Chapter 1

Mid-December, ten days to Christmas

Thursday evening

Dallas, Texas

Dr. Jennifer Grayson backed into the driveway and turned off the ignition. Her day from hell was almost over. She’d always enjoyed the last week before Christmas break, but not this year. Newly divorced and alone in a town she hadn’t lived in since college, Christmas felt like something to be endured—not celebrated.

As a Southern Methodist University professor, this week of final exams had been unmitigated insanity. Her graduate students were bug nuts crazy, obsessing over their final course grades and how they would affect internship opportunities. Lord, give her clueless college freshman partying their brains out any day.

Maybe part of her was just plain depressed. Her final divorce papers had been in the mailbox earlier this week. Due to the financial strain dissolving a marriage induced, she’d had to cancel her sabbatical this spring for the Paleo-Niger Project and its fully intact Jobaria dinosaur. Withdrawing from the Russ Foundation’s trip had cut deeper than the divorce itself.

That a philandering husband was less disappointing than a cancelled paleontology dig certainly testified to the state of her marriage to begin with, even before Collin’s affair with his grad student and the bimbo’s subsequent pregnancy.

That last bit had particularly burned. Practically everyone in her department had received the birth announcement today from Collin and his “baby mama.” Jennifer slammed the car door a little harder than necessary.

Bah, this was crazy. It was almost Christmas. She stood in the driveway holding a bag of groceries and her huge handbag, waiting for the garage door to rise. Light from the full moon reflected off her windshield and illuminated the driveway. Breathing in the cool night air, she looked up at the stars through the bare limbs of a massive red oak.

Just because she was in a place where she hadn’t lived for ten years was no reason to be maudlin. Her single mom had died when Jennifer was quite young, and she’d grown up with an older spinster aunt. It wasn’t as if Christmas had ever been a huge treasure trove of happy holiday memories for her. Still, she vowed to start thinking of things to be thankful for this instant.

For starters, she was grateful to be house-sitting for her best friend, where she could have a change of scenery from her own place with its busted hot water heater and flooded living room carpet. Angela Donovan and her family were on a Mediterranean cruise for the holiday, meeting up with her husband’s brother Nick.

The lick of mind-numbing regret and lust hit Jennifer simultaneously. But since she was turning lemons into lemonade tonight, she focused on her thankfulness resolution and banished Nick Donovan—with his heart-stopping kisses and heart-breaking tendencies—from her thoughts. She refused to dwell on circumstances that could no longer be changed.

Thank God the salon trip from hell this afternoon could be remedied easier than those memories. The treat that was supposed to have cheered her up had been a bust. She should have known better. She didn’t even want to look at her startlingly white blonde hair. What had happened to “Give me a few highlights? Nothing drastic?”

She looked like a bleached beach bunny gone bad, no offense to Angela, who had gorgeous platinum blonde locks. At least Jennifer could wear a hat until she got to another hairdresser who wasn’t colorblind and slaphappy with the chemicals.

Right now she just wanted a glass of wine, a good book, and a long soaking bath with an unlimited supply of hot water. That was something to look forward to.

Juggling the groceries and her purse, Jennifer reached for the light switch on the wall. As the overhead bulb flashed on, an arm snaked out of nowhere and grabbed her around the waist, pulling her against a hard, pungent-smelling body. A wickedly serrated knife flashed in front of her eyes. She dropped everything. The bottle of wine she’d bought made a cracking splat sound on the floor.

“Don’t move and don’t scream. You won’t be harmed.” The voice held a heavy Hispanic accent.

Onions and body odor overwhelmed her senses, along with the sharp scent of cabernet sauvignon. Her knees wobbled, and her stomach lurched. She nodded her head, and the man’s grip tightened.

“I said don’t move!” The hand at her waist crept up her ribcage, and his fingers brushed the underside of her breasts. She tried not to shudder.

What was happening? Her mind raced to catch up. This couldn’t be possible.

Another voice from across the room hissed. “No, she’s not to be touched. It’s only for show. That was a condition.”

“Who’s to know?” The hand continued to skate along her ribs and rub the front of her shirt. Fingers brushed across her chest once more rather brusquely. “She’ll not tell.”

The overhead light went out causing her to feel even more disoriented.

“Vega would find out. We don’t want to risk it.”

Jennifer looked up, but the man speaking was cloaked in shadow. Two silhouettes were outlined by a light from the microwave clock in the kitchen.

“Hosea, you take her. Tie her hands and feet, then strip her from the waist up. Snap the picture and get her out of here. We don’t know when the rest of the family will be home.”

The man Jennifer assumed was Hosea came and took her by the shoulders. He didn’t smell as horrific as the other man, not that it meant anything. Criminals could shower like anyone else. She started to struggle before she remembered the knife and slipped a little in the spilled wine. Hosea just held on tighter and steered her through the kitchen toward the living room and fireplace.

She viewed the surreal scene and felt herself slip away. The Christmas tree was lit. Angela, Drew, and the children’s stockings were all hanging in front of the cheerily decorated mantel.

“Sit here, Mrs. Donovan.”

