Anne Arundel County, Maryland
Damn it, Nick. This isn’t the time to start ignoring me.
Jennie McKenzie loosened her grip on her cell phone and dialed her foster brother again from the passenger seat of the SUV. Pick up. Pick up. God, please pick up.
Nick didn’t know it yet, but they were getting the hell away from Mendoza—today. And if Nick tried to talk her out of it, she would drag him out by his ear.
When the call went directly to voice mail, a gut-wrenching dread cramped her stomach, forcing acid into her throat.
Why wasn’t he answering his damn phone?
Her tension spiked when the vehicle slowed and stopped on the shoulder of the two-lane country road. Jennie tore her eyes away from the silent cell phone and glanced over at the man in the driver’s seat.
Jared McNeil. Not one of Mendoza’s thugs, but a cop, an undercover cop.
Her racing heart settled with a glance. The calming effect Jared had on her was crazy. Jennie didn’t trust anyone except Nick. But somehow she trusted the man sitting next to her. She may be nothing but a silly teenager in his eyes, but hell, his dark brown, wavy hair, cobalt blue eyes, and smoking-hot body did something to her sixteen-year-old heart. And when those amazing eyes smiled at her, she felt it from the tip of her head to her toes—and everywhere in between.
Damn it, stay focused. You have to get out of this mess.
A low growl came from the back of Jared’s throat. “Jennie, I need your decision.” His hands fisted on the steering wheel and the tiny muscle in his jaw pulsed. “I have no grounds to remove you from Mendoza’s home. But since you’re a minor, and we arrested the two men with you at the testing center, I can at least place you in protective custody until we contact your caseworker.”
A pair of robins flew in front of the passenger window from the tall oaks lining the road. They momentarily perched on the hood of the SUV then dashed off to the other side of the lane. That simple display of carefree abandonment cut deep into Jennie. As her fingers dug into her palm, she let out a shaky breath and asked, “What about Nick? I can’t leave without him.”
“I tried to talk to him. He blew me off. By placing you in protective custody . . .”
“No. I won’t go anywhere without Nick.”
Jared’s expression went from concerned to frigid. It was like a curtain dropped down, cutting off his emotions.
Jennie lowered her head, her gaze on her lap. “Nick isn’t . . . he doesn’t warm up to people well. But Jared, he’s not Mendoza’s lackey.”
She glanced at him from the corners of her eyes. His jaw was clenched and the muscles in his arms and shoulders grew taut. When his gaze met hers, she winced. He couldn’t hide how unhappy he was with her.
“Nick isn’t just my foster brother. He’s my best friend and has had my back since my parents died. I can’t leave him with Mendoza. He’ll turn Nick into a carbon copy of himself.”
“Any replies to your call?” Jared raised his eyebrows and nodded to the phone.
“No, he isn’t answering me.”
When Nick turned eighteen last month, Mendoza had offered her foster brother a job with his organization, giving Nick a glimpse into a lifestyle he could only dream of. Her brother was with Mendoza now. She could sense it. And the more time Nick spent with him, the more he began to look, walk, and talk like the arrogant psycho. It frightened Jennie to the core.
“Maybe that’s your answer. He wants to stay with Mendoza. You can’t make Nick into something he’s not, Jennie. He’s been in the foster care program his whole life. That changes a person. He isn’t like you.”
Jennie studied the man next to her. “You don’t mean that. That’s not what is going on here.” Something was off. If only she could talk to Nick . . . or Father Michael. Her godfather was on a mission for the Vatican in a remote area of South America, and Jennie hadn’t been able to reach him during the chaos and upheaval of the last four months.
Then a sudden thought struck her like an open-hand slap across the face. Her gaze darted to Jared. One look and she knew she was right. “Shit, you can’t . . . damn it, Jared. Not Nick! You can’t use him to get to Mendoza. You can’t . . .”
“No. You can’t use Nick like that. Leaving him behind—you would be turning him into what you believe he is.” And that would rip my heart in two.
