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Hearts Of Darkness (The Santiago Trilogy Book 1) by Catherine Wiltcher (1)

1

Eve

“No sudden movements, my angel… No one has to die here tonight.”

His voice is calm, dead calm, yet the hand gripping my mouth is rough and unforgiving. Black spots cloud my vision as I struggle to draw breath. My heart feels like it’s going to pound right out of my chest, and my thoughts? They’re balancing on a jagged knife’s edge, somewhere between fear and panic.

He takes my arm and pulls me closer to him, the icy tip of his gun grazing the side of my temple, snapping me back to my harsh reality. I blink and focus on dragging air into my reluctant lungs, willing my racing pulse to slow, praying that my survival instincts kick in soon. I can’t see his face but there’s a dark familiarity to how he’s handling his weapon. There’s knowledge there… training. This man knows how to pull the trigger and he’s not afraid of the consequences.

My eyes dart to the young guy standing behind the liquor store counter. He’s watching us with his mouth wide open. He’s just a college kid, younger than me; my scared partner in this chaotic narrative. He only started his shift a few minutes ago. He’s still wearing his jacket. His backpack is still lying next to a stack of cut-price beer kegs where he chucked it moments before.

I only came into this liquor store because my friend, Anna, begged me to. I don’t even drink. I was about to hand over a bottle and pay when Mr. Deadly walked in and held a gun to the back of my head.

“Take what you want, mister,” says the guy nervously, indicating to the open till. From my vantage point I can see untidy wads of twenties, tens, ones …

No hundreds?

“No one has to get hurt tonight.”

There’s an amused sound from my assailant. “Oh, I don’t want your money.”

His voice is deep, velvety. Eminently masculine and laced with the faintest trace of an accent. He doesn’t sound like your typical liquor store junkie thief. There’s no slur in his speech, no admission of drink or drug abuse. He sounds educated. Refined. For some reason this scares me even more.

“Get out. Go.”

The store worker blinks at him.

“I don’t like to repeat myself...”

There’s an edge to his voice now that sends a shiver down my spine.

Shooting me a regretful look, the young guy grabs his bag and hightails it out of there. At the same time the hand tightens around my mouth and I’m yanked backwards against my assailant’s body. I let out a muffled cry. It’s like colliding with a brick wall. He’s a solid mass of muscle, from his chest and abdomen all the way down to the long length of his thigh. I twist my head from side to side to relieve some of the crushing pressure on my jaw.

“What’s your name?” he murmurs, loosening his grip to let me speak.

“Eve,” I gasp.

“Eve who?”

“Eve Miller!”

Eve Miller...” he repeats slowly but the way he says it feels like a hard caress, like some kind of twisted foreplay. “Tell me, Eve Miller, are you going to be a good girl? Are you going to behave?”

He’s talking directly into my ear now. I can feel his hot breath on my skin. Scrambling my senses, tormenting me further. Giving me no time to answer, he locks his arm across my shoulders, imprisoning me against his body and assaulting me with his warmth and scent. It’s musky, potent, rich ... all male. There’s no trace of panic underneath it all, no nervous sweat or unnatural body heat. This man is in total control of this situation and it makes my next words tumble out of my mouth like some crazy defense mechanism,

“Please let me go, I have plans!”

I have plans?

It’s a stupid thing to say given the circumstances but I’m meant to be at Anna’s house right now. It’s my birthday celebration dinner tonight. Twenty-five and barely alive. Will I live to see twenty-six? Not if this man has anything to do with it.

“I had plans too, Eve. Big plans. It looks like we’ll both be rearranging tonight.”

Is he a fugitive on the run? A human trafficker? A drug dealer? My last thought makes my blood freeze. Is he someone I’ve name-checked in one of my articles for The Miami Reporter? I’ve gotten threats before but only via my work’s mailroom. Or maybe it’s someone trying to get to my dad through me?

“Are you going to hurt me?” I whisper.

“Not unless you do something stupid.”

“I won’t, I really won’t. I promise.”

I sound so pitiful, so unlike my usual composed self. In my line of work I’ve interviewed dealers, users, snitches, every type of unsavory character you can think of but this man is something else.

“That’s good to hear,” he murmurs. “The repercussions would be such a pity.”

He forces me towards the store’s exit, manipulating my slender body with ease. I catch a glimpse of our twin reflections in the glass door as we approach. My face is pinched and scared, hauntingly pale beneath my light tan, and my long, dark hair is a mussed-up mess. Nothing prepares me for my first glimpse of him. He’s tall and handsome, well built and olive-skinned, with dangerously defined features, a firm square jaw adorned with a shadow of stubble and tousled black hair that’s been slicked back off his face.

He’s the man of my dreams.

He’s the devil from my nightmares.

He lowers his gun to open the door and guide me out onto the pavement. The streets are deserted except for the odd car rolling past but he keeps his weapon pressed tightly against the small of my back, always in charge, lest I should forget. So close. Too close. Anyone looking twice might think we were lovers.

