FLESH AND KIDNAPPERS

 

Book 5 in the Flesh and Thieves series

Effie and T immediately have sizzling chemistry. Just when it looks like they’re going to get a vacation to further explore their intense connection, T’s god-daughter is kidnapped by a ruthless cartel and Effie and T rush to New York City. They need all hands on deck. It’s a trial by fire as Effie meets all of T’s family and crew, known as The Ward Squad. Effie must find her place on the team as they plan a daring rescue. Rappel out of helicopters, avoid getting shot, rescue a teenager? Effie and T go airborne and risk their lives as The Ward Squad attempts the nearly impossible to wrench Amanda from the hands of a ruthless.

PREVIEW 

I wake up; a warm hand is gently sliding up my side, toward my left breast. My mind snaps to hyper-alert, like a sparkler going off. T. It’s T behind me. His hand, his body.

 

He mumbles in his sleep, and I realize he’s not totally awake yet. He’s dreaming about me.

 

I smile. Then I remember the two countesses sleeping downstairs and my smile fades. I remember the explosion last night at the mansion, and I snuggle back into T more. Gratitude that’s he’s alive and unhurt washes through me like a glorious summer rainstorm.

 

“Hey, babe.” His voice is low, grumbly, filled with morning sleep.

 

“Hi,” I say, drawing the word out.

 

T kisses the back of my neck.

 

“Let’s return the princesses and the necklace and get out of this city,” T says. His voice is laced with sex and promise. “We’ll go somewhere romantic. Paris. Milan. Naples.”

 

I laugh quietly, the joy bubbling over.

 

“Ever been to any of those cities?” he asks me.

 

“No.”

 

“Well, I’d love to be the one to show you. Come on, sleepy head. I’ll feed you freshly made chocolate croissants as a prelude to getting you naked and having my way with you.”

 

I don’t point out that I’m naked now, and he doesn’t need to bribe me with pastry in order to do whatever he wants to me.

 

He’s already padded over to his laptop, and is standing, hunched over the pretty Victorian desk. His butt, his perfect muscular ass, is forefront in my line of vision. As matter of fact, I may be salivating. Pretty soon I won’t be able to see anything else.

 

I’ve never had this long to just stare at his back and backside before. My lips twitch up in a smile. He’s pretty spectacular.

 

“Leaving at 2 p.m. should give us plenty of time to wrap up things here. Don’t you think?”

 

He turns to look at me and catches me ogling his ass. He smiles.

 

T saunters over to me, all sexual predator. “Or maybe we need a little more time to wear ourselves out here before we leave this room.”

 

His phone rings, a weird rat-tat-tat gunshot sound ringtone, and he frowns. He moves fast, and fishes it out of last night’s tuxedo pants pocket.

 

“Race End, Incorporated,” T says into the phone. He listens for a second. His shoulders stiffen. He looks grim. T rolls his lips into a thin line as he continues to listen. His facial expression goes from grim to thunderous.

 

“Yes,” he says, his voice more serious than I’ve ever heard it. “I’m on it. I’m in Europe now, but I’ll be on the next flight there.”

 

He hangs up and looks at me. His expression is calm and apologetic.

 

“I guess that call wasn’t to go to eat desserts in France. No chance it was someone needing a thief near the Eiffel Tower?”

 

T shakes his head. He’s already getting dressed. “Come on, baby. Let’s get dressed. I’ll brief you on the way.”

 

That doesn’t sound good. He’s already dressed in the time it takes me to blink and stare at him and wonder what this is about.

 

T is moving very quickly, packing his bag, getting the necklace out of the safe, making car and plane reservations for us on the computer, although I don’t know to where.

 

Following his lead, I dress quickly and pack my bag in record time. While I’m packing he runs downstairs, bangs on a door to wake the countesses up, and runs back upstairs. He looks at me, like I’m a life raft and he’s drowning. Whatever’s bothering him we have to take care of it right away.

 

I look around the room. We’d had multiple rounds of incendiary, hot sweaty sex on the bed and an earth-shaking collision when I was on top of the dresser and T showed me he knew exactly how to use his large, precision weapon. Despite this, the room is pristine and looks exactly as it did when we found it.

 

Ah, Mr. Big. Big, lovely T. I’m with a guy who can steal, kill, fuck like a love god, give a compliment, and knows how to clean up after himself.

 

Life is good.

 

He jogs down the stairs. I follow.

