“I thought I was innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.”
He chuckles a little, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He really is stunning. “I think most people subscribe to the better-safe-than-sorry philosophy these days.” He leans forward, conciliatorily, “The truth is, I think you’re just a girl who got caught up in a whole lot of awful shit. I think you did what you had to do to get back home and I think that makes you incredibly smart, and incredibly brave. You don’t have to be brave anymore, Miss Ruiz. You don’t have to protect anyone. You’d save yourself, and me, a whole lot of grief if you’d just tell me the truth so I can make sure what happened to you doesn’t happen to someone else.”
It would be so easy to believe him. I’m more tempted than I’ve ever been to just spill my guts to Reed and let him figure out what to do. It’s no wonder he’s so good at his job. “I wish I could trust you, Reed, but I know I can’t.”
His brow furrows in confusion, but there is a wry tilt to his lips, “Why?”
I give him a small smile of my own, “You think you’re different from men like Caleb. You see everything in black and white, you don’t care about the whole story; you don’t care about the gray. Some stories aren’t black and white, Agent Reed.”
He shakes his head a little, obviously amused, but still professional, “In my experience…the only time a woman wants to tell you ‘the whole story’, is when she wants you to make a decision based on emotion instead of logic.”
My eyes narrow and I stare at the surface of table, the scars not visible at first glance but clearer as I stare, unblinking, “Maybe,” I begin, my voice hollow and far away, “but if it weren’t for emotions overriding logic, I wouldn’t be here.”
Reed’s smile is gone, his gaze intent, “Meaning?”
“Caleb. It wasn’t logic…what he did for me.” The words are a revelation. I hadn’t been expecting to say them, but I know they’re true. Caleb might not love me, but he cared. He kept his promise to keep me safe, even if it meant we couldn’t be together.
It makes the pain so much worse.
“I’ve been doing this a long time – manipulating people to get my way. That’s why you think you love me. Because I’ve broken you down and built you back up to believe it. It wasn’t an accident. Once you leave this behind…you’ll see that.”
“Please. Please Caleb. Don’t make me do this, don’t make me go back to trying to be someone I don’t know how to be anymore.”
“It’s time for you to go, Kitten…”
Reed’s voice jolts me back into reality, “What did he do for you?”
I wipe my eye, sweeping away the tears pooled there, “Everything,” I say through a pained smile, “but it had nothing to do with logic and everything to do with emotion – revenge, honor, betrayal, lust, even love...all of these things stem from our emotions.” I paused. “I’m sure you’re not doing what you do without some kind of emotion, Agent Reed.”
“You made your point,” Reed says softly and leans toward me, “but I’ve been around and seen some shit.”
“Why should that matter to me? Is that supposed to make me trust you?”
Reed shrugs. “What other choice do you have?”
“How do you know about Felipe?”
He smiles, “I thought that might get your attention. I’m good at my job, Miss Ruiz, and I’ve been digging through anything I can find on Muhammad Rafiq. What I’ve found so far is pretty damn disturbing. Looking through his known associates, and cross-referenced with those in Mexico, it didn’t take me too long to find Felipe. As far as I can tell, the man is quite…eccentric.”
Eccentric wasn’t quite the word I would have used. “Wait…if you know where he is, why haven’t you–”
“Mexico, isn’t the US, Miss Ruiz, we can’t go rounding up every criminal in another country based on suspicions we can’t substantiate. Also, he’s left the country and gone who knows where. Maybe Pakistan?”
I look up and shake my head. “Hard to say.” I wonder if they’re all dead: Felipe, Celia, Kid, and Nancy. I’d like to believe Caleb wouldn’t hurt Celia, but then I remember the blood and I wonder if…. No, I can’t handle it.
“Miss Ruiz, where’s the auction?” Reed’s words are sharp and serious. This is his end game. I really would have to make a choice.
“I don’t really know, Reed. I don’t. Not specifically, but I could probably give you an idea. Maybe if you listened to the whole story you could figure it out for yourself. You probably know more than I do.”
“Okay. Tell me.”
It’s my turn to smile and shake my head, “No. Not without some concessions.”
He’s exasperated, “WITSEC. I told you, I can’t guarantee it. More than that, I don’t think it’s the right move for you. The last thing you need is to be separated from everything and everyone you know. It’s a cop-out.”
“I don’t care what you think it is. I want to disappear. I want this whole mess behind me and if and when I ever decide to deal with it – that’s my business. Not yours.”
Reed and I go around for a few minutes as I lay out everything I want in exchange for my story. It isn’t pleasant. Reed is a scary bastard when he wants to be and I would be lying if I said he didn’t intimidate me, but I’m willing to take him on. There are things I will not bend on. There are battles I’m determined to win.
“I know what I want, Reed, and if you can’t give it to me…you’re shit out of luck. After what I’ve been through, I don’t care what you think you can do to me.”
Reed’s jaw is clenched and I can hear the subtle pop as he grinds his teeth. He stares long and hard at me for a while and even though I want to, I don’t shrink under is gaze. “Start talking.”
