About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Elle Philips dropped onto the marble floor of the bank. The contents of her purse scattered everywhere as she hit the ground, but she didn't care. She remained frozen, not wanting to draw attention to herself.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, her heart rate quickened. She raised her head, just enough to take a quick inventory of the situation. Two men. Black masks. Guns.
Elle knew that only two tellers were working right now, and that the manager had just left for a late lunchElle had passed him on her way in. Three other customers had also sunk to the floor. A frail-looking older woman, a college-aged girl and Denton. The dark-haired man had been in line behind her today. She knew Denton's name, only because they often came to the bank on the same days, same times. Over the weeks, they'd been flirtatious as they passed time in line.
Today, they'd only begun their casual teasing of each other when the robbers had burst through the doors of StoneCrest Bank on General Booth Blvd. in Virginia Beach, Virginia. At the moment, Elle glanced at Denton. He sat only a few feet away. His perceptive eyes met hers, silently communicating the urgency of the situation. Something about his calm gaze made her racing heart slow for a moment.
The shorter of the two robbers locked the glass doors at the front of the bank. He then stepped between the customers, the barrel of his gun bouncing against his black pants. The second robber, the one who'd ordered everyone to the ground, rushed toward the tellers, a bag in hand. "If you do what we say, no one will get hurt."
The first robberShortie, Elle nicknamed himkicked Elle's purse back to her, sending more lipstick and pens rolling everywhere. "Give me your cell phones. If anyone even tries to call the police, I'll I'll kill you."
A shudder ripped down Elle's spine, and her hands trembled as she riffled through her purse. Most of the contents lay askew, but her cell phone remained lodged in one of the deep pockets, refusing to budge. The device seemed to hang on tighter as Shortie loomed over her.
"Come on, lady!"
Finally, she jerked the phone from its hideout. Its metal burned in her hands, reminding her that this was her lifeline to the outside world. If only she could call the police
No, let them get their money and get out of here, she told herself. Be compliant. That's what security experts always said. If only she weren't so bad at embracing compliance. Still, she was levelheaded enough to know when to back off.
She shoved her phone into Shortie's gloved hand. He grunted as he snatched it from her. Once all the phones were collected in a black bag, the man laid them on the counter at the center of the bank.
Julie, the young teller behind the counter, raised her hands in the air. Her eyes stretched wide with fear. "Whatever you want. Just don't hurt anyone."
The other robber, the ringleader, Elle thought, shoved his gun at the teller. "I want all of the money in your drawer. If the police show up right now, you'll be the first one I take out."
Just do what they say, Elle prayed. Then maybe they would leave. The police could come and get some fingerprints and take eyewitness accounts. The justice system would be the heroes when they tracked down the robbers. Elle prayed that no one would try to be heroic and end up making the situation worse for all of them.
"What are you doing?" Ringleader shouted at Julie.
Elle wanted nothing more than to lay a steady hand on the young woman's shoulder and encourage her to just do what the man said. Instead, Elle hunkered down on the cool floor, her back against the wall. The best thing she could do would be to remain quiet and unseen.
Shortie paced over to her, his job obviously to guard the customers as Ringleader grabbed the money.
Elle tried to remember each detail so she could tell the police when they arrived. She soaked in the robbers' demeanors, their clipped words, the color of their eyes. As a campaign manager for her father's senate reelection bid, she was paid to pay attention to details. Shortie's gaze darted toward Elle, and she sucked in a breath, waiting to see what he would do.
Don't make this any worse than it has to be, buddy.
He waved his gun at her, and Elle noticed his hand trembling. The man was a novice at this. Was that a good or bad thing? The other man, Ringleader, didn't seem nervous at all.
"I need more money than that. Open the other drawers!" Ringleader leaned toward Julie, his gun aimed at her temple.
Julie shook her head, tears glimmering in her eyes. "I can't. I don't have their keys!"
"What do you mean, you don't have their keys? Can't you get them?"
"Only the branch manager has access to all the keys. You have to have them to open the drawers." Tears glistened in her eyes.
