Independence & Consequences Caught between two brothers, Isabel becomes a tool for vengeance. The wind whipping the rain up against the windows disturbed the young girl sitting on the window seat with a book in her lap, with a frown on her face. She had just been subjected to another of her mother’s edicts and she was angry. She couldn’t believe that her mother was actually planning to send her to a prep school. She had hoped that, just once, she would be able to make a choice for herself. Why had she thought that she had a choice in the matter of where she was going to high school and college? Her entire life every choice had been made for her by her uncle and her mother. Isabel knew her mother only wanted what was best for her but as she grew older she did not want the life Olivia was designing for her. There was no room for independent thought, or freedom to do what she wanted. The books she could read were chosen for her; the clothing she wore was chosen for her. At no time was she given a voice in any aspect of her life. She took to hiding books around the house that she knew her mother did not approve of, so that she had some idea of what was being taken from her. As she got older, Isabel began to feel more like a prisoner than a member of a family. Isabel froze as she heard the door open and her mother’s footsteps hurrying across the floor. She had been so deep in thought that she had lost track of the woman’s whereabouts; and that always meant trouble. Olivia grabbed the book before Isabel could hide it, took one look at the title and tossed it aside. Her look of censure cut the girl to the quick; she was about to be punished, or, at the very least, lectured about what she had just been reading. She steeled herself for the worst. “How many times have I told you that you shouldn’t waste your time reading such trash?” Olivia exclaimed as she dragged Isabel off the window seat. “Why can’t you listen to me, Bel? I only want what’s best for you.” “No you don’t,” Isabel cried out, hurt by what she considered an unfair invasion of her privacy. “You only think of yourself!” “How dare you speak to me like that!” Olivia screamed. She grabbed a handful of the girl’s hair and yanked, enjoying the cry of pain. “I am your mother! You will do as I say!” Her mother slapped her and Isabel looked at her in outright shock. Olivia had never struck her before; all of her past punishments had been in the form of lectures or revoked privileges. Why was it so important all of the sudden for her not to argue? Thinking about it, Isabel realized that there had been a sense of desperation about her mother lately, as if some deadline were looming and Isabel wasn’t ready. She didn’t think it had anything to do with the dance recital on Friday. Something far more serious was coming up; something Isabel had a strange feeling she was not going to like. Olivia grabbed her arm painfully and kept hold of her arm all the way downstairs to the dance studio. “Now, miss,” Olivia said as she took a seat at the piano, “let’s work on your routine for Friday.” She began to play as Isabel warmed up. Since it wasn’t the music for the recital, Isabel continued to stretch her muscles. She could already feel herself preparing for the dance in her mind. It was one place she could completely lose herself; forget what Olivia was doing to her. As the music ended, she took her first position and waited. The music began and she moved through one of Clara’s solos from the Nutcracker Suite. Her movements were graceful, natural, and Olivia was quite impressed with the girl. Isabel moved with an assurance that one would have expected from a more mature and experienced dancer. It was a shame she couldn’t pursue a career in ballet, Olivia thought; but Gordon had other plans for his niece. During one of the rare moments when she actually cared, Olivia knew that if Isabel were her daughter she would be trying out for the American Ballet Theater by now. The dance ended and Isabel sank down on the floor to go through relaxation exercises. “Mrs. Chambers?” the maid said as she knocked on the doorframe. “There’s a call for you.” “Thank you, Sarah,” Olivia nodded. She looked over at Isabel. “When you’re through here, Isabel, I want you to get your French book and join me in the study.” “Yes, Mother.” Isabel knew not to argue. It was apparent that her mother was not going to allow it. Her face still stung from where she had been struck earlier. So she finished what she was doing and rose to her feet. She played the music in her head; the repeated practices for the past month having engrained the dance in her memory. She moved through the solo again just for the sheer fun of it. She came to the end and was startled when she heard clapping. She turned to see a tall, dark-haired man standing in the doorway. There was a look in his eye that made Isabel feel very uneasy. She turned to grab a towel and put it around her neck. “Do I know you?” Isabel asked as she used the towel to dry off. “I’m a friend of your mother,” the man replied, smiling at her in a friendly manner. “My name is Roger Hancock.” “Was she expecting you, Mr. Hancock?” Isabel asked, confused. Why would her mother ask her to join her in a French lesson if she were expecting company? “She’s upstairs in the study.” She moved towards the door and he remained in her way. “Please let me pass. I have to get my books…” “You can spare me a few moments, girl,” Roger said in a silken voice as he reached up to touch her cheek. Isabel backed away from his touch and looked up at him puzzled. “Your mother was right to keep you hidden. You are quite extraordinary.” “Please let me pass,” Isabel asked, wondering what it was about this man that made her so frightened. “Mother will not like it if I am late for my lesson.” “I could think of a lesson I’d like to teach you,” Roger smiled as he grabbed her by the wrists and pulled her close. “A little sex education?” He ran a finger along her jaw line. “You’re old enough to start…” You are not here to paw my daughter, Roger,” Olivia’s cold voice hissed from behind him. “Isabel, the French lesson can wait,” she continued as Roger let Isabel go and stepped away. “I want you to go up to your room and change. We’re going into town.” “Yes, Mother,” Isabel replied. She moved out of the room quickly, eyeing the man nervously as she passed him. She wasn’t certain, but she thought she heard the sounds of a blow being struck as she went up the stairs. She knew she shouldn’t eavesdrop, but something about the man bothered her. She crept back down the stairs and only stopped when she could hear their voices. They were still in the studio and they were having a heated argument about her. “I tell you Olivia,” Roger was saying as Isabel stopped on the stairs. “This can’t miss. The girl looks enough like her to pass. They’ll think the differences are from the other side of the family.” “I don’t want to involve her in this, Roger,” Olivia protested. “Isabel has no knack for lying. She is the most honest person I have ever met in my life.” “You’d rather tell her that her parents are common folk,” Roger asked her. “When you could have her ingratiate herself into one of the most powerful families in the States?” “She belongs with her family, Roger,” Olivia hissed. “The two women were sisters. Who they married shouldn’t be important.” “What we can get out of this is!” the man retorted sharply. “Did you hear something?” There was a pause and Isabel took off up the stairs as she heard footsteps coming out of the studio. She took a shower and was pulling a pair of high-heeled boots on when Olivia came to join her. Olivia looked over the outfit her daughter had selected, a calf-length belted dress in a soft blue wool jersey, and nodded. Isabel had good taste in clothing; nothing flamboyant, just classic and simply elegant. The girl reminded her of a young Grace Kelly, Olivia thought. “I apologize for Mr. Hancock,” Olivia said as she reached into Isabel’s closet and pulled out a jacket. “It could be chilly by the time we come back,” she explained as she handed it to the girl. “Take this along.” Isabel did as she was told and followed Olivia out of the house. She got behind the wheel of the Mercedes, pleased to be trusted with such a task. She had passed her driver’s license test and had hoped it would allow her freedom; but Olivia only allowed her to drive if someone were with her. In fact, Isabel was never allowed to go anywhere without someone else along. She drove into the town she had never been allowed to enter and followed Olivia’s directions to an upscale ladies salon. Isabel parked the car in front and followed her mother inside. What were they doing in such a place? As far as Isabel was aware, they were not wealthy enough to afford such luxuries. “My daughter will be needing a complete wardrobe eventually,” Olivia told the woman who came forward to greet them. “For tonight, however, we need apparel suitable for a young woman to attend her first opera.” “Opera?” Isabel was astounded. They never went anywhere. Her only exposure to opera had been through the CDs and records and piano pieces that Olivia had played for her as she grew up. “We’re going to an opera?” “You are going to the opera,” Olivia corrected her. “With your uncle.” She saw Isabel’s excited expression die, replaced by confusion. “It is time you were re-introduced to your family.” “Something is wrong, isn’t it?” Isabel saw her mother flinch and knew she had guessed it. This visit to town, the opera, meeting her family, it had all been triggered by something recent. “Was it the phone call, or something Mr. Hancock said to you?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, girl,” Olivia frowned. This child had always been very intuitive. It had annoyed Olivia when the child was young, now it terrified her. “You’re at an age now where you need the input of other people.” “That’s not it, Mother,” Isabel shook her head, noting the woman’s nervousness. She laid her hand on Olivia’s arm, her eyes filled with concern. “Please tell me what’s wrong. Perhaps I can help…” “The less you know, child,” Olivia told her sadly, “the safer you will be.” She patted Isabel’s hand and looked as if she were going to say something for a moment. Then she shook her head and turned away. “This is not finding you a dress. Pay attention to the models.” Isabel knew that her opportunity to find out more was lost. She sighed and turned to watch as the models paraded past in various gowns. One after another was discarded for one fault or another. Several Isabel wouldn’t have minded having, and she was disappointed when they did not pass her mother’s scrutiny. Some of the gowns were put aside for her to try on. The last gown to come out was a Grecian style; baring one shoulder. It was in a sapphire blue with silver embellishments on the shoulder and along the hemline. Isabel had never seen anything more beautiful in her entire life. She nearly cried out in joy when Olivia smiled and nodded. “That one,” Olivia said simply. “You can put the others back.” The assistants nodded and carried the other gowns away. The salon owner took Isabel back into the dressing room and put the chosen garment on her. Isabel was astounded by how the garment made her feel; like a princess. The effect was heightened when the woman held Isabel’s long wavy hair up on top of her head. She looked like a grown woman! She went out into the viewing room and stepped up on the dais in front of the mirrors. The gown flowed over her body, caressing its curves lovingly; there was no need for it to be altered. “Perfection,” Olivia actually smiled as she looked at the girl. “Have it delivered to the Ambassador Suite at the Ritz Carlton.” “Of course, Mrs. Chambers,” the woman nodded as she looked at the card she had just been handed. Isabel wondered why the woman was eyeing her so strangely. It was as if this woman knew her. Alexa caught the girl looking at her appraisingly and went back into her act. “Your daughter looks wonderful.” “Thank you, Alexa,” Olivia nodded. “The opera starts at 8:00 p.m. We will need you at 6:00.” Alexa nodded and led Isabel back to the dressing room to change. She watched the pair leave and then turned to her assistants. She couldn’t believe her eyes. The girl had been a twin of the young woman whose picture rested on Gordon Talbot’s desk. She remembered hearing that his sister had died from complications of childbirth after being injured in a car accident. The child had disappeared; as did her cousin, the child of his other sister who had been seriously injured in the same crash. Could the teenager she had just seen be one of those lost girls? She ran for the phone and dialed the Agency. “Director Talbot,” she stated stiffly. “This is Alexa Hardy.” She looked at the dress and saw a long dark hair caught in the shoulder fastening. She handed it to her partner, nodding at the hair and watched as Michelle pulled it off and sealed it in an evidence envelope. “Sir,” she nodded. “I believe I have just seen one of your sisters children.” She heard his question, wondering why he was not excited. “She was just here with a woman who bears a striking resemblance to the agent who went missing about the same time your sister died.” She looked over at Michelle, who nodded and held up an envelope. “We have a hair sample. We’re bringing it to the lab now.” She hung up and took the envelope from Michelle. “I’ll be back in an hour.” Olivia had Isabel drive them to the Ritz Carlton and park in the underground parking area. They went into the lobby and she approached the front desk. All she had to do was give her name and the man behind the desk jumped to attention. As they waited, Isabel looked around the lobby. The place was lovely, styled after the Art Nouveau period. She remembered reading about it in the books Olivia had insisted she studied. She caught a dark-haired man looking at her as if he’d just seen a ghost. There was a frown on his face as if he couldn’t believe that she was standing there. Isabel’s attention was pulled away from him as Olivia grabbed her by the elbow and led her to the elevators. The woman’s nervousness was escalating; as if she was expecting trouble. She knew better than to ask what was wrong; Olivia wouldn’t tell her anything unless she needed to know. “I am going out for a while,” Olivia said half an hour later. Isabel looked up from the art book on the coffee table. “You are not to leave the suite, Isabel,” she told her daughter firmly as she paused at the door. “If you do, the opera is off. Is that clear?” Isabel nodded and watched her mother leave. She wished she could go to the opera, but she had no intention of being anywhere near the man her mother had chosen as her escort. She left the suite and went out of the hotel. She knew she was risking painful discipline for this act, but she didn’t care. She was tired of her mother making decisions for her. She hailed a cab and had it take her to the park they had passed on their way in. She paid the driver and started walking; just enjoying the sights and sounds of the town she had never visited before. She sat back and listened to a young man playing a guitar, humming along to tunes she had heard only on records and tapes. She was so locked into what she was doing that she did not see the same tall, dark-haired man who had reacted to her presence in the hotel coming towards her. “You look so much like her,” Rafael Alvarez said as he approached Isabel. “I am Rafael Alvarez,” he introduced himself, frowning as he saw she that this meant nothing to her. In fact, the wariness in her eyes made him feel angry. No child this young should be so fearful. “Don’t you know me?” “Should I?” Isabel asked him. He certainly acted as if he knew her. But Isabel knew she had never seen this handsome man before in her life. She cocked her head and looked at him more closely. “You seem to know me.” “How is it possible that you are unaware of who you are?” Rafael asked as he sat down near her. “Where have you been all of these years?” “Isabel!” Olivia’s voice cried out sharply. “I asked you to stay in the…” She froze as she saw the young man seated near her charge. “Rafael Alvarez. What are you doing here?” “Getting acquainted with my cousin,” Rafael told her bluntly, his eyes narrowing in anger. “You haven’t told her who she is, have you?” “We don’t know who she is,” Olivia answered back, irritated by the note of censure in the young man’s voice. “I am hoping that she is not your uncle’s daughter, however. Your family would destroy her.” “If she is part of my family, woman,” Rafael hissed as he rose to his feet. He looked at Isabel, and saw the girl eyeing him closely, “we will have her back.” Olivia frowned as she watched the young man leave. He would go to his father, or even to his uncle and they would learn that Isabel was not only alive, but in town. She couldn’t let this happen. She had kept the girl safe for 18 years now; she was not going to fail Isabel now. Olivia knew there was only one person who could protect the child now, and was glad that she had made the decision to bring the child to him. The vague threats that this man’s father had made over the phone were compounded by Rafael’s sudden appearance. She grabbed Isabel by the wrist and yanked her to her feet. Isabel didn’t fight; it was no use fighting when Olivia had that look on her face. They got into a taxi and she noted that it took them past the hotel and to the Federal Building. “My name is Olivia Chambers,” she told the woman seated at the desk outside of Gordon Talbot’s office. “I need to speak with Director Talbot.” “He’s in a meeting.” The woman informed her tightly. There was something about this woman that set her teeth on edge. “If you and your daughter will just have a seat, he will be free in a few moments.” “I don’t have time to wait,” Olivia told the woman. “His niece will wait for him.” “Niece?” The woman queried. She turned to look at the teenager and her eyes widened as she saw a living, breathing twin to the picture on the Director’s desk. “Yes, she is.” She got to her feet and held out her hand to Isabel. “My name is Morgan Forrester. Would you like something to drink while you wait?” Isabel shook her head and the woman nodded. She went to open the door. “Wait in the office please. I’ll go tell your uncle that you are here.” “Mother?” Isabel turned towards Olivia confused. “My uncle is the Director of the FBI here?” “Yes, dear,” Olivia nodded. “Have your uncle Gordon return you to the suite by 6:00 so you can get ready for the Opera.” “You can’t just leave her here, Ms. Chambers,” Morgan protested. “Director Talbot will have questions for you.” “My only answer,” Olivia replied tightly, nodding towards Isabel, “is right there.” Isabel watched Olivia leave without another word, completely confused. She went into the office with Morgan and went to stand at the windows. She barely heard the door closing as she tried to understand why her uncle had stayed out of her life. Was he afraid someone would harm her if they knew who he was? And just who was this Rafael Alvarez who had claimed that she was a part of his family? She sank down into her uncle’s chair and stared out the window. Her life had suddenly become nothing but a series of unanswered questions. The door opened again and she turned. “Uncle?” Isabel asked the golden-haired man standing in the doorway. The man was shocked to see her there. “You can’t be my Uncle Gordon. You’re too young.” “Uncle Gordon?” Lang asked, admiring the pretty dark-haired girl quite openly. His eyes widened as he looked from the photograph to the girl standing in front of him. “You must be Cassandra’s daughter.” He set the folder he was carrying in the tray on Gordon’ desk. “He never stops talking about you.” “You must be thinking of some other girl. My mother’s name is Olivia,” Isabel replied, not liking the way this man was looking at her. “Did you want me to leave my uncle a message?” “That’s all right,” the man answered as he turned to leave. “He has everything he needs in the file there.” “That was odd,” Isabel frowned as the door closed and she was alone again. She knew she shouldn’t, but the man seemed to know her. She picked up the file and went to sit where no one could see her. Then she opened the folder and read the single sheet of paper in the file. She had just finished and replaced the folder when the door opened again. This time the tall, dark-haired man with the moustache who stood in the doorway was of the right age. It had to be her uncle. “Uncle Gordon?” Isabel smiled and got up from the chair. “Mother brought me into town to meet you.” “My God,” Gordon exclaimed as he looked at a niece he had never known. “You look just like her.” He recovered and came to kiss her on the cheek. “I have been wondering where you were.” “How could you not know where I was?” Isabel asked him. “You’re with the FBI. I thought they knew everything.” “Hardly,” Gordon smiled at her naivete. “They hid you well. It wasn’t until the woman called me that I even knew you were still alive.” He frowned. “You and I were supposed to meet at the opera tonight. Why did she bring you here?” Gordon asked as he took his seat. Something in the girl’s manner told him that she was upset about something. “Is there something wrong, child?” “I met a young man in the park earlier today,” Isabel told him honestly. “Mother was very upset by the encounter and brought me here.” “Tell me about it, child,” Gordon frowned and sat down behind his desk. “His name was Rafael Alvarez,” Isabel told him. He said that I was part of his family. Do you know him?” “He could be your cousin,” Gordon told her simply. “One of the better members of the family.” He quieted when he saw her expression. She might look like a full-grown woman, but Isabel was still a child and, as far as Gordon was concerned, she didn’t need to know about some of the members of the Alvarez family. “He has just finished his internship at Boston General and moved back here to work at North Arundel.” “Then you do know him,” Isabel nodded. “Why has my mother kept me away from all of you?” “That is something we will have to ask her,” Gordon replied. “Tonight we will enjoy the Opera.” He picked up the receiver on his phone. “Morgan, call the Ritz Carlton, and ring the Ambassador Suite,” he told his secretary. “Give Mrs. Chambers the following message. Isabel is going to get ready for the opera at her uncle Gordon’ penthouse this evening.” He looked over at Isabel as he hung up and saw the joy in the girl’s eyes. “I understand you have never seen an opera before, child.” “Mother never took me anywhere,” Isabel told him honestly. “I am beginning to realize that she was hiding me.” She saw him frown and knew he was aware of the reasons for Olivia’s keeping her locked away. “It has something to do with the Alvarez family, doesn’t it?” “There isn’t time to go into all of this, child,” Gordon told her. Isabel could tell he wanted to tell her the truth, but something was keeping him from speaking. “Why is everyone suddenly so afraid for me?” This brought Gordon’ eyes back to hers. “I’m 18, Uncle Gordon. Old enough to vote, to enter the military; it is time I had a voice in what my life should be.” “I think it is past time,” Gordon said. This child might appear every bit the delicate angel, but she had the same core of iron will that his dead sister had possessed. He was worried, however, that this would not be enough to protect her if the people who had hidden her all these years found out she was loose. “Perhaps even a place of your own.” He watched her expression of shock and knew she hadn’t even considered going that far. Then a slow smile lit her face. “I see the idea meets with your approval.” “A place of my own!” Isabel’s smile grew wider. “Without Mother there to tell me when to do things?” Her laugh was a sweet mellow sound that hit Gordon hard as it sounded almost exactly like Cassandra’s had, but there was a warmth to it that had always been lacking in his sister’s voice. He still missed his lovely sister. “Would you help me find a place, Uncle?” “I am going to be out of town after tonight,” Gordon said with true regret. “There’s a meeting in Washington DC I have to attend.” He saw her look of disappointment. “You could come with me, child,” he suggested. “I won’t be in the meeting more than a few hours. We can get to know each other while I show you the capital.” “Mother might not like that, Uncle,” Isabel frowned as she remembered her mother. “She’s not going to like your changing her plans for me.” “Her say in your life ended when she dropped you off in my office, Isabel,” Gordon nodded, the decision made. He got to his feet and went to the door. Isabel followed him out as they stopped at the desk in front of his office. The woman looked up and smiled, waiting for his edict. “Morgan,” he said as he pulled Isabel forward, “I’d like you to see to it that Isabel has access to my office any time she needs it. We are going to be out the rest of the day.” Morgan nodded and the smile she turned on Isabel was warmer. She had known Gordon had a niece but this was the first anyone had ever seen of the girl. Gordon led Isabel away, knowing that he would get what he asked for. He took Isabel down to the parking level where his car waited. She thought about the strange man who had come into Gordon’ office when she had been there alone. He was a handsome man, with deep gray blue eyes and golden blond hair. But it had not been his appearance that had struck her. She had the distinct impression that the man could blend in wherever he wished. She brought her mind out of reverie and turned to her uncle and caught a strange expression on his face. He put a smile on his face and had the man drive them back to the salon. Emily got out of the car and looked around the street, intrigued by the different periods of architecture. She had only read about such things; it was wonderful to be able to see them. She walked down the street slowly, and someone grabbed her and pushed her into the alley. “You didn’t tell him I was in his office,” Lang stated the fact, looking puzzled as he released her. “Why not?” “You might have had a good reason for being in there,” Isabel told him. “I have only just met my uncle. How could I know who works with him, or,” she looked at him more closely, “for him.” “You have to forget you saw me there,” he told her bluntly. He saw her balk at the order and frowned. “It’s important. You can keep a secret, can’t you?” Lang asked, his eyes narrowing. He looked about to say something more but decided against it. “Remember what I said.” Isabel watched the man vanish into the shadows and returned to the car. She slid back in just as her uncle came out with a box in hand. The driver got out and took the box from Gordon, putting it in the trunk. As they drove off, Isabel found herself wondering who the man was, and just what he was up to. Why had he left that file on her uncle’s desk? Maybe he was an informant of some kind? If that were correct, then she shouldn’t bring attention to the man. But this was her uncle the man was involving in his work. She couldn’t keep this a secret. She would mention it to him when they were alone and let him decide what to do. “Uncle Gordon?” Isabel looked towards him as they were eating dinner. “We need to talk.” “About your mother,” Gordon nodded. He set his fork done and looked back at her. “I had two sisters, Isabel. Liza is married to a psychologist in West Virginia. Cassandra died from complications caused by the premature birth of her child after a car accident 18 years ago. Since they were twins, people may assume that you are Cassandra’s daughter. You certainly look a great deal like her,” he smiled sadly, “but you have Liza’s eyes.” “People who are looking to con rich grieving widowers out of their money?” Isabel asked him. “You are far too young to know about such things, Isabel,” Gordon frowned, “but you’re right. The woman who raised you has a record for such acts.” He didn’t like having to tell her such things. “When you visited the dress shop earlier today, it happened to be one that my agents are working undercover in. One of the agents took a hair sample from you and I had it analyzed.” “So you know who my real mother is?” Isabel asked him, suddenly quite excited. She saw his expression. “The sample wasn’t good enough,” Gordon told her truthfully. He saw her disappointment and had to admit that he shared it. “If you have time, we’ll take a fresh sample.” Isabel nodded, smiling. “Then let me take you to the labs.” “I have a feeling that whoever’s daughter I am,” Isabel said softly, “it is going to create problems.” “Liza was in the same accident Cassandra was in,” Gordon told her honestly. “When she woke up after surgery, she was told her child was dead.” He saw the sympathy in Isabel’s eyes and knew she would empathize with her mother. “Liza didn’t take it well. She had to spend some time in an institution. She met her husband, Charles Stoner, there. He was there as an intern.” He ran his hand through his hair. “We thought she was better when they married and he took her into his home. But then young girls would suddenly appear in their home; all dark haired and blue eyed. The family managed to control things for a while. Then there was a young woman who pressed charges and we barely managed to keep my sister out of another institution.” Gordon took them back to his office building and they signed in. The guard at the desk had obviously known his sisters. He was staring at her as if he had seen a ghost. They entered the laboratory and a tall, red-haired woman approached them. She didn’t look at all like a lab technician. The only clue as to her function was the white lab coat she was wearing over her blue silk dress. “This is Dr. Tabitha Evans, Isabel,” Gordon introduced them. “She is going to take a blood sample.” “It’s nice to meet you, Isabel,” Tabitha smiled, easing Isabel immediately. “Once these tests are done, we’ll know whose daughter you are for sure.” She smiled over at Gordon. “But it’s certain whose niece you are.” Once the test was done, she followed her uncle out of the lab. She smiled to herself as she saw the look that passed between Gordon and Tabitha. He had a woman in his life. That fact made her feel even more relaxed. They left the office and Gordon took her to his penthouse. It was very pleasant. Whoever did his decorating had seen to it that it was warm and welcoming, not sterile and utilitarian. They went into the kitchen and prepared supper. Gordon was quite open about his family, no sugar coating of their weaknesses, no exaggerating their strengths. “Your family has had its share of dark times,” Isabel said softly. “You’re thinking it might not be a good idea for me to meet Liza.” “Not without running it past her husband,” Gordon nodded. He laid his hand on hers. “What say we have a good time at the opera tonight and deal with the ramifications of your sudden appearance in the morning.” Later that night, Isabel walked into the opera on her uncle’s arm and her eyes went wide as she looked around the theater. She had never seen anything like this place. It was beautiful. Immense marble columns lined the entrance. A large marble staircase with railings of gold led up to other levels. A crystal chandelier hung over the hall sparkling like captured stars above their heads. Thick burgundy carpeting muffled the sound of their footsteps. This same burgundy accented with midnight blue was caught up in the walls and curtains. They went up to the box of one of Gordon’ friends, Winston Tolliver. He hadn’t needed it that evening and left it for Gordon’ use. Isabel was astounded that her uncle had planned on attending on his own. He was a handsome man, quite distinguished looking. Obviously he spent way too much time at his job. She felt a sudden chill and looked around. She caught sight of Roger Hancock standing in an aisle below the box, glaring up at her. She turned away from him and lost herself in the opera. She forgot all about Roger Hancock until the intermission. She caught him staring at her as she stayed close to Gordon’ side. She felt her uncle stiffen and looked up to see the clenched jaw and cold eyes. Obviously Gordon had noticed Roger’s regard as well. “Director Talbot,” Roger smiled as he came towards them a moment later. “I didn’t know you knew Miss Chambers.” “I should,” Gordon said tightly. “Isabel is my niece, Mr. Hancock.” He had the pleasure of seeing the man flinch. “Come along, Isabel,” he said as he put Isabel’s hand on his arm and led her away. “The last act is about to start.” He waited until the music had started again and then turned to his niece. “Where did you meet Mr. Hancock?” “He came to the house earlier today,” Isabel told him honestly. “I didn’t like him. He was too interested in me.” She frowned as she remembered the encounter. She saw his expression and knew he was waiting for her to continue. “I overheard a bit of their conversation, Uncle,” she blushed guiltily. “They were arguing about how they could use me. Mr. Hancock wanted to have me pretend to be Cassandra’s daughter.” “He would.” Gordon was incensed that anyone would try to use this child in such a way. “And did Olivia agree with him?” “Mother was more concerned with helping me find out who I really belonged with,” Isabel told him, proud of Olivia. “I went upstairs and didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. When Mother came back, she practically dragged me out of the house at a run.” She felt his worry and frowned. “Is something wrong, Uncle Gordon?” “It’s not something we can discuss here, child,” Gordon told her. “This is your first opera, you should be enjoying it.” Isabel nodded and tried to return her attention to the opera. The music was beautiful and the performances were good, but her mind was trapped by what had happened. She did her best to keep from asking further questions. Every once in a while she would turn to find her uncle looking at her strangely; as if he were seeing a ghost. They went to Gordon’ penthouse apartment after the opera. Gordon went to the bar and poured them each a cranberry juice, smiling as he heard his niece humming one of the arias. Isabel went to the wall of windows that gave a view of the entire city. Gordon’ heart caught in his throat again as he saw how much like his sisters this child was. It was as if Cassandra and Liza had become one person in this child. His rottweiler began barking and whining and Gordon gave Isabel her drink and went to get the animal out of the library. He watched her eyes widen in delight as she saw the dog he brought out on its leash. “Isabel,” Gordon smiled as he brought the dog to her, “this is my friend. Oscar,” he crouched down next to the dog and looked in its eyes, “Isabel is our family.” Isabel crouched down and held her hand out to the dog. When he began to lick it, she giggled in delight like a small child. She threw her arms around the animal and Gordon was pleased. He handed her the leash, suddenly very eager to give her a feeling of the independence her guardian had denied this pretty child. He suddenly realized that the child had suffered a great loss of freedom while she was being hidden away. That woman had kept this child locked up and on a leash. Well, he was going to make it up to his niece now. “Oscar needs to go for a walk,” he said as she looked up at him. “I usually take him on a circuit of the park across the street about this time. Would you mind doing it for me so I can catch up on some paperwork?” “Oh yes!” Isabel cried out happily. “Let me change first.” When she did not come back quickly, Gordon went to the guest room. She was standing in the door of the walk-in closet, eyes narrowed. “You did this? “I knew the moment she called me that I would be removing you from that woman’s care, so I had your grandmother send over some of Liza’s old things,” Gordon told her. He saw some of her wariness fade. “They should fit.” “Thank you,” Isabel smiled. She came to kiss him on the cheek. He left her alone and she changed out of her pretty gown and into a pair of jeans and a warm top and sweat jacket. She slid her feet into a pair of sneakers and went back out to the living room. “Let’s go, Oscar.” Isabel took the elevator down to the lobby of the building. She waved at the doorman her uncle had introduced her to on the way in and left the building. She took Oscar to the park and headed along the sidewalk that ran in a circle around it. The moon was full that night and it was illuminated in the water of the lake in the center. There was a slight breeze and Isabel was glad she had brought the coat with her. She wondered if it was wrong of her to be so happy at the thought of not having the woman in her life. Olivia had been the only mother she had known, after all. Shouldn’t there be some kind of anxiety or sadness in her at leaving home. She stopped on the other side of the park and sank down onto a bench to enjoy the scenery. “I need to talk to you, girl,” Lang said as he came out of the shadows and sat down at the other end of the bench. He made it appear a casual meeting. “You read the file I left for your uncle, didn’t you?” “I’m not talking to you,” Isabel said tightly and started to get to her feet. Something in the expression he shot her made her stop. Plus she suddenly realized that Oscar was not on guard; he knew this man. “Is it that important? All I remember was a list of dates and locations.” “Shipping dates,” Lang told her. “Obviously for some cargo the authorities do not wish to leave the States,” Isabel puzzled it out. “You are working undercover for my uncle!” She saw the man’s eyes narrow and wondered why he was so angry. “Could I really be in danger for reading that file?” “If the wrong people learned that you had knowledge of it? Yes,” Lang nodded. He bent down to tie his laces as someone jogged by. “Gordon has only just gotten you back, Isabel. It would kill him if something happened to you now.” Isabel watched as he got up, patted Oscar on the head, and jogged off without another word. She sat where she was for quite some time, puzzling over what he had told her. The cargo must be something very nasty indeed for him to warn her as he had. She shook her head as she set worry aside. The only other person who had known she was in Gordon’ office was Morgan. She got to her feet, relieved, and headed back to the penthouse at a run, enjoying the feel of the breeze on her face. She was so happy to have the freedom to roam. This was also something her mother had never allowed her to do. She was going to enjoy staying at her uncle’s place. She was almost to the door when a car door opened and a dark-haired woman came towards her. There was something oddly familiar about this woman, and Isabel realized who she was looking at. This could only be Liza Stoner, her uncle’s sister. “You must know Mr. Talbot well if he lets you walk his dog,” Liza told the girl as she crouched down to pet the animal. “I see Oscar has made friends with you.” “Miss Chambers?” the doorman called out as he came to the door. He turned and saw Isabel and his relief as plain. “Your uncle called down. He was worried that you might have gotten yourself lost.” His smile died a bit as he saw Liza. “Dr. Stoner. You’re home early.” “Strong tailwinds coming up from DC,” Liza shrugged. She smiled at Isabel and held out her hand. She was looking at Isabel strangely. “I’m Liza Stoner.” “I’d better get back upstairs,” Isabel nodded briefly. “It was nice to meet you, Dr. Stoner,” she smiled as she went into the building. She paused to smile up at the doorman. “Good night, Hank.” “Night, Miss Chambers,” Hank smiled as he returned to his desk. Isabel went up to the penthouse and let Oscar go. He went to his place in the study and Isabel followed him. Gordon was seated at the desk, working on something. Oscar was curled up beside him. Gordon closed the file and turned to smile at her as he got to his feet. He went with her to his guest room and made certain she had everything she needed. Then he showed her where everything was, made certain she knew the security code, and left her to settle in. Isabel heard the phone ring. Isabel knew at once that it was Olivia from her uncle’s stiff tones. She got to her feet, and tiptoed to the door. She cried out in dismay as he closed the study door. She went back to what she had been doing. Gordon would tell her what Olivia had said if she needed to know. “Uncle Gordon?” Isabel called out as she went to find him. He was nursing a drink and looking out over the city through the wall of windows. He turned and smiled at her and Isabel knew that she was right. “Did you know your sister is here?” “She and her husband have the penthouse below this one,” Gordon nodded, wondering how he could have forgotten to mention this to the girl. “They use it when they’re in town for seminars and such.” He frowned. “Charles usually calls me when they’re coming in.” He went to study and Isabel heard him making a call. When he came back, he was looking very worried. “He had no idea that Liza was here. He asked us not to contact her until he has had a chance to speak to her.” He kissed Isabel on the forehead. “Thank you for telling me, Isabel.” He looked at the clock on the wall. “You should get some sleep, child. It’s late.” Gordon waited until she was asleep and then he went downstairs. Liza opened the door for him, and her look was guarded, defensive. She stepped aside for him to enter with a frown on her lovely face. She had known she would be expecting a visit from him the moment she had found herself looking at her sister’s twin. The girl could only be a Talbot. “Would you care for something to drink, Gordon?” she offered as she went to pour herself another. He shook his hand and she set her glass down. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d found her?” “Because we’re not certain whose daughter she is,” Gordon told her bluntly. He saw that he had wounded her but didn’t apologize. “I had hoped to keep it from you until I had proof…” “It doesn’t matter whose daughter she is,” Liza broke in, frowning at him. “She is, at the very least, my niece, and I deserved to know.” She closed her eyes a moment to calm down. “I met her outside the front door, Gordon. I almost had a heart attack!” “Charles will be here on Saturday,” Gordon told her. “We should have the results by then.” He came towards her and she shook her head and went to her drink. “Damn it, Liza! I was trying to protect you…” “Quit it!” Liza hissed at him. She saw him step back. