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Michael’s wife was dead. Whether it was from murder or suicide her demise had been brutal.
Whether it was the wine or shock Eliza could only guess. But she remained numb as Brooke continued talking about the suspicions that had surrounded the beloved Annie Westwright’s death. Annie. Even her name was endearing.
Focusing on Brooke’s monologue was becoming more difficult. She struggled to watch the woman’s mouth move and catch portions of her sentences. Some said post-partum depression. No way. But then he had just brought that blond bitch here a few days earlier so jealousy was another word floating around. But anyone who knew sweet little Annie knew that she loved that baby and bless her heart even loved her husband. And there was absolutely no way she would jump out of a window.
“Very sad,” Eliza repeated with a nod. God, what had she gotten into? His wife had invented the damn thing and then died without leaving the instructions. Now it was missing. And he was the last person to have it in his possession. She glanced across the room to find him standing with none other than Deborah.
“The blond bitch?” Eliza interrupted.
“The one he’s talking to now,” Brooked answered, nodding towards the couple across the room. “Something weird there. But this place is full of secrets. Did you know that they started recruiting from outside only ten years ago? Oh yeah, before the big three took over they didn’t leave the farm for anything if you know what I mean.” When Eliza continued to stare at her silently she explained with one word. “Inbreeding.”
After a few minutes Brooke had completed her tale and disappeared into the crowd. Eliza sat in silence trying to remember everything that she had just heard. It was mostly gossip of course but some truths could be gleaned from it. Struggling to decipher the new information she started feeling warm and claustrophobic in the crowded room.
Glancing through the crowd she found Deborah speaking with another man but Michael was nowhere in sight. She moved from her seat to the door hoping to find the nearest exit. With several people blocking her path to the elevator Eliza found the stairwell and started her descent. The banquet hall was located on the fifth floor and even though her feet were killing her she moved as fast as possible.
She had almost reached the second floor before she noticed something different. As the fog in her brain lifted she realized that the lower floors were darker. The lights were out. Before she could stop she saw a shadow move in the corner. Fear gripped her throat and held her scream as the dark form stepped towards her. Sensing the threat she rushed past the shadow hoping to escape his grasp as she continued down the next flight of stairs.
Before Eliza could reach the bottom floor she felt the hand push against her back. Losing her balance Eliza covered her face with her arms hoping to lessen the impact. The cold concrete was unforgiving as it slammed against her elbow and hip. She carefully moved her arm and leg which were throbbing in pain but not seriously injured.
She opened her eyes struggling to focus on her surroundings. The exit light above the door illuminated the darkened stairwell with an eerie red glow. The sound of footsteps moving closer forced her to move. Crawling on her hands and knees she cried out when hands roughly grabbed her hair. Standing behind her the dark form pulled until her head was off the ground.
Eliza struggled against the surprise attack by alternating blows to her captor and trying to pull her hand from the menacing grasp. Why couldn’t she breathe? When she thought she would finally be released a dark shadow moved in front of her face. She saw red stars on the dark hand before it grabbed her throat and squeezed.
Eliza clawed at her captor realizing that it was leather and not skin that she was scratching. Struggling again to breathe she fought against her assailant until she could no longer move. When she was finally released she collapsed on the floor gasping for air.
She heard someone say her name from a distance far away and then a face floated in and out of the darkness before bright florescent lights flickered and blinded her. And then he was there with others hovering over her sore body. She blinked as she watched his mouth move and heard his voice but was unable to understand his words.
Then other voices started screaming in the stairwell. Someone was saying the light had been turned off. Another said she must have tripped in her dress. And finally someone said that she had been drinking.
“Shut up!” Michael yelled looking over his shoulder. “Eliza,” he whispered turning to her, “can you move?”
“I think so but my knee hurts.”
“Then don’t move,” he instructed. “EMS will be here soon. Someone said they saw you run out of the room. What happened?”
“I needed air. The elevator was blocked.”
“Ok. Just stay awake until we can get you to the infirmary.”
“No,” she argued pushing his hands away. “Let me up. I’m ok.”