Jared shook his head and started the SUV. The turn-off to Mendoza’s long driveway was less than a mile away. Once they pulled into the private road, Mendoza’s cameras would pick them up, which left very little time for Jennie to change Jared’s mind. The walls inside the cab felt like they were closing in on her and she struggled to breathe. She could feel the anger radiating off Jared, but she wouldn’t back down.
“You spoke to your caseworker?” His voice was controlled—almost calculated.
“Yes. She’s arranging for a place for us to stay.”
Jared let out a noisy sigh, reached for the key in the ignition, and turned off the motor. He faced her. “Mendoza’s obsessively protective of you. Why?”
It took a moment for Jennie’s mind to form an answer. “I saved his life.”
“It’s more than that.”
Jennie could only nod. She didn’t have an answer. All she knew for sure was that her soon-to-be guardian was soulless. He watched her, studied her like a bug under a magnifying glass; he made her skin crawl. He wanted something from her. It wasn’t sexual. There was something far more sinister than lust in Mendoza’s eyes. His very presence caused her spirit to shrivel.
She couldn’t face Jared. It was too hard to see the disappointment in his eyes. So instead, she faced the front window. “I don’t know what you want me to tell you. I know nothing about Mendoza, never met him before that day in downtown Little Italy.” She closed her eyes and inhaled a cleansing breath. When she opened them, she peeked at Jared who stared at the massive estate that could barely be seen through the trees. She cleared her throat and said, “He was choking and none of the men with him did anything to help. I think they wanted him dead. And I’m not sure I blame them.”
Jennie’s mind began to replay the crazed nightmare. That moment on the sidewalk when Elías Mendoza’s brooding, dark eyes had held hers, the universe she knew shifted. There had been something familiar about him, but for some reason, his presence sucked the life right out of her. Paralyzed and breathless, she had been unable to move.
She watched Mendoza reach for his fork and swallow a bite of pasta. In a split second, his eyes widened and he darted from his chair, grabbing his throat. Nick had tugged at her arm, then jumped the concrete barrier separating the restaurant from the sidewalk, and tried the Heimlich maneuver. But for all his efforts, Nick couldn’t dislodge the obstruction. His plea for her help had finally penetrated her dazed state and she joined Nick on the patio. She didn’t have the strength to lift Mendoza, but she did have first aid training. She repositioned Nick’s hands. After several abdominal thrusts, the large bite of shrimp broke free.
“Why didn’t Mendoza just hand us a twenty and have us removed from his sight? We were nothing to him.” Jennie let out a shaky breath. “He manipulated the foster care program so we could live with him.” Her eyes met Jared’s. “We were in his home that night. The system doesn’t work that fast. None of it makes any sense.”
“Last chance, Jennie,” he murmured. “I turn down Mendoza’s private drive . . .”
“I’ll never turn my back on Nick.”
She shifted and faced the front window. Jared let out a string of obscenities that made Jennie cringe. He turned the ignition back on and drove the last quarter of a mile, turning left onto the narrow road. The vehicle’s wheels crunched on the gravel of the circular driveway near the front entrance. Beyond the house, manicured lawns covered three acres extending into woodland.
She gazed out at the helicopter sitting on the heliport behind the pool and tennis court. She faced the man next to her. Jared was working undercover to take down Mendoza and planned to use Nick to help him. If she couldn’t convince him to back off, he was going to get himself, and Nick, killed.
“I’ve known Elías Mendoza for four months. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
“I know who Mendoza is, Jennie.”
“I’m not some stupid kid. You’re only what? Five years older than me?”
Jennie tightened her hold on her fingers to keep from back-handing the handsome, stubborn cop.
“Mendoza is . . . I sense what’s inside him. He makes my skin crawl. You’re crazy if you think you can fool someone like him. He will . . .”
Fear clogged Jennie’s throat. She pushed down the shiver that wracked her body. “And you want to use Nick—” She gulped in a deep breath and exhaled. “My mom would’ve called Mendoza the Devil.”
