I found The Bulk and his cronies jamming some poor nerd into his locker the next morning. After freeing the nerd, and handing him his glasses back, he took off running. Then I faced The Bulk.
“What’re ya doing, ruining our fun?” Milton complained, while The Bulk only smirked.
“Looks like Mucus Eww wants to punch us,” he said. “What’d we do this time? Gonna get revenge for that nerd? He didn’t even thank you for saving his scrawny hide.”
“I’m here about Emma,” I said. “I know you and your father took her. And before you deny it, I have proof. Your phone number was the last one listed on Emma’s phone.”
“What’s he talkin’ ‘bout, Ben?” Gavin asked.
The Bulk didn’t answer, his eyes continually focused on me. “Gavin, Milton, get out of here. This is personal business.”
The two idiots obeyed instantly, knowing better than to question their ring leader.
“Let’s go somewhere private to discuss this,” he said, now looking slightly panicked.
“Why? Don’t want the whole school to know you aided in the kidnapping of an heiress?”
“Shh!” he hissed frantically and made a grab at my shoulder, which I neatly avoided. “Just be quiet, Marcus. I can explain.”
“What?” Had he just called me Marcus? The Bulk must really be sweating in his pants.
He looked over his shoulders before gesturing me to follow him to the restroom. I’d thought I would have to trick him to get information out, and I was still wary he might be trying to trick me, but I figured I should probably hear him out.
He checked all the stalls and scared one guy out. The poor guy still had his pants half down, as he ran screaming from the restroom. Only when the restroom was all clear did The Bulk start talking. He was so flustered that I could only understand half of what he was saying. Something about wanting to blackmail the old lady with Emma’s identity because there had to be a reason they wanted it kept secret, but he never wanted to kidnap Emma.
“Did you just say kidnapping her wasn’t your plan?” I asked.
“It was Lyddie’s idea,” he said, looking panicked. “My dad’s girlfriend. I couldn’t believe she’d do something like that to her daughter, but then, my dad probably would do the same.”
“Lydia Lockhart, you mean?” We’d already suspected it, but it was good to confirm it for sure.
“Yes. She and my dad came up with the idea, and I couldn’t go against my dad because—because—”
He had this haunted look about him that I’d never seen before. It was disturbing. “Because?”
“Because he beats me, all right?” He spat the revelation out with disgust. “I know kidnapping’s a crime. I might rough up some scrawny geek, but not to the point of going to jail. And I definitely didn’t want to kidnap Emma. I thought I could keep quiet, and no one would know, but if you found my number on her phone, then…then…” His face scrunched up. “I don’t wanna go to jail.”
“Maybe you won’t have to,” I said. “Tell me what you know. If Emma goes home safe and sound, Mrs. Lockhart won’t let your dad off, but maybe she’ll go easy on you.”
“Emma’s m-mom was talking to Dad,” he stuttered slightly. “Some rich people wanted this special flower. The something lily.”
“The Lilting Lily.”
“That’s the one,” he nodded. “Lydia knew she would be a suspect in Emma’s kidnapping, so she couldn’t use her house as a base. So that rich couple let her use their beach house.”
Beach. At least that was a clue. “Do you know the rich couple’s name?”
He shook his head. “I can’t remember exactly. I think it started with an M. The wife’s name is Veronica.”
Veronica Murdove. It had to be. “Where’s the beach house?”
“I’m not sure ‘bout the address,” he admitted, “But I know how to get there. I can take you.”
I narrowed my gaze at him. How could I be sure he could be trusted? He didn’t seem like he was lying, but one never knew with The Bulk. What if I followed him, and he led me into a trap?
But what if I told the police, and The Bulk went and warned his dad? Then they’d escape with Emma, and we’d be back at square one.
No, I decided. I had to keep an eye on The Bulk at all times. I’d have to let him take me to the house and proceed with my original plan.
Stan eyed The Bulk for the thirtieth time in a row. His fists clenched, as though he was really restraining himself from punching the guy’s lights out. “I really don’t know about this, Marcus. Are you sure you don’t want one of us to come with you? It’s too dangerous.”
We were using my house to touch base before we put our plan into action. It was too dangerous to discuss anything at the mansion, where the prying ears of some Lockhart servant might run straight to Mrs. Lockhart to tattle.
“I can handle it,” I said. “I already told you guys you have the most important job. Besides,” I added, with a warning glance directed at The Bulk, “He won’t betray me. Not unless he wants me to tell the cops he hatched up the kidnapping plan.”
The Bulk shook his head, lifting his right hand. “I swear on my mama’s grave I’ll be good.”
