Tomi Tomlin floored her little red Acura two-door, testing the boundaries of its 4-cylinder engine as she sped back toward the mansion of her employer, multi-millionaire international businessman Luis Despasco.
“Oh my God, Tomi, how could you have forgotten your passport?” her friend Carrie said over the Bluetooth connection. She couldn’t blame Carrie for sounding annoyed. She was supposed to be sitting at the airport gate with her, preparing to board their flight.
“I specifically put my passport on the entry table, so I wouldn’t forget,” she replied.
“But you did.”
“Rafael came to give me Cowie to keep me safe on my trip.” When Luis’s three-year-old son, a mini mimic of his father, had shown up in the living room clutching his favorite stuffed animal with tears in his baby brown eyes, she’d almost canceled her trip on the spot.
“And you forgot everything but that little boy,” Carrie said with a long sigh. “Which is why I haven’t gotten to see my best friend in almost a month. What happened to our Club Hoppin’ Wednesdays? And Tippin’ Thursdays? And Freaking Fun Fridays? I miss you.”
Tomi winced, but couldn’t argue. Rafael had her wrapped around his tiny tan finger. They’d both lost their mothers in childbirth, and there was no denying she saw herself in him. “I know. I miss you too. I promise, we will party every day and night in Mexico. I couldn’t help it though. He was so worried I’d go on vacation and not come back.”
“I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re not the kid’s mother. You’re his nanny. Once he hits the age for boarding school, you probably won’t see him again.”
A giant fist grabbed her chest and squeezed. “I know that,” she said, a little harsher than she’d intended.
The speaker at the airport sounded through Carrie’s phone, “Attention guests. We are now boarding first class for flight 277 from Dallas to Cozumel.”
Well, shit. She’d been running anyway, and now she was sure to miss the plane.
“And Luis is waaaayyyy too old for you.”
“Now you’re just being gross. I have no interest in him like that. He’s my boss, that’s it.” Sure, he could be Antonio Banderas’s twin, but he didn’t make her heart do the booty shake.
Not like Cole Fury.
She ignored the traitorous thought. She’d run from Cole a decade ago. In all likelihood, he barely remembered her.
Carrie continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “Not that I wouldn’t be all for you dating the guy, I mean, he’s freaking loaded and hot. But it would mean you’d finally moved on past—”
“Don’t say his name,” Tomi bit out.
“Fine. I won’t say his name, but only if you promise me you’ll hook up with a hot Latino when we’re on vacation.” Suddenly, Tomi wished she’d never confided in her best friend about Cole.
“Now boarding Group A for Cozumel.” There was literally no way she was going to make it, but she pressed on the gas pedal anyway. At least she’d reached the two-mile long private drive. Why the hell was the gate open? Luis never left the gate open.
“What? You haven’t dated anyone since him and I’m sick of watching my best friend pine away over a man who doesn’t even remember she existed.”
Tomi sucked in a breath at the sharp jab. “You think I’m that pathetic? I get laid whenever and wherever I want. You know this.” Did she think Tomi was like some old spinster longing for a lost love?
It wasn’t like she hadn’t tried to move on; she’d gone out. She’d gotten horizontal plenty of times, and some of the guys had even been suitable for her particular…needs. “What about Damien? He was pretty good.”
“The daddy Dom from Club Tiger? Puh-leaze, he was just a boy pretending to be a Dom. You knew it the second you agreed to sub for him.”
“He wasn’t that bad.” Until he took her home to his mother’s basement apartment.
“Uh-huh. Okay. Whatever, I’m just tired of watching you flirt with men you’re not interested in. I just want you to be happy. Have fun.”
“Now boarding Groups B and C for Cozumel.”
“I am happy. I’m living life the way I want.” Pretending to have a family because you don’t have one of your own. “And I might not have overlooked my passport if we hadn’t gone to the club last night and stayed out until they shut the place down.”
“But we had fun, right?” Carrie said.
“Of course we had fun.”
“Aren’t you ready to have two weeks’ worth of fun in Mexico?!? Now get your ass home, grab your passport, and get the hell on a plane! We both know you’re going to miss this one.”
She passed the last Spanish moss-covered oaks on the road and the bright floodlights surrounding Luis’s mansion came into view, highlighting a row of luxury cars and limos. Tomi let out a whistle. “Looks like I wasn’t invited to the party.”
