Ellie Stevens stepped off the bus and into the thick humid air of the city to find a group of people milling around the entrance to The Cafe, her father’s coffee shop. She pushed her sunglasses up the bridge of her nose and made her way through the crowd.
“It’s locked again, Ellie,” Jason, their full-time cashier, informed her as she reached for the handle of the door. The lights were still on, and the We’re Open sign hadn’t been turned off.
Which meant her father was inside.
And, if the door was locked, he wasn’t alone.
“It’ll be just a minute.” Ellie pulled her saddlebag forward, unzipped the leather pouch, and dug out her spare key.
“I’m not sure you should go in there. Those guys work for Ash Titon,” Jason said.
“Who?” Ellie asked, finding the key among the array of colored pencils littering her purse.
“Just—maybe wait is all I’m saying.”
“Jason, the customers aren’t going to wait around.” She slid her key into the lock and turned the bolt, feeling the door give way. “I’ll just go hurry them up. Dad probably just couldn’t fit everyone in his office.”
More than likely, he was begging for more time. A scene she’d been accustomed to growing up, but one that annoyed her as an adult.
“I’ll be out in a minute and let everyone in.” She opened the door enough to squeeze through and locked it behind her. If her father shooed the customers out, it meant he was either in dire negotiations for more time to repay a debt, or the goons cornering him wanted privacy.
She doubted either side would be happy with her presence.
“I swear, I’ll get the cash. I promise.” Her father’s broken plea tore at her.
Coffee cups and dessert plates littered the floor where tables had been knocked over. The pastry case was unharmed, but all the countertop displays lay scattered on the floor.
She heard a grunt and knew the sound for what it was. Her father taking a fist to his belly. No matter how many times she’d heard him being roughed up by his creditors, it still turned her stomach.
Ignoring the mess, she ran through the small cafe to the back room, where she found her father pinned against the wall by two overgrown goons. A third man stood before him, rubbing his knuckles. As though he hadn’t already grown callouses from the previous beatings he dished out.
“You’ve said that twice before, and yet, no money. Ash is tired of waiting. You’re months behind, and your interest has compiled to the point you won’t be able to repay in the timeline agreed.”
Her neck tingled, signaling her heart to beat faster. Months behind? How much interest? What the hell had her father gotten himself into this time. And who the hell was Ash?
Her father usually dealt with a man name Javier, not Ash. Had he started going to two different men to help cover his gambling debts? Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul?
“Wait. Stop.” Ellie stepped into the scene, grabbing hold of the arm ready to deliver another blow to her father.
“Ellie? No.” Her father groaned at seeing her, but she ignored him. He didn’t want her involved. She got that. He wouldn’t want her hurt. No matter how many times he’d put them at risk, the cafe at risk, their home at risk with his gambling, he never wanted her involved. But he also never saw how his actions dragged her into the fray every time.
Every time she had to sell another piece of her mother’s jewelry to pay off a two-bit loan shark, or had to take a second job on the weekends in order to pay the rent on their apartment, she was involved. How could she not get involved? He was her father. It had been just the two of them for so long, she could hardly remember anyone else there to take care of her. And no matter his faults, his weaknesses, he loved her.
The goon shook her off his arm and turned to her, licking his lips like some sort of hungry, rabid dog. He was nicely dressed, and clean shaven. Compared to the usual hired fists who came knocking on their door, he could be considered attractive.
“Ellie? Is this your daughter?” He jerked a thumb at her, while questioning her father.
“Ellie, just leave.” Her father struggled, but he was no match for the two apes holding him. At nearly sixty, and after surviving a heart attack, even with a forceful struggle, he presented no real challenge.
“How much does he owe?” She tugged at her saddlebag, but took a step away from him. He towered her.
The man laughed, more of snicker, and it came out forced. “You don’t have it in your little bag, sweetie.”
“How much?” She demanded.
“One hundred and fifty thousand.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “Before interest.”
Before interest? What could her father have needed with that kind of money? She didn’t glance at him, knowing she’d see a pitying expression if she did.
“Do you have it in your little bag?” he asked, pointing to where she gripped the zipper.
