The blow was a direct one, and Jo stumbled back a couple of steps, trying to put some space between herself and her assailant. Her lip was busted after that strike, and her attacker wasn’t letting her have any breathing room. A fist grazed over her left cheekbone just as she tried to jerk to the side, the hand catching at the back of her head and dragging her in.
Her blows landed in sharp, hard strikes to the the other woman’s ribs, and she heard the grunts indicating each was felt, but it didn’t stop this monster. Instead, Jo was hauled in tight, where she couldn’t get strength behind her blows or bring her legs up for kicks. Arms like pythons settled about her, squeezing her tight as she still fought and squirmed to find purchase. A bit of shifting, and the woman was behind her, forearm settled over Jo’s throat, cutting off all air.
The hold would still give her a good two minutes to get out of it.
Jerking sharply to the left, Jo slammed her elbow back with all her force, the strike hitting home to that floating rib, but her assailant, while grunting, the grip didn’t so much as waiver.
Hands settled upon that forearm as her left foot slid to the side and behind her captor’s foot, and she began to bend at the waist as her left hand-
Suddenly, one arm was about her waist, the other still about her throat, and she was lifted, bodily, from her feet. “Not so fast, princess,” was growled against her ear. “I know that trick.”
Dangling in the air, Jo had very few options left, and she was quickly running out of precious oxygen. Little choice left in the matter, she snapped one foot back sharply, catching the inside of her assailant’s knee.
Arms loosened as the Amazon grunted in pain, the struck knee giving out, and Jo found herself on solid footing once more. Her foot came down firmly on her opponent’s insole, even as her elbow snapped back with all her strength into the solar plexus, driving breath from the woman’s lungs.
The best part? Now her face was on Jo’s level.
The arms, while still there, were loose enough for Jo to spin within the circle. The uppercut barely nicked her foe’s chin, but the elbow coming down again landed solid, and the woman ended sprawled on the mat, gripping her mouth. The hand pulled away, revealing blood.
“You busted my lip,” the Amazon sounded positively incredulous as she stared at the red on her fingers.
Jo’s breathing was still ragged from the choke hold, and she could only blink down at the woman, one hand settling on her hip while the other pointed at her own mouth. “You started it,” she shot back.
Laughter bubbled forth, and the woman bobbed her head, holding a hand out. “Help me up, princess.”
Light applause came from Dirk from where he stood on the edge of the mat, but his approval was ignored. Jo studied that proffered hand for several long moments before accepting it. Bracing back, she helped drag the woman to her feet. “Don’t call me ‘princess’.”
The woman’s lips curved in a light smirk, and tousled Jo’s hair – it took everything she had to not bite the other woman. She had a good seven inches and sixty pounds on her, and all that muscle. Not exactly someone Jo should go around biting.
Especially considering how rough this fight was on her.
“You shouldn’t have let me get a grip on you like that,” she continued. “Princess,” she added for good measure. “Especially considering our size differences. If your opponent is bigger, you do not want it to turn into a grapple. And let’s face it, most of your opponents are going to be bigger.” Stretching her arms overhead, she arched her back, clicking her tongue thoughtfully. “But you remembered your training, and you worked on getting out of it. That was good. You figured out how to get out of it, even after I took you off your feet, and you didn’t let me get you on the ground. These are both good.” Arms falling to her side, her attention swung to the big man who stepped onto the mat. “You see anything?”
“We’ll work on that,” Dirk rumbled, bobbing his head in thanks. “I’ve got to get her back now – she’s got class in the morning. Thanks again for working with her, Miranda.”
The Amazon issued a low whistle. “I keep forgetting she’s in high school,” she breathed, rubbing at her chin. “Keep it up, princess, and by the time you’re my age, you’ll be fighting for a title.”
Jo brushed off the next attempt to ruffle her hair. “So maybe then you’ll stop calling me that?”
“I doubt it…”
Liam Drover was frowning as the clock ticked ever closer to time for his private lesson with the Rider girl. He had noticed the problems before – living in Boston for only a few months, yet how many times had she already been hospitalized? There had been missed classes, bruises, and a general avoidance of answering direct questions.
In her group class, he had kept an eye on her. While she was sometimes quiet, this was more than usual, and she seemed distracted. Her movements had been restricted and stiff, and there were a few times he caught her wincing from pain.
But that could just be his imagination.
Jo finally entered, her hair damp. She was moving slowly, gripping her left shoulder as she rotated the arm, staring down at the floor as she entered the room. Lost in thought, she didn’t notice him there, not at first. A couple of steps in, a sharp step to the left, then to the right, a turn, and-
Ah, she noticed him.
