Playing the odds, p.16
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       Playing The Odds, p.16
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         Part #1 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  grabbed the phone.

  “If you want her back, get the money together. Two million, small bills, unmarked. I’ll let you know where to make the drop. And you’ll make it alone, Blade, if you don’t want her hurt.”

  He hung up the phone, then let Serena go. The sound of Justin’s voice did what the hours of fear hadn’t been able to. On a trembling sob, she buried her face in the pillow and wept.

  “She’s all right.” Justin replaced the phone with studied care. “She’s all right.”

  “Thank God.” Anna grabbed both of his hands. “What next?”

  “I get the cash together, take it wherever he tells me.”

  “We’ll take photographs of the bills,” Lieutenant Renicki stated as he stirred himself from his chair. “One of my men will tail you when you make the drop.”

  “No.”

  “Listen, Mr. Blade,” he began patiently, “there’s no guarantee he’ll let Miss MacGregor go after he’s been paid off. He’s more likely to—”

  “No,” Justin repeated. “We play it my way, Lieutenant. No tails.”

  The lieutenant took a deep breath. “All right, we can plant a bug in the case. That way, when he picks up the money, he might lead us right to her.”

  “And if he spots it?” Justin countered. “No,” he said again. “I’m not taking any chances.”

  “You’re taking a hell of a chance by handing him two million dollars cold,” Lieutenant Renicki tossed back. “Mrs. MacGregor.” He turned to Anna, thinking a woman, a mother, would be more reasonable. “We want your daughter back healthy, the same as you. Let us help you.”

  She gave him a long, steady look while the hand in Justin’s trembled lightly. “I appreciate your concern, Lieutenant, but I’m afraid I feel as Justin does.”

  “Photograph the money,” Caine put in. “And go after him when Rena’s safe. By God, I’d like to prosecute him myself,” he added in a savage mutter.

  “Then you’d better hope he’ll be prosecuted for only kidnapping and extortion—not murder,” Lieutenant Renicki added cruelly. “He’ll keep her alive until he’s got the money. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Listen, Blade,” he continued as his patience snapped. “You don’t like dealing with cops, maybe because you had some trouble years back, but it’s a hell of a lot smarter to deal with us than to deal with him.” He tossed his hand toward the phone.

  In an unconscious gesture Justin ran his hand over his ribs. No, he thought, he didn’t trust the police. The memory of those endless questions while his wound was healing into a scar were ingrained in his memory. Maybe he was making a mistake. Maybe he should … His fingers froze abruptly. Scars. No scars!

  “Oh, God,” he murmured as his eyes dropped to his hand. “Oh, my God!”

  “What is it?” Anna was standing beside him, her fingers digging into his arm.

  Slowly, he brought his eyes to hers. “A ghost,” he whispered. Then shook away dread as he faced Lieutenant Renicki. “On the phone Serena was trying to tell me something. She said, ‘No scars.’ The man I killed in Nevada put a knife in me. Serena knows the story.”

  The lieutenant was already heading for the phone. “Do you remember his name?”

  Justin gave a mirthless laugh. Did you ever forget the name of a man when you were tried for his murder? “Charles Terrance Ford,” he answered. “He had a wife and a son. She brought the boy to the courtroom every day.” He had blue eyes, Justin remembered. Pale, confused blue eyes. A wave of sickness rose up, threatening to swallow him.

  “This time, drink it,” Caine ordered as he thrust a snifter of brandy into Justin’s hands.

  Looking down at it, Justin shook his head. “Coffee,” he mumbled, and walked into the kitchen. But he couldn’t think. Pressing his palms down on the counter, he tried to clear his head. Helpless, he realized. He felt the same raging helplessness he’d experienced so long ago in that narrow little cell. Seventeen years, he thought. Dear God, he’s had seventeen years to hate me. What will he do to her because of me?

