Paris, Rue di Rivoli.
Mara Logan took another sip of coffee and glanced at the bustling waiters weaving in and around the tables, serving food to a large contingent of tourists, bristling at coarse English tones that made no effort to sound French. Giving a heavy sigh she rolled her deep brown eyes and glanced at her watch. She lowered her arm to her lap in a tired motion. As usual Maxine was late. She was always late when they were due to meet and this evening would be no exception. Mara paid the bill and wearily made her way over to the taxi rank across the road from the small roadside bistro outside the Tuileries gardens.
She sat back on the plush leather interior of a Mercedes and gave the driver Maxine’s address. The fatigue she had been battling all day was beginning to catch up and take over making her sink back in to the leather and close her tired eyes. Being able to leave the office had appeared impossible and she had nearly missed the 3pm Eurostar. Mara was looking forward to being able to relax but there seemed little chance of it just yet. She opened her laptop bag to check that the documents for her client’s contract with the Paris based company Matisse for the takeover were still there. It was a bad habit, checking and rechecking, but as a corporate lawyer and partner in the large successful firm of Trent Mackenzie Solicitors in London she needed to make sure everything went smoothly.
Mara grimaced, Dr Martin’s words echoing in her mind from when she went to see him about the dizziness that was plaguing her more and more. Rest and more rest or she would make herself ill from exhaustion and then she wouldn’t be able to do any bloody work.
“Impossible,” she muttered under her breath putting the papers bag and pushing the bag away from her in a defiant gesture.
Using some of her free time to work some details out with Matisse was essential and in her mind a small price to pay.
Just a couple of days work and then I will rest, Dr Martin. I promise.
It wasn’t long before the taxi reached Maxine Villenneuve’s salubrious apartment on the Avenue de Foche. The lift was out of order and by the time Mara made it up the stairs she was breathless. Another dizzy spell made the corridor swim in front of her. Determined to give Maxine a lecture on keeping her appointments, Mara rapped on the door with a hard knock. There was no answer. She tried the handle but didn’t expect it to open. A shiver trickled along her spine as the door slowly opened, creaking into darkness.
“Maxine,” she called out softly with her heart beginning to thud inside her chest.
Mara fumbled in the dark, moving her hand along the wall trying to find the light switch at the side of the door. She stopped dead when a silhouette moved across the closed curtains in the dim twilight. Fear rose in a lump in her throat when she realized she was not alone. The silhouette had been of a man’s figure not Maxine. The instinct to run pumped adrenaline around her system but before she could escape there was a suffocating smell of thin leather when a smooth gloved hand covered her mouth from behind.
A male arm wound tightly around her waist. Instinctively she began to struggle to release the grip but only succeeded in provoking the man’s hold to strengthen. Worn out with her futile efforts she relaxed and resigned herself to capture.
All of a sudden the light was turned on and Maxine’s slender body held in a way similar to her own came into view across the room. A handsome tall man in his early thirties walked forward towards her blocking her view of Maxine. He waved his hand at the man holding Mara, motioning for him to uncover her mouth. The hand slid dutifully away but the grip on her body remained.
“Mademoiselle Logan, I presume?” he enquired moving closer with an attractive smile lightening his sensuous mouth.
Mara frowned and defiantly raised her face displaying her annoyance at being manhandled on her finely carved features feeling perturbed by the strong masculine presence towering over her. Struggling out of her captor’s hold and making a run for it didn’t appear to be an option. She was going to have to talk her way out of this one.
Mara’s eyes met a cool blue gaze that was hypnotic, drawing her in, twinkling with amusement at her endeavors to resist being charmed by the appreciative sweep of his eyes over her form.
“Yes it is. Who are you and what do you want before I raise the roof off this place and have you arrested,” she demanded with authority, determined to appear in control despite being trapped.
The man gave his co-conspirator a grin. He spoke in French and the other men in the room started to laugh. She knew enough French to know they were amused by her stance. They were trying to humiliate her, make her lose her cool and become frightened so they could get what they wanted, whatever that was.
Stay calm and think.
Alert she noticed her captor’s grip had slackened as he listened to the man and she was quick to take advantage. She brought her elbow back into the man’s stomach and then raised her small fist and punched it back against his face as she tried to wriggle free. He groaned with pain but lunged forward and caught her waist. He shook her, growling in her ear that if she moved again he would hit her. Once more the man who appeared to be running the whole show was amused.
