In his keeping, p.4
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       In His Keeping, p.4
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         Part #2 of Slow Burn series by Maya Banks

  was wiped out in a single unguarded moment. She was exposed and vulnerable. Her life would be forever changed because of one self-entitled asshole who thought his parents’ money and status would allow him to coast through life unscathed.

  She scrambled out of bed, ignoring the sluggish effects of the medication and the pain that shot through her rib cage. She hurried down the hall and quietly knocked on her parents’ bedroom door. When she heard her father’s summons, she opened the door and entered, her hands shaking, her face bloodless. and Her stark fear must have shown on her face, because her mother immediately got up and hugged her and then urged her down on the end of the bed where her mother and father had been sitting up against the headboard.

  “Dad, you have to come see,” she said, wringing her hands in agitation. “I can replay it with the DVR. It’s bad. I don’t know how we can fix this now.”

  “We saw,” her father said quietly. “We leave as soon as we can get a bag packed. Tonight. We’re going to another of our residences here as a precaution since Doctor Winstead was just here just earlier. We can’t afford to be hasty in our decision, but neither do I want you exposed to the media feeding frenzy that will surely ensue. They identified you by name, and the school employees, students—past and recent—will be flooded with questions and requests for interviews by the media and even the police. Administration is going to be all over you and, honey, you need to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”

  “They’ll fire me,” Ari whispered. “I messed up. I’m so sorry, Dad. And you too, Mama. This will ruin your summer trip. It will change all our lives.”

  Her mom’s eyes filled with such staggering love that tears welled in Ari’s and she had to swallow back the knot of emotion nearly choking her. Then her mom gently wrapped her arms around her, pulling her head down to her breast as she stroked her hair as she’d done when Ari was just a little girl.

  “Baby, you are our life. You’ve always been the heart and soul of us both. Since the day you entered our lives. Never apologize for who you are. You did what you had to do. If I had been there, that little bastard would be dead right now instead of dealing with a headache,” she muttered.

  Her father tried to suppress his grin as he looked at his wife and daughter, love shining like a beacon in his eyes.

  Then he said to her mother, “Honey, go pack her a bag. She’s in no shape to do so. She’s shaking like a leaf and she took her medicine not long ago. We need to go. I’ll take care of what you and I need. Let Ari sit here and you go get her things together.”

  Her father waited until his wife left the room and then he slid out of bed, pulling on a T-shirt he’d discarded by the bed. Then he sat next to Ari on the edge of the bed and pulled her into his arms.

  “I know you’re scared, baby, but one thing you need to understand is that you and your mother are the two most important people in my world. The only people who exist in my world as far as I’m concerned and there is nothing, nothing that I won’t do to protect either of you.”

  He tipped up her chin so she looked him in the eye and could see the utter sincerity radiating from his expression.

  “We’ve always known this was a possibility. We tried to protect you your entire life from just this sort of thing, but it was inevitable at some point because it’s who you are. And I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to suppress something so integral to who you are out of fear. Fear of discovery and fear of somehow disappointing me and your mother. Let me correct something right here before this goes any further. We could not be prouder of you and who you are. And there is nothing you could ever do to disappoint us or make us love you any less. You are our only child. A blessing when we thought we’d never have a child, much less one as loving, kind and special and beautiful inside and out, as you are. So trust me to do what’s best not only for you but for me and your mother. Because you two come first with me. Always. And that will never change.”

  “I love you, Dad,” she whispered.

  He brushed a kiss over her forehead and gave her a gentle squeeze. “And I love you, baby girl. Now let me pack your mother and I a quick bag. We can always get what else we need later.”

  SIX

  BEAU Devereaux hit the pause button for the television after he’d replayed the evening news segment from the night before for his brother, Caleb, and the assembled members of their security specialist team.