  “If it’s all you drink, then drink it,” Caine said roughly as he pushed a cup of coffee across the counter. He was remembering Serena standing there only that morning, her eyes laughing at him while he dealt with the fact that she’d grown up while he wasn’t looking.

  “I knew,” Justin said quietly as he stared into the black coffee. “I knew someone was after me. I knew she wasn’t safe, but I didn’t make her go.”

  Caine sat down heavily on a stool. “I’ve known Rena all her life, loved her all her life. No one, absolutely no one, makes her do anything.”

  “I could have.” Justin picked up the coffee and drank without tasting. “All I had to do was go with her.”

  “And he’d have followed you.”

  Justin slammed the cup back down. “Yes.” The anger cleared his head and dispelled the lingering sickness in his throat. “I’m going to get her back, Caine,” he said with deadly calm. “Nothing in hell’s going to stop me from getting her back.”

  “His name’s Terry Ford,” Lieutenant Renicki stated as he walked into the room and headed for the coffeepot. “Booked a flight out of Vegas five days ago, destination, Atlantic City. We’ll have a description soon. We’re checking all the hotels, motels, condos, beach rentals, but there’s no telling whether he’s kept her in town. I wouldn’t bank on him renting a room in his own name,” he added as he helped himself to the sugar bowl. “His mother remarried about three years ago. We’re tracking her down.”

  It felt good to have something solid to work with—names, faces. With a satisfied grunt Lieutenant Renicki sat across from Caine. “We’ll get him,” he promised. “You both should try to get some rest,” he advised. “Odds are he won’t be calling again until morning.” When neither of them answered, the lieutenant sighed. This family knows how to close ranks, he reflected. “All right, Mr. Blade, why don’t you tell me what arrangements you’ve made for getting the ransom together?”

  “The money will be in my office by eight o’clock.”

  Lieutenant Renicki’s bushy brows rose and fell. “No problem getting that amount of cash together?”

  “No.”

  “Okay, tell him nine. Then we’ll have time to photograph it in your office. That way, if he slips by us, we’ll be able to grab him once he starts to pass it. I’d like you to reconsider letting us put a tracer in one of the cases. I can show you how successfully it can be concealed. Remember,” he added before Justin could speak, “our primary concern is the same as yours. To get Miss MacGregor back, safe.”

  For the first time, Justin noticed the fatigue in the lieutenant’s eyes. It occurred to him that the policeman hadn’t eaten or slept any more than he had himself. Under most circumstances, he would have trusted those eyes. “I’ll consider it,” he said at length.

  The lieutenant only nodded and drained the rest of his coffee.

  At six a.m. the phone rang again. Anna and Daniel woke from a half doze on the sofa. Alan came to attention in the chair where he had spent the night, awake and restless. Caine stopped in the doorway of the kitchen where he was returning with yet another cup of coffee. Justin’s hand snaked out to the receiver. He’d been staring at the phone for more than an hour.

  “Blade.”

  “Got the money?”

  “It’ll be here by nine.”

  “There’s a gas station two blocks down from the hotel on the right. Be in the phone booth there by nine fifteen. I’ll call you.”

  Terry hung up the phone so tied up with nerves, he nearly knocked the small table over. He hadn’t been able to sleep even after Serena’s weeping had quieted. She shouldn’t have been able to make him feel sorry for her, he thought as he rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes. After all, what kind of a woman was she to be living with a murderer?

  His mother would have said she was a tramp, but he’d sensed something about her. Classy, Terry mused as he stretched his stiff and aching muscles. She’d even looked classy in that s
weater and jeans when she’d opened the door for him. And last night … He sighed, glancing at the door to the bedroom. Last night she’d looked so small and helpless when she’d curled up on the bed and cried.

