EXCERPT: WHATEVER IT TAKES
“I want to see my sister.”
The cool, abrupt statement had Frank Braden looking up from his desk. The girl in front of him was beautiful in a way so few chicks were these days. She had a fresh, innocent air about her. Laughable, considering her occupation.
“What makes you think your sister wants to see you? You’re not exactly on speaking terms, are you?”
She flinched slightly, knowing he spoke the truth. “She’s my sister. We may have our disagreements, but we still love each other.”
“You saw her a few months ago.” Frank didn’t bother hiding his smirk.
“That was more than a year and a half ago, and it was a recording. I want to see her in person.”
The fire in Alice’s light blue eyes intrigued him. The last few months she’d been acting like a whipped puppy, and while he needed her obedient, he didn’t want her to completely lose her spirit. Part of the fun in controlling his girls was the battle. Even though he would always win, he still liked a challenge.
“Maybe when I’m sure I can trust you again, I’ll consider it.”
“How much longer do you intend to keep using me as a…a…”
She trailed off, apparently uncomfortable describing her role. Frank had no such problem as he finished for her. “Whore?”
She flinched but then jerkily nodded. Yeah, she knew what she was.
“How old are you, Alice?”
His eyes slid up and down her body, taking in the short skirt, halter top, and mile-high stilettos. The girls didn’t like wearing the shoes, said they hurt their ankles and feet. Like he actually gave a damn.
After enjoying the scenery, he moved his gaze back to her face and saw icy hatred in her expression. No, she was most definitely not broken.
“I’d say you have a good five or six years left before you start to look like a used-up hag.”
The color bleached from her face. “You told me I could pay you back in a year. It’s been almost two. And I—”
“Changed my mind. I’m not tired of you yet.”
Truth was, when he was through with her, he’d sell her to make a little more money off her. Or, if she lost her looks, he’d just get rid of her altogether.
“Besides, after that stunt you pulled, you’re lucky I didn’t kill you. Cost me money to find you.”
“I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t run off like that again. I promise.”
Yeah, she’d learned her lesson, and he hadn’t even had to lift a finger. “Good to know. Do something like that again and it won’t have as good an outcome.”
“Just, please, let me see Kathleen. I won’t tell her anything about…our arrangement. I just want to see her.”
Frank considered her for a few seconds. He didn’t like giving in to any of his girls’ requests. Give ’em one thing, next thing you know, they’re asking for something else. However, if he dangled seeing her sister in front of her like some kind of carrot reward, he could manipulate the situation to his liking.
“I’ll consider it. We’ll talk about it when you get back.”
He picked up his iPhone from his desk. “Noon tomorrow, Finley Hotel, Room 2002. He’s paid for twenty-four hours. Wants the full treatment.”
She flinched again, but this time Frank hid his grin. No use pissing her off. She was going to need all her energy and stamina for tomorrow.
He glanced at the wall clock behind her head. “Probably be a good idea to get some sleep. You need to look your best for this client. He’s paying top dollar for you.”
Without a word, she started for the door.
“Wait. Before you go, bring me a brandy.”
Shooting him a withering look, she stomped to the bar, poured him a drink, came back, and slammed the glass onto his desk.
Frank grabbed her wrist, squeezed tight. “There’s a fine line between spirited and ill-mannered, baby. When you return from your overnighter, perhaps we should explore that line.”
Fear leaped into her eyes, and Frank let her go. She knew full well the words were not a mere warning. She would pay for her attitude with blood and tears.
He leaned back in his chair and took a swallow of the finest, most expensive brandy a man could get.
“If you don’t get out of here, I’ll assume you’ll want the lessons to begin tonight.”
She backed away and turned to the door.
Frank took another sip of his brandy and then grimaced. Hmm. Taste was a little off, wasn’t it?
Agony seized his throat, as if gripped in a vise. He dropped the drink and grabbed his neck. Couldn’t breathe. Breath pumped from his lungs but couldn’t make it out an airway. What was wrong? What…what? He was smothering. Pressure built in his chest. His entire body stiffened with fear… Adrenaline shot through his veins as he gasped and heaved, desperate for air he could not release.
He looked up at the woman standing a few feet from him. Had she done this to him? Poisoned him? Her eyes were wide with surprise…but did they gleam with triumph, too?
Frank tried to speak…to beg her to call for help. He reached for her, and she jumped out of his way. His face slammed onto his desk. He lay there, helpless and in agony, while air rattled in his body, looking for escape.
Less than a minute later, he made one long last wheezing effort while the sound of mocking, sultry, female laughter followed him into death.