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to snap at you.” “We’ll know soon, Liza,” Gordon told her as he came to give her a hug. “Can you hang in there just a little longer?” “I’ve barely hung on as it is, Gordon,” Liza frowned. She nodded her head at his look. “It’s only a few more days. I’ll do my best.” Morning came and Isabel joined her uncle at breakfast. They talked about the opera for most of the meal. She tried to talk to him about the man she had met in his office but there never seemed to be an opportunity. Gordon took her to the shop where he had keys made and had copies of his house and car keys made. Isabel took them as if they were priceless and he was glad he was giving her the opportunity to be independent. Olivia had not been pleased when he had told her that Isabel would be staying at his penthouse. There had been words about his decision, but Gordon had stood his ground. He had finally reminded the woman that Isabel was his relative, not hers, and she should start looking for a new job. He smiled down at the girl as they stood by the agency plane an hour later. “Are you certain that you don’t want to come with me, child?” Gordon asked as he looked down at her with a smile. “I have vacation days to use. We could make real trip out of this.” “I have a recital Friday night, Uncle Gordon,” Isabel told him, though she was certain he already knew that. She smiled at him shyly. “I would have loved to come.” Gordon smiled down at her, delighted. She was such an exceptional child, he thought. So warm, so giving. Any other girl would be holding it against him for staying out of their life. But Isabel accepted the necessity of her isolation and made place for him in her life. He bent down and kissed her on the cheek. She was so much like her mother, he thought to himself, hiding the sadness of that loss from this child. “If you need anything more,” he said as he handed her a checkbook and credit card, “let Morgan know.” “This is too much, Uncle Gordon,” Isabel exclaimed as she opened the checkbook and saw the amount in the account. “You had time to do all of this?” “The account was opened on the day you were born,” Gordon told her. “I have added to it every year since.” He stroked her cheek. “In hopes that we would find you one day.” “What if you had never found me, Uncle?” Isabel asked him. “That was never an option,” Gordon told her bluntly. He kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll call you once I’m settled and let you know my room number. You have my cell number…” “I’ll be fine, Uncle Gordon,” Isabel broke in, smiling. She went up on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t worry about me.” “I wouldn’t be a very good uncle if I didn’t worry about you, child,” Gordon smiled down at her. “I’ll be back on Sunday. Behave yourself.” Isabel watched until the plane had lifted off the runway and then got into his car and drove away. She went to the Grand Theater where she was dancing in a recital on Friday evening. The theater manager, Simon Tremont, came up the aisle, smiling widely as he saw her coming in. The man was dressed in his usual black, but he had a knack for making even this plain attire seem flamboyant and daring. The lights bounced off his deep black hair worn long to his shoulders as he strode towards her. Isabel let him envelop her in one of his bear hugs and then accompanied him backstage to the dressing room he had assigned her. She wasn’t surprised when Olivia rose from the chair in front of the makeup mirror. To say the woman was displeased would be putting it mildly. “Your uncle informed me that you will be staying with him until you find a place of your own,” she launched right into the argument. “You’re not old enough…” “I am a legal adult, Mother,” Isabel broke in gently. She quieted as she realized that she couldn’t call this woman that. “But you aren’t my mother, are you?” “He told you?” “Not everything,” Isabel said. “But enough. You kept me from my family, Olivia.” She held up her hand as Olivia started to say something. “I don’t know why you would do something like that, but I think it’s time I had a chance to make my own way.” She shook her head as Olivia started to protest. “I’m not cutting you out of my life. You are the only family I have known until now. I’m just spreading my wings a bit.” She looked at the clock. “I need to change.” “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, child,” Olivia said as she waited for Isabel to come out again. “There are a lot of very nasty people in this city who would jump at a chance to hurt your uncle by harming you. You’ll be exposing yourself to all kinds of danger.” “Doesn’t everyone?” Isabel called out from behind the screen. “Honestly, Olivia!” she sighed as she came out in her ballet leotard and tights and sank down on the chair to pull on her slippers. When she was finished, she pulled on her wrap skirt and stretched. “You’re being a bit overly dramatic.” She decided to risk it. “By the way, Uncle Gordon is having a DNA test run. We’ll know exactly who I am in a few days.” Olivia looked at the girl as if she’d never met her before. Was this the same Isabel that she had always been able to control before? She had been out of Olivia’s hands for one night and had found a backbone. She followed Isabel out to the stage and sat down on the piano bench. She waited until Isabel had warmed up and then began to play. Isabel moved through the dance with a new joy in her step. When the dance was over, she was startled by the sound of clapping. She and Isabel turned to see some of the other girls and their mothers, as well as members of the orchestra, seated in the front seats. Simon Tremont, the theater manager, was beaming from where he stood in the aisle. He turned to the other dancers and picked a clipboard up off the railing in front of the orchestra pit. He gave out the room assignments and left them to disperse. Then he came up on stage and picked Isabel up in his arms, twirling around with her. “You are a goddess!” he enthused. “I have never seen anyone move as you do at such a young age, Isabel! You must not let this gift go to waste.” He set her down and looked down at her with some concern. “Are you up to running through it one more time with the orchestra and lighting tech?” She nodded and he turned to the control booth and waved. “Are you ready, Boris?” The lights flashed off and on and he nodded. “Then if you could, my little goddess.” Isabel smiled and went to the spot where she would start. The orchestra began the music as the lights hit Isabel and she was off. The tech had no trouble following her through the solo. When it was over, Isabel went to her dressing room and laid on the couch to relax. Olivia brought her a bottle of water and sank back on the chair, frowning. She was still upset about Gordon’ decision but this was not the time to start an argument. She let the girl relax and thought over what Gordon had told her. She was glad that she had kept aside money from the allowance Isabel’s other uncle had given her to care for Isabel now. Rafael Alvarez sat in the back of the auditorium and watched the practice with mounting worry. She was such a beautiful child. It would be a shame if anything happened to her. He had a very uneasy feeling that she was in danger. His father had been fuming after he had made his usual call to the Chambers woman. What had gotten into them both? Olivia had been hired to keep the girl away from her Uncle Gordon. Instead she had openly defying his father’s edicts and taken her to the man. As if, she too were aware of the danger that was about to be visited on the child and wanted Isabel where she would be safe. His beeper went off and he went out to his car and dialed the hospital. “This is Dr. Alvarez,” he said simply as he started the engine. He pulled away as the message came through. “No,” he told the woman on the other end. “I am not available to my father at this time. In fact, if he calls again, you are to tell him I am not available to him until our family dinner.” He hung up and put the beeper in his glove compartment, feeling as if he had just shed his shackles. He thought over what his father had done and began to realize that it was wrong. He knew his uncle Ricardo well; that man would never have harmed his daughter, even as grief-stricken as he had been after Cassandra’s death. Rafael had been eight when his aunt had died. He still remembered it well. As much as he mourned his dear wife, Ricardo had been a man obsessed as he had searched for their lost child. It was time he knew just where his child had been the past 18 years. “Is he in?” Rafael asked the guard at the head of the ramp as he strode onto the yacht Ricardo used as his home base. “He is with your father, Doc,” the guard, Eduardo Sanchez smiled. He had always liked this young man. He was going to make something of himself despite his heritage. He saw Rafael’s frown. “I take it you still are not speaking to your father?” “You disapprove?” “It’s your life, Doc,” Eduardo replied. “If you go along the deck and down through the galley, he won’t see you.” Rafael nodded and started away. “And Doc?” Rafael turned back and Emilio was struck by how much this young man favored his uncle rather than his father. “I’d be careful how you interact with your father. He is not in the best of moods these days.” Rafael nodded and went down the ladder into the galley. He picked a carrot stick up off the tray and the cook, a very sweet lady named Elisabeta frowned at him. He kissed her on the cheek and continued to eat. She had been more a mother to him than any other woman his father had ever brought into his life. Like Cassandra and his uncle Ricardo, Elisabeta had gone out of her way to care about how he felt, what he thought. He could hear voices from the end of the passageway and knew his father was in the lounge. Elisabeta looked at him knowingly. “Your papa is not a happy man,” she said as she handed him the tray, “but you should not avoid him. It only makes it worse when you do speak.” “You are a very nosy old woman,” Rafael smiled at her as he took the tray. She was right. It was better to get this over with. “But I love you!” “And you are a very cheeky young man,” Elisabeta laughed. She shooed him out of the galley, and he took the tray with him. “Put a smile on that long face of yours, Rafe. Anyone would think you were going to an execution instead of a reunion.” Close, Rafael thought as he took the tray of vegetables down the passageway and into the lounge. As he set it down on the coffee table, he saw his father rise to his feet. They stood staring at each other for several moments and then Enrique nodded, gathered his papers, and left the yacht. Rafael sank down into a chair with a sigh of relief. He had not been ready to face his father, not with the look he had just received. He turned to see his uncle looking at him and he shrugged. “What can I do, Tio?” Rafael asked as he took another carrot stick off the tray. “He still has not forgiven me for choosing a life of my own.” “He is a stubborn fool,” Ricardo nodded, “but he is my brother. It hurts us all that the two of you can not set aside such differences.” He saw Rafael’s expression and knew he was not here to discuss his poor relationship with his father. “Something is bothering you, Rafael.” “I may be mistaken, Tio,” he said to his uncle slowly. He looked into Ricardo’s eyes and knew he had to do this, even if it meant he never spoke to his father again. “I was at the Ritz Carlton this afternoon when a child walked in with a woman. I followed her to the park and had my thoughts confirmed.” Ricardo was still looking confused, so Rafael just blurted it out. “I believe it was your daughter, Tio.” “Are you certain?” Ricardo hissed. He shook his head. “It can not be. I searched for her. Her uncle Gordon searched for her. She and her cousin had vanished.” “Well, someone who looks like your lost Cassandra has made an reappearance, sir,” Rafael said to him. “She was going to the opera that night, so I bought a ticket.” Ricardo looked at him strangely and he shrugged. “My abhorrence for the art form was superceded by my need to know.” He remembered it all quite clearly. “She was there with your friend, Gordon Talbot.” “He knew of her and did not tell me?” Ricardo was on his feet and at the phone. “Director Talbot.” He frowned as he was told where Gordon was. “In DC? No,” he said tightly, “there is no message. I will deliver it personally.” He slammed down the phone and turned to Rafael. “He is in DC for a meeting. I will go to him. He will tell me why he kept such news from me in person.” He sank down into a chair and looked at Rafael. “I can not expect you to do this for me, nephew, but…” “I will keep an eye on her for you, Tio,” Rafael broke in. “As I can between shifts at the hospital.” “Ah, si!” Ricardo smiled then, remembering why he was so proud of the young man. “To my nephew,” he toasted with his half empty whiskey glass, “the noble healer!” He raised his head as he caught sight of an annoyed woman in the passageway. “Elisabeta has prepared a special dinner for this occasion. We should not keep her waiting.” * Lang Tolliver watched from his hiding place as Isabel drove off in her uncle’s car. He remembered the girl’s mother, Cassandra. For a brief moment, when he was a very young child, she had almost become his new mother. Seeing her daughter had brought back those bittersweet memories. Lang left the car at the Federal Building and got into his own car. He had been in town a month now, and finally felt up to the reunion with his family. As he headed out of town, he found himself thinking about the pretty girl he had surprised in Talbot’s office. She looked almost exactly like her mother, but there was an innocence about her, as if she had been raised in a bubble. He heard a horn blare and looked up in time to see his car suddenly cut off by a van. He swerved to avoid it and hit the ditch. He hit the wheel hard enough to drive the air from his lungs. Before he could recover, he was dragged out of his car and into the van. “Don’t damage him,” a man’s voice hissed from behind the wheel as Lang was blindfolded. “Our employer wants that pleasure for himself.” “Your employer is in for a world of hurt abducting a federal agent,” Lang hissed as his wrists were tied behind his back. “Let me go now before this goes any further.” There was only laughter in response to his demand. Lang hadn’t really expected his abductors to listen to him. He sank back against the seat they dragged him into and bided his time. There was a reason for this move; he would learn what that was when he met their ‘employer,’ he was certain. Half an hour later, the van stopped and he was dragged out of it. They herded him down a flight of stairs and shoved him into a room. He hit a hard concrete floor and only had a moment to realize that before he was dragged to his feet and shoved into a chair. He was bound to it; the ropes they used tight against his arms and legs. “Your guest is here, sir,” the man from the van said coldly as the door opened. “He was not as eager to come as we had hoped.” “I am certain he will be more interested when he learns why he has been invited here,” a voice Lang was quite familiar with spoke. Enrique Alvarez, the man he had been investigating the past three years. “You will leave us alone a moment.” The door opened and closed and Lang knew he was alone with the man. “Agent Tolliver,” the man said coldly, “we meet at last.” “I don’t know why you’ve abducted me, Alvarez,” Lang shot back, trying to loosen the knots at his wrists, “but I won’t tell you anything.” “You will break, young man,” Enrique said softly, his voice a veiled threat. “By the time I am through with you, I will know everything you have told your superior.” He saw the stubborn look on the young man’s face. “I could always speak of this with your superior’s niece,” he said coldly. “I know she has seen the file you left on Talbot’s desk. The pretty child will not be able to withstand what I mean to subject you to.” “You’d never hurt a child!” Lang shot back. “It’s an empty threat.” “The girl is alone,” Enrique smiled nastily. “Only a dog to defend her. It would be ridiculously easy for my men to get to her.” He saw Lang beginning to understand his meaning. “I do not have to hurt her. Making her uncle believe she will be hurt will be more than enough.” He leaned closer to Lang. “So, Agent Tolliver,” he said as he grabbed Lang’s chin and squeezed until she saw pain in the man’s eyes, “it is up to you. You talk or pretty Isabel disappears.” “Go to hell!” Lang shot back. “I won’t tell you anything!” “You heard him, Sebastian,” Enrique sighed with regret and looked at the man standing behind Lang. “You will move on the girl. You know what to do with her.” “Why are you doing this?” Lang demanded as he heard someone moving off. “Because it suits my purpose,” Enrique told his prisoner. He laughed at the young man’s anger. “Take our young friend to his quarters and see he sleeps well tonight. We will begin the questioning in the morning.” Lang was freed from the chair and, as the ropes fell off his wrists, he was at the men who came for him and nearly out the door. He came face to face with his double. He was distracted long enough by the shock of the sight for the man to ram his fist into Lang’s abdomen, driving the agent to his knees. He laughed as the guards caught up with them and Lang was dragged away. Jake was looking forward to playing with the Tolliver family. He owed the older Tolliver son for what he had done to him in the service. “You know what you are to do, Jake?” Enrique asked the false Lang. “I would do more,” Jake nodded. “I am grateful to you for giving me this opportunity to bring down my old friend.” “It is a pleasure, mi amigo,” Enrique smiled coldly. “The Tollivers are a thorn in my side it is past time I had removed.” He watched the man leave and turned towards the door into the next room. “Well, hija? Your thoughts.” “Are you really that certain your double will fool his family and friends, Papa,” an 18 year old girl with his eyes and long black hair asked as she came in from the next room. “This young agent is quite unique.” “He impresses you, child?” “He has been undercover in the organization for three years, Papa. It was a fluke that he was ever found out,” Alejandra replied, her eyes continuing to follow the agent as he was half led, half dragged out of the room. “I have yet to meet a man among your lieutenants who can match him.” “Not even Guerrero, hija?” He laughed at her flinch. “You think I do not know you are playing with him, Ana? He is a very dangerous man. He will do what he thinks he must to gain what he wants…” “He wants your place, Papa,” Alejandra told him bluntly. She saw his shocked look and smiled. “I am not the innocent child. I have learned how to read a man from watching you.” She laid her hand on her father’s chest and looked up at him with the most innocent expression. “He has a weakness for a pretty face; especially when it is attached to power and position. And,” she giggled as she went up on tiptoe to kiss her father’s cheek, “you have led him to believe that he will gain it all through the pretty Isabel.” “A very interesting ploy, hija,” Enrique nodded. “Especially as we have no idea whether she is your cousin or not.” He shrugged. “It hardly matters. If he fails us, he will fall.” “And he would not dare cry ‘foul,’ Papa.” Alejandra smiled as she stepped away and the little girl routine was dropped. “He knows what will happen if he says anything to tie this back to us.” “Do not count on that, mi angel,” Enrique frowned at her. “We may have to destroy him.” “He will not be missed,” Alejandra answered. The fate of one man was nothing to her. “You have other, even more capable, men in your employ.” “Such sentiments are disturbing in one so young.” He was amazed at how quickly his daughter had grown up. She was becoming the son he had always wanted. Unlike her brother, Alejandra seemed to understand that one had to be cruel and hard to get ahead. When she was ready, she would be a force to be reckoned with. “Do you not have an outing scheduled with your Tio?” “How much longer must I play the pampered princess for him, Papa?” Alejandra frowned. It bored her to be around her straight-laced uncle. All he ever wanted to talk about was what he would give her; mere trinkets. Today it was a visit to the jewelry store to choose a gift for her 18th birthday. “He is boring.” “Not much longer, hija,” Enrique replied. “He believes his daughter is found. He will soon be spending time hunting her.” He cupped Alejandra’s chin in his hand and smiled down at her. “I am quite proud of the job you have been doing with your uncle.” The front door bell rang and Alejandra put on her best impression of a spoiled brat as the maid escorted Ricardo Alvarez, Enrique’s older brother, into the lounge. Alejandra let out a squeal of delight and threw her arms around his neck, babbling in Spanish. Ricardo’s hard expression melted like snow under the sun and he looked at his brother, amused and touched by the girl’s greeting. He reminded Enrique about their meeting in the morning and then left the house with his niece. He enjoyed giving her the things he had never been able to give his lost child. They entered the jewelry store and he told the Manager that Alejandra was to have whatever she wished. The girl spent the next half hour going through the cases while he went to the corner and dialed his brother again. “I want you do something for me, Enrique,” he said as he watched his niece enthusing after one piece or another with a fond smile on his face. “Find out who that girl with Gordon Talbot is!” He thought it over and decided on a figure he thought would have been about what he would have spent on Alejandra over the past 18 years. “If she is my daughter, I want you to open an account for her and transfer 15 million into it from my personal account.” He heard his brother whistle at the amount. “Plus I want her to inherit all my holdings when she marries or reaches the age of 25. Yes, Enrique,” Ricardo nodded, “I know what I’m doing; preparing to make up for 18 years that were stolen from us.” He saw Alejandra beckoning him over. “Your daughter is ready to choose her birthday gift. I’ll expect this done by tomorrow afternoon.” He hung up and went to his niece, smiling at the necklace she had chosen; a simple golden chain. “You have given me so much, Tio,” Alejandra smiled up at him as he paid for it then put it on her. “Thank you for the lovely gift.” “Are you certain it is enough, Ana?” Ricardo asked her, pleased that she showed a certain restraint in her choice. “It is perfect, Tio,” Alejandra replied, running her fingers along the metal. “I can wear it alone, or add pendants to it.” She went up on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. “Do you have time to join me for lunch?” “I have all the time you wish, Ana,” Ricardo smiled at the girl. He escorted her out to the car and froze as he saw Isabel going into the Grand Theater. Alejandra followed his gaze and frowned as she saw the dark-haired girl. So this was her cousin, Isabel, she thought. She had seen pictures of Cassandra and there was no doubt that the girl belonged to that woman. She wondered if Isabel had her mother’s blue eyes or her father’s deep gray ones. She turned to her uncle and he was still watching his daughter, a look of utter regret on his face. She laid her hand on his arm, reminding him that she was here. He looked at her and smiled. “Ah yes,” he nodded and helped her into the car. “Lunch. Do you wish to go to your favorite place or somewhere new?” “It does not matter, Tio,” Alejandra smiled sweetly up at him. “Any place is special when you are with me.” “You are going to have the boys at St Mark’s tripping over the tongues with such speeches, Ana,” Ricardo laughed down at her. He saw her seated and went to get behind the wheel. He glanced back at the theater but Isabel was already out of sight. He would have to see if he could get tickets to the event tonight. He saw Alejandra’s frown. “It is a very good school. You will do quite well there.” “I know I will, Tio,” Alejandra looked at him. “I shall miss our times together.” “As will I, Ana,” Ricardo smiled at her. They drove to her favorite restaurant, an upscale Tex-Mex, and were seated quickly. He smiled at the waiter and ordered in Spanish. Alejandra did likewise and they turned to continue their conversation in their native tongue. Ricardo frowned as he saw her staring at a table in the corner. He turned and saw Lang Tolliver and a pretty blonde. “Something disturbs you, Ana?” “Don’t we know that young man?” Alejandra asked him. “He looks quite familiar.” “That man?” Ricardo asked, puzzled by her statement. “That is Langston Tolliver. He has just been assigned to the Baltimore FBI office.” He saw her flinch and wondered why this would bother the girl. “His father is my old college roommate, Winston Tolliver.” “The same Winston Tolliver who tried to steal Cassandra Talbot from you all those years ago?” Alejandra asked, even though she already knew the answer. “It amazes me that you are still friends.” “If he had truly loved Cassandra I might have hated him,” Ricardo told her. “But, it was obvious he merely wanted to help her. Her brother, Gordon, was being very domineering. He thought he knew what was best for his sister.” He smiled with relief as their food arrived. “Let us not dwell on what is past. It is time to celebrate your future, Ana.” He raised his wine glass and toasted her. “May all you wish for yourself come to you.” Alejandra smiled and clinked her water glass with his wine glass. If only he knew what she wished. He might not be so eager to want her to have what she wanted. Because it meant that the girl they were holding up to him as his long-lost daughter would become Alejandra’s property. After she had been used to disgrace Ricardo in front of the Council. She kissed her uncle on the cheek and took her Jaguar to a hotel in the suburbs. She went to one of the suites and knocked on the door. Rafael opened it smiled at her warmly as she entered. “Our pretty cousin has finally come out of hiding, hermano,” Alejandra said as she went to pour herself a drink. “I think it’s time we introduced ourselves to her.” “I already have, sister,” Rafael said and saw the surprise on her face. “Father has plans for her, Ana. It is not wise to get in his way.” “It is not Father’s plans you need to worry about,” Alejandra smiled back at him. She saw his look and knew she wasn’t fooling him. “Don’t look at me like that, Rafael. I am not planning on hurting her.” “I’d better come with you,” Rafael frowned. He knew his younger sister too well to believe her assurances. If the girl thought it would suit her plans, she would slit their cousin’s throat without a moment’s hesitation. She was far more like their father than he ever would be. “We’ll take your car.” They went down to Alejandra’s car and drove to the theater. Rafael and Alejandra took seats in the very back and watched as the girl went through her solo for the lighting techs. They were both quite impressed. They had not known that the child was gifted. It made her even more valuable. Once Isabel was through, Alejandra made her way to the dressing rooms. She found Olivia and beckoned to her, noting that the woman was not pleased to see her. “You are to take a room in this motel,” Alejandra told her, handing over the registration information. “My father will be joining you there to discuss your future employment with our organization.” She smiled as she saw Isabel walking past them. “The girl is very talented, Olivia. If she were allowed to train, she would be quite exquisite.” “Too many people have other plans for her,” Olivia frowned. “I’d better go say goodbye or she’ll think something is wrong.” She did not miss the avaricious smile on the young woman’s face. Alejandra was planning something, and it was not to Isabel’s benefit. Olivia entered the dressing room and smiled as Isabel came out of the dressing area. “You were almost flawless, Isabel,” she said to the girl. “Are you certain you want to go to your uncle’s penthouse?” “It’s time for me to be on my own,” Isabel insisted as they made their way out of the theater. She saw the worry on Olivia’s face. “Is something else wrong? You seem almost agitated.” “You’re just a child, Isabel,” Olivia explained her unease away. “I’d feel much better if you let me stay with you until Gordon comes back from his trip.” “Separation anxiety, Olivia?” Rafael laughed as he stepped away from the Jaguar and in front of the pair. He smiled at Isabel. “It is good to see you again, cousin.” “Isabel,” Olivia spoke as Isabel turned to her for some explanation. “You remember Rafael Alvarez. His father, Enrique, may be your uncle.” She saw Alejandra standing in the doorway. “This is Rafael’ sister, Alejandra. They wanted to meet you.” “And I am quite glad to meet them,” Isabel smiled. “But I think you’re rushing to judgment, Olivia,” she frowned over at the woman. “The tests aren’t in yet. I don’t know who my mother is or was.” “We insist you join us for dinner, anyway” Rafael told Isabel as he took her by the elbow. His grip told Isabel he was not going to take no for an answer. “A dancer of your caliber should be spoiled and pampered.” “I would rather go home,” Isabel told the young man. “It’s been a long day and I am tired…” “An hour can make no difference,” Rafael broke in smoothly. He guided her to the passenger seat as Alejandra got in the back. He smiled at the young woman for a moment, noting that she did not trust him. She was a very intuitive young woman. He wondered why he had been so relieved to hear that she was might not be his cousin, after all. “We will go to the restaurant near your residence, if that will ease your worry.” “It would be better if we just ordered something in,” Isabel told him firmly. She didn’t know why she did not trust this man, but she went with her instinct. “Please,” she pleaded with the young man when he started to argue. “I have a performance tomorrow night. I really do need to rest.” Rafael nodded and got behind the wheel. They drove into the underground parking garage for the building Isabel was living in and went up to the penthouse. Rafael froze as a rottweiler came towards them, growling. Isabel smiled to herself and went to the phone to order dinner to be delivered. Then she sent the dog to sit in a corner nearby and sank down on the couch. Oscar would protect her, she knew. And this pair of people would not be able to get her out of the penthouse without raising some kind of alarm. She could see by their expressions that she had circumvented someone’s plans for the evening. Two hours later, her cousins left her alone. “I have someone I need to speak with, hermano,” Alejandra told him as they approached her car. “Can you wait for me in the hotel bar?” She saw him hesitate. “Honestly, Rafe! You’d think I was going to do something monstrous. When did you become so distrustful of me?” “When it was obvious you were doing everything you could to ingratiate yourself to our father,” he told her truthfully. He kissed her on the forehead. “Go talk to your ‘someone,’ hermana. I will be waiting for you at the hotel bar.” Alejandra watched him walk to the stairwell, smiling. He was still so easy to manipulate, even as learned as he was. She went back upstairs and got out on the floor below the Talbot’s penthouse. A tall blonde woman opened the door as Alejandra rang the doorbell; and the woman’s eyes widened in delight. She stepped aside for the girl to enter. Alejandra could feel the woman’s eagerness coming off of her as they sat down in the living room. “You have seen her now, Liza,” Alejandra said coolly as she looked the woman in the eye. “Are you ready to do as I ask?” “Quite happily,” Liza nodded eagerly. “I can’t wait to spend some time with this girl who might be my daughter.” “You will take her with you on an extended cruise,” Alejandra said as she got to her feet and smiled. “A friend of mine will be bringing her to you.” Alejandra saw the woman’s happy smile and hid her reaction. Liza Stoner had been told that it had been her child that had died in the accident with Cassandra. Liza had gone through years of therapy to deal with the loss of her child. Once she had recovered enough, she had resumed her education, discovering that she had a real knack for chemistry. Her father had used this woman’s talents to design some very interesting drugs. As Liza’s time of usefulness was coming to an end, her father had decided to give her a gift. She would be allowed to keep Isabel while Enrique put his brother and Gordon Talbot through hell. * An hour later, the false Lang Tolliver strode into the house of the father of the man he was portraying two hours later, already planning how he would approach the Chambers woman, and walked into the study. Winston Tolliver looked up, shocked, as his youngest son knocked on the doorframe and waited to be acknowledged. He was here for something, Winston knew even without being told. But there was something different about him. Winston didn’t know what that was, but it bothered him that he felt it. He rose to his feet and went to the bar to pour out two whiskeys, holding one out to Jake. His son took it with a nod of thanks and went to sit on the arm of the nearby couch. “I won’t ask why you’re home,” Winston told his son. He smiled and was pleased when Jake returned the expression. “I’m glad you’ve come back, Lang. Things have been pretty dull around here without you.” “Jeff isn’t entertaining you, enough?” Jake replied, asking after his older brother. He took a sip of the whiskey and set the glass down. “He in his room?” “Too early for him to be home,” Winston replied. “Some high-powered sales meeting, if I remember. Your room is ready for you.” “Thanks, Dad,” Jake nodded. He finished the whiskey and left the study. Taking the stairs two at a time, he was in his room in under a minute. He paused at the door and looked around. Nothing had been changed. “Seems like he was just waiting for his son to come back.” His cell phone went off and he answered it. “Lang here.” He smiled as he recognized Alexa’s voice on the other end. “Where?” He nodded. “I’ll be there.” He was down the stairs and striding back into his father’s office. “Dad? Do we still have a box at the Grand Theater?” “Of course,” Winston nodded. “There’s a ballet recital there tonight.” He looked at his son closely. “Since when have you been interested in ballet? Something to do with one of the dancers?” He nodded. “Of course it is.” He lifted the receiver. “John. Lang will need the limousine tonight. He’s going to the ballet.” He snorted at the man’s comment. “Seems our son has found culture during his exile.” “Was that necessary?” Jake asked his father. “John hasn’t had a good laugh since you left,” Winston told his son, smiling. He rose to his feet and came around to lay his hand on Jake’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re home, son. If there is anything I can do to help you with your investigation, just let me know.” “Thanks, Dad,” Jake nodded. He thought about it. “You could come with me, sir. It might lend more credence to my presence there.” “Of course, son,” Winston’s smile widened. “I would like to see the girl you’re chasing.” “Not so much chasing,” Jake replied, “as rescuing.” He headed out of the study. “Meet you outside in 15?” “Make it 20,” Winston answered. “I’m not as young as I used to be.” Jake nearly laughed at that. At 55, this man was still as energetic as a man half his age. He had taken an early retirement from their firm, leaving his oldest son Jefferson in charge, but he still acted as Chairman of the Board and served on the boards of several charitable foundations. Winston also taught an advanced course in Finance at the local college. Jake took a quick shower and pulled a tuxedo out of the closet. He remembered the last time he had seen the real Lang wear it and smiled asimages of the man’s sister, Vanessa’s, wedding flooded into his mind. Pretty women, the Tolliver twins. He headed down the stairs and came face to face with the older brother, Jeff, coming in from his sales meeting. Jeff was a bit broader of shoulder and face than Lang, but otherwise they both strongly resembled their father. “Lang.” “Jeff.” “Father tells me you’re going to the Ballet tonight,” Jeff nearly laughed. “Mind if I come along? I’d like to see what effect culture has on you.” “As long as you keep your hands to yourself,” Jake told him, relieved that there had been no uneasiness or suspicion in either of the Tolliver men. “The dancers in this recital are all under 20. Their mothers will all be there.” Jeff nodded and turned on his heel to go to the limousine. Jake shook his head, wondering when this man had gotten so lax. Jeff had been one of the best in their squad; nothing got past him. Despite the fact that the two men had accepted him, Jake had a feeling he was in for a rough night of dancing around these two. Twenty minutes later, they arrived at the theater. They made their way to the family box just as the lights went down. The first half hour was excruciating as the youngest dancers performed corps pieces for the audience. But then it was her turn; the girl he had been sent to befriend. Jake leaned forward and watched the girl as she moved out to take position. When she moved, he was instantly entranced. All thought of his task fled from his mind. He wanted this girl. “Is that who I think it is?” Winston exclaimed softly. “My God; she looks just like her.” He looked over at his youngest son. “She’s the one you’re here for, isn’t she?” “Lang?” Jeff nudged his brother, who was sitting there with his mouth hanging open. He was acting like a hormonal teenager, Jeff thought. He couldn’t blame him; the girl was very beautiful. “Father asked you a question.” “I need to meet her,” Jake said as the dance ended and Isabel moved off the stage. “Now.” Winston and Jeff exchanged puzzled glances as Jake hurried out of the box. Neither of them had ever seen Jake effected by a woman like that. They had to admit that the girl was talented, and she was very pretty, but he had been as one under a spell. They got to their feet and hurried after him. Jake was being prevented from going backstage by a large tall man with dark skin and long dark hair. The man’s scowl died and became a wide, welcoming smile as he saw Winston. “Mr. Tolliver!” Simon Tremont beamed. “What a pleasure!” “We would like to meet that pretty child who just danced, Simon,” Winston told the man. “This is my son, Langston,” he introduced Jake to the theater manager. “Lang, this is Simon Tremont.” “This ill-mannered pup is yours?” Simon sniffed as he looked at Jake. “He certainly doesn’t take after you in manners.” He relented at Winston’s look. “Very well. If you can get past her guardian, the girl is in Dressing Room 4. Her name is Isabel Chambers.” Winston nodded and laid his hand on Jake’s shoulder. Something in his manner had Jake obeying as his father swept through first. He and Jeff followed. Winston knocked on the door and it was opened. The woman who stood there turned white as a sheet as she recognized the man standing there. Here was one of the men who had caused her heartache when she was a young girl. She hid her dismay and put on her most charming smile. “Winston!” Olivia practically purred as she greeted her old college friend. “What a pleasure to see you again.” “Olivia,” Winston nodded to the woman, hiding his displeasure as he recognized her. “My sons and I would like you and your lovely daughter to join us at supper. Jeff. Langston. This is Olivia Mayer Chambers. She and I went to college together.” Olivia looked from him to his two sons and her eyes widened. They looked just like their father! They were both handsome young men and, if reports were correct, both quite independently wealthy thanks to their family holdings, and inheritances from their mother. And it was obvious from the way that both of them kept looking past her that each was already smitten with Isabel. A plan began to form in her mind then. The Tollivers had been used before to keep Cassandra safe, she would solicit their help to keep Isabel safe. She smiled widely and stepped aside. “Please come in, gentlemen,” she said softly “Isabel is almost ready.” The Tolliver men came into the dressing room and waited with Olivia. Three minutes later, Isabel came out of the dressing area. She froze as she saw the strangers and Jeff did not like the wary look on her face. No one this young should be so frightened. The girl did not relax until her mother had introduced them. Then her eyes met Jake’s and he lost his heart completely. From the softness in her expression, he could see that she was feeling something as well. Jeff looked from his brother to the girl and frowned. He couldn’t believe it! That glorious blue-eyed girl had already met Lang? There was something about the way she was looking at his younger brother that disturbed him, as much as the fact that Lang had acted as if he had never seen the girl before in his life. Something was going on with his brother that he suddenly had to know about. “I just received the list of new students,” Winston said a half hour later as he pulled a chair out for Olivia. “I should have made the connection.” He smiled over at Isabel, who was sitting down while Jeff pulled her chair out for her. “You’re coming to Glenwood Prep next semester?” “Olivia thought it would be a better choice than the local community college,” Isabel frowned. Then she realized what he had said. “You have something to do with Glenwood, Mr. Tolliver?” “Our family founded the school 150 years ago,” Winston nodded proudly. “You will receive a very good education there, Isabel. My son, Jeff, and I are on the Board, and Langston is going to begin teaching this semester; classes in Self-Defense and Pre-Law.” He looked very proud as he said this. “Langston passed the bar exam on his first try.” “I’ve heard that it’s almost impossible to do that,” Olivia smiled over at the younger Tolliver politely. “So you’ve opted to teach instead of look for a position with a law firm.” “He’s weighing his options,” Winston broke in, not liking the expression on Olivia’s face. It was as if his son had been relegated to second-class citizen. “Langston has five firms vying for him.” He turned to Isabel and knew that Olivia heard his snub. “So what are you planning on studying, Isabel?” “It’s only her freshman year,” Olivia spoke up before Isabel could. “She’s not ready to commit to a field of study just yet.” Jeff could see that Isabel was upset by her mother’s assumptions. He felt anger growing in him at the way this woman kept her daughter on such a short leash. He hid his unease as he realized suddenly that the girl had not addressed Olivia as ‘mother,’ but by her given name. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly as Olivia and Isabel got to know the Tolliver men. They dropped Isabel off and she went up to the penthouse. Oscar did not greet her as she entered and she frowned. She went to check out his usual places and found him sleeping in the study. “Oscar, it’s time for your walk,” Isabel said as she crouched down near him. The dog did not wake up and she frowned. “Oscar?” “He’s been given a little something to keep him out of the way,” Roger Hancock said from the doorway. He watched as she rose gracefully from the crouch and turned to face him. “You and I need to talk.” “How did you get in here, Mr. Hancock?” Isabel demanded. She watched as he came into the room and close the door. “I want you to leave…” “We have a little business to conduct first,” Roger broke in as he put on a pair of surgical gloves. He caught her arm as she started to reach for the phone. He wrenched her arm up behind her back, enjoying the pain in her eyes. “Your uncle isn’t here to protect you now, girl.” “Let me go!” Isabel screamed and struck out at him with her free arm. She heard the slap strike and the man cry out in anger. Then she was pinned up against the wall, both of her arms held up above her head. Roger struck her and she fell to her knees, stunned. Roger opened a desk drawer and pulled out a roll of duct tape. He yanked her to her feet and shoved her up against the wall. She tried to break free as he taped her wrists together. She was screaming then. He struck her again. Then he shoved a handkerchief into her mouth and taped it in place. Roger took a needle out of his pocket and injected the drug into her vein. “It is good you won’t remember what is happening to you, child,” Roger said as he stroked her cheek, and saw the fear in her eyes. He ran his hand slowly along her arm, enjoying the look of fear in her eyes. “Your ‘mother’ should have kept you hidden.” He froze as someone knocked on the door. He shoved Isabel down on the couch. “You make any noise at all, and I’ll kill whoever is at the door. Do you understand?” Isabel nodded and he left. She didn’t wait. She was on her feet, and at the desk looking for a pair of scissors. She was pulling them out when the door opened. Roger came over and slammed the drawer shut. Then he slapped her and she fell. As he came at her again, she brought the scissors up and hit him in the arm. He grabbed them and pulled them out, his eyes blazing with rage. He clamped his hands around her throat, too angry now to remember his orders. Isabel struggled to free herself, but the sedative took over and she passed out. The last thing she saw was Roger being yanked off of her. “What have you done?” Hank roared as he shoved the man aside and picked Isabel up. He set her down on the couch as Rafael came in. “You were right, Doctor. Isabel was in trouble.” “I’ll see to her,” Rafael said as he picked up the scissors and removed the gag and tape. He looked her over and saw she was sleeping. “He sedated her,” he told the man in relief. “I don’t think she’ll need to be hospitalized.” He glared at Roger. “Do you think you can see to that piece of trash?” “With pleasure, Doctor,” Hank nodded. He shoved Roger out into the hall where the police were just arriving. “He tried to assault Miss Chambers” Hank said as he left them to take over. “She’s with a doctor right now, under sedation.” “Someone will be around in the morning to speak with her,” the officer nodded. “Come on, sir.” * Gordon was just coming out of the last meeting of the day when the hotel concierge walked up to him with an envelope. He smiled his thanks and opened the envelope. His roar of anger caught the attention of the other Directors gathered for the annual meeting. One of them picked up the envelope Gordon had dropped. He and another took Gordon to a back booth in the hotel bar and ordered drinks. They didn’t say a word until Gordon had finished the first drink. Stephen Brewster from Atlanta, and Henry Carstairs from Boston, had known Gordon many years. They knew the signs and knew that Gordon’ anger was building towards the white hot. They couldn’t blame him. If what the letter said was true, his niece had just been abducted. “How can you have a niece?” Stephen asked him, trying to defuse the anger before Gordon did something stupid. “Your sisters…” “One died from the complications of child birth,” Gordon broke in, allowing himself to calm down only slightly. “Both of their children disappeared from the hospital nursery.” “We’ll put the alert out, Gordon,” Henry spoke up, laying his hand on his friend’s arm. Gordon looked at him. “We’ll get the child back for you.” “No,” Gordon shook his head. “Let me check this out first.” He looked at his friends and calmed down a bit more. He dialed his penthouse and was surprised when Rafael answered. “Rafael? What are you doing there?” He frowned as he heard what the doctor had to tell him. “Thank God, you were there to stop it! Is she all right?” He nodded. “That’s good. You keep her with you, Rafael.” He hung up and looked relieved. “The kidnapping attempt failed. A friend of the family happened to be visiting, thought he saw something wrong, and had the security guard go up to the penthouse with him.” He saw his friends looking at him. “I’ll let you know if I need your help.” “Gordon!” Henry exclaimed. “Someone tried to abduct your niece. You have to let us help you figure out if it went further than the one man.” “Gordon knows what he is doing.” Ricardo Alvarez nodded to the men who were seated by his friend as he joined them. “If you will excuse us, senors, Gordon and I have much to discuss.” He frowned as the two men balked at his request. “This does not involve either of you,” he said coldly, “yet.” The men left and Ricardo slid into the seat Henry had vacated. “They contacted you as well?” he said as he slid an envelope across the table to Gordon. “It is obvious they know us well enough to know where we could be found, mi amigo.” He turned towards the bar. “Keep the drinks coming until we say halt.” “Rafael stopped the man before he could hurt her, Ricardo,” Gordon told him simply. He saw the relief in Ricardo’s eyes. “It was Roger Hancock.” “The attorney?” Ricardo was astounded. “Why would he got to such lengths to hurt Isabel.” He was growing agitated. “We have to find out why he did this!” “And we will, Ricardo,” Gordon nodded firmly. He picked up the letter that Ricardo had received and the anger returned as he saw an almost word for word duplicate of the one he had just received. “How did they know to contact you? Only a few people could know that Isabel could masquerade as your daughter.” His eyes narrowed as he thought of one. “Olivia Chambers?” “You think that witch involved in this?” “She has to know something,” Gordon replied. “Isabel couldn’t have been left on her doorstep anonymously. It’s a long shot, I admit…” “But it is something,” Ricardo nodded. He downed his drink and rose to his feet. “Allow me to hunt this lead down, mi amigo. There is much I would say to the Chambers woman.” He saw Gordon’ hesitation. “I will not harm the woman. When I have learned what she knows, I will bring her to you.” The phone rang and he answered it. “Si?” His expression darkened as he heard his brother’s voice. “They delivered a note to me at my meeting in DC, hermano. I am with Senor Talbot now. No,” he snapped, “there is no FBI involvement at this point as the attempt failed. The security in the building stopped it.” He hung up the phone and looked at Gordon. “The kidnappers were covering all their bases. They delivered a duplicate of this note,” he held up the offending document as if it were covered in something vile, “to my home.” “And your brother took it upon himself to open it?” “My brother opens all of my mail,” Ricardo shrugged. “In that way, he learns which are more for him to deal with.” He finished his first drink and looked at Gordon. “You have had a chance to be with the child, amigo. Tell me your impressions of her.” “She looks a lot like Cassandra,” Gordon said softly, “but she has more of Liza’s sweet temperament. It is also quite obvious that she is a very intelligent young woman.” He looked at Ricardo, and saw the man’s expression. He was thinking of Cassandra. “I would be happy if she did turn out to be your daughter, Ricardo, but if she does not, she is still a Talbot” Ricardo looked at him and he smiled. “Isabel is quite determined to make a life for herself.” “Then we must see to it that she gets the chance,” Ricardo nodded. He slammed the glass down on the table and rose to his feet. “I think we should take the rest of this conversation to some place more private.” He did not need to look around to know that every FBI Director in the place was looking their way. He also knew that they would all be calling their offices to have them prepare to step in if needed. “Come, amigo. I have the penthouse suite in this fine building.” Jake watched from the corner as Ricardo Alvarez and Gordon Talbot left the bar. He smiled and left the building. They would drink themselves silly and then call in their troops to begin the hunt. He hadn’t really expected the Director to roll over and give in to the kidnappers demands. It was time for a little incentive to be given to him. He got in his rental and drove out into the seedier suburbs of the town. He parked in front of an old townhouse and walked in. A long-legged brunette rose from the couch and approached him. He kissed her warmly and enjoyed the way she melted into him. Their reunion was ended as the phone rang. He heard the news and frowned. He decided to go ahead with the ploy he had designed, just in case. “Do you have what I asked for, Brenna?” “A duplicate of the sweet Isabel?” The woman smiled up at him and became all business. “She is waiting for you upstairs.” Jake smiled and went upstairs. A man was waiting for him in the corner. He had a camcorder in his hands. Jake nodded and took the device from him. Then he watched as the man approached the bed removing his shirt slowly. He kept his back to the camera so that he couldn’t be identified. The girl lying bound on the bed looked up and Jake nodded. Her eyes had been blindfolded and there was a gag in her mouth, to hide her true features from those who would be sent the film. She was wearing Isabel’s clothing, however, and her skin color was a nearly exact match for the girl this woman was supposed to be. He picked up the wig that was as close a twin to Isabel’s hair and put it on the woman. Jake nodded and the man began the act. “Your uncle is not cooperating, girl!” the man hissed as Kelly began the records. The man laid his hand on the girl’s leg. “We’re going to have to convince him.” He tightened his hold on her leg and the girl winced in pain. She began to shake her head in obvious fear as the man’s hands moved up her body. “If he doesn’t deliver that file by tomorrow midnight,” the man laughed as he ripped her blouse open and used a knife to cut her bra open, “he will find you a bit worse for this experience.” He pressed the tip of his knife into the skin above her breast and she was not faking the screams as he began to carve his initials into her. “You see that, Gordon Talbot,” the man laughed as he backed away and all that could be seen was the girl with the bloody initials carved into her skin. “I have given your pretty niece something to remember me by! You have your deadline. You fail to meet it and we will return her to you fit only for a sanitarium!” Jake turned off the camera and nodded. He pulled two envelopes out of his pocket and handed one to the man. He nodded and left. As Lang untied the woman, he heard the squeal of tires and then a thud. The street was filled with sounds of alarm as people came running. He finished untying the girl and helped her sit up. Nell removed the wig and warm brown hair tinged with copper glowed in the light of the nearby lamp. She looked up at Jake as he removed the fake skin to reveal her unmarked flesh. “I would have had to kill him if he had marked you for real, my pet,” Jake smiled down at the woman. He kissed her and she moved closer to him. “A very convincing performance. I was quite moved.” He moved away from her with great reluctance. “We can not be here when the authorities arrive,” he told the pouting woman. “We will continue this at a later time, yes?” “Count on it, husband,” Nell smiled warmly as she removed the clothing and handed it over to him. He set it aside and took her into his arms. “I take it we have the time?” “Hancock failed,” Jake told her and saw the shock on her face. “We’ll have to put our part in this on hold for awhile.” He smiled warmly as he ran his hand along her arm. “I’m certain we can find something to occupy our time until then.” * The next evening, Alejandra joined one of her men downstairs and they went to the private marina in Annapolis. Rafael was waiting beside her Jaguar, a look of censure on his face. He tapped his watch and she realized that he was angry because she was late for their weekly dinner with Papa. She relaxed slightly and looked up at her handsome older brother. It was a good thing he was so handsome, Alejandra thought, because he was completely oblivious. He would never know what he was not going to have. Enrique would never entrust the organization to him. “You’re up to something, hermana,” he said as they went into the restaurant and sat down by the windows. “Anything to do with Isabel’s near abduction?” “How could I know anything about that, hermano?” Alejandra asked innocently. She could see that he was not convinced and it saddened her. Was she going to have to deal with her own brother? She picked up the menu and hid behind it. “What looks good to you?” “Ana!” Rafael hissed as he lowered the menu so he could look at her. “If you know more about what nearly happened to her, you must tell…” “I have no idea what you are talking about,” Alejandra pouted. “How could you even think I would be a part of any plan to harm that sweet girl?” She saw their father coming to join them. “Papa!” she called out and waved him over. “We are over here.” Rafael watched her for a moment more and let it go. If Alejandra had done something, it would be revealed. He only hoped that Isabel never had to learn firsthand what a heartless little bitch his sister was becoming. He sat back and listened with only half an ear as his father and sister talked. If either of them noted his silence, he would have been surprised. It had been obvious to him for some time that his father doted on Alejandra. Rafael seemed to be a source of disappointment. Rafael didn’t mind; he wanted nothing to do with his father. He only regretted that his sister did not see through their father. “We need to find you a woman, hijo,” his father’s voice broke through Rafael’ reverie. “There is a Council meeting tomorrow night. We have decided that you will all attend.” He saw his son’s stubborn look. “You will join us, hijo.” When Rafael hesitated, his eyes narrowed. “I know you are not on duty. I took the liberty of checking your duty roster.” “I have already found myself a woman, Father,” Rafael shot back coldly. “You can ask Alejandra about her. Her name is Isabel.” He dropped his napkin on the plate and rose to his feet. “If she proves to be Dr. Stoner’s daughter, I plan to pursue her.” “You would ally yourself to the daughter of a madwoman?” Enrique exclaimed. “It is not a union I would approve, hijo.” “I think I have proven over and over,” Rafael hissed, and rose to his feet, “just how little I care for what you think, Father. I have things I need to see to,” he said as he stepped away from the table. “I’ll see you tomorrow night,” he added as he saw his father’s expression. “Maybe you can spend your time finding a man for your daughter.” “Your brother is being more difficult than usual,” Enrique said as he turned to Alejandra. He saw the cold look on her face. “Did you two have a disagreement before I arrived?” “Nothing more than usual,” Alejandra replied, turning to smile up at him. “Let us not speak of him. He is a spoilsport. Tell me, Papa,” she continued, feigning concern, “how did Hancock fail? Everything was planned to the last detail.” “We forgot to take steps against sudden change,” Enrique frowned. “Talbot was having the security guard check on her at least once every night.” His expression was dark as he thought of the girl. “If anything happens to that child now, Ricardo will have the head of every person responsible.” “Don’t worry, Papa,” Alejandra smiled up at him, feigning concern. “I am certain that we can find some other way to bring Isabel to us.” “From your lips to God’s ears, hija,” Enrique nodded. He lifted her hand to his lips. “You are such a good girl.” “I would do anything to see her brought into the family, Papa,” Alejandra smiled back at him, enjoying their little game. “She must repay you for the happy childhood your money gave her.” “Your brother has formed an attachment to her, hija,” Enrique frowned, wondering how this might change their plans for the girl. “You met her. Is she worthy of him?” “The better question, I think, would be,” Alejandra replied, “is he worthy of her?” Enrique smiled at her fondly. This little viper was his child! She was quickly becoming a real credit to his name. Unlike her brother, Alejandra had a real grasp of what was required for a person to succeed in their business. When he was ready to step aside, she would be a force to be reckoned with. He thought about Isabel a moment and almost felt sorry for the child. She was always going to be the pawn in such games. But it was what he had designed her for when he had stolen her from the hospital and turned her over to Olivia Chambers. Isabel would serve him in ways he would never allow his daughter to experience. He finished his wine and rose to his feet. “I hate to cut this short, mi angel,” Enrique said as he walked with Alejandra to her car, ‘but I have an old friend I need to speak to.” “Give her my regards, Papa,” Alejandra smiled coldly, knowing full well who her father was going to see. Enrique nodded and watched her drive off in a cloud of dust. He went to the limousine and was taken to one of the warehouses. There, he changed into simple clothing and put on a cap to hide his features. He took the keys of a battered old sedan from the foreman and drove out of town. He pulled into the parking lot of the Knight’s Inn in Laurel, Maryland half an hour later and parked in front of the room along the back row of buildings. He knocked on the door to the end room and a man opened it for him. Olivia was tied to a chair, her face already bruising from the ‘talk’ the man had been having with her. “You were meant to keep her away from her uncle and her father, woman,” Enrique said as he removed the cap and looked at her coldly. “Why did you betray me in this?” “I did not betray you,” Olivia cried, her eyes wide with fear. “It has worked to your advantage. She was there to see the file,” she told him. “If Talbot fails to deliver, she can tell you what was in it.” She saw his look of confusion, and wondered how he could not have known. “You did not know? Isabel has a photographic memory and total recall. If she read the file, she will recall it.” “But this depends on her having read the file,” Enrique frowned. He was glad now he had insisted that Sebastian question the girl. He decided to give Olivia a reprieve. She had given him some very useful information. “Very well, woman. I will allow you to continue to serve.” He nodded to the man. He nodded to his man and was handed a journal. He dropped it on the table in front of Olivia. “I believe this is yours?” “It is,” Olivia nodded. “What do you want?” “I need you to make some additions to your journal, woman,” Enrique told her bluntly as his men untied her and helped her to the desk. “It must appear that you were targeting my brother,” he continued coolly. “Planning to foist a false child on him and claim it was his daughter.” He saw her flinch. “I know it was not your idea, Olivia.” He smiled as Hancock was dragged into the room. “The man was quite vocal about his desire to make such a plot.” He handed her a pen. “This is what you shall write.” When she had done as he asked, he laughed and left the room with her and his men. His men made Roger ‘comfortable’ and the man glared at him. It really didn’t matter what the man had been plotting, he was going to be dead quite soon. His men had rigged the gas lines to blow. In half an hour he, and several other guests of this motel, would be dead. No one would find out anything from this man. He was smiling as he and his men drove back to the warehouse and he removed his disguise. He returned to his home extremely satisfied. Olivia watched him closely, wondering just how far he was going to go to keep his mad plan going. “Now that the business has been concluded,” Enrique smiled as he came to her, “we can see to some pleasure. Si?” He kissed Olivia and felt her melt into him. He picked her up in his arms and carried her to the bed. “You have earned a place among us, Olivia.” “What are you planning now, Enrique?” Olivia asked as the man began to remove her clothing. “You have been without a man for 18 years,” Enrique smiled at her. “I have decided to make you my wife.” He ran his fingers over her lips, enjoying the shock in her eyes. “As long as you continue to please me, I will let you live.” * Sebastian went to Liza Stoner’s penthouse and introduced himself as a friend of the Alvarez family. She let him in and he looked around the place, impressed. This woman had excellent taste. He accepted her offer of a drink and left her to decide what to bring him. He was astonished when she chose his favorite, and that it was hers as well. This woman was meant for him. It was too bad that he was about to do something against her and her child. Liza settled down on the couch across from him and waited until they had finished their drinks. “The family wishes to invite you and Isabel on a cruise,” Sebastian told her once he set aside his drink. “They are eager to learn, as you are, whose daughter she truly is.” “I haven’t been allowed access to her yet,” Liza told him truthfully. “My brother thought I should wait until my husband…” “Such things should not wait,” Sebastian broke in. “You have every right to meet this child. She is your family.” He pointed to the phone. “You should call her and ask her down.” He saw Liza hesitate. “You have a right, Doctor.” Liza nodded, seeing his point. The man was right. Isabel was as much her family if she were a niece. She should not be kept away from her. She knew Gordon was only trying to protect them both, but this was important. She picked up the receiver and watched the man move off to give her a bit of privacy. He was very solicitous, she thought as she dialed the number. When the call was made, she went towards the door, excited. Isabel had agreed to meet with her. Three minutes later, the girl was knocking on the door. She came in and froze as she saw the man. This couldn’t be her father, surely. He wasn’t expected until later. “Isabel,” Liza said as she noted the girl’s uneasiness, “this is Senor Guerrero. He is a friend of the Alvarez family. He has been sent to invite us on a cruise, so you may get to know them.” “This is a very sudden invitation,” Isabel replied, looking at the man warily. “I should wait until I can ask Uncle Gordon…” “We’ll call him from the ship, darling,” Liza broke in, eager to be alone with the girl. She saw Isabel still was not convinced. “It will give us a chance to get to know each other, Isabel. You’d like that wouldn’t you?” “Yes, but…” “No one is going to hurt you, child,” Sebastian broke in, feeling her distress. He really couldn’t blame her. “I will see to your protection personally.” “I don’t know you, Senor,” Isabel told him bluntly. She could see Liza’s face fall and knew the woman was upset. Liza left the room and she was sorry she had to make her feel this way. “You understand, don’t you?” “You are a very wise young woman,” Sebastian nodded his head to her. “I am certain that there will be other opportunities to spend time with Doctor Stoner.” He watched the woman return with a cup of tea. “Please join us for a few moments at least,” he smiled as he went to the bar and poured himself another drink. Liza sat down and took the tea Liza handed to her. It was sweetened with honey, she noted. She sipped at it and found it a pleasant blend. Liza smiled and sat back on the couch. Isabel continued to drink her tea, listening to the conversation between Liza and the man. Every once in a while they would turn to ask her something about herself. She felt very welcome. A few moments later, she began to feel very weary. She set the empty cup on the coffee table and got up to go. The room spun around her and she looked at Liza in shock as she fell back down on the couch. “I couldn’t let her say no,” Liza told the stunned man. “This is important; this cruise.” She took the cup back into the kitchen and rinsed it out. She hated the thought of drugging the girl, but this trip was what she and Isabel both needed. “I have a feeling you weren’t going to let her refuse, Senor.” “You are a very perceptive woman,” Sebastian nodded. He picked Isabel up in his arms and carried her to the freight elevator. “You are coming?” Liza nodded and followed him. They took the elevator to the parking level and he laid Isabel on the back seat of Liza’s car and covered the girl with a blanket. Liza drove off happily. The girl was in her hands now, and soon she would find out if she had a daughter or a niece. Taking her this way might be wrong, but it was necessary. Sebastian told her where to go and she followed his direction without question. She parked in the lot by the cruise ship waiting at the port. Sebastian carried Isabel and Liza followed him, her mind filled withimages of how life would be now that one of the missing children had been found. * The next morning, Jeff was at work in the offices of Tolliver Enterprises. His mind kept replayingimages from the night before. He could see Morgan’s eyes sparking with joy; heard her sweet laughter. How could one look, one evening, have engrained that beautiful woman in his mind so completely? He had fought his father’s suggestion that he get to know her; he wasn’t ready to date. Jeff was glad now that he had let himself be talked into the blind date. He heard the intercom buzz and pressed the button. His eyes widened as he heard whose call his secretary was announcing. “Go ahead Director Talbot,” he said as his father came into the office and sat down. “My father is here with me.” “We found Roger Hancock,” Gordon told them. “Or rather, what remained of him.” He sighed in frustration. “He died in a motel in Laurel as the result of an explosion caused by a gas leak.” There was silence all around as each man thought of what this changed in their hunt for Isabel. “Of course, we know the explosion was intentional.” “Who do you think took Isabel?” Jeff asked the man. “If not Hancock?” “He was obviously working with someone,” Gordon replied. “But since only his prints were found in the penthouse, and he is dead, we are at a loss.” “Hang in there, my friend,” Winston told the man. The line went dead and he turned to his son. He saw Jeff pulling his coat on. “Going somewhere, son?” “Morgan and I are going out to lunch,” Jeff smiled briefly. “That’s a good woman, son,” Winston nodded. He had met Morgan Forrester once and been quite impressed. “Careful how you handle her.” Jeff nodded and left the office. He picked Morgan up at the Federal Building and took her to the Country Club. He was entertaining, and unfailingly attentive and, as he began to unbend. Morgan was quite pleased. When Gordon had suggested that she get to know Jeff Tolliver, she had balked. Her husband had only been dead a year, after all; killed in the line of duty. She hadn’t believed herself ready to date. But there was something about Jeff that put her completely at ease. It was as if they had been friends forever. She would have to remember to thank Gordon. “How is Gordon doing?” Jeff asked as they started to leave. “Are there any leads at all as to where his niece has gone?” “Nothing concrete,” Morgan told him sadly. “All of the witnesses who swear they’ve seen her don’t pan out. It’s almost as if the people who took her are planting false clues to keep us off their trail.” “That’s quite possible,” Jeff nodded. “The longer they keep you off the trail, the more control they have over Gordon.” “It won’t work,” Morgan told him fervently. “Gordon is not going to stop until he has her back!” She looked at her watch. “I’d better get back to the office. I don’t want to keep you from your work.” “You could keep me from it forever if you wanted to, Morgan,” Jeff said softly. He saw her flinch and knew he’d pushed it too fast. This woman was unlike any other woman he had ever dated; he didn’t want to frighten her off. He got to his feet and came around the table to pull her chair out. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He led her out to the front and a valet brought around his Mercedes. As he helped her inside he saw Ricardo Alvarez across the street. “Are you certain I can’t interest you in a tour of the museum?” Morgan looked as if she might take him up on his offer, but then she shook her head. He gave up; there was time. He stopped in front of the Federal Building and remained park in front until he saw her disappear inside. As he turned the key in the ignition, one of Alvarez’ men got in the passenger seat. “Mr. Alvarez wishes to speak with you, Mr. Tolliver,” Marco told him bluntly. He had no gun, but he didn’t need one. No one ever refused a summons from Ricardo Alvarez. “He is on his yacht.” Jeff drove to the marina and parked in the lot at the end of the ramp. He accompanied Marco aboard and watched as Ricardo got to his feet. He offered Jeff a drink and he shook his head. He knew the man well enough to know better than to accept. Ricardo nodded and sank back down on the couch. He waited until Jeff had seated himself and then he waved Marco off. “I want you to speak to Gordon Talbot, Jeff,” he said without preamble. “He must assure me that the child will be found alive.” “He isn’t going to stop until he does just that, Mr. Alvarez,” Jeff told the man. He looked at the man closely. “You don’t know who took her?” “There are very few who know that she may not be my child, Jeff,” Ricardo told him bluntly. “If I knew who had taken her, I would not be here speaking with you.” “You need to talk to Gordon yourself, Mr. Alvarez,” Jeff said, suddenly very uneasy, “All he knows is that his niece was attacked and then abducted.” He got to his feet. “I have to go now; I have a business to run.” “But of course, Jeff,” Ricardo nodded. “Give my regards to your father. Tell him I miss our chess games.” Jeff nodded and left, feeling as if he had just been playing a chess game with Ricardo. Who was the pawn, however? He didn’t like being made to feel at such a disadvantage. He returned to the office and spent the rest of the day trying to concentrate on his work. His mind, however, seemed determined to return to the time he had just spent with Morgan. He was smiling when the door opened and his father walked in. Winston stopped short as the sight. He hadn’t seen a smile on his son’s face in a very long time and had begun to regret leaving the business to his son at such a young age. “Obviously your luncheon went well,” Winston smiled as he saw Jeff acknowledge his presence. He saw the look on Jeff’s face and knew it was time to change the subject. He turned and looked around his old office as he drank it. “You know you could make changes in here, if you wanted to.” “It’s fine the way it is, Father,” Jeff answered. He leaned back in his chair and waited. His father hadn’t come here to chat. “Why did you really come see me, Father?” “You went to see Ricardo Alvarez,” his father finally spoke out the reason for his visit. “How did that go?” “He asked me to tell you that he misses your chess games,” Jeff told his father, wondering what that meant. He had never seen his father play chess in his life. He saw his father’s expression and knew only the truth would do. “He was also very interested to hear what I knew about the investigation into Isabel’s disappearance,” Jeff told him honestly. He had no reason to lie; his father knew the history. “I shudder to think what her life would have been like if Alvarez had gotten his hooks into her.” “Despite the fact that he is a shark in the business world,” Winston said as he poured another drink, “Ricardo would treat any child of his like a princess.” He downed the drink and looked at the stunned expression on his son’s face. “Yes, I realize that he had to kidnap Cassandra in order to create that child, but he did love her.” “But she was going to marry you, Father,” Jeff argued, remembering how he had looked forward to having the woman as his new mother. “Didn’t she love you?” “She accepted me,” Winston told him. “I always had the distinct impression that she was marrying me to get away from her brother’s bullying. I mistook the joy of being her protector for something more.” He looked at his watch. “It’s time for the board meeting, son. Are you ready?” “As ready as ever,” Jeff replied. He got up and accompanied his father to the elevators. As he passed Alison’s desk, she held out the folder of documents he needed for the meeting. He smiled at her efficiency and moved into the elevator with his father. Alison watched them go, regretting for a moment the fact that she had a loving husband and four children waiting for her every night at home. Only for a moment, however; remembering how it had been Winston Tolliver who had introduced her to her Brian in the first place. * Isabel woke up and frowned a moment as she did not recognize the room she was in. She was in a hotel room? Where had she been taken? Why had she been taken? She heard water running and guessed it to be Liza, using the shower. She got out of bed and looked around, and realized she was on a ship, as she looked out the window and saw only water beyond. Where was she being taken? Liza came out of the shower, drying her hair with a thick towel. “You should get ready, child,” Liza told her as she continued to move. “We’re eating at the Captain’s table this evening.” She saw Isabel’s hesitation and frowned. “Don’t be angry with me, Isabel. I had to get you alone for a while.” “Did you at least tell Uncle Gordon about this?” Isabel asked as she went towards the bathroom for a shower. She saw Liza’s expression and was shocked. “He’s going to think you kidnapped me, Liza!” “I did kidnap you, Isabel,” Liza said unapologetically. “Now hurry, we can’t keep our host waiting.” Isabel knew that she had no choice. She was on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Even if she got out of the cabin, where would she go? She took her shower and got dressed, wondering at the gowns inside the closet. Half of them were in her size. The invitation may have been last minute, but it was obvious that it had been planned for some time. “You look wonderful, darling,” Liza told her as she came out of the closet. “You look like Cassandra did on prom night.” “I wish I could have had a prom night,” Isabel sighed. She looked at herself in the simple sapphire blue one shouldered gown and had to admit she looked nice. “Maybe when we get home, I can start having a normal life.” “We’ll see to it, Isabel,” Liza nodded firmly. She tried to embrace Isabel, but the girl moved away from her. Liza could see that the girl was angry with her. It would take some time for Isabel to forgive her for what she had done. “If you’re ready then,” Liza said as she got them both shawls, “we will go.” Isabel nodded and they left the stateroom. Two men, obviously guards, fell in behind them as they made their way to the Captain’s table. The Captain, an older man with flame red hair and deep green eyes rose to his feet and bowed over each of their hands gallantly. He saw them seated on either side of his chair. He had noticed them and the man who hovered around them and decided he was going to do everything he could to keep the women safe. That was why Sebastian Guerrero was given a seat at the other end of the table. “You are both looking very beautiful tonight,” he told them both. “I am undone.” “You are a nice man,” Liza said to him and he feigned being wounded. She leaned forward. “I’m a married woman, Captain,” she smiled up at him. “Your attentions do my old heart good.” “Then rest assured, Dr. Stoner,” Captain MacGregor smiled, “I will see to it that you receive a lot of attention. Purely for medical reasons.” He raised his glass and rose to his feet. “A toast!” Everyone rose with him, glasses ready. He nodded to the two women beside him. “To the most beautiful women aboard.” “That was a bit over the top, wasn’t it, Captain?” Isabel blushed as they sat down. She saw Sebastian scowling at the man. “He is not a nice man.” “All the more reason for me to see that he stays away from you, Ms. Chambers,” Captain MacGregor smiled at her. God, she was so beautiful, he thought. He got control of his wayward thoughts by reminding himself that he was old enough to be her grandfather, and spent the rest of the evening regaling Isabel and Liza with stories of past cruises. They were both quite amused. “And that,” he finished his last story with a wide grin, “is how we saved the vessel.” He looked up as a shadow crossed his plate. “Yes, Senor Guerrero?” “Isabel has promised me a dance,” Sebastian said as he pulled the girl’s chair out for her. He held his hand out to her and she couldn’t refuse him. “I will bring her back to your stateroom later, Dr. Stoner.” Liza watched the man take the girl away, frowning darkly. She got up to follow and the men who were their escort came towards her. MacGregor came to the rescue. He moved to pull her chair out for her and held his arm to her. She took it gratefully. She was not surprised when he took her to the lounge where Sebastian and Isabel were dancing. MacGregor took her into his arms and they joined the couples. Sebastian caught sight of them and frowned. Was he never to be allowed a moment alone with the girl? He could see the mother’s hand in most of the interruptions and excuses, but now the Captain had been involved. What had they told the man? “You are endangering that man by encouraging his protection,” he whispered into Isabel’s ear. He felt her stiffen. “Tell Liza she is to keep him away from me, or I will have to hurt him.” He looked down into her eyes and knew she understood him. “We are going to my stateroom now.” He took her hand and led her out of the lounge. He nodded to his men as they passed. “Keep Dr. Stoner here for a few minutes.” He pulled Isabel along until they were in his stateroom. She watched as he locked the connecting door between their staterooms and turned to look at her. “We are finally alone.” “There is no need for us to be alone,” Isabel said as she went to the door to leave. He grabbed her arm and she dug her nails into it. She was pleased when the man let her go with a cry of pain. “You will not touch me again!” “I will do whatever pleases me, girl,” Sebastian snarled. He grabbed her faster than she could react to and pinned her arms to her sides so she could not hurt him again. “And it pleases me to do this!” He kissed her and Isabel was stunned by the brutality of the act. She struggled to free herself from his hold, but he was too strong for her. When he released her, she slapped him across the face. “You are a little hell-cat, aren’t you?” “I don’t want you touching me,” Isabel snapped at him. The kiss had left her terrified at the thought of what he might do next. He came towards her again and she backed away from him, shaking her head. “Please,” she whimpered as he pinned her against the wall and leaned in to kiss her again, “you’re frightening me.” “Pobrecita,” Sebastian laughed down at her. “You are a beautiful creature, Isabel,” he said as he ran his fingers along her lips. “You should know a man’s touch.” “No!” Isabel cried as his hand moved to cup her breast. “Let me go!” “You are in no position to tell me what to do, Isabel,” Sebastian reminded her. He smiled at her darkly as his hand moved up to push the strap of her gown off of her shoulder. “If it pleases me to take you,” he continued as he lowered the gown until it fell from her body and pooled at her feet, “then it shall be done.” He realized that he had a virgin in his grasp, as he saw the terror and confusion in her eyes. “You are right,” he sighed and stepped away from her. “I brought you here to speak of the file.” “Why is everyone so interested in it?” Isabel asked as she put her dress back on and took the chair he indicated. “You know what was in this file,” Sebastian asked as he brought a chair over and set it down in front of the one she occupied, “that is apparent. You will tell me.” When she hesitated, he cupped her chin in his hand, running his thumb over her lips. “We can always return to our earlier ‘discussion,’ nina.” He smiled as Isabel shook her head. “Then tell me what I wish to know.” “There was only one sheet in the file,” Isabel told him, hoping that this was not going to cause harm to the agent. “It was a list of dates and locations. Nothing more.” “You will write this list for me,” Sebastian nodded. He brought her over to the desk and put a sheet of paper and pen in front of her. He laid his hand on her shoulder and felt her shudder. “I have been told you can do this, child. You have a photographic memory and total recall.” Isabel gasped. There was only one person who could have told this man and his confederates that. How was Olivia involved in all of this? She had no choice. She picked up the pen and started to write the list. A brief rebellious thought hit her and she almost switched things around, but she knew it would do no good. Sebastian would only go through with his threat to rape her. Isabel finished writing and handed the paper to him. “You have done well, Isabel,” he said as he looked over the list. It was the shipping dates for the materials he was having sent overseas. “You may return to your stateroom now.” He stepped away from her. She went to the connecting door and locked it on her side. Then she went to take a shower. She just couldn’t stop shivering at how close she had come to being raped. Why had he stopped? Was it because he preferred his women to have some experience? Or perhaps, Isabel thought the true reason, it was because he would suffer if he did anything to change her virgin status? She finished her shower and put on the warmest pajamas she could find. Liza returned to find her seated on the window seat, hugging her knees to her chest. She went to her bag and prepared a syringe. Isabel didn’t fight as she was given a shot. “I’ve given you a sedative, darling,” Liza told her as she set the syringe aside. She took Isabel in her arms and held her until the shivering eased. Then she cupped the child’s chin in her hand and raised the girl’s eyes to hers. “He didn’t…” “Rape me?” Isabel asked softly. She shook her head and saw Liza’s relief. “He stopped when he figured out I was a virgin.” Tears flowed down her cheeks unchecked and she bit her tongue. “I was so frightened, Liza! He…” “Hush now, child,” Liza said as she tightened her hold on the girl. “You’re safe now. He didn’t hurt you. And,” she added firmly, “he is not going to.” She saw Isabel’s eyelids start to droop and helped her up. “Come on, Isabel. Let’s get you to bed.” When she was assured that Isabel was asleep she went into the next stateroom. Sebastian was having a drink, and looking very annoyed. Liza walked up to him and slapped him across the face. “I had to sedate her, you bastard!” “I frightened the little one,” Sebastian shrugged. “I did not rape her.” “If you want a woman to warm your bed,” Liza told him coldly, “there are any number of women on this vessel you can choose from. Stay away from Isabel.” “Or what, woman?” Sebastian laughed at her. “You will have to hurt me?” He grabbed her and pulled her close. “Perhaps you offer yourself to me in her place?” He saw the shock on Liza’s face. “You would, wouldn’t you?” “Let go of me, you bastard!” Liza screamed. “I don’t think so, woman,” Sebastian smiled down at the struggling woman. “It is a perfect solution.” He saw the horror in her eyes. “A way to assure you that I will not be taking the child to my bed.” He shoved her towards the bed with a laugh. “Because you will be in it.” He picked her up and dumped her on the bed. “You are still a very lovely woman, Liza Stoner,” he purred as he removed his robe. “I am going to be very pleased with you,” he continued to say as he lowered the straps on her gown and pulled it down her struggling body. “If I am not, I will have your pretty Isabel. Do you understand?” Liza nodded helplessly. “It is agreed then,” he said as he began to stroke her body. “You will come to me each night after the girl is asleep. She will remain ignorant of this, woman,” he warned as he leaned forward, “or the next night, she will be brought in here to watch.” He kissed her then and felt her stiffen in anger. This only lasted as long as his continued strokes and caresses allowed. Soon, she was writhing under him for a much different reason, passion joining the anger in her eyes. When he was done with her, he allowed her to return to her stateroom. He had indeed been pleased, and he smiled as he went to get another drink. The good doctor was every bit as passionate as he had known she would be. It was just well hidden under that straight-laced exterior. * Winston was in his office at Glenwood Prep, looking over the reports from the different departments, when there was a knock on the door. He looked at the clock on the wall and frowned. He wasn’t expecting any visitors; especially not at 7:00 at night. He was surprised when he saw the person walking into his office. Ricardo Alvarez smiled and closed the door before coming towards the desk. He looked around the place, pretending to be impressed with a room that he knew as well as his own office and then turned to Winston. “I must know who took the child,” he said without preamble. He took a seat and looked at his old friend expectantly. “You must help me look into this, Wit.” “Gordon won’t stop until he has her back,” Winston told him, frowning. “And the woman who raised her is not making it any easier.” “You speak of our old friend Olivia Mayer,” Ricardo nodded. “I remember her well. She was always on the prowl for the next mark. I am surprised that she did not wind up married to one of us.” “Not for lack of trying,” Winston replied. He remembered the trouble Olivia had tried to cause between him and his first wife, Rebecca. He still regretted having to slap the woman down, but he had been happy with his choice. Rebecca had given him four wonderful children before she had died. “I had the distinct impression that she still harbors a grudge.” He fixed himself a drink and held the bottle out to Ricardo. The man nodded and another glass was filled. Once Winston sat down again, he looked at his friend. “My contacts tell me your brother is behind the rumors of your involvement with criminal activity, Ricardo.” “As do mine,” Ricardo nodded sadly. “It is a pity one can not choose one’s hermanos, because I would have much preferred you in such a role.” “Hermanos,” Winston toasted his friend and nodded. “Hermanos,” Ricardo nodded and smiled. “Is that toast exclusive,” Gordon Talbot’s voice came through the opening door, “or can anyone join?” “You are late, amigo,” Ricardo frowned as the man came into the room and went directly to the liquor cabinet. “Have you learned anything new?” “I have people going over the old records,” Gordon told him as he went to get himself a drink, “but so