“Will you help me?” I whisper, but keep my chin up, my eyes level on his.
He exhales slowly and unclenches his jaw, “I’ll do my best. If you get us there, get us to the auction, I’ll help you.”
My heart is in my throat. I want to leap over the desk and hug the hell out of him. He’s given me hope. Hope for all the things I want most in the world. With great care, I lick my lips and prepare to tell Reed what he wants to know.
Where to begin?
So much was different between Caleb and me.
So much remained the same.
He was still the man who had hired ruthless men to kidnap me. Still the cruel person who had locked me in the dark for weeks, forcing me to become dependent on him, crave him, rely upon him until even my own instincts stood no chance. He was the man who had saved my life, and the one who had put it in danger. Finally, he was still the man who planned to sell me as a sex slave. A whore.
He’d had his own reasons for wanting me back and they’d had nothing to do with my well-being and everything to do with revenge. Did I know why he wanted revenge? No. Trust did not run both ways between us. There were certain things I had no choice but to trust him with: keeping me alive, fed, safe, and unless it was him – untouched. It didn’t leave much, but I refused to trust him with the most important thing of all, my future.
I guess things between us were the same and the differences didn’t matter.
What mattered is I was different. The naïve girl in me had been bitch-slapped into womanhood. I’d been razed by pain, grief, loss and suffering, and honed by lust, rage and an acute awareness of my need to survive.
I understood things I couldn’t fathom before. I understood Caleb’s need for revenge: because the seed had been planted in me. I recognized how he often turned my body against me: because the desire for him had always been there. Above all else, I had learned the one thing every person has to learn to make it through life: the only person you can truly count on is yourself.
I was still reeling from Caleb’s display of dominance over me when he finally laid me down to sleep. I should have been angry with him, and in a very real way, I was, but the way he had unleashed on me made me realize how thoughtful and gentle he had been before. Dealing with Caleb was all about perspective. You couldn’t appreciate his kindness until you’d felt his cruelty. I had felt it, but even I, was smart enough to know he’d still taken it easy on me.
He didn’t have to explain himself to me – he’d made it plain. However, I knew he wanted me to understand the danger I was in. He wanted me to think before I acted. He wanted me to pick and choose my battles, even if those battles were with him. He wanted me to survive. He’d told me as much in the car, but then he’d shown me. For Caleb, that was kind. He dosed me again and I drifted, thoughts swirling in my mind and none of them comforting. Then Caleb was there, and his long, warm body was like a prayer I held onto as I tried to stay awake and did not succeed.
I woke up crying. I could hear the shower running and it was sickening how the relief washed through me, knowing he was close. I forced myself to lie back down, to find a position less aggravating to my injured shoulder or cracked ribs.
I didn’t feel comfortable without his arm around me. I couldn’t sleep without knowing he was near. He’d done this to me. He’d made me afraid. He’d made me need him. And if he thought he was suddenly going to abandon me and clear what was left of his shriveled conscience, he was sadly mistaken.
A strange noise drew my attention away from my thoughts. Regardless of my renewed fear, it was a welcome distraction. I wondered for a moment if Caleb had hurt himself, slipped in the shower or something, but there was no loud crash, only a muffled sound. I listened intently, waiting for the noise to repeat itself and was annoyed by the apparent loudness of my breathing.
“Uh!” That was the noise. Like a grunt mixed with a whimper. “Uh!” Something inside my belly tightened, muscle memory. I should have ignored it, but I couldn’t. In spite of everything that had happened to me, and everything Caleb had put me through by deed or design, I still thought him the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
“Min fadlik!” he sighed loudly, but I didn’t know what it meant. Whatever it was though, it sounded…needy. What did Caleb need? And why did I find the idea of his need so intriguing?
I needed him to touch me, not want, because I didn’t want him to, I needed him to. Only his arms wrapped around me could make the nightmare dissipate, only the smell of him made me forget the fetid breath of the men who had attacked me. Only his. I was always grateful for his presence and resentful of it.
More sounds came from the bathroom and I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t stop the rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins urging me into some kind of action, anything that would reveal to me what was happening behind the closed door. What if he’s fucking someone in there? The thought stopped me cold, a wave of something akin to nausea clogging my throat and tightening my stomach. “He wouldn’t,” I whispered to myself in the darkness of the room. For whatever reason I just couldn’t make it a possibility in my mind. He’s done it before. Remember? Remember him fucking that woman while you were tied up in the other room. The voice in my head was cruel. I had to know! I had to know if he would do something like that to me again. Bastard!
I forced my steps toward the bathroom door, my body trembled and my palms were wet with sweat, but I couldn’t stop myself from knowing.
“Fuck…” The obscenity was little more than a whisper beyond the door as I pressed my ear against it. “Oh…yes baby” then something in another language, then “open your pussy.” I nearly fell against the door as my knees went weak. Between my legs I felt a gentle throbbing keeping pace with my heart. Please, please don’t be fucking someone else.