First rule of fighting assholes is kick first ask questions later.
Maybe Easton thought I was kidding.
Maybe he thought I really wouldn’t fight back. Maybe he thought that, like all those years before, I would just give him what he wanted. But Easton didn’t know me very well anymore.
Because I was going to fight for my life. Fight for my freedom. I knew what it meant now to have someone who actually cared about me. And I wasn’t letting that go without a fight.
I kicked. I punched. I fought like hell. He reached for the black bag that was over my head, and I whipped my hand out. I didn’t have enough leverage to really get proper punches in, but I was doing what I could. I wasn’t going down without a fight. Not today.
I wasn’t going to live in fear anymore.
I heard a voice say, “Jesus Christ! She’s one hell of a fighter.”
And then, another more familiar voice said, “Jesus! Just take it off so she knows she’s not in danger.”
I frowned. The voice was female. Ilani?
The black bag was removed from my head, and I raised my hands, ready to defend myself. I blinked rapidly to adjust to the light, and I saw Ilani peering at me. “Ilani? What the fuck?” Why wasn’t she black bagged? Ilani whacked at the arm of someone and my gaze darted that way. Dane, from class? “What the fuck, you guys? Are you trying to sell me? I swear you’ll get more for Ilani than you will for me.”
There were two other guys and a mousy-haired brunette in the van with us. They were vaguely familiar. I knew their faces but couldn’t place them. I stepped back, and Ilani held up her hands.
“Abbie, are you okay?”
I noted the open van door and a curious onlooker who jogged by. They’d parked on the far end of the park with less foot traffic, so if I was going to fight, I’d need to make a hell of a lot of noise. “Someone had better start fucking talking right now.”
One of the other guys held up his hand. “Hey, I’m Jackson. I’m one of Xander’s TAs.”
The second guy waved at me. “Garreth. I finished the masters course last year.”
The girl waved. “Madison. I’m his TA and sometimes his assistant for shoots.”
Jackson darted his gaze to Garreth. “We’re the Daylighters. You, Ilani, and Dane have been selected.”
My gaze flickered to Ilani then to a ruddy-faced Dane. “Selected to what, win a free kidnapping? Can I decline this prize?”
Jackson shook his head. “Right. I forgot. You don’t know what the Daylighters are. It’s kind of a secret society for photography and media students. They select three students a year. Surprise and welcome?” He grinned.
I scooted back as far as I could go until my back was up against the door of the van. “So, what, you just kidnap people off the street?”
Madison winced. “I told you lot watching too much of The Skulls was a bad idea. You’ve terrified her.”
Garreth held up his hands. “Mate, don’t blame me. Jackson wanted to go for maximum effect. I told you it wasn’t a good idea. She looks jumpy.”
Madison sighed. “Sorry about these idiots. When Jackson said they were going to grab you, I sincerely thought they meant pick you up. Not, you know, literally grab you. Normally, we wouldn’t approach you cold, but you didn’t reply to your invitation letter. We thought you knew about the Daylighters, present kidnapping situation not-withstanding.”
I frowned. “Invitation letter?”
Ilani held up her invitation that was lettered in a gray embossed font. And then I thought back. I’d gotten a letter like that last week. I’d ignored it because it looked fancy, and so I assumed it was from Easton. “I need someone to do a better job of explaining.”
Jackson did his best. “We take the best of Xander’s students, and they become Daylighters. The ones who help in his galleries. Occasionally, you get to exhibit, and we go out and shoot together. I know it sounds nerdy, but it’s actually pretty wicked.”
“So you guys couldn’t just, you know, ask in class or something? ‘Who wants to be in our secret club?’ I could have tased you to death.”
Garreth shrugged. “Well, it wouldn’t exactly be a secret then, would it?”
My gaze flickered between Ilani and the men at the back of the van. “Can you let me go now?”
Garreth released my wrist. “Sorry. I only held on to you because you were hitting pretty hard.” He dusted his knuckles over his cheek. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to be bruised tomorrow.”
I scowled at him. “You’ll still look pretty enough.”