“Then yenibosna escort let me help you,” Michael said wrapping his arms around her waist. “Deb, send everyone away and have someone bring my car to the front.”
“No,” Eliza whispered against his neck. “I need to go to my room.”
“Ok. Deb, make sure the path is clear to the elevator. What’s wrong Eliza?”
“My necklace,” she answered as she searched her neck and the bodice of her gown. “I’ve lost my necklace.”
When she pulled away and knelt on the floor everyone watched in confusion. Michael finally knelt and pulled her hands into his. Feeling her panic rise Eliza jerked away and continued patting on the floor.
“It’s here. It has to be here. Oh god, please don’t let him have it.”
“The man who pushed me.”
“What man?” Michael demanded. “Eliza, damn it, quit crawling around. What man?”
“Here it is,” Deborah said bending in the corner of the stairwell. She held up the string of diamonds and glared at Michael. “A drunk girl with a vivid imagination and a very expensive necklace. No man. Jesus Michael. What the hell?”
“He was here,” Eliza whispered. “Michael I swear it. He was here.”
“There was no one here,” Deborah snapped. “We have enough drama so drop the act. I can’t believe this is the best KGA can offer.” She tossed the necklace to Michael and started to walk away. “She must not have snapped the clasp properly.”
“It’s broken” he murmured. “How does a platinum clasp break?”
Eliza watched silently as the two turned towards her. The onlookers had been cleared from the stairwell leaving the three of them alone. Trying to stand she quickly grabbed Michael’s arm as her knees protested against her weight. When he moved beneath the bare florescent lights she stared as he lifted his hands to her throat. The expression on his face scared her.
Turning to Deborah he said, “And this?”
Touching her throat Eliza grimaced at the sting against her skin and quickly pulled her fingers away. A glance confirmed what she already knew. The pressure of the necklace against her throat had cut her skin.
“I’m taking you to the infirmary,” Michael insisted. “You need to see a doctor now.”
“Wait,” she mumbled against his shoulder. “Please take me to my room. I need to get dressed and get something.”
Without a word Michael slipped the necklace into his pocket and lifted her into his arms. As she was carried through the foyer and into the elevator Eliza appreciated the silence that accompanied them. With only the sound of Michael’s heartbeat she tried to remember the events that had led to this moment. No matter what Deborah said someone had been in the stairwell and had pushed her down the stairs. She was now bleeding from the injury on her neck which probably happened when her necklace was pulled along with her hair.
She glanced at his face and cringed when she saw the anger had returned. His jaw was clinched tight and lines surrounded his mouth. When the chime announced their arrival to the floor of her apartment he continued moving quietly across the carpeted floor.
“Where’s your keycard?”
“Oh god. I left my clutch on the table. Michael I’m sorry I…”
“No problem,” he interrupted, gently placing her on her feet. Eliza watched silently as he reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a slender metal case. He pulled out a black plastic card, swiped it through the electronic scanner and returned it to his jacket. Before he could reach for Eliza she had opened the door and entered the apartment.
“Michael I think I’ll be ok. So if it’s ok with you I’ll just stay here and you can go back to the party.” When he remained silent she turned to find him staring at her. “Ok?”
“No,” he answered, walking in and shutting the door. “What happened down there Eliza?”
“I really don’t know. I got too warm and needed some air. The elevators were blocked so I took the stairs. Then, uh, everything happened so fast.”
“Are you telling me everything?”
Eliza turned away shaking her head. In twenty four hours she had experienced more with this man than she had with anyone else. Could she continue allowing a few minutes of passion to obscure her judgment? She wanted to leap into his arms and tell him about the bad man that hurt her and… trust him. But something stopped her.
“Are you telling me everything?” she asked repeating his question. “Don’t you think there are some things that I need to know in order to complete this assessment?”
“I could lie to you.”
“To protect myself.”
“Are you asking why I would want to protect myself?”
“No. I’m asking why you would need to.”
“Eliza,” he said, stepping closer, “you were sent here to find some answers. Obviously you already have theories.”
“No,” she whispered as he lifted his hand yeşilköy escort to her cheek.