She froze, hands together, pushed out before her, and color slowly infused her features. Straightening, she cleared her throat delicately. “Practice,” she offered lamely, wiping her palms on her leggings. Her voice was rough, hoarse.
As if she had been screaming.
He slowly drew closer to her, catching her beneath the chin when she tried to look away and forcing her gaze to meet his. He studied her features intently. There was makeup – odd considering she didn’t put much effort into her looks beyond dying her hair those loud colors – and he could just see the swelling of her cheek and the mark on her lip. Even her throat…
No, not hoarse from screaming, he realized. Someone had choked the girl.
Her brows winged upwards, lips curving into a faint smile. “I’ve had worse.” Not exactly the reassurance he had been looking for, and she realized as much as his frown grew. She cleared her throat, taking a step back, purposefully jerking her chin aside. “It’s not all that bad,” she assured him. “Seriously. You should see the other guy.”
His frown only deepened as his hand settled on his hips, and he stared down at the girl. For all the world, he wanted to reach out and shake her, to make her speak, but that reaction would only push her further away. Closing his eyes, his head fell back, and he worked on his breathing. How could he protect this girl who’s obviously going through so much?
“Seriously, Liam,” she said, voice light despite the rasping. “I’m right as rain. If I get hurt, I promise you, I likely deserved it.” His insides twisted. “So how ‘bout that lesson? Hiphop is great cardio and all, but, what were we doing today? More with the waltz? Maybe we can put in a bit of East Coast Swing?”
“Whatever you like, Jo.” His own voice was strained, but he forced a smile as he looked down at her. “Are you okay doing lifts right now?” To which he got a sharp nod. “Then swing it is.”
But what the hell was he going to do about her getting hurt?
A couple days later, Liam found himself in what he could only imagine was an interrogation room, though they called it a ‘conference room.’ It had a solitary table in the center of the beige room, the same oversized mirror on the wall that’s been on every cop show ever, and a security camera on the ceiling in the corner.
Definitely interrogation room.
Liam continued to pace through the small room, fidgeting with the badge which hung heavily about his neck. Worst case here, he was getting all of his steps in for the day so his watch couldn’t fuss at him too much for that Minutes ticked by, and at last the door opened. It was Richard Rider, Jo’s older brother, as professional as ever in his suit and tie.
Who would have ever guessed the monster which lurked just underneath?
A moment of surprise washed the man’s features, but was quickly covered by a warm smile and an offered hand as he stepped further into the room. “Mr. Drover,” he exclaimed. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
The hand was ignored, features hardening as he stared down the other man. Liam’s hands balled into fists, jaw tightening – more than anything, he wanted to punch him in that perfect face. The agent was so much bigger than his sister. He was supposed to use his size, his strength, his position to protect the girl, not use it against her. Lips pursed to a thin line as Liam fought the rage within. “Your sister is a talented dancer,” he grit out at last.
The handshake ignored, Rider chuckled, lifting it instead to loosen his tie. “Not really,” he murmured absently. There was the soft buzz of a vibrating phone, and Rider withdrew his phone to glance at the face before sending it to voicemail and turning his full attention to his guest. “But please, sit. What brings you to visit?” The agent pulled out his own chair, settling comfortably into its confines.
A flash of red, and Liam was left gripping the back of his chair. “She is talented,” he all but snarled.
“She is that,” Rider agreed.
What was wrong with this man? He completely contradicted-
“You seem upset,” he drawled out warmly, forearms resting upon the table, hands folding neatly before him. His brows were drawn with concern. “What’s going on? Is something wrong with Josie?”
How could he? How could he suddenly seem so worried when everything else-
Unless he wasn’t the one who was hurting his sister. And if he worked all the time, maybe he hadn’t noticed the bruises. Neglectful was better than abusive, but not by much.
But it was still possible he was being played.
Liam began to pace once more, frowning to himself as he worked his way through the puzzle once more. Did he make a mistake? The elder
Rider simply washed him silently, settling back in his seat with a curious expression, but he didn’t interrupt.
There was another buzz from the agent’s phone, and this time, he didn’t even glance at it as he sent the call to voicemail.
At last, Liam turned on the other man. “I know someone’s been hurting Jo.”
A moment of surprise before warm laughter bubbled forth, and Rider could only shake his head. “I think you misunderstand things.”
“That she’s been hospitalized several times since moving here? That she always has bruises, is always hurt? That she says she deserves it when she does, and makes a point of diverting when asked pointed questions.” Ah, yes! These were the reasons he had made that call. “She’s frightened and hurting.”