  Well, he was sorry he had to scare her that way, but she was the best weapon he could use on Blade. She shouldn’t have gotten mixed up with scum like him in the first place, Terry reminded himself. I’d kill him if I could, Terry thought, but he knew he didn’t have it in him. Planting a bomb in a building and drawing a knife or gun on a man were two different things. A bomb was remote, and he was forced to admit that he’d probably never have gotten up the nerve to detonate it. But the threat. Oh, the satisfaction of being able to keep the man who had killed his father shaking in his shoes. Then he’d have the money, and every dollar he spent would be revenge on Justin Blade.

  He heard Serena stir and rose to check on her.

  She was disgusted with herself. What good had crying done but to give her a throbbing head and swollen eyes? She needed to be planning a way out, not wallowing in self-pity. The arm that was attached to the bedpost ached and tingled from the lack of circulation. Shifting on the bed, she tried to rub the blood back into it. Think! she demanded of herself. There’s always a way out.

  When the bedroom door opened, her head spun around. Serena caught the quick regret in Terry’s eyes as he looked at her. God, I must be a pitiful sight, she thought wearily. Then use it, Rena! a small voice ordered impatiently. Start using your head.

  She allowed the fear to surface again while she clung to her inner strength desperately. “Please, my arm hurts. I think I wrenched it during the night.”

  “I’m sorry.” He stood irresolutely in the center of the room. “I’ll fix you some breakfast.”

  “Please,” she said quickly before he could go. “If I—if I could just sit in a chair. I ache all over from lying like this. Where can I go?” she asked on a half sob as he hesitated. “You’re stronger than I am.”

  “Look, I’ll take you into the kitchen. If you try anything, I’ll bring you back in here and put a gag on you.”

  “All right, just please let me get up for a while.”

  Terry pulled the key from his pocket and unlocked the handcuffs. Serena pushed down the urge to run, knowing she’d get no farther than the door. Clamping his fingers over her arm, he led her quickly through the house.

  The shades were drawn. I could be in Alaska for all I know, she thought in frustration. If I could run, what direction would I go? Does he have a car? He must have a car—how else did he get me here? If I could get the keys …

  “Sit down,” he ordered, and nudged her into a rickety chair at the kitchen table. Quickly, he knelt and slipped the cuffs around her ankle and a table leg. Pushing his hair out of his eyes, he rose. “I’ll get you some coffee.”

  “Thank you.” Her eyes swept the room swiftly in search of a weapon within reach.

  “You’ll be out of here by tonight,” Terry told her as he poured coffee without taking his eyes from her. “He’s already getting the money together. I probably could have asked for twice as much.”

  “You won’t be happy with it.”

  “He’ll be unhappy,” Terry countered. “That’s what counts.”

  “Terry, you’re wasting your life this way.” He looked so young, she thought. Too young to have so much hate packed inside him. “It took brains to plan everything out the way you have. Brains and skill. You could be putting your mind to so much better use. If you let me go now, I might be able to help you. My brother—”

  “I don’t want your help,” he said between his teeth. “I want Blade. I want him to crawl.”

  “Justin won’t crawl,” she said wearily.

  “Lady, I heard him on the phone. He’d crawl to hell and back for you.”

  “Terry—”

  “Shut up!” he shouted at her as his nerves threatened to snap. “I’ve spent all of my life working out how I was going to make Blade pay. I had to watch my mother scrimp and save and work in a sleazy diner while he got richer and richer instead of rotting in a cell. I’m entitled to the money, and I’m going to have it.” Resigned, Serena dropped her gaze to the table. “Look, I’m going to fix something to eat. Are you hungry?”

  She started to tell him no, then realized he’d just lock her back in the bedroom. Instead, she merely nodded, keeping her face averted while she tried to think.

  Hearing him rummaging in the cupboard, she gave her leg a testing jerk. She was going to have to take a chance. When he took the cuff off this time, she’d fight. With luck, she could surprise him enough to at least get outside, get someone’s attention. If there were anyone close enough to hear her shouting …

  When she looked back up, Terry had a large cast iron skillet in his hand. Without giving herself a chance to think, Serena moaned and began to slip slowly toward the floor.

