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Julianna was sandwiched in between two overweight businessmen with laptops and headphones. At least neither one tried to make small talk. The flight attendant reached over one of the men to hand her a glass of orange juice.
“Is Florida your final destination?”
“Barbados.” Julianna smiled. She still could barely believe her luck. After she’d signed the contract, agreeing to allow her image and testimonial to be used in the spa advertising campaign in exchange for the seven day all-expenses-paid vacation, Colin Harris had ironed out the details with her over a cup of coffee at a café around the corner from the salon. She’d still half-expected him to come on to her, but he’d been all business, giving her an itinerary sheet that included her airline ticket confirmation number and details of the flight, along with the name of the limousine service that would be waiting for her at the airport in Barbados.
“Lucky you,” the attendant enthused. “I love the Caribbean this time of year—shoot, any time of year!” Julianna was excited. Something good was happening to her at last. She settled back, trying to get comfortable in the narrow seat. Closing her eyes, she began to daydream about white sand, blue water and the week of paradise that awaited her.
Julianna had just retrieved her bag when she noticed a short dark-skinned man holding up a placard that read: Paradise Spa – Julianna Beckett. She waved until she caught his eye. He moved silently toward her.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Julianna Beckett.”
The man nodded but said nothing, which Julianna found curious after all the smiling faces and helpful people she’d encountered so far in the airport. It was late, nearly ten thirty at night, and he’d probably rather be home in bed, she reasoned. Though she had planned on getting a soda or bottle of water, she didn’t want to keep the driver waiting. Plenty of time to relax with a drink in her sumptuous room at the spa, she thought with a happy sigh. She allowed the man to take her bag and followed him out into the warm, damp air, such a marked change from the freezing winter she’d left behind in New York.
He popped the trunk of a black sedan and placed her suitcase inside. Then he opened the back door of the car and gestured for her to enter. As they drove away from the airport Julianna leaned back against the seat, suddenly aware of how exhausted she was. Soon, she thought, she’d be nestled between soft, clean sheets, the soothing sound of the ocean lulling her to sleep.
About twenty minutes later the driver pulled into a small parking lot that bordered a wooden platform where several speedboats were docked. He beeped the horn three times in quick succession and, leaving the car still running, climbed out. Julianna lowered her window and looked out, confused. She didn’t see anything that looked like a resort. In fact, the only nearby structure was an old shack with a crudely painted sign over its door with the words Charlie’s Bait & Beer.
The man opened her door. She stepped out, a rising sense of unease moving through her. “Excuse me, but I think you’ve made a mistake. I’m supposed to be taken to the Paradise Spa. Where are we?”
“You take boat,” he informed her cryptically.
“What? The spa’s on this island. What do you mean I take a boat?” The unease was threatening to bloom into panic, but Julianna forced her voice to remain steady and calm. Surely there was just some misunderstanding.
“You take boat,” he repeated gruffly. The door to the shack opened and two men came out of it, both dressed in black shirts and black jeans, one with dark blond hair cut close to his head, the other with stringy black hair falling into his eyes. They looked to be in their twenties, both tall with muscular builds.
They approached Julianna and the driver. “Thanks, Omari.” The man spoke with an American accent. He handed an envelope to the driver. “We’ll take it from here.”
“Excuse me,” Julianna interjected. “I’m supposed to have been taken to the Paradise Spa in St. James.” She held out her confirmation paper. “This driver has gotten his wires crossed, apparently.”
The driver walked back to his car, climbed in and slammed the door. “Hey,” Julianna yelled, “Come back here. This isn’t where I’m supposed to be dropped off.” She started toward the driver’s side, but the dark-haired man gripped her arm, holding her back.
“Let go of me,” she cried, jerking her arm away. “That guy is supposed to take me to the Paradise Spa. Come back! You have my suitcase, all my things!” She ran after the car, which was already receding down the narrow road into the darkness.
Quickly overtaking her, the man grabbed her by the arm again and yanked her back. This time his grip was too tight and she couldn’t pull free. His fingers pressed hard into her muscle. “He has my suitcase,” she pleaded. “He’s supposed to take me to the spa. Let go of me. You’re hurting me!”