“N-no. But we’ll get it,” she promised him. The cafe would be lost. Her mother’s dream gone. “We just need a little time.”
“He’s out of time.” He nodded to the men holding him, and they dragged her father toward the rear door leading to the alley.
“No!” She lunged at them, but the big goon with the too-black hair and condescending smile shoved her with one hand.
“No need for you to come. You don’t need to see this.”
She fought against him as they hauled her father out. She heard him scream, heard the screen door slam before car doors did the same, but she couldn’t get free. The man stood in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, not letting her pass. He said something, but she wasn’t listening.
“No! Leave him alone.”
“I would suggest you forget him.” Wheels squealed in the alleyway, and a car drove off, leaving only a cloud of dust and dirt to be seen through the open door.
She stopped fighting, gasping for breath, feeling hot tears welling in her eyes.
“Forget him. Run your little coffeehouse, and learn from his mistakes.”
“Where did you take him?” she demanded, stepping away from him.
He raised his eyebrows but said nothing. After a moment of thick silence, he shot her a wink and started to whistle.
Once again helpless to stop him, she stood on shaky legs, struggling to breathe as he sauntered out of the café. Another car pulled up just as he pushed the screen door open.
Taking a deep breath, she yelled to his retreating form, “Where did he go?” But no answer came. He held the screen door as he closed it, keeping it from slamming. “Where are they taking him?” she tried again.
“Forget about him, Ellie. Just forget.” His eyes met hers briefly before he climbed into the black car and drove off.
She stood in the silence of their coffeehouse.
Where did they take him?
What would they do to him?
She didn’t know the answers, but she knew one thing.
She wouldn’t just forget him.
# # #
“You can’t really think to do this.”
Ellie swallowed a sob when stepped out of the cab up in front of the massive estate. Was her father inside? Did dungeons still exist in places such as this?
Gates surrounded the entire property. The only thing missing from the menacing property were perched gargoyles. And even those would probably lighten the atmosphere. “You can’t think to do this. Don’t do this, Ellie.” Jason pleaded.
“Jason. Just take care of the cafe for me, okay?”
“Ellie. This is Ashland Titon. He doesn’t mess around.”
A lesson she’d already learned. After her father had been snatched right in front of her, she’d done a little digging. Ashland Titon owned a fair amount of the city’s night life. Between bars, nightclubs, and stripper clubs, he had his hands in almost everything. None of which explained what he would want with her father, until she came across new articles showing him dealing with accusations of sex trafficking and loan sharking. Loan sharking. Bingo. It hadn’t taken much more digging to figure out where Ashland lived.
“I know, Jason. I’m not attacking him. I’m going to ask him to let Dad go, that’s it.” It sounded naive at best, even to her.
“Let him go? Are you insane? The only way he’s letting your dad go is if you have the money. And you don’t.” A heavy sigh came through the phone line. “Please. Just don’t go in there.”
Ellie peered up at the foreboding gates before her. “I have to, Jason. He’s my father.”
Another sigh. “Fine. I’ll take care of the cafe. Be careful, and don’t do anything stupid.”
“Of course not.” She ended the call and took a deep breath. She had passed stupid when she got into the cab.
Straightening her bag strap on her shoulder, tucking a few loose hairs behind her ear. She rolled her shoulders back and went for it.
The button made no sound when she pressed it. A bit of static and then a greeting came through the speaker.
“Uh. Hi. Uh. I’m here to see Mr. Titon.”
“Your name and business?” came the reply.
“Ellie Stevens. He-uh-does business with my father.” Mostly true.
A breeze whipped her hair into her face. The sun had already started setting, making the estate even more ominous and chilling the air.
She stared at the metal speaker waiting for a response. A sense of being watched struck her, and she scanned the house, searching the windows for a set of eyes. Nothing.
She let out a long breath and reached for the button again.
“Someone will be along to collect you,” a deep voice rang through before she could press the call button.
Collect her? She wanted to roll her eyes. If they were trying to make her feel intimidated, they were about five hours too late. Seeing her father dragged away with a split lip and bruised face had worked well enough.
Loose strands continued to blow into her face, and she peeled her hair tie from her wrist and went about working the long locks into a braid. She couldn’t very well be fidgeting with her damn hair while trying to bargain for her father’s life.
