Crazy Enough

Carina Press | Share

by Heather McGhee

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Pitch

It was supposed to be an easy job. Get to Mexico, get photos of that bastard, Niro, and get home. But photojournalist Corkie Brooks did not account for a lone Army Ranger kidnapping her, stealing her photos and then protecting her.

Lt. Alex Spears wants to destroy the man who killed his father. He never expects to see a pretty photographer in the middle of his top secret mission. To save his career, his life and his sanity, Alex must guard Corkie from herself and from the men chasing them.

Together, they might be crazy enough to survive.

Chapter 1

Mexico‘s Chihuahuan Desert was sweltering enough without airplanes exploding all over the place.

Okay, so it had been only one small, single prop aircraft, but the explosion was still hot and unsettling. Corkie Brooks resisted the urge to shield her face from the hot inferno and crouched further behind a cropping of rust-hued rocks high on a ridge, five hundred yards away. Her Nikon clicked like crazy, taking on a life of its own while she photographed the whole scene below. Scores of men from a variety of countries recklessly fired automatic weapons and ducked behind dusty SUVs and abandoned cargo. Bullets whizzed through the dry, hot, air, plunking into rock and metal as often as live flesh. Thank the Lord, none of those men knew she was up here, working silently and secretly, as a mini-war raged down in the valley.

The July sun beat down, burning the back of Corkie’s neck, but being one of the best independent photojournalist in the world—if she didn’t say so herself—she didn’t notice the heat as the photos framed themselves before her eyes.

Arriving at her current location hours before, Corkie scouted the best place to hide and still see all of the valley below her. At first, only a single, black Escalade idled next to the old hanger, looking pristine and out of place. Then all sorts of vehicles arrived, men pooling out into the open and went through the usual greetings. Their business together seemed primarily normal. They could have been discussing the stock exchange around an oval conference table in Manhattan for all the mediocrity she witnessed. It was kinda boring, actually, if not for the dozen bodyguards standing diligently behind each V.I.P., casually holding semi-automatic rifles.

But then a small aircraft descended onto the crude runway, rolling to a stop, emitting more well-dressed visitors, and the arguments began…and then the shooting. Men started dying or fleeing, and the plane exploding during a hasty take-off had just been another casualty.

Corkie wanted to squeal with delight; she could not believe her luck. The action, the bloodshed, all those international criminals in one place! Even Hibram Espinoza, the Mexican cartel boss who had his hands, elbows-deep, in nearly every major criminal—and some innocent—business dealing in the Western Hemisphere, was out in the open for the first time in six years! There was a Chinese gang boss, a few Middle Eastern arms dealers, an American drug lord, and…and…yes, there! There he was. Niro Sultanovich. The only reason Corkie hopped a plane out of D.C. two days ago and hiked several miles through the desert to set her butt on this ridge.

Her informant told her no other details of the meeting, just the location where Niro would be. He was only son of a Slavic crime boss, Anton Sultanovich, and Corkie would know his face anywhere. She’d been chronicling the Sultanovich family for darn near ten years. They were her fascination, her obsession. Niro, especially, got her camera buzzing, since he was rumored to be dead.

Dog-sledding accident, my butt, she thought when she heard about his demise two years ago, not believing it then either. Now, he popped up, out of the blue, and in Mexico.

Got you now, Niro, you bastard, she sang in her head as she clicked his photo over and over. Corkie zoomed in on the light-haired man. He huddled behind a stack of steel barrels while his personal guard attempted to clear a path. This was the story of the year—the World’s Most-Wanted Reunion and Niro’s presence —and she solely knew about it. Her only task today was to get in, get the pictures, and get out unseen. Just few more…then I’m out of here.

Corkie’s camera hit the end of the SD card storage, and her low battery icon flashed, but she clicked a few more to store into the camera’s internal unit…just in case. Quickly, she slipped the tiny card out of the camera and tucked it in a small pocket inside the cup of her bra—a trick she learned the hard way. She had a small pack with basic survival equipment and a 9mm tucked into the back waistband of her pants. Still crouching, she stored her camera in the pack, slung it over her shoulder and pivoted on her balls of her feet to leave down the other side of the ridge, making no sounds, making no sudden movements.

As she turned, her gaze landed on the hollow-end of a .45ACP pistol—fixed serrated combat sights, hard anodized frame, ten-plus-one capacity…Army issue—pointed right at that sweet spot between her eyes. Corkie’s heart stopped, restarted, and raced down the hillside without her. A man, clothed head to foot in military desert camouflage, crouched three feet behind her. He held that .45 like he’d been here before, comfortable on the other end of a brain sizzler and not the least bit fazed or concerned that she was female.

How long has he been there?

He raised a sun-darkened finger to his lips, that age-old symbol to be silent. Nodding her head with obedience, the only part of her body not frozen, Corkie carefully watched him, watching her.

Steel gray eyes stared back at her through the nylon mask covering most of his face. God, with this heat, he must be suffocating, Corkie thought, and then had to suppress of bubble of hysteria as it dawned on her that that was her next thought. Never mind that he had a gun to her head. Or that he could be a look-out for one of the murderous committee members down on in the airstrip. His garb and gun marked him as U.S. military, yet did that really matter? She’d been caught. Her very next thought was that her father sent him to get her.

Corkie felt a chill go down her spine. Her father. She loved her dear daddy, but if he knew she was in Mexico…here, so close to a miniature warzone…again

Remembering the day a year ago in Syria when she nearly died for photographing a similar scene and that her daddy, Colonel Steven James Davenport, III, had to collect her from the hospital in Damascus…. He yelled at her in a rage for an entire hour—about her recklessness, her stubbornness, her stupidity, and yes, her continued defiance to get married—before he calmed down, hugged her tightly, cried like a baby, and thanked the Lord she was okay. Corkie had no desire to go through that again. Which was why she didn’t tell any of her family she was here. That would be stupid.

She breathed out the air she’d been holding. Just stay calm. This man was pointing his gun at her. He wouldn’t do that if Daddy sent him. Unless, Daddy told him to scare the crap out of her so she wouldn’t be so careless next time, but even her maddening father wouldn’t be so heartless…or would he?

Corkie watched as Camo Man stretched out his hand, palm up, fingers beckoning. Obviously wanting something. Corkie sighed heavily. Dang it, he’d been here long enough to spot her gun. She raised her left hand, pivoted her hip slightly toward him and removed her 9mm from the back of her pants as carefully and harmlessly as possible. Her fingers trembled with annoyance and anger, but the man had his own gun on her, and his hand wasn’t shaking even the tiniest bit, so she’d be smart to do whatever he asked—within reason, of course. Corkie let her 9mm dangle from her thumb as she held it out to him. His gray eyes kept her prisoner in a cold gaze while he took it from her, tucking it into his own waistband. The whole situation seemed surreal. They could be exchanging auto insurance for all the emotion he showed. He held his hand out to her once again, after securing her gun in the back of his belt. But he wasn’t asking for a stick of gum this time.

Corkie shook her head. Absolutely not!

The man pressed the barrel into her forehead ominously. And beckoned again…that cold stare turning colder. Corkie sighed—Fine!—and grimaced as she slid her fingers across his calloused palm, his skin heating hers beyond the warmth already created by the blistering sun. He tugged slowly, easily pulling her away from her hiding spot and down the backside of the ridge. Soon, he pushed her in front of his body, and he twisted one of her arms behind her back, pressed his gun barrel against the base of her neck and prodded her away from the explosions and gunfire as easily as if she were a child.

"Who are you?" she asked him, turning her head a bit to look at him. He prodded her along, never saying a word.

"What do you want?" she tried again. "Where are we going?"

He made no sound that he heard or cared.

The terrain was rocky and uneven, dotted with stubby plant life, and Corkie stumbled more times than she would have done on her own, praying his trigger finger wasn’t very itchy. A truck flew out of the valley, fleeing the destruction by the airstrip, and her camouflaged captor pushed her to the ground behind another large boulder, hiding them until the area cleared. A rather boisterous explosion rocked the afternoon, sending a plume of thick smoke upward and showering the vicinity with sand and gravel. Corkie assumed the fuel tanks next to the rusted airplane hangar blew up. The man held her there, her body pressed into the rocky ground while he breathed heavily against her neck.

Five minutes passed…then only the sounds were of an inferno blazing on the other side of the hill.

He pushed her to her feet and turned them east. Crap, Corkie thought. Juan, her friend and Mexican contact, was waiting for her to the north. And if she didn’t make it back to him by noon, then she’d miss her ride out of this desert until the next morning. That arrangement was for Juan’s protection. A lone man hanging out beside a pickup truck in the middle of nowhere all day…well, who wouldn’t be suspicious?

For almost two miles, they wove through the rocky desert, keeping to the shadows of boulders and cliff sides as much as possible. Her captor never lessened the hold on her arm, and she thought it wise to keep her mouth shut for now. Finally, he forced her between two large rock piles, completely hidden from the outside world.

With a shove, he let her go. Corkie stumbled a few steps and rubbed at her sore arm and shoulder, turning immediately to keep him in her sights. Where was his backup? Surely, he’s not stupid enough to be out here alone.

Oh, wait…I’m alone.

But I’m not stupid…just crazy.

She paused and waited for him to say something, start an interrogation or make demands, but he didn’t, just stared at her as he figuring out what to do with her. Corkie had a few ideas on that matter, but she knew he wouldn’t go for any of them. She slipped her backpack off her shoulder, he raised his gun higher, right at her head, and beckoned with the other. Corkie huffed and tossed the bag to his feet.

"Can I have my water bottle, please?" she asked sweetly.

He assessed her for a moment, and then hunkered down as smoothly as a wild feline, the lines of his body bending and folding beautifully. Corkie cocked her head to the side to enjoy the scenery. Very nice. For a soldier.

The man unzipped her bag and quickly dug through it with his free hand, his gun and eyes never leaving her face. Suddenly he pitched her water toward her and resumed his blind search of the bag. Corkie uncapped the bottle and drank heavily. She winced as he discarded her camera to the side of his boot, sand dust billowing up and settling in the crooks and nannies of her three-thousand dollar livelihood. Then he dumped the contents of the bag. Corkie carried nothing of major importance in her bags, other than her camera, preferring to keep her passport and cash in a pouch strapped to her thigh inside her tan hiking pants.