far there is nothing pointing to who took Isabel and her cousin from the nursery.” His cell phone rang and he answered it. “Talbot here.” He nodded as the report came in. “Are you certain of that?” He hung up and turned to his friends. “Whoever took her this time left absolutely no trace in the penthouse.” He would not let himself be defeated. “I am checking out Roger Hancock. This must be connected to the earlier attack.” “The man was unduly interested in your niece, Gordon,” Winston frowned, remembering what Gordon had told him about the opera, “but kidnapping? Why would he risk it?” “My dog was sedated,” Gordon told the others. “The drug in his system can only be prescribed by a veterinarian.” He bit his lip as he remembered something he had read in Hancock’s file. “I took the liberty of having a team run a file on the man. One of the items showed that he has a cousin who is a veterinarian in Bel Air.” “I will leave you to this lead of yours, then. I have other avenues to follow. Thank you for the drinks, Winston,” Ricardo said as he rose to his feet. “I will speak to you again later. Gordon,” he said to the other man, who was still looking at him, incensed, “we will find this child; of that, I am certain.” “And I’m supposed to accept that,” Gordon muttered to himself as Ricardo turned and left. “Damn it, Wit! He’s involving himself in this investigation. How can he think I’m going to let this go?” “He knows you won’t,” Winston replied. “Hancock did not work alone on the attack, Gordon. Whoever his confederates are, they still have Isabel.” “I should have insisted she come with me,” Gordon said as he sank down into a chair. “This would never have happened if she had been where I could keep an eye on her.” “You don’t know that, Gordon,” Winston shook his head. “Hancock would have found a way to get to her, even if he had to go through you.” He frowned as he thought of what Ricardo had said about the man. “The man is dead,” he remarked as he picked up the paper and saw the report for himself. “Ricardo didn’t make that up.” “He wouldn’t lie,” Gordon relented. In all the years he had known these two men, he knew them quite well. Ricardo might be a sharp negotiator, but he did not lie. He didn’t need to lie to get what he wanted. He finished his drink and go to his feet. “I have an uneasy feeling that we are not going to find them anywhere near Cumberland.” “Now you’re thinking,” Winston smiled. Gordon the bulldog was back! He wouldn’t stop until he had the person who had helped Hancock in cuffs. “I have asked a friend of mine to look into the cousin. They’ll let us know if she was just being used.” Gordon nodded thanks and Winston rose and went to his side. “Don’t worry, Gordon. We’ll get to the bottom of this. Isabel will be coming home soon.” * Isabel woke up and found Liza curled up in a ball on the bed. There were dried tears on her face. Isabel shook her and could not wake her. She tried to get her to wake up and Liza was not stirring. She pulled her robe on and ran to the doors connecting their stateroom with Sebastian’s. She pounded on it and he came to open the door. He saw her frantic expression, then saw Liza on the bed. He picked the woman up and carried her away, leaving Isabel locked in the stateroom. The doctor was startled when he came rushing in with the woman in his arms. He examined her quickly and was reassured when he felt a pulse. “She’s taken a sedative,” he told the man, who was glaring down at the woman as if she had committed a personal sin against him. “She should be fine.” “You will keep her here until she wakes,” Sebastian told the doctor. “Call my stateroom when she does. I will send my guards to retrieve her.” He turned on his heel and left. He stormed into Isabel’s stateroom and saw how frightened she was. “Liza took a sedative a little too late last night. She will wake up and be quite fine.” “You did something to her,” Isabel said coldly. “There is no other reason for her to have tried to hurt herself.” “She sacrificed herself to take your place in my bed,” Sebastian said as he grabbed her. “You should thank her when she returns.” He shoved her down on the bed and she looked back at him coldly. “Get dressed. You are going to spend the day at my side.” He watched as she got up and did as he requested. He still found he idea of this glorious child in his bed very appealing, but it was not worth the price he would pay. A slow smile crossed his face as he realized that there were ways around such orders. In fact, the smile widened as a plan began to form, such acts could be just as enjoyable. He took her by the hand and led her into his stateroom. He smiled as he locked the connecting door. When he turned, she was eyeing him in fear. “You have no reason to fear me, child,” Sebastian told her. He went towards her and she ran for the connecting door. He pinned her against it and reached up to stroke her hair. “I merely wish to show you what you may expect when you have a man of your own.” “You’re vile!” Isabel cried as he pressed her into the wood. Her hand found the lock and she fell through. Sebastian was forced to catch himself, leaving Isabel time to slam the door in his startled face and lock it. She took a shower and went to swim, pushing herself in a vain attempt to forget what she had just endured. She was sunning herself when she heard Liza joining her. The woman’s face was bruised. The monster had beaten her! She looked at Liza and Liza bit her lip and looked away. Liza turned to the steward and ordered a drink. Isabel did not push her, if Liza wanted to say anything about their situation, then she would. Isabel got to her feet and kissed her on the cheek, then went back into the water. She watched as the first mate swum up to her as she was leaning on the edge, his concern plain. “Something happened to your aunt last night,” he said simply. “The doctor said that she had nearly overdosed.” “I don’t know,” Isabel lied to him, keeping her eyes hidden. “I woke up to find her out cold and unresponsive. Senor Guerrero took her to the doctor.” “You’re not telling me the truth, Ms. Chambers,” Henry Maxwell frowned. “Why would I lie?” Isabel asked him. He was getting too close to making her tell him everything she knew. “I have to go now, Mr. Maxwell. Liza needs me.” He watched her swim away and knew she wasn’t telling him something. It was plain in her stiff posture, her hidden eyes. He would have to remember to speak of this to the Captain. It was beginning to look like they had a hostage situation on their hands, not just an overbearing autocrat and his two guests. He looked up to see Isabel watching him closely. There was real worry in her eyes. The girl helped Liza to her feet and they left the pool area. Liza said something to Isabel and shoved her away. Isabel went after her and the woman slapped her. He was at her side at once as she stood there, holding her hand to her cheek. There were tears in her eyes as she looked up at him. “What can I do?” she cried as she threw herself against his chest. His arms came up automatically to hold her. “She’s determined to do this!” “To do what, Ms. Chambers?” Henry asked as his hand moved up to cup her cheek. “You can confide in me. I want to help.” Isabel saw the truth in his eyes. He really was interested in helping her. But how could she say anything to him. Sebastian was not lying when he said he would hurt anyone she or Liza let in on their true situation. She had no wish for this young man to be harmed because she could not keep a secret. And then all such thoughts fled from her mind as Henry lowered his head and kissed her. She stared up at him, stunned. “Isabel!” Henry felt the girl stiffen in his arms as Sebastian came towards them. He stepped away as the man glared at him coldly and watched as the man clamped his hand on Isabel’s arm. He led her off. He was about to follow when Guerrero’s men stepped into his path. He met their cold expressions bravely. He was not going to let some goons keep him from helping that girl and her aunt. “Senor Guerrero has instructed us to inform you,” one of them said as he stepped around behind him and pulled the young man’s arms behind his back. “That you are not to approach the Chambers girl ever again,” the other man said. He smiled and drove his fist into the young man’s abdomen. His knees buckled and they helped him stand. Then they let him go and walked off without another word. The girl was in trouble; this action confirmed it. The man was dangerous. What was he to Dr. Stoner and her niece, he wondered as he went to his cabin to get into uniform. A guardian?, a family friend?; or something much more? The thought of that woman or the girl in this man’s control angered him. He couldn’t let it continue. He didn’t care what they did to him. He was stunned, however, at what the man had decided. “You can’t be serious, Captain,” he said as he was told he would leave the vessel at the next port of call. “You’re firing me?” “Giving you an unscheduled leave,” MacGregor told him, frowning. “I just had a visit from Senor Guerrero. He told me he would not have you bothering his ward and ‘suggested’ that you leave the vessel at the earliest opportunity.” He shook his head. “He is determined to keep that child and her aunt on a short leash.” “I’ll contact the authorities as soon as I can, Captain,” Henry Maxwell decided. “Once I hear anything, I’ll find some way to send the information to you.” “Just be careful, nephew,” MacGregor told him. “I would hate anything to happen to you because I asked you to play knight gallant.” “I would have wanted to help her without your request, Uncle,” Henry told him firmly. “There is something very special about that girl.” Sebastian shoved Isabel into his stateroom where Liza was already waiting. He made her sit down. He nodded to Liza, and she gave Isabel a sedative. Sebastian enjoyed the anger in the girl’s eyes as he crouched down at her side and stroked her hair. He leaned in close and whispered into her ear. She stiffened and looked at him in disbelief. He got up, his hands spread out helplessly. “It must be thus,” he told her sadly. “I can not have men buzzing around you, child. It might create just the situation I was trying to avoid by bringing your aunt-mother to my bed.” He saw her falling asleep and turned to Liza. “I will put her to bed and return to you. Be ready.” He carried her into the next stateroom, and left her bound, in case she woke. Then he went back to his stateroom and smiled. Liza was waiting for him. She might not be welcoming him with a warm smile and open arms, he thought as he removed his clothing and joined her, but she was here. He took his time with her, enjoying the sound of her moaning as his hands and mouth moved over her body. One would think by the way she was responding to him that her husband never touched her. If she were his woman, he would not be able to keep his hands off of her. Once she was asleep, he went to the phone and made an overseas call. “I wish you to arrange something for me,” he told the person at the other end. “You will see to it that Dr. Charles Stoner divorces his wife,” he continued as he looked towards the bed. “I wish to make his wife mine.” * Dennis Chaney and his partner, and wife, Alexa Hardy, pulled up in front of the veterinary clinic in Bel Air, Maryland, and got out of the vehicle. The clinic was very high end. By the look of the cars in the parking lot, the clientele were all quite well off. They brought the Labrador puppy they had been given by one of their friends as a housewarming gift and took it in with them. They waited with the other pet owners and were called in about twenty minutes later. Dr. Sandra Avery was a tall, pleasant-faced woman with dark skin and deep green eyes. Her dark red hair was pulled back in a bun. She wore a lab coat over her plaid shirt and jeans, and black sneakers on her feet. Alexa found it hard to believe that this woman was related to Roger Hancock. “So what is Buddy in for?” Sandra smiled as her hands moved over the puppy’s body. “A very healthy male from all indications.” When they didn’t answer, the smile died. “You’re not here to talk about your puppy, if it even is your puppy.” “It was a gift from one of our friends,” Alexa told the woman, not liking the subterfuge Dennis had insisted on. “You’re right. We are here to talk to you about your cousin, Roger.” “What has that bastard done now?” Sandra asked, saw their shock, and shrugged. “There has never been any love lost between Roger and I. He sent me to the hospital several times when we were growing up. He made me date his loser friends who all seemed to share his deviant views towards women.” She saw their expressions. “You think he’s taken someone you know.” She was all commiseration then. “Oh God! I knew he was a bastard, but I never believed he would go that far.” “Her name is Isabel Chambers,” Dennis said as he brought out the picture of Isabel. He handed it over to her. “That’s not what he told me,” Sandra frowned, confused. She took a picture out of her pocket and showed it to them. “This is their wedding photo. Roger married a young woman named Antoinette Dubois three days ago.” She looked at the two pictures side by side. “There is a resemblance, but that’s all it is. Even Roger wouldn’t go so far as to abduct a young woman and force her to marry him.” “Do you have any idea where he is now, Dr. Avery?” Dennis asked as he handed the picture back to her. “He is on his honeymoon aboard a yacht a client of his leant him. It’s called the Persephone.” Sandra told them. “He and his bride are sailing down the coast to Florida.” She looked at them with true regret. “I wish I could help you, but I really don’t know anything more.” “Thank you for your time, Dr. Avery,” Alexa said, wondering why the cousin had not been told that the man was dead. She nodded towards the puppy. “He needs his six month shots. As long as we’re here…” “I’ll get the shots ready,” Sandra nodded. She stepped out of the office and had her assistant prepare the shots, then went into her office. “This is Sandra,” she said once the call was answered. “They were here asking about the girl. I gave them a look at the photo you sent me.” She smiled coldly. “I don’t think they bought it, so you’d better make sure this can’t come back to bite me in the butt.” She hung up and returned to give the shots to the puppy. Dennis and Alexa left with their pet. Only when they were on their way did they share their impressions of Roger’s cousin. Neither of them had anything favorable to say about the woman. It had been quite obvious that she was covering for the man. They drove to the hotel where another team member was waiting and set the puppy down. It curled up in a corner and went to sleep off the effects of the shots while its owners joined their teammate at the table. “She made a call to someone in Baltimore,” the man informed them. They had crept in the night before and tapped the woman’s phone. “I have Max checking it out now.” He bent down to ruffle the ears of the puppy that was chewing on his shoe laces. “Our new team member is already earning his way.” “Someone is going to a lot of trouble to make us believe Hancock was innocent of any involvement in Miss Chambers’ kidnapping,” Dennis said as he went to pour himself a cup of coffee. “Either of you want some?” Alexa and Sam shook their heads and Dennis sank down into a seat nearby. “They must think we’re simpletons to buy into that line.” “If we’re going to get the girl back,” Alexa spoke up, “we’re going to have to make them believe we did buy it.” She smiled as she had a thought. “So we’re going to have to send a team to chase one of those dead ends down; make a real production of it.” “Jeff Tolliver, please,” Dennis said a moment later over the phone. He nodded to his teammates. “Jeff? This is Chaney. We spoke with Hancock’s cousin. She believes that he is on his honeymoon with a woman named Antoinette Dubois.” He was smiling as he spoke the lie; on the off chance that they had been bugged, their targets would think they were giving up. He ran his hand through his hair and gave Jeff the code words for ‘they lied to us’. “It was a waste of time, sir. The Doctor knew absolutely nothing of value to us.” He hung up and turned to Sam. “Call the airfield and have the jet ready for us. Alexa and I will go to West Virginia. You and Buddy join Max back at our office.” As the team went about their mission, Jeff and Morgan were seated in his office, sharing a cup of coffee. The investigation into Isabel’s abduction was going through Jeff’s private security force. Any appearance of the FBI looking into it would jeopardize Isabel. It had been the only demand made by the kidnappers so far: no authorities involved. They knew that there was more to the girl’s abduction than that. Gordon would be forced to play along with whatever her kidnappers wanted or risk losing his niece. So Morgan had volunteered to be the liaison between the feds and Jeff’s people. Only Gordon knew that the ‘dates’ between his agent and Jeff were more than they appeared. “When we get Isabel back,” Jeff said as he moved closer to Morgan and kissed her on the cheek, “we’ll have to thank her.” “Are you saying that our spending this much time together is not all because of a kidnapped child?” Morgan asked him, her eyes twinkling with mischief. “Why Mr. Tolliver, I am blushing.” “You knew better than that, Morgan,” Jeff said quite seriously. He took her hand in his and kissed her palm. “I am growing quite fond of you, Ms. Forrester.” “Ditto, Mr. Tolliver,” Morgan smiled at him. She leaned in and kissed him on the lips, enjoying the feelings he was reawakening in her. “I’d better go. Gordon will want to hear how things are going.” “Dinner tonight?” “Are you sure you want to spend so much time with me?” Morgan teased. She laughed as he pulled her to her feet and kissed her. When they parted, they were both stunned. “Wow!” “I couldn’t agree more,” Jeff smiled back at her. “I’ll pick you up at 8:00.” Morgan left his office, smiling. She nodded to Alison as she went to the elevator and actually blushed when Alison sent her a knowing look. She returned to her office and knocked on Gordon’ door. He called her in and she saw that the man was not alone. She closed the door and nodded to Ricardo Alvarez and Winston Tolliver. Very quickly she filled them in on what Jeff’s team had found out. The phone rang and Morgan picked it up. “Federal Bureau of Investigation, Director Talbot’s office.” She nodded and put the call on speaker. “Go ahead.” “You were warned, Talbot,” a man’s angry voice sounded over the speaker. “You are responsible for what happened.” The caller laughed. “You’ll find your niece’s remains on one of the beaches south of Norfolk.” The caller hung up and the four of them exchanged shocked glances. Morgan hung up and sent a query down the pike regarding accidents involving yachts with the name Persephone. When the answer came back forty minutes later, it confirmed what the caller had said. The yacht had washed up on a beach south of Norfolk. The preliminary report said that the engines had blown. There was no trace of Isabel. Morgan called the airfield and ordered the plane to be ready to go for the agents Gordon was signaling to. * The boy watched as Doctor Charles walked out of the farmhouse, frowning. He had just pulled up and it was evident he had expected someone to be there when he arrived. Charles saw the boy and waved at him. He waved back and turned to go. He looked back as he heard a car pulling up. Charles went towards it, a hopeful look on his face. The door opened and two men got out. They put Doctor Charles in his car and drove off with him. The boy got the license plate of the second car as it drove off. Then he turned away and ran into town. The woman behind the desk at the Sheriff’s Office smiled as he came in. “Hey Tony,” Beth Hardy smiled as she saw the boy. “How’s our junior deputy today?” She saw his frown and knew this wasn’t a pleasure call. “Something wrong?” “I need to talk to Sheriff Dave,” Tony told her. “Doctor Charles is in trouble.” “What kind of trouble, Tony” Beth asked as she put her hands on his shoulders and looked at him seriously. “Not like the time you saw an elephant in the old mine? “No,” Tony shook his head firmly. “I was out hunting on the old Monk farm and Doctor Charles was just arriving. He was looking for someone. A car pulled up as he was leaving, and two men grabbed him and drove off in Doctor Charles’ car.” “Dave!” Beth screamed as she grabbed the boy’s hand and led him to the back office. She opened the door and saw the two other people inside. “Tony here says he’s just seen Dr. Stoner abducted.” “Tony,” Dave Hardy smiled as his wife closed the door and the boy remained in the office. “I’d like to introduce you to my cousin, Alexa, and her husband, Dennis Chaney.” He nodded to the chair. “Sit down. Catch your breath. Tell us what you saw.” “I was out by the old Monk farm,” Tony told them all, lowering his head as he saw Dave’s look of censure. “I know I’m not supposed to be out there, Sheriff Dave, but the rabbit I was hunting headed that way and Mama wanted some for stew tonight.” When Dave didn’t say anything, he knew what he had seen was important. “I looked towards the house when I heard the door open and Doctor Charles was there. He looked very worried, as if he was expecting someone to be there and wasn’t. He waved at me. Then a car came down the road and two men forced him into his own car and drove off.” He pulled a notepad around, grabbed a pencil, and jotted down the license plate of the second car. “The car they were in had this license plate number.” “Are you sure it wasn’t just someone who needed to see the Doctor on business, Tony?” Alexa asked the boy. “I didn’t recognize them,” Tony told her. “The sanitarium would send Doug if someone needed him. He’s in trouble. I know he is.” “Not for much longer, thanks to you,” Dennis smiled at the boy and saw his chest puff out proudly. “We’ll look after this right away.” “It’s time you were getting home, boy,” Dave said as he wheeled himself out from under the desk and went to open the door. “Beth,” he called to his wife, “see Tony home. And have his Dad join me at the diner for a talk.” He saw Tony’s fearful expression and shook his head. “No, boy. I’m not going to rat you out. This is about something else.” He turned to his visitors. “Tony’s dad is the local fed in these parts. He’ll be able to run that plate for you faster than I could.” He felt the signs of low blood sugar and wheeled around the desk. “It’s time for me to eat. Join me at the diner?” They left the station and followed Dave across the street. The town was as it always had been, Alexa noted. This could have been any day from her childhood for all the changes that had occurred since she had left town. That was one of the reasons she had left. Alexa was not the type of person who could be happy living a small town life. Since the day she had left, she had joined the Army, attended Medical School, met and divorced and remarried the same annoying man, and become one of the best detectives anyone had ever known. The same woman, though older, was even behind the cash register, Alexa noted as they went inside. “Hey, Dave!” Ada Branson smiled as they entered the diner ten minutes later. “Who are your…” Her eyes widened as she recognized Alexa. “Lexi!” She crowed and came around the desk. She gave Alexa a big hug and then looked at Dennis. “Yours?” she asked as her eyes took in the man. “Yum.” “You wouldn’t say that if you had to live with him, Ada,” Alexa replied. “It’s good to see you.” “So you in town for a family visit?” Ada asked as she grabbed three menus and led them to a table. “Dave and Beth couldn’t make our wedding,” Alexa nodded and took a seat. “So I brought Dennis here to meet them.” “As I recall you were married on some obscure little island near Cuba,” Dave laughed as he lifted himself out of the wheelchair and slid into the booth. He looked at Ada. “We’re expecting Sam, Ada.” “I’ll start a pot then,” the woman nodded. She smiled briefly at Alexa, looked Dennis over a bit too familiarly and then moved away. “She’s quite the predator,” Dennis said as he looked at his menu. “Divorcee?” “Quite the opposite, my dear,” Alexa laughed. “Ada is a very happily married woman with seven children. She and her husband, Frank,” she nodded towards the kitchen to where a gray haired man who had to be near 7 foot in height was looming, “own the diner and several other businesses along main street.” The bell rang over the door and they turned to see an extremely tall, square-built man with glasses and the vacant stare typical of scholarly types looking around. He smiled briefly as he caught sight of Dave and came to join them. He slid in next to Dave and his eyes widened briefly as he recognized Alexa. She smiled at him in welcome and he visibly blushed. Alexa remembered that the man had suffered a crush on her during their years in high school. Obviously, some of the old feelings were still there. “Alexa and her husband need your help, Sam,” Dave said as he looked at his old friend. “Seems someone has abducted Dr. Stoner. They need you to run the plate of his abductor’s vehicle.” He slid the paper across the table. “Tony was there when it happened.” “And you told him you wouldn’t tell me he was at the Monk farm,” Sam smiled briefly. He pulled his cell phone and called the plate in to this office. “Director Talbot told us Dr. Stoner would be arriving. He was hoping to find his wife and their niece here when he arrived.” “We’ve been hunting for the girl for the past week,” Dennis told him truthfully. He saw the man transform from a bookworm to a predator at this news. “Every lead we’ve had has turned out to be a dead end.” “Whoever has her is playing a very elaborate game.” He smiled as Ada put a cup of coffee down in front of him. “Thanks, Mom.” “You bet,” Ada smiled. She saw the incredulous expression on Dennis’ face and nearly burst out laughing. It did an old lady’s heart good to know a young man saw her as still attractive. “You all ready to order?” They gave her their orders and she moved away, still smiling. Dennis wondered why they were listening to the scholar still. He had given them the information they needed, surely that was the end of his involvement. Their meals came and they settled down to eat. * Isabel woke up and looked around for Liza. She was hungry and she was angry. Sebastian had told her that she would no longer have the run of the ship. His guards would go with her everywhere, and she would be sedated at night to keep her in place. The door to the connecting stateroom opened and Liza came towards her, looking down at her in apology. There were tears in her eyes. The girl looked at the woman in shock. Something bad had happened to someone she loved. Uncle Gordon? Her husband? “I just received a message from Charles,” Liza told her as she went to get Isabel a glass of water and then poured herself a drink. She sank down into the chair nearby, her face pale. “He’s divorcing me.” “Oh, Liza!” Isabel cried and went to take her in her arms. She held the woman until the tears were spent. “We should have gone to the farm,” Liza said sadly. “We would have been there...” She looked at Isabel in horror. “Now that I am a going to be a divorcee,” she continued the bad news, “Sebastian Guerrero has decided to make me his wife.” “He can’t force you to marry him, Liza,” Isabel told her firmly. “Of course he can,” Liza returned, her voice filled with anguish.” She raised her hand to stroke Isabel’s cheek. “He knows I’ll do whatever he says to keep you safe.” “Then we have to find a way to get off this ship, Liza,” Isabel said tightly. “I am not going to be the reason you are locked into a marriage to that bastard.” “It won’t be so bad,” Liza said softly. “What?” Isabel looked at her as if Liza had just gone nuts. “How can you say that? The man abducted us, Liza. He has used me to get you into his bed…” “And he wants me,” Liza broke in. She shook her head at Isabel’s expression. “You don’t know what it’s been like for me married to Charles. He was more my keeper than my husband. I was a patient, not a wife.” “But, you can’t marry this man,” Isabel protested. “What can I say to convince you to go back to Baltimore? Uncle Gordon can protect us…” “I doubt that, baby,” Liza broke in coldly. “He couldn’t keep you safe 18 years ago. How can we trust him now?” “He’s your big brother,” Isabel reminded her. “That’s his job. Remember?” “It’s too late for that,” Liza replied firmly. “I am going to marry Sebastian Guerrero.” She finished her drink and rose to her feet. “We are going to go to breakfast now, the three of us. Please get dressed.” Liza watched Isabel get up and went to get her own clothes. They went to the Captain’s table where Sebastian took the seat vacated by the first mate’s absence. Near the end of the meal, he took Liza’s hand in his and slipped a ring on her finger. She looked at the beautiful thing, stunned. Then she smiled and held it out for everyone to admire. She hated the look on Isabel’s face, but it was something she had to ignore. This was necessary if the girl was going to remain safe. Sebastian had assured her that once Isabel was their child, he would see to it that no one could ever harm her again. She had to believe he meant it. * Gordon got out his car and walked around to the trunk to get the briefcase. He had just raised the lid when someone came out of hiding and shoved him inside and slammed the lid shut. He heard the engine start and the car started moving. He should have known better than to come to this drop without some kind of backup, Gordon chided himself. Whoever had his niece was no lightweight. They were doing their best to keep him and his men from finding Isabel before the exchange. The car drove for about 20 minutes and then stopped. He was dragged out of the trunk with the briefcase in hand and herded down the pier to a waiting yacht. “Hello, Director Talbot,” Jake smiled coldly as he saw the man coming into the lounge. He lifted the bottle of Scotch. “Join me in a drink, sir?” “Cut the fake hospitality,” Gordon said as he sat down on the couch next to Isabel. “It’s all right, Isabel,” Gordon told her as he took her in his arms. “We’re almost out of this.” “Don’t lie to the girl, Director Talbot,” Jake said coldly as he came to sit on the couch across from theirs. “You don’t seem surprised.” “I knew something was wrong with you,” Gordon told him. “I never expected it to be that you had turned.” “If I were really the man you think me to be,” Jake smiled nastily at his prisoner, “that would be true. But,” he continued as the real Lang was dragged in and dumped on the deck at Gordon’ feet, “as you can see, your friend’s son has been our ‘guest’ for the past week.” “Lang?” Gordon cried as he saw the condition the boy was in. “Are you all right, boy?” “Been better,” Lang forced out through the damage to his larynx. He looked over at Isabel. “Your niece, sir?” “Save the introductions,” Jake hissed. He waited until Lang had pulled himself up to a seat and then turned his attention back to Gordon. “You’ve been a very bad man, Gordon Talbot. Your niece’s life depended on you turning the files over to us, and you play fast and loose.” He saw Gordon feigning confusion. “Don’t play games with me, sir. I know you made copies of the files. So we have decided to punish you accordingly. Your pretty niece is going to marry Lang Tolliver,” he smiled coldly as his men yanked Isabel away from her uncle and brought her to him. “I shall quite enjoy having her as my property.” “I don’t know who you are,” Gordon snapped, “but you’re not going to get away with this.” “I already have,” Jake laughed at him. “Young Tolliver was forced to sign the marriage license earlier today. Right before we broke the neck of the young woman we threatened if he did not obey. Now,” he continued as a man came into the lounge with the document and set it on the coffee table in front of Gordon, “if you want your pretty niece to remain alive, you will sign as well.” “And leave her in your hands?” Gordon exclaimed. He shook his head. “As much as I love the child, I would not wish such a fate on her.” “Then watch her die,” Jake snarled. He clamped his hands around Isabel’s throat and began to tighten his hold. Isabel began to claw at his hands frantically. Jake laughed and tightened his hold even further. He kept his eyes on Gordon, knowing the man would break. Only a monster would let such a sweet child die. Sure enough Gordon finally picked up the pen and signed the document. “Wise choice,” he laughed and shoved Isabel over to the man standing near the passageway. “Put Mrs. Tolliver in the stateroom, Bellio, and then tell the Captain we’re ready to get underway.” The man carried Isabel away and Jake turned to his other prisoners. “When we reach international waters, you and young Tolliver will be cast adrift.” “Why are you doing this?” Lang demanded. “If I let you live, you could ask your brother,” Jake replied. “This is all because of him.” “Jake Armstrong,” Lang hissed. He saw the man’s head snap in his direction and knew he was right. “You’re the bastard my brother testified against in Bosnia.” “You will take that knowledge with you to your grave, Lang Tolliver,” Jake shot back. “I will take your place and enjoy myself as I take vengeance on him for stealing all those years from me.” “You were raping and mutilating young women,” Lang retorted. “What else could he do?” “Keep his nose out of my business!” Jake snarled. He heard the engines roar and nodded to his other men. “Take them below and secure them.” He looked at Gordon. “It’s time for the honeymoon.” “You keep your filthy hands off of her!” Gordon snapped and rushed at him. Jake laughed as the guard struck Gordon down. “I’ll see you dead if you harm my niece.” Jake laughed and went down the passageway. He entered the stateroom and saw Nell sprawled out on the bed with a hungry smile on her face. “Your ability to convince people you are someone you are not constantly amazes me.” “So I am going to become that worm’s wife?” Nell asked as she ran her hand along his chest with a warm smile on her face. “I don’t deserve such a reward.” “You deserve far more for what I am going to do to you now,” Jake said to her sadly “Are you ready to be beaten?” Nell nodded happily. She screamed and he clamped his mouth over hers, muffling the sound. As she continued to fight, he shoved his tongue into her mouth and she stiffened. She bit him, hard and he pulled away with an oath. He slapped her across the face and then he dragged her off the bed. He yanked her down to the cabin where Lang and her uncle were chained. He cuffed her to a pipe near the hatch and took out a whip. “You are going to learn to obey me, my dear,” he said as he lifted her head with the butt of the whip. “The next time I ask for your obedience, remember this is the punishment for fighting me.” Jake took the whip and approached Lang. He ran the butt of the whip down Lang’s spine and Nell saw the man flinch, as if he knew from experience what he was about to feel. She wondered about the man. It was obvious that he was good at what he had chosen to do with his life; people had gone to a great deal of trouble to get him out of the way. Jake looked at ‘Isabel’ now and she knew he was expecting her to plead for mercy. When she didn’t, he ripped Lang’s shirt open and stepped back to raise his whip. Nell saw Lang’s eyes as the whip rained blows on him. He was looking directly at her and she felt as if he were telling her not to let the bastard win. “No cries for mercy, my love?” Jake said as he looked at her. “You could save him further pain. All you have to do is tell me how much you want me.” “You’ll have to kill me first,” Nell retorted. “I could never want a monster like you!” “You’re saying the words, my dear,” Jake smiled at her nastily, “but your body was saying something completely different earlier.” “You bastard!” Gordon hissed as he realized what the man was saying. He pulled at the chains holding him to the bulkhead. “I’m going to kill you!” “I am going to give your darling niece a very fine life, Talbot,” Jake said calmly. “As Lang Tolliver, I will be able to give her anything she could ever wish.” He handed the whip to his man and pulled Nell to her feet. He moved up behind her and his hand went under the robe. He watched as her eyes blazed with anger. “She will learn to enjoy my touch,” he laughed at Gordon. “With a little judicious application of certain drugs, she will do whatever I want.” He turned to his men. “Take them to the upper deck in half an hour. We’ll have the wedding there.”” “No!” Nell cried as he yanked her away. “You can’t do this!” “That was magnificent!” Jake laughed as he dragged her back to their stateroom. He shoved her towards the bed. “I want you, Nell.” A half hour later, Nell accompanied Jake out onto the deck where her ‘uncle’ and Lang were waiting. The Captain was standing nearby with a Bible in hand. He began to read the wedding service as Jake led her forward. Nell felt the man’s hand gripping her arm painfully, and looked over at the real Isabel’s uncle. The guard behind him smiled and raised the gun in his hand so she could see it. Nell looked at the pen Jake put in her hand and she signed the marriage license. Gordon and Lang were put inside a launch and it was lowered over the side. Nell would not move until she saw it heading back towards the mainland. Only when she felt certain that her act was accepted, did she accompany Jake back to the stateroom. They fell asleep in each other’s arms. He woke up as he heard a sound in the stateroom and turned to see Alejandra seated in the chair nearby. He followed her into the lounge. “What are you doing here?” He asked as he went to get a drink. “I thought it was agreed that we would meet back on the mainland.” “I was growing impatient to see how you were getting along with things,” Alejandra told him. “From what I saw, you are doing quite well.” She laughed at his expression. “Don’t go soft now, Jake. You still have to destroy the Tollivers. Once you have accomplished this, you and your pet are free to do whatever you wish.” She finished the drink he brought her and got to her feet. “I’ll expect you back in Baltimore tomorrow, Jake. If you keep me waiting, I will expose you.” She frowned as she felt her head spinning. “What did you do?” “Just giving you a taste of your own medicine, my dear,” Jake laughed as she fell to her knees. “Did you really think you could order a man like me around, girl?” He yanked her up onto her feet and held her by the shoulders. “You are going to experience everything you wanted to put dear Isabel through this past month.” “You can’t do this to me!” Alejandra screamed as he hefted her over his shoulder and carried her down the passageway. “My father made you! He’s given you a chance to pay Jeff Tolliver back for what he did to you…” “And I thank him for that,” Jake broke in coldly as he dumped her on the bed and cuffed her to it. “But what neither of you seems to remember is the reason why I was in Leavenworth.” He ran his hand down her leg and his eyes grew warm. “I like the girls, Alejandra. A lot.” “You do this and there is no place you will be safe from my father’s vengeance,” Alejandra snarled. She pulled at the cuffs holding her. “Let me up this minute.” “Eventually,” Jake smiled back at her as he enjoyed the sight of her struggling. “Once your father has suffered for what he did to my wife!” He took a knife out of the nightstand and sliced her arm. He went into the bathroom and returned with a towel that he used to stifle the flow. Then he tended the cut on her arm. “He is going to suffer some of what he has put his brother through this past week. But unlike Isabel,” he smiled at her nastily, “your captors have no orders to keep their hands off of you.” He laughed at the expression on her face as he gagged her. “Enjoy the cruise, girl!” Jake returned to the stateroom and smiled at Nell warmly. His wife! When he had been sent to Leavenworth, his wife had gone to Enrique Alvarez on his behalf. The monster had brutalized her, kept her chained in his bedroom like an animal. Well, his daughter was going to go through that same agony for what Nell had suffered. He liked the thought of it. His only regret was that he couldn’t be the one to abuse Alejandra. They went to the top deck where a helicopter was waiting on the pad on top of the yacht. Nell strapped herself into the co-pilot seat and put the headphones on. Then he got behind the controls and flew off, smiling at the thought of the haughty Alejandra in the hands of the men he had hired to crew the yacht. He had picked them especially for this part of his vengeance plan. * Dennis entered the hospital with his wife and went to see the man himself, leaving the team to question the doctor and nurses. He entered the room and stopped short at seeing the man sitting up with hardly any sign of injury. In the bed next to his, Lang was sleeping. The younger man had obviously had the worst of whatever ordeal they had just survived. “God, Gordon!” Dennis hissed as he saw the man alive and quite well. “We thought the worst when we heard the report.” “It was a necessary lie.” “What is this all about, Gordon?” Dennis asked as he sat down in the chair by the bed. “This is getting weird.” “There were at least two different agendas going,” Gordon told him. “Someone took Isabel to use her to force me to turn files over to them. They went so far as to hire someone to take on Lang’s face and replace him at the Agency. But when I went to make the drop,” he continued, “I was ambushed. I found myself facing Lang’s doppelganger. He turned out to be an old army buddy of Jeff Tolliver; a man Jeff had testified against when it was discovered that he was brutalizing young women over in Bosnia.” “Jake Armstrong?” Dennis hissed. He saw Gordon’ look. “Jeff told me about that bastard. He was supposed to be doing life at Leavenworth.” “Someone gave him an early out,” Gordon frowned, “a new face, and a means of going after the man he blamed for destroying his life.” He ran his hand through his hair. “The maniac forced Lang to sign a marriage license. He has Isabel now as his hostage-wife.” “So,” Dennis frowned as he began to see the plan, “you’re hoping that he will come after you when he hears you’ve both been found alive?” “He has to,” Lang said softly, his throat still bruised. “He can’t take my place if I’m alive to debunk his claim.” He closed his eyes a moment as a twinge of pain shot through him. “That poor girl! She doesn’t deserve to be involved in this.” “I’ll put my men in position to keep an eye on you,” Dennis decided. “I have an idea. It might not pan out,” he continued as he saw the hopeful look in Gordon’ eyes, “but it’s worth a shot. Armstrong has quite a few associates that may be worth looking up.” “Go for it, Den,” Gordon nodded. “We’re fine. It’s Isabel we need to help.” Dennis nodded and hurried out of the hospital. He filled his men in briefly and left them to work out the logistics with the hospital administration. Dennis got in the car and drove back to the airfield. He didn’t waste a moment with what he needed to do. He sent out the call to all the agencies up and down the East Coast for any information on the whereabouts of several women he knew had been associated with Armstrong. The reports came in almost as soon as the last call was made. He went over them thoroughly and smiled as he saw one that seemed quite promising. “We’re headed to Salisbury,” he told the pilot. “There is a gated community on the sea coast east of there that might be just what we’re looking for.” He sank into the co-pilot chair and put on the headphones and microphone. He called a friend in the Coast Guard. “Blake,” he said once he was connected, “it’s Den. Need your help, my friend.” He quickly told him what was needed and smiled as the man agreed to help. “Thanks, bro! If this all goes down as planned, a very frightened young woman and her family are going to be quite grateful to us.” “You going in on your lonesome, Den?” the pilot, Mark Winters, asked. “Not a smart move.” “Only move we have, Mark,” Dennis told him, frowning. “Gordon, and Lang, are in the hospital. The rest of my team is in position in case the lunatic comes after them.” He closed his eyes a moment. “I have a feeling that he is more apt to take out his anger at