The gates opened, and the man who had hurt her father descended the half-dozen steps of the house and followed the winding path to where she stood. In a hurry to get this over with, she dashed forward, ignoring his offered hand to stomp past him.
“You probably shouldn’t want to rush this.” He chuckled behind her, catching up and grabbing her elbow to keep her at his side.
He guided her up the stairs and into the house. The enormity of the beauty inside took her breath away—mysterious and foreboding, much like the outside, but the artwork appealed to her. Baroque. Every painting, every statue they passed came from her favorite era. Everything appealed to her, the music, the architecture, the paintings, soafter getting taste of it during her coursework for her language arts degree, she’d immediately signed up for a class focusing solely on the Baroque period.
“I told you to forget about your father.” His grave voice, though soft, interrupted her inspection of the pieces they passed and reminded her she wasn’t in a museum but in the home of a man willing to kill her father if it would send the right message.
She didn’t respond, focused on what she would say when she spoke with Ashland Titon. There hadn’t been many pictures of him in her search, other than a few old ones. He didn’t appear overly threatening in the smiling photographs. A soft, forced smile giving little insight into his true mood. She doubted he’d be as happy to see her.
The emptiness of the house sank into her as they continued along the corridor. The dark carpeting gave way to deep-maple-stained wood flooring. The clicking of her sandals echoed through the hallway. Although her escort barely held onto her, she could feel him, invading her thoughts with his threatening presence. She held no misgivings about how dangerous these men were.
They came to a closed door at the end of the hall and he reached around her to open it, shoving it inward and exposing the interior.
An oversized mahogany desk sat in the center of the room. The décor mirrored what she’d seen of the estate so far: ominous coloring with dominating artistry. Large sconces adorned the spaces between the paintings, holding long white electric candles that lit up the room. The rich purple draperies were drawn back from each window, but the closed blinds didn’t let enough light through to illuminate the area.
“Go on. You’ve come this far.” The man gave her a little shove, and she stepped into the room. The door slammed shut behind her, signaling the finality of it.
She swallowed and took in the room where she stood. It was only when he moved from the corner, she saw him. Stepping out of a shadow, he advanced into the light. Her breath hitched, her heart all but stopped as she took in the massiveness of the man before her. He had broad shoulders, larger than she’d ever seen on a man, and stood taller than her by a foot, maybe more. His thick, dirty-blond hair was tied at the nape of his neck, exposing a scar above his left eye and another running from his right ear along his jaw, disappearing beneath his beard.
He took another step toward her, the muscles in his chest, beneath the black button-down shirt rippling with his movements. The rolled-up sleeves showed off black tattoos running up from his wrists and disappearing into the folds of fabric. Was his entire body covered with ink?
“Peter told me you’re Dominick’s daughter.” His voice, so deep, shook her from her inspection.
“Y-yes. He’s my father.” She swallowed and thrust her chin forward. Allowing him to see how terrified she truly was would ruin everything, and having a quivering lip would most definitely give her away. “Your men took him this afternoon. I’m here to take him home.”
His eyes narrowed, his jaw tensed. When his gaze moved over the length of her, she found herself rolling her shoulders back and swallowing a demand for him to stop. He didn’t seem the sort of man who would listen to any demand she made of him, or one from anyone.
“You’re going to hurt yourself if you keep twisting your fingers like that.” She dropped her hands to her sides and fisted them. More to keep them from returning to a fidgeting state than out of anger.
“My father,” she said again when he seemed content to keep staring at her. Her insides shook beneath his scrutiny, but she held herself straight, not wanting him to see how much she wanted to cower from him, how badly she wanted to run from the room.
“Your father owes me a lot of money.” he said, striding to the desk and leaning against it. He crossed one ankle over the other and pressed his hands against the edge of the desk. How could a man appear so casual and dangerous at the same time?
“I know. We’ll get it. I just need time. I’ll have to sell the coffeehouse.” It wouldn’t be enough, though. She’d have to let go of the rest of her mother’s jewelry and put their condo on the market.
“He asked for more time. Three times already. I granted it, but he’s delayed and delayed. No more delay.” He gave his dictate with a hard tone.