“Struggling won’t do you any good. I have no wish to hurt you or your friend,” he said with a gentle French lilt riding seductively on his perfect English.
He glanced at the man who was holding her again, cursing in French as he wiped a trickle of blood from his nose with his free hand.
“Impressive as that was, if you try to do it again I will have to let Leon take his revenge,” he informed her in a firm deep voice.
Condescending, pompous, sophisticated, extremely good looking… stop it what the hell are you doing? Concentrate on trying to get out of this mess and don’t provoke him any further. Box clever with your words not your hands.
Reluctantly Mara nodded and suddenly aware of Maxine’s sobbing. Struggling would only make things worse and she’d been wrong to think she could escape three men and drag Maxine with her. Leon released his restraining arm allowing Mara rush to Maxine’s side and wrap her arms around her friend to give her some comfort.
“What do you want, Monsieur? Who are you?” she repeated.
“Stephane Garreau, The Count of Albain, is my full grand title,” he laughed at himself giving a mock bow. “At your service,” he grinned.
It was when he smiled Mara knew she had seen his face before. Further study revealed his identity.
“I know who you are. You are that French billionaire who owns Garreau Aerospace whose sister has gone missing.”
Mara folded her arms and viewed him with disapproval when his eyes narrowed at the mention of his sister. Whether she like it or not Mara was having trouble disguising the fact that a part of her was checking him out.
The billionaire knew he was good looking, his lean taut athletic body was clearly defined in an immaculately tailored black suit, white shirt and a black and white patterned silk tie. There was a light golden tan to his smooth skin underneath his short dark brown hair completing the attractive package.
“What I want, Mademoiselle Logan, is you,” he answered her previous question and made no reference to her comment on his identity.
Mara took a breath allowing the words to repeat in her head. There was something about the way he said them that caused a tremor inside her body that made her soften as though he had broken in and snatched her resolve before she could turn around. It made the notion of him wanting her more than palpable. She camouflaged her reaction under a veil of indignation and annoyance but was sure she was blushing.
“What the hell have I done to offend you? I only entered Paris an hour ago.”
Her frustration was clearly evident in the tone of her voice and Stephane appeared to be enjoying her reaction to his words by the seductive curl of his lips.
Mara watched his eyes sweep appreciatively over her petite curved figure traceable by the elegant cut of her light grey summer suit. Her dark lashes lowered in response to his assessment making her feel vulnerable, an aspect of her personality she always tried to hide. For some reason this man wanted something and he had her trapped. He had enough money and power to see that whatever it was he got it and perhaps enough to get away with kidnap and perhaps murder.
Mara fought every impulse not to give in to fear and instead remain strong and controlled under the man’s powerful stare.
“I don’t know what I have done, I don’t even know you,” she repeated with firmness.
‘True but your fiancé Ryan Sadler does. Ryan is a gambler but unfortunately not a very good one.’
“That’s ex fiancé,” she snapped. “What the hell has he got to do with this?”
“Ryan has taken something very precious from my family and now I am going to do the same to him.”
He was using Ryan’s name with ease as if he was a friend. Mara walked towards him, fear giving way to anger as he discussed her favorite topic of torment, Ryan.
“This is unbelievable. I don’t know how you know Ryan but…”
Stephane bowed his head to hide a smirk as Mara put her hands on her hips underneath her suit jacket at first unaware her large breasts were jutting out towards him almost in offering. Her curved hips swayed as she began walking around the room, holding court trying to get some control back in the situation, playing the lawyer to full effect as she threw questions about what was going on to him.
The billionaire would answer none of them. He raised a hand to silence her.
“I am growing tired of your refusal to accept that I am in control here, Miss Logan. You are coming with us . . .
“No way,” she interrupted.
“Oh yes you are. Until Ryan returns my ill sister to my family you will remain with me as ransom. Do you understand?”
Mara stared at him with wide eyes.
“You are kidnapping me?”
That annoying attractive smile was there again on his handsome face.
“Yes, both of you,” he gestured with his hand towards Maxine. “That way you won’t get lonely,” he teased.
“Who the hell do you think you are? This isn’t the dark ages. You can’t just kidnap us,” she said angrily, her voice rising an octave as Maxine ran to her.