Biting her lip Eliza shook her head hoping she could hold the tears in her eyes. As he leaned forward she looked away struggling to find an escape from this conversation.
“Don’t play into their hands Eliza,” he whispered against her cheek. “They think they can control you because you lack experience. But they don’t know you.”
“And you do?”
“You’re a fighter. You don’t settle for a mediocre life that’s accepted by others around you. Fight for the truth.”
“I’m confused,” she confessed, moving out of his arms. “With everything that happened last night I just can’t think clearly.”
“Do you think I came here last night to seduce you?”
“You were obviously prepared.”
“Once a boy scout…never mind. Actually I was pissed when I came here last night but…Eliza, there’s no easy way to dance around what happened.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Tempting question but the short answer is that I need you to find the truth.”
“You don’t know what it is?”
“I do or I think I do but you were chosen to find it and I find myself in the humble position of needing you to prove it.”
“Are you trying to sway my vote?”
“The dress. The jewelry.”
“Oh,” he replied with a frown. She watched him walk to the balcony doors where he stared silently. “To tell the truth I didn’t consider the consequences. It certainly wasn’t a payment for services rendered nor was it a bribe. Can we just say that I felt generous and I really wanted you to enjoy the party?”
“Really,” he answered turning to face her. “And I will confess that I didn’t realize how easily I fell into the old man’s ways until now.”
“I’ll explain later. Do me a favor and pack all of your things.”
“You’re evicting me?”
“No,” he answered with a grin as he moved closer to her. “I’m kidnapping you or placing you in protective custody, whichever you prefer. After tonight I’m keeping an eye on you and, once again, I can’t stay here.”
“You’re taking me to your home?” she asked. “Why?”
“Because while you’ve chosen to not tell me what happened in the stairwell,” he answered, moving her hair over her shoulder, “these bruises on your neck give some details. Whoever attacked you may try again. Please pack your things.”
Eliza walked to the closet surprised how well she was able to move after her fall. She also wondered why she was agreeing to his request without an argument. Carrying her suitcase and clothes to the bed she started packing as quickly and neatly as possible.
She shyly smiled at Michael now sitting at the table as she walked to the bathroom to collect her toiletries. Glancing at the mirror she finally saw the evidence of her attack. The cut on her neck was small and healing but the bruises were vivid on her pale skin. When she returned to the main room she stopped when she saw him reading her client file from KGA.
“What is this?” he asked without looking at her.
“My assignment. I suppose it’s ok for you to read it. Although I was told that it was confidential I haven’t found anything that would be offensive.”
“This,” he asked holding the file towards her, “is all you were given?”
“No electronic files or cloud access to a database?”
“No,” she answered, moving to her suitcase. “Why?”
“It’s not much data,” he answered as he flipped through the file again. “So where are your persons of interest listed?”
“Well they’re not. I mean the list was something I created. Obviously KGA would have known that Joseph wasn’t a viable contact,” she added with a laugh.
“Who did KGA direct you to interview?”
“All four hundred employees I guess but I couldn’t imagine that being very profitable. So I narrowed it down to seven and have yet to question one.”
“Tomorrow you can interrogate me,” he said, standing to hand her the file and take her luggage.
“And tonight?” she asked as she packed the file in her work bag. “What will we do tonight?”
Michael paused at the door before turning to answer, “I said that the dress is not a payment for last night but I never said that I would refuse a night as payment for the dress.”
Remaining still Eliza struggled to find words but realized that she had no idea what she wanted to say. The fact that he was teasing her was evident by his grin. The fact that he was also serious was revealed in his eyes. He was allowing her to make a choice knowing which answer he wanted and fairly sure that she wanted the same.
And yet she remained motionless. Last night had been declared as a mistake by two people whose desires trumped their control. To repeat that mistake would be a willful decision that could not be excused.
“I promise to try to make it the best time you’ve ever had,” he finally said. “But I can’t give zeytinburnu escort you any more. Not right now.”
“It’s just that I don’t normally…”
“Well I normally do. We should compare our norms sometime and find a place in the middle. No matter what you choose you’re coming with me tonight.”