“Calm down. You’re just going to make it harder on yourself. There’s been a change of plans. You’re not going to the spa. You’re coming with us,” the blond guy said.
“Let me go this second! I’m an American citizen. I’ll go to the embassy. I’ll have you arrested!” She tried to sound authoritative, though her voice was shaking.
“I don’t think so.” The blond guy grabbed hold of Julianna’s purse and pulled it from her arm. She lunged toward him but the dark-haired man wrapped his arms around her from behind, pinning her back against his chest.
Anger, confusion and terror whipped through Julianna as she struggled fruitlessly in her captor’s grip. What in god’s name was happening? Was she being kidnapped by the driver and these thugs at random, or had this whole thing been orchestrated well in advance? Her mind flashed on Colin Harris, the handsome older British gentleman who had come into Sophie’s Salon where Julianna was a stylist, asking specifically for her. How smooth he’d been when explaining the details of the arrangement.
At the time it had seemed too good to be true, but she’d pushed aside any qualms, too excited over the prospect of a free vacation at a luxury resort. The link he’d given her had seemed legitimate when she’d checked it out online, and she’d even met with another young woman who had claimed she’d done three tours already for the company, and each one had been better than the last. Too good to be true…
“Give me that! Give me my purse!” She jerked hard against the man holding her, looking wildly around the deserted lot. “Help me! Someone, help me!”
“Save your breath. There’s no one around for miles. Things will go a lot better for you if you just calm down,” the blond guy said. Shoving her purse under his arm, he said to the other man, “Let’s go.” He took firm hold of one of Julianna’s arms so she was trapped between them. They moved toward the dock, dragging her along.
“No!” she cried again. “Let me go!” If they managed to get her onto a boat, she’d be as good as dead, she was sure of it. Desperately she struggled between them and managed to jerk her arms back, elbowing one of the men in the gut. This caused him to release his grip for a second, and she wrenched herself free, kicking out with all her might at the other man’s groin.
“Fucking bitch!” The dark-haired man fell to his knees, clutching himself.
The other guy was on her in a flash, grabbing her from behind, pressing a strong arm across her throat. “Get used to the idea you’re coming with us. If you would rather be bound and tossed in the bottom of the boat, that can be arranged. If you want to travel upright, you better behave, got it?”
In dazed terror, Julianna nodded as best she could with an arm over her throat. Thankfully, the man relaxed his grip. He looked at the man still on the ground. “You okay, Vince?”
“Yeah.” The man called Vince rose to his feet with a groan, still cupping his crotch with one hand. “Stupid cunt.” He glared at Julianna. “Let’s get her to the island pronto and let the bosses deal with her.”
He jumped down into the largest boat moored to the dock. As if she were a sack of potatoes, the blond guy lifted her and passed her over to Vince.
“No, no! You can’t do this! No!” Desperately Julianna tried to wrench herself free, leaning over the side of the listing boat. The blond guy set about releasing the moorings from the dock, moving quickly. Vince pinned her right arm behind her back, wrenching it painfully while at the same time reaching around with his other hand to smack her hard in the face.
Julianna cried out in shock and pain. The blond guy turned from what he was doing and looked at them. “Damn it, Vince. You know better than that,” he said in a warning tone. “You know Jason doesn’t like the goods damaged before he gets a proper look.”
The goods. The words at once terrified Julianna while giving her a glimmer of hope. If she was to be presented to someone else, and treated as “the goods,” at least they weren’t planning on killing her—yet.
“Sorry, Jay. She had it coming, though.” Thankfully, he let go of the arm behind her back, but only to yank her down beside him in the back of the boat, catching her in a sort of rough embrace, her back against his chest, his thick fingers digging into her upper arms.
Jay moved to the helm of the speedboat, taking the wheel. He turned the key and the engine roared to life. As the boat moved away from the shore, Julianna felt faint with fear. What were they going to do with her? The boat sped quickly through the water. The wind whipped her hair into her face but the man’s grip prevented her from doing anything about it. Her heart was pounding, her mouth dry with fear, her body rigid in his tight hold.