 

I stand on the bottom stair for a minute listening to the countesses grumble about how it’s too early in the morning to get up. T reminds them how worried their parents must be, and I can hear them moving around.

 

It still takes them a quite a few minutes longer to get ready.

 

I munch on a few French pastries while I wait. After all, I have to keep my strength up. Be ready for anything. Be able to run fast and scale tall buildings in a single bound. That might happen any moment. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I gobble down my third croissant.

 

T rounds us all up and ushers us outside. It’s another cold, crisp day, with snowflakes falling gently, like we’re in a high-priced snow globe that actually has a wind chill.

 

A black limo pulls up. T opens the back door for the countesses at the same time the driver hops out and runs around to the curb to do the same. The driver is a small blonde woman. Again I’m very glad it’s not the same limo driver we had during our crazy car sex.

 

Just thinking about riding T, in the backseat of that limo, with the driver listening, gets me hot and bothered again. But of course, no room for limo sex this morning, unless we were considering a foursome with Ms. Spoiled and Ms. Overindulged, which we’re not.

 

T speaks in French to the driver, and we’re off to return the countesses. He drops them off at a home almost as palatial as the one we blew up.

 

We didn’t blow it up. Still, it sounds better than saying some nameless, faceless, I-don’t-know-who-yet asshole did it. If there was going to be an explosion, I should be the one to have set it.

 

Next stop, return the necklace. Smaller palace. Probably only 4,000 square feet. A hut practically. I see a thick envelope change hands between T and an elegant older lady with a devastated expression. He speaks to her in French, but I’m still in the car; all I hear is murmurs.

 

Then T’s back in the car, and he gives me a sexy look and wiggles his eyebrows, like he’s remembering our ride into town too. But a second later he faces forward, his stare blank, and his expression even more forbidding and serious than it was when he got the phone call.

 

A sign of wisdom is to know when to shut up, or when to keep quiet to start with. This was definitely one of those times. I’m not the kind of woman who needs to keep up constant chatter to be comfortable.

 

We’re almost at the entrance to the airport before I realize that’s where we’re going. Of course.

 

T moves fast, getting our luggage out of the trunk. He easily carries his and mine. He speaks to the driver and hands her some money, tightly folded, as a tip. I wonder if T tipped this driver the same amount as he gave our silent voyeur. Probably not.

 

T’s strides are long, and I almost have to jog to keep up with him. After a second he slows down a little. We’re at the gate before I realize where we’re going. New York City. My old stomping ground. Whoo-eee. Empire state of mind. Falafels, knishes, twenty-four hour Indian restaurants. Now that’s a city I can appreciate.

 

T guides me to a place by the large floor to ceiling window, far away from everyone else. He steps in close. “My best friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter has been kidnapped.”

 

I clap my hand over my mouth to smother my gasp.

 

T bends down even lower, so his face is even closer to mine. “Brian is a world-class con artist. Forgeries, complicated cons, changing his looks, infiltration.”

 

I nod.

 

“He doesn’t steal from the poor, do jobs that are going to hurt the general population, or work for the mob.”

 

I have a bad feeling I knew where this was going.

 

“The New York head of Mumbai’s biggest crime syndicate asked him to do a job that’s going to result in hundreds of deaths and give them sole control of the water supply.”

 

I take this in while I stare at a plane taxiing into position close to the big window. It only takes a second to put it together.

 

“When he refused,” I say, “those nice, sweet gentlemen decided a little persuasion was in order.” I feel the truth of the words as I say them; the picture is horrifyingly clear.

 

“You guessed it.”

 

“Fuck,” I say. “And not in a good way.”

 

T straightens up and stares out at the window. We watch a plane on a nearby runway take off.

 

“I hate bad guys,” I say.

 

“This one is about as bad as they get. If Brian doesn’t agree soon, they’re going to cut off Amanda’s fingers one by one and they’ll send them back to Brian until he changes his mind.”

 

“Jeesh. Can’t they just get someone else?”

 

“They want the best.”

 

We hear the boarding call for passengers who need assistance or people traveling with small children, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to hear that in my life.

 

An old man in a bright plaid shirt, who looks twenty months pregnant with his huge pot belly waddles, more than walks by, very close to us, and we wait until he passes. Something about him registers in the back of my mind, but I don’t know what. I’m paying too much attention to T.

 

“Brian’s stalling, saying he needs to gather materials before he can be sure he can take the job, but we need to rescue Amanda, and get them both out of the country and hidden before this really hits the fan.”