The courtesy was so out of place with what was happening that it took Jennifer a moment to realize the man was talking to her. They think I’m Angela?

Hosea pushed her into a chair in front of the tree and began tying her feet as the hygiene-challenged man who’d been touching her earlier stepped back to watch. Jennifer could feel his malevolent gaze on her, even in the dim light.

“Excuse me.” Hosea bound her hands behind her back and stepped in front of her. Before she knew what he was doing, he’d grabbed the sides of her blouse and ripped.

Pearl buttons bounced on the carpet, and she heard one ping off the brick hearth behind her. She was so shocked she couldn’t speak, not even to protest. She tried to suck in air as she sat in her torn silk shirt and Victoria’s Secret bra. It was the sexy red-and-black one she’d bought last spring in an effort to rekindle Collin’s interest in sex, in her, and in their marriage—like that had turned out so well.

Full-blown panic welled up inside, and her detachment was gone. It was impossible to breathe. Tears gathered at the edges of her eyes, and Jennifer fought to keep them in check, knowing she’d be lost if she started to cry.

Oh, God. She wanted to cover herself, but with her hands tied there was nothing she could do. The men viewed her dispassionately.

“It’s not enough,” said the third voice from the shadows.

“I agree,” said Hosea. “She needs marks.”

“Just one though. No more,” said the shadow voice.

“Yes.” Hosea put his hand on onion man’s chest to stop him from coming forward. “No, I’ll do it.” Hosea insisted and without warning lifted his hand, striking her with his open palm.

Her head flew back with the force of the blow, and she bit her lip. Tears of shock and pain burst their dam as she began to weep in earnest. She hung her head, and blood ran down the corner of her mouth.

The man who’d copped a feel stepped forward, grabbed her chin, and tilted it up to study her face for a moment. His foul breath wafted over her, and bile rose in the back of her throat. He nodded and smiled cruelly. “Good.”

The other man hidden in the darkness said, “She’s ready.”

Hosea propped a newspaper in front of her stomach, balancing it just under her satin-and-lace-clad breasts. “Hold your head up and look into the camera,” he instructed. He never looked at her body but stared only into her eyes. “It’s not personal, Mrs. Donovan.”

The third man in the shadows began snapping pictures with the flash going off like a strobe light. But Jennifer knew Hosea was lying. Everything about this was as personal as it got.

Jennifer woke slowly with a pressing need for a bathroom. Her mouth felt like it had a wad of cotton dipped in sawdust stuffed inside. There was a gag tied loosely across her lips. She couldn’t work up any kind of moisture on her tongue. At first she couldn’t remember where she was or why her arms were aching so. When she realized her hands were tied behind her, everything rushed back with stunning clarity.

She’d been at Angela and Drew’s, men had grabbed her, tied her up, stripped and hit her, then photographed her. When they were done with the pictures, Hosea had tied her shirt together in the front and stuck a needle in her arm. She’d known nothing else until now.

She tried moving her shoulders to work some of the circulation back into her throbbing arms and hands, but the effort made her whimper. She lay on a bed in what looked like a fairly nice hotel room.

She caught movement out of the corner of her eye.

“Ah, you’re awake. I am glad.”

She recognized the voice from Angela and Drew’s house. It was Hosea, the man who’d been so oddly polite before slapping her across the face. She shut her eyes. “I know you’re awake, Mrs. Donovan. There’s no use pretending.”

They still thought she was Angela. She wouldn’t have told them otherwise, even if they’d taken the gag off.

“Your family would like to have you back in one piece, no?”

Drew would pay lots of money to get Angela back. But Jennifer’s only family, her aunt, had died the year before she married. Jennifer had no one to speak of other than a philandering ex-husband. She doubted Collin would pay anything to get her back. In fact, he’d be glad not to ever see Jennifer again.

She opened one eye. Hosea was standing over her.

“If you promise not to scream, I will take the gag off and untie you so you may use the bathroom. If you scream, I will simply cut your tongue out.”

Jennifer felt her eyes widen, but she nodded.

Hosea came forward and cut the ties on her wrists and ankles. As blood rushed back to her extremities, she found it difficult not to cry all over again. The pain in her fingers was excruciating.

She moved to the bathroom where she dealt with the most immediate need first, then washed her face and hands, taking an extra moment to slurp cool water from the faucet.

What was going to happen? If they thought she was Angela, she’d better not disabuse them of that notion. Who knew what this man would do when he found they’d made a mistake? Kill her and dump the body? She’d prefer to wait and find out, rather than tell him now.

She spied a tube of unopened toothpaste and gave her teeth a cursory brushing with her finger. Feeling remarkably better, considering her circumstances, she walked out of the bathroom.

They were taking fairly good care of her, she supposed, for a kidnap victim. She hated that word, victim. She didn’t want to think of herself that way.

For now, she was Angela Donovan. Until someone told her differently.

Copyright © 2014 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. 

Want another peek of PERSONAL TARGET?

for Chapter Two - click here 

for Chapter Three - click here 

for Chapter Four - click here

for a “steamy” sneak peek - click here

for Prologue - click here


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© Kay Thomas 2018