She didn’t come to him a timid mouse, she reminded herself. It was her father she was trying to save, nothing else.
“He’s not asking. I am. Let me sell the coffeehouse, or maybe you could take it as a down payment on his debt?” The idea seemed logical, an easy transaction for a man who had as many business dealings as he seemed to.
He laughed, a cheerless, deep-rooted sound that failed to add levity to the room. “What the hell would I do with a coffeehouse?”
“You could turn it into one of your clubs or keep it a cafe. We already have staff. All you’d have to do is collect the profits. Maybe Dad could still run it for you–”
His lips thinned and eyebrows rose. “What do you know about my clubs?” Of all the things she’d just suggested, that was what he wanted to know more about? His clubs?
“I know you own several.” A dozen, to be accurate.
“And what type of clubs are they?” he asked, uncrossing his feet.
She regarded him for a long stretch before licking her bottom lip and answering him. “Nightclubs and a few sex clubs.”
“Well, strip clubs, to be precise, but yes, sex happens. A lot.” He pushed off the desk and strolled around to the other side, opening a drawer. “Do you think your father would like me to turn his little cafe into a strip club? Maybe he could manage that? Help the girls with the blow jobs in the back room?” The sneering grin accompanying his crass words sent a tremor through her.
This was not a man with compassion.
A door behind him opened. She hadn’t seen it at first; it was masked along the wall. Her father stumbled in and barely caught himself before falling on his face.
She rushed toward him as he straightened. Peter stepped in front of her father, blocking her attempt to help him.
“Move.” She tried to get around him, but he thwarted her.
“It’s fine, Peter. Let her see him,” Ash said.”
Peter moved to the side, and she stepped up to her father. His face was swollen, one eye completely closed. Reddish-brown dried blood creased his puffed lips.
“You shouldn’t be here.” Her father coughed and grabbed onto her shoulders. “You need to leave.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I won’t leave you here. We’ll find a way to pay him. There has to be a way.” She kept her voice hushed, not wanting anyone else to hear. “We can sell everything.”
He grasped her face. Years of hard work left his hands rough against her skin.
“It’s not enough, Ellie. If it had been, I would have done it. I owe him almost quarter of a million dollars. The interest compounded too quickly. You have to leave, go home. Please. I can’t risk losing you.”
She’d heard the regret in his voice before, too many times for it to register as truly authentic. Always on the lookout for the fast buck, the quick way to repay one loan or another. And, every time, she paid the price. She could be angry with him later, once she made sure he was safely out of Ashland’s clutches.
“You’re so much like your mother. Strong and loyal. Not weak like me, Ellie. Please, you need to go.” He tried to push her away but started coughing again, grimacing. His ribs were probably as bruised as his face.
He was right.
She was strong. Much stronger than he. And the strong didn’t let the weak die. The strong protected.
She turned away from him. Taking long strides, with her chin thrust out, shoulders pinned back, she moved to the desk, facing Ash who hadn’t moved during their exchange. He eyed her with an arched brow.
“Let my father go. I’ll pay his debt.”
The corners of his lips curled upward. “And how do you think you’ll do that? You’ve already admitted you don’t have the money, and I’ve already denied your request for more time.”
“What are you going to do with him? If you kill him, you get nothing.” She waved in her father’s direction, not facing him any longer. Not able to withstand seeing the torment in his eyes for another second.
“His death would be a message to those who think they can borrow and borrow and never repay.” His sinister tone unsettled her, but she didn’t cower. “I’m not a fucking charity. He owes.”
“Then take me.” She heard her father’s gasp but didn’t react. She focused on the man who towered over her, even with the desk between them.
“You?” His voice rumbled with the question.
“Yes.” She gave a curt nod. “I’ll work off his debt. In your clubs.”
“No. Ellie, no!” Her father tried to get to her, but Peter grabbed him again.
“Do you know how long that will take?” Ash asked.
“I’ll do whatever is needed, but you have to swear to let him go and never bother him again.” Her nails dug into her palms, but she didn’t blink, didn’t turn her gaze away, even when his eyes narrowed.