 

“Do you have anyone in New York already working on it?”

 

“My dad, my uncle, and my two brothers.”

 

“Huh, I didn’t know you went into the family business,” I say, and it comes out a lot funnier than I intended it. The corner of his mouth quirks up.

 

“We do it all,” he says and makes an expansive gesture. “Painting retrieval, princess saving”—he leans close and his voice drops to a seductive whisper—“seducing beautiful operatives.”

 

I blush.

 

“Rescuing damsels in distress.”

 

“I’ve only rescued jewelry until now,” I say.

 

“Welcome to the big leagues.”

 

“Great,” I say as I hoist my small purse higher on my shoulder, “just what I always wanted.”

 

*

 

The plane flight is a lot longer than the one to Europe. Without the benefit of sleep or alcohol, the hours drag on like a plow stuck in wet mud. T is silent the whole way, no doubt planning on how to bring down countries and rescue Amanda. I’m worried about developing a stomach ulcer and thinking that three helpings of extra fatty mac n’ cheese will go a long way toward making me more capable for this assignment.

 

We land in JFK, and I immediately feel better. I worked in a TGI Fridays in the airport for one summer when I was eighteen before I turned to a life of rightful recovery and international intrigue. Hard to say which job was better—serving margaritas to weary tourists or scaling walls with T. Must be scaling walls. I got to look through $3,000 goggles and wear all black. Hhm, I may get to do it again, followed by wearing nothing at all. Okay, so working with T is definitely better than Fridays.

 

We actually pass the Fridays where I used to work, and I pause to give the restaurant a friendly salute. I realize that I’m using my brain patter in order to distract myself. In the two seconds I spend staring at the hustle and bustle in the restaurant, Mr. Big’s long strides have taken him far away from me.

 

I jog to catch up with him, dodging through the crowd, following the back of his head. It’s easy to do, because he’s so much taller than everyone else. By the time I catch up he’s talking to someone else his height. I step to the side slightly.

 

Holy shit, it’s a T clone.

 

I blink, taking that in. Well I’ll be damned. T is a twin. His brother is dressed almost identically. Black cargo pants. Black jacket. Web utility belt void of weapons. One of the only differences is that his brother is wearing a gray T-shirt instead of black.

 

“Hey, baby,” T says as I pull up beside them. “This is my brother, Richard.”

 

Richard reaches out and shakes my hand.

 

“Identical twins,” I say.

 

“I’m the good looking one,” Richard says.

 

“I got the brains,” T says.

 

I lean back and very subtly, ogle T’s ass. I’m thinking brains isn’t the only thing he’s got.

 

Apparently Richard notices. He smiles. His tone is jocular. “And I’ve got the better ass. Want me to moon you so you can see?”

 

I hear a barely audible, low-pitched growl from T.

 

“I’ll pass,” I say.

 

As one they turn and start heading out of the airport. Again I have to speed walk to keep up.

 

“Fill me in,” T says.

 

“Al Hastran has been tightening the thumb screws. He has twenty-four hour surveillance on Brian, and that’s just the operatives we can see. Brian was getting calls from a… manager, named Amir Cahbin, and that has turned into hourly calls with two or three rather intimidating visits a day to check on Brian’s… progress.”

 

“Shit,” T says.

 

I second that opinion.

 

“Is it a painting that they want Brian to make?”

 

“A car.”

 

Both T and I stop short, and someone behind me almost bumps into me.

 

T slowly starts walking again.

 

“A car…” T says, drawing out the words like he had no idea what they mean.

 

Richard doesn’t say anything else for a minute, and for a few seconds I think maybe he doesn’t have any more information, but I realize that’s not it. Both T and Richard are standing up a little straighter, a pretty neat trick for guys with military posture. They are on high alert. They must see something from their nosebleed, tall guy vantage point. Two planes worth of people converge on us, and in the middle of the crowd my five-foot-five height is about us useful a pogo stick in quicksand. Unless I get up piggyback on top of T, which is always a fun idea.

 

Whatever is making them perk up like hunting dogs with their ears twitching is still bothering them, and one way I can tell is Richard keeps reaching his right hand to his utility belt, in the empty space that I guess is where he usually keeps his gun. T’s head moves side to side as he constantly scans the crowd. He grabs my hand and starts walking faster. I can feel the nervous energy radiating out of him, and it takes about two seconds before it starts making me tetchy.