“Then let me get you the hell away from here. Once you’re inside, I can’t protect you.” He forced the words through clenched teeth. “Look, Nick knows what he’s providing Mendoza. He’s not innocent, but he’s still a kid, a stupid kid.” Jared rubbed the back of his neck. “I wanted to turn him, have him work with us. With his hacking skills, he’s our best way into Mendoza’s organization. But I get it, bad idea.” He placed a hand on Jennie’s fisted hands. “We’ll find another avenue. I’ll go in for him. You stay here. Hide on the floorboard.”
“Nick won’t leave with you.” Her eyes met Jared’s. “But he’ll listen to me. He’ll come just because I ask him to. I have to do this.” Worried Jared would try to stop her, she opened the passenger door, grabbed her backpack at her feet, and raced up the steps of the red brick colonial. The soft fragrance from the begonias, lavender, and sweet peas blooming in the beds near the door assaulted her senses, causing her to slow.
How did such beauty thrive here?
Wrenching her mind away from the familiar scents, she burst through the front door, her heart pounding. The guard in the foyer stepped out of her path as she scurried passed him.
“Miss McKenzie, is there something wrong? Can I help you?” he asked, but Jennie ignored him and jogged up the curved staircase, her sneakers squeaking on the polished hardwood.
“Nick, where are you? Damn it, Nick. Answer me.”
She hurried into her room and barely glanced at the thick, padded wall covering, lush carpet, or opulent furnishings. Like the rest of the house, it was a pretty shell, and it left her cold. She tugged her backpack off her shoulders. Opening the numerous drawers in the walk-in closet, she yanked out only the items she originally brought into the house. Everything Mendoza purchased was left untouched. She wanted nothing from him.
When she didn’t find Nick in his room, she opened his closet door, and reached into his hiding place for a small box of odds and ends he’d saved over the years. Pulling a couple of his favorite T-shirts and jeans off their hangers, she stuffed everything in her pack.
After a quick check of the second floor, she headed back downstairs and ran into Mendoza’s personal assistant.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Talk to Mendoza.”
Elías Mendoza’s private study was in the wing at the back of the house, so she ran to it. She shoved passed the guard and reached for the doorknob. He yanked her hand away, placing his body in front of the door.
“You have certain privileges on the estate, Miss McKenzie, but no one gets through this door without this.” His hand held a black metal detector. Jennie stepped away and raised her arms. After the guard ran the security wand along her body, he allowed her to enter.
She stormed into the private domain that few entered.
The immaculately dressed man behind the mahogany desk didn’t bother glancing at her. His fingers toyed with a gold pen while he spoke on the phone.
“We will be landing in five hours. I want my orders carried out. No, nos entendemos? Bueno,” he said before laying the handset on the desk. When his dark eyes met Jennie’s, she stepped back. He wasn’t a tall man, but his intense, sadistic personality spewed power.
“Rudeness doesn’t become you, Jennifer Marie. You forget yourself.”
His eyes bore into her, his facial features hard as stone. She had seen the look before, but never had it been aimed at her.
“I can’t find Nick.”
Mendoza leaned back in his chair, flipping the pen back and forth between his fingers. “So much concern for that mutt. As you can see, he isn’t here.” He scanned the study before bringing his eyes back to Jennie.
Jennie’s fist tightened. If only Nick could see the contempt in his idol’s eyes right now. “My brother isn’t a mutt.”
“He’s no relation to you. Have you finished your packing? The plane to Mexico City leaves in an hour.”
Jennie cleared her throat and tried not to stutter. “It’s time for Nick and me to leave. I appreciate everything you have done for us, but we don’t belong here.”
“Is that so?”
She swallowed, keeping eye contact as her pulse beat between her ears. She was surprised the sound didn’t echo against the walls. “We appreciate that you want to reward us for helping you, but there’s no need.” She shrugged. “We would have done the same for anyone. You don’t need to saddle yourself with two teenagers when you’re moving back to Mexico.”
Mendoza studied her, his eyes traveling the length of her. “I’m your guardian, Jennifer Marie. Where I go, you go.”
