Trig tred across the plush Oriental carpet in grim silence, his step defiant, his stride yanked short by the heavy iron chains that manacled each ankle.
Another set bound his wrists behind his back. Their cold, oppressive weight scraped his skin raw and stoked the fury of his captivity inside him.
An ominous quiet shrouded the interior of the Honorable Judge Reginald P. Chandler’s mansion. Only the chink-chink of the chain links penetrated the gloom of the long hall leading to his office.
Beside him, Police Chief Frank Kenner gripped his elbow hard, forcing him to stop in front of the polished door. A narrow beam of light shown along the floor, an indication the judge waited for them on the other side.
“I’m warning you, Mathison,” Kenner said. “Try anything fancy, and you’re a dead man.”
Trig eyed him coldly. He’d make no promises. Judge Chandler had falsified charges of back taxes to strip Trig of his home and land, a modest spread where he once scratched out a living with his father and younger brother.
He could still see the devastation on Pa’s face when he brought Trig the news. The hopelessness and despair. Worse, unforgivably worse, Chandler was responsible for Nathaniel’s death.
Abruptly, the door opened. The judge loomed before them, his stature tall, lean, oppressive. Power emanated from him, an all-encompassing power he wielded over those helpless to defy him.
“You’re late, Frank,” he snapped. “You should’ve been here twenty minutes ago.”
“Not my fault,” the police chief said. “Mathison took his own sweet time getting dressed.” He shot Trig an accusing glare. “I should’ve brought him buck-naked. Would’ve served him right to freeze his ass off outside.”
The stately Wellington clock on the desk inside the office chimed once, twice. The judge had summoned Trig from his jail cell at two o’clock in the morning.
Tension coiled within him. He contained the fury simmering inside him, controlled it with a fierce grip. Chandler raked him with a razor-sharp glance, as if to cut him wide open and make him bleed right there on his expensive carpet.
But a rawness was there, too. A desperation. Trig sensed it the moment their gazes clashed.
He could feel it.
Chandler stepped back, opened the door wider. The police chief directed Trig forward with a rough push. He stumbled into the office and halted near a brocade chair positioned in front of the desk.
The room oozed wealth. Heavy velvet drapes hung over long windows. Mica satin draped the walls in deep shades of claret and gold, and oil paintings in elaborate gilded frames hung from their wires in perfect precision.
Trig took it all in with one sweeping, contemptuous glance. Nothing in his father’s house could compare to this. The room was worth as much as Seth Mathison’s entire farm.
Kenner took a guarded stance near the door. Chandler reached for a decanter on the bar and poured whiskey into a crystal glass, then strode toward his desk. He indicated the chair in front of Trig. “Sit down, Mathison.”
Trig didn’t move, and the judge’s eyes narrowed at his disobedience. He eased into his leather chair, leaned back and took a gulp of whiskey. He dragged the cuff of his shirtsleeve across his mouth, a primitive gesture for a man of Judge Chandler’s caliber and power. His eyes, blue as ice, met Trig’s.
“Please,” he said.
The word hung in the air. Suspicion surfaced inside Trig. The son of a bitch wanted something.
He needed it.
The knowledge stunned Trig, infused him with a power of his own. He held the judge’s hard gaze.
“Take off the chains,” he said.
The judge hesitated for a moment; in the next, he gestured to the police chief. “Do as he says, Frank.”
Kenner stiffened and sputtered a protest.
The command cracked through the air like a pistol shot. The lawman bolted forward, a key in his hand, and the chains fell to the carpet with muted clinks.
Trig flexed the muscles in his shoulders and wrists; he pinned the judge with a cold stare. “What do you want, Chandler?”
“I need your help.”
Trig showed no reaction and waited. He knew it galled the judge to admit the words, to swallow his pride and power and fall from his throne to stoop to Trig Mathison’s mercy.
After all, Trig was branded as Nathaniel’s murderer, accused and convicted in the judge’s court, and Chandler held his life in the palm of his hand.
Help him. Christ. Chandler was a fool to think it.
The justice threw back another healthy swallow of whiskey, flung open a desk drawer and withdrew a folded paper. He tossed the letter onto the desktop.
“My daughter is missing,” he said. “You’re the only man I know who can find her.”
Trig glanced down at the precise penmanship but didn’t bother to read the contents of the letter. The judge had amassed an army of enemies over the years. Trig had no interest in this one. His lip curled. “Too bad she’s been kidnapped.”