  “Hey!” Alarmed, he rushed over, dropping the skillet beside her as he tried to lift her by the shoulders. “What is it?” he demanded. “Are you sick?”

  “I feel faint,” she said weakly as her fingers closed over the handle of the skillet. She made herself go limp until his face bent over hers. Using all of her strength, she crashed the skillet against the side of his head. He went down like a stone.

  At first, Serena lay still, trying to catch the breath he’d knocked out of her when he’d landed across her body. Then she had a moment’s terror that she’d killed him. Struggling, she wiggled out from under him and felt for his pulse.

  “Thank God,” she murmured as she felt the beat. Quickly, she shifted until she could reach into his pocket for the key. His mother was the one who deserved that blow, she thought as she released herself. Poor kid never had a chance.

  Rising, she considered her options. She could run like hell, but the chances were that he’d come to and take off. No, she had to make sure he stayed put first.

  Serena stuck the handcuffs into the back pocket of her jeans then began to drag him toward the bedroom. He wasn’t a big man, but as she started across the living room, bent over and tugging him by the shoulders, she discovered her strength wasn’t at its maximum. By the time she got him through the doorway, she was breathing hard and dripping with sweat.

  Resting against the doorjamb, she decided she’d never be able to drag him onto the bed. Instead, she left him stretched out on the floor, attached to the footboard with the handcuffs.

  She stumbled on the way to the phone with a faintness that wasn’t contrived. It occurred to her that she’d barely eaten in two days. It would wait, she told herself, shaking her head to clear it. She wasn’t about to pass out now. Quickly, she lifted the phone and dialed.

  * * *

  After a quick shower and change of clothes, Justin came back into the living room. Anna was urging Daniel to eat, though she wasn’t touching anything on her own plate. She looked up as Justin entered.

  “We’ll have a family dinner tonight,” she told him with a valiant smile. “Rena loves the fuss.” He saw the tears swim into her eyes to be hastily blinked away.

  For the first time since he had known her, Justin went to her and put his arms around her. “Why don’t you go down and speak to the chef? He’ll fix whatever you want.”

  He felt her shudder as her fingers dug into his back. “Yes, I’ll do that. Be careful,” she whispered. “Be careful, Justin.”

  When the phone rang, she jerked, then drew away. Her face was a mask of control. “He wasn’t supposed to call again.”

  “He probably wants to make sure nothing’s gone wrong.” His head pounding, Justin picked up the phone. “Blade.”

  “Justin.”

  “Serena!” He heard Anna’s quick gasp behind him. “Are you all right?”

  “Yes, yes, I’m fine. Justin—”

  “Are you sure? He hasn’t hurt you? I didn’t think he’d let you call again.”

  She controlled her impatience and spoke lightly. “He didn’t have any choice,” she told him. “He’s
unconscious and cuffed to the bedpost.”

  “What?” Caine grabbed at his arm, but Justin shook him off. “What did you say?”

  “I said I knocked him out and cuffed him to the bedpost.”

  Something rushed through him that he didn’t recognize. It was relief. It came out in a burst of laughter. “God knows why I was worried about you,” he said as he sunk onto the couch. Looking up, he saw four pairs of anxious eyes. “She knocked him out and cuffed him to the bedpost.”

  “That’s a MacGregor for you!” Daniel exploded, and swung Anna into his arms. “What did she hit him with?”

  “Is that my father?” Serena wanted to know.

  “Yes. He asked what you hit him with.”

  “A cast iron skillet.” She realized her legs were shaking and sat on the floor.

  “A skillet,” Justin relayed.

  “That’s my little girl!” Daniel kissed Anna lustily, then laid his head on her shoulder and wept.

  “Justin, could you come and get me?” Serena demanded. “I’ve had a really dreadful night.”

  “Where are you?”

  “I don’t know.” As reaction set in, she buried her face on her knees. Don’t fall apart, she ordered herself. Don’t fall apart now. She could hear Justin calling her name through the receiver and swallowed the tears. “Wait a minute, let me pull up the shades and see if I can get my bearings. Talk to me,” she demanded as she rose. “Just keep talking to me.”