After maybe twenty or thirty interminable minutes, she saw lights ahead and could make out the shoreline of a small island. Within a minute, they pulled up beside a small dock. Jay cut the engine and eased the boat in beside the platform. He jumped out.
As he was securing the lines Vince hauled Julianna roughly to her feet and jerked her toward the side of the boat. Jay reached for her and pulled her up onto the dock. Vince leered at her, violating her with his eyes. “I can’t wait to get my hands on this one. I always did have a thing for redheads.”
“Shut it, Vince.” Jay snapped. “They’re waiting.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Again on either side of her, the men propelled her toward a small white building. Vince leaned down and spoke in her ear. His breath was sour. “You a real redhead, little girl?”
Julianna turned her head away, not responding. He laughed. “Don’t matter if you answer. We’ll find out soon enough.”
Julianna shuddered, a tremor of horror and fear that moved through her body and left her shivering, despite the warm night air. When they got to the building’s entrance Jay pulled the door open. They pushed Julianna inside, each still grasping an arm.
As they moved down the hall, Julianna tried to get her brain to function, but it had turned to mush. All she could think was that she had to get out of there. She had to get away.
They led her to a large room with lots of heavy, dark furniture. An expensive-looking Oriental rug covered the floor and oil paintings hung on the walls. They led her to the center of the room, each keeping a firm grip on her arms.
On a long, deep sofa set against one wall sat a man of medium height with a wiry build. His hair was silver, his eyes a steely matching gray. He was holding a brandy snifter and was dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt and gray slacks. He stared at her, his gaze so intense she felt as if he could see through her. It was very disconcerting and she looked away.
Her eye was drawn by the sound of ice clinking into a glass. Across the room stood a tall man, younger than the other, with a shaved head, a gold hoop earring and a thick black mustache and goatee. He was pouring liquor from a bottle into a cocktail glass, a lit cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth.
He removed the cigar and appraised Julianna with a wolf’s smile. “Nice job, boys. Did she give you any trouble?”
Vince started to speak, but Jay cut in, “No more than what you’d expect, Boss. Everything went smooth as clockwork.”
“Excellent.” The man puffed on his cigar and took a long drink from his glass. Setting the cigar on the edge of a large glass ashtray, he moved from behind the bar and approached them. Up close, his eyes were like cold, dead marbles. A long, thin scar ran from the outer corner of his left eye to his chin. He reeked of whiskey and cigar smoke.
As he bent toward her, Julianna shrank back against her captors but they held her fast. She turned her head away, closing her eyes and bracing herself for she knew not what. He gripped her chin in one large hand, forcing her to face him. Julianna opened her eyes, hiccupping a gasp of terror.
After staring at her a long moment, the man let her go. He turned to the man on the sofa. “What do you think, Stephen? Will we get our money’s worth?”
“Without a doubt, Jason.” The man on the sofa leaned forward, cradling the snifter in both hands. His voice was surprisingly deep, and in another circumstance, Julianna would have found it pleasing. He rose and approached them. The man called Jason stepped back.
Stephen stood only a few inches taller than Julianna but something in his bearing made it seem as if he were looming over her. “Please,” she tried, “there’s been a horrible mistake. I’m an American citizen.”
Stephen lifted his eyebrows, his tone amused. “So am I. But you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. And there truly is no place like home, not for you, not any longer.”
“What?” Julianna’s voice came out as a squeak.
“You’ve been abducted, kidnapped, stolen, call it what you like. There is no way off the island, save by boat or helicopter, neither of which you will have access to. That is, not until the proper time.”
He stepped back, his steely gaze sweeping over her. “From this moment forward, you have no free will. You are chattel, purchased at a substantial price, but one we hope to double or even triple once you’re properly trained. Forget your past. Your best bet going forward is to do as you’re told. Exactly as you’re told, or suffer the consequences.”
“You can’t…I won’t…” Julianna felt faint. She sagged back against the men still holding her. “Please, this can’t be happening…”
“It has happened. The sooner you reconcile yourself to your fate, the better off you’ll be.” He looked down at his watch. “It’s late. We’ll talk about it in much greater detail in the morning.” He turned toward the other man. “Unless you have something else you want to add, Jason?”