“My daughter has not been kidnapped, Mathison. She has run away, damn it, and I want her brought back again.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to be found,” he taunted. “I don’t care what the hell she wants or doesn’t want.” He rose from his chair and braced both hands on the desktop. Again, Trig sensed his desperation. “She is my only child.” He spoke slowly, succinctly, as if it were imperative Trig understand every word. “She has led a very sheltered existence up to now, and she has never traveled alone anywhere in her entire life.”
“What makes you think she’s alone now?”
“There is no one she could’ve turned to. No one would’ve helped her leave and defy me in the process.”
In that, Trig believed him. The judge had controlled the lives of too many people for too long. He struck heartache and despair into those unfortunate enough to be confronted by him or his henchmen.
Trig knew too well the heartache. The gut-wrenching despair. The hopelessness. Even worse, his father had lived it. And Nathaniel.
The familiar hate rose up within Trig. He nurtured it, stoked it strong and high and relished the burn.
The judge left his desk to pour himself another drink.
“She’s gone to see her mother,” he said, his tone filled with disgust.
Trig emitted a sound of mocking derision. “Her mother.”
Chandler pinned him with a harsh gaze. “You fail to see the significance in that, don’t you?”
He seemed on the edge, his desperation a volatile thing. Trig watched him coolly.
“My daughter never knew she existed until she saw this damn letter.” He glared at the paper with such blazing fury, the thing could have burst into flame.
“Spare me the details, Chandler.”
“You will listen to me.” He moved closer, the words hissing through his teeth. “So you will understand what I’m asking of you.”
Trig’s lip curled. But he said nothing.
“I first met her mother when she worked the Red Light District back in the ’70′s.” His ice blue gaze clawed at Trig, dared him to listen to his past. And dared him not to. “She was a whore. My favorite, at the time.”
So his precious daughter’s mother had been a prostitute. Trig refrained from showing his amusement. “She would’ve been with scores of men. How did you know the child was yours?”
“I had exclusive rights to her, that’s how. And paid her well for the privilege. When Belle found herself pregnant, I refused to have a child of mine raised by a woman . . . of her caliber.” He gulped another swig of whiskey. “After my daughter was born, I sent Belle to Mexico. I haven’t seen her since.”
Disgust welled within Trig at the agony the woman must’ve endured at being forced to leave her daughter behind, the humiliation she would’ve felt from being spurned and banished from the country.
“Then, two days ago, I received this.” Chandler glowered at the paper on his desk. “She’s in prison serving a life term. She dying, and she wants to see Carleigh again. One last time.”
A life term in prison. Ugly realization of what Chandler had done left Trig stunned. “You manipulated the law against her, didn’t you? To keep her out of your daughter’s life. Just as you manipulated the law against my father and me.”
“Shut up, Mathison.”
Chandler made no attempt to defend himself against the accusation. And Trig knew, then, it was true.
“Carleigh found the letter this morning,” Chandler went on. “I forbade her to go to Mexico. When I returned home this evening, she was gone.”
She was his weakness, Trig realized. The one and only thing that made the son of a bitch human.
He deserved the fear, the pain of losing her. He deserved to hurt.
“I want you to bring her back, Mathison.”
Trig lifted his hooded gaze. “Go to hell, Chandler.”
The judge’s chin jerked up. His cold eyes narrowed. He stepped to his desk and eased into the leather chair, then steepled his fingers thoughtfully.
“Your father would be most disappointed to learn you’ve refused me,” he said. Trig’s senses hurtled to life.
“Leave my father out of this.” The warning rumbled from the depths of his chest.
“Where is he?” Trig demanded. Fear flickered within him, swirled with the fury he kept tightly reined. Chandler had promised safety and protection for Seth Mathison the night Trig had been arrested at the Palace Hotel. Stricken by Nathaniel’s death, at his failure to protect him, Trig had been frantic for his father’s welfare.
The judge had promised, and Trig had believed him.
“Do you really think I would tell you, given the present circumstances?” A smile haunted the tight set of Chandler’s mouth.
The rage bubbled and spewed and exploded within Trig. In one vengeful lunge, he grasped the judge’s shirtfront, and though the breadth of the massive desk separated them, Trig hauled the justice from his chair.
“He’s a sick, old man.” His chest heaved from the fury. “You hurt him, I’ll kill you. You hear me?”
“Let him go, Mathison!” Kenner yelled. The harsh metal of the police chief’s revolver rammed into Trig’s temple. The gun’s hammer clicked back. “I’ll shoot you dead. I swear it!”
Whiskey had ravaged his father’s liver; the rheumatism plagued his joints. Had Chandler thrown him out into the damp cold of the San Francisco winter? How would Pa survive? Trig’s heart pounded.
“Don’t be stupid. Frank will shoot,” Chandler snapped. Though disdain dripped in his tone, he didn’t move beneath Trig’s iron-fast grip. “Your father has already lost one son. Think how he’d feel losing two.”
