her past was really like and she takes it in stride and does the best she can with it. Both characters were well developed and surprising in a lot of ways. Bottom Line: Once again Shayla Black delivers. This is a great series and this book is one of my favorites in it. I liked the fact that the lead characters aren't pro's at the BDSM lifestyle and though Club Dominion was an important factor, all of the action was not dependent on the club. The characters were well written and very interesting. They weren't your typical Shayla Black couple and they showed the versatility that Black is capable of in her writing. A great book!
lor1104 More than 1 year ago
Shayla does it again. You will love Bailey and Joaquin. The caring and supportive way they are together is pure love in the making.
GrrrGirl More than 1 year ago
This whole series is great and this book is too. Shayla Black writes hot steamy books with interesting plots and complex characters. I enjoy her books so much I often reread previous books before I start a new one just the refresh my memory and because they are worth rereading
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book, even though it is number 9 in the series, Shayla Black's writing never gets boring or drags on.  I read this in one night as I couldn't put it down.  Five stars!
HCLabarre More than 1 year ago
His to Take is a suspenseful and deeply seductive journey that will have you at the edge of your seat. Thrown together under the threat of nefarious evildoers, Joaquin and Bailey grapple with the traumas of the past to secure a bright and loving future. I loved these characters! Bailey is lyrically beautiful, smoothing Joaquin’s rough edges and exposing the love waiting to embrace him. Joaquin provides the strength and security Bailey needs to uncover a life she never knew existed. This book gives you everything you need and more – laughter, tears, pulse-pounding action, nail-biting suspense, and sexy scenes of wild passion. The Wicked Lovers is a phenomenal series that gets better with every book. I can't wait for more!
Joeygirl More than 1 year ago
His to take was a wonderful read. I really loved this book. Joaquin was a man on a mission and there was no stopping him. I really enjoyed his character. Even though he has closed his self of from family and friends because of a death a long time ago. I think it makes his character better. Especially when the light bulb goes off in his head and he opens up. Men always hardheaded. Bailey she was great. I just loved her. I loved her attitude, dancing and just her personality. I really enjoyed them together. I do wish we could have seen what happens with them a couple months later. So many things I question. Did they find what her dad left her on that disc after the place blew up. I am hoping it made it past the blast somehow. Lol . I wonder if there was a message on it from her dad? Do we have a baby? I am sure we will see them in the next book so maybe we will find more things out with them. This was a great read. I really enjoyed it and can't wait for more. As always Shayla Black does a kick ass job. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Shayla is amazing! I love that you're able to catch up with previous characters!
Sandy-thereadingcafe More than 1 year ago
3.75 stars--HIS TO TAKE is the ninth full length installment in Shayla Black’s adult, contemporary Wicked Lovers erotic, romance series focusing on a close knit group of friends, family and formers SEALs, FBI and NSA agents who partake in the BDSM life style. This is NSA Agent Joaquin Munoz and ballet dancer Bailey Benson’s storyline. Although HIS TO TAKE is the ninth book in the series, it can be read as a stand alone without any difficulty as can most of the books in this series. Told from alternating third person points of view the storyline focuses on the search for a missing woman who disappeared twenty years earlier and is presumed dead at the hands of a terrorist cell searching for information into DNA manipulation. With what appears to be a serial killer on the hunt for all women who fit the missing female’s description, NSA Agent Joaquin Munoz disobeys the direct orders of his superiors and sets out on his own to save a woman the others believe holds the secrets to a two decades old mystery. When Bailey Benson’s profile matches all of the previous victim’s profiles, Joaquin easily locates and abducts Bailey then hides her away at Club Dominion-the BDSM club owned by Mitchell Thorpe (Theirs to Cherish #8). The premise finds Joaquin immediately attracted to Bailey but our hero is a man who does not do relationships; does not fall in love; and has had very little contact with anyone in years. His reaction to Bailey is visceral but I didn’t quite buy into Joaquin’s growing love. He is an NSA agent whose life has been spent rescuing others and hunting terrorists. Their time spent at Club Dominion finds our hero needing to ‘spank’ Bailey for her lack of self preservation and in this the storyline takes a rather unwelcome turn for this reader. Neither Bailey nor Joaquin had ever considered the BDSM lifestyle but in the presence of the others, both have a need to partake of the action. This particular aspect of the storyline felt awkward, contrived and unnecessary, and frankly not believable. It was short lived and not without some cringe worthy moments especially when both were acting on the advice from the professional BDSM members. Joaquin’s need to punish Bailey does not sit well with the others-there is no role playing or Dom/sub action, it is purely punishment for disobeying orders. Most, if not all, of the previous storyline couples and lovers play a secondary or supporting role as many favors are called in to help with the investigation into the number of deaths and the people hunting for Bailey Benson. Callie, Sean and Thorpe (Theirs to Cherish) prepare for their upcoming wedding and by way of a storyline role or mention, the extended and ensemble cast of characters makes for an interesting few days in isolation for Baily and Joaquin. It was nice revisiting with previous couples, lovers and their growing extended families. The sexual situations include some BDSM, some spanking and punishment-not only for our leading couple but as part of Club Dominion’s available assets. Most of the BDSM content is voyeuristic as we are pulled into the needs of the heroes, from the previous storylines, to punish their lovers for a perceived act of betrayal or disobedience-again, these actions felt a little gratuitous and unnecessary to the overall plot. I understand that WICKED LOVERS is a series whereby all of our heroes and heroines partake in the BDSM lifestyle, but Bailey and Joaquin were completely out of their element and uncomfortable with what needed to be done. HIS TO TAKE is a fast paced, intense and intriguing storyline. Shayla Black combines mystery and suspense, with a little bit of erotic imagery to stimulate the senses and need to read on. Revisiting old friends and previous storyline characters was a welcome addition to HIS TO TAKE. I am looking forward to many more storylines in the Wicked Lovers series.
glyndad17 More than 1 year ago
Some how, some way, Shayla Black has done it again!  From the very first page of this book, Mrs. Black pulls you in with action, mystery, and ultimately a love story.  We have not seen much of Joaquin in the previous books and the reason is revealed in this book!  If you can feel everything for one character- from dislike to adoration- you will feel them for Joaquin.  To be honest, I was not a fan of Joaquin throughout most of the book.  He is selfish and hard.  However, if ever there was a character to redeem himself, Joaquin is it.   As if you needed more emotion, Bailey's story will make you rage with anger and cry tears of anguish.  The two of them are frustrating and endearing.  Don't worry- as with the other Wicked Lovers books- there is some steamy hot romance and BDSM is definitely involved!   I love that we get to visit our Wicked Lover's friends in this book.  I do recommend reading the other Wicked Lover's books before reading  this one.  It's not a requirement, but I feel like the reader will be more connected to the story if he/she has read the other Wicked Lover's books first.  I encourage you to run- not walk- to read this book.  I devoured the book in about 2 days because it was just THAT GOOD!   You will not be disappointed!
darleenee More than 1 year ago
Book just wasn't up to her usual standards in my opinion.....I skimmed a lot and who does that with a Shayla Black book. Also calling her "baby girl" all the time just didn't sound right.