I turned to my friends. “Is it ready?”
Heath carefully lifted the potted Lilting Lily from his backpack. It was encased in a glass box that looked like the one that held the enchanted rose in Beauty and the Beast.
“Ready as it ever will,” Tony said.
“Is that what everyone’s going crazy after?” The Bulk scoffed. “Looks ordinary to me.”
We all ignored him. “I sure hope your plan works,” Heath sighed. “Because if this baby gets into the wrong hands, Grandpa and Emma are gonna kill me.”
I took the treasured flower from his hands. “It will work.” I was determined. It had to work. “Let’s get moving.”
The Bulk and I loaded up into Yeye’s old Honda, and I tucked the flower safely between my legs, not able to completely trust that The Bulk wouldn’t just grab it and take off. I’d taken the car without permission, but I’d be in trouble anyway when my grandparents found out I was taking action to save Emma without the knowledge of the police.
Fifteen minutes later, we were by the seaside. As we got out of the car, The Bulk pointed to the cliff where the beach house lay. We couldn’t drive too close because they might see me and suspect something was up.
“We just follow the hiking trail,” The Bulk said.
I judged the hike up wasn’t too bad, maybe another fifteen minutes. The trail that led up the cliff was popular with bikers and joggers on weekends. Today, however, it was quiet. The trail was a little steep, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. The Bulk, on the other hand, was panting and sweating, and he was being very vocal about it.
Normally I probably would have told him to shut the hell up, but today, I hardly heard him. My mind was too focused on getting to Emma.
It felt like an eternity before we finally came to the main road where several houses spaciously lay. The house with the huge arches and Roman pillars stood out like a daisy in a rose garden. It also happened to be the largest piece of architecture there. So I wasn’t surprised when The Bulk pointed and said, “That’s the one.”
Finally we were at the Murdoves’ beach house. And somewhere inside was Emma. “Go knock on the door,” I told The Bulk. He did as instructed, and a few seconds later, the tall man I recognized from the Halloween party opened the door. He didn’t see me at first, but he looked shocked, then angry to see his son.
“You idiot, what are you doing here?” he hissed. “I told you not to come. What if the cops are tailing you?”
I stepped forward to reveal myself, and Ben Lyons’ eyes bulged. I sensed his movement and wedged myself against the door before he could slam it shut. “Not so fast. I have the Lilting Lily.” I waved the potted flower in his face. “All I’d like to do is negotiate.”
Before he could say no, I forcefully edged inside, leaving Ben Lyons gaping at his son. He smacked the side of The Bulk’s head hard, confirming the earlier confession from The Bulk that his father was abusive. Even I winced. “Are you insane? How could you bring him here?” he roared.
“I swear he doesn’t have anything on him,” The Bulk whined. “I made him leave his cell phone behind, and I’m sure no one’s tailing us.”
“There’s no way to be sure about that, you idiot!”
“Ahem.” I cleared my throat. “Lyons, I suggest you stop shouting and close the door. Unless you want all the neighbors to hear, which I don’t mind, but I’m sure you would.”
He swore at me and dragged his son inside. Then he turned to me, face red and steaming. “You, don’t try any funny business, and you—” he pointed to his son, “—watch him. Now I have to make sure the cops aren’t around.”
Then he stomped out the door, and the whole house shook as the door slammed behind him.
They aren’t there now, but give it another half hour, I thought deviously.
“Benjamin,” a new voice—low and smoky—called from upstairs. “What’s with all the racket? Your shouting woke me up. I could hear the pout in her tone. She glided down the stairs, and her gaze met mine. “Oh, visitors.” Unlike Ben Lyons, she seemed completely unperturbed that a stranger had penetrated her secret hideout.
One look at her, and I knew she had to be Lydia Lockhart. Emma really did look like her—from the piercing green eyes to the high cheekbones and heart-shaped face. Only Emma was softer in a way that made her more pure. Her mother, on the other hand, for all her sleepy-eyed, come-hither looks, seemed cold. She had the same green eyes, but they looked soulless, as though she could have committed murder and not batted an eye.
She glanced at the Lilting Lily and batted her eyes prettily. “A present, for me?”
“Not if you don’t let Emma go,” I growled. “Where is she?”
“Oh, so is that what this is about?” She smiled between me and The Bulk. “A friend of yours, Benny?”
The Bulk was practically quaking in his shoes. How odd that it seemed he feared her more than his abusive father. “I must say,” she said, “I didn’t think with your looks and chunky body, you’d make friends with such a handsome boy. But maybe he’ll be a good influence on you. Make you shed the extra hundred pounds on you.” The Bulk winced at the criticism of his weight, although in my opinion, he was just big-boned. Maybe he could lose five pounds and tone his muscles, but Lydia Lockhart was being especially cruel by mentioning the hundred pounds that weren’t even there to lose.