Finally, the man rose to his feet, his muscular limbs unfolding lithely, and he jerked his gun at her, signaling for her to turn around. Corkie sighed and faced a large boulder, hands raised. She was hot and sweaty, her lightweight clothing getting that gritty, itchy feeling, and again, she wondered how he could bear to be covered in that heavy, military garb. He approached and began searching her person with deft pats to every curve of her body. Corkie smiled grimly as she endured this small invasion of her body.

"You know, usually I wait a few dates before going to second base with a guy."

He didn’t reply. Removing everything from her pockets, he just dropped them to the ground, smashing her satellite phone under the heel of his boot, and the more he continued to pat around on her, the more she realized he had yet to find what he was looking for.

"Darn it," she muttered, when his hand slid into the neckline of her t-shirt and deftly plucked the SD card from the inside of her bra. His fingers didn’t even hesitate or explore further than the small memory disk. He knew where to find it.

Inhaling a hot lungful of air, she clenched her jaw. She was going to have to start hiding those things better. A whole week of work lost in a matter of a few hours. Those photos would have paid her a pretty penny over the next couple of months. Leaking them out to the press a bit at a time, letting the news journalists investigate and delve into the real story, and then when the spit hit the fan, Corkie could sell her photographs to the highest bidder. But now…how was she going to get that card away from him?

Her host kept her pinned to the rock for several minutes more, only pressing a solid palm to her back. When he whipped her around to face him, the barrel of his .45 poked her in her stomach, and Corkie got a close-up of those gray eyes. Like cold steel on a January night. Frosty, hard, unforgiving. His face was still well covered, but she shifted his glance to his mouth, which was as immobile and unwavering as his gaze. She jerked when he tapped the inside of her thigh with his gun, on the money pouch strapped to her leg. His eyes never moved from her face. She groaned as she realized what he wanted.

"Come on, give a girl a break," she said, staring right at him. "I’ll have pull my pants all the way down to my knees to get that off."

He tapped her again.

"Fine," she huffed, "but you owe me dinner after this. I don’t take my clothes off for someone I just met."

There, for just a flash of a second, she thought she spied a smile in his gaze, but his mouth didn’t change, so she couldn’t be for sure. Corkie tipped a crooked grin at him as she unbuttoned her pants and pushed them down to her knees. She kept her eyes locked onto his as she unfastened the velcro strip around her thigh and removed the black nylon pouch. He took it from her, stepped back a few paces and lowered his gun. Keeping the weapon pointed in her vicinity, he zipped open the pouch and pulled out her passport, ignoring the fold of money. The only time he flicked his eyes away from her was when he glanced down briefly to read her name on her passport. Then he stuffed it back into the pouch and dropped it onto her backpack. Corkie stood there, her hands anchored on her hips with herself still exposed to him and her eyebrows raised for permission to dress again. At least, I’ve got on my good underwear, she amused herself. He waved his .45 at her, and she jerked her pants back up, fastening them again.

"Aww…done already?" she mocked him as she quickly packed up her camera and bag, slinging it over her shoulder. "Well, I’ll be honest with you. This has been the longest, most meaningful relationship I’ve had in three years."

He backed away to the opening of the crevice, and Corkie panicked. Where did he stash her camera card? She looked at all the pockets on his clothing and groaned as she realized it’d take her forever to search them all. She couldn’t go home without it. She needed it.

The man watched every move she made, carefully studying her actions and how she bravely faced him. The next time he took his eyes off her was when he glanced at his watch. Then he gazed back at her, sighed heavily, and stored his gun in his holster. Corkie saw her chance.

Without warning, she threw her bag at him, smacking him right in the face. He reached for his gun again, but she was already on him. A kick to his knee sent him down, her own knee to his nose sent him back, but he recovered quickly, freeing his pistol and raising it. Corkie grabbed it before his aim completed, kicked his chest, and knocked him upside the head with the grip of his pistol. He crumbled. All in all, she barely took three breaths through it.

God bless those self-defense classes!

Now, she panted, her adrenaline spiking, but she couldn’t stay here and ask more questions. With a flick of deft fingers, she removed the .45’s magazine, emptied the chamber, and tossed the bulletless gun to one end of the narrow opening and the clip other. Quickly, she patted him over the same way he violated her. But she didn’t find her SD card. Corkie bit off a rueful scream. The man moaned and moved, and Corkie figured him to be someone who would retaliate, and not kindly. Other than boxing him on the head again and possibly giving him brain damage, she had no way to safely subdue him long enough to go through all his garb and gear.

"Dang you!" she said, kicking sand at him. She had some pictures stored on her camera. They would have to do. Grabbing her 9mm from his belt and her bag from the sand, she took off at a dead run.

*****

Lieutenant Alex Spears shook off the pain in his head and watched the woman—Cortney Brooks, according to her passport—as she ran out into the sun. Her blonde hair, pulled up into a messy knot on top of her head, shimmered in the afternoon rays. "Sonofabitch," he moaned and pushed to his feet.

The last time he lost a fight…hell, that wasn’t a fight, he thought darkly. That mere slip of a woman dropped him like a sack of potatoes, and those moves screamed military training. She moved like a freaking leopard, just a flash of kicks and punches, and he never saw any of it coming.

"Observe and report back," his commander said. "Do not get involved."

"Shit," Alex grumbled, staggering around the small area. He only wanted to protect her from those murdering bastards and get information out of her.

For the first time in six years, Hibram Espinoza had come out into the open. No one, outside of a secret military base in Durango, knew that the Mexican crime boss was heading toward a small, abandoned airport in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. Alex, as part of a cooperative task force between Mexico and the United States to help take down drug lords, volunteered to be a solo scout to gather intel. He also had a personal reason for going after Espinoza…the man was responsible for the death of Alex’s father many years ago.

But no one, especially Alex, who had been an Army Ranger for eight years, expected to see a slender blonde woman hiding behind a boulder with a camera in her hands. She was good, Alex had to admit that. He almost missed her there, her tan clothing hiding her just as well as his desert camo. Silently, he snuck up behind her, waiting for her to finish her picture taking, and get her away from the death below as quickly and as quietly as possible. Alex had no desire to hurt her, unless she tried to kill him, but the whole time he guided her away, she behaved herself.

And then he let his guard down at the wrong moment.

Honestly, he couldn’t tell if she was scared out of her wits or not. Any other woman would have started screaming as soon as she saw him with his gun pointed at her head. But not that one. Her indigo blue eyes widened, and Alex had to take a moment to appreciate her. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed women were also not in abundance in the countries he normally worked. Just seeing her made him feel a little homesick, but he was here for a job, and she interfered with that job. She had pictures of the meeting between Espinoza and a handful of world dignitaries. And Alex couldn’t allow her to leave with them. He quickly checked the clasp of his belt and discovered the camera card still lodged into the small recess there. A long, relieved breath left him, but he couldn’t let the woman get away. She was a danger to his mission.

Alex located his .45, cursed again while searching for the clip and scrambled after her. She wasn’t an easy prey to catch. Following her tracks for half a mile, he spotted her trotting along a dry river bed, heading north, but he kept his distance. She had her 9mm back, and after that beating he took, he wasn’t about to assume she wouldn’t shoot if she saw him again. For now, she had the upper hand, and for several miles, he crept along, keeping her just in his sights. Her jog never slowed. Alex observed the way she carried herself. A steady pace. Continuous, never missing a measured beat. A gait determined by hours of endurance and miles and miles of endless running. The daily aerobic workout for any soldier.

Was she Intelligence? CIA?

She wasn’t part of his unit, and if another government entity had their hands in this mission, then Alex was going to raise hell. He didn’t like surprises. Who the hell does she work for? God, if she’s an independent…a goddamn journalist…Alex didn’t want to think about it.

When she veered north-east, heading away from the river and disappearing behind a large cluster of rocks, Alex tripped over himself to catch up. He found her again on a nearby, lone dirt road next to a small, red pickup truck as she briefly hugged a man in dusty denims…then she hopped into that truck and the two sped off.

"Goddammit," Alex mumbled. He scrambled down a rocky slope in hopes of picking up the truck’s trail. If he let that photographer get away…

*****

"Who is the hombre following you, Corkie?"

Corkie adjusted the side mirror outside her window. A speck of movement behind them was her only indication that her captor was still back there. "He’s a thief and a nuisance," she told Juan. "Just lose him."

Juan never missed oddities to his surroundings, even a camouflaged man in the distance. He glanced at Corkie, his dark eyes displeased, and pushed on the gas pedal. The two of them flew along the road, dust billowing behind them. Corkie could no longer see Camo Man behind them, but she had a feeling he was still back there. If he was stupid enough to follow them all the way back to Juan’s village, then he deserved what Juan would do to him. Juan didn’t like strange men coming to his home, and his wife, Ana, could be positively hostile about it.

"What happened?" Juan demanded during the drive. Corkie glanced away from the window and grimaced at Juan’s tone.

"My man was there, Juan, at the airstrip. Sultanovich.”

“So, he is not dead,” Juan mused.

“Nope…oh, and you’ll never guess who else was there,” she said. “Hibram Espinoza."

Juan’s eyebrows rose. "Are you sure?" he inquired softly.

"Yes," Corkie answered, digging out her water bottle again. She told him everything that happened that day, the gunfight, the V.I.P.s, the plane, Camo Man taking her away, and how she escaped.

Her friend stared off into the distance. "I will have to alert Enrique."

"I didn’t realize el Presidente was still talking to you."

Juan gave her a dry smile. "He isn’t…but he does listen from time to time. We will need proof that Espinoza is out in the open again."

"The man following me took my camera card," she sighed. "I have some pictures on the camera’s internal, but I’m not sure if Espinoza is in any of them."

"Then we will need the man who took your photos," Juan said, slowing down and stopping in the middle of the road..

Corkie looked behind them. "What are you doing?"

"It would be easier if we killed him here and be done with it." He sounded serious.