She could practically see Carrie’s ears standing to attention. “Party? At the mansion?”
Tomi slowed to a crawl and took the curve, waving at two security guards posted at the bottom of the grand staircase. “Must be some kind of fundraiser for his charity.”
Luis never hosted parties or balls or anything like that at home. He liked to keep his personal life very private, something she knew from experience since she’d been asked to sign about fifty thousand pages of nondisclosure agreements.
“Perfect. You still got that little black dress from Melissa’s wedding reception?”
“Yes, you do. You never throw anything away. Now’s your chance, Tomi. You’re probably not going to find another flight until tomorrow morning, anyway, and I’ll bet that place is bleeding rich, handsome bachelors.”
The security guard didn’t wave back. He lifted his wrist to his mouth and said something she had no chance of hearing, but from the stonewall expression on his face, she knew she’d never be welcome at the gathering.
“Last call for flight 277 to Cozumel.”
And there was the perfect opportunity to shut up her best friend before she started in again on Tomi’s woeful lack of male companionship. “Carrie, get your butt on that plane before you miss it too.”
“Fine, but you and I are not through with this conversation.”
“Great. Can’t wait.”
“You bet your ass you can’t.”
Tomi chuckled, unable to hold on to her frustration any longer. “See you in Mexico.”
“I’ll have a margarita waiting. Text me when you get your flight changed.”
“Later, girl.” Tomi hung up and dropped her cell in her lap as she drove around the mansion to her little bungalow out back. It resembled a two-story Italian villa to her, but to a high roller like Luis, it was just the nanny’s house.
She parked her Acura out front, grabbed her purse, and climbed out to the sound of a hauntingly beautiful classical song coming from the mansion.
At least someone was having a good time tonight.
Her feet growing heavier with each step, she unlocked her front door and went inside her dark house. She’d turned off every light, even the lamps, before leaving this afternoon since she hadn’t intended on coming back for two weeks. Tiger, her cat, immediately let out a long purr and wound between her feet, forcing her to drop her purse by the door and scoop him into her arms. “Miss me?”
He’d be the only one besides Rafael, who was now on his own flight to California to spend time with his grandmother. Dang, she was gonna miss that little bugger. Tomi squeezed Tiger in her arms, burying her face in his soft fur. The groundskeeper had agreed to feed him for her while she was gone on vacation.
The cat, who’d reached his limit for attention, wriggled out of her grip, and sauntered into the kitchen, his black tail held high in the air. Why couldn’t she just be like her cat and not actually want to be around other people?
Maybe it would help her stop thinking about Cole every other day…
Ugh, I really am pathetic.
She grabbed her phone and crossed her living room to the couch, falling back onto the soft cushions. Through the windows, she could see the lights from the mansion spilling out onto the manicured lawns in the backyard. A large circular fountain shot water in graceful arcs, surrounded by sweet-smelling gardenia-lined walkways. Luis highly valued beauty and order, a fact that was evidenced in every aspect of his home.
Tomi unlocked her phone and dialed the airline, drifting off into daydreams about Mexico as she waited on hold for an hour. By the time she got off the phone, she’d lost hours and patience. The airline could only book her at 4:30 a.m., which meant she’d have barely any time to sleep before she needed to head back to the airport.
Even more deflated, Tomi grabbed a bottle of water from her refrigerator, clicked off her living room lights, and crossed to the entryway to put her passport in her purse. Thirty seconds later, she stood staring, open-mouthed, at the place her passport had been. Cowie stared back at her.
“Rafael!” Tomi yanked the stuffed cow off the table, already knowing her passport would be gone. She’d sworn to come home right after vacation, but he’d seemed terrified by the prospect.
He’d swiped her passport and left Cowie instead.
Looked like she would have to crash Luis’s party after all. She could only hope Rafael had left her passport in his usual hiding place rather than stashing it in his suitcase.
Tomi clutched Cowie under her arm and left her house, cautiously approaching the back entrance to the mansion. The soft strains of classical tunes still floated from the stately house, but no guests could be seen from the back windows, and when she entered the house, it seemed almost eerily empty. She paused at the bottom of the staircase, staring up at the golden crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling nearly three stories up in the foyer. Maybe if she was lucky she’d make it up to Rafael’s bedroom and back out before anyone even realized she was there.