Mara lifted her head and fought to keep her voice steady and even as she continued to recriminate.
“I have nothing to do with Ryan anymore. I am not involved. I knew he was seeing someone behind my back but I had no idea it was your sister. Ryan and I are no longer together and therefore I fail to see what your dispute has to do with me or Maxine. If he has hurt her go to the police.”
Stephane began talking to the other men in French and again the group erupted into laughter. Mara ignored them, pulling back the strands of hair that were escaping the neat short blonde bob that dramatically crowned her features before giving Maxine’s hand a reassuring squeeze. They were laughing at her mention of the police who had clearly been unhelpful in the matter. Desperate Mara made a frantic grab for her handbag which had been thrown down on the sofa next to her laptop bag to retrieve her mobile to get help but was prevented by a strong hand bearing down on her wrist.
The billionaire wagged his finger at her.
“No one can help you nor will they find you. I am a very powerful man and I can keep you hidden for everyone for a long time. Don’t push my patience.”
He snatched the bag from her, took out the mobile and threw it on the wooden floor to cover it with his foot. He exerted pressure and destroyed it. Mara stepped away from him.
“I am aware Ryan has left you but let us hope he still cares enough for you to return my sister. He is only after her inheritance and I am damn sure he is still in love with you. When she dies and the money passes to him he will return to you. It is a nice plan you have both concocted but I am going to see to it that it fails,” he informed her with dark angry menace.
Mara’s eyes moistened with fear waiting for the “or else”.
“That’s a lie. I would never do such a thing. Ryan does not still love me.”
“Well that is what he told me and that is what you are going to have to rely on if you ever want to be a free woman again.”
Mara felt her blood run cold at his threat.
Fear and helplessness rose inside her making adrenaline pump through her veins at a speed causing her heart to thud against her chest as though it would burst out.
She opened her mouth to speak in an attempt to protest her innocence again but no words came out. Instead she stood dumbfounded watching the room spin around her like a carousel.
Stephane looked on with concern, frowning as Mara felt her blood drain from her face. She felt her body sway as though she was about to lose gravity and was faintly aware of her name being called. Maxine was coming to her aid but the billionaire’s arm was already around her waist supporting her body. She tried to push him away but he was lifting his arm under her legs and scooping her up in to his arms. He carried her fainting body to the sofa as blackness crept in to her vision and forced her in to unconsciousness.
She came round to find Stephane sitting next to her, holding the side of her face gently in his hand. Idly his thumb stroked her cheek as he spoke her name to rouse her. It was a warm soft caress that she instantly began to warm to. It contradicted his earlier harsh words and left her feeling somewhat confused.
Leon handed him a glass of water and the billionaire’s hand moved underneath her head to lift it from the pillow while he put the glass to her lips.
“Here, drink some water. Sip it slowly.”
It was the tenth dizzy spell she had experienced during the last week and this one had ended in her fainting. Mara couldn’t help regretting not having taken Dr Martin’s offer of tablets to help her control it.
“You need food and rest. Are you all right to walk?’ he asked softly.
Mara nodded and looked at trembling Maxine.
“Please let Maxine go. It’s just me you want.”
He appeared impatient with his task.
“No. I can’t have her running to the police. Now we’ve wasted enough time.”
Stephane took hold of Mara’s hand to raise her from the sofa. His arm wound around her waist to support her fragile figure as he led her to the door of the apartment.
He took her straight to the lift that she had been told was out of order and showed the concierge his thanks in monetary terms when they reached the ground floor for the deception.
There were three other men waiting outside for them standing inconspicuously next to two black Mercedes. One of them opened the car door for Mara.
“Only six men to kidnap two women, Monsieur Garreau. Don’t you think it would have been safer with more?’ Mara’s sarcasm was biting.
The billionaire took a breath but said nothing. Yet she couldn’t help feeling satisfaction that her jibe had hit home.
Maxine was taken to the second car and Stephane sat on the back seat beside Mara. She rested her throbbing head on the back of the seat turning away from him conscious that he was watching her every move with concern after her fainting spell.
Their journey was about two hours long, and mostly spent in awkward silence after his refusal to tell her where they were going and her frantic attempts to read the road signs. Eventually the movement of the car began to lull Mara into the sleep she craved. She fought desperately to keep her drooping eyes open, wanting to know where they were going and be alert to danger. But it was a battle she was to lose.