Read Taken Online

Authors: Barbara Freethy

Taken (10 page)

“You should have told me.” It gave him chills to think that Evan had been stalking his sister while he was out of the country.

“You were in Africa,” Jenny replied. “And we don’t even know that Evan sent me the presents. It could have been anyone.”

“You should have called the police.”

“And told them I was scared of a few gifts? They would have laughed at me.”

She was probably right, but he hated the thought of Evan watching her. “Why the hell didn’t he stay out of our lives?” he murmured. He didn’t wait for her to answer. “If he comes back, if he calls, if any more gifts arrive, you pick up the phone and call me. I already alerted the police. They’re going to try to track Evan down. Until then, I have to figure out how to get myself out of the mess he got me into. You wouldn’t believe what he’s done to me.”

“He probably thought he owed you,” she said.

He heard a note in her voice that he didn’t want to hear. “Jen, don’t let yourself start thinking that Evan had a good reason for doing any of this, or that there’s some good part of him that only you can see. He’s a thief. He’s a criminal. He always has been and he always will be.”

Anger flickered in her eyes. “I’m not stupid, Nick.”

He raised an eyebrow, fighting an urge to remind her that she’d been extremely stupid at one point in her life.

She put up a hand, reading his mind. “Okay, maybe I was naive once, but I was a kid then. I’m an adult now. I
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know that Evan is a thief. I also know that he has a weird code of honor that you couldn’t possibly understand.

And,” she added with a touch of defiance, “not everything or everyone is as black-and-white as you would like them to be. Evan did have good traits. He wasn’t all bad.

He treated me very well at times. I think his childhood had a lot to do with the kind of person he became. It wasn’t his fault that he was abused and abandoned, that he had to grow up on his own in a very tough world.”

“You don’t even know what his childhood really was,”

Nick argued. “Everything that came out of his mouth was a lie. How do you know what the truth is? He told you what he wanted you to believe.”

“Not everything was a lie. I knew him better than you did, Nick.”

“You think a man is going to tell you the truth just because he has sex with you? God, Jen, that’s when most of the lies are told.” He saw the hurt on her face and almost regretted his choice of words, but she was scaring him.

Knowing that Evan was back in their lives, knowing how close he’d come to ruining her once, Nick couldn’t bear to see it happen again. Jenny was weak where Evan was concerned. “You can be so smart about everything else; why can’t you see Evan for who he is?”

“I think we’re done,” she said with a sharp, irritated edge to her voice. “You’ve made your point.”

Before she could get to her feet, he put a hand on her shoulder. “One more thing, just in case you’re thinking this is all some attempt by Evan to get back into your life.

You should know that he married someone else using my name just two weeks ago, about the same time he started sending you gifts.”

“What?” she asked. “What did you say?”

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Nick frowned. Jenny seemed more surprised by this piece of news than by the fact that Evan had robbed him.

“You heard me. Evan married someone using my name.

He took her to Lake Tahoe and married her in a casino chapel. Her name is Kayla. At first I thought she was an accomplice, but I’m convinced now that she was just a mark, some pawn in Evan’s game of revenge.”

“Maybe she’s not part of a game. Maybe he loved her,” Jenny said slowly.

“He disappeared on their wedding night,” Nick told her. “Does that sound like love?”

“It sounds like he got scared and ran away.”

“Or he had another reason for marrying her.” He waited a moment before saying, “Do you have any idea why Evan would be interested in an antique pocket watch?”

She blinked in confusion. “What?”

“The watch was the only thing he took from Kayla, and I feel sure it must mean something.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything except that I have to get back to work. I just saw my next client walk into the salon.” She tipped her head toward the shop.

“All right, but be careful, Jen, okay?”

“I will, but if Evan wanted to hurt me, he already had his opportunity. I don’t think he’s coming back.”

“One more thing, Jen. You said Evan probably talked to you more than he ever talked to anyone. Did he ever tell you about a relative, a friend, someone he might know here in San Francisco who could help me find him?”

