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Whatever It Takes

By:Christy Reece

Prologue

Chicago, Illinois

“I want to see my sister.”

The cool, abrupt statement had Frank Braden looking up from his desk. The girl in front of him was beautiful in a way so few chicks were these days. She had a fresh, innocent air about her. Laughable, considering her occupation.

“What makes you think your sister wants to see you? You’re not exactly on speaking terms, are you?”

She flinched slightly, knowing he spoke the truth. “She’s my sister. We may have our disagreements, but we still love each other.”

“You saw her a few months ago.” Frank didn’t bother hiding his smirk.

“That was more than a year and a half ago, and it was a recording. I want to see her in person.”

The fire in Alice’s light blue eyes intrigued him. The last few months she’d been acting like a whipped puppy, and while he needed her obedient, he didn’t want her to completely lose her spirit. Part of the fun in controlling his girls was the battle. Even though he would always win, he still liked a challenge.

“Maybe when I’m sure I can trust you again, I’ll consider it.”

“How much longer do you intend to keep using me as a…a…”

She trailed off, apparently uncomfortable describing her role. Frank had no such problem as he finished for her. “Whore?”

She flinched but then jerkily nodded. Yeah, she knew what she was.

“How old are you, Alice?”

“Almost twenty-two.”

His eyes slid up and down her body, taking in the short skirt, halter top, and mile-high stilettos. The girls didn’t like wearing the shoes, said they hurt their ankles and feet. Like he actually gave a damn.

After enjoying the scenery, he moved his gaze back to her face and saw icy hatred in her expression. No, she was most definitely not broken.

“I’d say you have a good five or six years left before you start to look like a used-up hag.”

The color bleached from her face. “You told me I could pay you back in a year. It’s been almost two. And I—”

“Changed my mind. I’m not tired of you yet.”

Truth was, when he was through with her, he’d sell her to make a little more money off her. Or, if she lost her looks, he’d just get rid of her altogether.

“Besides, after that stunt you pulled, you’re lucky I didn’t kill you. Cost me money to find you.”

“I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t run off like that again. I promise.”

Yeah, she’d learned her lesson, and the funny part was, he hadn’t even had to lift a finger. Not that she would ever know.

He narrowed his eyes, seared her with one of his ‘I mean business’ looks. “Good to know. Do something like that again and it won’t have as good an outcome.”

“Just, please, let me see Kathleen. I won’t tell her anything about…our arrangement. I just want to see her.”

Frank considered her for a few seconds. He didn’t like giving in to any of his girls’ requests. Give ’em one thing, next thing you know, they’re asking for something else. However, if he dangled seeing her sister in front of her like some kind of carrot reward, he could manipulate the situation to his liking.

“I’ll consider it. We’ll talk about it when you get back.”

“Get back?”

He picked up his iPhone from his desk. “Noon tomorrow, Finley Hotel, Room 2002. He’s paid for twenty-four hours. Wants the full treatment.”

She flinched again, but this time Frank hid his grin. No use pissing her off. She was going to need all her energy and stamina for tomorrow.

He glanced at the wall clock behind her head. “Probably be a good idea to get some sleep. You need to look your best for this client. He’s paying top dollar for you.”

Without a word, she started for the door.

“Wait. Before you go, bring me a brandy.”

Shooting him a withering look, she stomped to the bar, poured him a drink, came back, and slammed the glass onto his desk.

Frank grabbed her wrist, squeezed tight. “There’s a fine line between spirited and ill-mannered, baby. When you return from your overnighter, perhaps we should explore that line.”

Fear leaped into her eyes, and Frank let her go. She knew full well the words were not a mere warning. She would pay for her attitude with blood and tears.

He leaned back in his chair and took a swallow of the finest, most expensive brandy a man could get.

“If you don’t get out of here, I’ll assume you’ll want the lessons to begin tonight.”

She backed away and turned to the door.

Frank took another sip of his brandy and then grimaced. Hmm. Taste was a little off, wasn’t it?