She groaned. She loved Juan like a dear uncle, she really did, but sometimes he was just too severe. "Juan, you can’t kill him.

"He put a gun to your head, nińa. That is reason."

"And you wonder why el Presidente doesn’t talk to you anymore."

Juan winked at her. "No, I know why my cousin no longer converses with me…I stole Ana from him."

"Yes, well, we still can’t kill Camo Man," Corkie explained. "Everything about him screamed military operative…killing him would only bring a whole bushel of trouble both our ways, and would really make Daddy mad. I don’t like that he took my pictures, but I won’t kill someone for them. Besides, if the American military is scoping out Hibram Espinoza, then Enrique will know about it, too."

Juan thought for a moment. "If he follows you, nińa, then he must have reason. He already has your photos. What does he want with you? Do you think he is your papa’s?"

"You mean that Daddy knows where I am and sent one of his grunts to come get me?" she asked, and Juan nodded.

"Your papa warned you not to come into Mexico," he said.

"Daddy tells me not to go anywhere," she said, frowning. "He’s impossible. But no, I don’t think Daddy sent him. Your house would have been the first place he looked, and if he is following Daddy’s orders, he can find me there."

"If this man comes to my village and points a gun at my family," Juan said, "I will shoot him, nińa."

Corkie laughed. "Let us hope he is not that stupid."

Juan grunted and started driving again.


Chapter 2

Watching the stopped truck through his binoculars, Alex saw Miss Brooks and the older man talking. They seemed to be arguing, and Alex made a mental note of the registration plates on the truck. He checked his watch again…and growled. If he didn’t head back now, he’d miss his extraction.

A rather nasty curse escaped his mouth. But even if he got back to base and sent out a search for Cortney Brooks and the man driving that truck, Alex couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t leak out vital information on today’s events before they were taken into custody. He was too damn close to nailing Espinoza to let one beautiful hellcat photographer spook that bastard again.

She sure was a fiery thing…and a smartass, saying those things to him earlier. His fingers twitched, recalling how soft the skin of her breast had been, and his body responded to the memory…that one and the one of her leopard-print panties.

Jesus…he’d not been with a woman in too damn long, if a pair of underpants got him excited. Never mind the fact that she beat the snot out of him.

This was supposed to be an easy job. Twelve hours max. But it never happened that way. Alex had been trained to be prepared for the worse…but encountering a nosy female with too much information? The last time that happened, he nearly lost a few limbs. His commander always said Alex was too soft on the females.

Observe and report. Those were his orders, and Alex intended to fulfill his duties. Miss Brooks warranted more observation. He needed to know what all she knew, and how she knew about the meeting. Who was her informant? The man with her? Someone else? Someone they were going to meet?

When the truck started down the dirt road again, Alex made his way down to inspect the tire tracks. They would be easy enough to follow, if they stayed on this road. A memory scan told him that there were no paved roads in this area for several miles, but there were a few small townships to the north, near the city of Chihuahua. And it looked as if they were heading in that direction. Alex gritted his teeth and followed the tracks, praying he didn’t drop from exhaustion before he reached Miss Brooks.

Alex crossed almost ten miles of desert to get to a small, isolated village. He scanned the area quickly and found the red pick-up parked outside the largest house near the church. Watching from the shadows of a small shed, Alex saw Miss Brooks and the man’s family through the open windows at the back of the house. His gut told him to be very cautious. Miss Brooks knew her way around an armed man, and the other one had a hard, seasoned look to him. Then there was the family, another woman and five children. Preservation and protection ran deep in this part of the world, and Alex owned no illusions. They would shoot first.

Alex knew couldn’t interrogate her in the house, and he couldn’t risk losing more time on this mission. He knew her name and where she was…he’d have to let Captain Mans decide the next step with Miss Brooks. Alex waited until the family finished dinner and watched the blonde woman leave the room. Alex’s eyes perked for another light to come on. He waited…and waited…and there. Right next to where he crouched, a section of the house separate from the main rooms.

Cortney Brooks stopped in front of the large window, a double shuttered opening, and threw open both sides. She peered out, gazing up at the moon and fanning herself as if hot. The night was stuffy, he mused.

Then she began to undress, right there where the whole freaking world could see her—him specifically—and his mouth dropped open. Good God, did this woman have no common sense? Granted, the back of the house only overlooked the desert, but surely she wasn’t naive enough to think no one could see her!

She started with her shirt, whipping it off over her head and stood there in a bra and her khaki pants. Then the pants dropped, and she stood there in her bra and underwear. From where he crouched, Alex could see the top of her head to the middle of her thighs, and he groaned again. He remembered those panties.  And the night got hotter. They matched the bra. Damn.

Stop, he commanded himself. You’re on a mission.

He forced his brain to think of her as an asset, not a beautiful woman. And it was easier to keep his vigilance. Especially when she turned around to unhook her bra and let it fall from her body. If she’d been facing the window, there was no way his brain would have remained indifferent if he’d seen her full beauty. She reached over and grabbed a pink scrap of fabric, pulling it over her head. It covered little more than the bra had, but at least she wasn’t naked when she turned around and added a pair of fluttery pink shorts to the outfit. When was the last time he’d seen so much skin on a woman?

Stop.

Finally, she left the window with a small smile on her face, and the room went dark. The window remained open, and Alex considered his options. The woman basically issued an invitation, leaving herself vulnerable. He could climb right on in and ask all the questions he wanted. And she wouldn’t catch him off-guard this time…oh, no. He knew what to expect from her now. If he was silent and cautious, and he was very good at being silent and cautious, then he could get the information he sought without disturbing anyone.

But he risked getting caught…and possibly shot. This would be a lot easier if she’d gone to a hotel somewhere, but this was the hand he’d been dealt, and Alex planned to play the round.

Two more hours passed, and the moon finally hid behind a thick cover of clouds. Alex marked no sound or movement from the house or the village during that time. It was now or never.

He crept toward the window. A dog wandered around the side just as he reached the ledge, and Alex froze. But the dog was old, probably blind, and only curled up in a small pile of dirt and went to sleep.

Creeping slowly and carefully, he made his way through the opening and into the room. Alex was mindful of making no sound, barely breathing. His instincts screamed that this was too easy. He was walking into a trap. But as he paused and waited, there was no evidence that he’d been discovered. The dark bedroom was small, and a narrow bed took up most of one wall. The woman lay there, her back to him, not covered with a blanket, and all he could really see of her was the silhouette…the arched lines of her hips, legs and shoulders. The even rise and fall of her back and the snores from her mouth suggested that she was in a deep sleep.

Her .9mm and her camera sat on a small desk on the other side of the room. Perfect. But other than those two things, nothing else, with the exception of her discarded clothes, suggested that there were any other personal items in the room. No computer, no phone, not even a journal.

Alex quietly approached her, pulling his own gun from his holster and crouched down. He pressed his barrel to the back of her head, and she stirred.

"Don’t make a move or a sound," he whispered harshly in her ear. He saw her eyes pop open, the eyelashes moving in the darkness. "Who is your informant? Who told you about the meeting today?"

She sighed heavily. "It took you long enough," she replied, also in a whisper.

Then he heard it. The creak of a floorboard behind him. And when he turned just enough, he saw the twin barrels of a shotgun pointed at his head. The Hispanic man who owned the house stood on the other end of that gun, his face like stone. Alex quickly studied the situation. They had waited for him. They knew he followed them. But why lead him all the way to the house?

To get her camera’s memory card.

Of course. A photographer’s life was her pictures.

"Shoot me, and she dies, too," Alex said, not bothering to speak in Spanish. His message was obvious to anyone.

"That won’t be necessary," Miss Brooks replied, and in a wink, she twisted in the bed and deftly took his gun out of his fingers, a maneuver he himself had performed dozens of times.

He knew it. She’d been military trained, and she wasn’t any run-of-the-mill photographer.

 

*****

 

"What should we do with him?" Juan asked Corkie in his native Spanish. Corkie eyed Camo Man carefully. He raised his hands, but other than that, he had not moved.

Also in Spanish, and she hoped Camo Man didn’t know the language, but that was hoping for too much, she said, "We’ll have to immobilize him—"

Camo Man’s gaze seared through her. Oh, yeah, he knew the language.

"I can’t search him otherwise," she finished.

Juan’s smile was grim as he aimed the shotgun at the man’s chest. "He won’t move."

"Ana said no messes," Corkie replied and scooted off the mattress. She habitually unloaded Camo Man’s gun as she paced over to the desk. His cold gray gaze followed her, assessing her moves. She smiled at him.

"Didn’t realize you were messing with someone trained by the U.S. military, did you?" she asked him in English. "Civilian trained…I never actually served, but that’s not really the point, is it?"

He didn’t speak. Too bad. The few words he spoke so far had been deep and rich, even if he had tried to sound intimidating.

Pulling out a drawer, Corkie removed two lengths of rope and turned to him. She tapped the rope against her bare thigh. "Okay…we can do this the easy way or the hard way…which is it?"

Again, he didn’t answer.

Corkie smiled slowly. "The hard way, it is. My favorite. Juan…call Ana in here."

The Camo Man’s eyes darted to Juan, clearly confused and curious with her request. Juan muttered, "She will not be happy." But he tipped his head back and said, "Ana, mi amor…"

Ana walked into the room in her robe, her lips set tight. Shaking her head, Ana approached the trespasser on the floor. From her pocket, she pulled out a small dart gun. It was the only weapon she would use. Ana did not believe in killing—maiming and bludgeoning, never an issue—but she knew the benefits of protecting herself, especially being married to a man with Juan’s past. The dart gun had been a birthday present from Corkie, and Ana used it religiously when the coyotes came prowling too close to her chickens.

Camo Man’s eyes widened a fraction. He recognized the type of weapon. Ana grumbled about strange men coming into her house, and "This will not happen again," and she pulled the trigger. The tranquilizer dart embedded into Camo Man’s arm. He grimaced…issued a look of pure retribution at Corkie, and fell over onto the floor, out cold.

"Where are the rest of your clothes, nińa?" Juan asked sternly, eyeing her skimpy pajamas.