  “Your family’s all here,” he said, hearing the edge of hysteria in her voice. “Your mother wants to have a dinner tonight. What would you like?”

  “A cheeseburger,” she said as she flipped up the first shade. “Oh, God, I’d love to have a cheeseburger and a gallon of champagne. I think I’m east of town, near the beach. There’re a few frame houses farther down the road. I’ve never been in this section.” She bit down hard on her lip to keep her voice from breaking. “I just don’t know where I am.”

  “Give me the phone number, Serena. We’ll trace it.” Justin scribbled it down quickly as she read it off. “I’ll be there, just hang on.”

  “I will. I’m fine really.” Somehow, letting the light into the room helped. “Just hurry. Tell everyone I’m all right, not to worry.”

  “Serena, I love you.”

  Tears welled up again. “Come and show me,” she said before she hung up.

  Justin handed the piece of paper to Lieutenant Renicki. “Find out where she is.”

  With a nod the lieutenant began to dial the phone. “Knocked him out with a skillet, eh?” He gave a quick, appreciative laugh. “Must be quite a woman.”

  “She’s a MacGregor,” Daniel told him, then heartily blew his nose.

  “A little waterfront house east of town,” Lieutenant Renicki said a few minutes later, and headed for the door. “Coming?” he asked Justin.

  Justin sent him a mild look. “We’re all coming.”

  * * *

  Serena stood in the open doorway though she shivered in the brisk morning air. It had been less than twenty-four hours, she realized. She felt as though it had been days since she’d seen the sunlight. The grass was still wet from the night’s rain. How was it she’d never noticed how many colors there were in a drop of water on a blade of grass?

  Then she saw the cars. Like a procession, she thought, and wanted badly to weep again. No, she wouldn’t greet Justin with tears running down her face. Straightening her shoulders, she went out on the stoop to wait.

  He pulled up in front of two police cars. Even as the car stopped, he was out of the door and rushing toward her. “Serena.” His arms were around her, lifting her off her feet as he crushed her against him. With her face buried against his throat, she heard him say her name again and again. “Are you all right?” he demanded, but before she could answer, his lips were fastened on hers.

  Why, he’s trembling, she realized, and clutched him tighter. As reassurance, she put all of the love and warmth she had into the kiss. “You’re freezing,” he murmured, feeling the chill of her skin under his hands. “Here, take my jacket.” As he started to remove it, Serena caught his face in her hands.

  “Oh, Justin,” she whispered, and stroked the lines of strain on his face. “What did he put you through?”

  “Here now, let me take a look at her.” Daniel took her by the shoulders, then ran his wide hands over her face. “So you took him out with a frying pan, did you, little girl?”

  Seeing the red-rimmed eyes, she kissed him fiercely. “It was handy,” she told him. “Don’t tell me you were worried about me?” she demanded as if insulted.

  “’Course not.” He sniffed loudly. “Any daughter of mine can take care of herself. Your mother, she was worried.”

  Lieutenant Renicki watched as Serena was passed from one family member to another. He intended to keep an eye on Justin when Terry Ford was brought out. “We’ll need a statement from you, Miss MacGregor,” he said, moving over casually to stand beside Justin.

  “Not now.”

  He acknowledged Justin’s words with a simple nod. “If you could come down to the station later today, after you’ve rested.” He felt Justin tense and, bracing himself, looked over as Terry was brought out by two uniformed officers. “Easy, Mr. Blade,” he murmured. “Your lady’s been through enough for one day.”

  Terry jerked up his head. Justin remembered those eyes. The pale, anxious eyes he’d seen every day in a courtroom. He’d been no more than three, Justin thought. A baby. He felt Serena’s hand link with his as the anger drained out of him. As they led him to the car, Terry continued to watch Justin over his shoulder.

 
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