Slater House Hotel
“Did you sleep well last night, Sophia?”
“Yes, Daddy,” Sophia said with an emphatic nod. “I went to sleep right after story time. Slept all night long.”
Not to be outdone, four-year-old Violet chimed in, “Me, too, Daddy. I slept-ed all night long, too.”
“Good for you both. I know Miss Teresa appreciates what good girls you’re being while Daddy’s away.”
“What are you eating for breakfast, Daddy?” Sophia moved closer to the screen to see what was on Eli’s table. “We’re eating strawberry pancakes.”
“I wish I could have something that yummy. I’m just eating plain old boring cereal.”
“When are you coming home?”
“Soon, I promise, Violet.”
“Miss you, Daddy.”
Eli’s heart clutched, as it always did at the sheer sweetness of his daughters. There was no artifice, no hiding. Talking to them after a day of negotiating, dealing with fake smiles and hidden agendas was as refreshing as diving into a pool of cool water on a hot Texas day. This was the reason he continued despite all the worries and problems he had taken on. If not for Violet and Sophia, he wasn’t sure he would have retained his sanity.
“It’s time to get ready for school, girls,” Teresa said. “Say good-bye to your daddy.”
In between smooching sounds and “I love you’s,” he watched his daughters leave the kitchen table.
As soon as they’d left the room, Teresa Longview, nanny, housekeeper, cook, and all-around lifesaver, came on the screen. “They miss you, Mr. Eli, but they’re doing just fine.”
“Thank you for taking such good care of them.”
“They’re a pleasure, sir. You know that.”
“Anything I need to know about?”
“No, sir. It’s been amazingly quiet. Seems like everything is settling into place…finally getting back to normal.”
Eli hoped that was true but didn’t count on anything these days. “No odd incidents? Phone calls?”
“No, sir. I’ve been very careful with everything, just like you warned me.”
That was a relief. It’d taken almost a year, but the Slaters were finally back on the right track. But just because he’d worked his ass off to clean up the mess didn’t mean everyone was happy. No doubt there were still plenty of people who would love to see the Slaters completely decimated.
“Thanks for being vigilant, Teresa. I don’t expect any problems but can’t let my guard down.”
“I understand, Mr. Eli.”
“I’ll call back tonight at bedtime.”
“We’ll look forward to it. Have a good day.”
“You, too, Teresa.”
Eli closed his laptop, now ready to start his day. A few minutes spent with his daughters were better than any vitamin ever created.
So far, having Slater as a last name hadn’t impacted his children. The girls were just babies, much too young to comprehend. They still believed they lived in a safe, sane world. His daughters had no idea that it was all a lie—a lie he would willingly tell for as long as he could get away with it. He would do whatever he had to do to protect them from the family they’d had the misfortune to be born into and the world they would eventually have to face.
He had learned that hell the hard way. In one seemingly endless nightmare, his life had imploded. It had begun with the murder of his wife, Shelley—although he hadn’t known it was a murder at the time. Eli had believed, as he was meant to, that she had taken her own life. Unintentionally, yes. Mixing booze and drugs was always a bad idea. And for Shelley, who’d been both an alcoholic and a drug addict, it had been a lethal combination.
After Shelley’s death, he’d been hanging on, barely, but he’d been surviving. Then the clouds had gathered above them, the storm had settled in, and the shit had come down in torrents.
All of that was behind them now, but not without loss…not without major consequences.
Mathias, his father, was dead. And after an excruciatingly long and painful trial, his brother Adam was in prison, where the bastard would spend the rest of his miserable life.
Eli had worked like a demon to repair the damage the two had created. He had bartered, badgered, apologized, and pleaded, then scrubbed and scoured, doing everything he could to erase what Mathias had spent a lifetime creating. Businesses had been sold, stocks and bonds liquidated and contracts demolished. All the records found, in both Adam’s and Mathias’s offices, had been examined with a fine-tooth comb with one intent—to remove the scourge his father and brother had perpetrated.
Eli had succeeded. And while the Slater name still had a black cloud hanging over it, and the family’s wealth had been cut in half, at least they could all sleep at night. Perhaps by the time his daughters were grown, being a Slater would be something to be proud of again.
His mother and sister were in France, as far away from this mess as he could get them. And Jonah, his youngest brother, understandably bitter, was on a personal mission of vengeance. Eli worried for him but understood. Jonah had yet to come to terms with everything that had happened…everything he had lost.
He and Jonah were like two survivors of the same catastrophe. So far neither of them had been able to discuss that night, or the events that had led up to it.