The challenge hung in the air and spun inside Trig’s brain. He didn’t trust Chandler. Not anymore. Not ever again.
But he was right. Seth Mathison had lost his wife, his home and land. He’d lost Nathaniel. Losing Trig would destroy him.
Heaving a vehement curse, Trig released the judge with a shove that hurtled him back into his seat. The leather chair rocked from the force.
“I’ll find your daughter,” he ground out. “And while I’m gone, my father had best lack for nothing. Nothing, you hear me?”
Chandler gestured to the police chief. “Back off, Frank. He’ll behave now.”
The lawman eased away but kept his weapon trained close on Trig. Chandler stood, tugged on his crushed shirtfront, and speared Trig with a frosty glance.
“We have a deal, then, Mathison. My daughter for your father.”
Trig fumed, his silence his agreement. The judge leaned over and pulled open a desk drawer. He withdrew a thick envelope and tossed it toward Trig.
“Cash,” he said. “My daughter is accustomed to the finest in life. If necessary, I’ll wire you more.”
To hell with what his spoiled and pampered daughter was accustomed to. He vowed to not make life easy for her, not for what she was costing him.
“I’ll need a fast horse,” he said. “The best around.”
Chandler nodded. “Anything else?”
“The letter from her mother.”
The judge eyed the folded missive still on his desk with obvious distaste. He handed the paper to Trig.
Trig slipped both the letter and the envelope of money into his shirt pocket.
“One more thing.”
“When I return, my father and I walk away free men. You or your henchmen will never bother us again.” But Trig intended to even the score. Somehow, some way, Judge Chandler would pay the price for Nathaniel’s death. “We have a deal, remember, Your Honor?” Trig’s voice taunted him, baited him with the words he’d just spoken. “Your daughter for my father. Refuse me, and everything’s off.”
The judge’s features hardened. “Don’t push me, boy.”
“What’ll it be?”
The raw desperation Trig had seen earlier in Chandler’s features returned. The justice exchanged a quick glance with Kenner.
“You’ll be a free man, Mathison. Just bring my daughter back,” he said finally. Impatience lashed through Trig. He could hardly wait to find her, to bring her back and drop her in an unceremonious heap at Chandler’s feet.
And to see his father again. To take care of him, as he should be doing now, this minute. Trig strode toward the door; his hand gripped the gold knob.
Trig halted at the judge’s voice.
“How will you know how to find her?” he asked, his tone rough with challenge. With thinly-veiled concern.
Annoyance flared through Trig that he asked the question now, after the deal had been squared between them.
“I’ve learned a few tricks over the years.”
“Perhaps my daughter’s portrait would make your search easier.”
Trig turned to face him. Chandler pointed toward the wall behind his desk, to the artist’s depiction of a young woman, painted in rich-hued oils and so life-like she could have reached out and touched him.
Carleigh Chandler. She riveted him where he stood.
He estimated her age to be about twenty. Tresses of vibrant mahogany had been upswept into a stylish coiffure. She held her chin at a regal angle, and her bearing hinted at a grace that belied her years. His stare crept downward, past the delicate lace-trimmed sleeves clinging to her smooth shoulders, to the dipping neckline that revealed the creamy, rounded curves of her breasts. His pulse fell into a moment of irregular rhythm.
“The portrait is recent. Done only this past fall,” her father said. “The likeness is superb.”
Trig dragged his gaze away, refused to let it linger over the deep sapphire fabric flowing over her narrow waist and hips. Instead, he forced his scrutiny upward, back to her face, and committed the visage to memory.
It wouldn’t be difficult to remember her. Not the full mouth that hinted at a pout, as if she wearied of the artist’s time with her. Not the high-patrician cheekbones, delicate and pinkened with a blush. And not the eyes, heavy-lashed and as ice blue as her father’s.
Judge Reginald P. Chandler’s daughter. There could be no doubt he sired this woman, not with eyes so much like his own, and Trig despised her no less than him, for no other reason than she carried his blood in her veins.
He swore, his hand gripping the doorknob hard in his determination. He would make short work of finding her. He would bring her back to San Francisco and this godforsaken mansion with all its trappings from ill-begotten wealth.
And he would take Seth Mathison, the father he’d shunned for too many years, to find happiness in a new life somewhere else.
“No harm had best come to her while she’s in your care,” Chandler said softly, as if he sensed Trig’s contempt for her. “Heed my warning well, or you’ll pay the price for ignoring it.”
Trig’s gaze slammed into the judge’s. Saying nothing, promising nothing, he strode from the office and slammed the door shut behind him.