being kept from his goals on them. This means he isn’t in the way when we go find the girl.” “Then let’s get there,” Mark nodded. He accelerated. “I’ve always wanted to be there to save the damsel in distress.” * Isabel fell into a strange acceptance of her horrific imprisonment. She could not convince Liza that this marriage to Guerrero was wrong. She quit trying when she realized that Liza was actually happy. Sebastian warned her not to do anything to prevent their happiness, or he would return her to bonds and injections. He said this in front of Liza, and Isabel could see she would get no help from the woman if he followed through on the threat. She bowed her head in defeat and let the play unfold as it would. There was nothing she could do to prevent what was happening. So the next night, she found herself at a party celebrating her mother’s engagement to Sebastian Guerrero. “Isabel,” Liza smiled after it was over, “I am so happy!” She looked up at her fiance adoringly. “Would you do us the honor of seeing you dance?” Isabel looked at her as if she was crazy, but she nodded. She watched as the chairs were moved aside and heard the music of a familiar piece being played as she warmed up. She looked over to the piano and saw Olivia there. Standing at her side was a tall, dark-haired man, who reminded her of Rafael. The hand on Olivia’s shoulder was very possessive. She finished warming up and Olivia hit the opening chords of the solo she had performed. She lost herself to the music, forgetting what her situation was, and what had just happened to Liza. When it was over, she looked up as a hand reached down to help her up. Rafael Alvarez smiled down at her, warmly. “As divine as ever, perhaps cousin,” he said as he helped her to the reception. He kissed her on the cheek and pulled the chair out for her and then sat down next to her. “Are you all right? You do not look at all pleased at this union.” “I wouldn’t have wished him on Liza,” Isabel told him honestly. “She says that she is happy, Rafael, so how can I deny her that?” “It is hard when you do not know if you now have a new uncle,” Rafael nodded, “or a new Papa?” He took her hand in his and kissed it. “I am hoping for the later, Isabel,” he told her truthfully. “I find the idea of you being my cousin quite unacceptable.” “You do?” Isabel said softly as she recognized that look in his eye. “You are such a delightful creature, Isabel,” Rafael continued as he leaned closer. “If you are my cousin, then I will love you as a cousin.” His hand moved up to cup her cheek. “If you are not, I want to…” “Rafael,” his father hissed as he came to their side. “You will stop this at once!” He watched Rafael get to his feet, glaring at him for the interruption. “Isabel.” He nodded his head to her. “Your mother is in need of your assistance.” Isabel watched the man turn on his heel and leave. She got to her feet and went to Liza. Liza pulled her to the stateroom and had Isabel help her out of her gown. Liza pulled on a negligee, a happy smile on her face. Sebastian came to join them. He smiled at the sight of his fiancé so eager to be in his arms. “You are free to return to the reception, child,” he said to Isabel, his eyes only on Liza. “Guillermo and Emilio will see you there.” Isabel watched as the two guards entered. She knew they would not listen to any of her wishes in the matter. She went to the lounge and sat down to watch as the other passengers celebrated the engagement of her aunt-mother to Sebastian Guerrero. She was not allowed to sit for long as the single men in the lounge claimed her for one dance after another. The guards quickly extricated her from any man they deemed treating her inappropriately. They were keeping a very close eye on her. She would soon be a Guerrero and must be protected. “She says she’s happy,” Isabel told MacGregor when he claimed her for a dance later that evening. “What can I do?” “Tell me the truth,” MacGregor whispered into her ear. She looked up at him, stunned that he realized she was in trouble. “Not here,” he continued as they danced. “I’ll find a way to get you alone…” He frowned as Guillermo moved closer. “It would appear that it will not be tonight.” He bowed to her and went to claim another lady for the next dance. Isabel waved off the eager young man coming for her and went to sit down. She was tired and wanted to rest a moment. He looked very disappointed, but he rallied and went to find another partner. Emilio came up to her and held out his hand. It was obviously time for her to go to bed. She got up and caught Rafael’s eyes on her as she left. Something in the way he was looking at her made her very uncomfortable. “I won’t do it, Father,” he said tightly as he turned to his father. “She is an innocent.” “She is a tool, hijjo,” Enrique corrected him, “that I mean to wield at every possible chance.” He glared at his son. “She can not be left in Guerrero’s hands. Now that she is part of his family, either as niece or daughter, he will see her protected.” “And you want me to keep that from happening.” Rafael sighed. “We aren’t even certain who she is yet.” “We will be,” Enrique told him firmly, “before you marry her.” Rafael looked at him sharply. “It will be the price I demand for her crime.” He laughed at his son’s expression. “Do not worry, hijo. I know you will make her very happy.” “I never realized just how much I hated you,” Rafael hissed, “until this moment.” He knew he had to do what he was told, for Isabel’s sake. “Very well, Father. I will do as you ask.” “I never doubted it, hijo,” Enrique nodded. He returned to Olivia’s side and pulled her into a dance. “You are back on his leash, hermano,” Alejandra smiled up at him as she came to his side with a glass of champagne. She handed it to him and raised her own. “Shall we make a toast? To the lovely Isabel!” He did not move and she pouted. She set her glass aside and took his hand. “Dance with me, hermano,” she requested as she pulled him out to the dance floor. “You know this is the only way you can help her, do you not?” Rafael nodded helplessly. “Then be happy about it, Rafael. She will be an Alvarez after all.” “Not like this!” Rafael hissed at her. He tried to leave her and Alejandra dug her claws into his arm. He would not make a scene, her eyes were telling him. “Dios mio! What has this family of ours become, that we do such things?” “Only insured that it will continue to be as powerful as it is,” Alejandra told him with a very pleased smile on her pretty face. “You bring the future daughter of Guerrero into our house. That will strengthen our hold on the man.” “At the price of that child’s freedom,” Rafael frowned. “What would happen if I went to Guerrero and told him of your little plan for his niece or daughter?” “Then Isabel would vanish,” Alejandra told him bluntly. “A girl of her beauty would be quite a delight on the white slave market!” She laughed at his horrified expression. “You are such an innocent, hermano. Are you really my brother?” The dance ended and Rafael stormed out of the lounge. He went to the rail and leaned on it, trying to come to terms with what he was being asked to do. How could he not do what they asked? He could not let them destroy this girl. Cousin or wife, she was important to him. He turned as he heard someone approaching and it was Isabel. Emilio was standing behind her, at guard. The man hadn’t been able to resist her tears when she told him she wished to go for a walk before bed. “You’re still hoping I am not your cousin,” Isabel said as she looked up at him shyly. “I would protect you no matter how it turned out,” he told her fiercely. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her palm. “Believe me.” “I don’t know who to trust anymore,” Isabel sighed as she pulled free of his hold. She leaned on the railing and looked out over the moonlit water. “My life was so uncomplicated when I thought Olivia was my mother. Why did it have to change?” “There is something I need to tell you, Isabel,” Rafael said, suddenly determined that she know what was happening. “My father…” What he had been meaning to say died on his lips as Enrique came towards them. Rafael kissed her on the cheek and left her with his father. Enrique nodded to the men he had brought with him and they took Isabel by the arms. Emilio took a step forward and Enrique held something up in his hand. Emilio frowned, but stepped down. Enrique turned on his heel and his men brought Isabel along. She was taken to her stateroom and made to sit down. Isabel looked over at Olivia, who would not meet her eyes. “Your ‘mother’ has confessed everything, girl,” Enrique told her coldly. “You are a part of the con she was trying to pull on my family.” “What?” Isabel looked over at Olivia in shock. “What is he talking about, Olivia?” “You can quit the act, darling,” Olivia said coldly. “I know you heard Roger and I talking about it.” She looked over at Enrique. “He is the family enforcer. He was not pleased to learn that you were intending to masquerade as his niece.” “But, I…” “You will be taken in front of the Council, girl,” Enrique told her bluntly. “Your confederates have already been punished. It only remains to see what your judgment will be.” He turned to his men. “She is to be locked in here until the Council arrives to pronounce sentence on her.” He held his hand out to Olivia. “Come along, my dear.” “You can’t do this!” Isabel cried and ran for the door. It shut just as she was reaching it and she heard the lock being engaged. “Let me out of here!” she demanded and beat on the door. “I haven’t done anything!” No one answered her. Isabel went to the window seat and sank down on it, hugging her knees to her chest. She didn’t understand this. How could she be guilty of a con that someone else was planning? She would have fought them every step of the way. So, she suddenly realized, they had gone ahead with it without telling her it was in play. Just who was this Council the man had spoken of, and why did they have any say in her life? She saw the door open and watched as Sebastian came in. He was not happy. He nodded towards her and Emilio grabbed her and pinned her arms behind her back. “You have been lying to me, girl,” Sebastian snarled. He slapped her across the face, his eyes cold. “I would have given you everything as my niece. Why couldn’t that be enough?” “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Isabel cried out in protest. Emilio cuffed her wrists behind her back. “Why are you doing this?” “I am Captain of the Council Guard,” Sebastian told her. “It is my duty to take you into custody and hold you secured until the trial begins.” “But I didn’t do anything,” Isabel cried. She saw the hard look on his face and knew he was not going to believe her. “Let me talk to Liza.” “You will never talk to her again,” Sebastian told her. “You are outlaw to my family now and no longer exist.” He nodded and Emilio shoved her down into a chair. “Emilio will stand watch over you until it is time.” Sebastian left the stateroom and Isabel looked at the door in stunned silence. What was going on here? One moment she was looking forward to learning just who she belonged to, and the next she was being accused of a crime. Olivia had actually lied to put her in this position. She didn’t understand any of it. She looked over at Emilio and knew she would find no help in that quarter. She got up and went to lie on the bed, exhausted. * Gordon was just beginning to wake when he heard the sounds of a struggle nearby. He turned his head to see two Langs fighting on the other side of the room. He tried to call for help, but he couldn’t seem to make any noise. He tried to raise his head and found that he had been strapped down and gagged. He could only watch as his friend’s son fought for his life. Eventually one of the Langs overcame the other. Gordon knew it was the wrong one when the victor pulled a knife and raised it into the air. The door burst open and the knife went flying as Max shot it out of the impostor’s hand. Jake was taken into custody quickly after that and dragged out as the doctor and nurses came running. “He’s still alive,” the doctor said in relief. “This young man is tough.” “Takes after his father,” Gordon nodded as the nurse removed the gag and undid the shackles. “Can I get up now, Doctor?” “Our young friend here is the only one who needs to be in a hospital,” the doctor replied. “Just don’t push yourself too hard for the next couple of days.” He shook his head as she saw Gordon’ look. “You have a lot of really talented men and women out there looking for your niece, Mr. Talbot.” “You just get my young friend well, Doctor,” Gordon said as he got out of bed and pulled his clothes out of the closet. “I’ll worry about my agents and my niece.” Gordon left the hospital room and saw Max at the end of the hall, waiting. He followed the man into the room they had commandeered and found Jake cuffed to a chair. The false Lang smiled at him coldly as he came into the room. The smile died slightly as Max left Gordon alone with him. It died even further as Max returned with a needle and a drug vial. He set it down on the desk and filled the needle. “I know you are only going to lie to me, Armstrong,” Gordon smiled at the prisoner coldly, “so we are going to circumvent your will and use a little Sodium Pentothal.” “You are never going to see your niece again, Talbot,” Jake hissed at him as Max approached him with the needle. “By this time, her mind is completely gone. She won’t remember anyone.” “What have you done to her?” Gordon demanded as Max gave Jack the shot. He watched the man’s eyelids begin to droop. “Now, Jake,” he said as he pulled a chair around and sat in front of his prisoner. “You are going to tell me where my niece is.” “They never told me,” Jake laughed, his eyes all soft and innocent. “I was hired as a wild goose, you old fool!” “She belongs with her family, Jake,” Gordon stated coldly. “Tell me what you’ve done with her.” “I told you,” Jake smiled goofily. “Never knew.” He frowned as he thought of something. “She has a new mother now, a new life. One you will never be a part of.” Gordon watched as Jake passed out then and Gordon turned to Max. The man turned off the tape recorder and looked as confused as Gordon felt. What was he talking about? “He,” Gordon continued as he nodded toward Jake, “won’t tell us anything more.” The door opened and Dennis came into the room. “Anything on that yacht, Den?” “The Andromeda is registered to a very close friend of yours, sir,” Dennis told him. “Enrique Alvarez.” “Take Armstrong into custody, Max,” Gordon told Max. “Dennis, I need you with me. I think it’s time we found out what Enrique Alvarez knows about all of this.” He pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket as they walked out of the hospital. “Ricardo? It’s Gordon.” Gordon got in the passenger side of the car Dennis brought up to the walkway. “We have a lead that goes directly to your brother. I think your presence at the interrogation might help us.” He frowned as he heard what Ricardo said. “He’s there now? We’ll meet you in 15.” He looked over at Dennis. “Enrique and his daughter are at his home. It seems that Alejandra was discovered on the yacht. The men Armstrong had left behind with her had raped her.” “Not a very wise move,” Dennis frowned as he headed out of town. He headed west towards the upscale neighborhoods north of the city. Fifteen minutes later, they pulled through the immense gates of the Alvarez estate and turned the car over to a guard. Dennis followed Gordon inside and another guard showed them into the lounge. Enrique was standing over at the bar with a large drink in his hand. His eyes narrowed as he saw the man enter. “What is he doing here, hermano?” Enrique demanded of his brother, who was standing at the French doors leading out into the garden. “They can tell us nothing we do not already know.” “We can tell you that Jake Armstrong is in our custody,” Gordon said as he went to the bar and poured himself a drink. “His confederates still have Isabel.” He saw Ricardo turn then and look at him. “He says that our girl is fine, Ricardo,” Gordon told the man. “But he can’t tell us who took her. He says he was hired merely as a wild goose.” “This Armstrong,” Ricardo asked as he poured himself a drink, “he knows more than he is saying.” “We didn’t get that far with the interrogation.” “Which leaves us where, amigo?” “About where we are at the moment, my friend,” Gordon lied to his friend. He had already decided what the next move should be. With the real Lang Tolliver pretending to be Jake Armstrong. He saw Enrique’s expression and wondered why the man was looking so worried. “I heard that Armstrong had your daughter raped when she tried to help her cousin. Is she well enough to speak to me?” “Ana is still under sedation,” Enrique lied to Gordon. “I trust the man who ordered such an atrocity will remain in custody.” “We’re burying him so deep, Enrique,” Gordon told him, “that a mole couldn’t find him. Don’t worry,” he continued, deliberately playing to the man’s ‘concern’ for his child, “he won’t find his way out of the hole we’re dropping him into.” “I will go see to my hija now,” Enrique said coldly. “If you will excuse me, hermano. Director Talbot.” Gordon nodded to Dennis and the man followed Enrique. He heard his voice coming from the study and found a hiding place where he could listen. The fact that the man was speaking in Spanish did not keep Dennis from learning what was happening. Dennis was fluent in seven languages thanks to his training as a linguist for the Special Services. He frowned as he heard what Enrique was planning. He heard the man slam down the receiver and went back into the lounge to join Gordon and Ricardo. He whispered what he had overheard into Gordon’ ear and he frowned. “We have to see to something, my friend,” Gordon said to Ricardo. “Why don’t you join me at the penthouse later for drinks? I’ve asked Tabitha to bring along a friend.” “I look forward, as always, to spending time with the delightful Dr. Evans,” Ricardo smiled briefly. “Bring her back to us, Gordon. Isabel has been away from home too long.” “Don’t worry, Ricardo,” Gordon replied. “I won’t rest until she is back here with us where she belongs.” * Later the next night, Lang Tolliver drove to the hotel where one of the women that Jake Armstrong knew was a manager. He had no problem pretending to be the bastard who had stolen his identity. It seemed only right after all the trouble that lunatic had caused in his name. A young girl’s life was hanging in the balance because of the man’s duplicity. He made himself at home in the bar and ordered Armstrong’s favorite drink. Ten minutes into his second, a long-legged brunette sauntered into the bar and approached him. She grabbed him by the lapels and kissed him warmly. Lang met her emotional greeting with a slap to her backside and a look of supreme indifference. Jeff had told him enough about the bastard for Lang to know how he had to play it. “Gayle,” Lang nodded to the woman. He didn’t ask, he ordered. He could see from the woman’s expression that he had played it right. “I will have a suite.” “The usual suite is always held open for you, my dear,” Gayle purred as she watched him rise. “You are injured,” she whispered as she saw him wince with the movement. “Your ‘talk’ with Talbot did not go as smoothly as you had hoped?” “How it went is none of your concern, woman,” Lang hissed at the woman. He saw her instantly lower her head in deference. “I will go to the suite now. Send up the usual goodies.” He finished his drink and followed Gayle to the main desk. She retrieved the key to the Imperial Suite for him and accompanied him upstairs. Once they were inside, she began removing his clothing. Lang did not fight her, but kept his face as impassive as possible. This was Jake he was pretending to be. The bastard had a God complex. He treated women as if they were nothing; merely a means to release. He let Gayle undress herself as he went to the bar and poured himself a third drink. He turned to find her lying on the bed. He found himself almost envying the bastard as he carried his drink to the bed and held it to her lips. The woman did not fight this. In fact, the woman did not fight anything he wanted to do. He watched her once they were done and wondered just what it was about Armstrong that he could command such devotion from seemingly intelligent women. She left him alone and he locked the door and went to take a shower. When he came out there was another woman sitting on the bed. This long-legged, blue-eyed woman with warm copper brown hair held a gun in her hand and her eyes were cold. She made him put on handcuffs. “You really thought you could fool me, Tolliver?” she asked as he quit trying to free himself and met her cold eyes. “It was worth a shot,” Lang replied. “You going to use that?” “It’s a thought,” Nell replied. She set the gun aside. “But I have no wish to go to prison. The cuffs are merely to keep you under control while we have a little talk.” She got to her feet and went to look out the window. “You want to play my husband. I want to take down the bastard that put him back in prison.” “Why would you do that?” Lang asked as he made himself comfortable. “Because he is the same bastard who ordered the abduction of his own niece,” Nell said as she turned from the window. “The same bastard who kept me chained like an animal and brutalized me when I went to him to ask for his help.” She looked him over. “You have Jake down cold, Agent Tolliver. The only reason I knew you were not Jake is because I know every scar on his body. I put some of those injuries on him personally. Yours, though a very nice body, is lacking those crucial marks.” She pulled the keys out of her pocket and twirled them on her finger. “If I help you, I want to be allowed to take the bastard down.” “You don’t want your husband released?” Lang asked her. “My husband will be dead,” Nell told him. “The bastard will have seen to it.” She met his eyes coolly. “Do we have a deal, Agent?” She smiled as he nodded his head and came to unlock the cuffs. She watched him closely as he got up. He dropped the cuffs on the table and went to pour himself a drink from the bottle the manager had set out for Jake. She called for room service and had breakfast waiting when he came out. “I do not know what you appreciate, so I ordered Jake’s favorites.” “It will be what they expect,” Lang nodded. He sat down and ate what she had ordered. “You’re not eating?” “I had my breakfast before I came up,” Nell replied. Lang knew she was lying but he didn’t push. Her secrets were hers to keep. “Once Jake is dead, we will go after the bastard; convince him that he just murdered a federal agent. He will believe it to be so when I am there to claim you as my husband.” Her eyes went quite cold then. “I want him completely unaware when I drive a knife into his worthless heart.” “The authorities will want him alive, Nell,” Lang protested. He saw her head snap around. “Although I have no problem with him being a bit ‘damaged’ when I arrest him.” He saw by her smile that he had appeased her. “So we just hang around here until we hear that your husband is dead?” “Oh no, darling,” Nell smiled and came towards him slowly. She ran her hand over his bare chest, her eyes going quite warm. Lang was nearly taken in by her act. The woman was incredible. “We find Isabel and free her from whatever nightmare she has been forced to endure.” “You know where she is, don’t you?” “I think I know,” Nell told him. “That is not the same thing.” She got dressed, not bothering to hide from him. She came to sit next to him and met his eyes seriously. “We are kindred spirits, Lang Tolliver.” “I see that,” Lang smiled back at her. She was as much the chameleon as he prided himself to be. He cupped her chin in his and kissed her gently on the lips. “It’s a shame I couldn’t have met you first.” “You should not think this,” Nell shook her head, even as she moved to straddle his lap. “If I were not Jake’s woman first, we would not be in a position to help the pretty child.” She could feel his interest rising and she looked into his eyes. “Perhaps later, once Isabel is free and the nightmare is ended, we can discuss a possible friendship.” “I don’t think friendship is the right word,” Lang laughed and pulled her into his arms. Much later, he looked down into her sated eyes and thanked whatever fate had put her there. “You know who has her, don’t you?” “Her name is Liza Stoner,” Nell told him. “If Isabel is with her,” she continued as she clenched her fists, “then we have got to find her soon. Liza is a gifted drug designer. She will have the girl believing she is a codfish, if we don’t get to her.” “Do you have any idea where she would have taken Isabel?” Lang asked as they got into the car. He called the office and gave them the information they had. “Family holdings? Vacation properties?” “My only contact with the woman,” Nell told him as she knew she had to share a part of her own experience to help the child, “was when she gave me drugs to turn me into a pleasure slave for Enrique Alvarez.” She looked at Lang fiercely. “We have to get to Isabel, Lang. She’s just a child!” . * Isabel woke up several hours later feeling much better. She hated the thought of being sedated but, obviously, it had been the right decision. She heard someone moving nearby and sat up to watch as a strange woman laid out a long gown of white silk. She uncuffed her and Isabel got dressed. She sank down at the table where a meal was waiting for her and ate. Today was the day she would learn why all of this was happening to her. She still could not shake the feeling that she was not going to be happy with the outcome of this trial that was being arranged. But how could anyone believe that she had any part in the con that Olivia and Roger had been discussing? The door opened and Sebastian came into the stateroom. Emilio and Guillermo pulled her to her feet and held her as he looked at her in disgust. “It will do,” he nodded to the woman. “No shoes,” he shook his head. “This one will go barefoot before the Council.” “What is going on?” Isabel asked as he led her out of the stateroom. “No questions, Isabel,” Sebastian told her as they entered the elevator and went up one level. “Let this happen as it will.” Just outside the lounge, he cuffed her wrists behind her back. Then he cupped her chin in his hand and looked down at her sternly. “There in only one rule for you now: since your status is under dispute, you must stay silent until you are asked to respond.” He laid his fingers on her lips as she started to protest. “No matter what happens, Isabel. Your freedom depends on it.” The guards opened the lounge doors and Sebastian pulled her forward. He led her to the center of the lounge and forced her down onto her knees. She looked at the twelve men seated along the table in front of her. Sebastian’s hand remained on her shoulder as a warning. She didn’t know what was going on, but for some strange reason she believed he meant to help her. “This is the child whose status is in question,” Sebastian said and bowed his head to the Council. “She awaits your judgment.” “This one claims descent from the Alvarez,” Orlando Sandoval, the orator for the Council said as he rose to his feet. “Is there any who can confirm or deny its claim?” “I deny it, Your Honors,” Olivia said as she rose from a chair at the back. “This girl was in my care for 18 years,” she continued as she came into the center of the lounge. “She knew that I was working a con on the Alvarez family.” “And you, brother of the Alvarez,” Orlando asked, “what part in this do you hold?” “As disputor,” Enrique said coldly. He heard his brother’s gasp and hid his smile. “The woman was known to me, Orator. She is a con artist.” He looked at Isabel who was looking as shocked as he knew she would be. “This female is not the daughter of the Alvarez, but the child stolen from Dr. Charles Stoner and his wife, Dr. Liza Stoner.” He held up a folder. “I had her tested.” “If this is true,” Orlando frowned as the folder was retrieved and brought to the Council by a guard, “then this female has wronged the Alvarez.” “I claim my right as second son to stand as punisher,” Enrique spoke up as the results made their way down the table. “You would punish this child for something she had no knowledge of?” Ricardo spoke up as he looked over the DNA results. It was true; Isabel was not his daughter. “It remains to be seen if she was innocent of knowledge, hermano,” Enrique said coldly. “I shall find this out and she will be vindicated or punished as the answers are made known.” He looked over at Isabel and saw her starting to protest. “She has no voice here, Guerrero. Silence the animal.” Guerrero took out a silk handkerchief and used it to gag Isabel. She couldn’t believe this was happening to her. How could she have thought that he was going to help her? She glared at him and saw regret in his eyes. Confusion filled her. What was the truth here? She had been told she might be Ricardo and Cassandra’s daughter and now she was learning she was Liza’s child. But instead of being allowed to go to her mother, she was being tried as an accomplice to a crime she had no knowledge was actually being committed. “Do you argue his right, Alvarez?” Orlando asked her father. “It is his right,” Ricardo replied, looking as if a truck had hit him. “I will accept his proof and await the answers from his interrogation.” Isabel whimpered and Guerrero’s hand squeezed her shoulder, warning her to stay still. She closed her eyes and began to pray. This couldn’t be happening to her. Her life had become a complete and total nightmare. The Council filed out of the lounge and Isabel knew her very sanity depended on what they decided in their deliberations. She looked over at Enrique and he smiled back at her, satisfaction plain. He was doing this on purpose, she realized. For some reason, he wanted to make certain she and her father were never allowed to be together. He looked past her and she turned to see the Council returning. “The proof has been reviewed,” Orlando said solemnly. “The deliberations have been made. In accordance with our laws and traditions, this female will face interrogation at the hands of the Alvarez punisher.” “You are not allowed to question, only answer.” Enrique said as Sebastian removed the gag. Enrique came to look down into Isabel’s eyes. “Do you understand this, child? “I understand that you are…” “A simple yes or no is all we require of you, child,” Enrique said coldly as he clamped his hand over her mouth. “Do you understand?” He leaned down. “Because if you do not, I will have Guerrero gag you again.” “Yes,” Isabel choked as he squeezed her arm. “Very well,” Enrique nodded, satisfied that the interrogation would now go as he wished. “You were raised by a woman named Olivia Chambers. Is this correct?” “Yes.” “And did you overhear her conversation with Roger Hancock,” he asked her coldly, “in which they were discussing passing you off as an Alvarez?” “Yes.” Isabel nodded. “But, I…” “We require no explanations from you, child,” Enrique said as he squeezed her arm again. “Your mother put you in front of a member of the Alvarez family and he believed you to be his relative,” Enrique asked, “didn’t he?” “Yes.” Isabel saw the triumph in his eyes then and knew she was lost. He would twist her answers around to make it appear that she had not only had full knowledge of her mother’s con, but had gone along with it. She watched as Enrique held a book up in front of her eyes. It was Olivia’s journal. She had seen it lying on Olivia’s desk in the study many times during her childhood. “You recognize this book, child,” Enrique said as he held it up to her. “It is Olivia Chambers’ journal, is it not?” “Yes.” “I submit the following passages into evidence,” Enrique smiled and turned towards the camcorder as he opened the book. “Friday, June 14th: I received a phone call regarding the blood tests. They confirmed that Isabel was not the daughter of Ricardo Alvarez and Cassandra Talbot, as we had hoped. Roger and I decided to go ahead with our plan to con Alvarez anyway.” He heard Isabel gasp and shake her head. “Later that same day, Olivia Chambers writes: Called Gordon Talbot and told him I had his niece. Suggested he meet her at the opera. He accepted.” Enrique turned toward Isabel, enjoying the despair he saw in her eyes as she realized she was lost. “You have heard it from the child’s lips and her mother’s writings. I submit to the Council that this animal had full knowledge of the con her mother was planning.” He looked down at Isabel and saw the anger in her eyes. “I await your judgment.” He nodded to Sebastian and she was gagged. Isabel could do nothing now. She could only watch and listen. The men of the Council looked at her as if she were an abomination. Ricardo looked at her as if she had driven a knife into his heart. Isabel felt as if her heart were breaking. Orlando rose to his feet and came towards her. In his hand, he held a golden tube. He pressed it and Isabel watched as the end of it began to glow. He handed it to Enrique. “It is agreed,” Orlando said, not bothering to look at Isabel, “this female has wronged the Alvarez. As punisher for the house, it is yours to choose her fate.” “Through her a child was thought regained,” Enrique said solemnly. He pressed the tube to her arm, “she shall be rendered incapable of bearing children.” “No!” Rafael cried out, knowing this was where he spoke up. He had to. “I would suggest an alternate punishment.” “The Council will listen,” Ricardo spoke up before Orlando could. “Despite the fact that she overheard a con being plotted,” Rafael said as he stepped forward, “there is no proof that she was willingly involved. I believe she was an innocent tool and should not be punished unduly for crimes she was unaware she was committing. I ask that she be turned over to me, to become my wife. She will live out her days, giving children to the house of Alvarez to replace the one she was meant to masquerade as.” “I have no objections,” Enrique bowed his head. “My son’s suggestion is soft, given the immensity of the crime, but just.” “So it is said,” Orlando nodded, “so it shall be done.” He looked at Isabel then in disgust. “You would bring this person into your family, Alvarez?” “It is just,” Ricardo said before Enrique could. “She was only a tool.” Isabel was helped to her feet and freed from the cuffs. Rafael came forward as Sebastian removed the gag. He took her hand in his and slipped a ring on it. Then he nodded to the Council and took her out of the lounge. He kept a grip on her wrist as took her up the stairs to the helipad. Enrique and Olivia were already aboard, waiting for them. The helicopter lifted off the cruise ship and headed off. “You are going to make my son the envy of every man on the planet, Isabel,” Enrique smiled as he bowed his head to her. He heard her whimper and smiled. He turned her eyes to his. “I had to do something, pet. My son would never speak to me again if I allowed you to come to any true harm.” “You’re vile!” Isabel shot back at him. “I am your father now,” Enrique frowned at her. “You will not speak to me so.” “I am not your son’s wife!” Isabel cried, remembering no ceremony. “You heard the Council agree to the union,” Enrique laughed. He pulled her hand up. “You wear my son’s ring. The union will be legally filed before we arrive at our destination.” He shook his head at her. “It is done, Isabel. You are now Rafael’s wife.” Isabel shook her head in disbelief. This man said it was so, and those men in the lounge said it was so, and that made her a wife? It couldn’t be legal. She wasn’t going to stand for it! The moment she got a chance, she was going to get away from this lunatic and find her way back to her uncle Gordon. He would be able to tell her if this was legal. He would be able to protect her from this madman. She saw Enrique watching her closely and turned her head away. Rafael put his arms around her and glared at his father coldly. There was a gentle thud as the helicopter landed and the door was opened. Rafael lifted Isabel down onto the ground outside of his family estate. “We will be going to the opera tonight, Rafael,” Enrique told his son. “You and your wife will join us.” Isabel went with Rafael. There was nowhere she could go. They were surrounded by mile after mile of grounds. She didn’t want to die needlessly. She wanted to bring this bastard to justice for what he had done to her. Rafael led her into the house and upstairs to the right. At the end of the corridor, he opened a set of immense teak doors at the end. He stepped aside to allow Isabel to enter first. The room was larger than any room she had ever seen in her life. A silver haired woman waited for them. “Isabel, this is Dora,” Rafael said as he nodded towards the short, round woman, “she will be your attendant when we are here.” He kissed her on the forehead. “She will help you get ready. I will go into the other room.” Dora led her to a door to the left and she found herself in a bathroom. The woman began to run water into the tub as Isabel looked around. She had never seen so much marble in her life. “You will bathe now,” Dora said as she poured a perfumed oil into the tub and the scent of roses filled the air. “I will be just outside if you require any assistance.” Isabel waited until the door had closed and then she undressed and slipped into the water. The warmth chased away some of the chill that had hit her. She remembered this scene, she thought to herself. This was where the new harem bride prepared for her first night with the sultan. Isabel fought the hysteria that was mounting inside her mind. She washed quickly and shampooed her hair, then stepped into the shower to rinse off. She found a robe and put it on. Dora opened the door just as she was heading towards it. She took Isabel over to the vanity and sat her down. “You are a beautiful young woman, Senora Alvarez,” Dora smiled as she combed out Isabel’s hair. “You will give the Senor Doctor many healthy babies.” She frowned as Isabel whimpered. “I know it is frightening the first time a man takes you, Senora, but it is a natural act. It can be quite pleasurable if you do not fight.” Dora finished and they went into the room where Isabel found Rafael waiting for her. He held a glass of champagne out to her as Dora left them alone. Isabel took it and threw it into his face. She was not going to make this easy on the bastard and his father. He pulled the robe off her and used it to wipe his face. Then he sat back as Dora led her into the walk-in closet and chose a gown for her to wear to the opera. It was a simple gown that fastened at the shoulders and flowed over her body like a caress. He brought out a necklace of sapphire and diamonds and added a matching bracelet and earrings. He made her spin for him and pronounced himself quite pleased. He brought out a white mink stole and draped it over her shoulders, enjoying the feel of her silken skin as his fingers brushed her arms. He could feel every eye on him as he escorted her into the theater. He strutted like a peacock and smiled as he introduced the girl to his associates. They were quite pleased to hear he had married. They were quite envious that his new wife was so exquisite. They arrived in their box and Enrique saw her to her seat next to Olivia. Once the opera started, she tried to concentrate on the opera. The anger in the voices behind her was very distracting. She turned to Olivia, who was watching her closely. “You should be happy, Isabel,” Olivia told her. “Enrique would have done what he said, if Rafael had not agreed to marry you.” “Rafael wanted me,” Isabel said coldly. “He made no secret of that fact. His ‘sacrifice’ is meaningless.” “You are not a stupid woman,” Enrique said as he leaned forward in time to hear her comment. He kissed Olivia on the cheek. “My son would have done the same for you even if he did not have feelings for you.” “I should hate you,” Isabel said as she met his eyes. “Si, hija,” Enrique nodded, looking suddenly very ill at ease. “You should.” He cupped her chin in his hand saw her as she truly was; a frightened child. “I was wrong to do this to you.” He did not see Alejandra as she listened from out in the corridor. “I am going to make it up to you, Isabel. In the morning, I will turn myself over to the Council for judgement.” The first act intermission sounded and they went down to the bar. They met Gordon there with his date, Tabitha Evans. Rafael excused himself a moment and Isabel felt abandoned. She looked back and her uncle. To say Gordon was not pleased at seeing them there, and together, was understating things a great deal. “Director Talbot,” Enrique smiled coldly at the man, “and the beautiful Dr. Evans!” He bowed over hand. Then he drew Isabel forward. “I believe you know my daughter-in-law?” “How did you begin as a kidnap victim,” Gordon asked once Enrique was out of sight, “and return home married to that bastard’s son?” “Kidnap?” Isabel looked at him in confusion. “I wasn’t kidnapped, Uncle Gordon. I was on a cruise with my mother.” She knew what she had just said was a lie, but she couldn’t let Liza get in trouble for what had been done. “Rafael happened to be on the same cruise. We spoke, we danced, we grew quite fond of each other.” “But Rafael Alvarez?” Gordon shook his head. “He is…” “Telling my bride lies about me already?” Rafael smiled as he joined them. He put his arms around Isabel and kissed her shoulder. “I was just getting to that,” Gordon frowned as he saw the way Isabel responded to the man. The lights flashed signaling the end of the intermission. “Perhaps another time?” “Perhaps.” Rafael nodded. He held his arm out to Isabel and led her away. When they got back to the box, Enrique and Olivia were gone. He sat down next to her and took her hand in his. “I pray one day you can forgive my father for what he did.” Isabel looked at him and he nodded. “I would be lying if I said I was unhappy at the thought of you as my wife, Isabel,” he continued as he brought her hand to his lips. “I would have preferred to court you properly and let you choose me willingly. He poured them both a glass of champagne from a bucket someone had left there for them. “Will I be wearing this one?” “I don’t think so,” Isabel smiled at him shyly. She sipped at the drink and wrinkled her nose as the bubbles entered her nose. “It’s bitter.” “Dip one of the strawberries into it, querida,” he said as he pulled up a basket of fruit; a gift from the theater manager. She did as he asked and he watched as she brought the berry to her mouth. She bit into it and enjoyed the bitter and sweet. “Better?” “Should I be drinking this?” Isabel giggled after the second glass. “What is the legal drinking age in this state?” “I think you are safe, querida,” Rafael told her, delighted by her. They enjoyed this interlude. The opera ended and they went out to the limousine. Halfway home, Rafael suddenly realized that they were not headed in the right direction. He frowned as the car began to slow down. “Diego? What is happening?” “It would appear that there is an accident up ahead, Senor,” Diego replied. “I can turn off up ahead and take the back roads for awhile.” “I don’t think that’s wise,” Rafael shook his head. When Diego did it anyway, he knew they were in trouble. “Diego. What are you doing?” The glass partition rose up between the front and back and he saw Isabel’s fear. He pulled her into his arms and held her so she couldn’t see the rage in his eyes. “We’ll be all right, querida,” he said as gas entered the back compartment. “I have you.” * Enrique woke up and found himself tied into a chair in a warehouse. He looked around for his wife and there was no sign of her. He tried to work his hands free of the ropes and had just loosened the knot when he heard several men moving in around him. A man stepped forward, his features hidden behind a mask. What was going on here? A needle entered his vein and he felt his mind begin to spin. They had used drugs on him? “We will have the truth now, Alvarez,” the man said coldly. He brought a chair up and set it in front of Enrique. “From the night you arranged the accident that killed your sister-in-law. Why did you do it?” “She was having his child,” Enrique said softly, his mind going back, “not mine! I meant only to