  They’d lost good men to a madman who’d put Caleb and his now wife, Ramie, through hell, and they realized they needed better than what they’d considered the best in the beginning. After a thorough vetting, more men had been hired, and the new recruits had gone through extensive training headed by Dane Elliot, their head of security. He was a former Navy SEAL and all-around tough-as-nails warrior. He was partnered with Eliza Cummings, a badass in her own right. The two had been instrumental in hunting down the fucker who had tormented Ramie, though it had been Caleb who’d taken the bastard down for good.

  Zack was perhaps their most interesting addition. Beau had been drawn to him because he and Zack were alike in many ways. Quiet. Cynical. They were both content to sit back and observe, taking in their surroundings, studying quietly all the while gaining information. And neither were glory seekers. They simply got the job done.

  He wasn’t the typical recruit. Most of their men were ex-military or former government agents. FBI, DEA and a few organizations that didn’t officially exist. When they were first getting off the ground in the hasty year following their sister’s abduction and subsequent rescue, he and Caleb had done the best they could to hire capable security experts. They were in fact working trial by fire. But in the aftermath of losing men, Caleb’s wife’s near death and Caleb’s own, they’d knuckled down, learned from their past mistakes and spared no expense in getting the best. Only the best. If the old adage was true and you got what you paid for, then they were getting top-notch operatives because they did not come cheap.

  Zack, however, was a different story. Superstar college football player on a full ride. Drafted by the NFL in the first round as a starting quarterback. But after only two years, an injury had taken him out of football forever. For most people this would have been a setback they never recovered from. He’d shrugged it off, did his rehab and then followed in his father’s footsteps and entered law enforcement, excelling and quickly moving up the ranks.

  He’d been heavily recruited by a government agency, but Beau had been quick to snatch him up, his gut telling him it was the right decision. There was a ruthlessness and darkness to Zack that Beau sensed more than saw outright. His gaze missed nothing, always calculating, taking note and processing at lightning speed. For some this might be a warning sign. A reason not to hire him on. But Beau had witnessed the difference in Zack when it came to victims and the people they hunted.

  He was infinitely gentle with the innocent, but was ice-cold when it came to taking down the monsters who preyed on the innocent. He was perfect for Devereaux security and their expanding network.

  Caleb leaned back, his expression speculative as he eyed his brother. “So why are we looking at this exactly?”

  The others assembled had similar questioning looks. Zack’s was hard, though. Beau could feel the same anger that simmered in his own veins radiating through Zack.

  “It doesn’t bother you that a defenseless woman could have been killed?” Beau asked mildly.

  Even as he spoke, his attention went back to the frame that was frozen over Arial Rochester’s delicate, terrified features. He couldn’t explain why he was more bothered by this attack than he was about others. And in their business, they’d seen a lot, even in the short time they’d been in business.

  “I’m more interested in the ‘freak’ windstorm and the flying bricks,” Eliza murmured. “Since posted on YouTube, this video has gone viral with over ten million views in twenty-four hours. News networks across the company have picked it up. Speculation is running rampant as to how she managed to fend off three
attackers without so much as a weapon.”

  “Stranger things have happened,” Dane said in his calm, implacable tone.

  Eliza snorted, knowing full well he spoke the truth. In light of all that had happened with Caleb and Ramie, this looked like simple child’s play.

  Beau continued to study the wide, frightened eyes of the small woman. Her arms were wrapped protectively around herself and there was panic evident in her every feature. After the threat to her had been eliminated.

  Wouldn’t she have been relieved? Some hint of relief or even upset? Reaction to her close brush with death. Instead she looked even more terrified than she had when confronted with the arrogant little assholes.

  There was something about the entire thing that bothered him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. But the surge of anger over the attack of such a small, vulnerable-looking woman pissed him off. He usually approached his job impassively, never letting his emotions rule him or get in the way of his actions. Protection required absolutely no room for error. No mistakes. No letting emotion result in hasty, stupid decisions that could get someone killed.