Eli leaned back in his chair, wishing once again that he hadn’t had to come to Chicago. He didn’t like being away from home, but traveling was sometimes an unavoidable burden. Whenever he did travel, he had breakfast via webcam with the girls each morning, and each night at bedtime, he called and read them a story. It wasn’t as good as being there in person, but the girls seemed to enjoy the uniqueness of talking to their daddy via video.
Standing, Eli went to the bedroom and started dressing for the day. He clicked on the television, more for noise than to listen to the news. His mind on the myriad items he needed to accomplish, he didn’t catch the beginning of the news story that was now on. It wasn’t until he heard a husky, feminine voice thick with emotion that he paid attention. He turned to see the owner of that voice and froze in place, mesmerized.
“I have nothing to say to you people. You’ve gotten all you’re getting from my family.”
“Miss Callahan, do you feel shame for your sister? Not only for being a prostitute but for being accused of so cold-bloodedly killing Frank Braden?”
Fire burned in extraordinary eyes of aqua blue. “Do you feel shame for your stupid questions?” she sneered.
Undeterred, the reporter continued, “You’re testifying today. What will you tell the court?”
Shoulders straight, expression resolute, she said fiercely, “That my sister was taken advantage of. She was not a prostitute. And that she most definitely did not kill Frank Braden.”
She turned her back to the camera and strode rapidly away.
A smug smile tugged at the reporter’s mouth. “To recap, the trial of Alice Callahan, who is accused of murdering local businessman Frank Braden, will resume this morning at ten o’clock. And as we just heard, today’s testimony will include Kathleen Callahan’s, Alice Callahan’s sister. Considering what we’ve learned so far, one can only speculate what today’s revelations will be. Reporting from Cook County Courthouse, this is April Majune.”
Eli clicked off the television. He hadn’t heard anything about the trial. Dallas and Chicago were hundreds of miles from each other. And having no love for the media and their shenanigans, he usually avoided the news, local and national, as much as possible.
Returning to the kitchen table where he’d left his laptop, Eli opened it and entered the names Callahan and Braden into a search engine. A lengthy list of hits appeared. Eli clicked on one and skimmed the information. The more he read, the more intrigued he became. Exiting out of one site, he scrolled down until he came to the name Kathleen Callahan. Clicking on that one, Eli stared hard at the photograph of one of the most striking women he’d ever seen. This shot had been taken at a happier time in Kathleen’s life. Though still not smiling, there were no tension lines around her mouth, no shadows beneath her eyes.
His gaze moved to the text, and once again he became immersed, unaccountably fascinated, so deeply engrossed that when his cellphone rang, it took him several seconds to identify the sound.
He headed back to the bedroom and grabbed his phone. When he saw the caller’s name on the screen, and then the time, he winced. Dammit, he was never late.
“Eli, everything okay?”
“Yes. Sorry. I know we were supposed to meet downstairs. I—” Making a split decision, Eli said, “Listen, there’s been a change of plans. Come up to my room and let’s talk. I need to move some appointments around.”
Thankful that his assistant wasn’t one to ask needless questions, Eli ended the call and then immediately pressed a speed-dial number to one of his most trusted friends.
“Justice. Eli. You have any information on a case in Chicago involving the murder of a Frank Braden?”
Grey Justice wasn’t often taken by surprise, but Eli could hear it in the man’s voice—his British accent always became a little crisper. “Frank Braden? Chicago? Not that I recall. Is it something I should check out?”
“Yes. I’d—” He’d what? What was he going to say? That he’d seen a beautiful woman on television, looked her up on the Internet, and was now obsessed with knowing more? Hell.
“The case sounds like something you’d be interested in.” Eli winced at the lameness of his answer.
“Is that right?” The slight amusement in Justice’s tone told Eli that he hadn’t fooled his friend in the least.
Eli relayed the basic facts. Grey Justice and his people could find out everything about the case within a matter of a few clicks. And even though Eli’s interest in Kathleen was definitely personal, what he’d told Justice was true. This case sounded perfect for the Grey Justice Group.
“Let me look into it,” Justice said. “I’ll get back to you.”
Eli returned the phone to the desk and stared out at the Chicago skyline. He had no explanation for what he was about to do. Impulsiveness had been beaten out of him long ago, and damned if he could begin to formulate a reason for his actions. Never in his life had he had such a visceral reaction to a woman. Something about Kathleen Callahan called to him, compelled him to know more. Despite all the scheduling problems, the headaches he was about to cause, Eli refused to not see this out.
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