frighten her.” “And when her sister was recovering after delivering her child prematurely,” the man asked, “why did you steal her child?” “To replace my lost Cassandra,” Enrique replied dopily. “I would have her raised to be the perfect wife, incapable of lies and treachery. And so she is,” his smile widened. “Isabel is an angel.” “And Cassandra’s child?” the man demanded. “What happened to her?” When Enrique shook his head, refusing to answer, he was struck. “What did you do to your brother’s child?” “I raised her as my own,” Enrique replied. “For that is what she was meant to be! Alejandra is Ricardo’s child.” He looked over at his son, who was eyeing him in shock. “As is Rafael. I stole my brother’s woman and she was already pregnant with his child!” “Tell us how you arranged things to bring the Council judgement down on Isabel,” the man suggested. “It was quite easy,” Enrique smiled. “I went to the woman I had chosen to raise her, Olivia Chambers, and suggested she add some things to her journal. In exchange, I would allow the woman to live.” He looked defensive. “It had to be done. Isabel was meant to be my tool to wield against her family.” “Who helped you abduct her, Enrique?” “Not abduct,” Enrique muttered, growing more uneasy with every minute. “I alerted the Council and they sent their Captain to secure her for trial.” His eyes went wild. “I had to do it! Isabel belongs with the Alvarez!” “Is that why you had Roger Hancock killed?” “He meant to use her as a weapon against the Alvarez,” Enrique told his interrogator. “I could not allow this! He had to be punished.” He suddenly bucked as a shot rang out. There was the sound of someone rushing away as the Council erupted into action. Sebastian pulled his hood off and went to check on Enrique. The man was dead. The bullet had hit him dead center. He rose to his feet, closing the man’s eyes. Someone had snuck into a Council trial and killed the accused. What had they been afraid he would say? He had admitted to enough crimes to earn severe punishment, yes, but it was by the hand of the Council, not at the discretion of an outsider. He looked at Orlando and the others. “Someone has passed sentence on the man,” Sebastian frowned. “He is dead.” He snapped to attention. “Emilio! Guillermo! Call the guards out. Find the assassin!” He walked up to Ricardo and laid his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “I mourn with you, the loss of your hermano.” He looked at the others. “With the permission of the Council, I would take my nephew and niece with me.” They agreed and he went into the other room where Isabel was being held in her mother’s arms. “I am sorry we had to do this,” he said as he crouched down and laid his hand to the girl’s cheek. “The man who forced you into marriage to his son had to pay for his crimes.” “He was planning on turning himself over to you in the morning,” Isabel informed him and saw his stunned look. “He said he had to make amends.” Isabel looked up at him in distress. Then looked into the other room where Rafael was examining his father. “Where do I belong now?” “With your husband, hija,” Sebastian smiled at her, “unless you wish it otherwise.” He nodded as she looked at him. “Your mama and I will take you home with us if you prefer. Give you time to recover and then start to build a life for yourself.” “Where is home?” “We will begin in your mother’s old penthouse,” Sebastian told her, “while the funeral arrangements are being made and the will prepared.” He got to his feet. “Once this is done, home is on San Matteo, the ancestral home of the Guerrero family.” “Maybe I want to stay here,” Isabel told them both, “in Baltimore.” “You won’t be safe here,” Liza cried out. She pulled Isabel closer. “After everything you have been through, Isabel, why would you want to stay here?” “I have friends here, Li…”” Isabel smiled at the woman shyly. “Mother.” She was rewarded by a warm smile and another embrace. She looked over at Sebastian. “Tell me you understand?” “You have lived a life with people telling you what to do,” Sebastian replied, frowning, “where to be.” He nodded. “It is time you have a chance to make your own choices.” He heard his wife’s cry of dismay. “It is for the best, Liza. Your daughter needs her freedom.” He laid his hand on Isabel’s shoulder. “If we leave for San Matteo and you do not wish to accompany us, we will honor that choice, hija. But know this, I will be leaving Emilio and Guillermo behind to keep watch over you.” He was astounded when Isabel got to her feet and threw her arms around him. The joy in her eyes made his heart melt. He was determined now to help her find her own way. He remembered watching her dance and saw a path opening for her. His Isabel deserved her chance to pursue a career, if that was her choice. There was knock on the door and he went to open it. Ricardo Alvarez came into the room. He went to Isabel and pulled her into his arms. “Our family has wronged you greatly, Isabel,” he told her bluntly. “Now I learn that Rafael is my son; and this makes you truly a daughter!” He kissed Isabel on the cheek, shook Sebastian’s hand, kissed Liza’s hand and left. “You have found yourself a protector,” Sebastian smiled over at Isabel. “He will see to it that no harm befalls you.” “Then I won’t need Emilio and Guillermo?” “Nice try, hija,” Sebastian laughed. “They stay or you come to San Matteo.” He helped Liza to her feet. “We will go to the penthouse now.” They arrived at the penthouse and Isabel was not surprised when Gordon came to join them. He had heard about Enrique’s murder and had worried how it would affect his niece. He could see that she was hurt, and confused. She was also a bit angry at having learned that the man who had been her father-in-law so briefly had been behind every trauma in her life. How could he have done such heinous things? She went into the kitchen to get a cup of tea as the adults discussed options for her security. They meant well; she couldn’t fault their motives. The phone rang and she answered the extension on the wall in the kitchen. “You belong to us, Isabel,” Alejandra’s cold voice sounded over the line. “You will come home or people you love will start dying.” Isabel slammed the receiver down, and sank down against the wall. She lowered her head to her knees and shuddered. What was the girl thinking? She felt someone coming towards her and looked up to see Gordon standing in the doorway. He saw the fear in her eyes and sank down next to her. The feel of his arms around her made the chill go away. She told him what had just happened and saw the anger on his face. “Why can’t it be over?” Isabel sobbed. “We’ll make it be over,” Gordon promised her. He saw how exhausted she was and pulled her to her feet. “You should get some rest, child. It’s been a long day for you.” “I couldn’t agree more,” Liza nodded from where she was leaning in the doorway. “When I get back, Gordon, we need to talk.” * Morning came and the day dawned bright. Isabel stood on the balcony enjoying the sights of the city as it woke. She heard someone moving behind her and turned to see Liza setting the table. Isabel joined her and was surprised to see Sebastian in the kitchen, preparing the meal. There was lot she didn’t know about this man. What she did know was endearing him to her heart. She went to the kitchen and leaned against the door frame. “Can I help, Father?” Isabel asked. She watched as he nearly dropped a plate in his shock. “Do you know how to cook the potatoes?” he asked as he turned to smile at her. “Your Mama called them hashed browns?” “It’s not that hard, Father,” Isabel smiled back at him. She found everything she needed and went to work. “How would you like them? Just pepper. Just onion. Or both?” “Do it as you like it,” Sebastian said as he put his attention back to what he was doing. “No, querida,” he said softly when Liza came back to help. “Our hija and I are doing the cooking this morning.” The phone rang and Isabel nearly dropped the stick of butter she was holding. Sebastian answered. “Guerrero residence.” He listened and smiled at Isabel. “It is your amigo, Simon Tremont.” “Isabel!” Simon’s voice sounded over the line when she answered. “My goddess! I am in dire straits!” “What’s wrong, Simon?” Isabel asked him. “The young lady who was Clara in our production of the Nutcracker,” Simon sniffed, “has broken her leg. You must rescue us, Isabel!” “I don’t know…” “Please, goddess!” Simon begged her. “You will earn my undying adoration and devotion.” “I will come discuss the possibility with you this afternoon,” Isabel told him and held the receiver away from her ear as Simon squealed in delight. She hung up the phone and turned to her parents, smiling. “Simon wants me to take the role of Clara in their Nutcracker production.” “This is wonderful, hija!” Sebastian crowed. He nodded towards the fry pan. “Your hashed browns need your attention.” They finished cooking and settled down to the meal. Isabel watched her parents, overwhelmed by the happiness they shared. Despite the strange beginning of the life together, it was obvious to her that they loved each other. When the meal was done, and the dishes finished, her parents went with her to the theater. Simon picked her up and swung her around with a cry of delight. He turned to the other company members as he set her down on her feet. They all got on their knees, clasping their hands. “You don’t fight fair, Simon,” Isabel frowned as she saw this shameless ploy. She looked at her parents, so proud for her, then back at the company. “All right. I’ll be your Clara.” “It will not be hard for you, child,” Simon smiled, as he took her on stage. “You know all the solos and the company numbers. It is only the duets you have not done.” He motioned to a handsome young man with flame red hair and he stepped forward. “This is David Evans. He will be your prince.” “Evans?” Isabel looked at him closely and knew. “You’re Tabitha’s…” “Younger brother,” David finished for her with a nod. “We are a very large, rowdy Irish Catholic family.” He nodded over at Simon. “Tremont has spoken of your talent. He says you will pick up the duets without any problem. Shall we see how we fit?” He smiled as he suddenly lifted her up off her feet and held her over his head, and then through several positions. When he finally released her, he nodded. “You are a light as a feather! We’ll have no problem dancing together.” “All right, children,” Simon clapped his hands and they moved apart, “we will start with the opening number. Take your places.” He looked at David and Isabel. “You two go practice the duets in the studio.” “He’s a slave driver,” David laughed as he took Isabel by the hand and led her downstairs to the studio. “The first solo.” He told her what the steps would be and was astounded when she performed them with only a slight hesitation. She seemed to freeze every time he touched her. “You can’t seize up on me when I touch you, Isabel. It will throw off the lines.” He remembered what Tabitha had told him. “I am not going to hurt you.” “Can we do it again?” Simon watched them from the shadows as they moved through the first solo until Isabel had relaxed and it was performed almost flawlessly. He clapped his hands as he saw the chemistry build. This couple was designed for each other. He had been right in his choice of Isabel as a substitute for their fallen prima. They turned towards him, David annoyed, Isabel blushing. “You are perfection itself,” he said as he kissed Isabel on the cheek. “I knew you could rescue us.” He frowned. “Your parents think this is enough for your first practice. They say you have an appointment with a lawyer?” “My late father-in-law’s will,” Isabel nodded, with a frown. “I’d better go. I’ll be back later.” She smiled at David. “Thank you for putting me at ease, David.” “She is married?” David asked as he put a towel over his shoulders and wiped his face. “But she’s so young.” “It is a sad story,” Simon frowned. “One you will need to ask her about.” He eyed the boy closely. “I saw chemistry as you danced. Keep that up and this production will be a smash!” He laughed at David’s innocent look. “The company would like you to go over your first entrance with them, if you would be so kind.” “Yes, Master,” David bowed his head. While the practice continued, Isabel and her parents went to the attorney’s office. She was shown to a seat next to Ricardo. The lawyer looked up at her and smiled. Enrique had known how to choose a woman for his son. This child was exquisite. He opened his briefcase and pulled out the will. He knew there was going to be fireworks when he read this document. It had arrived at his office, witnessed and notarized, the morning before Enrique had been shot. He looked at Enrique’s children, the sullen Rafael, and the deadly Alejandra and smiled to himself. The boy would not care, but his sister would be quite angry. “Now that we are all here,” he said and had their attention, “we will read the will. It was changed the morning before Enrique Alvarez died. Some of you may not like what he says,” he looked pointedly at Alejandra and she scowled at him. “Some of you may be quite surprised,” he looked at Isabel. “Here it is in a nutshell: To Isabel Alvarez, all of the personal accounts and the estate. To Rafael Alvarez, the sum of 15 million dollars, 5 million of which he is to donate to the hospital of his choice in his father’s name; and the house in Pasadena, Maryland. To Alejandra Alvarez, the sum of 15 million dollars, and the yacht. To his widow, Olivia, the remaining properties, and funds held in trust in her name; valued at 30 million. The business accounts will be turned over to his brother, Ricardo Alvarez, in full.” “This is ridiculous,” Alejandra hissed. She turned on Olivia. “She was only married to my father for less than a week! How can he leave such a sum to her? And she,” Alejandra glared at Isabel, “is only my brother’s wife.” “It was his wish, Alejandra,” the attorney told her. “His will further stipulates that anyone who disputes his wishes will find their inheritance donated to whichever charities his widow deems worthy.” Alejandra stormed out of the office, the look she shot at Isabel filled with venom. “And you, Rafael? Do you share your sister’s displeasure?” “No,” Rafael replied. “I am frankly stunned that he would leave me so much. And,” he continued as he lifted Isabel’s hands to his lips, “I am pleased that he chose to place his trust in my Isabel.” “Isabel,” the attorney said once Rafael had left. “It would be advisable to make your wishes known as soon as possible.” “The house goes,” Isabel said, stunned by the will. Enrique had given her practically everything he owned. “I do not want it.” She looked up at the lawyer. “I can do that, can’t I?” “It is your property,” the attorney smiled at her as he put the will away. “You can burn it down, if you wish.” He rose to his feet. “The will has been filed,” he said as he handed her several checkbooks and a set of keys, “here is your inheritance.” He looked over at Ricardo. “There will be a meeting of the board tomorrow at 3:00 to discuss the transfer.” He turned to look at Olivia. “If you would remain, Olivia, there is one further item that your husband wished to address.” Isabel didn’t wait any longer. She left the room and ran right into Alejandra. The girl slapped her across the face. Rafael pulled her off as she went at Isabel with her claws. Alejandra pulled free of his hold and stormed off without a word. Rafael looked at the shock on Isabel’s face and he stepped towards her. Isabel backed away from him, shaking her head. She turned to find herself in her father’s arms. “You had better keep an eye on your hermana,” Sebastian suggested to Rafael, his voice cold and hard. “If she comes near my daughter again, I will hurt her.” He put his arm around Isabel’s shoulder and led her to the elevators. Liza followed behind them, pausing to glance back at Rafael and Ricardo. “He means it, Rafael,” Ricardo said to his nephew. “If you have any love left for your sister, you will keep her away from Isabel.” He saw the boy’s frown. “I would hate to bring her before the Council because she couldn’t keep her claws in.” He saw Rafael’s stunned look. “I will do it, Rafael, with great regret.” His eyes went deadly cold. “But I will do it.” He saw him look towards the elevator. “She is your wife, Rafael, but I think it best you go slowly now. Win her, as you would have, had you been allowed to court her.” Rafael nodded and went out of the building. He got in his car and followed the Guerrero car and wondered why it was pulling up in front of the Grand Theater. The car pulled off, leaving Isabel behind. He went inside in time to see Isabel writing a check out to the theater manager. The man hugged the girl and danced around the room. He set her down and held the check up for the other people to see. There was cheering and applause as he drew Isabel up on stage. “Our goddess has just given us enough money to keep the company running for the next decade!” Simon enthused. “But we digress. It is time to see how well our new Clara and her prince have learned their first solo.” He went to the piano and hit the opening chord while the other dancers filed off stage and took seats in the auditorium. “David. Isabel. When you are ready.” Rafael settled in the back row and watched as a tall, lean man with red hair moved into position. Isabel joined him and the way they fit together made Rafael feel very angry. As the solo continued that anger mounted. He should be the one with his arms around Isabel, not this rooster. He looked away as Alejandra slid into a seat next to him. She didn’t say a word. She could see from the rage in her brother’s eyes that he was nearly ready to be manipulated. Alejandra watched the dance and she could see what was disturbing her brother. Isabel and her partner danced as if they were joined to each other. “Meet me at the yacht, hermano,” she said as the solo ended and she rose to leave. “We will talk.” David smiled down at Isabel, amazed. They moved as if they had been dancing together forever. He found it hard to believe this was only their second try at the solo. Isabel blushed as people came up to praise them. It felt good to have people accepting her. David pulled her aside and smiled down at her. He pulled her into his arms and spun her around, much as Simon had. But unlike Simon, Isabel could feel that this young man was beginning to form an attachment to her. She pulled away from him and went over to Simon to demand an impartial critique of the solo. He gave it to her and she was annoyed. “Honestly, Isabel,” Simon told her truthfully,” Simon said to her as he noted her annoyance. “You dance it like that on opening night and the audience will be enraptured.” He looked over at David. “He is a good man, Isabel. He will not hurt you.” He motioned David over. “Run through the second solo. Once you have it, we will review it. Then practice is over for you both today. Snowflakes; to your places. We will run over your corps piece.” David and Isabel went downstairs and he described the moves to her. They went through the lifts until she was comfortable with them. Then they pulled it all together. Emilio and Guillermo took up positions outside of the studio and did not disturb them as they worked. Up until the point where David and Isabel froze; their eyes locked. David lowered his head towards Isabel and she looked up at him shyly, but unafraid for the first time. Emilio cleared his throat and David moved away. Isabel felt a wave of annoyance rush through her. They went through the second solo and then turned to leave. “Are they going to be around long?” David whispered as he leaned in close, in the subterfuge of moving a strand of hair out of her eyes. “If they aren’t here,” Isabel replied softly, “then neither am I. My new father has told me he will take me to San Matteo if I don’t accept their presence.” They moved upstairs and took their positions on the stage. The company watched as David and Isabel danced, their movements together perfectly in sync. There was thunderous applause as the solo ended. Isabel went to change and came out of the dressing room to see Rafael standing outside. She tried to move past him and he remained in the way. He was, in fact, making her back into the dressing room. Rafael closed the door and admired the way the exercise made her glow. An image of her in his bed entered his mind and he sighed. “What do you want, Rafael?” Isabel sighed as she sank down on the couch. “The man who called himself my father is gone now, Isabel,” he told her as he came to sit near her. He frowned as she got up and moved away. “I would make my intentions plain.” “Stay away from me,” Isabel warned him as he got up and came towards her. She felt behind her body and her fingers came across the jar of face cream. She held onto it. “I will hurt you.” “You?” Rafael laughed, seeing her as no threat at all. “Come now, Isabel. You can not expect me to believe this virginal attitude when I saw the way you danced with that rooster.” He pinned her into the corner of the room and ran his hand along her cheek. He caught her arm as she brought the jar towards his head and made her drop it. “As much as I know I should go slowly with you,” His hand cupped her chin and he lowered his head so that their lips were nearly touching. “I can’t.” “Get away from me!” Isabel screamed and the door to the dressing room burst open. David pulled Rafael off of her and took her in his arms. He glared at Rafael, who had the good sense of bowing his head and leaving. David held her until she stopped shaking. He released her just as Emilio and Guillermo came running in. They saw the distress on her face and glared at David. They only halted when Isabel told them what had really happened. “Where were you two?” David demanded of them. “He could have hurt her!” He looked down into Isabel’s eyes and saw her fear easing. “That settles it, Isabel. You and I are going to become an item. Wherever you go from this moment on, I will be right beside you.” He looked over at the two guards. “Along with Mutt and Jeff here.” “You don’t know what they are capable of, David,” Isabel protested. “You could get hurt!” “I’m willing to take that risk,” David told her fiercely, “if it keeps you safely away from that bastard.” “That bastard is my husband,” Isabel reminded him and saw him frown. “He would never willingly hurt me.” “We’re going to dinner now,” David decided. They left the theater; David checking to make certain the two men were with them. “There’s an Italian restaurant a block away.” He saw her look. “We’ve expended a lot of calories today and need to replace some of them.” They entered the restaurant and David insisted that they take the back booth. Emilio and Guillermo took the table directly in front of them. Then David launched into stories of his childhood, his early dancing career, and his hopes for the future. He turned the paper placemat over and asked Isabel for a pen. Then he wrote down all the moves for every one of their solo pieces. He had her look it over for a few minutes and then turned it over. “I’ve been told you have a photographic memory,” David smiled at her. “Prove it.” Isabel smiled and recited the moves for each solo word for word. “All right. You win.” “What do I win?” Isabel smiled at him, enjoying the way his hand was covering hers. “A walk along the moonlit river with the handsomest dancer in town.” “When does he get here?” Isabel laughed and looked around. She looked at him and her smile turned into a frown. “Oh. You meant you?” “You are a cheeky little monkey,” David laughed at her as he rose to his feet. He folded the placemat and handed it to her. “For future reference.” “Thank you for the kind offer, David,” Isabel smiled at him as she put the paper in her purse, “but I’m tired. Maybe some other night?” “Very well,” he nodded “Allow me to see you home then.” He went with her and the two men and opened the passenger door of his old station wagon for Isabel. Emilio and Guillermo climbed in back. They got to the penthouse and David insisted on seeing her to the door. He kissed her hand and then followed her father into the study. “She’s going to have trouble with that one, Senor Guerrero,” David concluded his report. “I think my suggestion is a valid one.” “It wouldn’t be because you are beginning to care about my daughter?” Sebastian asked the young man. He shrugged when David didn’t answer. “You have my permission to put on your little act, David,” he told the young man, “but if you confuse her, frighten her, or make her life the least bit uncomfortable, I will have to hurt you.” “I assure you that my intentions are quite honorable, Senor,” David replied with a brief nod. “I won’t do anything to Isabel she does not allow.” “See that you do not,” Sebastian told him. David nodded and left the penthouse with a smile on his face. Isabel blushed as his gaze lit on her a moment and he winked at her. Seeing this, Liza frowned. Her daughter was forming an attachment, it appeared. Liza only hoped that this one would not end in death. She laid her hand on Isabel’s and her daughter looked up at her. There was no fear in Isabel’s eyes, only a calm that had Liza smiling. Isabel was all right. This Evans boy was no threat to her. It might actually be good for the girl to have the two young men fighting over her. Isabel needed to know she was not locked into marriage with Rafael, unless it was what she wanted. * Three weeks of nearly endless rehearsal passed and Rafael saw Isabel getting closer and closer to the rooster. They were never apart, and never alone. Emilio and Guillermo guarded them as if they were the most precious people on the planet. He had met with his sister and her suggestions had turned his stomach. He would not be part of turning this glorious child into a zombie so they could embezzle her inheritance from her. He watched them come out late the fourth night and stroll down towards the Harbor, hand-in-hand. They were very happy to be together. For a moment, Rafael almost let it be. But then he caught the rooster putting his lips to Isabel’s and his blood pressure mounted. No one would have their hands on this angel but him! The night of performance came and Rafael prepared to make his move. He sat in the audience with Ricardo, the man he had grown up believing to be his uncle, Gordon Talbot, the Tollivers, and their associated companions. Even his father was seeing someone these days. The performance ended and Isabel and David stood hand in hand to take their curtain calls. “Was it really as good as the audience thought?” Isabel asked as she and David went into the dressing room. “You were exquisite,” David smiled down at her. “You made me look good.” “How can you say that, David?” Isabel frowned. “You coached me the entire way.” She took the bottle of water and took it with her behind the screen. She sipped at it as she changed and put on a calf-length dress of midnight blue and silver. When she stepped out, she had to catch the screen. “I’m a little dizzy.” “Let me get dressed and I’ll escort you to the reception.” He moved into his dressing room, making certain that her watchdogs were in place. Isabel heard the door close and she sat down to wait. Her head was pounding now and her vision was blurry. She looked up to see Rafael coming into the room through the window. She ran for the door and he grabbed her, clamping his hand over her mouth. He dragged her along as he locked the door. Then he shoved her down on the couch and pinned her there. He kissed her roughly as she struggled to free herself from his hold. “I am going to make your choice easy, Isabel,” Rafael told her. “You will come with me now, openly and willingly, or I will have your rooster’s head.” He looked down into her angry eyes. “I know any number of ways to murder him and make it appear accidental, my sweet.” He ran his hand along her cheek, smiling coldly. “It would be such a shame for him to die before he has a chance for a career.” “You bastard,” Isabel hissed as he slid an engagement ring onto her finger above the wedding band she already wore. “You really think the heavy-handed approach is going to work with me?” “It had better, darling,” Rafael hissed as he wrenched her arm up behind her back, pinning her against his chest, “or the ballet world lose a promising young star.” He pushed the gown off of her shoulders and let it fall to her waist. “If it helps,” he said as his hand moved under her bra to stroke her breast, “close your eyes and think of your rooster.” There was a knock on the door and he pulled her to her feet and righted her garment. “Now put a happy smile on that pretty face. It is time to play for his life.” He unlocked the door and stepped back to admit Sebastian. “You overstep your bonds, Alvarez,” Sebastian told the young man. He watched Rafael step away from Isabel. “It is my right,” Rafael replied coldly. “Isabel is my wife and I will have her at my side, where she belongs.” “What if I don’t want to be there, Rafael?” Isabel snapped at him. She looked over at her stepfather. “Tell me I have a choice in this matter.” “I hate to tell you this, hija,” Sebastian frowned. He went to get them each a bottle of water and still remained quiet. “It is time you knew how things work for us.” He sank down on the couch next to her. “You married into the most powerful house in our Council; a house where divorce has never been allowed.” “You’re telling me I have to stay married to Rafael?” Isabel got to her feet, shaking her head in refusal. “I would rather be a nun!” “That is not an option,” Sebastian told her bluntly. “The only way you would be free is if it were proven you were unable to carry a child.” His eyes narrowed as he looked at her seriously. “Do you wish me to arrange the tests?” “It would prove only that I am fertile,” Isabel told him, frowning. “There is no medical reason I can not have children.” “Then it is done,” He took Isabel’s hand in his and led her out of the dressing room. “Come along, hija. Your adoring public awaits.” Isabel entered the hotel and went to the reception on her father’s arm. Simon approached, a huge bouquet of roses in his arms. He bowed to her dramatically and held the roses out to her. He beamed as she took them and then kissed his cheek. She turned and curtsied to her mother, handing Liza the roses as an acknowledgement of her mother’s part in her talent. Liza began to cry and Sebastian took her aside until she could control herself. “To the most glorious Clara it has ever been my honor to direct,” Simon beamed. He turned as David came into the room and shook the man by the hand. “And to our Prince! Well done, David!” He turned to the guests. “Enjoy your evening, my friends.” David took a step towards Isabel and found his way blocked by Sebastian. He looked up at the man and frowned. His frown darkened as Rafael put his arm around Isabel’s waist. Isabel did not object as he raised her hand to his lips, but she did not meet his eyes. Sebastian picked up a glass and struck it with a fork. The room silenced, as he raised his glass towards his daughter. “A toast,” he said, hating the need to do this. “To my daughter, Isabel, and her reunion with her husband, Dr. Rafael Alvarez.” Rafael lifted Isabel’s head and kissed her gently. David could see there was no love there, at least on Isabel’s part. She accepted his touch, his claim, as if she had no choice but to do so. It was like watching a merger of houses from the Middle Ages, not a union of souls and hearts as it should be. Why was she doing this to herself? He stepped towards the ‘happy’ couple and his own sister prevented him. He shook her hand off of his arm and held his hand out to Isabel. “A dance, Isabel?” Isabel could feel Rafael stiffen beside her and that was enough incentive. She took David’s hand and they moved out on to the dance floor. A tango began to play and she smiled. The sight of her dancing such with David would drive Rafael wild. It didn’t matter to her; she was going to make certain that Rafael knew how displeased she was with being forced to remain married to him. “So I take it you are not free to pursue your ballet career,” David frowned as they moved together to the center of the floor, “and a friendship with me?” “I will have what I want,” Isabel told him fiercely, “no matter what Rafael Alvarez thinks.” He spun her and everyone else moved off and watched as the couple danced. Isabel threw herself into the dance; allowing herself to feel the emotions, display the emotions this dance called for. When it was over, she and David were panting, their eyes were only for each other. She laid her head against his leg and he raised her up slowly, his eyes never leaving hers as they moved into a waltz. They didn’t even notice that no one else was on the floor, not until the applause started. They came out of the trance and moved back to their respective places: Isabel to stand at Rafael’s side, and David to move freely about the room. “You have proven quite a formidable young woman, Isabel,” her father said as he came over to claim her for a dance. “I would tread more carefully, child. Rafael is not a fool.” “No, he is not,” Isabel frowned up at him. “He is the man I had to marry.” “Then is it not fortunate for you,” Sebastian said, his expression quite serious, “that he loves you?” He felt her stiffen and looked down to see the shock in her eyes. “He could have refused to marry you, Isabel. His love for you, the need to keep you safe, made his refusal impossible.” “Alejandra?” Isabel guessed. Her father nodded and she frowned and looked over at Rafael. It would appear she had been mistaken in him. “That little scene in my dressing room…” “Staged for his sister’s benefit,” Sebastian finished for her. The dance ended and he returned her to Rafael. “It might look better, Rafael, if you danced with your pretty wife?” Rafael bowed his head and took Isabel by the hand. As he took her in his arms she caught a flash of his true feelings in his eyes. Then they were dancing, his expression arrogant, possessive. Despite the chill of his act, he was no slacker on the dance floor. He moved with an assurance she would never have expected. Despite her misgivings, she began to feel something stirring to life within her. She looked up into his eyes, stunned. The dance ended and he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. She did not fight and the kiss was far more pleasurable than she could have imagined. They moved over to her father’s side. Rafael was about to say something when his beeper went off. He checked it, bowed, and left her alone. “It appears, daughter,” Sebastian said as he leaned down to whisper in her ear, “that the thought of him as your husband is no longer as repellent as it was?” She blushed and he had to hide his smile. “If you do not wish this union, I will speak to Ricardo about it. As head of your house, he is free to dictate to Rafael.” “And I will not do so,” Ricardo said as he joined them just then. “It was quite obvious from the way they moved together that Rafael and Isabel belong to each other.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Do you realize that you had the libido of every male here on overdrive during that tango?” He looked around the hall. “I believe there are many here who are still struggling to control themselves.” She blushed as he held his hand out to her. “Let us show them what the Alvarez can do.” Isabel nodded and went out onto the dance floor with him. This evening was certainly turning out much more pleasantly than she had thought it would. Ricardo had not been boasting about his dance prowess. He was powerful, commanding, and assured. When the dance ended, the temperature in the room appeared to have risen quite considerably. She could see the women’s eyes running over her father-in-law appreciatively. This pleased her. It was time the man found another woman to love. “It is time we were leaving,” Rafael said coldly as he came to Isabel’s side later. “I would be alone with my wife, Guerrero.” Sebastian nodded and signaled Emilio and Guillermo. They followed Rafael and Isabel outside and stayed a discreet distance away as Rafael led Isabel down to the riverfront for a walk. They did not speak for a long time. When they did, it was at Rafael’s instigation. He put his hands to her arms and leaned forward to put his lips nearly to hers. Isabel quivered in his arms and he knew that her father had told her the truth. He frowned. It was not a decision he would have agreed to. “You must struggle, Isabel,” he whispered against her lips. “You are supposed to be angry at this forced marriage, remember?” She did so and he nodded. “When I release you, I want you to slap me and storm off. Do not hold back. It must be believable.” “You bastard!” Isabel hissed and did as he told her to do. “Good girl,” Rafael whispered as he watched her storm off, her guards falling in behind her. He put his hand to his cheek, shaking his head. She had far more strength in her arm than Isabel’s delicate appearance would have one believe. He heard soft laughter from the shadows nearby and knew he had been right. “Did you enjoy the view, hermana?” He turned on her, eyes blazing. “I will not be watched! Go find yourself a man of your own!” “So touchy!” Alejandra laughed as she came out of hiding. “One would think you did not want this alliance.” She laid her hand on his arm and looked up at him coldly. “We know better, don’t we, hermano? The thought of the sweet Isabel in the hands of that ‘rooster’ was driving you mad. Is it not good, then, that he would have no longer been a problem after tonight?” “What are you talking about?” Rafael hissed down at her. “What game are you playing now, hermana?” “No game, Rafael,” Alejandra smiled at him. “I have just learned that David Evans has accepted a position as instructor at a school for the arts in Minneapolis. He will be leaving at the end of the week.” As Rafael hissed in anger, realizing that, once again, he had been duped by his sister; Isabel was back at the reception, looking up at David in shock. She waited for him to laugh, tell her it was a joke, but he did not. She looked at his sister and she nodded confirmation. Her friend was leaving her. Isabel bit her lip to keep from crying and ran. David started to go after her and Tabitha laid her hand on his arm and shook her head. She was right, he saw as Isabel went to her father and mother and they left. “You could have told her the truth, David,” Tabitha told him as they joined Gordon for a late dinner. “I would rather leave her with a happy lie,” David told her, “than a harsh reality.” He saw Tabitha frown. “I know you don’t agree, Tabby. This is my choice, and I would appreciate it if you did not ruin it by telling her the real reason I am going.” He looked over at Gordon. “That goes for you as well, Gordon Talbot.” “I will not betray your confidence, David,” Gordon told him. “She’s going to realize something is wrong, however, if you don’t show up at your own sister’s wedding.” “Wedding?” David’s eyebrows rose in shock. He looked at his sister blushing, his friend looking proud but uneasy and laughed. “But this is wonderful!” He clasped Gordon’ hand and pumped his arm. “I couldn’t be happier for you!” He looked over at his sister and the imp returned. “Just don’t let her run your life, like she has mine.” “I’ll leave her a letter,” David frowned at them, knowing they were hoping he would change his mind. He was not going to destroy any chance that she could be happy with her husband by telling Isabel that he loved her; and he would, if he spent any more time around her. That was what he had decided; that was what would be. “So when is the happy day?” “When you come back home,” she told her brother stubbornly. She shook her head as he started to argue. “I don’t care, little brother. I am not going to marry Gordon until you are there to help us celebrate.” “But Tabby…” “It’s decided, David,” Gordon told him, joining in. “We are not going to let you off the hook.” * Isabel entered the theater the next day and there was a cloud over the crowd. They had just learned that David would not be continuing in the company. They looked at her as if she was the cause of this, and she couldn’t blame them. His decision to leave to teach had been very sudden. But, Isabel smiled to herself; it had been a good one. He was a very gifted teacher. She remembered how he had guided her through their solos. She sank down into a seat with the others and they relaxed as they noted how upset she was. Isabel was not a heartless diva, they remembered. Sebastian came out onto the stage and clapped his hands. “We will miss David Evans,” he acknowledged their grief, “but the Company goes on. Delphine Swan has been auditioning for the past two months to find his replacement,” he informed them and saw their shock as they realized he had known. “I would like to introduce to you, Michael Quinn.” A dark-haired man with steely eyes strode out onto the stage with the arrogance and assurance of his own importance. “He has accepted our offer to join the company. “Isabel,” he motioned to her. “I would like you and Quinn to perform one of the duets from the Nutcracker.” Isabel set aside her shrug and moved up onstage. She could see the man looking her over for some sign of worthiness. She did not like this man one bit. He had an arrogance that angered her. She waited for him to choose the duet and wasn’t surprised when it was the one where Clara and the Nutcracker never touched. He might as well have performed a solo, she thought ungraciously as she went to put on her slippers. She was surprised when Sebastian vetoed the choice. “I know how well you move on your own, Quinn,” Sebastian told the angry man. “I need to be assured that you can move with our prima.” He chose the duet and watched the man nod reluctantly. Isabel smiled at him and he winked. “When you are ready, children.” Isabel moved into her first position and waited for the man. The music started and he was quite assured. Every movement was exact. But the bond that she and David had enjoyed from the very first was missing. It robbed the performance of the magic. The duet was technically flawless, but lacking a very key component. Quinn nodded to her at the end and stepped away. Sebastian came up to them, frowning. “That was technically perfect,” he told them and watched the man nod. He could see Isabel waiting for more and knew she understood. “There was no magic!” he said and watched the man stiffen. “This is a dance celebrating first love, and you danced it like you were in a beginner’s class.” He looked at Quinn. “You need to find a way to connect with your prima on a deeper level, young man, or the audience will not believe the performance.” He nodded to Isabel, smiling. “He has not left yet, Isabel,” he said as he beckoned to someone off stage. “A farewell dance to show young Quinn what I speak of.” Isabel smiled as David came out of the wings. She embraced him with a cry of joy and he kissed her cheek, beaming. Then they moved into position and Quinn watched as the couple performed the same duet. He had to admit, he thought as he watched; there was something quite different in the way they moved with each other. They were inviting the audience into the dance with them, as well. He knew then that he still had a lot to learn. When the dance ended, he went up to David. They were deep in conversation when the doors at the end of the theater opened and Rafael strode down the aisle. Now there, Quinn thought, was a man who was sure of himself. He held his hand out to Isabel and she frowned. “Her husband, Rafael Alvarez,” David told him. “She doesn’t look that pleased to see him,” Quinn noted as Isabel gathered her things and went to Rafael. She allowed his kiss on the cheek as if it were a duty. “The marriage was arranged,” David said as he frowned. “They are still getting to know each other. He motioned to one of the ballerinas. “Now, do that duet with Martha using what I just told you.” Isabel paused at the top of the aisle and watched as Quinn moved in the same duet. This time, he appeared to capture the spirit of the dance perfectly. She smiled over at David and he bowed to her. Then she was dragged out of the theater. Rafael opened the door of his car for her and she slid in, frowning. He was certainly playing the part well. She could feel the bruise on her wrist. He stopped in front of Alexa’s and she looked at him in confusion. “Alejandra is helping you choose your gown today for our church wedding ceremony,” he said as he came to open the door. He kissed her on the lips roughly and stepped away. She did not have to pretend she was angry. She went inside as he drove away and found Alejandra waiting for her. “You might have preferred to wear your mother’s gown,” Alejandra said as she came forward, “but she and your father, Charles, were married in a courthouse ceremony.” She led Isabel to the seats. “And you should have a gown befitting a princess.” “You’ve already made some selections for me,” Isabel frowned. She could see Alejandra daring her to argue and nodded. “Very well,” she sighed. “Let’s see these gowns you think will suit.” Alejandra had chosen five and Isabel had to admit that they were lovely. But it wasn’t until the final gown, a concoction of silk and lace that brought to mind the courts of Spain in an earlier age that she was convinced. She went to try it on and was pleased as she saw her reflection. If she had not begun caring for Rafael, she would have refused to wear it. This was a gown to be worn by a woman in love. “You are exquisite,” Alejandra smiled at her as she came back out. “My brother will die of happiness at the sight of you coming to him down the aisle.” She saw the pained look on Isabel’s face and misread it. “He will be a good husband to you, Isabel. He adores you.” “To the point of madness,” Isabel frowned, knowing this lie was necessary. “I do not want this marriage, Alejandra.” “Surely by now,” Alejandra smiled at her darkly, “you realize just how little what you want matters, Isabel?” She was enjoying this immensely. With this one marriage, Isabel’s inheritance would pass into Rafael’s hands, and she would deal with him soon enough. She reached up to stroke Isabel’s cheek. “Don’t be angry with my hermano, Isabel. You are a very lovely woman, designed to drive men mad.” She turned to Alexa. “This is the gown. See that it is delivered to the Alvarez estate,” she continued and watched Isabel look at her in confusion. “We will have the wedding breakfast there.” Alexa helped Isabel change. Isabel got into the car with Alejandra and was surprised again when she took them to the estate. What was going on? She looked at her and saw the girl’s triumphant smile. Alejandra was up to something. Isabel knew that she would not be pleased one bit by what Alejandra was going to tell her. But Alejandra said nothing until they were settled in the lounge together with glasses of lemonade in hand. “As my brother’s wife,” Alejandra told her bluntly, “your place is here, Isabel. You will move in.” “I will not,” Isabel replied. “I have a life, Alejandra…” “Oh,” Alejandra smiled nastily, “by all means continue with your dancing, if it pleases you. But you will be living here,” she continued harshly. “Your belongings have already been brought, Isabel.” She smiled as she saw the girl’s eyelids drooping. “The Senora is weary from her long day. She will rest before dinner.” Isabel was pulled to her feet and she could not fight. She had obviously been drugged. She went with the servants who had been in the lounge and found herself inside Rafael’s bedroom. She looked around as they sat her down on the bed. Nothing had changed from the one day she had been here. She thought of Enrique now and wondered if he knew the monster he had created in Alejandra. Would he have been proud of her for what she was doing to her own brother and Isabel? She couldn’t push away their hands as the servants removed her clothing, put her into a negligee, and put her to bed. The last she saw, before the sedative took full effect, was the two women settling down in chairs by the door. Isabel woke several hours later and the servants had laid a gown across the foot of the bed. She went to take a shower and pushed them away as they came to help her dress. She was not helpless now; she would do this for herself. They stepped away and she could feel their disappointment. It was an honor for them to serve the Senora. Isabel relented enough to allow them to comb out and dress her hair. They followed behind her as she made her way downstairs. Rafael was standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting. His expression warned her that his sister was around somewhere close. “You are looking very lovely, Isabel,” he said as he held his arm out to her. He saw her to her seat next to his at the head of the table and bent down to kiss her on the shoulder. “Don’t be afraid, querida. I will be the best of husbands.” “Of course you will, hermano,” Alejandra purred as she came in. She sat down on his other side and smiled at Isabel. “I’m afraid Isabel was not happy at our little surprise.” “This became your home when my father died, Isabel,” Rafael told her coldly. “We knew you were speaking out of grief when you said you’d sell it.” He reached over to her and she turned away. He pulled her to him and kissed her, roughly. “You will learn that I am not to be refused.” “I will never love you,” Isabel exclaimed as she glared at him. “I do not require that you love me,” Rafael shot back. “I admit,” he corrected as he ran his fingers over her lips, “that it would make things much more pleasurable if you could learn, but it is not necessary.” He laughed down into her anger and confusion. “You are merely a tool, Isabel, meant to bring children into the house.” He hated having to say such things to her, but he could see from his sister’s expression that he had fooled her. “We will eat now. Tonight, I will come to you…” “You would not dare!” Isabel cried out in disbelief. “And why should I not? You are my wife!” Rafael broke in coldly. “It is time you learned how to please me,” he explained himself to her. “Eat!” Isabel rose to her feet, her eyes blazing with anger. She would not be talked to like this. She started to leave and he grabbed her and pushed her back into her chair. His look told her he would have her tied down if he had to. Isabel bit her lip to keep from screaming and turned to see the delight on Alejandra’s face. She ate then, knowing she had no choice. She did not speak again and the siblings were too busy gloating over her defeat to speak to each other. The meal passed in chill silence. When it was over, Isabel was taken back to her room. She was prepared for bed and lay there helpless to prevent what was about to happen. “I do not want to do this, Isabel,” Rafael whispered as he removed his clothing and joined her in bed. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her gently. “I will be gentle.” “Please don’t do this, Rafael,” Isabel sobbed. “It is not something you can undo.” “You are my wife, querida,” Rafael reminded her as he ran his fingers over her lips. He didn’t want to do this to her, but he needed to keep Alejandra appeased. It was the only way Isabel would remain safe. He took her lips with his and she whimpered. “Forgive me,” he whispered into her ear as he tightened his grip on her body. She whimpered in pain as he began to caress her body. “I don’t care if you want me, querida,” he laughed aloud as he looked down at her. “You are mine and I will take my pleasure from you.” He kissed her and she gasped in shock as he ran his tongue along her lips and into her mouth. He moved his hand down to stroke and caress, and she shook her head. This was no play-acting, her eyes told him. He was doing something that was frightening her. He smiled down at her, willing her to believe he would not harm her. When he parted her legs and moved between them, her eyes went wide as he slid inside of her willing body. She screamed and pleaded with him to stop as his thrust brought pain. He continued what he was doing, ignoring her wishes. She finally fell asleep and he collapsed on top of her, relieved. He was still holding her in his arms, stroking her hair as she slept, when Alejandra came into the room. “Did you never learn anything about boundaries, hermana? “She pleased you?” Alejandra saw his expression and knew. “That is good. It would have grieved me to trap you into this marriage if she had not.” She saw his shock. “Who do you think reminded her father of the laws regarding her future, hermano?” She looked at Isabel. “She is your wife and should give you many children before you die.” She laughed at his anger. “I have done you a favor, hermano. You said you wanted her,” she reminded him. She nodded to Isabel. “Here she is, sleeping peacefully in your arms.” “You will leave now!” Rafael hissed. “You’ll thank me for her, hermano,” Alejandra sniffed. She bowed her head and left the room. “And on that day, you will die,” she said once she was outside the door. * Somehow Isabel managed to look at Rafael when she went to breakfast the next morning. She had woken to find him gone and wondered why she had been disappointed. He had been true to his word. He had been gentle. She had been right to trust him. Any other man in his position might have simply raped her. He had not taken her until he was certain she wanted it as much as he did. She sat down and the maid put her plate in front of her. Once again the meal passed in silence. Rafael was called to the hospital, and she was left alone with Alejandra. “I have practice,” she said as she rose to her feet. “I am still allowed to pursue my career, remember?” she hissed when Alejandra stepped in front of her. Alejandra stepped out of the way, smiling at her coldly. Isabel wasted no time getting ready. Dancing, she would be free of the nightmare. She could find peace for a while. She was not surprised that several of the Alvarez guard went with her. They waited at the back of the auditorium as she joined the other dancers. Simon looked at them and then at Isabel’s face. His goddess was in trouble. He took her aside and she would not look at him. He raised her eyes to his and he could see the pain in them. “Simon is here for you, little goddess,” he said as he turned her back to the stage. He removed her shrug and saw the bruises. “He will kill, if you ask it of him.” He saw her trying to make up a lie and shook his head. “Do not excuse this, goddess,” he said firmly as he laid a gentle finger on her bruised arm. “There is no excuse.” “Please don’t get involved, Simon,” Isabel whispered as she raised herself en pointe to kiss his cheek. “I’d hate for anything to happen to you.” “Places!” Sebastian watched as she went into the wings upstage and waited for her entrance. The corps moved out onto the stage and began their dance. Swan Lake, he smiled, had always been one of his favorite ballets. His enjoyment was heightened at seeing Isabel perform. Whatever horror she was experiencing in her personal life, she was using it to fuel her performance. It was flawless. He insisted that the company remain at it the entire day. Isabel knew he was stalling for her and she loved him for it. She threw herself into the practice and began to relax. The enjoyment ended when Rafael arrived. “We have an evening planned, Isabel,” he said as he held his hand out to her. “You will not keep me waiting.” “What a bastard!” Quinn hissed to Simon as they watched him practically drag Isabel away. “This can’t be right.” He looked at the manager. “Arranged marriages? In this day and age?” “Places!” Isabel heard him call and was satisfied. She couldn’t let him come to harm for trying to help her. She went with Rafael without argument and he shoved her into the car. They drove to Alexa’s where she was waiting with a long sleeved gown in a rich black velvet. Rafael brought out a set of pearls and put them on her, smiling at her reflection. He added a bracelet and earrings and she was dressed. He went to kiss her cheek and she moved away from him. He couldn’t blame her for feeling this way. He hated himself for being forced to insist she return to him. “Isabel,” Alejandra smiled as they joined her at the opera. She kissed Isabel on the cheek. “You are looking quite beautiful.” She ran a finger along the strand of pearls, smiling. “Grandmother’s pearls suit you.” “Indeed they do,” Ricardo said as he joined them. He kissed Isabel on the cheek and repeated the gesture to Alejandra. Then he turned to Rafael. “Your bride is looking quite pale, Rafael.” “She was practicing all day, Father,” Rafael told him as he led Isabel to a seat; “and is worn out.” He went to sit next to her and Ricardo moved him to the back and took his seat. “You should be careful, child,” Ricardo said as he looked at her closely. “We do not wish you to fall ill.” He felt her shiver and wished he could save her from what they were doing. He turned to Alejandra. “I have found a husband for you, Alejandra,” he informed her. “He will be joining us shortly.” “I am too young to marry,” Alejandra protested. “Nonsense,” Ricardo told her. “You are the same age as Isabel, and she has already wed.” The door to the back of the box opened and a tall, square-jawed man stepped inside. He and Rafael rose to their feet. “This is Esteban Moreno,” Ricardo introduced the man. “Esteban, allow me to introduce to you your intended bride, my daughter, Alejandra.” “It is a pleasure, senorita,” Esteban looked at Alejandra, his dark eyes glowing. He bent over her hand and kissed it. “I look forward with great anticipation to the day I make you mine.” Alejandra pulled her hand away, glaring at him, at the man who had once been her uncle. She stormed out of the box. Esteban looked at Ricardo and shrugged. “She has no manners, that one.” “I trust you will add that to the lessons she will learn,” Ricardo replied. “I shall,” Esteban nodded. “I will leave you to your entertainment and go find my reluctant bride.” He smiled at them and left without another word. Ricardo turned to see Rafael and Isabel looking at him strangely. He took the seat vacated by Alejandra and left Rafael to sit on the other. Rafael took Isabel’s hand in his and she pulled it away, daring him to make an issue of it with his father there. Rafael lowered his head and she saw the pain in his eyes before he turned his gaze back to his father. “What are you playing at, Father?” “Your sister has been stepping above her place,” Ricardo replied, his eyes on the stage as the curtain rose. “She needs a man who will teach her how unwise this is.” He smiled as he thought of what waited for Alejandra. “In the Moreno tradition, she will be taken to their holdings and taught how to be a proper wife for their master. At the end of the year, she will be a bride, or she will be turned over to the Council to stand trial for her role in Enrique’s murder.” Rafael’s comment on his piece of news went unspoken as his beeper went off. He excused himself and placed a call on his cell phone. He was being called into the hospital. Ricardo saw her to her mother’s penthouse and left her in the care of Emilio and Guillermo. He left the men instructions that they were not to let her out of their sight, or he would have them blinded. Then he turned on his heel and left. He went to Rafael’s apartment and pounded on the door. His nephew was already halfway through a bottle of Scotch. Ricardo took the bottle and poured himself a glass. He set the bottle down and shook his head at Rafael. “Your sister only hired the man who shot my brother,” Ricardo told him. “That is the only reason she is not before the Council now.” “My sister has been warped by that monster’s tutelage,” Rafael frowned. “He meant me to become such a monster.” “You have too much of your mother in you, Rafael,” Ricardo smiled. He remembered Vanessa. He and Enrique had both been interested in the vibrant young woman. Enrique had won. “You could never be like that.” He sat back and relaxed. “So tell me, Rafael, do you truly love your pretty wife?” Rafael looked at him, frowning. “Because if you do not, she can be set free.” “She is my heart, Uncle,” Rafael told him fiercely. “She is my life! But,” he continued on truthfully, “if she does not want me, then I will not hold her.” “That is all I needed to hear,” Ricardo smiled and nodded. He raised his glass to his nephew. “I wish you a long and happy life, filled with many children.” * Isabel went about her life. She attended the practices, went places with her friends in the company and sold the estate immediately. The money was split as she had instructed it be done. She was in the middle of a duet with Quinn, when she caught sight of Rafael. He was not looking at all happy. They finished dancing and Quinn raised her hand to his lips. She could see that he was aware of Rafael’s presence. He didn’t care. She smiled as his lips moved up from her palm to her wrist, blushing. The amusement in his eyes told her that Rafael was visibly angered by their exchange. “I’ll hurt him for you, Isabel,” Quinn whispered as he took a step closer to her. “Uh oh!” Isabel turned as Rafael came storming on stage. He grabbed her arm and took her outside to his car. He didn’t say one word as he drove off with her. Isabel let him fume. She wasn’t going to let him off the hook. He had made a promise to her, if only with the thought of keeping her from harm, but he had made it. She had hated him for it in the beginning but now she had come to care for him, a great deal more than she would have thought possible. She had begun to wonder if making love to him had been the only reason for her change of mind. She bit her lip as she felt a blush rising on her face. “Thinking about your new lover?” Rafael hissed as he saw her blush and misread its source. “He isn’t the man for you, Isabel.” “He is not my lover, Rafael,” Isabel hissed back at him. “I am your wife now. You can’t seriously believe that I would cheat on you?” She saw him frown. “Why did you come to the theater?” The distress in his eyes was her undoing. Isabel pulled his lips to hers and felt him stiffen a moment. And then he was kissing her. All the anger melted out of her and she let herself respond. When the kiss ended, they looked at each other, overwhelmed by what had just passed between them. They went to the yacht and Ricardo was very happy at their news; they would remain together. He had the steward break open a bottle of champagne. “I was hoping you’d come to your senses, boy,” Ricardo smiled. “We will have dinner one night this week to celebrate. I shall ask Delphine to join us.” “Delphine?” Isabel asked. “As in Swan?” “I’ve been seeing her,” Ricardo nodded. He looked at the young people who were grinning at him. “She is a very delightful companion.” The next eight weeks sped by. Isabel and Rafael were blissfully happy as they had their church confirmation wedding. Ricardo proposed to Delphine and the woman was quite happy to say yes. The only negative note in all of it was the dark looks that Isabel was getting from Simon. It appeared her happiness was upsetting him. She couldn’t understand why. She would find him glaring at her and Rafael. He started to find ways to get her alone, and then he would just glare at her, unable to say anything, This was bad enough, but when someone started calling her at home and saying nothing, she knew she had a real problem. She could have given it over to someone in the family, but she was tired of everyone else fighting her battles for her. “You can’t remain married to him, Isabel,” Simon said as he came into her dressing room after dress rehearsal the night before the actual performance. “Of course, I can,” Isabel protested and tried to push past him. He pressed her deeper against the wall he had pinned her against. “I love him.” “You’re just a child!” Simon laughed. “What can you know about love?” He cupped her cheek in his hand. “I have watched you grow up, Isabel. Seen you turn into a glorious young woman, a gifted dancer. You will be chained to this place, unable to travel. You’re too young to be robbed of such opportunity.” “Rafael would never stand in my way,” Isabel frowned at him. “And when the babies come, Isabel?” Simon pushed at her. “Will you pack them up and take them with you?” “You’re confusing me,” she exclaimed. “It is my life, Simon. I will not let anyone, even you, talk me out of it.” “Talk to her, Delphine!” Simon snapped as the co-owner of the dance company came into the room. “Tell her what it’s like trying to juggle a marriage and a career as a dancer.” “I wouldn’t know, Simon,” Delphine replied, “I didn’t choose either.” Simon threw up his hands and stormed off. Delphine watched him go, frowning. She closed the door and turned to Isabel. “What was all that about?” “He thinks I’m too young to give up a career for the man I love,” Isabel told her. “He’s starting to frighten me.” “He always get like this before a performance,” Delphine told her, hiding her worry. “This one especially.” “Why this one especially?” “Because we have the Governor, the Mayor of Baltimore, and several other high-ranking officials and their spouses coming,” Delphine replied. “As well as the entire Council and their family members.” She saw the shock on Isabel’s face. “Ricardo and I are getting married two days later. They all want to be there.” She looked at her watch. “We’re going to be late for our fittings.” Simon watched them leave, his eyes narrowed in anger. He couldn’t let Isabel do this to herself. She would be throwing away a brilliant career to be a housewife! His Isabel deserved better than that! The world needed to see the goddess dance. He started to make a plan. Unaware of the mounting danger, Isabel and Delphine entered Alexa’s and Isabel sat back to watch as bridesmaids and maid of honor were fit in their gowns, silk gowns in colors and cuts that complemented their coloring. They sat back to watch as Delphine’s mother come out wearing an ivory gown with a matching jacket. Then it was Delphine’s turn. After the fittings, they went to the Italian restaurant down the street and went into the private room in back for what was supposed to be Ricardo and Delphine’s dinner with their families. Instead, Isabel was introduced to Sebastian’s parents, and brothers, and uncles, aunts, and cousins. The room was filled with laughter and Isabel had never been happier. There had been no engagement party for her and Rafael, so this party had been pulled together to change that little oversight. She was given family heirlooms as gifts; especially touched by the jewelry that had been kept in storage from the 1770s waiting for a daughter to marry. According to Sebastian, she was the first ‘daughter’ in his family. “But I’m not really your daughter,” she protested through tears of happiness. “I’m only your step-daughter.” “Ah, si,” Sebastian nodded as he kissed her cheek. “You notice however that you are still a ‘daughter.’ Does the degree matter?” He looked into her eyes and knew what it was about. This poor child didn’t know what it was like to have what they all took for granted. “I have only known you for a short time, hija, but in that time,” he continued as he cupped her chin in his hand so that she was looking at him, “I have seen you face trial after trial with a grace lacking in women of far more maturity. You have had people tell you what to do all of your life but it has not made you docile, only determined. I could not be prouder of you if you were my daughter by blood instead of marriage.” He was shocked when she burst into tears at his speech. He pulled her into his arms and held her. “You have family now, hija. You are not alone any longer.” “It’s been a long day,” Liza said as she met his eyes over Isabel’s head. “I think we should get our child home, Sebastian. She has a busy day tomorrow.” Sebastian nodded and helped Isabel to her feet. He watched closely as Rafael came to say goodbye. There was love there, he noted with relief. Being told that you had to marry someone because it was ‘law and tradition’ would anger anyone. Ricardo had told him how it had been between this pair. Alejandra had caused all of the trouble between them. He was glad that Ricardo had gotten to the girl first. He wouldn’t have gone the reeducation route. The little bitch would have gone straight to the Council. After everything that had been done to Isabel, it was the least he would have done. * Everything had gone smoothly that day and Isabel was in her dressing room finishing the makeup for her role. She wouldn’t let herself be scared; it was a waste of energy. She would need all of her energy to get through the ballet. Besides, once she got going, she would lose herself in the dancing. Nothing else would exist until it was all over. She looked up as someone knocked on the door and Emilio went to answer it. Simon gave her the fifteen-minute call, looking very uneasy. When he left, she looked at her guardians, Emilio and Guillermo. They were going to remain with her when her parents went home to San Matteo. “He’s up to something,” Emilio stated. “Guillermo and I will take turns keeping an eye on Mr. Tremont.” He nodded to her and went out. “We may not always show it, Senora Alvarez,” Guillermo said to her as she looked worried, “but we are loyal to you. We will do what we must to keep you safe.” He looked at his watch. “You have ten minutes,” he smiled and nodded towards the mirror, “Should you not be doing up the other eye?” When she was done, he escorted her to the upstage wing and waited with her. “Emilio will be at your exit point.” Isabel nodded and let herself forget everything but the dance. It was obvious that she had sufficient protection. At the end of the first act, she went to her dressing room where her parents were waiting. The guards were waiting in the hall. Liza embraced her and Sebastian kissed her on the forehead and nodded proudly. There was a knock on the door and Rafael and Ricardo came in with Delphine Swan, followed by Gordon Talbot and Tabitha Evans. She let them chat while she repaired her makeup and changed for the second act. “David is sorry he couldn’t be here, Isabel,” Tabitha said as she held out a card and a jewelry box. “He sent this.” “To my Clara,” Isabel read. She opened the box and there was a necklace with a pendant of two ballet dancers in a position from the end of the Nutcracker in gold for the male and silver for the female. “P.S. My students and I will be watching you. I have told them everything about my first and best student and they don’t believe me. Always your biggest fan, David Evans.” Isabel dabbed at her eyes and bit her lip. “He would make me cry during a performance.” “Isabel,” Simon called as he stuck in his head and tried to hide his frown at seeing so may people in the room, “fifteen minutes.” “Thank you, Simon,” Isabel nodded. She finished her water and repaired her makeup. Her family bid her goodbye and filed out. She was left with Emilio, as the others took their spots in the wings. “If I bet you there weren’t men prowling in the catwalks…” “You would lose, senorita,” Emilio replied. He checked his watch and nodded. “We should go.” The second act went wonderfully. Isabel went to her dressing room and wondered where her men were. They usually beat her to the door. She went inside and Simon was waiting there for her. He settled down on the couch and watched her remove her makeup. He didn’t say a word as she took a shower and changed into the dress she would wear to the reception. But when she started towards the door, he got up and locked it. He set her down on the couch, cupping her chin in his hand. “Why are you doing this?” Isabel demanded. “I need time to convince you to abandon this arranged marriage,” Simon told her, “and pursue a career.” “We’ve had this conversation, Simon,” Isabel cried. “I am not going to change my mind, so you might as well let me…” “I am going to take you with me to Reno,” Simon told her. “You are going to divorce that man!” “I am not going to go anywhere with you!” Isabel screamed. “I have a drug in here that will help.” He found it and found a syringe and clean needle. “You’ll be flying so high, you won’t mind what I am doing.” “Won’t mind?” Isabel snapped. “You’re abducting me, Simon!” “It’s for your own good, goddess!” Simon frowned. “You’ll thank me for this one day.” There was a loud pounding sound and he set the needle aside and went to check it out. He was pushed aside by her parents and family as they came in to congratulate her. Isabel watched Simon slip away, worried that he was not going to stop. She put him out of her mind and snuggled into her husband’s arms. They went to the reception for an hour and Isabel stayed with some member of her family so she was not left alone with Simon. The happy couple slipped out after performing all the token duties and were finally alone in the home, sharing a drink. “This is real, isn’t it?” Isabel asked as she gazed into her husband’s eyes. “I’m not going to wake up and be back with Olivia?” “I do not want to talk about that woman,” Rafael frowned at her. “The world is ours alone, querida. The past can not touch us; the present,” he smiled as he raised her hand and kissed her palm, “is sheer happiness; and the future is now written.” He saw her puzzled look. “At least 50 years?” He smiled as she nodded with a happy smile. “I am looking forward to some peace now, querida,” he said as he put his arm around her. “Our courtship has been much too exciting.” “I don’t think the excitement is over yet,” Isabel said as she remembered the threat. She saw his look and knew she had to continue. “Simon came into my dressing room after the ballet was over. He told me he was going to make me divorce you.” “Why would he do such a thing?” Rafael asked, puzzled at the man’s behavior. “I would never keep you from dancing. At least,” he continued as he took the glass from her hand and set it on the coffee table, “not until we were having a child.” He kissed her gently and she pulled him down with her. “A simple ‘thank you’ would suffice, my love.” “Are you saying you don’t want me, querido?” Isabel laughed. She tried to push him off and he held her down. “Little minx!” Rafael laughed. “You know how much I want you!” “Prove it!” Rafael pulled her up off the couch and took her to their bedroom. He showed her exactly how much he wanted her for some time afterwards. Isabel was on the way to join Rafael in the shower when his beeper went off. He came to answer it, smiling as she put her arms around him and laid her cheek against his back. It was the hospital. He looked down at her with true regret. “It’s what you are, Rafael,” Isabel assured him that she understood. “Someone else is in need of your talented hands now. Thankfully,” she continued as she kissed his shoulder, “for another reason than I.” She saw his worried look. “I’ll be fine,” she frowned at his worry. “Emilio and Guillermo are downstairs.” When he did not relax, she shook her head. “Come on, Rafael; this is Simon Tremont we’re worrying about! He’d never hurt me.” She shoved him back into the bathroom. “Finish your shower; someone needs you, Doctor.” She left him to his shower and went downstairs to the dance studio he had built for her in their basement. It was also a safe room, complete with every last security device; just in case. Isabel had told him it wasn’t necessary; Rafael had insisted. It was either this, he had told her, or moving in with his father. Though Isabel adored her father-in-law, she did not want to start her life with Rafael on a yacht surrounded by armed guards. Emilio and Guillermo were enough. She warmed up and put on a piece she adored for some freestyle dance. She turned at the end to see Delphine standing there. “What are you doing here?” Isabel asked as the woman came into the room. “Don’t you have some pre-wedding function to attend?” “I’m playing hookey,” Delphine told her. “As much as I love Ricardo, I am beginning to grow very weary of these functions of his.” She smiled as she noted Isabel’s understanding. “What say we go do something together, just us girls?” She remembered the men upstairs. “And your guardians, of course.” “I just need to shower,” Isabel nodded, pleased at the offer. “Fix yourself some tea or something. I’ll be fifteen minutes.” Isabel headed up the stairs and took her shower. As she finished dressing, she joined Delphine and they went to the movies. Isabel let herself relax and enjoy herself. This was the first time she had ever gone out with someone to the movies. She found herself thinking it would have been nicer if she were doing this with Rafael. After the movies, they went to the jewelry store to pick up the bridesmaids’ and groomsmen’s gifts. Delphine was showing Isabel the gift she had chosen for Ricardo when a man and woman came into the store. “Isabel!” Olivia smiled as she saw her former daughter. “What a surprise. Look who’s here, darling, our pretty Isabel.” “It’s nice to see you again, Isabel,” MacGregor bowed his head to her. “Captain MacGregor,” Isabel smiled in return. “May I introduce you to Delphine Swan. She’s about to become my mother-in-law.” She saw Olivia’s eyes narrow and wondered at it. Isabel could see the wheels in Olivia’s mind spinning. “So what are you doing here?” “Olivia and I are looking for a present for my nephew’s fiancé,” MacGregor told her. “You remember Henry. He was my first mate on the cruise.” “He was very protective of me,” Isabel remembered. “Tell him I remember him fondly, and,” she added as she had the man waiting on her pull a hair clip formed of diamonds and emeralds out of the case she was standing by, “ask his fiancé to accept this as a gift from my husband and myself.” “This is far too generous, Isabel!” MacGregor exclaimed. “Nonsense,” Isabel replied. “I could never repay you and your nephew for all your kindness during a very trying period in my life.” She saw his hesitation. “Please, Captain.” “Very well,” MacGregor relented as the clip was put into a beautiful box and handed to him by the clerk. He could see he was not going to make her change her mind. “How are you and young Alvarez doing?” “We are very happy, Captain,” Isabel smiled. “You must come to dinner one night this week.” “I’d like that but I’ll be off on another cruise tomorrow,” MacGregor told her. “How do you know Olivia, Captain?” Isabel asked as Delphine and Olivia moved away. “I spent some time with her on the ship when she and her husband were aboard,” he bit his lip. “I was a bit indiscreet, I must admit.” He looked over at Olivia and smiled. “She is a very fascinating woman.” “Isabel?” Delphine called her over to look at something in the case where she was standing. Isabel excused herself and joined Delphine. “If you care about that man at all,” she told Isabel bluntly, “you will do something to help him. He doesn’t deserve the torment that woman would bring into his life.” She was frowning as she glanced over to the pair. “I watched what she was trying to do to you, child, remember?” “You don’t like her very much, do you?” Isabel asked the woman, intrigued. She knew from Delphine’s look exactly why. “She tried to go after Ricardo, didn’t she?” Isabel looked over at Olivia and saw the woman eyeing them coldly. “He loves you, Delphine.” “No woman could turn his head,” Delphine nodded, and smiled happily. “She is an opportunistic bitch. I would hate for any man to fall into her clutches.” She saw the shock on Isabel’s face and turned to the man waiting on her. “You will see all of this gets to the Alvarez yacht by 7:00?” The man nodded and she smiled. She linked her arm through Isabel’s. “One more innocent pleasure before we get ready for the rehearsal, yes?” Delphine led them out to her car. She drove to a Friendly’s restaurant and they had ice cream sundaes. Then they went to the church where Delphine and Ricardo were to be married the next day and joined the others for the rehearsal. When the rehearsal was over, and the rehearsal dinner concluded, Isabel and Rafael went home. Despite the happiness they were both feeling, there was an urgency to their lovemaking; as if they both knew something was going to come after them; something they might not survive. * Despite their uneasiness, days passed before any sign of danger was seen. Isabel went to the theater, guards in tow, and joined the other dancers for a planning session of their next production. Isabel and the others were warming up for a practice when the doors at the top of the auditorium opened and the last woman she wanted to see came striding down the aisle. Olivia smiled at her as Simon took her hand and kissed it. Then he called for the company’s attention. “Children,” he beamed, “I have the honor of introducing you to a new member of our Board of Directors, Olivia Alvarez. She has kindly consented to oversee the business for our company while Delphine is on her honeymoon.” He saw Olivia to her seat as if she were a queen, and clapped his hands. “Places! We will show her how excellent you all are. The piece from the Swan Lake where we meet our swans, and then the hunters come.” He went to the piano and played the piece, smiling happily. Olivia and he had a long talk earlier. She understood what he wanted for their Isabel. With her help, he was going to see to it that she would do as he suggested. Isabel would become the dance, with no thought of anything else. He watched her dance and knew it was the right decision. She belonged to the world, not one man who would take what she was born to do away from her. He let them rest after their practice and then called them to attention. “We have decided that our next production will be ‘Giselle,’ Simon informed them. “Auditions for the leads will be held tomorrow.” “It doesn’t matter,” one of the girls muttered as they were dismissed. “We all know who the lead is going to.” “She deserves it, Martha,” one of the other girls snapped at her. “No one can match Isabel. She dances each role as if the moves are a part of her.” “I might not be auditioning,” Isabel told them both as she rose gracefully to her feet. They looked at her, stunned. “My husband and I are thinking of finally going on a honeymoon.” “Simon will be devastated,” Quinn said as he came up to her. “You know he counts on you, Isabel…” “Then he’ll just have to stop,” Isabel broke in. “I have a life outside of this company.” She saw their pretend horror and laughed. “Sacrilege, isn’t it?” She saw Emilio and Guillermo coming down the aisle. “I’d better get moving.” She looked at the girl who had defended her. “You’re still coming to dinner tomorrow, Helen, aren’t you?” “Wouldn’t miss it,” Helen smiled. Isabel nodded and left, missing Simon’s dark look. The girl hadn’t even greeted her mother-in-law. He wondered if he were right about what he and Olivia were planning to do to the girl. But then he remembered the way Isabel danced, her outright joy when she was lost to the music, and knew it had to be done. Isabel could not be lost to a mundane life as a housewife. He escorted Olivia to the car and they drove to Isabel’s house. Once Olivia had dealt with the guards, they found Isabel. She was in the dance studio, lost in a freestyle piece that had her beaming with happiness. The happiness died as she saw them. “I don’t recall inviting either of you to my home,” Isabel said coldly. She wiped her face on a towel hanging off the back of a chair. “You can leave now.” “You’ve gotten very rude since you married, Isabel,” Olivia said as she came into the room. She looked around. “Nice studio.” “You didn’t come all this way to admire my dance studio, Olivia,” Isabel frowned. “Since Simon is here, I suppose he has convinced you that I should give up my marriage and pursue a career.” “You are a very talented young woman, Isabel,” Olivia replied. “You were forced into this marriage for something that wasn’t your fault. I don’t want you wasting your life away when you could be doing something you truly love.” She nodded to Simon. “Simon agrees with me. It’s time you were taken somewhere you can rethink your life.” “I am perfectly content with my life the way it is,” Isabel exclaimed. “Why are you making such an issue out of this? Rafael and I have agreed that I can have a career, if I want it.” “If you want it?” Simon snapped. He held Isabel’s arms against her body, glaring at her. “You can’t seriously believe that your life should contain anything but dance! It is completely unthinkable.” “I’d thank you to take your hands off my wife,” Rafael’s cold voice filled the room. He failed to see the needle as Olivia slipped it back into her pocket. “Isabel? Are you all right?” “I’m fine now,” Isabel told him. “Olivia and Simon were trying to persuade me to audition for the next ballet. But,” she continued as she glared at her two uninvited visitors, “I was just telling them that you and I are going to San Matteo. I couldn’t possibly accept a role if we’re going to be gone.” She felt the shock of their attack wearing off and felt very weary. “I pushed myself a bit harder than I should have. I’m going to lie down.” “We’ll be leaving,” Olivia nodded. She gestured to Simon and they left the studio and went upstairs. Once they were back in Simon’s apartment, Olivia sat on the couch and watched the man pace in fear. They had been caught. There was no way that the Alvarez family was going to take what they had tried to do to Isabel lightly. He grew more and more terrified with each drink. Olivia finally made him sit down and scolded him. He looked at her in confusion as she told him what they would have to do. Rafael didn’t know they’d tried to kidnap his wife. They’d left no evidence of their deed behind. They had gone about Isabel’s reeducation the wrong way. It was obvious that Rafael would have to be removed from her life permanently. Grief would leave her vulnerable. “You’re suggesting that we murder…” “What else can we do, Simon?” Olivia broke in. “We’ve tried talking, pleading, even threatening, and we lose every time.” She was in her element now as she started planning. “You keep trying to convince Isabel. I’ll deal with her husband.” * Isabel knew she’d only agreed to leave for San Matteo because she was angry. Giselle was one of the hardest ballet pieces known. She found the idea of being allowed to perform it very intriguing. She sat at breakfast the next morning and wondered how she was going to approach the subject of changing her mind with Rafael. She was very quiet, and he was still very angry. She was about ready to scream when her husband suddenly smiled at her. “I’ve heard Giselle is a dream role for a ballerina,” he said as he looked at her. “That’s what they say,” Isabel nodded. “I’m just going to have to wait. We’ve made plans.” “San Matteo isn’t going anywhere, darling,” Rafael said as he got to his feet and came to her side. He raised her to her feet and kissed the tip of her nose. “I promised you that I’d never stand in your way, so if you really want to audition for this role do it.” He laughed as she threw her arms around him. “I take it this means yes?” “I love you, Rafael Alvarez!” “You’re a silly child, Isabel Alvarez!” Rafael smiled down at her. He kissed her and released her. “I have a meeting at the hospital. Meet me for lunch after your audition.” Isabel smiled and watched him leave the kitchen. She did the dishes and heard him leave as she finished the last one and set it in the drainer by the sink. She dressed quickly and went to the theater, Emilio and Guillermo at her elbows. They were taking her husband’s instructions to keep close to her quite literally. Isabel went to her dressing room and got ready for the audition, ignoring the shocked look on Simon’s face. He looked about ready to say something, but then shook his head and went back to speaking to the conductor. Then he started to feel guilty. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed. “She’s here,” he said simply. “Call it off.” “Call what off, Simon?” Olivia asked as she came down the aisle and took a seat. “Isabel is here to audition,” Simon said as he put the phone into his pocket. “We don’t need to do as you suggested last night.” “All right, Simon,” Olivia smiled; not telling him that she had already set it into motion. “Let’s concentrate on the ballet.” She picked up one of the clipboards with the names of those auditioning and what role they were pursuing. “Shall we start with the male lead?” Isabel watched with the others as the auditions began. The company was made up of a lot of very talented dancers; any one of them would do well in a lead role. She looked over at Martha and wondered if she shouldn’t have let the girl have the part without competition. Martha looked over at her a moment and then turned her back on her. Obviously Martha wanted the role on her own merit. Isabel didn’t blame her. The other dancers were auditioned and then it was her and Martha. Martha went first. She was absolutely brilliant; desperation lent an edge to her performance that was wondrous. Isabel was clapping when she came into the wings. Martha looked at her in shock. “I can’t beat that,” Isabel told her and gave her a hug. “I’m not even going to try.” She went to her dressing room and changed. She watched Simon enter and turned to face him. “If you don’t give her the role, you’re making a very big mistake.” She saw how pale the man was and wondered what was wrong. “What is it, Simon?” “Mrs. Alvarez?” Isabel looked up to see a police officer outside the door. She rose to her feet, a cold chill coursing through her. He could only have come with bad news. Simon left the dressing room and watched as Emilio and Guillermo went inside and closed the door. A moment later, he heard her scream. Emilio helped her out as she walked numbly, struggling to understand why she was being lied to. It couldn’t be true, she kept telling herself as her guards drove her to the hospital. She was still lying to herself when she entered the room and saw Rafael in the bed, hooked up to several monitors. She went to sit at his side, her touch on his hand stirring him to wakefulness. He opened his eyes as well as he could through the swelling and smiled weakly at her. “Querida,” he said hoarsely. “It’s all right. It always looks worse than it is.” He started coughing and blood flowed out of his mouth. He moaned and passed out. “Come, Isabel,” Ricardo said as he arrived just then. He took her aside as the nurses and doctors worked on Rafael. He set her down in a chair and held her hands, worried by how quiet, how pale, she was. “He is strong, Isabel. He will be fine.” She began to whimper and he looked up to find his wife coming into the room. “Take our Isabel to the chapel, Delphine.” “No,” Isabel protested, as Delphine helped her to her feet. “I want to stay with my husband.” She looked at them and knew she should listen, but she was so frightened she couldn’t think straight. “Please don’t take me away from him…” “Isabel!” Delphine cried as the girl collapsed to the floor. “Come on, darling,” she crooned as she patted Isabel’s cheek. “Wake up.” The orderlies came in and Delphine had them put Isabel into the empty bed next to her husband. The doctor checked her over, but couldn’t see anything wrong. He took a blood test. He left as Isabel was regaining consciousness. She tried to get out of bed to go to Rafael and Delphine held her down. “Let the doctors and nurses do their jobs, Isabel,” Delphine said softly. She stroked Isabel’s hair. “You have to believe he will be all right.” “Senor Alvarez,” the doctor called to Ricardo. “May I speak with you a moment?” Ricardo went out into the hall and the doctor closed the door. He led Ricardo down the hall to his office and waited for Ricardo to enter. Then he closed the door. “I’m afraid that the damage was more severe than we initially believed, sir. We’re going to have to operate.” He frowned. “In his condition, he may not survive. Shame, really,” he continued as he pulled out the chart he had started on Isabel, “since he and his wife are going to be parents.” “What?” “I took a blood sample from your niece when she collapsed,” the doctor told Ricardo. “She is pregnant.” He met Ricardo’s eyes sternly. “The stress and worry is not good for her. I think your wife should take her home.” “We already tried to remove her from his side, Doctor,” Ricardo told him. “That was when she collapsed.” “I don’t like this one bit,” the man frowned. He sighed and removed his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. “I’m going to have the nurse put her on an IV, vitamins, iron supplement, etc. to help her feel better. Before he goes to surgery, I am going to have the nurse sedate her.” “I will call her parents,” Ricardo nodded. “Perhaps her mother can convince her to go home.” Ricardo returned to the room and saw that Isabel had fallen asleep. Delphine was rubbing the girl’s back. He smiled as he saw this. Delphine always struck people as a hard-hearted businesswoman, but here was a visible example of the warm-hearted woman she actually was. He leaned over to kiss his wife on the cheek and then whispered to her what the doctor had just told him. She had tears in her eyes as she looked down at the sleeping girl. “It will kill her if Rafael doesn’t recover, Ricardo,” Delphine said softly. She saw Ricardo’s expression. “It’s bad, isn’t it?” “He has to go into surgery,” Ricardo frowned. The door opened and the nurse came in with the IV stand. “Soon.” The nurse put the IV into Isabel’s arm and put the bag of saline solution and other supplements on the stand. Then she took out a needle and injected the sedative into it. Isabel fell into a deep sleep. The orderlies came in with the trolley and transferred Rafael onto it. Ricardo went along while Delphine stayed with Isabel. She found herself praying for the young man. He had a reason to live now, though he wasn’t aware of it. Martha and Quinn came to the room to check on Isabel. She was still sleeping. “Is something wrong with Isabel?” Martha frowned. “She didn’t take the news about Rafael very well,” Delphine told her. “The doctor thought it might be better if she slept while he was in surgery.” “Poor kid,” Quinn frowned. “Seems like something’s always happening to kick her in the teeth.” He pulled Martha towards the door. “Just let her know we stopped in to see how he was doing. If she needs us, for any reason, she knows how to get in touch.” “I will,” Delphine nodded. She watched them go and turned towards Isabel. “You have many people who are praying for him, Isabel. Believe he will recover.” She stroked Isabel’s hair and smiled. She was very proud of the girl. She looked up as a nurse came in to check the IV. “Please remain with her a moment. I need some coffee.” She stepped out into the hall, expecting at least one guard to be there, and smiled at Emilio. “Could you bring some coffee, Emilio? I will keep watch over the child.” Delphine returned to her vigil. She picked up a book and started to read. She set it aside and got to her feet, pacing. Looking at the clock, she saw that only a half hour had passed since Rafael was taken into surgery. She watched as the door opened, expecting it to be Emilio with the coffee. A dark frown appeared on her face as she turned fully to watch Simon Tremont enter the room. He was carrying a vase full of roses. He set them down and looked over at Isabel, almost in tears. Then he nodded to Delphine and left the room. Delphine went to read the card, and wondered at the cryptic message. “She was supposed to stop,” the card read. “I am sorry, goddess.” Delphine frowned and slipped the card into her pocket. This was obviously something Isabel did not need to deal with right now. She went back to her book and was just finishing it when Isabel woke up. “He is in surgery, darling,” Delphine told her as Isabel looked over at the empty bed. “You need to take it easy, child,” she said as she tried to keep Isabel on the bed. “You don’t want to hurt the baby.” “Baby?” Isabel sat back, stunned. Her eyes widened in shock. “Baby?” “Yes, Isabel,” Delphine nodded, pulling the girl into her arms. “The doctor took a blood test when you collapsed. He says you are halfway into the third month and must be careful.” She saw the girl glancing over at the empty bed. “He will be fine! He is in the hands of the best doctors this hospital has.” She glanced at the clock. “It’s been three hours, darling. We should know something soon.” She looked up as the door opened. “Here is Dora with some food.” As they finished eating, Ricardo returned to the room. He looked at Isabel a moment, and then sank down into a chair to eat his share. He didn’t say a word until he was finished eating. By then a nurse had arrived with a wheelchair. She helped Isabel into it and they went to the Recovery Room. Rafael was awake and he wanted to see his wife. Ricardo and Delphine followed and waited just outside as Isabel gripped her husband’s hand, trying not to cry. “You scared me,” Isabel said softly as she brought his hand to her cheek. “I thought you were tired of the drama, Rafael Alvarez.” “It seems the drama didn’t agree,” Rafael replied weakly. He winced as pain shot through his side. “Querida, I need to tell you something,” he continued. He saw the worry enter her eyes. “No, Isabel,” he said firmly. “I am not going to die. Not for some time,” he nodded firmly and groaned as the motion made him hurt. “It is just that I will not walk for a while. Maybe never,” he told her bluntly. “The injury to my back was quite severe.” He watched Isabel go white and slip out of the wheelchair. “Isabel!” Emilio came in and carried Isabel away. Rafael looked up at Ricardo. “What is wrong with her, Father?” “Your darling wife is pregnant, Rafael,” Ricardo told him. “Your news was a bit too much for her.” “Pregnant?” Rafael queried. “As in having a baby?” Ricardo nodded and Rafael was ecstatic. “My Isabel is giving me a baby?” “I think we can move him back to his room,” the doctor nodded once he had checked Rafael over. He nodded to Ricardo. “If he continues to regain his strength at this rate,” he told Ricardo, “your son will be home in six weeks.” He saw Rafael’s look. “You know this is a conservative estimate, Rafe. You have to let your back heal sufficiently and undergo therapy.” He nodded over at Ricardo. “I’m sure your father will look after your wife.” Rafael closed his mouth and nodded. He knew that his father would look after Isabel. He didn’t need to worry about her. He needed to concentrate on getting better so he could be with her. He fell asleep with a smile. His Isabel was giving him a child! Ricardo looked down at his son – his son! – and smiled. He had spent so many years believing his one child lost to him, and now he had gained two. Soon, he would become a grandfather. The nightmare was over, he told himself. The Alvarez family was going to have the happiness it had been denied for eighteen years. He followed the orderlies up as they transferred Rafael back to his room. Isabel lit up as she saw her husband being returned to her. Ricardo held his hand out to Delphine. “I think we can leave them alone for awhile,” he smiled as his wife took his hand. “Isabel?” She looked over. “We will come back later to take you home.” Isabel bit her lip to keep from crying in protest. They wanted her to leave Rafael alone and injured. She would not do it. She had to stay here with him. She went to his side, gripping his hand and laying her head down on the bed. She heard them leaving and felt relieved. As much as she cared for the pair, right now she needed to be alone with her husband. She looked at his dear face battered and bruised from the accident and tears flowed down her cheeks. She had almost been a widow because of a drunk driver. Isabel dozed off and did not see the nurse slip in and give Rafael an injection. She woke up to the sounds of his gasping for air. She hit the call button and stepped away as the duty nurse came in. She hit the Code Red button. “Get her out,” the doctor said as he saw Isabel watching, terrified. “She shouldn’t be here watching this.” Emilio came in and took her outside. He held her as the doctors and nurses struggled to save Rafael. Guillermo called Ricardo at once. Ricardo and Delphine, only downstairs in the cafeteria, arrived just as the alarm ended. The doctor stepped out, shaking his head. Rafael had not survived. Isabel found herself in Ricardo’s arms as she began to sob. He turned her over to Delphine and went inside with the doctor. Delphine took Isabel away, followed by Emilio. “Someone murdered your son,” the doctor told Ricardo bluntly. “I don’t think it would be wise to tell your daughter-in-law this, however.” “Find out how, Doctor,” Ricardo said coldly. “I’ll find out who.” He looked over at his lost son. “I’ll have my representative come handle any paperwork. I think it best that I be with his widow.” * Isabel felt completely disconnected from herself. It seemed as if all the life had been drained out of her with Rafael’s death. After that, she had to be prodded to eat, to move, to care for herself. Once the funeral was over, she did not even care when her parents insisted on taking her with them to San Matteo. Isabel barely registered the beauty of the island. She kept to her rooms or, when she could be coerced outside, she sat on the veranda and stared out at the island from the top of the hill where the hacienda sat. She didn’t start to come back to herself until someone she had thought never to see again came to see her. “Hello, Isabel,” Alejandra said softly as she came out onto the veranda. She frowned as Isabel sat there numbly. She went to her knees beside the girl, angry. “Do you think Rafael would want you this way?” she demanded as she cupped her sister’s chin in her hand. She forced Isabel’s eyes to her. “You are dishonoring his memory, the life you had with each other, by retreating into yourself like this!” “Ana!” her husband, Esteban hissed. “She is wounded. Let her heal!” He pulled Alejandra to her feet and pushed her away. Then he crouched down and took Isabel’s hand in his own. “Please come back to us, pequena. You have family and friends who need you.” He kissed Isabel on the forehead and heard her whimper. He looked into her eyes and saw that she was crying. “That’s better, Isabel,” he said softly as he took her in his arms and held her as she cried. “Let the tears melt the ice from your heart.” “Why are you here?” Isabel asked softly. She looked up at Alejandra and some of the spark returned to her. She was actually angry. “Are you happy now, Alejandra? He’s dead because you made him marry me!” She shoved Esteban away and ran back inside. Esteban turned to watch his wife. Instead of anger, she was stunned. Then she began to cry. He pulled her into his arms and held her as she continued to cry. Alejandra had done a lot of damage to her brother, but she doubted that her role in arranging her brother’s marriage to the girl who had just fled was part of that. From all accounts, Isabel and Rafael had loved each other. Isabel was expecting their child, and had to be brought back to life for its sake. “She will forgive you, Ana,” he said as he rested his chin on the top of her head. “Give her time.” “I wouldn’t forgive me,” Alejandra sobbed. “If her hatred is the price I must pay for what I did to them, then I will let her hold it to her.” “You must not wish that on her, Ana,” Esteban frowned at her. “She would be destroyed by it.” He took her by the hand. “Come walk with me, querida.” Isabel found her mother coming into her room, a worried expression on her face. She waited to hear the reason for the visit. Instead, Liza went to Isabel’s closet and pulled out a sundress and pair of sandals. She brought a swimsuit along as well. Then she made Isabel get dressed. Without a word, she led her daughter out of the house and down to the beach. There was a lounge waiting there with a table. On it was one of Isabel’s favorite books and a pitcher of lemonade and a glass. “You are well enough now to be out of the house,” Liza told her sternly. “I know how hard it is to lose someone you loved, Isabel,” her mother continued. “Living is the best way to honor their memory. You,” she said as she stroked Isabel’s hair, “have not been living.” “So you’re kicking me out of the house?” Isabel looked up at her mother. She picked up the book. “I suppose I am to remain here and finish the book?” “I will send Dora down with your lunch,” Liza told her. “You will sun, you will read, you will swim if you wish,” she smiled down at her child, “but you are not to come back to the house until dinner time.” “Yes, Mother,” Isabel nodded. Liza kissed her on the cheek and left Isabel alone. Isabel knew Liza well enough by now to know she was not going to be able to argue. She sat back and closed her eyes, letting the sun caress her cheek. When she felt a sudden chill hit her, she opened her eyes and saw a man standing over her. It was David. She threw herself into his arms and he held her as she cried. When the storm was over, she looked at him closely. He had gotten even thinner and his face was hollow-cheeked. Dark circles were under his eyes. “You’ve been sick!” Isabel cried and made him sit down. “I had to come, Isabel,” David told her as he cupped her cheek in his hand. “I couldn’t stay away when Tabitha told me what happened.” He got to his feet and led her down to the water. “Come swim with me.” They entered the water and Isabel allowed herself to enjoy the sensation of the warm water on her skin, the warm sun on her head. David did not let up on her until she actually felt a smile cross her face. He led her back onto the beach and picked up her towel. Then he led her along the waterline, holding on to her hand. Isabel did not protest. David was her friend. He wouldn’t hurt her. She was actually feeling much better with him just being there. They were astonished when Dora came to call them to the house. “I’ll see you at dinner,” David smiled and kissed her gently on the lips. Isabel smiled up at him, some of the grief easing from her heart. She went to her room and showered. When she came out, she froze at seeing Alejandra waiting for her. Isabel didn’t say a word. She continued to get dressed for dinner, wondering why her sister-in-law was there. What new torment was she planning for Isabel? But Alejandra didn’t say a word, in fact, she looked quite determined not to say a word. Isabel found herself wondering if the girl could have changed in the months they had been apart. She was willing to believe that such a miracle could have occurred. A sudden thought crossed her mind and she nearly laughed it off. “You called David, didn’t you?” she asked Alejandra bluntly. “Why?” “Because you needed someone here who could help you find your way out of the fog,” Alejandra told her. “I have hurt you, Isabel. A lot,” she acknowledged sadly. “I wished to do something to make you smile again.” “Why?” Isabel asked her coldly. “Because I am beginning to see the error of my ways, hermana,” Alejandra replied. She saw Isabel’s expression. “I do not blame you for hating me, Isabel,” she continued as she rose to her feet. “But I make this vow to you now. I will spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to you for the damage I caused.” Isabel watched the girl leave and found herself hoping that Alejandra meant what she had just said. Despite their past history, she wanted to believe that her sister-in-law was capable of such a change in behavior and attitude. She pulled a shawl out of the closet and went downstairs where her parents and grandparents were waiting with the others. Isabel smiled as she was set down next to David. She looked across the table at Alejandra and her husband, and saw the man looking from her to Alejandra as if expecting a storm. “Thank you for coming, Alejandra,” Isabel said instead. “I needed you here.” Alejandra looked as if a truck had just run into her. “I know Rafael would have loved to be here to see us reconciled.” David gripped her hand as he felt her distress. “Thank you, too, David.” “You know I’d do anything for you, Clara,” David smiled at her, making her heart skip a beat. “When are you going to dance with me again?” “I suggest you wait until after dinner,” Sebastian spoke up from the other end of the table. “We are all growing quite hungry waiting for you to stop talking.” He saw Isabel blush and looked at the man seated next to her more closely. David had definitely fallen in love with his daughter. It remained to be seen if this was a benefit to Isabel or not. He said Grace and they all ate. Isabel actually smiled as the conversations ebbed and flowed around the table. What struck him as more significant, however, was the fact that Isabel was actually talking to her sister-in-law. The meal ended; he watched Isabel and Alejandra walk down to the beach. “No, Senor Guerrero,” Esteban called as Sebastian headed after them. “This is needed for the healing of both of them.” The sisters walked down to the beach in silence. Alejandra looked at Isabel and her heart nearly broke as she realized that the girl was suffering because of her. But not entirely, she reminded herself. She had not been the driver of the car that had hit Rafael and caused his injuries. She found herself wondering who that person had been. It didn’t really matter; they were killed in the crash. She took Isabel by the hands and looked at her sister-in-law. “I miss him too, Isabel,” she said softly. “He was a good and loving man. And I know,” she continued with real tears in her eyes, “that he adored you.” She saw the tears in Isabel’s eyes. “You were happy together. Remember that.” As they turned to walk on, neither of them noticed the men coming up out of the water. The men headed for the house, and then saw the two girls. They followed them slowly and silently. Alejandra was sharing stories from her childhood that included Rafael in them. Isabel found herself laughing with the girl she had been frightened of just months ago. Alejandra had changed, she thought to herself. She heard someone moving behind them and turned. There was no one there. “Did you hear that?” Alejandra asked, frowning. She turned to see where Isabel was looking. “You need to see what doesn’t belong, Isabel,” she whispered as she moved up to Isabel’s side. “And I would say the four men hiding in the shadows of those trees do not belong.” She took Isabel’s hand and they walked off as if they hadn’t a care in the world. “When I say ‘run,’ Isabel, do so. Head up the hill and keep going until you get to the hacienda.” “But, what about you?” “Don’t worry about me, Isabel,” Alejandra told her. “I can take care of myself. You need to get Esteban. Tell him where I am and what is happening. Can you do that?” Isabel nodded and she smiled. “All right then. Run!” Isabel watched for a second in shock as Alejandra ran right towards the hidden men. Isabel did as she’d been asked and ran up the hill towards the hacienda. She was nearly in sight of the house when someone grabbed her. She screamed and struck out at the person. They clamped their hand over her mouth and leaned close. “It’s me, Isabel,” David whispered into her ear. “You can’t go up to the hacienda. It was attacked while you and Alejandra…” He looked around, frowning. “Where is Alejandra?” “She stayed behind to keep the men on the beach from coming after me,” Isabel told him, “while I got help.” She sank down on a nearby boulder. “What are we going to do, David?” “Find out where they put the guns and storm the hacienda?” David suggested. He saw Isabel’s frown and grew serious. “We are going to find a nice safe place to hide, Isabel. Neither of us is equipped to handle a situation like this.” “We have to do something, David,” Isabel protested. “This is my family that’s being threatened!” “I’m sorry, Isabel,” David said as he struck her across the jaw and she collapsed. He picked her up in his arms and froze as he heard a man’s laughter. He turned to see a tall, golden-haired man standing behind him. “Look what we have here,” the man smiled coldly as he motioned two men forward. “The flame hair is trying to keep the princess away from us.” He took Isabel out of David’s hold. “We can’t let you be so selfish, Mr. Evans.” He turned on his heel and carried Isabel up to the hacienda; leaving his men to bring David with them. Isabel was laid down on the couch in the main lounge. David was shoved down into a chair at the dining room table with the other men. When Isabel came to, she saw her mother, her grandmother, and Alejandra seated nearby. A tall, golden-haired man was seated on the other side of the room. In his lap, there was an assault weapon. He bowed his head to her as she sat up. “Princess,” he said smugly. “We were wondering when you would join us. I trust your over-zealous friend didn’t hurt you.” He got to his feet and smiled as he came towards her. “I must admit, she was not lying when she said you were exquisite.” “Stay away from her, you bastard!” Alejandra hissed and came to sit beside Isabel. “I’ll damage you if you touch my sister.” “Little hell-cat!” Hawke Lassiter laughed. “I hear you took out two of my men before they brought you down.” He stepped back. “I have no intention of harming your ‘sister,’ woman. She is far too valuable to us as she is; as are you.” He yanked Alejandra to her feet and cupped her chin in his hand while he wrenched her arm up behind her back. “How much do you think your father will pay to get his remaining child back alive?” He looked at her closely. “You are not hard on the eyes either.” “Take your hands off of me,” Alejandra said coldly as she stamped on his instep. He hissed in pain and shoved her down on the couch. “Do that again and I’ll castrate you!” “Is that how you talk to your husband?” Hawke laughed. “Your wedding night must have been quite interesting.” He watched her stiffen. “You are Moreno’s bride, aren’t you?” He dragged her into the next room. “Since he is going to be dead soon,” Hawke laughed as he shoved Alejandra to her husband, “I am going to allow you to say goodbye to him.” He looked at his men. “Lock them in a room and leave them alone.” “You’re vile!” “And it doesn’t bother me in the least,” Hawke bowed his head to her. He looked at the other men. “There is going to be a new family raised soon. When the Guerrero men die, the only one standing will be the stepdaughter, Isabel. The man we marry her to will become heir to the Guerrero, while her sister-in-law, Alejandra, will give her chosen husband the Alvarez.” He looked at David. “It is a pity you must become collateral damage, David Evans. I’ve seen you dance; your death will be a loss to the Arts.” He nodded to his men. “They will be shot in the morning. Lock them in their rooms with their women for now.” Isabel watched as everyone was taken away and then she was left alone with their attacker. He poured himself a drink and came to sit down next to her on the couch. Isabel got up to leave and he yanked her back down, shaking his head. Isabel was angry. Once again, people were deciding what her life should be. He moved closer and she let him have it. He sat back and looked at her in shock. He had been led to believe that this girl was docile, easily manipulated. The force of the slap she’d just given him was not that of a docile child. You can’t do this,” Isabel told him coldly. “These people do not deserve what you’re planning to do to them.” “If it mattered to me,” Hawke told her bluntly, “I wouldn’t be very good at my job.” He held his hand out to her. “It’s time for you to go to your room. Your child needs you to be taking care of yourself.” “I thought nothing mattered to you,” Isabel snapped and refused his hand. “The others don’t,” Hawke said as he yanked her to her feet. “You, however, are very important to me.” He smiled down at her and saw she understood. “You are going to be my wife, Isabel.” “No!” Isabel scratched him across the face and he let her go a moment and cried out in pain. She was out the door before he could stop her. Isabel heard him calling to his men, but she kept running. She hit the beach and headed to the west. She came to the caves and went inside, hoping that she could find some hiding place. She could hear the men coming after her, but she couldn’t stop. She was hoping that by drawing the men away from the house, her family would find some way to get away. The caves kept going and going and she was exhausted. She could hear them coming after her and she forced herself to keep on. She turned into a side tunnel and began to wonder if they ran through the entire hillside. That thought suddenly made her afraid she had made the wrong decision by coming in here. “Princess?” Hawke’s voice called out, echoing in the caves. “Stop running, girl! You’ll get lost.” There was anger in his voice when she didn’t answer him. “Think about the baby, Isabel. How is your running through here, exhausted, anxious, and afraid, affecting the child?” Isabel bit back a sob and turned to keep running. She froze as she saw a small child beckoning to her. She followed him and was led into an immense cavern. Inside it, caves had been fashioned along walkways etched into the rock. She backed up, shaking her head. She couldn’t endanger these people. But where there had been an opening, she found only a solid surface. She turned around and ran her hands over the wall. “You are quite safe here, child,” a woman’s voice spoke up behind her. “We will not let them hurt you.” “I can’t ask you to protect me,” Isabel protested as she turned to look at the silver-haired woman with the deep black eyes, “I just need to keep them in here to give my family time to get free.” “We have already seen to all of this, child,” the woman told her. “You are tired and need to eat. Please come with me.” Isabel took the woman’s hand and allowed herself to be led down to the floor of the cavern. She was taken into a cave set up as a kitchen and dining room. “Ilsa, please get something for this poor child to eat.” Isabel turned to see a young woman with scars on her body nod and turn away. She was stricken by the fact that someone had done that to the woman deliberately. She closed her eyes and struggled to fight the tears that started. She opened her eyes to see the older woman watching her. Then she appeared to decide something and nodded, smiling. “This place is a sanctuary that your father, Sebastian Guerrero, built,” the woman told her. “He has made it his life’s pursuit to rescue those who others would enslave.” She gripped Isabel’s hand, and smiled. “Many of us would have died if Senor Guerrero had not found us. He is a good man.” “Telling lies about me?” “Father!” Isabel cried and ran into his arms. “Are you all right? How is Mother? Where is David, and Eduardo, and…” “Everyone is quite fine, hija,” Sebastian broke in, holding her close. “It was you we worried about. It was very foolhardy of you to run off as you did.” “Nonsense, nephew!” the woman sniffed. “If your child hadn’t run off as she did, you and the others would have had to face armed men when you escaped. Our darling Isabel is to be commended, not scolded.” “Tia Marta,” Sebastian frowned back at her. “Isabel is my daughter and I am quite proud of her. But she is pregnant and should be thinking of her baby’s welfare.” He saw he had Isabel’s attention. “What if you had fallen?” “I was only interested in getting out of the house,” Isabel told him, “in the hopes that my drawing those men away would give you and the others an opportunity to escape. Where are the others, Father?” “They are quite safe,” Sebastian told her. He smiled as Ilsa came to the table and set out two bowls of stew, thick crusty bread, and two mugs of milk. “Gracias, Ilsa.” He ate his meal and rose to leave. “I will now deal with these men. No, hija,” he said as Isabel rose to her feet to go with him, “you remain here with Tia Marta.” He kissed her on the forehead and turned to his aunt. “See she gets some sleep, Tia.” Marta took Isabel to a cave on the main floor and stepped aside for Isabel to enter. It was a large room and a large bed filled most of it. She kissed Isabel on the cheek, told her not to worry, and left Isabel to rest. But Isabel could not rest. The men who had broken into their home had said ‘she’ had told them about Isabel. Once that ‘she’ would have been Alejandra, but seeing her cousin and sister-in-law with Esteban Moreno, and speaking to her, had convinced her that Alejandra was no longer her enemy. What other woman could hate her, hate her families enough to want to do such a hateful thing to them? She got up, anxiety keeping her awake, and went to the kitchen to get some milk. “No,” Ilsa’s voice came floating out of the kitchen, “I won’t do it! Not to her!” There was the sound of a slap and a girl’s cry of pain. “I can’t…” “Ilsa?” Isabel called out before she entered the cave. “Is something wrong?” “I’ve dropped some glasses and there’s shards everywhere,” Ilsa answered. “Don’t come in, Isabel. Please…” “I can help, Ilsa,” Isabel broke in, afraid that the girl was in trouble. “Or I can go get Tia Marta…” “Yes, Isabel,” Ilsa sobbed, as if in great pain, “Get Tia…” Isabel heard her voice choked off and knew the girl was in trouble. She turned to run and was grabbed and dragged into the kitchen. The man clamped his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. Ilsa was seated on the bench, her wrists tied behind her back, a gag in her mouth. Isabel was taken on through the back into the supply cave. She watched as a ladder was pulled down and she was forced up it. Isabel decided to pretend to collapse and fell on top of the man forcing her up. She got up to run and he recovered enough to grab her ankle and pull her down. Isabel screamed as he dragged her back towards the ladder. She tried to scratch him, to bite him, to strike him, but he met every action. He got her up the ladder and his confederates grabbed her and ran down the tunnel. The man wasn’t as lucky. He was halfway up when Sebastian entered the supply closet and yanked him down. “Hit the alarm,” Sebastian told the young men he shoved the intruder to. “Harass and herd.” He was up the ladder, followed by several others. They headed down the main tunnel and one of the young men found their tracks veering to the left. The young men broke up into two teams and Sebastian followed the tracks. Whoever had Isabel was about to learn how wrong they had been in taking that particular tunnel. Sebastian heard his daughter’s screams and picked up his pace as an angry voice screamed something. Isabel was giving her abductor’s trouble, he thought with a proud smile. “Shut the girl up!” he heard as he rounded a corner just in time to see someone striking her across the jaw. The next moment they had disappeared down a side tunnel. Sebastian frowned. Only someone who knew these tunnels would know that cut-off. He could only hope that the others were near enough to stop the intruders from getting to the beach. “Father!” Isabel cried as she saw the men ambush Sebastian just outside the cave mouth. She watched in horror as Sebastian went tumbling down the hillside and into the ocean. He didn’t resurface. “No!” she screamed as her abductors dragged her down the trail. “You’ve killed him!” She went ballistic, striking out with fist and nails. “Let me go! I have to help my Father!” They got Isabel into the boat and tied her to one of the benches. She couldn’t let them take her. Not when her father needed her help. But nothing she did could make them stop. They rendezvoused with a yacht waiting a few miles offshore. Isabel was taken aboard and locked inside of a stateroom. She collapsed from exhaustion and didn’t wake when Hawke Lassiter came into the room. He sat down on the bed next to her and contented himself with stroking her hair. He was quite happy with this little firebrand he had been given. Back on the island, Sebastian came up out of the surf just in time to see the boat roaring off. He got onto the beach, scowling darkly. His daughter was gone again, in the hands of a man who killed people for a living. What was it about his child that made people think they could treat her with such callousness? Sebastian was going to find this man and string him up for what he was doing to his child. * Isabel set the pen down on the desk and tried to get up from the chair. Hawke forced her down and she glared at him. There was no way she was going to do what he asked. She would never turn her life over to his control. He would just have to kill her. Hawke saw all of this in her eyes and knew he had met a very stubborn young woman. Rather than being cowed by what she had endured in the past few months, she had grown more determined to refuse to allow others to control her. He had to admit, he was quite impressed with her. He decided to let her have her way and yanked her to her feet, kissing her roughly. She slapped him and he caught her hand. Then he held her arms behind her back and kissed her again as she struggled to free herself from his hold. “Let me go!” she hissed once he had taken his fill of her lips. “I am never going to do as you ask!” “I could make you, girl,” Hawke told her, “but that could kill your baby.” He saw the worry in her eyes and knew her weakness. “Is that what you want, Isabel?” She shook her head. “Then do as I ask. Your baby’s life is surely worth more than your freedom.” He kissed her neck and felt her shudder. “You get everything you could ever want, Isabel: a loving husband and manager, a career in dance, and a home for your child.” “I am not letting that woman anywhere near my child!” Isabel cried in anguish. “You really have no choice, Isabel,” Olivia said as she joined them in the lounge. She picked up the wedding contract and frowned. “What’s this? Still no signature?” Olivia set the paper down as Hawke turned Isabel so the girl had to face Olivia. “Honestly, darling. Do you think I’d choose any man to be your husband? Hawke Lassiter is an exceptional man. You will not be unhappy…” “You’re still trying to run my life, Olivia,” Isabel broke in, still struggling to free herself from the man’s hold. “I won’t have it!” “Then you will be sent to a home for unwed mothers,” Olivia told her. “Robbed of your voice, and your mobility. When the child is born, it will be put up for adoption because to leave it with a cripple would be unthinkable.” Olivia grabbed Isabel by the hair and yanked her head closer to hers. “Is that what you want? To never see your child?” “Olivia, please…” “Those are your options, Isabel,” Olivia broke in coldly as she released Isabel. “You will marry Hawke Lassiter and keep your child, or your child will be put up for adoption while you are helpless to prevent it.” She watched as Isabel went to the desk and picked up the pen. She picked up the contract and very calmly ripped it to shreds. Olivia slapped her across the face and Isabel faced her down. The woman left the lounge, muttering under her breath about ‘ungrateful children,’ and Isabel nearly laughed. She looked at the man and saw him looking at her with open admiration. Hawke took her back to the desk and sat her down. Then he opened a drawer and pulled out another contract. “I thought you might have such reservations, my dear,” he said as he handed her the pen, “so I brought along multiple copies of the contract.” He ran his hand along the back of her neck and held it there. “It is the only way your family will remain alive, Isabel. Because,” he whispered coldly as he leaned down next to her ear, “a member of your family is going to die each day you refuse to sign it.” He saw her look. “You doubt me? Perhaps then, we’ll start with an old friend of yours.” He nodded to his man and he went down the passageway, returning with David Evans in tow. He held Isabel in the chair. “A very beloved friend, yes? If you do as I ask, he will be allowed to return to his little school in the Midwest.” “Don’t do what he asks, Isabel,” David cried out weakly. “My life isn’t worth it!” “It appears that Isabel does not agree with you, Mr. Evans,” Hawke smiled as he watched Isabel pick up the pen. She signed the contract and Hawke raised her hand and kissed it. “You have made a very wise choice, my dear.” He turned to David, and the cold, hard look melted from his face. “Are you ready for your part now, my friend?” He looked at his man. “Go get Mrs. Alvarez.” “What’s going on?” Isabel asked David as they were herded to the upper deck. It was decorated with flowers and a priest stood waiting, bible in hand. “David…” “Just go along with it, Isabel,” David whispered as he leaned in to kiss her cheek. “This is almost over now.” He was yanked away and held by two of the men. “Let him go!” Isabel cried in alarm as she saw the pain on his face. She tried to go to him and Hawke yanked her up to the priest. “Please don’t hurt him.” “That is entirely up to you, Isabel,” Olivia laughed as she came to join them. She looked over at David, who was looking at her with murder in his eyes. “David is here to witness your wedding,” she continued as her eyes gleamed with pleasure. “He actually thought that he might get a chance with you, did you know that?” She was laughing. “Did you know that he has been in love with you since the day you met, darling? Poor David. Always losing his Isabel to some other man.” “Stop it!” Isabel hissed at her. “You have no right to choose what my life should be!” She glared at the woman as Olivia came over and slapped her. “You can beat me all you want, Olivia. I am NOT going to do this!” She saw the contract sitting nearby and held it up in front of her like a shield. Her eyes glanced at the signatures and she froze. “If you hurt David, I will hurt you.” “So dramatic, child,” Olivia laughed. She looked over at the priest and saw that he was growing very uncomfortable. “Get on with this!” “By all means,” Hawke agreed. He nodded to his men and they brought David forward. “But first we need everyone in their correct places.” He stepped aside and put Isabel’s hand in David’s. “That,” he smiled and nodded, “is how this should be.” “What are you doing?” Olivia hissed as his men grabbed her. “You are supposed to be marrying her!” “I think my wife might not like that, Mrs. Alvarez,” Hawke laughed down at her as he came forward with a pair of handcuffs in hand. He slapped them on her. “By my authority as an agent of Interpol, I arrest you, Olivia Chambers, under the charge of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder.” He looked back at the priest. “You can go ahead now, Father. If,” he added as he looked from Isabel to David, “that is what they want.” “You can’t do this to me!” Olivia screamed as the men dragged her off. Isabel and David didn’t hear what else was said. The world had suddenly come down to just them. Isabel was astounded that David had never told her how he felt. She knew it would have made no difference then but now that Rafael was gone? She knew he would understand if she said ‘no’ at that moment. Looking up into his eyes, so full of love, and hope, she knew what she had to say. “If I say yes, David,” she said softly, “will you promise me one thing.” She laid his hand on her abdomen. “You have to promise me that Rafael’s child will never be made to feel that he is not loved as much as any other children we might have.” She was serious now as she met his eyes. “If you can promise me that, I will be your wife.” “I can promise you that,” David replied, his face lit up with joy. “This child will be ours, Isabel.” He kissed her hand and nodded to the priest. He startled Isabel as he whistled. She heard the excited murmurs of many voices; the sound of approaching feet, and turned to see her parents, her sister-in-law and husband, and the rest of the Guerrero clan, come aboard. “Then if you’re ready,” David smiled at the priest, “we can get on with the ceremony.” Later, when the family had offered their toasts and congratulations, and Olivia had been escorted off the vessel by Hawke Lassiter and his Interpol friends, Isabel and David stood hand in hand in the lounge. David let her go and went to the stereo. He put on some music and they danced. He could not get over the fact that this glorious woman was his wife. They walked down to the stateroom and he watched her as she sank down on the bed, smiling happily. “Happy?” “Very happy,” Isabel smiled back at him, no fear in her glorious eyes; no hesitation in her manner. “You knew the whole time that Lassiter was only pretending. How did you know I was in trouble?” “Simon told me,” David said. “He was afraid that if he told the authorities, Olivia would kill him. I was getting ready to go back to Minneapolis when he called me.” He came over to the bed and sank down next to her. “He never meant it to go as far as murder, Isabel. He thought Olivia had backed off.” “Poor Simon,” Isabel said softly. She began to unbutton David’s shirt and he caught her hands and kissed them. She was confused. “You don’t want me?” “More than life itself, my darling,” David said fervently. He laid his hand on her abdomen, “but I don’t want to harm the baby.” He kissed her lips gently. “Once the doctor has said it is safe,” his smile widened, and his eyes filled with promise. “I love you, David Evans,” Isabel sighed and melted against him. “And I love you, Isabel Evans.”


Tag der Veröffentlichung: 11.01.2010

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