She shrugged. "I knew he was watching…served him right, the Peeping Tom."

Juan grumbled under his breath—much the same way her father did when frustrated with her—but he said nothing else. Juan knew her personality. Cortney Elizabeth Brooks had never met a man who could tame her, and there was no use trying to talk any sense into her right now.

"Now, why did he not fight?" Juan mused, looking down at the man again and not lowering his shotgun.

"Because, I told you," Corkie said, moving over to expertly tie up the man’s legs and arms. "He’s here for something. Just before you came in, he asked me who told me about the meeting. I’m just as curious as to how he knew about it, too. My informer didn’t tell me that the U.S. Army was staking out the scene, too."

"You should tell me more about this mystery friend of yours, nińa," Juan commented. “I can protect you better, if I knew where you get your information.” He bent over to kiss Ana as she left the room, whispering something in his wife’s ear, and Ana blushed, laughed, and swatted his backside before leaving.

"You know I won’t tell," Corkie said. "I continue to get these tips because I don’t tattle. My mystery friend knows that."

After struggling to secure the unconscious man on the floor, Corkie sat back on her heels and huffed out a breath. "Dang, he’s heavier than he looks."

Juan propped his gun next to the door now that he knew Camo Man wasn’t going anywhere. Corkie’s rope tying was as skilled as her photography. She wrangled with her brothers all through her childhood and during every family gathering since then. None of them could get out of her knots either.

"Let’s find out who this peste is," Juan said as he removed the man’s mask. Corkie’s eyebrows rose when she saw Camo Man’s face.

"Woo-wee," she said with a grin. "Now that’s one good-looking peste."

The man had a chiseled face, hardened by the elements and great genetics. His short hair was a sun-streaked chestnut color, lighter than she expected, since his eyebrows were about six shades darker. His nose was crooked, as if broken once or twice, and his lips looked thinner without the mask. But overall, he was a fine specimen of a man.

Juan grunted at her observation. "I have seen better."

"Any dogtags or identification?"

Juan quickly searched the man. "None."

"He’s working covert then," Corkie said. "That explains why he had no backup. Now…where did he hide my memory card?" She started searching through the pockets of his shirt and pants, but found nothing more than the normal items that a man of his being would carry. So…plan two: she had to strip him, which wasn’t easy, since he was so heavy, and of course, she had him tied.

"Maybe, I should do that, nińa," Juan suggested, watching her. "It is not appropriate for you to take a man’s clothes off, especially when you are not wearing much of anything."

She rolled her eyes. "Jeez, I’m not going to jump his bones, if that’s what you’re thinking."

"I am thinking of what I will have to say to your papa when he finds out about this."

"He won’t find out, because neither me nor you are going to tell him, right? I’m not even supposed to be in Mexico, you know that."

"Si, but your papa has a way of learning things, nińa."

"True," she mused. "Alright, I’ll go change clothes. I don’t think we’ll get any sleep tonight anyway." She grabbed her clothes from the floor by the window and left to quickly change in the dark hallway. She was only gone a minute, but when she came back, Juan was shaking his head.

"It is not here, nińa."

"What do you mean, it is not here? Did you look everywhere? His boots, his socks, his underwear?"

Camo Man’s shirt was open, his boots were off, and his belt was loosened. But other than that, the man was still fully dressed. Corkie bent over and began searching pockets and pushing clothing aside. She patted the man down from head to foot. A pile of his possessions littered the floor next to her, but she did not find her card.

Juan gave her a sarcastic glare. "Nińa…it is not here."

"Dang it! What could he have done with it? Maybe, he swallowed it," she thought aloud, and then she thought she’d seen too many spy movies. Who really swallowed memory chips?

"No," Juan said patiently. "He hid it somewhere before now. Or he has passed it along to his friends."

"Well, crap. I was hoping we could dump him out in the desert tonight and be done with him, but…crap!" She really, really wanted to kick the sleeping man, wake him up, and scream at him.

"Si…mierda," Juan said.

Corkie sighed and slumped on the bed, eying her Camo Man with frustration. His mouth had fallen open and a tiny trickle of drool dripped out of the corner.

"How long do Ana’s darts last?" she asked.

"For his size…about three hours."

"So, we’ll have to wait until sunrise."

"Si."

"Crap."

"Si."

Corkie rubbed her eyes. She was so tired, it wasn’t even funny at this point. "Did you talk to your cousin?"

Juan grunted. "Si…he was not happy."

"That seems to be going around tonight." Corkie glanced at Juan. "Don’t look at me that way. You know I never do these things on purpose."

"And yet, they still continue to happen whenever you are around," Juan replied with affection. "We shall ask him about your photos in the morning. Until then, there is not much we can do. Unless, you have no problem dumping him now."

"No…if there’s some off-chance I can get my pictures back, I’m going to take it. It’s two against one now. We’ll wait until morning."

 

*****

 

Alex’s head throbbed. He fought through a muddy bog to find the light of wakefulness aware. Sounds and movement were nearby, voices, footsteps, and he forced his brain to focus. Mentally rinsing the mud from his mind, he recalled what had happened. They shot him…with a tranquilizer. How insulting.

He screwed up royally, he knew that now. He should have taken the woman to his commander. He should have interrogated her and secured her. He should have…

Shit, he should have done a lot of things.

Needing to stretch the kinks out of this system, he moved his arms…and discovered that he could not. The soft scratch of a cotton rope dug into his wrists, anchoring his hands to his waist. His ankles were tied, as well.

"Well, it’s about time," a woman’s voice called from above him. Alex cracked open an eye. There she stood, that golden-haired minx, smiling down at him. The gray light of dawn came through the window. He’d been unconscious all night.

"Three hours, he said," the woman mumbled to himself. They were still in the bedroom, and they were alone. "You should have woken up an hour ago. I guess you’re not as big as you look, huh? Or maybe you’ve been faking it for the last hour, trying to find a way to escape?"

Alex twisted his hands to gauge the knot around his wrists. It was tight enough that he could not move more than a fraction, and yet not so tight that his fingers had become numb. And the knot was not where his fingers could reach.

"Eh, don’t bother," she said, crouching down next to him. "A Navy Seal showed me that knot. And after he tried for nearly an hour to get out of it the first time I tied him up, he asked me to marry him, just for that reason alone."

Finding his voice, Alex decided to play it cool and get as much information out of her as possible. At least, she wasn’t wearing those damn pink pajamas now. "Did you marry him?" he asked her.

She snorted. "I’m not the least bit interested in soldiers. I get that crap from my brothers."

"You have brothers in the military? That explains a lot."

She smiled. "Not really…I’m nothing like them. Now…stop trying to interrogate me. That’s my job."

"Good luck," he muttered and closed his eyes. The aroma of something wonderful assailed his nostrils at that moment, and his stomach rumbled loudly. She laughed.

"I’ll admit, I’ve never been partial to the whole torture thing," she said to him. "I prefer to fatten up my captives first. Hungry? Ana has breakfast waiting for us."

His belly growled again, and he frowned at himself. But he kept his mouth shut.

"You’re kind of stubborn, aren’t you?" she asked. "I guess I should be used to that. My brothers are the same way. So…Camo Man—wait, I’m tired of calling you that. What’s your real name?"

Alex remained quiet and still.

"Okay, then…I’ll have to give you one. How about…Roger?"

He couldn’t stop the grimace.

"No? Then…Michael? That’s a fairly common name for a man. I guess I’ve got about a three to one chance of that being right…No again? Well, hell. Then I’ll just have to call you…Alan."

Alex’s eyes flew open—Alan was too close to being correct. She grinned.

"Oh…I think I’m onto something, but Alan doesn’t sound right either. You look more like an…Adam or an Alex…I like Adam better. Makes you sound less arrogant. And you already know my name, don’t you? But most folks call me Corkie, instead of Cortney."

Alex glared at her.  I am not arrogant.

The man from the night before, the one with the shotgun, entered the room. "Nińa? How are things?"

"He’s awake," she replied. "And he’s hungry. Think we can get him to the kitchen without untying him?"

"Not unless you grew more muscles."

The woman Corkie—damn, he liked that name; it suited her perfectly—blew out a breath. "Okay, I’ll untie his legs, but you’ll have to make him stay still."

"No hay problema," the man answered, and a second later, Alex felt cold metal press against his cheek. He peeked through half-open lids, and recognized the barrels of that shotgun eager to punch a hole through his skull. The man holding that gun looked dead serious.

Alex wasn’t stupid. He didn’t move as the knots around his ankles were loosened.

"All done, up you go," Corkie said cheerfully. The gun moved back, but only an inch. Alex still didn’t move. "Juan, give the man some room. You’re scaring the poor guy."

Alex and Juan grunted in unison, and Corkie laughed. But Juan stepped away. And Alex turned his head to gaze at her. She knelt down by his feet, and if he dared—and if there wasn’t a shotgun to his head—he could have kicked her straight in the stomach or face, disabling her long enough to attempt an escape, but Alex wouldn’t. He’d never hurt a woman.

Unless she tried to kill him.

“You’re too soft, Lieutenant,” Captain Mans growled in his head. “Women are the devil.”

But this woman hadn’t tried to kill him. She could have at any point during the night. So, with a sigh, Alex sat up, fought through a layer of dizziness, and struggled to his feet with his hands still bound.

Corkie looked up at him. "You know, for a military-grade operative, you’re not very good. You must be new to this."

That hurt his pride. "I managed to surprise you on that ridge," he said sternly.

She nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose that is true. What were you doing up there anyway? Who were you spying on?"

"Who were you spying on?” he countered.

"What makes you think I was there to spy?” she asked sweetly.

"You weren’t there for the sight-seeing, sweetheart," he said, stamping his feet to get the circulation flowing freely. “Who are your sources? Are you Intelligence?”

"Is that why you followed me?" she laughed. "I could have saved you the trouble of not telling you if you’d asked yesterday."

"You beat the snot out of me before I could ask," he said.

"Yeah…I did." She gave him a sweet grin. "I’m starving. Ana gets upset if we’re late for breakfast." She left the room, not looking back to see if he followed, but the man, Juan, remained by the door, that shotgun casually pointed at the floor…at Alex’s feet.