He stepped around the desk, coming to stand behind her. His hands closed over her shoulders, and he tugged, turning her to face him. Her eyes came in line with his chest, but he gave a simple command.
“Look at me.”
She tilted her head, dragging her gaze over the buttons of his shirt, past the swirl of a tattoo peeking out from where the top buttons were undone, along his thick neck covered in stubble, and across his beard before she came to his eyes. She’d been wrong. They were bright blue with specks of gray.
“You have no idea what you’re offering me.” The warning sang clear in his tone.
“I’ll work off his debt. Take my life for his.” She may not understand the workings of his mind, but she knew what giving up her freedom meant.
He studied her for a long moment. “You would give up yourself for him? Why?”
“He’s my father.”
After a prolonged moment, he gave a brief nod. But she doubted he understood. Men like him only understood loyalty to themselves. Only to him.
Releasing her shoulder, he ran his knuckle across her jaw until he reached her mouth. He ran the tip of one finger over her bottom lip then her chin, her neck, until reaching her chest. He didn’t stop, and she made no move to make him, either. She sensed a test, and how well she performed would determine his willingness to accept her offer.
Her father yelled again for Ashland to leave her alone, but no one acknowledged him.
Ashland’s finger trailed along her breastbone, into the dip of her T-shirt and the valley between her breasts. Her breath picked up, her lips parted—to beg him to stop?
He moved from her chest to the elastic band of her skirt. Instinct took over, and she put her hands on his, stilling him. It only took a raised brow to make her release him. If she stopped him now, he wouldn’t consider her offer.
Unchallenged once more, he continued his descent, slipping inside the band then beneath the cotton of her panties and lower still until he tickled the narrow trail of hair there.
“Spread your legs,” he whispered. She scooted her feet apart, just enough to give him room to continue. Her face heated, and tears welled, but she wouldn’t tug away, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. She had to make this deal in order to keep her father safe and alive. Ash could touch her body, but he wouldn’t get gratification of seeing her unease.
“You’re wet,” he accused softly. His lips curled. “Danger turns you on.” He kept his gaze locked with hers and pushed a digit into her entrance. She gasped, not having expected him to go so far. Her body stretching around him was only slightly uncomfortable. He pumped in and out half a dozen times before he withdrew and rested his finger against her clit. Humiliation over what he’d just done washed over her, stealing her breath and heating her face.
Keeping the tears back took more strength than she could have ever imagined possessing. Managing to stay upright and conceal the shaking of her insides, a damn miracle.
“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.” Fatality resounded in the words he spoke, amplified by his solemn tone.
“He’ll be safe?”
Ashland jerked back as though her skin suddenly hurt him. Steadfast gaze locked with hers, he pushed his finger into his mouth, licking it clean of her juices. Oh God, she’d been so wet. He gave his attention to Peter. “Let him go. Put him in a car and take him home.”
“If you so much as dial her cell number, your debt will be reinstated. Thank your baby girl, old man. Her tight little pussy just saved your fucking life.”
Ellie tried to reach her father, to hug him, to promise she’d find a way to see him, but Ashland grabbed her arm and held her at his side.
“No! Ellie. Don’t do this!” Her father continued to struggle against Peter, but he couldn’t overpower him any more than he could in the cafe.
“I’ll find a way. I promise.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
The door slammed, and her father’s cries became only a muffled sound fading away. Ellie wrapped her arms around her middle, trying to suck in air. Wiping her cheeks, she settled a glare on him.
“You are a beast.” Her voice shook with rage.
His lips curled again, exposing his perfectly white teeth, and he grabbed her chin, forcing her to hold still as he brought his mouth down on hers. She didn’t struggle, but she refused to respond. It didn’t matter. He pressed hard, biting her lower lip before straightening and chuckling softly.
“I am. And you are quite the beauty. But don’t think for one fucking second this has a happily ever after.” He gripped her face tighter. “Because this is no fucking fairy tale.” He released her with a jerk and called his men.
The masked door opened, and the two men she’d seen earlier entered.
“Take her upstairs. Make sure every thing’s locked,” Ashland ordered, and before she could argue, could ask him what he was going to do with her, they had her in their clutches and dragged her from the room.
She’d saved her father.
But what would become of her?
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