“No, they can take her to the hole. A night there should put in her in a more proper frame of mind.”
Julianna struggled against the men holding her. “Please! You can’t do this.” Desperately she tried to think of something that would get her out of this nightmare. “I can pay you, I won’t tell—”
Jason waved his hand toward Jay and Vince and turned away as if wearied by her pleas. “Take her away.” The men dragged Julianna out of the building, pulling her along as she stumbled between them.
The compound was lit at intervals by tall streetlamps that cast an eerie glow over the area. They moved past several small buildings and bungalows through some palm trees toward a fenced-in enclosure. Opening the gate, they pushed her inside and then let her go with a shove. Julianna stumbled forward, catching herself before she fell. She whirled to face them. “Please. Let me go. I’m begging you.”
“Out of our hands, babe.” Jay shrugged, looking almost apologetic, while Vince just smirked. “Every new girl spends her first night in the hole.”
The hole. It sounded horrible, like something out of a prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. She would be thrust down into a slimy pit filled with mud, with insects and rats crawling over her. She wrapped her arms around her body and realized she was trembling violently. “No,” she whispered. “Please don’t do this. You can’t.” She looked desperately around the enclosure, a last lingering thought of escape still alive inside her. The men were blocking the gate and the fence was too high to climb, even if she could somehow get past them.
“Sorry, kid, boss’s orders.” Jay said. “It’s not so bad. You’ll be fine.” Putting his arm forcibly around Julianna’s shoulders, he propelled her toward a metal grate set into the ground. She watched helplessly as he took a chain from around his neck and used a key at the end of it to open a padlock secured to a thick iron ring that held the grate closed. Once he’d released the lock, he pulled the grate open.
“No,” Julianna whispered, too stunned to speak louder. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t real. Things like this didn’t happen in real life. Not to hairstylists from Manhattan.
Vince approached Julianna and put his hands over her breasts, cupping them as she shrank back. He looked past her to Jay. “What do you think, Jay? Do we strip her now? I’m still damn curious to know if she’s a natural redhead.”
“No.” Jay replied. “You know the policy on that. If they find out you were taking first dibs—”
“How would they know? This piece of ass ain’t gonna squeal on me, are ya’, bitch?” He squeezed her breasts through her blouse.
“I said no.” Jay’s voice was firm. “Get your hands off her and help me get her in the hole.”
“All right, all right,” Vince said, dropping his hands. “I was just foolin’ around anyway.”
They moved on either side of her and lifted Julianna from the ground. “No, no, no!” she cried, struggling as they lowered her into the small confines of the hole. She kicked out wildly as they held her aloft over the hole, terrified of being left in there. “Let me go! Let me go, let me go,” she screamed, twisting violently in their strong grip.
They dropped her down into the hole. As they lowered the iron grate, she was forced to crouch down in a kneeling position. The space wasn’t deep enough for her to stand, nor wide enough for her to lie down. The grate came down over her head with a clang and she could hear the sound of the padlock being clicked into place. She tried to lift herself enough to see the men through the grate, but all she could see was the sky, black and studded with tiny stars.
Reaching up, she gripped the bars and pushed with all her might, but they didn’t budge. She felt the walls of the enclosure. They were rough and cool to the touch, and appeared to be concrete. Beneath her feet was sandy dirt but it was dry and, mercifully, seemed to be insect- and vermin-free. Julianna slumped to the ground, dropping her head into her hands.
Her jeans and panties were damp and she realized with dismay that in the tumult of them thrusting her into the pit she’d wet herself. “Someone, help me,” she whimpered. Surely they wouldn’t really leave her here all night? “Hello?” she called out, timidly at first, and then with more volume, but she heard nothing, save the sound of the ocean.
Tears streaked down her cheeks and her whimpers erupted into all-out crying. She hid her face in her hands, her body wracked with sobbing. She cried until there were no tears left and still no one came for her. Rubbing her tear and snot-smeared face with the bottom of her blouse, wearily Julianna leaned back against the wall of the small enclosure and looked upward at the dark night sky.
Though she’d never considered herself a religious person, Julianna lowered her head, clasped her hands beneath her chin and began to pray.