"You're messing with me! Just get the keys, give me the money and nobody gets hurt."
Denton's strong, steady voice broke through the mayhem. "Can I see if I can help her?"
Shortie pointed his gun at him. "You know something about banks?"
Denton raised his hands. "No, but I want to help. You're making her nervous. Maybe I can help her open the drawer."
The gun trembled in Shortie's hands. "I want you to stay right where you are."
"I just don't want anyone to get hurt." Denton's gaze remained level and even.
Elle had to admire Denton's calm demeanor. She glanced at him again, at the chisel of his features, at the dark hair that formed the shadow of a beard across his face. Dark, thick hair. Tall, broad form. Put it all together, and he was the picture-perfect definition of a heartbreaker.
Elle noted that Denton wasn't wearing his customary suit and tie today. Instead, he'd donned a black jacket over a T-shirt and jeans. In all of their casual conversation, Elle had never thought to ask him what he did for a living. Perhaps he was in law enforcement of some sort? How else could he be so calm in this situation?
Ringleader pointed his gun at the other teller. "Put your money in now!" The teller filled his bag, but then he turned his attention back to Julie. "Figure out how I can get more money." He reached over and grabbed Elle's arm, pulling her to her feet. The gun went to her head. "Do it now or she dies."
Elle gasped and trembles overtook her.
"Calm down," Denton said. He still leaned against the wall, his knees propped up, his voice and movement as calm and controlled as if he were merely talking everyone else through a training exercise. "Let her go."
Ringleader paced over to him, Elle in tow. "Are you in charge here? I didn't think so. You're going to be next if you don't keep your mouth shut."
Elle's throat burned. She was acutely aware of the gun at her temple. One accidental jerk of the finger and she'd be dead, just like that.
There was so much she still wanted to do, needed to do. Life came into an odd and complete clarity when the end appeared close enough to touch. Her necklace, the one her grandmother gave her before she passed, seemed to sear into her skin at the moment. It reminded her that she'd made a promise to her grandmother that she still needed to fulfill.
"I'm telling youI can't get into the other drawers or the vault. They're all locked, and I don't have the keys. The manager's out to lunch." Sweat glistened across Julie's forehead.
Something hard hit Elle in the face. She blanched before sinking to her knees. The robber quickly pulled her right back up. Her legs would hardly hold her. It didn't matter. Ringleader held her up by her coat collar.
Her cheek throbbed from where the man had pistol-whipped her. Tears rushed to her eyes as pain continued to send shocks through her.
"That's only the start of what's going to happen if you don't get me more money." The man's hot breath hit her cheek, along with a splattering of spittle.
"Boss, you said no one would get hurt," Shortie said.
"I've got this. You shut your mouth and keep the crowd under control."
"Let melet me let me search my manager's desk, see if I can find any keys," the second teller said.
Ringleader pushed Elle back to the ground. She stumbled until she hit the wall and sank to the floor. Her hand went to her cheek, and she felt moisture there. Blood? Tears? Both?
Denton looked over at her, his eyes full of concern. "Are you okay?" he mouthed.
She nodded, grateful to be alive. But how much longer would that be the case? The robbers were obviously losing it, getting out of control. This whole situation could spiral into something much bigger than even they had planned.
"Thank you," she whispered back.
The men were pacing now, as if trying to figure out what to do next.
"Good gravy, you didn't know the manager was gone for lunch?" Ringleader let out an expletive and stared at his partner in crime.
"He usually goes earlier."
"Usually isn't good enough." He turned back to Julie. "You need to figure out a plan B."
"Me? Me? How am I supposed to figure out a plan B?" Panic claimed her voice, her limbs.
"You have to know another way to get into that vault."
Julie's head swung back and forth. "Not without a key and a code."
Ringleader cocked the gun at her. "Think a little harder."
She half moaned, half screamed. "I've been trying. I have. There's nothing I can do!"
The gun fired. Elle screamed as Julie disappeared from sight, sinking below the counter.
Denton jumped to his feet. Elle slapped her hand over her mouth, disbelief filling her.
Julie. The robber had just shot Julie.
