Hope’s small body shook in his arms, and he wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. Abel had pulled the item from the box, but barely had time to examine it before she nearly ran them off the road. Glancing back at the truck, he amended that thought, she had run them off the road. His blood had heated at the slight glance he’d gotten at the sight of the lacey garment. Hope shifted in his arms, her face leaving the comfort of his chest.
She pulled away from him, tears and rain streaking down her pale face. “Sorry, I know you said not to leave the truck, but I couldn’t stay.” She grabbed her chest and sucked in air. Her body lay half in the water, half on a bright green patch of grass.
The summer storm had ceased, leaving behind the aroma of rich earth and the sight of his woman’s tears. If Abel hadn’t already been on his knees, the sight before him would have sent him there. He stood, taking her with him as he headed back to the car. Once again, he gently placed her inside. Rain water soaked her clothing, leaving them clinging to her flesh. Abel reached under the seat and found a flannel shirt; after making sure it was clean, he wiped away the rain and tears from Hope’s face. Thinking of how the box had affected her, he covered it with the flannel shirt.
The ride home was long and silent. As soon as they made it into the loft, Abel helped Hope to remove her wet clothes, dress her in one of his shirts, and put her to bed. He would review the contents of the box and folder while she slept because the alone time would do him good. He needed to sit down and figure out why he’d called her his woman and why the sight of her so shattered and terrified had broken his heart.
Abel sat at the table with the contents of the box and the envelope laid out before him. “Fuck.” He thrust his hands through his hair and cursed again. Before him lay a collar made of red lace and leather, with a small lock holding together the ends. From the collar hung a long, shimmering chain—similar to a lead from a leash. He shuddered at the thought of what Mark had used it for.
With the collar came a note, but the collar nor the note were what bothered Abel. Instead, it was the photos he’d removed from the envelope and placed on the table in front of him. Four, eight-by-ten photos, all of him and Hope together at the grocery store. The note, while vital on its own, didn’t concern him the way the photos had. Two were close-ups of his face, and someone had scratched in an X over his face and on the other they had written Get rid of him.
The letter—just as threatening as the first—made it clear Hope and Abel were losing time in the count down. With gloved hands, Abel lifted the letter and read it again.
If he’s touched you, I’ll kill him and make you watch.
I’ll give you to the count of three to come home to me—untouched.
He picked up the phone and placed a call to the one person who could help him find the man in the video. There were probably very few men in the world who were still on good terms with their ex-fiancée, but he was one of them. When he and Ivy had gone their separate ways, they had done so amicably. It’d been two broken souls coming together, when there had been nowhere else to run.
“Hello?” answered a groggy voice on the other end.
“V, wake up. What in the hell are you doing asleep, vampire?” He chuckled when she yawned and cursed.
“What in the hell? They let you out of jail and you couldn’t even stop by?” He could hear the rustling of bed sheets on the other end and he wondered if he’d interrupted something.
“Just got out not too long ago, and picked up a job. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“Hmmm . . . you could have at least called sooner. After all, I was the reason your ass ended up in jail in the first place.” Abel didn’t say a word. If placed in the same situation again, his actions would not differ. “Abel?” she called out in his silence.
“I need your help.” He got up and paced over to his laptop.
“What’s up?” She sounded more alive now, her sleepy state lifting at the idea of having some work to do.
“I need you to run some faces through your facial recognition program, then see if you can run it through the current and past warrants.” Clicking on the screen, he brought up the video of the intruder at Hope’s place. Freezing it at different points, he took screen shots when the man’s face was visible.
“Ah, back on the job?” she asked.
“Not back with the old job, but on a job, yes.”
The sound of excitement flittered through the line. “Freelancing? Even better money. You still have my email?”
“Sent. And of his tattoos as well.” Abel closed the laptop and made his way to the door to check the lock.
“Got it. What are the parameters?”
Abel made his way to each window, prudently checking each lock. “Criminal. This state, and New York.”
She hummed her approval. “That’s specific enough, though New York will definitely slow down the search. How soon do you need this?”
“Yesterday,” Abel admitted. Walking over to the bed, he watched as Hope slept. She turned over, nestling deeper into the covers. Quietly, he moved back to the table, where he’d set up his work.
“That soon, huh?” The sound of tapping on a keyboard came through the phone. “Okay, uploaded, and parameters set. I’ll allow this to run with an alarm that will send the results straight to your email.”
“Good.” He wiped his face as exhaustion claimed him.
V cleared her throat. “Now that that is done, did you want to talk about—”
“No,” Abel said hurriedly.
Her sharp sigh was all he heard. “Okay then. Was that all?” her tone lowered.
“How much?” He knew her fee, but wasn’t sure if her prices had changed. He opened his laptop again and typed in his banking information.
“Free. Consider it a parting gift.” Though V’s voice held not a trace of anger, Abel knew her better than most.
“V, come on—” His words were met with a dial tone and that worried him. V never made idle threats, and if she decided to kick a person out of her life, there was no changing her mind. A soft gasp from behind him had him dropping his phone instead of redialing. He spun around and stood up to meet Hope; her gaze riveted on the items he’d laid on the table.
“Shit.” He reached to shuffle the photos into the envelope, but she’d already seen them.
“He knows,” she whispered. “I should leave. I can run. I don’t need much; I have jewelry I can hock.” Her eyes finally met his. “Maybe you can help me find a place?”
Abel had thought her voice would sound panicked or drawn, but instead, Hope seemed calm and prepared—as if a life of running was one she’d always expected to live. His heart ached, but he couldn’t let his emotions run wild or guide his actions.
“I’ve got someone matching the face of our mystery FedEx man with a name. She’s good and working under the radar.” He hoped this turn of events would lessen the shock and fear wrought by the array of shit spread out on the table. Removing the gloves he’d been wearing, he tossed them on the table.
“Good. Who is she?” Hope moved away from him and sat in his seat. She pulled a picture closer and examined it.
“She?” he asked confused. “A man delivered the box not a woman.” Abel placed a hand on the back of Hope’s seat and turned the swiveling chair around to face him. Maybe she hadn’t gotten enough sleep, and fatigue had messed with her memory.
Hope rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I know. I’m talking about the woman helping us.”
His eyes widened. “Oh.” How would he explain that? If she caught him in a lie, she’d never trust his word again, and that was something he couldn’t allow. But did he have to tell her he’d once asked V to marry him to protect her? “I worked with her—” he started, but the trust in Hope’s eyes made him stop. “Look, she and I have a past, but it isn’t like you think.”
“You didn’t date her?” There was no jealousy in her tone, just pure curiosity.
“Yes and no,” he answered honestly.
Her brow raised and her arms crossed over her chest. “What in the world does that mean? You either dated her or you didn’t.” Her nervous laughter betrayed her casual tone.
“You’re right. But she was much more than that.” Abel was thrown back to two years earlier with his client Ivy, hacker extraordinaire. Since then, she’d quit hacking for the shit company she worked for that nearly got her killed, and started helping him by freelancing.