He lifted his brows as if assessing me with interest now, but I kept my scowl on my face. “You’re not my type. I prefer men who don’t kidnap me.”
He winced. “I’m sorry about that, okay? Are you hurt?”
I did a mental calculation. Now that the adrenaline sliding in my veins had slowed, nothing actually hurt. There was a little throbbing in my head, but that was probably from the overflow of adrenaline. I hadn’t technically been hurt.
I tested the handle of the door I was backed up against. It gave easily, and the door slid back. Jackson held up his hands as if he were under arrest. “Jesus, you can go anytime. I guess you really didn’t get the invitation.”
I shook my head. “I may have gotten it. I just didn’t open it. I have a lot going on.” No way was I going to explain to him that it looked like some piece of bullshit my ex-boyfriend would have sent me.
Garreth took a deep breath. “Okay, maybe we should start again. Hi, we’re the Daylighters. We would very much like you to be part of the group. The photos you’ve taken so far have been amazing. And we can see why Xander is so taken with your work.”
I frowned. “You’ve seen my work?”
“Well, when Xander considers new students, he picks the best of the best. And then he discusses his favorites with us, their strengths, their weaknesses. Then throughout the course of the year, when he gives critiques, we follow their progress. The photos of the kids in the market. That was really terrific.”
I frowned. “You really do know my work.”
Garreth nodded. “Yeah, they were great.”
The warm flush of pride in my chest did something to stave off my irritation. “What does this group entail anyway?”
“We’re headed to the studio near the Victoria and Albert Museum. From there, we confiscate your phone for the day, and we shoot in the city. Kind of gorilla stuff. A little more urban. A little grittier. It’s just for the day and the night, and then you get to go home.”
I slid my glance to Ilani, and she nodded her head. “Hey, I got my invitation, so I knew something like this was going to happen. I’m ready for it.”
“I don’t want to give up my phone though.”
Garreth shook his head. “It’s tradition. And if something is actually urgent, and someone calls you on it, we’ll let you know.”
“I need to text someone first.”
Jackson shrugged. “Fine. Make it quick, then.“
I glanced at my friends and the three idiots who thought it might be a good idea to kidnap me. The word no was on the tip of my tongue because their methodology was terrifying. But Ilani and Dane were there. And now that I could see their faces, I knew I wasn’t just being kidnapped out of the park.
I nodded warily. “Listen, I’ll come along. But if there’s anything I don’t like, I’m done.”
Jackson nodded. “Fair enough. We already have our kits, so let’s get going.”
With another withering glare for Jackson, I texted Lex.
Abbie: Will be shooting late. Rain check?
I handed my phone to Jackson with a frown before settling back in the seat next to Ilani. I turned to her. “If we’re being human trafficked, this is your fault.”
She laughed. “If we are, I’m glad I’m with you. You’ll put up a hell of a fight if we get in trouble.”
Little did she know I’d spent much of my adult life being afraid.
Well, I was done being scared.
* * *
I checked my phone… for the twentieth time that afternoon.
No more texts from Abbie. Since the one saying she was shooting late, I hadn’t heard from her.
You are officially pussy whipped.
That’s, right. I had it bad. The worst thing was that I wasn’t even trying to keep it a secret. I wanted to be with her, to spend as much time as possible with her. I was nuts.
Yeah, you’re nuts. She doesn’t know the truth.
There was a lot to talk about. And I was going to tell her. I didn’t want to keep it from her. If this was the real thing, she had to know. All of it.
And she would understand. She had to. Because once I understood what I was feeling, I wasn’t planning on letting her go. And I wasn’t going to allow the whole situation with Gemma ruin everything either.
I’d had too many one-night stands and meaningless shag-buddy situations. Abbie was the first person I’d wanted to let in. I was itching to tell her everything, and I knew she wouldn’t run.
You mean you hope she won’t.
I typed in the code for the main entry door of her flat before taking the stairs two at a time.
Excited much? According to Xander, women liked it when blokes played it a little cool. But we were way past that point. I hoped to surprise her and make her dinner.