She lifted a prayer as tears rushed to her eyes. The seriousness of the situation hit her at full force. This was bad. Really bad.
"Stay down!" Ringleader swung around, his gun aimed at the crowd, as if telling them that any one of them could be next.
Elle's gaze flew to the potted plant beside her. She'd seen something fly from the man's belt when he swung around. Her eyes widened when she spotted a cell phone there. Had the robber's cell phone really just flown off his belt and into the plant?
Elle glanced back up at him. He didn't seem to notice the device had slipped off. If she reached her hand out just a little, she could grab it.
But if he caught her, what would he do? Slap her again? Something worse? The thought of Julie flashed through her mind.
She glanced over and saw Denton staring at her. He'd obviously noticed the phone also. What was he trying to tell her? To forget about it? To grab it? What was the right thing to do? She wrestled with her choice. Flexed her fingers. Glanced back up at the robbers. They all seemed distracted by the second teller fumbling through her boss's desk.
This was Elle's chance.
She willed herself to move quickly and without notice, for her motions to be as fluid as flowing water. Before she could second-guess herself, she extended her hand. She grabbed the phone and slipped it into her coat pocket.
Her gaze darted around the room. No one appeared to see her except Denton. His furrowed eyebrows showed his apprehension.
At least she'd now have some proof of who these men were. Maybe it would help the police put them behind bars.
Elle reached into her pocket and opened the phone. She held her breath, afraid of making any noise or drawing attention to what she was doing. Her heart rate slowed a moment when no one seemed to notice her. She felt the buttons until she found 9-1-1. She prayed the man wouldn't notice his phone was gone, that he wouldn't realize Elle had taken it.
"Any of you want to be next?" Ringleader's voice didn't rise in pitch. He sounded so detached at the moment that Elle felt a chill race through her.
"She's dead. Is she dead? Did you kill her?" Shortie's voice, on the other hand, rose in panic. "What are you doing?"
"They're going to pay!"
As the minutes stretched on, Elle watched the two men pace and listened to them mutter. Every second Julie was without medical care put the woman more at risk. Elle wished more than anything she could go check on the teller, that she could give the robbers the money so they'd be gone.
The phone burned in her pocket.
Had the dispatcher heard what was going on? Had they sent help?
Elle prayed that the answer was yes.
Shortie looked at the front door. "Do you hear that? Sirens. We've got to run before they get here, man! The police are right around the corner."
Ringleader grabbed his bag of cash and darted to the door.
Elle breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't noticed his cell phone. No one else had been hurt.
Just as the robbers stepped out the front door, the Ringleader reached for his waistline. Felt the empty space where his phone was. Then he looked up. Looked at Elle. He knew she had his phone. She'd been closest to him. Certainly, her gaze held telltale guilt. The robber's eyes narrowed before he pulled his finger across his throat.
Elle sucked in a breath. He was going to find her. And when he did, he would kill her.
Mark Denton saw the robber make the throat-slitting motion as he ran from the bank.
He looked over at the raven-haired beauty and saw that her face had gone ghost-white.
What Elle had done had been incredibly risky, but she may have just saved all of their livesat least the life of the bank teller.
With the men gone, Denton jumped from the floor and propelled himself over the counter. The bank teller had been shot in the stomach. Blood stained her shirt. Denton took off his jacket and placed it over the wound to stop the bleeding.
"Someone wave the ambulance inside. She needs help. Now!"
Elle rushed to the door. She paused momentarily at it, as if she were afraid the robbers might be waiting on the other side for her. But she stepped outside anyway.
Denton already admired her spunk and guts. Not everyone would have handled themselves so well in a situation like this. Denton, a former SEAL, now worked special operations for a Department of Defense contractor, and even he'd been thrown off-kilter some. He knew moves that could have taken down the robbers, but there were two of them and they had guns. Plus, there were too many people who could have been casualties if something went wrong. He'd taken the restrained approach. He hoped it had been the right one.
"It's going to be okay," he told the teller. Her eyes drifted shut, as if she were losing consciousness. He had to keep her lucid until the paramedics got in here.