But that answered my question. Sometimes verbal abuse hurt more than the physical beatings. This made me think of The Bulk in a different light for the first time in my life.
It also made me all the more anxious to get Emma away from the crazy woman before her self-esteem, which I’d worked so hard to build up, completely collapsed to where it had been when I’d first met her.
“Where is Emma?” I demanded to know.
“Such viciousness,” she smirked. “I like that in a man. But don’t tell me you’re my daughter’s boy toy. Can’t think of why you’d be interested in a mouse like her.”
“Shut up, bitch,” I hissed. “You don’t have the right to call her your daughter. And I’ll bet you always criticize her because you’re jealous of how much more beautiful she is than you.”
A flash of a nasty scowl crept into her face before she masked it with another annoying laugh. “Well, well, I can see you have eccentric taste in women. But to each his own, I suppose.”
The front door opened again, as The Bulk’s dad returned. “You’d best be thankful no one followed you here,” he growled at his son, “Because that’s the only thing saving you from being skinned alive.”
“Temper, Ben.” Lydia clicked her tongue. “Give Benny some face in front of his friend.”
“Not now,” she said with another smile. “This young man was just about to tell me why he’s here with a flower in his arms, demanding to see my daughter. I don’t think he’s here to take Emma on a date, so I think we should hear him out.”
“I’m here to negotiate Emma’s release,” I said, getting right to the point. “This is the Lilting Lily. I’ll give it to you right now if you let Emma go.”
“You seem to have forgotten the original terms of the ransom,” Lydia pointed out. “We demanded money to be wired into our account. That hasn’t happened yet, and since I care about the money more than any stupid flower, your trip here today has been wasted.”
“I know you don’t want the flower, but your friends, the Murdoves, do.”
“Again, I don’t care.” Lydia shrugged. “I only listed the flower on the ransom, so they’d agree to let us use their house. But once the money’s wired into my account, I don’t care if they get their end of the deal.”
I shook my head, telling myself to remain calm. Lydia’s indifference towards the flower was unexpected, considering it was on her list of demands. I’d thought she’d take one greedy look at the flower and at least let me see Emma, but it was obvious she could care less. How foolish I’d been to believe my plan wouldn’t have any flaws. Still, I had to make her care, or at least keep talking until help arrived. “You don’t seem to understand. This flower itself is worth millions. Why do you think the Murdoves want it so much? It has a one-of-a-kind scent that when made into a perfume will sell like hotcakes.” I sounded like a damn infomercial. But at least Lydia’s eyes sparkled, telling me her interest had been piqued.
“Hmm…you might not be so dumb after all,” she said, then looked sharply at Ben Lyons. “You should have thought of this sooner. We could take the lily and only hand it over to the Murdoves for a hefty price. Imagine…we could walk away with double the sum of Emma’s ransom.” Her lips formed a moue as she regarded me. “But why did you come here with the lily? Even if I did care about it before, the old hag was instructed to leave the flower at the designated drop-off area for the Murdoves to collect later.”
Because I want to watch you get caught with my own eyes. Because I couldn’t not do anything. “I don’t trust you or the Murdoves,” I said bluntly. “I want to make sure Emma is released. And I’m not leaving here without her.”
“You’re not leaving here at all,” Ben Lyons finally spoke. Then he clapped twice, and several brawny men stepped through the front door. “In case you try any funny business, I called in some recruits.” The four men pounded their fists threateningly. I was already calculating how to kick their butts in.
“And you were right not to trust us,” Lydia smirked. “We don’t trust you either. I know you must have informed the cops of this beach house, so before they get here, we’re going to leave with Emma and the lily.”
“But not before roughing you up first,” Lyons added.
Lydia gestured to The Bulk, who was sitting on the sofa, looking very uncomfortable. “Be a good boy and fetch Emma, will you? She’d love to see the trouble her boy toy got into for her sake. First room behind the staircase.”
The Bulk did as instructed, and soon, I heard Emma’s muffled cry. She came into view, struggling against The Bulk and the ropes that bound her. And that wasn’t all. She had a black eye. They’d beaten her.
I felt rage flood my senses, but ordered it down. I needed to remain calm and collected, or we were both in trouble.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” I told her, although I didn’t quite believe it myself. I might be able to beat those men, but not in time to stop them from taking Emma. “Why can’t you just let her go? Here, take the lily.”