  “So do you think she has psychic abilities?” Caleb asked, addressing the obvious elephant in the room.

  Beau shrugged. “Maybe. It’s possible. She certainly caused a stir and the evidence is pretty inexplicable. But then again, it could very well simply be a freak occurrence and maybe she was scared because even she didn’t understand what was going on.”

  “Or maybe she was worried about discovery,” Zack said, speaking up for the first time in his gruff voice.

  Beau had had the same thought.

  “Well, if she was worried about discovery then I’d say she’s a hell of a lot more worried now,” Eliza said grimly.

  The Devereauxs were intimately acquainted with the fear of discovery. Their younger sister, Tori, had psychic ability and they’d shielded her from public scrutiny her entire life. Caleb’s wife was also psychic, her “gift” more of a curse than a blessing. And while her abilities were known, Caleb went to great lengths to keep her out of the public eye and he made damn sure that the many requests for Ramie’s help were filtered through the security firm and never reached Ramie.

  Ramie still hadn’t fully recovered from her brush with death. Neither had Caleb. Beau wasn’t certain Ramie would ever be able to use her talents again. She’d seen far too much death, experienced too much pain and devastation and had barely survived with her sanity intact. Caleb was well aware of that fact, and he’d do whatever it took to ensure his wife was never at risk again.

  “We need to focus on other matters—business matters,” Caleb said pointedly. “While this is a subject of interest, that’s all it is. We aren’t involved in the case. We have clients who deserve our undivided attention.”

  With that, the meeting shifted its focus to their current client load and assignments. Planning and organizing, deciding who headed what as well as reviewing new requests that had recently come in.

  Beau couldn’t quite shake the incident from his mind and he wasn’t sure why. But it bothered him. It bothered him a hell of a lot.

  SEVEN

  ARIAL knew she couldn’t wait a moment longer. Fear and anxiety ran uncontrollably through her heart, freezing blood as it pumped furiously to keep up with the stringent demands of her chaotic mind and thoughts.

  We’ll be an hour, two at the most, baby.

  It was what her father had said right before escorting her mother to a vehicle discreetly parked with easy access to at least three exit points from the large house owned by one of the many dummy corporations her father had funneled most of his properties and assets through.

  Her father hadn’t been thrilled, an understatement for sure, when her mom insisted on going with him. He’d wanted both women under constant guard. Her mother wasn’t leaving the shopping for Ari’s necessities to her husband and neither of her parents would even consider exposing Ari to the public eye.

  Ari had very recognizable features and would most certainly be identified because not only were the local news and media in a frenzy over the anonymous video but the rest of the country as well. It was only after her mother had threatened to go alone to shop for her baby that her father had grudgingly capitulated, because there was no way in hell he was allowing his wife—or his daughter—to go anywhere without him.

  Oddly enough, her mother was perfectly content to allow her husband to pick out her clothing. She’d said more than once over the years that her husband knew what looked good on her better than she did and he loved spoiling his wife. Wearing clothes chosen by him seemed to represent a tangible sign to him of his possession.

  When it came to Ari, however, her mom was adamant about shopping for her baby. It was something special she liked to do for her daughter. And it was her way of spoiling Ari since her husband shamelessly spoiled them both.

  But why weren’t they back yet? Why hadn’t she heard from them? In her heart she knew that something terrible had to have happened for them to stay gone so long and for them not to contact her. She was sick with worry, the possibilities endless as to why they hadn’t returned, and she was torturing herself with every single one of them.

  It was now long past time stores stayed open and she knew her father would have hurried her mother through the process and be anxious to return home to Ari, where he could be assured of both his wife’s and daughter’s safety.

  Her father—or her mother—would never cause Ari stress or fear. She knew that for the absolute truth it was. And they wouldn’t have wanted to be gone long from her. Especially her father, because he was most at ease when he could see his “girls” and know they were safe.