“Not yet. The official papers haven’t been signed.” Jennie glanced everywhere except at him. She knew he would read the contempt in her eyes.
“And how do you think you are going to accomplish your dreams of college living on the streets of Baltimore?” He clenched his hands together and rested them on the desk. The silence that followed was deafening. “My people are still trying to locate your godfather. What will he say when he finds out I allowed you to go back to living in an abandoned building like a city rat?”
Jennie glanced down at her feet, heat rising in her cheeks. “The building wasn’t abandoned, just old.” She wasn’t a runaway. People loved her, cared for her. Her godfather would move heaven and earth for her. But the man in front of her saw only what he wanted to see.
“We’re not going back to Baltimore. I contacted Mrs. Arnold, my foster care caseworker this morning during one of the breaks between SAT tests.” Jennie fussed with her cotton skirt. “There was a big misunderstanding. Mr. Stephenson is fine. Nick only knocked him out. We thought . . . well he’s alive and well.”
She forced down a lump in her throat and shuddered at the memory of the last family she had been placed with. She could still feel Mr. Stephenson’s hands on her body, pinching her breast, trying to force his tongue down her throat. The memory made her want to heave her breakfast muffin and coffee. And the way his body dropped to the floor, the horrid sight of blood staining the carpet after Nick slammed the base of a lamp over his head, still gave her nightmares.
“And your plan is to turn your back on all I can offer you for what? To live under the roof of a child molester?”
“No, of course not. Mrs. Arnold will find us another family until we finish high school next year.”
She couldn’t pull her eyes away from his. Contempt and scorn radiated from his pores. Jennie held her breath and stiffened her leg muscles to keep from fidgeting. When Mendoza finally spoke, his voice was laced with something Jennie had never heard before.
“Jennifer Marie, who else did you speak to during your break?” He broke eye contact, his concentration fixed on the computer monitor on his desk.
My God, he hates me. Why am I here?
“I don’t believe you, mi querida.”
Jennie couldn’t breathe. His eyes turned black, cold. The stench of revulsion filled the air.
He knows. God, he knows about Jared.
Mendoza eased back in his chair. “We haven’t spent much time together during your stay. That’s my fault. I thought you understood.” His eyes met hers. “No one betrays me.” He reached for the monitor on his desk and turned it toward Jennie. When she didn’t break eye contact, he nodded to the monitor.
“Your actions have consequences.” His voice was so calm, it chilled her to the bone.
Jennie didn’t want to see what was on the monitor. Fear pierced her soul. Oh, Nick. Where are you?
Mendoza rose and moved beside her. His hands grabbed the sides of her head and forced her to face the monitor. The security camera overlooked a patch of lawn off the rear patio by the pool. Several of Mendoza’s men circled a man with dark hair grown down below his shoulders. His T-shirt clung to his athletic body. It took only seconds for the horror to slam home.
“Nick? No, make them stop!”
Each man took a turn striking Nick, his face beaten almost beyond recognition. Blood streamed from his eyes, nose, and mouth. His knees buckled and he dropped to the ground. One of the men kicked him in the ribs.
Jennie began to tremble. She yanked out of Mendoza’s hold and dashed to the French doors. Mendoza grabbed a fistful of her hair and heaved her up against him.
“This is what happens when you betray me, mi querida.” He clamped hold of her elbow and dragged her through the French doors. Her feet stumbled on the stone slab of the patio, but he didn’t slow his pace.
When he reached his men, Mendoza yanked her arms behind her and held her against him. Nick’s bloodshot eyes bore into hers. He screamed out when another foot landed on his kidney.
“Make them stop. They’ll kill him. God, please make them stop.”
Mendoza took her face in his hands. “It’s time for you make a choice.” He glanced over Jennie’s head and then back to her.
“What choice?” Jennie sobbed.
Mendoza twisted her in the direction of the pool. “Which man lives?”
Four men dragged another man toward them. It took every man to hold him. He fought like a caged animal. “Jared?” Jennie glared at Mendoza. “What have you done?”