"¡Muevete!" the man grunted at Alex.

The trip to the kitchen was solemn. Alex entered the room with the shotgun stuck in his back. The other woman—Ana—busied herself at the stove while the five children ate breakfast at the long table. Corkie stood nearby, holding out a chair for him.

"Have a seat, Adam," she sang. "I’ll need to tie your feet again."

Five pairs of dark, young eyes found him. The kids did not look at him with fear, just curiosity, as if man tied up in this household was a common event. Alex wondered about this Juan person. Who was he really? Other than the blonde-haired vixen’s friend. Alex knew of no collaborating contacts named Juan in the Chihuahua area. There had to be more to all this than just a random photographer coming across Espinoza in the middle of the desert.

"Come on," Corkie purred. "They don’t bite—well, Jacobo does, but he’s only a year old and still teething. So, don’t get your fingers too close to him."

The smallest child, strapped to a chair at the other end of the table, gurgled when he heard his name. Something orange and mushy oozed out of his little mouth.

A rough shove from behind him sent Alex stumbling toward the chair. Alex did not like Juan very much. With a throaty growl, he dropped down into the wooden chair. Corkie beamed her pleasure before crouching down and tying his ankles to the chair legs. Only after she finished, Juan placed his shotgun on a side table and joined his family for breakfast. Corkie stood up, brushing her hands on her thighs.

"Tell me something, Adam…are you going to be missed if we hang onto you for a while?"

He glared at her.

She shrugged. "Suit yourself."

Corkie picked up a plate and filled it with food from the dishes in the middle of the table. Alex’s stomach rumbled again, and she sent him a smile. But she didn’t place the plate in front of him. She sat in a chair to his left, picked up a fork, speared a red-peppered chunk of scrambled eggs and brought it to his mouth.

Once again, he was insulted. There was no way he was going let her feed him. His jaw clamped down, refusing to open. She arched an eyebrow.

"No? Fine. Starve." And she stuck that fork in her own mouth. "Mmm, so good. Ana is the best cook in Mexico. You should really try some."

With the same fork, she loaded it with more eggs and offered it to his mouth again. His resistance faded, but he absolutely refused to let her to baby him. So, she ate that forkful, too.

That was when a large wooden spoon popped him on the shoulder. Ana frowned angrily at him. The children stopped eating to stare at their mother. Juan continued to eat. And Corkie giggled.

"Uh, oh," Corkie said, "Now, you’ve done it. You’d better eat something and put a smile on your face. Ana’s feelings are hurt very easily, and she’s not someone you want to mess with."

"Eat!" Ana demanded and smacked him with the spoon again. Alex knew when stubborn was stubborn, and when stubborn was stupid. He was not going to be bludgeoned by a woman half his size while tied to a chair and five children laughed at him. He grudgingly opened his mouth. Corkie shoved eggs into it, and he chewed.

Then he stopped chewing and allowed his tongue to savor the spicy, delicious flavor of the eggs. Sweet heaven… He actually moaned loud enough for the baby to hear him.

"See?" Corkie said happily. "The best there is."

Ana, pleased with him, patted the top of his head affectionately and moved back to the stove. Alex felt his cheeks burn, but he hadn’t eaten quite so tempting cuisine in a very long time, and dammit, he planned to enjoy it.

Corkie offered him some of the potatoes on her plate, and he didn’t refuse this time. He eagerly ate every forkful headed at his mouth. And so, the meal progressed that way. He’d eat a bite, and then she would eat a bite. No one spoke, but Corkie’s eyes fixed on him, smiling softly at him, and he had a difficult time looking away from her.

She really was a beautiful woman. It’s too bad he would have to kidnap the little smarty-pants and take her back to base when she finally finished playing around with him.


Chapter 3

Corkie understood—mostly by the resentful sneer—that she wounded Camo Man’s pride by feeding him like a child, but she wasn’t stupid. There was no way she was untying his hands. They were anchored to his waist, and that’s where they were staying.

Gazing into his eyes as they finished the last of their breakfast, she couldn’t help liking the view. He was just absolutely gorgeous. And she honestly never liked military men. Always so cocky and bulked up. But this man was different, she thought. Muscular, but not overly so. And yes, he was cocky and arrogant, but she liked it on him.

Then as the last forkful of food disappeared into his mouth, his lips and teeth clamped down on the metal tines, not letting her pull it free, and he smiled.

Heaven help her…a smile. Dang. Just absolutely gorgeous.

“You can’t keep that fork,” she leaned over and whispered close to his ear, her fingers still attached to the handle. He let it go, chewed, swallowed and turned his head just enough so that their noses brushed against one another.

“Untie me,” he murmured, his eyes drifting down to her mouth.

Corkie smiled. “Now, why would I do a thing like that?”

“It will make things easier for you in the long—”

The rhythmic burst of an assault rifle filled the morning. Everyone around the table froze.

Another round of gunfire had Juan jumping to his feet and grabbing his gun from the side table. He left the room. Corkie bolted up and unhooked the baby from his chair. Ana clapped her hands, and the rest of her children exited their seats. Ana opened the secret hatch under the table and awaited further instructions from her husband.

Alex struggled to untie himself, all teasing and seduction gone.

When Juan came back, his face grim. “It’s Espinoza’s men. Ana, into the basement.”

With precise actions, Ana ushered her children down the ladder and into the basement. Corkie handed over Jacobo after Ana disappeared down the hatch, and she shut the lid behind them. She left Alex tied to his chair to see what was happening out front.

Juan stood beside a window looking out into the yard and listening to the voices shouting at the house. Corkie peered out. Three trucks stood in the middle of the now-empty village. Ugly, mean-looking men called for Juan to bring out the “güerita.”

Güerita? Me?” Corkie asked.

“There is no one else here who fits that description, nińa,” Juan said.

“How did they about me? Or know where I am? No one followed us. Well, except Camo Man.”

Juan thought for a moment. "Enrique. It seems my cousin has a rat problem in his office."

“But you didn’t tell him it was me who saw Espinoza, did you?”

“No.” Juan frowned severely. “I believe you were spotted by more than just your peste.”

Corkie chewed on her lip. She’d been very careful yesterday. No one from the airstrip should have seen her on the ridge. "What are we going to do?"

"We, nińa? No, you will go with Ana and take the tunnel to the church. Mi Amor will worry about you, and Fr. Ramiro will take you to Chihuahua when it is safe.”

“I’m not leaving you to deal with…them,” she said, waving at the men outside.

“I will take care of this, nińa,” Juan argued. “If Espinoza is looking for you because of those pictures you took, you need to get out of Mexico. You are not safe here. Espinoza is a dangerous man.”

“But…but my photos,” she said, getting childishly pissy about the circumstances that currently arose. Why the hell did Espinoza have to interfere now? She had Camo Man right where she wanted him, and soon, she might have her pictures back, and only then could she go home.

Juan turned to her. “Nińa…go to Chihuahua, ask for Ivan’s help. He will take you to the border and get you across without anyone else knowing you’ve been here—”

“But—”

He held up a hand, stopping her. “If I find out you have not gone back into America within the next three days, then I will call your Papa, do you understand me?”

She squinted at him. “You wouldn’t—”

“I would, and I will,” he affirmed. “And I have my ways of knowing exactly when you cross that border.”

Corkie huffed. Dang it. He was right. Juan always found out things…everything. It never failed.

The racket from the kitchen—Camo Man trying to get free—intensified, and she sighed again. She couldn’t let Espinoza’s men know he was here, too. That wouldn’t be very hospitable toward her guest.

“What about—”

A splintering crash came from the kitchen. Juan and Corkie raced back there to see Camo Man picking himself up from the floor amid the broken pieces of the chair he’d been sitting in. Ana is going to maim me, she thought, seeing the mess he created. He managed to free his feet before Juan leveled his shotgun at his chest.

Corkie placed a hand on the barrel and lowered it. “Leave him alone, Juan. He’s in as much danger as the rest of us, and we can’t leave him tied up while Espinoza’s men are here.”

She didn’t have time to worry about undoing the complicated knots around his wrists and waist. Picking up a sharp knife from Ana’s sink, she quickly approached and began sawing at the ropes.

“What’s going on?” he asked, warily eying the knife in her hands.

She glanced up from her cutting. “Espinoza must have found out that I was at the airstrip yesterday. He sent his men after me.”

“Do you work for him?”

She shot him a wounded glare. “Of course not! I wasn’t even there because of him. I was there because this is the first time Niro Sultanovich has been spotted in the past two years.”

“Niro Sultanovich? The Serbian mobster who’s been dead for two years?”

“Oh, he’s very much alive. It’s a long story, and frankly, I don’t have time to explain.”

He looked at her skeptically. “Did you know Espinoza would be there?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “But the man works fast on finding out I was.”

“You stand there and tell me that you don’t have any idea what you photographed yesterday?” he asked as she continued to saw at his ropes. I think I overdid these knots, she groused to herself. This is taking forever!

“Nope,” she affirmed. “And really there’s no time for me to sit around and figure it out. We have to go…or I’m in big trouble.” She mumbled that last part to herself. If her father found out she was in Mexico…

Camo Man raised an eyebrow. “We?” He said that the same way Juan did! So aggravating!

“Yes, we,” she repeated haughtily. “If Espinoza discovered that I had been there yesterday, then it is only a matter of time before he finds out about you, too. We may not see eye to eye on a lot of things, especially since you stole my pictures, but I won’t leave you to that fate.”

“I can deal with a few lowlifes—” he began, but Corkie shook her head.

“Not at the expense of endangering this village,” she told him. “Most of the folks around here want to escape violence. We will let Juan handle the problem outside, like he always does.”

Their captive said, “Then let me use a phone and I can have a chopper here in an hour—”

“No!” Corkie and Juan said at the same time, and Camo Man cocked an eyebrow at them. Choppers meant more military, and more military meant her father discovering her location. Corkie inhaled smoothly and added, “We need to keep this quiet.”

“Why?” Camo Man asked. “Who else are you hiding from?”