Lydia extended her hands and took it from me. At least that part of the plan had worked. As long as she had the flower on her, we had a chance. “Thanks, but I’m taking my daughter too.”
“Ben, get over here with the girl,” his father ordered. The Bulk looked uncertainly at me, but in the end, obeyed his father.
Coward. But I couldn’t blame him either. That was his father.
I made my move. With a leap over the couch, I blocked The Bulk from moving forward and punched him in the face. I hadn’t hit him all too hard, but it was enough for him to let go of Emma. Grabbing her arm as The Bulk cried out from the pain, I moved us to a corner to remove her bindings. Then as she struggled to free the rest, I swung to face the rest of our attackers.
“Damn it,” Lyons swore. “We don’t have time for this. Lydia, let’s get moving. At least we have the flower for now.” He waved to his men. “You four, take care of him, and then bring us the girl.”
Just like that, Ben Lyons and Lydia Lockhart took off, leaving his son on the floor, crying from a bloody nose, and her daughter to face an intimidating group of thugs. They came flying at me, but I was ready.
I dodged and fought, clouting one on the head, taking down another by tripping him. They went down like bowling pins. The next two were a little more difficult. One of them charged at me, faked a punch, which I stupidly fell for, and then locked me in a viselike grip, while the other used me as a punching bag. I could taste the blood on my mouth, and the pain of the beatings was almost unbearable.
In a last attempt to free myself, I whipped my head back, and heard the satisfying crunch of my captor’s nose being broken. He went down in pain, and I extricated myself, to swing around for the fourth guy.
But to my horror, he’d already reached Emma and was trying to drag her towards the door. Emma wasn’t totally useless though. I’d taught her well. She elbowed the guy in the ribs, and with a grunt, he let her go just long enough for me to get there and slug him one on the face. He went down.
I brushed my hands together, thinking my work was done, when Emma’s voice cried out. “Marcus, look out!”
Before I could react, I’d been kicked to the floor. One of the other guys had come to and crept up behind me. He grabbed my arms and pinned me to the ground. “You broke my nose, you sonuva—” The rest of that was drowned out, and all I heard was some low drone of nonsense as pain flooded my senses. It was so hard to breathe, and I briefly realized he’d kicked me in the ribs. Something had to be broken.
He punched and kicked me over and over, and there was blood all over my face. I struggled to get up, but the pain was too awful, and the earlier beatings had made me weak.
And then out of nowhere, I heard a screeching, “HYY—YAHH!” The man’s face above mine froze for two seconds, and then he crumpled to the ground.
I heard the sound of sirens in the background as Emma called my name. She was sobbing. I wheezed out, trying to tell her I was fine, but it was too hard to breathe. And the field of black dots clouded my vision until they finally coalesced to become one big black screen.
The first thing I realized when I opened my eyes was that a bunch of IVs and plugs were attached to my arms. One leg was raised, the lower half in a cast, and my entire chest was bound by bandages.
“He’s awake!” I heard someone say. I shifted my eyes to the right side of the room and saw my parents, grandparents, and Heath.
“What happened?” I wheezed, surprised that it was a bit difficult to breathe, and that jogged my memory. I’d fought four thugs who worked for The Bulk’s father in order to save Emma. “Where’s Emma?”
“She’s in the next room,” Mom said. “She’s being released from the hospital today, so she’ll be over to see you later.”
“The hospital?” I gasped. “She’s in the hospital? Is she hurt?”
“Minor bruises,” Dad said. “Nothing serious. Unlike what happened to you.” He glared at me disapprovingly. “A broken rib, a fractured leg, and some head trauma.”
Amazing that broken arm wasn’t on that list.
“You’ve been in and out of consciousness for two days and doctor says you’re likely to stay here for another two weeks. Honestly, Marcus, this is so not cool. We were so worried.” But then Dad’s glower transformed into a grin. “Good job catching the bad guys though.” Mom slapped him hard across the shoulder.
“You stupid boy,” Nai-nai said. “Why couldn’t you just let the police deal with it?”
I expected Ye-ye to lecture me too, but as Nai-nai turned her head, he gave me a big old grin and a thumbs up.
She looked at him suspiciously. “This is all your fault, you know,” she told him. “You just had to teach him kung fu. It made him develop some hero complex.”
“The boy’s alive,” Ye-ye argued. “Kung fu is what saved him. Besides, in my day—”
“I don’t care,” Nai-nai interrupted. “Those hands are for writing and studying, not fighting.” Then they were all arguing in front of me, Mom taking Nai-nai’s side, and Dad taking Ye-ye’s.