She ran up the staircase, down the hall, and then quietly eased into his bedroom and over to his favorite hiding spot—a tiny, hand-carved gold chest his father had given him for his last birthday. Rafael had instantly declared it a treasure chest and hidden it beneath his bed. Tomi had discovered more than one set of missing keys within its tiny confines. She set Cowie on the mattress, dropped to her knees, and pulled out the small chest, sighing in relief when she saw her passport lying in the bottom.
Tomi made it down to the bottom of the staircase, her steps growing lighter with relief. She was going to make it—no one was going to see her. But no sooner had the thought skated through her head than she turned the corner around the curved banister and slammed into something large and solid. A hand wrapped around her arm and a bruising grip kept her from falling off balance.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just looking for my passport,” she said breathlessly.
She’d never seen this security guard before, but he looked like something straight out of her nightmares. His cheeks were hollowed out and pockmarked, his black eyes as expressionless as death. Instead of releasing her or even responding, he turned and dragged her down the hallway behind the staircase. Alarm blossomed out from her chest through her fingers and toes and she tried to dig her heels into the worn carpet leading to the back of the house. “Let go.”
He just grunted and yanked harder; Tomi stumbled off balance and would’ve tripped if he hadn’t been holding her so tightly. As they neared a dark brown door she’d never been through before, her alarm turned into fear. Luis had never allowed her into this section of the house. Ever.
She yanked her arm harder, trying to pry his meaty fingers from her bicep, but couldn’t even budge his pinky. He flipped up a small black lid on the metal keypad next to the door and punched in a code. The door buzzed and opened. Loud pulsing music, completely different than the classical songs piping throughout the rest of the house, blasted through the opening. The staircase was illuminated with deep red lights leading down to a level at the mansion she hadn’t even known existed. Tomi didn’t know what was going on, but she knew enough to know she really didn’t want to go down here.
“Let go!” Tomi yanked away with all her strength.
The guard lifted his hand over his shoulder, as if to backhand her. “Shut up.”
Shaking now, she struggled futilely against his viselike strength as he drove her down the staircase, her terror rising as each step brought her deeper into the dark, red-lit cavern. The guard paused in front of another steel door at the bottom of the steps; it was massive with long metal hinges and a cage for a peephole. He banged on it twice and the door opened as if by command.
The loud music blasted out in an auditory assault, and the flashing lights, reminding her of a techno club, revealed glimpses of men in suits flanked by half-naked women. The guard pulled her deeper into the room, past the obscene display of bare flesh. She caught glimpses of women who looked young enough to be teenagers, some of them with thick black collars wrapped around their necks. Others were draped in positions that she couldn’t even imagine. This play party was waaayyy beyond any she’d seen. With each step, she was forced to take, her throat closed down like a giant fist had wrapped around it and squeezed.
The air in the room seemed to thin. The music changed, dropping lower and slower, the bass vibrating so hard it shook her entire body. It was then that she picked up on the low moans in the room. Moans of pain, not pleasure. Before she could make sense of any of it, the guard flung her to her knees on the floor. She caught herself with her hands, jarring her palms and shoulders. “Ow!”
“Carlos, you bring her in here?”
At the sound of the familiar furious voice, she jerked her head up in surprise—and found herself staring in mute shock into the deep soulful eyes of Luis Despasco. He sat on a black leather sofa, next to a beautiful young blonde girl. “Luis?”
He tsked and shook his head from side to side. “What are you doing here, Tomi?”
“I—I forgot my passport,” she stammered out, still too shocked to comprehend the scene around her. “What is this?”
The girl next to Luis cringed away, only to be yanked back into the spot with a harsh command. Luis turned his attention back to her as if nothing had happened. “This is something I’d hoped you would never see. This is my business, the business I like to keep quiet.”
“I thought you sold computer chips or something,” she said in a small voice.
Luis bent down and gently lifted her from the floor, allowing her to shake free of his hold once she was on her feet. He rested his shoulders back against the couch, swinging his arms out across the back with a chuckle. “I do that also, on the side, but I’ve found this trade to be much more…lucrative.”
Luis slowly wound a long strand of hair around his finger, tugging the terrified blonde girl closer. Tomi started to shake.
“I—I’m sorry I interrupted.” She needed to get out of here now. This wasn’t a normal party—not even a normal play party—something was seriously wrong here.