Corkie didn’t answer as she finished the last length of rope, and as soon as the bindings fell to the floor, Camo Man grabbed the knife from her, whipped her around to his chest and held that blade to her throat. Juan’s shotgun aimed for his head.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Corkie growled. “Stop it, both of you! We don’t have time for this!”

Camo Man said nothing. Juan said nothing. Both men stared long and hard at each other. Corkie, getting really fed up with this macho crap, gently placed her fingers around Camo Man’s wrists and tried to carefully pulled the knife away from her throat.

“Don’t,” her capture said darkly in her ear.

“What could you possibly do?” she asked. “You won’t kill me, because you came after something and not just my pictures, and if you so much as twitch your pinky finger, Juan will shoot you. Look at him. He doesn’t like you very much.”

“Who told you about that meeting yesterday?” he asked her while he continued to stare at Juan.

Corkie snorted. “It’ll take more than a knife to my throat to get me to disclose that.”

“Is it him?” Camo Man nudged at Juan.

“Juan?” Corkie laughed. “Let me explain something. Juan tries his darnedest to keep me out of trouble, not give me information to send me toward it.”

Juan’s lips twitched, but otherwise neither man moved. The seconds ticked by. More shouts came from outside, warning Juan that they would come in, if he didn’t appear in the next few minutes.

Corkie was done playing around. She knew—with everything in her whole being—that Camo Man would not intentionally hurt her. So…she pushed that blade deeper into her flesh, and instantly he tensed and released her.

“Are you crazy?” he snarled at her, tossing the knife across the room, where it embedded into Ana’s cabinet. Ana is never going to let me back into her house, Corkie thought, seeing that knife poking a big hole into the wood.

“Crazy enough,” she said. “I just know that you wouldn’t do anything.”

Camo Man glared hotly at her. Then he nudged his chin at Juan, who still had Camo Man’s head in his sights. “What about him?”

“What about him?” she asked, checking her neck to see if there was any damage. She didn’t feel the sting of the knife cutting her, but that didn’t mean anything. Her heart rate and adrenaline were pulsing like fire. She probably wouldn’t feel a gunshot right now either.

“You will leave him to the fate of Espinoza?” Camo Man inquired coldly. “I thought the two of you were friends.”

“Juan can take care of himself. Espinoza won’t dare hurt him.”

His eyes lightened curiously as he rubbed the chafe marks on his wrists, his demeanor no longer threatening. “And why is that?”

“Again, a long story,” she told him. “Now, are you coming or not? I have to grab my stuff. Juan, give him back his gun.”

“No—”

Corkie turned to her friend. “Give him his freaking gun!” She didn’t bother to see if Juan obeyed her, or if he lowered his weapon. Rushing out of the kitchen, she mentally listed everything she’d need. Then she shoved it all in her pack and ran back to Juan and her peste. She got there just as Juan placed Camo Man’s gun and combat knife in his hands and menacingly said, “Protect her, or your life no longer exists.”

Corkie rolled her eyes. “Juan, be careful…and don’t you dare tell Daddy about this.”

“I cannot promise that,” Juan said, staring straight into the other man’s eyes. Juan looked at her a second later, gave her a brief, fatherly smile and said, “Stay smart, nińa. No foolishness.”

“I will,” she said, kissing his cheek. “But don’t you do anything stupid. Ana will never forgive me if you get shot again.”

Juan opened the hatch under the table. Corkie scooted down the ladder there, dropped to the dirt floor of the basement and waited on her camouflage buddy. He jumped through the opening, not bothering to use the ladder.

“Try to help out a woman once, she beats the shit out of me,” he began. “Now, you’re going to get me killed.”

“Just when were you trying to help me?”

“Yesterday,” he said angrily. “That’s the last time I let a pair of big blue eyes manipulate me.”

“Whatever, Adam,” she said. “You shouldn’t have stolen my pictures.” And she headed deeper into the darkened basement where the underground tunnel started.

“My name is Alex,” he said behind her.

She grinned to herself. “Yeah, I figured that, but Adam seemed to piss you off.”

 

*****

 

Alex growled as a cobweb feathered across his cheek. Spiders! Ugh! That was the third time he ran into a web, and he was certain that the woman he followed through that rock-walled tunnel avoided them on purpose. His neck and shoulders ached from sleeping on the floor most of the night, and of course, from being tied up all morning. Now, he was forced to hunch over as he walked, barreling blindly into spiderwebs.

He was not in a good mood.

“Just a little further,” she called back. They’d been traveling through the tunnel for nearly ten minutes now. Why would a supposedly peaceful village have and escape tunnel? Alex considered the older man, Juan. What did he have over Espinoza, the drug lord couldn’t touch him? And, how can he use that to his advantage?

After listening to Corkie and Juan speaking that morning, Alex had some other questions rolling around in his head. Who was her daddy? Corkie insisted that her father didn’t discover where she was. Was this woman actually afraid of someone? Leverage for him, maybe?

A faint light could be seen ahead. Alex sighed with relief. He’d never been the claustrophobic type, but even he was anxious to see the sun and breathe fresh air again. The tunnel ended at a set of steps carved into the rocky ground. Corkie trotted up them effortlessly, and Alex stopped a moment to take his bearings. He glanced up through the hole above the steps, saw the flicker of candlelight and heard the sound of a baby crying.

Corkie and Juan said the tunnel led to the church in the village, which wasn’t far from the house. So, how were they to leave the church without being seen in bright daylight? All he had was his .45, several spare clips and his combat knife, and he wasn’t sure if Corkie carried her weapon or not. But even if they both had guns, it wasn’t enough to clear a path away from the village if they were spotted by Espinoza’s lackeys.

“You coming or not?” Corkie asked, sticking her head through the hole and frowning at him.

“I’m coming,” he grunted. Up the steps, he traipsed. The room at the top was an old storage room, full of broken furniture and a small crumbling statue of St. Mary. The wife from the house was there, with her children, keeping them as calm and quiet as possible, and another man had joined the group. Just a glance told Alex that this was the church’s priest.

“Alex, this is Fr. Ramiro. He’ll help us get out of the village safely.”

Fr. Ramiro spoke to Alex in his native Spanish, basically greeting him and relaying the same message that Juan had threatened. Protect Corkie.

Alex’s eyes found the woman who seemed to garner so much respect and love from the few people he’d met today. She smiled impishly at him, and said, “They like me here.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Alex replied sarcastically. His wrists still chafed from her ropes. She smiled bigger. Alex moved to the door and carefully peeked out. He could see into Fr. Ramiro’s living quarters, and through a window, he spied Espinoza’s men conversing animatedly with Juan in the village’s courtyard.

“Is there a back way out of here?” he asked over his shoulder.

Corkie chewed on her bottom lip. “Um…sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“Yeah…” she said slowly. “How good is your Spanish?”

Alex stared at her. “Pardon?”

She sighed. “Juan will tell Espinoza’s men that I’m not here, and that I left last night, or something like that. They won’t believe him, but they can’t do anything to him. They’ll keep a few guys around for a little while, just in case—”

“And you know this, how?”

She waved at him, unconcerned. “It’s typical behavior for these types.”

“And you’ve had a lot of experience with these types?”

She gave him another grin. “Anyway…Fr. Ramiro will sneak us out on the bus, but you’ll have to pose as one of his missionaries.”

Alex became as still as the St. Mary. He breathed and exhaled twice. “Repeat that.”

Corkie huffed. “Don’t worry so much. We’ve done this before.”

He really wanted to shake some sense into her, but they were in a church, and that seemed rude. “You’ll have some explaining to do later,” he said to her. “Now, how are you supposed to get us both out of here in disguises? That blonde hair of yours will stand out like a neon sign spelling ‘Here I am!'”

She rolled her eyes. “You really worry too much, Alex. Trust me, okay?”

“I don’t seem to have much choice, do I?”

“No, you don’t.” She turned away from him, kissed every child’s face and murmured soft words to them before facing him again. “See if they’ve left yet,” she commanded him, as she bent over to dig through her backpack. She pulled out her 9mm and checked the clip and chamber. Her smooth, precise motions fascinated Alex. She knew how to handle weaponry—he figured that out when she disarmed him last night. But now, he couldn’t help noticing the delicacy in which she cradled that pistol in her palm…and how sexy she looked holding it.

Damn.

Her blue eyes found him again. “Well?”

Alex cleared his throat and looked through the window in Fr. Ramiro’s room. “All the trucks are gone. But there are two men still out in the courtyard. I don’t see your friend.”

Corkie nodded to herself. “Okay. They’ll start searching the village soon, trying to look inconspicuous as they do it. We don’t have much time. Fr. Ramiro, I think the villagers need to go into Chihuahua for shopping today?”

Fr. Ramiro smiled and said, “Si, nińa.”

“Can you get Alex some clothes? Then you and Ana and Alex can exit the church, make it seem as though Ana came for a quick visit this morning. I’ll send the older children back through the tunnel.”

Ana gathered her two youngest, the baby and a toddler, as Fr. Ramiro went into his bed chamber. Alex approached Corkie. “Why exactly is your plan here, Corkie?”

She offered him a smile. “That’s the first time you’ve said my name, Alex.”

“Just answer the question,” he said under his breath. “I don’t like to be kept in the dark.”

She crawled over to the tunnel door and shooed the children through. As she did, she explained, “There’s a secret compartment in the bus. I can fit into it, but you can’t. So, that means you’re going to have to leave the village in broad daylight. And the only way to do that is by acting as a missionary. Fr. Ramiro has missionaries in and out of the village all the time, so a stranger here will not seem so odd. But as soon as Espinoza’s men see you and that Anglo-Saxon face of yours, they’re going to question you, so I need you to act the part. Be humble and religious, you know? Think you can do that?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. That was actually a decent plan. If a lot of the people in the village got on the bus, it won’t seem so strange for it to be leaving for the city. And acting as someone else to get out of a jam was almost second nature to him. He’d been trained by some of the best in his specialty. Of course, they would probably laugh their asses off if they ever found out about this slender blonde taking his gun away from him and tying him to a chair, but that was one story he wasn’t about to share.