The laughter died away, at least repressed, as the agent wiped tears from his eyes. “Frightened my ass,” he sighed, rubbing one hand over his face. “Mr. Drover, why are you here?”
The rage was back in spades, and Liam stared down at the seated man, gripping the back of what was to be his chair, teeth grinding. “I wanted to face you as it was happening. To explain, man-to-man, what I think of what was happening and why I have done what I done.”
Finally, the agent seemed to realize the full gravity of the situation. “What have you done?” he drew out the words carefully, eyes narrowing.
“What I had to do. To protect your sister.”
The phone began to vibrate angrily once more, and Rider stared at the thing. “Shit,” he breathed before answering the line with a direct “What’s happened?” Whatever was said on the other line was not to his pleasing, and his gray eyes narrowed sharply. A soft sigh escaped, and his head fellow forward, hanging there as he continued to listen. “Alright, alright. I got it.” He pushed to his feet, the chair screeching along the floor with the simple motion. “Which station are they taking her to? Yeah, I know it.” A glance at the clock, and he nodded to himself. “Call your dad to have him meet me there. And Ve. We may need her… We’ll be there in thirty.” Pause. “Make that twenty.” A step was taken towards the door, and he beckoned Liam to follow. “Are the men ok?” Another pause, and he was bobbing his head. “Okay, good, good. We’ll take care of them after.” And just like that, he signed off, striding out of the room without a glance back.
Liam could only stare after him, gawk as he continued to grip the back of the chair, more for support now than to restrain his anger. What just happened?
Two minutes passed, and Rider’s head reappeared in the room, frowning at him. “What are you waiting for? C’mon.”
“Wh-where are we going?”
“Honestly, you should have talked to me before you sent strangers to pick my sister up off the street. We have to go, and now, before they process her.”
“Proce…” What? “I’m lost.”
Rider pinched the bridge of his nose, drawing a deep breath. Liam could all but see the man count back from ten. “The police station,” he said at last, opening his eyes.
“They shouldn’t be going to the police station.”
“They do when ‘assault’ is involved.”
“Who was assaulted?”
“… come on. They’re going to need your statement.”
“I’m so confused right now…”
Jo tucked her hands deep in her pockets, face lifting to the sun as she continued along the sidewalk, eyes closed as she enjoyed the sun’s rays. Class was over and done, so it was time for the long trek home. It wasn’t all bad, and she could take a cab if she wanted.
Hell, she could whine for Hunter to just drive since he was insisting on following her to and from regardless, but for the time, walking would do. It helped to clear her mind.
Not that anything was going on that needed clearing.
She needed another adventure beyond hoping that there was a slice of cheesecake at lunch. Hell, it wasn’t even very good cheesecake! What had her life turned into??
Well, that wasn’t a good sign.
Jo cracked open one eye, tilting her head in the direction of the voice. Two men in bad suits had just exited a sedan, the one in the back holding a file with a picture neatly clipped to the top of it. He was frowning to himself, staring at the picture on the front of the folder then up at her then down again as if trying to ascertain whether or not he got the right person.
“Excuse me, are you Jocelyn Rider?” the man in the front asked again, continuing to creep closer to her. He was trying to sound non-threatening as he approached her, holding his hands out to either side as if he were afraid any movement that was too fast would spook her.
“Sorry, man. Got the wrong gal,” she drawled out lazily, but she could already feel the tension pooling at the pit of her stomach. She gave a shrug and started forward once more, keeping it casual.
Hadn’t she just been wishing for adventure?
The man hurried around her, stopping just before her. Again, he didn’t touch her, but he firmly placed himself in her path,, and Jo could hear his pal behind her, shuffling through papers. “We meant to catch you at the school, Ms. Rider, but you got out of there faster than we expected. We just want to talk.” At her arched brows, he reached a hand into his jacket pocket. “We’re with DFS. Do you know what that is?”
The man behind her was getting closer, though stopped just a few feet away. Nothing about this situation felt right, but they were closing in around her, trying to cut off her avenues of escape. There would have to be at least two or three more men, though, if they were doing this properly.
But they didn’t vibe as the ‘ruthless killer’ types.
“I’m seventeen,” she pointed out as she unslung her messenger back from about her head so she was holding the long strap in her right hand, her foot sliding back as she angled her body by small degrees. “Not stupid, despite what you may have heard.”
The fellow before her smiled warmly, gesturing to his vehicle again. “This is just an initial intake interview. Again, we wanted to speak with you at-”
“I… pardon? No?”
“Correct. No.” She jutted her chin towards their vehicle. “No way in hell I’m getting in that thing with you two creeps.”