Grabbing her bag Eliza walked to the door but stopped when Michael turned to open it. He had offered no false hopes. Tuesday morning she would get on a plane and return home. How she spent the next four nights would be her decision.
“I’ll go with you,” she explained as she touched his arm. “Not because I need a bodyguard but because I want to be with you.”
When she thought he would nod and open the door he surprised her by dropping her luggage and pulling her close. A single glance, no words and finally a kiss sealed their deal. She knew what she had agreed to and she would accept the consequences.
“Eliza,” he said in a tone that sounded odd. “Did you pack your schedule?”
“Are you serious?” she snapped. “What is it with you and that damn schedule? I’ve hardly followed it so it can’t be that important.”
Leaning close he whispered, “It will be. Please keep it with you at all times.”
As they left her room they walked together in easy companionship. General conversation, a question about her injuries and a joke about checking her ID at the next party had Eliza talking and laughing while they waited for the elevator. She was telling him that she was feeling much better when she noticed that he glanced away from her.
Eliza watched him as he motioned for her to keep talking. She started talking about family members that were notorious drunks and how holiday parties had started with beer and ended with gospel songs. As he quietly moved away from the elevator she continued telling a story that she had never shared with anyone.
She quit talking when he pushed the stairwell door open. Even from a distance she could hear the sound of footsteps running down the stairs. She watched as Michael let the door swing closed.
“How did you know they were there?” she asked as he walked to her. “Who do you think it was? What were they doing? And why did they run away?”
Michael lifted the suitcase and pushed the down arrow on the panel. He finally asked, “How many uncles do you have?” When Eliza shook her head in confusion he explained, “Your story. You talked about seven different uncles.”
“Oh. Well, uh, well they aren’t really my uncles. My mother was very popular with men and when she didn’t marry a guy she’d tell me he was my new uncle.”
“And they were all at this same party?”
“Not all of them. Only the seven,” she answered quietly as she stepped into the elevator. “While I’m sure your mother would never be so immoral please don’t say anything about mine.” She glanced at his expression and cringed. “I already know what you’re thinking. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
His response was an outburst of laughter. When he could finally speak he said, “Eliza you couldn’t be farther from the truth. First of all, it’s very possible that you were adopted. And second,” he said wrapping his arm around her shoulders, “If my mother were still alive she would give your mom some decent competition.”
Eliza returned his smile but was totally confused. She had always believed that families like his were founding members of churches, private schools and charities. As a child she had been excluded from invitations to her classmates’ parties. Only one girl had been brave enough to tell her that whore’s kids were not allowed.
“So you’re mom had an affair?”
“Most definitely,” he answered with a chuckle. “But I’m ok with it. If she hadn’t screwed around on her husband I wouldn’t have been born.”
“But your father is…wait, what?”
“Tomorrow,” he said as they exited the elevator and walked through the lobby. “We can discuss it tomorrow.”
“I thought we were working tomorrow,” she asked, following him to a black car parked at the curb. She waited while he packed her bag and suitcase in the trunk. “Remember? You said I can interrogate you tomorrow.”
“I remember,” he answered, opening the passenger’s door and waiting until she was seated. “But my parentage and that of my brothers and some others will eventually become part of your investigation.”
When the door was shut Eliza stared at her faint reflection against the dark window. The diamond earrings sparkled in the dark mirror reminding her of the necklace that had been damaged. Touching her throat reminded her of the attack from only a few minutes earlier. Then someone had been watching them from the stairwell. Now Michael informs her that his family was a significant piece of her assignment.
Eliza turned to watch him slide into the driver’s seat and start the engine. She had no idea what the model of the car was but she had enough sense to know that sleek design and low roar symbolized something expensive. When he shifted gears Eliza glanced out the window to see everything rapidly disappearing from view as they left the main facility. Alone.
Michael reached across the console and briefly touched the bare skin of her arm. She regretted her surprised reaction but felt relieved when she noticed his smile. Tentatively she lifted her hand and gently laid it over his resting on the gear shift.
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