To prove to her that he could do exactly what she was demanding of him, he put on his most penitent face and recited Psalms 23 in perfect Espanol, with a quaint accent and all. She seemed impressed as she listened.

“Not bad, Alex,” she said. “How many languages do you speak?”

“Four.”

“Spanish, English, and…?”

“French and Mandarin.”

Her eyebrows shot to her hairline. “Mandarin? Wow. How long did it take you to learn that?”

He shifted uncomfortably from her praise. “I’m still working on it.”

“So…you’re really only fluent in three? And I’ll betcha you took French in high school to impress the girls, right?”

Well…yeah, but he wasn’t about to admit that. Just that fact that she had him pegged on so many levels disturbed him. Fr. Ramiro entered the room with a bundle of clothing and some old brown calfskin boots.

“I’ll make sure the kids get to the house okay, and then I’ll be back,” she said, hopping down into the tunnel after the last child. Alex watched her blonde hair disappear into the darkness below. He hoped she wasn’t trying to escape on her own, but from all outlooks, the only way out of the village at the moment was by her plan.

This better work.

*****

 

Silently and alone, Corkie crept back along the tunnel toward the church. She peered up through the opening, saw the back of Alex’s head as he faced a far corner and changed his clothes. Her eyes blinked, taking in the Army Ranger tattoo on his right forearm and the rounded, muscular lines of his bare back. Wow. He’d already wore Fr. Ramiro’s old brown pants, which were a little on the snug side, and now he pulled a baggy chambray shirt across his wide shoulders. He took off his desert boots and bent to retrieve the dusty, old replacements. Corkie shied backward, afraid he’d catch her ogling him.

But then, he plucked a small black square from the inside clasp of his belt and stuffed it into the top of his sock. Corkie’s lips pursed. He had it with him…this whole time! Her fingers clenched around the grip of her gun, her body poised and ready to charge up those stairs and take back was what hers!

And then what? she thought. He would fight her. He would cause enough ruckus to bring Espinoza’s men down on them and everyone else, and then what?

Dang it!

Now was not the time. She had the safety of Ana’s children and the rest of the villagers to think about. And her own.

I’ll get him, she promised herself. I’ll get my pictures, too….just you wait, Camo Man.

Corkie retreated far enough into the tunnel to appear casual as she approached the opening again. “You decent?” she called, not waiting for an answer as she trotted up the steps into the church. Alex turned quickly toward her.

“And if I’m not?”

She waved her hand at him. “I’ve seen it all before.” Well, not all of him, but he didn’t need to know the details.

“Do you make a sport of stripping unconscious men?” he inquired impertinently. She grinned.

“And if I do?”

“Did you enjoy what you saw?”

She just shrugged. “You ready? You’ll need to distract the guys out front long enough for me to get into the bus unseen.”

“And how long will that take?”

“Um…a minute or two. Still think you can do it?”

He sent her a disgruntled frown. “Just don’t sneak away from me. You and I have business to discuss.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you give back the pictures you stole,” she replied. And she waited to see if his body language belied his secret. Nothing. Not even a twitch of an eyelid. Dang. He was good.

“It looks like we’ll be together for a while then,” he said back to her.

“Looks like.”

He swept her with his piercing gray gaze, from head to feet and back up again. "Don’t get us caught," he said sternly. "My orders didn’t include killing anybody if necessary."

"You don’t get us caught," she retorted. "I’ve never had to shoot at someone, so I’d rather not do it because of your charming personality."

He looked strangely at her. "You have never shot anyone? At all? How the hell did you get so good at handling a gun?"

"Watch your mouth; you’re in a church. Unlike you, my lovely personality gets me out of lots of scrapes."

“Then go talk your way out of this village, sweetheart, if you’re so damn charming.”

Watch your mouth,” she hissed. “You’re in a church.”

He bit down on his back teeth, making his jaw clench tightly. “Just give me five minutes, then get your ass on that damn bus.”

Corkie threw a chunk of statue at him. “This is a church! Show some respect!”

He dodged the piece of stone easily. “Coming from the woman who’s throwing pieces of the Mother Mary at me!”

“If you don’t get out of here, you’ll be the first person I’ll shoot!”

He lifted an eyebrow with wry amusement. “Watch yourself…you’re in a church.” He turned on his heel, sticking his .45 in his waistband before donning a lightweight jacket. Then he was gone, and Corkie picked up another piece of stone and threw it at his back. She missed by a longshot, sighed in disgust, and gathered her bag.

In the sanctuary, she crept along the shadows, keeping clear of the windows until she reached the side door closest to the bus parked outside, but unfortunately that door was still visible to the courtyard and Espinoza’s men. She waited, counting in her head, and when she reached one hundred, she cracked open the door and peeked out.

Fr. Ramiro, Ana with her babies, and Alex were conversing with the two stragglers. After a moment, Ana left toward her house, and the four men were still talking. Corkie grunted. Get on with it! Espinoza’s men seemed fascinated by Alex, and Corkie hoped it wasn’t for the wrong reason. But then, all four of them out there began laughing at something Alex said, the two gunslingers clapped Alex on his back, and they all walked away.

Corkie let out the breath she’d been holding. With their backs turned, she made a dash across the side yard to the bus and plastered her body against the back end. Peering carefully around the corner, she saw that they were still walking away. Quiet as a mouse and as quick as a fox, she opened up the back door, winced when it squealed on rusty hinges, and crawled into the long cab. She found the secret compartment in the floor near the driver’s seat and lifted the hatch. The interior of the bus was suffocating and hot. Corkie didn’t know if she could handle staying inside that compartment until it was safe for her to come out. Then again, she didn’t really have a choice, unless she wanted to make a run for the nearest ridge, which was a thousand yards away over flat land. And doing so would forfeit her pictures to Alex. She wasn’t about to let him get away with them. She needed them.

Taking a deep breath, she curled herself into the small space under the floor and flattened out her body as best as she could. She turned her head sideways and forced her feet to lay at awkward angles before she was able to get the hatch closed and locked down.

Then she waited. Her breathing echoed in the small area, sounding louder to her ears, and the air in there was hotter than if she’d crawled into an oven. Immediately, she began to sweat.

Closing her eyes and controlling her muscles and lungs, Corkie imbued a calmness into her body. She loathed enclosed spaces, but now was not the time to freak out. She waited…and waited, and prayed her confinement would not take long.

Finally, she heard muted voices. Heavy footsteps. Two pairs. Male voices. They were searching the bus. Corkie could see straight upward through a tiny hole, and a pair of mud-encrusted boots stopped right at her head. Then the other pair of boots. The two men talked to each other, arguing over where to look next, and finally settling on the church. They left, and other sounds could be heard—lots more footsteps. Male and female voices. Children laughing. Babies crying.

And Corkie breathed again. The villagers were getting on the bus now. It was safe. And then she heard Alex speaking with Fr. Ramiro and Juan. Her heartbeat skittered sideways. She had half a mind to leap out of there and ask Juan to hold down Alex so she could get her camera card. But that would be a foolish endeavor. She’d jeopardize everyone on the bus. She’d just have to wait and find another way.

The bus’s engine roared to life. Then she felt movement as it drove out of the small town. The swaying made her stomach roll. And she prayed that someone would soon let her out.

The seconds slowed and quickened as her anxiety and frustration weaved through her. Her neck and shoulders ached, and her ankles throbbed from the uncomfortable angle of her feet. Were they ever going to let her out? She opened her mouth to say something, but her voice came out as a dry croak.

Suddenly the hatch opened, and she blinked from the bright morning sunshine falling down on her through the bus’s open windows. Alex crouched above her head, frowning.

“This is on that list of things I’ll want you to explain…why a church bus has a secret compartment.”

She lifted her head and licked her lips. She swallowed, trying to work moisture into her mouth. “It wasn’t always a church bus,” she said hoarsely.

“Of course, it wasn’t,” Alex replied. He grasped her under the arms and hauled her up into a seating position. He handed her a canteen of water. She drank thirstily, spilling the cool liquid down her chin.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Alex helped her out of the hole in the bus’s floor and held her until she stopped swaying. Then he jumped backward. “You have a spider on you.”

“Where?!” Ugh! Spiders! Corkie hated spiders. Creepy little things!

“On your back.”

“Well, get it off!”

Alex raised his palms to her. “I’m not touching that thing.”

“Are you serious?!” She leaned to the next nearest person, a woman by the name of Rosa, and asked for her help. Rosa made a joke about it, which made everyone on the bus laugh, but she plucked the disgusting creature off Corkie’s shirt and tossed out the open window. Corkie shivered and brushed at her shoulders and arms, still feeling it crawling on her.

“Interesting,” Alex muttered.

“What is?”

“I hold a knife to your neck, and you don’t blink an eye…but spiders?”

“Bite me, soldier boy,” she retorted and walked to the back, plopping down in a vacant bench. Alex sat next to her, stretching his legs out and crossed his arms over his chest…effectively caging her. He said nothing else, no more questions, and she didn’t offer any answers. Together, they rode along with the dozen or so villagers, side by side, silently.

The trip to Chihuahua normally took about an hour. It had been a tiring morning. Not to mention the little sleep she received last night, thanks to Alex. Eventually, the gentle rocking of the bus lulled her to sleep. The last thing she remembered before succumbing to dreamland was leaning her head on Alex’s shoulder and him putting his arm around her, holding her softly. It was a considerably warm-hearted gesture from a man like Alex, who probably hated her at this point.


Chapter 4

A nudge jerked her awake.

“We’re getting us off here,” Alex said as she blinked the sleep out of her eyes and sat up straight. Corkie looked outside the window. They had stopped on the outskirts of Chihuahua. Alex added, “We don’t want to be seen with the others.”

“Good idea,” Corkie said and stretched out her kinks.

Fr. Ramiro walked down the bus’s aisle to where she and Alex sat in the back. He handed her a small bag, explaining that there was water and food in it for both of them. And some money from Juan. Corkie promptly removed the money. “I have plenty, Fr. Ramiro. Use this to get what you need at the marketplace.”