“Entirely understandable,” the man verbally backpedaled. “Very smart,” he added. “But see, we got a report that someone may be hurting you.” Jo could hear the man behind her take a couple of steps closer. Where the hell was Hunter? “We just need to make sure you’re safe.”
“Oddly, I don’t feel exceptionally ‘safe’ right now…”
“No, I get that,” the man agreed, holding out his identification to her. “But you can see here we are who we say. You’re in absolutely-”
“Back off,” Jo growled over her shoulder, though she kept her eyes firmly on the man before her.
“P-p-pardon?” came a small voice behind her.
“Five steps back. Now.” The hairs were standing up along the back of her neck, and her throat was tightening. Her weight shifted forward onto the balls of her feet, free hand curling into a loose visit. She was ready. “No one’s hurting me,” she bit out. “Put that in your file, and be so kind as to be on your way.”
“Ms. Rider. We had a report, and we must investigate-”
“Do I look stupid to you?” Jo snapped.
That took them both aback, and the fellow before her shifted his gaze to his friend who was still standing too close for comfort. “Of course not…”
“Then why would you possibly think that I would be so foolish as to get into that car with you.” Damnit, Hunter! It was his job to be here, wasn’t it? She had seen him when she left the school, and caught sight of him a couple of times along the way.
“Jocelyn – may I call you-”
“Ms. Rider,” he corrected himself. “We can even go to the police station.” He stepped forward, taking her nearest arm firmly in hand. “But you must come with us.”
Her arm twisted in his grip, out and up, breaking his grip, at the same time as she swung her messenger bag with all her strength, hitting him center mass and staggering him back. His friend took two steps closer as all of this was happening, and Jo continued her rotation, releasing the bag, coming around with an open hand to pop it against the other man’s ear. Surprised, his eyes went wide, jaw slacked, and he stared at her, but by then, he was practically on top of her.
Hands met his shoulders, and her right knee came up at the same time as she pulled down, ramming her knee into his solar plexus. She released him immediately, letting the momentum push him back a step before she planted her other foot firmly in his gut. Shoving with all her strength, the man was sent reeling backwards by those several requested feet that he had refused her earlier.
Unfortunately, that sent her backwards as well, and into the now open arms of the gentleman who had been doing all of the talking.
Those arms dropped around her. “Ms. Rider,” he started, but his grip was loose – not nearly strong enough to hold her, and a solid elbow back into the solar plexus knocked the breath from his lungs – something her messenger bag had not been able to manage.
Two steps to the side, and her back was to a wall, so she could watch both of them, hands up in a protective stance.
They stared at her – ‘gawked’ was likely a better term for it. “What the hell?” the quiet one sputtered, rubbing at his stomach. He hadn’t pulled himself up from the sidewalk as of yet, and could only stare.
And Mr. Talker? Yeah, he was still trying to catch his breath.
Jo forced one hand to relax enough to slip it into her pocket and punch in 9-1-1. “This is Jocelyn Rider, and two guys just tried to grab me off the street. I need someone here asap.”
They hadn’t been trained.
They hadn’t tried to actually hurt her.
They really had been DFS.
Jo sat in a rough plastic chair in the middle of the police station, staring at the miserable detective who had inherited her. At one time he had probably been some kind of football player, but that had to be a good twenty years ago. Dark hair shot through with gray, brown eyes that might have been ‘warm’ at some point, and a big-ass mustache, this fellow was used to getting his way, or at the very least intimidating people into being a bit more demure.
He was barking up the wrong tree with that one.
Hands folded before him, elbows resting up on his desk, he stared down at her with a frown. Her messenger bag rested on his desk at his elbow, and he could only stare down at her, that mustache waggling with irritation.
The two DFS officers were a couple of desks over, giving their own report of the events which had transpired, but her detective just seemed annoyed.
“What kind of girl assaults two grown men?” he demanded at last.
“The kind who doesn’t want to get stuffed in a trunk?” Jo shot back. “After all that, you’re seriously more concerned that it was a girl defending herself and not the fact that two men approached said girl on the street? Serious?”
He sent a sideways glance at the man, his mustache wiggling once more. “They’re DFS.”
“Right. Because no one could possibly fake that cover story. Or IDs.” Jo crossed her arms over her chest, arching both brows at the man.
“Aren’t you supposed to be more scared?”
Her nose wrinkled in distaste as she shook her head. “Nah. I’m good. But thanks for asking.” Her adrenaline had calmed enough for her to realize the men weren’t attacking her, and all else was gravy from there.
She was just glad she hadn’t seriously hurt either one of them. A handful of bruises, but they’d be fine.