She thought for a moment and then shook her head.

“I’m sorry. I can’t think of anyone.”

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“If you do remember something that might give me a clue, call me, okay?”

“Okay.”

Nick frowned as he watched her walk across the street.

He had a feeling that despite her strong words, if Evan came knocking on her door, she might just answer. What was it about Evan that made ordinarily smart women do incredibly stupid things? Before he could come up with an answer, his cell phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Nick, it’s Kayla. I spoke to my grandmother, and I got a little more information.”

“Good,” he replied. Things were beginning to break.

“I was going to call you, too. I did some research on the Internet last night and I found a watchmaker in the city with the initials D.R. I’m on my way to check him out.

Do you want to meet me?”

“Yes, where is it?”

“North Beach. Why don’t we meet in front of that church in Washington Square? Do you know it?”

“Of course I know it. I’m a stained-glass artist. I’ve been in every church in the city, and St. Peter and Paul is one of my favorites.”

“Good. Give me about twenty minutes to get there.”

“All right. There’s something you should know, Nick.

My grandmother thinks the watch may have been stolen.”

His spine began to tingle as he connected the dots. . . .

If the watch had gone from one thief to another, that couldn’t be a coincidence. The watch had to be worth something. He’d bet his house on it — one of the few things he had left.

*

*

*

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Jenny walked into the salon, feeling unsettled by her conversation with Nick. She had a terrible feeling she was to blame for everything that had happened. Telling her client she’d be with her in five minutes, she pulled her cell phone out of her purse and went into the small bathroom at the back of the salon and locked the door. She dialed the number that was still on her phone. She should have erased it, but she hadn’t. It probably wouldn’t work anymore. Or maybe it was a pay phone. She had no idea.

But she had to try.

“Hello, Jenny,” he said.

Her heart stopped. Evan’s voice was forever imprinted in her brain and in her heart. Nick would never understand that love wasn’t always a choice. Sometimes it was a noose around your neck, or a cement anchor dragging you under.

“What did you do to Nick?” she asked abruptly.

“I think you already know or you wouldn’t be calling me. I’m touched you kept my number.”

“It was on my phone from when you called before.”

She leaned against the wall, feeling the need for support.

“You stole Nick’s money. You invaded his life — why?”

“We have unfinished business. I thought it was time we finished it.”

“Because I told you Nick was doing well.” She remembered the brief conversation they’d had two months earlier, when Evan had called her out of the blue to wish her a happy birthday. “You wanted to take him down.”

“I’ve always wanted to take him down. I was just waiting for the right moment.”

“Why? Why can’t you just leave us alone? We were done so many years ago.”

“I never forgive. I never forget.”

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His cold, cruel tone sent a chill down her spine, reminding her that his personality had always had two sides: one light, one dark; one good, one evil. When she was young and foolish and madly in love with him, she’d believed she could change him, make him right and whole.

But Nick had shown her that Evan was beyond her ability to fix. Nick had made her see the truth. He had broken them up, and he had sent Evan to jail. She had thought after a dozen years that Evan had moved on; she’d been wrong. He had just been waiting for the right moment to pounce.

“Leave Nick alone, Evan,” she said “If you ever cared about me at all, do this one thing for me.”

“I’d do just about anything for you, Jen. You’ve never appreciated how good I am at what I do, but I’m going to show you. I’m going to show everyone. I’m the best there ever was. You’ll see.”

“Evan, please listen to me.”

There was nothing but silence. Evan had hung up.

Her hand shook as she closed the phone, and a wave of helpless fear ran through her. Evan wanted revenge.

How far would he go?

5

Charlotte Hirsch felt more than a little trepidation as she parked her car on Broadway between Columbus and Montgomery streets, not far from the strip club where she’d once worked. As she stood on the corner looking down the block at the neon lights, the billboards touting sleazy midnight shows, she wondered why it hadn’t seemed so seedy back in her day. Or maybe she just hadn’t seen it that way. She was older now, more mature, more conservative. In the fifties she’d been a young woman poised on the verge of her own life, and she’d wanted to have it all.