Agony seized his throat, as if gripped in a vise. He dropped the drink and grabbed his neck. Couldn’t breathe. Breath pumped from his lungs but couldn’t make it out an airway. What was wrong? What…what? He was smothering. Pressure built in his chest. His entire body stiffened with fear… Adrenaline shot through his veins as he gasped and heaved, desperate for air he could not release.

He looked up at the woman standing a few feet from him. Had she done this to him? Poisoned him? Her eyes were wide with surprise…but did they gleam with triumph, too?

Frank tried to speak…to beg her to call for help. He reached for her, and she jumped out of his way. His face slammed onto his desk. He lay there, helpless and in agony, while air rattled in his body, looking for escape.

Less than a minute later, he made one long last wheezing effort while the sound of mocking, sultry, female laughter followed him into death.





Chapter One



Slater House Hotel

Chicago

“Did you sleep well last night, Sophia?”

“Yes, Daddy,” Sophia said with an emphatic nod. “I went to sleep right after story time. Slept all night long.”

Not to be outdone, four-year-old Violet chimed in, “Me, too, Daddy. I slept-ed all night long, too.”

“Good for you both. I know Miss Teresa appreciates what good girls you’re being while Daddy’s away.”

“What are you eating for breakfast, Daddy?” Sophia moved closer to the screen to see what was on Eli’s table. “We’re eating strawberry pancakes.”

“I wish I could have something that yummy. I’m just eating plain old boring cereal.”

“When are you coming home?”

“Soon, I promise, Violet.”

“Miss you, Daddy.”

Eli’s heart clutched, as it always did at the sheer sweetness of his daughters. There was no artifice, no hiding. Talking to them after a day of negotiating, dealing with fake smiles and hidden agendas was as refreshing as diving into a pool of cool water on a hot Texas day. This was the reason he continued despite all the worries and problems he had taken on. If not for Violet and Sophia, he wasn’t sure he would have retained his sanity.

“It’s time to get ready for school, girls,” Teresa said. “Say good-bye to your daddy.”

In between smooching sounds and “I love you’s,” he watched his daughters leave the kitchen table.

As soon as they’d left the room, Teresa Longview, nanny, housekeeper, cook, and all-around lifesaver, came on the screen. “They miss you, Mr. Eli, but they’re doing just fine.”

“Thank you for taking such good care of them.”

“They’re a pleasure, sir. You know that.”

“Anything I need to know about?”

“No, sir. It’s been amazingly quiet. Seems like everything is settling into place…finally getting back to normal.”

Eli hoped that was true but didn’t count on anything these days. “No odd incidents? Phone calls?”

“No, sir. I’ve been very careful with everything, just like you warned me.”

That was a relief. It’d taken almost a year, but the Slaters were finally back on the right track. But just because he’d worked his ass off to clean up the mess didn’t mean everyone was happy. No doubt there were still plenty of people who would love to see the Slaters completely decimated.

“Thanks for being vigilant, Teresa. I don’t expect any problems but can’t let my guard down.”

“I understand, Mr. Eli.”

“I’ll call back tonight at bedtime.”

“We’ll look forward to it. Have a good day.”

“You, too, Teresa.”

Eli closed his laptop, now ready to start his day. A few minutes spent with his daughters were better than any vitamin ever created.

So far, having Slater as a last name hadn’t impacted his children. The girls were just babies, much too young to comprehend. They still believed they lived in a safe, sane world. His daughters had no idea that it was all a lie—a lie he would willingly tell for as long as he could get away with it. He would do whatever he had to do to protect them from the family they’d had the misfortune to be born into and the world they would eventually have to face.

He had learned that hell the hard way. In one seemingly endless nightmare, his life had imploded. It had begun with the murder of his wife, Shelley—although he hadn’t known it was a murder at the time. Eli had believed, as he was meant to, that she had taken her own life. Unintentionally, yes. Mixing booze and drugs was always a bad idea. And for Shelley, who’d been both an alcoholic and a drug addict, it had been a lethal combination.

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