  So something terrible had to have happened. It was the only reasonable explanation and she was utterly paralyzed by terror and grief because she couldn’t lose them. She couldn’t! They were her lifeline. Her support system. Her anchor, her rock.

  It might seem ridiculous for a twenty-four-year-old woman to still be so dependent on her parents, but it was what they wanted—what she wanted. In an uncertain world and living every day in fear of discovery, her parents were her only sanctuary.

  Yes, she’d spread her wings, gone out on her own after graduating with her teaching degree. She even had her own apartment, though it was in her father’s building. She shopped for herself, went to her favorite restaurants and constructed a façade of an ordinary day-to-day life.

  She was highly intelligent, excelling in her studies. She had a photographic memory and could store data in her brain much like a computer did. And yet with her superior intelligence and her psychic powers that she hadn’t truly tested to see just how powerful she was, she was still fragile and vulnerable. She knew it. She hated it. But she accepted it, because it was who she was and she couldn’t change it no matter how much she wanted to.

  She wanted to be strong. She wanted to live life without forever looking over her shoulder and suppressing her true self. It was no way to live even if her parents surrounded her with their love, always protecting her. At some point she had to step from her parents’ shadow and take on the world herself.

  She sighed, closing her eyes after checking her watch for the hundredth time.

  The two hours her father had assured her they’d be back in had turned into three and then four and five until every minute seemed an eternity. At first Ari hadn’t been concerned, because above all else her father was lethal and fiercely protective of her mother. He’d never allow harm to come to either his wife or his daughter.

  He’d left a security detail with Ari, surrounding her, the house. She didn’t see them but she sensed their presence. Their watchful eyes. It should have reassured her, but with every passing hour that her parents remained gone, her anxiety mounted until she was literally paralyzed with fear. And indecision.

  She was exhausted, unable to sleep with her parents gone and her not knowing if they were dead or alive. Now dawn crept across the sky, bathing her room in pale shades of la
vender. She’d tried to call her father countless times. Her mother too. And each time both attempts had gone straight to voice mail.

  She knew she had to do something. But what? She didn’t even know where her father had taken her mother to shop, so tracing their route was impossible.

  What if they’d been in an accident? Wouldn’t someone at least check their cell phones, see all the missed calls and at least contact her to let her know if they were in the hospital? Or . . . dead?

  Frigid cold gripped her insides. Her chest tightened to the point of pain, and she struggled to squeeze air into her burning lungs.

  They couldn’t be dead. And if they’d been in an accident, one of them would have called her. Unless they were incapable of making a call. Unconscious. Fighting for their lives?

  Her knotted fist went to her mouth, her teeth sinking into her knuckles. Oh God. She couldn’t imagine her world without her parents in it. They had to be okay. They had to.

  She couldn’t stand it another minute. She’d go find one of the men keeping silent watch over her. Her father had brought two of his detail with him and her mother. Wouldn’t the men have known if something awful had happened? And if they knew, then why the hell hadn’t they informed her and, better yet, taken her to wherever her parents were?

  She dressed hurriedly, packing a light bag in case she needed to immediately rush to her parents’ side. She took only what was absolutely necessary and threw everything into an oversized tote before slinging the strap over her shoulder.

  Then she headed for the front entrance.

  Ari stepped past the front door, shutting it firmly behind her. She clutched her bag and glanced furtively around as she moved farther down the walkway to where another vehicle was parked. Thank God her father had ensured that she had keys to every vehicle they owned in case she ever needed to use one of them.

  Her gaze skimmed over the grounds, carefully observing for any sign of the men posted around the perimeter. The wind blew, ruffling her long hair, and she reached up with her hand to shove it from her face and tuck it behind her ear.

  “Hello!” she called loudly. “I know you’re there. I need your help. Please.”

  Only silence greeted her. No answering call. No one striding from nowhere to suddenly appear at her side. Maybe they’d been called away because her parents had needed them?