Heath came up to the bedside. “Tony and Stan are helping Emma now, but all of them will be by this afternoon.”
“Did they catch Lydia Lockhart and Ben Lyons?”
“Of course,” Heath replied with a smile. “The cops got them, and they admitted everything, including the Murdoves’ involvement.”
That came as no surprise. They’d already proved themselves not to be the most loyal people around.
I grinned back at him. “The fools didn’t realize we put the tracking device on the flower.”
Heath suddenly grew serious. “Actually Marcus. The tracking device didn’t work. We had no idea where The Bulk took you.”
I almost jumped off the bed, but the pain in my chest forced me back down. “What do you mean it didn’t work? Then how did the cops find us?”
“They said they got a tip from some anonymous caller who witnessed Emma’s kidnapping.”
Anonymous caller? It suddenly sunk in just how lucky I was. Without this person’s help, I would be dead.
“And the cops have no idea who it is?”
“Either that, or they won’t say,” Heath said. “Maybe at the person’s request.”
I wished I knew who had saved my life, so I could thank them. Hopefully one day I’d find out, but for now, some things just had to remain a mystery.
A knock sounded on the door, and Mom went to answer it. In came Emma, Tony, Stan, and Mrs. Lockhart, all looking extremely worried. But when they saw I was awake, there was a collective sigh of relief.
“Bad news, Marcus,” Tony said solemnly.
“What?” What could be worse than breaking a rib and fracturing my leg?
“Looks like you’re going to miss your AP exams.”
It took me a moment to process this, but when I did, I cracked up. My rib hurt instantly. “Don’t make me laugh, Tony,” I begged.
“I thought you weren’t coming ‘til later,” Heath said.
“The doctor released Emma early,” Mrs. Lockhart replied. “And she couldn’t wait to see Marcus.”
I gave Emma a thorough look-over and saw her doing the same to me. Other than some bruising on her right cheek and a bandaged hand, she didn’t look worse for wear. “Did you break your hand?”
She shook her head. “It’s just swollen from when I slugged one of those thugs in the chest. Felt like hitting a rock.”
“That’s not all the damage she did,” Tony grinned, making Emma blush slightly. I looked at them curiously. “You know that roundhouse kick she used to knock you out the first time you met? Well, she used it on the guy who was about to kill you.”
“Emma saved your life,” Stan added.
Then I remembered. Emma had shouted a big, old HYY—YAHH right before the guy beating the crap out of me toppled over. Now I grinned too. That move of Emma’s was sure deadly.
“I saved his life, but he also saved mine,” Emma said quietly. Then she looked around at everyone. “May I please speak with Marcus in private?”
The others slowly nodded and headed for the door, with Mrs. Lockhart declaring she’d buy everyone breakfast, since no one had eaten yet.
When they’d closed the door behind them, my eyes crept back to Emma. She was staring at my bandaged leg. A lone tear strayed down her cheek, jarring me. I hated when girls cried, especially Emma. I never knew what to say or do. “Don’t cry.” That was the only stupid thing I could think of saying.
“How can I not cry?” She glared at me furiously. “You idiot. How could you come up with such a reckless plan? You could have died.”
Good, she was angry, and the tears had stopped. Anger, I could handle. “I’m not dead though. I—”
She totally ignored me. “Don’t you know how dangerous my mother and Ben Lyons are? They could have had a gun and just shot you dead. And when those thugs came charging at you, I was so scared. How could you have endangered your own life for me?”
I stared at her, every ounce of clarity reflected in my eyes. “Because you’re important to me. I love you. Not in that phony Hollywood romance kind of way. Not in that oh my gosh, she’s so hot, high school crush kind of way. I love you because you’re my friend. You’re entirely too strong-willed and clumsy, and your know-it-all personality gets on my nerves sometimes. But you’re also selfless and sweet, and you make me want to protect you from the world even when you don’t need protection.”
Her eyes glistened with unshed tears, and I knew she recognized the words I’d just said. They were her words after all, only modified slightly. “You read my letter.”
“Took me awhile, but yes.” Now I felt my traitorous eyes get watery. “I saw the gardenia too. But I’m not giving you one back.”
“I’ll always have a fondness for gardenias,” I admitted. “But that’s no longer our flower. Because I’m afraid I can’t live with just a secret love. So you’ll have to settle with a bouquet of red roses.”
I saw the moment she took in my meaning. Then I just couldn’t help myself. Thankful that my arms weren’t broken, I wrapped them around her, pulling her close. Our lips met, and I kissed her and she kissed me back, and I felt the purity of our love.
Only the red rose could do it justice.