I start to shiver despite the red-hot heat radiating from his body. People tell me I’m smart, I’ve got majors in English and Journalism, but my brain can’t seem to rationalize any of this. It’s like I’m on the outside looking in, feeling all the detached emotions of an innocent bystander instead of the victim.

What does he want from me?

My thoughts lead me to a place I don’t want to go. I shut them down quickly as movement catches my eye. An SUV has appeared at the far end of the street and is accelerating hard in our direction. I try not to flinch as it screeches to a halt right next to us and two men jump out. They’re dressed in black army fatigues. Foreign-looking. Intimidating. One has an ugly scar that runs the entire length of his face, shattering the skin around his eye socket into dozens of spidery-red fragments.

“Someone talked,” the scary-looking man announces. “There’s a leak higher up than we thought.”

My assailant curses under his breath, something hostile and unpleasant in a foreign language as a cacophony of blue lights and sirens erupt somewhere in the distance. I find myself being spun around and then I’m face to face with him for the first time tonight. My hand flies to my mouth to stifle my screams… A pair of the darkest, cruelest eyes I’ve ever encountered are blazing into mine.

“Who’s the girl?”

My gaze jerks in the direction of the voice, anything to escape that toxic scrutiny. The man with the scar is gesturing at me.

“Collateral.”

I glance back. There’s a slight twist to my assailant’s lips now, and as I watch his eyeline dips to my body. All of a sudden I’m being devoured, stripped naked and debased right there in front of everyone, just by those dark pools alone. At the same time a lick of something unfamiliar catches deep inside.

“At least she bought champagne,” drawls scarface.

I did? I look down, confused. I’m still clutching the bottle from the store, my grip as firm as this man’s hold is on my arm.

“They’ll be no celebrating tonight,” snaps my assailant, snatching the bottle from my trembling fingers and tossing it to one side. The glass smashes to smithereens as soon as it hits the pavement, the spilt alcohol staining the dirty concrete like blood seeping from a gaping wound.

I dare myself to lock eyes with him again. He’s older than I thought – mid to late thirties. They say the devil can mimic many forms but can he really mimic pure perfection such as this? In the harsh glare of the streetlight the man’s expression is unreadable but his features are mesmerizing. That full mouth, those carved cheekbones…

It takes me a moment to get a hold of myself and when I do I’m being led towards the vehicle. The door is opened for me and I’m guided towards the back seat.

Not this. Anything but this!

Terrified, I buck backwards against him with all my strength, colliding with those solid muscles again and something even harder. Holy shit, is that his erection? I’m really scared now. I consider making a run for it but even with the liquid fire of ‘fight or flight’ pumping through my veins I know the odds of success are non-existent. These men would shoot me down like a dog in the street.

“I gave you my word, Eve Miller,” murmurs my assailant, placing a forceful hand between my shoulder blades, leaving me no choice but to bend to his will. “It’s not something that’s broken lightly. No harm will come to you if you do as I say.”

The sirens are getting louder. Glances are exchanged which galvanize the men into action. The two newcomers jump into the front of the vehicle whilst the devil slides into the back seat after me. Doors slam and the car accelerates away. I’m thrown backwards against the cream leather but my captor barely shifts. In such a confined space I’m suddenly aware of how large he is. Broad. Muscular. Lethal. His rock hard thigh is rammed up against my own but I daren’t move away.

“Hack the store cameras and wipe them clean,” I hear him order.

The guy in the passenger seat nods, pulls out a laptop and sets to work immediately.

“Water?”

With a start I realize he’s addressing me. I glance down at the outstretched bottle and feel a surge of hope. If he’s offering me sustenance then surely he doesn’t want to kill me… yet. I take it without thanks, defying him as much as I dare with my lack of manners, and I feel the heat of his scrutiny again as I twist the cap and bring the bottle to my lips. The water is cool and refreshing. It tastes faintly metallic, though, as if soured by his nearness. I replace the cap and hand it back, our fingers briefly touching as I do. I flinch as shockwaves zip up and down my spine. No way was that normal.

He takes a swig from the same bottle not bothering to wipe the rim first. “Are you scared of me, Eve Miller?”

There’s no right answer here. If I say yes I run the risk of incurring his wrath. If I say no he’ll know I’m lying and suffer it anyway.

“I asked you a question, Eve Miller.”

I hate him saying my name. There’s something so sinister, so… sexual, about it.

“Do I need to repeat myself?”

That dangerous snap is back. He doesn’t like to do that, remember?

“No. Yes… Yes I’m scared of you,” I whisper, my voice barely audible above the screams of the engine.

He nods, accepting this before taking another swig from the bottle. “You should be.”

You think? I can sense the monster lurking beneath that savage, beautiful mask all by myself. His civility is skin-deep, if that. I’ve never encountered anyone like him before. My life is sheltered. Respectable. I’m a reporter and I work for a national newspaper. I write tough articles about tough subjects but the truth is I’m an introvert who hides behind my words. After what happened to my brother I’m allergic to risk. I go out at the weekends but I always leave early. I’m the sensible one, the designated driver. I don’t drink because I don’t like that loss of control, and now this… In the space of ten minutes he’s gone and ripped my neat and orderly life apart.