  She tried once more, louder this time, until her voice cracked. And once again, there was no response. With an aching sigh, she trudged farther down the pathway, resigning herself to the fact she was flying blind.

  She took the inside curve of the sidewalk that skated outward to where the other vehicles were parked. Dismay made her freeze momentarily because while she had several keys on her key ring, she wasn’t at all sure what key went to which vehicle.

  She paused, shimmying the strap of her tote bag down so she could reach in to retrieve the heavy clump of keys lying in one of the pockets. When she looked up again she let out a startled gasp and instinctively took a step backward.

  There was a tall man dressed in fatigues and a white form-fitting T-shirt. His hair was cut short and he wore combat boots. Combat boots? And his eyes were completely shielded by dark sunglasses, but even so she could feel the heavy weight of his stare.

  Something about him made her extremely nervous but then her nerves were already shot so he likely wasn’t to blame. He had to be a part of the security detail her father employed. He could very well know where her parents were or have heard from the detail her father had taken with him and her mother. Someone had answered her summons after all.

  “Have you heard anything about my parents?” she asked anxiously, though she still kept her distance. “They should have been home hours ago.”

  “They’re fine,” he said calmly, not so much as a flicker in his expression.

  Relief made her unsteady. Her knees wobbled and shook and she let out a hard whoosh of air as it burst free from her lungs.

  Before she could react or ask how he knew they were fine, her face exploded with pain and she went flying backward, landing on the pavement. Her already bruised and tender ribs screamed their protest and her entire face throbbed. The son of a bitch had hit her!

  She tasted blood but ignored it, focusing instead on the man bearing down on her. She caught the barest glint of something in his left hand and it was enough to have her on her feet in a fraction of a second, prepared to fight with everything she had.

  Thank God, her father had taught her self-defense moves from the time she was a child. He’d always worried about her protection not only because she was his only child and he openly adored her, but because he never wanted her in a vulnerable position without a way of defending herself.

  The attack in the school parking lot had caught her so unaware that her first instinct had been to use her powers.

  And then dread pooled deep in her stomach, spreading its poison through her body as realization hit.

  He intended to drug her so she couldn’t use her powers.

  Which meant not only did her father have a traitor in his ranks, but who knew how many others were involved? Were all of them bad? Her mother and father had fallen off the map when her father had a taken a security escort. They should have been able to protect him and for that matter her father was very capable of kicking some serious ass.

  Unless . . . Perhaps they’d drugged her parents like they intended to drug her.

  There were a million questions surging in waves through her mind, but she shoved them down and instead focused on her attacker, who was now only a few feet away and making no effort to hide the syringe in his hand.

  She did a quick assessment and knew there was no way to physically overcome this man. He was a fighter. Looked ex-military. Still wore the clothing of an enlisted man with ease and confidence that told her he hadn’t been out long.

  The resolve in his features frightened her more than his obvious physical strength. He had a mission, one that would be completed at all costs.

  But if he planned to drug her and hadn’t killed her outright, which he certainly could have done, then his orders were obviously to bring her in alive.

  She narrowed her focus and the rest of the world simply fell away. Sweat beaded her forehead as she concentrated on the hand holding the syringe. His arm lifted, as though he were a puppet on strings. Jerky, him fighting it the whole way.

  He lunged at her, reaching for her with his free hand, and she dodged out of the way, her concentration momentarily broken. She had to get to one of the vehicles and the only way to do that was to impair him enough to give her that window of opportunity. She doubted he was alone, but perhaps they’d expected her to hole up in her room like a scared, defenseless child until they came for her.

  She forced every bit of her mental energy on that syringe until it took on a life of its own, wrenching free of his grasp and hovering in the air, looking suddenly like a menacing wasp. The man cursed and ducked and dodged as the syringe stabbed forward, his sunglasses falling to the ground so his eyes were revealed. The entire time, he inched his way in Ari’s direction, but she kept sidestepping, never taking her gaze from the syringe.

 
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