 

I resist the urge to say, ‘What is it that you see, or don’t see? What is it? What?’ but just barely. I have the sense that if T gets any tenser he might pick me up and run with me carried on his side like a toddler. A really big, full-grown, curvy toddler.

 

“What?” I finally hiss.

 

T shakes his head and walks even faster. Subtly, they’ve steered me toward the side of the corridor, instead of straight down the middle. At the very last second T pushes me to the right, almost body checking me really, into the door of the men’s room.

 

I have the desire to say, ‘Ugh’, but I’m a professional. I just roll with it.

 

T’s got his hand on the back of my neck, pushing me quickly into a stall, and he follows me in. He closes the door. T lifts me up in one smooth move, so suddenly I’m standing on the toilet, and then squatting down while still standing on it, so that I’m not seen. He’s facing me, as if he’s taking a piss.

 

I close my eyes for a second, and slow my breathing and heartbeat way down, and concentrate on my other senses. I’m trying to get a sense of who is in the room. There’s a flush, coming from the stall farthest to my right. One civilian in a stall. I picture the men’s room as best as I can. I’m recreating everything in my mind, hoping for as much accuracy as I can, considering T ushered me in so quickly. There was one man in a cheap suit at the far urinal, looking away from us.

 

I picture my ear canals, and visualize them opening out, as if this will help me hear better. Two civilians. That’s all I’m sure of. But…

 

Richard has to be in here somewhere, doesn’t he?

 

I hear the door crash open. I hear a quick command in a language I don’t recognize, it’s got a Middle Eastern rhythm to it, a form of Arabic maybe. I look at T. His face is placid. Focused.

 

Thawp. Bang. Poomwack. Grunts. I assume the sounds are two large, male bodies struggling. I hear a thud followed by “Ooof.” I picture Richard slamming someone up against a wall. Then there’s a distinct smashing sound. Hhm, maybe someone’s forehead being smashed into the mirror, because even though I have never heard the sound before, that’s definitely the sound of thick skull meeting shiny glass.

 

Now I really want to see, because I’m picturing a big circle of crushed shards with blood on it, the size of a really large head. I have my hands on T’s waist, and I peer around him, trying to get a view of the action through the crack between the stall door and the rest of the stall, but all I see is Richard’s gray shirt going back and forth across my tiny field of vision.

 

I open my purse and take out a small compact. T moves slightly, to get out of my way. I angle the small double mirrors in the top and bottom of my compact until I can see through the little seam between the door and the stall wall, and get a reflection from a shard of mirror. Richard is battling two guys who look like they burn small animals for fun.

 

The crashes outside the stall increase, along with more shouts. I wonder how long we’ll stay hidden.

 

Richard makes a choking noise; one of the bad guys has him by the throat.

 

I look at T. He shakes his head.

 

Richard head butts the bad guy and does something else to him I can’t see. The bad guy drops to the floor. Richard ducks as a nasty looking bald guy takes a swing at him. Mr. Baldy ends up punching the already-broken mirror. Shards rain down on Mr. Bald’s hand.

 

T is smiling.

 

Just as it looks like Richard has completely leveled the playing field, three more guys barge in.

 

The bad guys say something in an Asian language, but I can’t pick out which one. Not Mandarin, not Japanese. Korean?

 

Jeez. I sleep with T, and now I have to be a linguist. Or is it a cunning linguist?

 

T makes a hand motion for me to stay.

 

I nod. That’s me, good dog.

 

T quickly opens the stall door, using his big body to shield me from view, and steps out into the fray.

 

“Hello, boys,” T says and cracks his knuckles. I see one of the guys look from T to Richard, and look confused.

 

An old gum commercial for Double Mint pops into my head. ‘Double your pleasure, double your fun.’

 

In almost perfect synchronization T picks up one guy by the throat and Richard picks up another. I hear a neck snap. Ouch. Yikes. The third guy looks from T to Richard, turns and hightails it out of there. Smart.

 

T and Richard are out of the bathroom like twin bullets from a double-barrel, giving chase.

 

I listen carefully for what I estimate is about a tenth of a second before I come out of the stall.

 

The floor is littered with bodies.

 

An old security guard peeks his head in.

 

“What the hell?” the guard asks.

 

I look at him innocently. “Is this the ladies’ room?”

 

He stares at me.

 

I run past him. No way am I going to let T and Richard have all the fun.

 

I catch sight of two tall heads and the very end of the corridor. I run for all I’m worth, dodging tourists, businessmen, families.