“Ms. Rider, you don’t seem to understand the gravity of your situation.”
“That you’re questioning a minor without guardian or counsel present?” Jo chirped. “I kinda do.”
That gave the detective – his nameplate read ‘Hernandez’ – pause, and his mustache trembled once more. “You aren’t being charged,” he said after several beats. “But we have some serious allegations on our hands here.”
Allegations? Jo blinked owlishly before craning her neck towards the men. “They don’t look hurt. A bit rough around the edges, but nothing too bad.”
“I wasn’t talking about them,” the man grunted. He tapped a meaty finger upon the folder. “Do you know what this says, young lady?”
“That I have a winning personality?”
There went the mustache. “I didn’t call your guardian because it says he’s beating you.”
Jo could only stare at the fellow, and it too her a few moments to realize her jaw had come unhinged, and she snapped it shut with a click of her teeth. “You think I’m being….” she trailed off, blinking again as all the little pieces fell into place.
The peal of laughter rocked through the room, drawing looks from all around, but not enough for her to actually stop. She wrapped her arms about her waist, bowing forward until her head was resting on her knees, and still she laughed, barely managing to get a breath in.
A sigh came from directly overhead, and warm hand settled to the back of her head. “I’m going to assume you’re alright if you’re laughing like that, Josie.”
Jo’s head snapped up, eyes wide. For all the world, she wanted to throw her arms about him and squeeze the very breath out of him, but all things considered…
“I got here like five minutes ago, Rich.” From the corner of her eye, she could see the DFS officers pushing to their feet.
Her brother’s lips curved to a faint smile, and he ruffled her hair. “Maybe not scare me so bad next time, hm?” he suggested softly before turning his full attention to the detective. “Special Agent Richard Rider,” he offered to the man, producing the necessary identification with a flip of his wrist.
How long had he practiced that in front of the mirror?
“I have a video of what transpired, Detective Hernandez,” he said, offering over a phone. “Not quite everything from the moment of their approach, but close enough. You’ll see my sister thought she was acting in self-defense.”
The phone was accepted with a small frown, and the detective was staring at the screen. “They weren’t attacking her.” That mustache had taken on a life of its own.
“I didn’t say it was self-defense, only that she thought that was what she was doing.” Richard’s voice was as warm as his smile. “Do you know who this is, sir?”
The man waved a meaty fist, dismissively. “I saw your ID.”
Richard chuckled softly, shaking his head. “I meant my sister, sir.” He jutted his chin towards the as of yet unused computer. “Plug her name into your system,” he suggested.
The cheerfullness of his tone gave Hernandez pause, and even the mustache ceased its movements for a few beats as those dark eyes swivelled upwards towards Richard’s face. The smartphone was dropped to the desk, and he folded his hands once more to scowl up at the fed. “As I was just tellin’ your sister, this isn’t about assault.” But a little part of him was certainly wishing it would be. “It’s about child abuse.”
Richard bobbed his head agreeably. “Of course, of course.” He took a step back, slipping behind Jo’s seat, his hands naturally falling to her shoulders. “That’s why I brought the fellow who voiced his suspicions to begin with.”
Jo leaned back into Richard, accepting the small form of comfort, though curiously craned her neck to see…
“Liam?” she squeaked. “Woah. You turned me in?”
Her dance instructor was in a haze as he approached. “Jo,” he said faintly. “I… I had no idea…” He all but collapsed into the second chair, pale as he stared blindly at the front of the detective’s desk.
Well now, that was a curious response. She tilted her head to look up at her brother in askance. “I let him watch the video before we came in,” he explained softly. “Apparently, you don’t talk about your other extracurriculars…”
“Was I supposed to?”
Rich shook his head, ruffling her hair. “Not at all, runt.” He lifted his regard back to the detective. “We’ll be more than happy to answer all your questions. I should point out that my sister has not only been abducted on multiple occasions, but there’s sadly been a number of attempts – foiled attempts, mind – in addition to that. We’ve been working on an intense self-defense regiment as a result.” He straightened to his full height, looking over the bullpen. “Ah, there.” He lifted a hand to wave, and Jo didn’t even have to stand to see Dirk looming in the distance. “That’s her instructor as well as one of her bodyguards.”
“She didn’t have any bodyguards with her earlier,” Hernandez pointed out.
“How do you think I got the video?”
Jo was going to throttle Hunter.
“We have all required parties present,” Rich continued, putting on a warm smile. “Why don’t we go ahead and start clearing all of this up, hm?”
The mustache trembled. “This feels like it’s going to be a great deal of paperwork.”
“Likely,” Rich agreed.