On her doorstep, I wiped my boots and shook off the rain, taking off my coat before I knocked on the door.
No one answered. I frowned and knocked again. Tension sat squarely between my shoulder blades. Had she forgotten we had a date tonight?
When she still didn’t answer, I pulled out my phone and texted her again.
Alexi: Your boyfriend is here to do naughty, debaucherous things to you. He’s at the door. Open up.
I waited, but the message didn’t show as delivered. Was it possible she wasn’t home? I heard footsteps and then smiled to myself. She’d probably let her phone die. I was going to buy her a million portable chargers.
When the door opened though, it wasn’t Abbie. It was Faith. And she gave me a confused smile. “Uh, Lex? What are you doing here? Did plans change? Are we going out from here? I was just in the shower, but I don’t think I got a text.”
Shit. It seemed Abbie hadn’t said anything about us to her friends yet, which suited me fine. I swallowed that dig against my conscience. It was handy that Faith and I weren’t really that great of friends. She hadn’t gone to Uni with me, so she didn’t know about Gemma. And Faith was more Sophie’s friend than in the core group with Max.
The lads, they knew about Gemma, so it was likely Sophie did too. But Faith didn’t look like she wanted to cut off my balls so she probably didn’t know. “Sorry. I was just looking for Abbie. We were going to… chat.” About what you twat? “Uh, about a potential photography gig.” That was plausible right?
Her short blond hair was visibly still damp and tousled. She must have been in the shower. “I just got back this morning from Ireland. She’s not here. All she said was she was going to do some work tonight. So, I assume that meant you.”
“Uh, yep. I haven’t heard from her though, and I’m a little worried.” That was too much. Why would I be worried? I searched through my skull for a plausible reason for my concern.
But turned out I didn’t need it. She was already thinking about where Abbie might be. “If she makes a plan, she sticks to it. She’s anal about that. Like really compulsive. Like someone is gonna scream at her for going off book. So it’s odd you haven’t heard from her.”
I pushed down the flare of anger. If I ever got my hands on that arsehole, I was going to kill him.
“I haven’t spoken to her since early this morning.”
Faith frowned then. “Come in. I’ll try to locate her on Find my Friends.”
I followed behind her, my worry dogging every step. “Any other friends you know of that might have an idea where she is?”
Faith shook her head. “I’m sure it’s fine. She probably just got caught up with shooting, right? You know how she gets.”
I nodded slowly, even as I pulled out my phone and texted my brother. “Yeah. Xander’s the same way.” Then why doesn’t it feel like she got caught up with shooting? “It could be anything. I mean, if you’re going to Sophie’s, maybe she misinterpreted and went there?”
Faith shrugged. “Yeah, let me check with Sophie and see if that’s where she headed.”
She jogged into the back rooms and then came back with her phone. No, she isn’t with Sophie, and Jasper offered that he hadn’t seen her. Can’t locate her on Find my Friends, either. It says ‘location unknown,’ so her phone is probably dead.”
I ground my teeth then and groaned. “I’m seriously concerned something may have happened to her, Faith.”
She fidgeted as she bit her nail. “It’s not like her, to be honest. She doesn’t just let her mobile die. And she’s paranoid about safety. I’m a little concerned, too. It’s not like her to completely vanish.”
“Why do you say that?”
Faith shuffled on her feet. “Listen, it’s not my place, but did she tell you anything about her past?”
The increased unease made the hairs on my arms stand up. “Yeah, about her ex?”
Faith nodded with what looked like a sigh of relief. “Oh good, she told you about Easton. Did she mention that he’s been calling her?”
My brows snapped down. “What the fuck?”
“Yeah. You know, just calling and insisting she come home, demanding that she call him… but she hasn’t been. She said that there was no way he would come to London or anything, but I mean, what if he did?”
Fuck. I hadn’t received a message back from Xander, but Faith had a point. Based on Mom’s and Jean Claude’s connections, the family had a couple of detectives and inspectors we were on a first name basis with. “Looks like I’m calling in a favor.”