“Where are you taking me?” I say, risking another glance at him.

He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even look at me.

“Cameras are wiped, Señor Dante.”

Dante? The devil has a name, an appropriate one at that. Borne straight from the fires of hell.

“Call ahead. Make sure my aircraft is ready. I want out of this godforsaken place as soon as possible.”

My stomach drops when I hear this. I’m being abducted. Kidnapped. Dragged from my family, my home and all that I love. I have to do something. I have to stop this…

“Please, Mr. Dante!” I go to grab his forearm to establish some sort of connection in the vain hope it might aid my release from this nightmare. Instead, his reflexes are lightening-quick and vicious. He twists away from me, grabbing my outstretched hand and all of a sudden I’m being pinned to the seat by my throat. I cry out in pain and terror. His strength and speed are inconceivable. My instincts were right. This man has some kind of military training. I can feel the heat of his fingers on my skin – kneading, squeezing. His face is mere inches from my own.

“You were saying, Eve Miller?”

He declares it almost conversationally and I feel a frisson of something unfamiliar again. Up-close, he’s devastating. This man should come with a hazard warning. A hundred thousand hazard warnings. All I can see are those eyes, so hostile and unflinching but so damn seductive...

“Are you an angel or the devil?” I mutter, the words leaving my mouth before I have a chance to snatch them back.

A look of amusement crosses his face and his grip on my neck loosens. “I think you know the answer to that already… Don’t touch me again or you’ll regret it.”

He releases me and slides across the back seat to give me a little room to recover. I glance down at my hands. They’re trembling again. Tears start to trickle down my cheeks. Everything feels so hopeless and out of control. I can feel him watching me constantly.

“There’s no need to cry, Eve Miller. No need to spoil that pretty face.”

The man called Ricardo starts talking to him again. He’s speaking in that language, the one I don’t understand – I think it’s Spanish. Whatever he says seems to irritate my assailant who bites back with a sharp retort.

The uneasy atmosphere lingers. The car stops. The doors open again. My assailant exits first, surprisingly elegantly for such a large man, and then motions with his hand for me to follow. I do so without a fight this time. He’s not pointing a gun at my head anymore but I’m under no illusions of what he’s capable of.

I glance over my shoulder and my knees start to buckle. We’re in an aircraft hanger. There’s a private jet resting on the tarmac in front of us surrounded by ten heavily armed men all toting scary-looking machine guns. My fear is tangible now, my senses on high alert and screaming. My only hope is to make a run for it whilst they’re all distracted. I try to spin away but he grabs hold of me at the last second.

“You promised to behave, Eve Miller.” His fingers are clawing into the soft flesh of my upper arm – crushing, tearing. I cry out as the pain shoots all the way up to the tip of my shoulder. “Are we still being followed?” he calls out to one of his men.

“No, señor. We lost the tail a while back.”

He nods as if this news is expected. “Tell Tomas I’m ready to leave immediately.” He glances back at me and my head is filled with a million questions. Why did he walk into liquor store and hold a gun to my head? This man has money, serious money. I have $2000 in a checking account, no savings, a mortgage…

“Why am I here?” I scream, losing control suddenly, fighting like a hellcat to free myself from his grip.

“Calm down, Eve.” His dark eyes are perfect circles of fury.

“Never! Not until you tell me!”

He considers me coldly for a moment. “You’re here because I take what I want.” And before I can stop him he’s yanking me back against his body and crushing my mouth with his own, forcing all of his darkness and violence onto me.

My lips part in shock, a silent scream, and his warm tongue delves hungrily into my mouth. I try to move my head away but a large hand grips the base of my neck, holding me immobile. My palms find his chest and I push with all my might but it’s no use, a fool’s quest. He’s an unmovable rock of hard muscle and determination, and I can do little but moan my protest. He kisses me harder in response, expertly thrusting his tongue between my teeth, corrupting me over and over again with his raw masculinity.

Does this man make love with the same skill and intensity?

My thoughts seem to kick-start my senses. My reticence switches to submission and I find myself melting into his rough embrace, my fingers reaching up to burrow into his silky, black hair as a throbbing beat awakens between my thighs. A moan escapes me when I feel the thick bulge of his erection nudging against my stomach and I’m starving for something I never knew I wanted. How has this happened? I hate this man. He’s the antithesis to every quality I celebrate – kindness, tenderness, parity… This tyrant only knows how to take and take, and there’s absolutely nothing gentle about his touch.

All of a sudden he’s pulling away again, leaving me gasping, wanting and breathless for more. “Goodbye, sweet Eve,” he murmurs, his expression unreadable, his dark eyes giving me nothing. “It’s high time I returned you to Eden.”

And just like that he’s turning away and walking towards his aircraft.

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