“I’m sorry too. Rafael is going to be very upset when he comes home and finds his favorite nanny missing.” Luis stroked the blonde’s cheek as he said it, as if Tomi were no longer worthy of his attention.
She took a terrified step back and bumped into Carlos. Before she could take another step, his thick arm wrapped around her waist, trapping her arms at her sides. He spoke, his hot breath right at her ear. “Boss?”
Luis’s hand dropped to the girl’s chest, toying with the breasts barely covered by a thin strap. “Take her to my personal holding area. I’ll need to make arrangements. And you – we will have a discussion about your ignorance, Carlos.”
“Arrangements?” She tried to swallow, but her throat had closed off.
“You are too old for this shipment, but we can still get a good price for you at the Golden Auction next week.”
“Luis, don’t do this,” she managed to gasp out. “I signed your NDA. I won’t say anything.”
Carlos’s arm tightened, cutting off her words.
“No bruising, Carlos.” Luis finally turned his attention away from the girl and got to his feet in a fluid motion. For the first time since she’d met him, Tomi flinched when he drew near. He traced her cheek with the back of his finger, exactly like he’d done to the girl on the couch mere seconds before. Her stomach rolled.
“You are precisely what I’ve been looking for. François has been begging for someone like you. I really am sorry about this. My son truly cared for you.”
“Then let me go. I won’t tell anyone. We can go on, like before.” Anything to get her out of here, now.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that. These girls will be sold tonight, and next week, so will you.” Luis flicked his hand and Carlos dragged her even deeper into the subterranean room. They passed a low stage, lit by yellow lights arranged at intervals across the bottom. Five women swayed on bare feet. The thin silver cuffs clasped over their bare ankles were their only covering.
“You heard the boss. You’ll be on that stage soon enough, puta.” Carlos yanked her to his chest and roughly pawed her ass. “Maybe I will be the one to buy you, eh?” He shoved her away with a rough laugh, holding on to her arm as he continued to pull her behind him.
Then they were in a dark hallway, lit just enough to highlight their feet. Finally, he shoved her through a door at the end. Tomi landed on the floor, taking the brunt of her weight on her side.
She scrambled to her feet, horror rolling through her as she took in a giant bed draped in chains and metal cuffs.
Carlos shut the door and then turned to her, an evil grin spreading across his scarred face.
Tomi threw up her hand, blurting out the only sensible thing that came to her mind. “Luis said not to hurt me!”
“No, puta, he said no bruises. Believe me, I can hurt you without leaving a mark.” He shrugged out of his suit jacket as he spoke, the action casual and unhurried. “Luis doesn’t mind if I sample the merchandise every now and then.”
Suddenly, he dove for her. Tomi launched to the right out of instinct. Carlos flew past, but his arm shot out and slammed into her chest, throwing her back with him. She hit the floor with a grunt.
Carlos got his arms underneath him before she could drag in a breath. Blood blasting through her veins, Tomi rolled to the side and up to her feet. She spun to face him, chest heaving. “Let me go.”
“You’ll regret that.” He dove again, grabbed her arms, and threw her across the room. She hit the wall. Pain blasted across her left shoulder and she slumped to the floor.
Tomi tried to get to her feet, but as soon as she shifted, white-hot agony sliced across her shoulder again.
Carlos advanced on her with a gruesome smile.
Tomi retreated in the only direction she could—toward the bed. When her knees hit the back, she stopped, desperately searching for anything to use as a weapon.
“You’re making my life much easier. I might not hurt you for that.” He took another step, shrinking the distance between them by another foot. “Maybe.”
She couldn’t think. Everything was happening too fast. Tomi tried to move her left arm again, but it wouldn’t budge. As if sensing her weakness, Carlos lunged. On instinct, Tomi grabbed the heavy chained cuff on the bed behind her and swung. The metal connected with his temple in a dull thud and he dropped at her feet, out cold.
Weak-kneed with relief, she bit her lip, fighting through her terror to figure out what to do. If he woke up it was over. She would die. No, he probably wouldn’t kill her at first, but he’d make her wish she was dead—she knew that much without question. Tomi gulped air in deep, heaving breaths. He’d almost raped her. Luis wanted to sell her. This was an auction. Oh my God, she was still trapped.