She didn’t even remember now what having it all had entailed. She’d just known that she wanted more than the small-town farm-wife role her mother had settled for. At eighteen she’d left the garlic-growing town of Gilroy and headed north to San Francisco, determined to be a dancer or an actress. She’d auditioned, waited tables, worked as a grocery-store checker, and dreamed about being a star.

When the money ran out, she let a friend talk her into dancing at a small club on Broadway. The pay was great.

The customers were rich, exciting, sometimes dangerous
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men. Before she knew it she was dancing on tables and answering to the name “Sweet Charlie.” After the shows, she drank cheap wine, smoked pot, and listened to jazz with her friends. She was part of the beat generation made famous by Jack Kerouac, not that she’d known that at the time. She’d just been living her life as recklessly and joyously as possible.

She’d made mistakes, lots of them, one particularly big one. His name was Johnny Blandino. She’d fallen hard and fast for him. One lustful smile and she’d been his, no questions asked. Johnny had changed the course of her life — some might say for the worse; some might say for the better. Who knew what road she would have gone down if she hadn’t met him? She certainly didn’t know. And looking back never got her anywhere.

Sighing, she wished now that she’d kept Johnny in the past, where he belonged. But when she’d given Kayla his watch, the watch she was never supposed to let out of her sight, she’d ripped a hole in the protective covering that had surrounded her for the past fifty years, hiding her secrets from the world. She had to find a way to make it right . . . or to make it stop. Which was why she’d come back to a place she’d been careful to avoid for decades.

Forcing herself to move, she walked down the street and entered the club, named simply Deception. It was quiet and nearly empty, not surprising for a Saturday morning. She paused in the dim light to get her bearings.

The bar was on her left. A raised stage surrounded by tables took up most of the room, with two shiny gold poles on each front corner of the stage. Several private booths ran along the far side of the room. She wondered just how far the dancers went these days; she suspected farther than she’d ever gone.

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“Can I help you?” a young man asked, coming up behind her.

“I’m looking for Dana,” she said, feeling suddenly nervous. It had been a long time since she’d seen the woman who had gotten her into the business, and she wasn’t sure of her reception. She’d turned her back on Dana and everyone else after she’d married Edward.

“In the office. Down the hall, first door on your left,”

he said, waving in that direction.

Charlotte walked down the back hall, the smell of cigarettes and pot lingering in the air, stirring up old memories. Those memories came to life as she stopped to look at the photographs on the walls. In one picture, she was astonished to see herself sitting on a man’s lap. Her arm was flung around his shoulders, her breasts practically bursting free of her skimpy costume, her legs encased in fishnet stockings, her feet in stiletto heels. The man wasn’t Johnny but another club regular, Peter Harrison, a local writer for the newspaper who always proclaimed he was doing research. Peter, like so many other men who came to the club, had a good explanation for why he was there. Not that she’d cared, not that any of the girls had cared. The men were customers. They spent money. It had all seemed so simple back then.

She put a hand to the photo, tracing the wide smile on her own face, hardly remembering that girl. She was laughing uproariously at something. The rest of the party seemed in equally good spirits, including Dana, a stunning redhead with the longest legs and the biggest breasts Charlotte had ever seen. There was a birthday cake on the table, as well as empty bottles of booze and more glasses than she could count. Maybe the alcohol had had something to do with their good spirits.

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“Are you looking for someone?”

Charlotte turned at the sound of a female voice. Her stomach clenched as she realized it was her old friend Dana. She was seventy-two years old now, but she looked more like fifty. Her hair was still red, her face expertly made up, and while she was wearing black slacks and a conservative jacket over her camisole top, her breasts still took center stage, the way they always had.

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