 

I’m fast, very fast. But there is no way I can keep up with those guys. The have about 3,000 miles of leg over me.

 

Argh. Tall people. So not fair.

 

I get to the end of the terminal, where four hallways meet, and they are nowhere in sight. I put my hands on my thighs for a second. Bent over and panting. That’s fine with me, hey, it’s a position I like even, but not because I lost a bad guy and twins the size of industrial refrigerators.

 

“Think,” I say to myself.

 

I take an educated guess that Mr. Bad will be heading to the nearest exit, which I know is on the other side of baggage claim. I run left, hop on the banister between the stairs and the escalator and slide down a two-story drop at rocket speed like my ass is greased. I land hard and hang a right, just in time to see Mr. Bad push through the street level exit with T and Richard hot on his heels.

 

Right out into traffic. This is going to be fun.

 

The New York City air hits me, with its particular smell of dirt, grime, sweat, and cheap, oily ethnic food. The daytime cacophony of the busy JFK loading and unloading area, with its honks, tire screeches, curses, and noisy hellos and goodbyes hits me like wall of sound that smacks me from multiple directions.

 

I look around. Ah there.

 

T and Richard have the guy trapped; he’s cowering into a corner.

 

I jog over.

 

T and Richard yank Mr. Bad off his feet as I run up behind them. They each have him under one armpit, pinning him to the wall. Richard pulls a knife from a hidden sheath and presses the small blade to the guy’s balls while T digs his thumb into the man’s throat, obviously applying pressure.

 

When I get very close, I hear the guy is speaking in rapid-fire Spanish.

 

Finally, a language I understand.

 

The man sees me. “Senorita! Senorita!” He thinks I’m an innocent bystander, and tries to appeal to me to help rescue him from these two thugs who are trying to rob him.

 

“Sorry,” I tell him in Spanish. “I’m with the thugs.”

 

Mr. Bad eyes widen and his expression goes from scared to absolute deathly panic. Then drops his head slightly, his expression set to resigned.

 

T starts asking him questions in Spanish. T’s tone is not friendly. In fact, it’s about as opposite of friendly as you can get. It’s ‘Tell me everything or you will be wearing cement shoes.’

 

Mr. Bad is forthcoming answering T’s questions, but none of the answers help us get any closer to saving Amanda. Seems to me that Mr. Bad is a hired gun; he doesn’t know that much. As I’m thinking about it though, I have a question.

 

“What are you doing in the airport? How is it that you ended up here?”

 

Mr. Bad’s eyes flick to Richard for a minute and then back to me, but he doesn’t answer.

 

I see T squeeze his hand a little bit; he’s applying more pressure to Mr. Bad’s throat. T lets up a little bit so Mr. Bad can talk. T raises his eyebrows in a way that says clearly if Mr. Bad doesn’t answer my question in a way that satisfies me that he might never be able to talk again.

 

Mr. Bad answers me in English a heavy Hispanic accent. “We were following this one.” When he says it, it sounds like deez one. Mr. Bad is looking at Richard.

 

“Why?” I ask.

 

Mr. Bad shrugs, I pretty neat trick considering that T and Richard still have him under the armpits.

 

“I don’t know,” Mr. Bad says. “He was at the home of the car maker, and I was told to follow him.”

 

“Why does your boss want him to make a car?” T asks.

 

Mr. Bad shakes his head. “It’s not my boss who wants it. It’s the Koreans. My boss owes them, so he lent me to them to pay.”

 

“Yes,” I say. I’m getting impatient. “But why a car?”

 

“Why do those putas do anything?”

 

Richard asks him about ‘The girl’, but he doesn’t know anything.

 

“Cut him lose,” I say.

 

T threatens him in Spanish, and T and Richard put him down.

 

“Run,” T says to him.

 

Mr. Bad takes off like he’s running for the border.

 

“Want to have someone follow him?” Richard asks T.

 

“I don’t think it will do much good, but yeah.”

 

Richard calls someone named Slash. A few seconds later I see a man on a crotch rocket, wearing a red leather jacket, zooming after Mr. Bad. He gives the twins a brief head nod as he speeds by us.

 

T and Richard’s cell phones both beep. They take out their phones in unison and look at the texts.

 

“Now what?” I ask.

 

“Family meeting,” the both say in perfect synch.

 

I’m going to meet more of them.

 

“Oh, goody,” I say.

 

*