The right side of Jared’s face was turning a dark, blackish-blue color, and blood pooled at the corners of his mouth where his lip had been split open. His left forearm jutted out from his elbow with an unnatural tilt.
Mendoza gripped Jennie’s jaw and forced her to meet his gaze. “Jennifer Marie, which man do you choose?”
“I don’t understand. Let them both go. I’ll do anything.”
A loud crack echoed across the lawn. The eerie sound bounced off the trees and vibrated back at them. The next instant, a bullet pierced Jared in the right upper thigh. A wet stain of blood seeped through his trousers. His leg collapsed from under him and he stumbled. One of the men grabbed hold of his broken arm and heaved him back up. A roar full of pain escaped his lips.
Jennie’s eyes darted toward the location of the shooter. All she saw were trees. She wrenched herself free of Mendoza’s hold and dove in front of Jared, blocking his body with hers.
“You made your choice.” Mendoza turned and raced toward the helicopter.
Men in police uniforms and FBI jackets charged the lawn, guns drawn. Mendoza’s men froze before all hell broke out. A couple of men lifted their guns but were hit in the chest before they got off one shot. The rest dove for cover.
Jennie heard none of it. Her heartbeat drowned out all sound. Everything around her grew silent, still. All her focus was on Elías Mendoza as he stepped into the helicopter. He turned and their gazes held. Even though he was a good thirty yards away, she heard every word he spoke as if he stood right next to her.
“Mi querida, they live because I allow it. You live because I allow it. Usted pretence a mí. You belong to me. Only me.”
Jennie couldn’t move. For an instant, her nightmares collided with her reality.
You live because I allow it.
Six words—night after night, year after year. The dreams had begun right after the death of her parents six years ago. A faceless man hovered over her and those words echoed in her head until she jolted awake.
Oh God. How is Mendoza connected to Mom and Dad?
Jennie’s hands went to her throat. She couldn’t catch her breath. Stop him, don’t let him get away screamed inside her head, but she couldn’t move. Her feet felt like they were encased in cement. The doors slammed shut and the helicopter lifted into the air. The next instant, a bullet grazed her arm. Jared slammed her body to the ground as another shot sliced through the air inches from her head.
She searched for Nick. His eyes met hers. He struggled to his knees and stood.
“Nick, drop,” Jennie screamed, but her warning was too late.
The third bullet whizzed over Jennie’s head and sliced into Nick’s cotton shirt. In her mind’s eye, she saw the slug tear through his skin, and then bone, until it perforated his heart.
A sharp stabbing pain erupted from deep inside her. On her hands and knees, she crawled across the grass to Nick. She lifted his head in her arms and slammed her hand down hard on the hole in his chest. Warm blood pulsed against her palm and seeped through her fingers.
“God, don’t leave me. Nick?” she cried, but nothing came from the eighteen-year-old boy in her arms. His lifeless eyes stared up at her. She dragged his shoulders into her arms and rocked him back and forth as she wiped the sweat, blood, and tears from his face.
“Jennie, he’s gone. Get down. There’s a sniper in the woods,” Jared yelled, shielding her body with his.
“No. He can’t . . .” The words clogged her throat. “He can’t leave me.”
She glanced down at her hand covering the wound. The blood no longer pulsed.
The childhood pact they had made to each other flashed into her mind. His silly handshakes, his laughter, the warmth in his dark brown eyes when a nightmare tore her out of a deep sleep—it was all gone, Nick was gone.
Jared placed his hand over hers. “Jennie, there’s nothing you can do for him.” His voice shuddered.
Her eyes met his before she broke contact and cradled Nick’s head in her arms. “Mendoza killed Nick. He may not have pulled the trigger, but he ordered it. Why?” she sobbed.
“I don’t know, but he won’t get away with it.” Jared gaze followed the helicopter as it flew out of sight. “I’ll find him and he will pay.”
Jennie heard the words but didn’t respond. Nick was gone. For the first time in her life, she knew what it felt like to be completely alone.