Si…gracias.” Fr. Ramiro stuffed the cash into his pocket. Corkie knew how little money the village had, and she didn’t need to take from them. Even if it had come from Juan’s personal funds. She thanked everyone and hugged and kissed those she had become friends with in the last few years. Then she and Alex got off the bus, and she waved as it drove on. Alex stood there, frowning.

“What now, nińa?” he asked.

“You can’t call me that,” she said.

Nińa? Why not? That’s what everyone calls you.”

“But you can’t,” she insisted. “It’s an endearment. You don’t do endearments, unless you’re being sarcastic and catty.”

He gazed down at her. “Catty? I’m never catty.”

“Call it whatever you wish, but don’t call me nińa.”

He turned away from her, studying the town before them. “I’ll need to find a phone.”

“Why?”

He slung the bag from Fr. Ramiro over his shoulder and started walking. “I need transportation.”

She skipped to keep up with him. “Why?”

“To get back to base and report,” he explained.

“Like hell you will,” she said fiercely. “You’re not going anywhere without me. I want my pictures.”

“I know,” he smirked. “That’s why you’re coming with me.”

Corkie stopped walking. Dang it. She plodded right into that one. “Not happening,” she said.

“We’ll see,” he said casually.

She scowled at his back. If he dragged her to his commander, she’d never get her pictures away from…and they would find out who her father was, and Daddy would hear of what she’d been up to this past week. He’d send someone to escort her home, because he warned her not to go into Mexico. There had been too many disappearances of American citizens lately, and blonde, single women were at the top of the kidnapping list.

She’d just have to talk Alex out of his plans…and she knew only one way of doing that. This wasn’t going to be a joyful conversation. “Juan told me I had three days to get back to the United States,” she said to the back of his head. “If I don’t, then he’ll call my father.”

“So?”

She sighed. “My father is Colonel Steven James Davenport, III…of the United States Special Operations Command.” She paused to let that sink in. Then she added, “Your boss.”

Alex froze. She stared at him staring straight ahead, not saying anything or moving in any way. After a minute passed, he quietly asked, “You are Colonel Davenport’s daughter?”

“Yes. My mother’s maiden name was Brooks. I legally changed mine a few years ago for professional reasons. Davenport is too well known in some circles.”

He swore under his breath and finally pivoted around to face her. “Don’t play games with me, Corkie.”

“It’s not a game,” she said sadly. “Daddy doesn’t know I’m here in Mexico. In fact, he forbid me from entering the country at all. If you take me to your base to get questions out of me, then it wouldn’t take long before Daddy finds out I’m here, and he’ll come get me.”

Alex stomped over to her. “Do you have any idea what this means?”

“A faint one.”

“You’re Colonel Davenport’s daughter! If Espinoza gets his hands on you, you’re toast! You’ll be ransomed, probably raped and tortured…and not in that order!”

“Yeah…” she said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked up at him. “That would be a bummer.”

His gray eyes burned into her. Oh, he was not happy. “A bummer,” he repeated, clearly dazed and angry at her casual reaction. “Are you crazy, woman?”

“A little bit,” she said, smiling and holding her thumb and finger an inch apart.

“That’s it,” he said, grabbing her arm. “I’m taking you into custody and can have you airlifted to a safe place within the hour, and then on to the Embassy in Mexico City, where you’ll be safe.”

“Didn’t you hear what I said? If Juan learns that I never left Mexico, he’ll—”

“And your father can come get you in Mexico City,” Alex growled, hauling her into the town, but she jerked away from him.

“Then at least take me to nearest consulate…that’s El Paso, on the border,” she argued.

“Espinoza has too many eyes and ears along the border,” he said, grabbing her elbow again and tugging her harder as she dug her toes into the dirt to stop him. “The embassy is safer.”

“I won’t go!”

“You don’t have a choice!”

“I’m not stupid, Alex,” she said. “You’re going to take me to your base of operations, with the commendable intention of jet-setting me to safety, but while I’m there, you’ll think that it will okay for you and your commander to question me about what I know about the meeting yesterday and who told me about it, but I won’t tell. I won’t! And don’t you think that if Espinoza dares to terrorize a small village to get at me, he’ll find me at your base or the embassy? Juan already suspects there is a mole in the president’s office, and Daddy will go berserk if anything happens to me. Do you want a colonel of the United States Army personally going after one of the most volatile men in the Western Hemisphere? Do you want to start a war?”

His face turned to stone. “I swear to God, Corkie!”

“Go ahead and swear to God,” she said breezily. “You’re not in church anymore, but it’s still rude. You should thank Him we’re still alive and well.”

They faced each other down. The sun beat on top of them, and Corkie’s stomach actually growled with hunger. Breakfast hadn’t been that far in the past, but she liked to eat.

"Why did you come here?!"

"I told you," she said, frowning with slight irritation. "To get proof that Niro Sultanovich was still alive."

"Seriously?!"

"Yes…seriously. I haven’t lied to you about anything so far, why would I start now?"

“So, you have absolutely no idea why Espinoza was meeting with international terrorists?”

She shrugged. “Who really knows with these kinds of people? Maybe it was like a ten-year mobster reunion.”

He studied her intently. “You came all the way here to get pictures of Sultanovich…that’s it? Your informant didn’t tell you anything else?”

“My informant tells me only what I want to hear,” she said. “He knows the kind of trouble I can get into if I know too much.”

“Who’s giving you this information, Corkie?”

She zipped her lips and smiled at him. Alex blinked, clearly enraged at her immature behavior, and then he stomped a few feet away and came back. “And what makes you think I won’t call your daddy the first chance I get and politely ask him to find out who you’re protecting as your informant?”

She rolled her eyes. “Daddy’s main concern will be my safety. If you call him before I’m across the border, then he’d have you abandon whatever mission you’re on and order you to escort me back home. Do you want that?”

His jaw set tighter than it already was. He looked pissed—really pissed. “Your father put this mission together,” he spit out. “He wouldn’t forfeit his best man on it.”

Corkie arched an eyebrow. “If you’re his best man, then you’ll be the best man to get me home. All I have to do is tell Daddy I think you’re kind of cute, and he’ll make sure you and I stick together. He really, really wants a son-in-law, you know. Soldiers are his preference. And you being an Army Ranger? Daddy will have our kids named before dinnertime.”

His face burned with his anger. Mumbling under his breath, he shook his head and clenched his fists. Corkie watched him attempt to regain his composure for a little while. Eventually, she just pulled out a bottle of water and sipped from it as Alex paced in the sand, muttered darkly, and shook with the rawness of his fury. Finally, he stopped, and she was glad. It was really starting to get hot out here, without any shade to stand under.

“If I’m to agree to any of this, I want some answers, and I want some now,” he said darkly. “Who is Juan? And why is Espinoza afraid of him?”

Corkie chewed on her bottom lip. She’d better give him something. “Juan used to work for Espinoza’s father…as a mercenary.”

Alex said, “You mean Juan Romero? He’s a ghost, a myth. That was Juan Romero?”

“He goes by Garza now,” Corkie said. “Juan Romero is dead, you know.”

“Well…shit! And you’re friends with him?”

“Well, he’s not working for Espinoza now,” she said, rolling her eyes. “He and Ana were childhood sweethearts, and about twelve years ago they married. Juan retired from his mercenary life and settled down. There were some issues with the Senor Espinoza at first, but after a while, they learned not to mess with Juan anymore. Juan killed Hibram’s father when he came after Juan, and they’ve kind of had a love-hate relationship since then.”

“And that’s why Espinoza can’t touch him?” Alex asked incredulously. “Because he killed his father? Something like that would have signed Juan’s death certificate.”

“Well…Hibram didn’t like his father so much, and there is this little matter of Juan’s distant cousin now being el Presidente. Espinoza doesn’t dare do anything stupid for fear of setting the entire country’s military after him. Juan and Enrique were very close as children,” she said offhandedly as she examined her fingernails.

“You’re shitting me, aren’t you? Juan Romero and the Mexican president are cousins…and your father is Colonel Davenport…” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “None of this was in my briefing. How do you know Juan?"

"Well after he retired, he kind of switched sides, and he and Daddy worked together on a few, um, projects before Daddy became a colonel.”

"You’ve got some friends in high places, sweetheart.”

Corkie huffed. “Like I said before…catty.”

Alex snorted and gazed off into the distance. She could see the wheels turning in his head. Would he still take her to Mexico City? If it came to that, she might have to get nasty, and tie him to a cactus while he slept.

“I am this close to taking down that bastard, Corkie,” he said in a much quieter voice. “I need to know what you know.”

“And I need my photos,” she countered.

His gray eyes turned to ice again. His lips hardened as his jaw muscles tightened. “Goddammit,” he growled. “Fine! We’ll do it your way for awhile. I cannot believe this is happening!”

She grinned. Yay, she won this round!

He muttered a few more choice words that she probably didn’t need to hear, and then he eyed her sternly. “I still need to check in with my commander, explain my delay. Then we’ll hide in Chihuahua until we figure out how to get you across the border. For your own sake, you’d better not be pulling my chain, Corkie.”

“Report away,” she said. “Just don’t mention me or Juan.”

He turned on his heel and marched through the town streets. “We need to find a telephone.”

She followed behind him and said, “You know…you should really think of getting a mobile phone of some kind."

"I don’t carry trackers," he said.

“Then how do you communicate with your unit if you’re in trouble?”

“I don’t,” he said. “I work alone.”

“Army Rangers don’t usually work alone,” Corkie said, and he stopped to look at her.

“You saw my tattoo? When?”

She shrugged, not wanting him to know she watched him undress. “I had to search you for my camera card, you know. I saw a lot of you.”

His gray eyes burned into her. Then he turned back to the city and cursed for three blocks.

 

*****

 

Un-freaking-believable! Colonel Davenport’s daughter!

Corkie Brooks was The Cortney Davenport. Oh, Alex had heard stories about the colonel’s precocious little girl. He even knew a guy who dated her once. And if Alex remembered correctly, his buddy had sworn off all women for nearly six months after that date. Alex never knew what had really happened, and frankly after meeting Corkie Brooks, he didn’t have to make too many assumptions. She probably tried to hogtie his buddy’s balls to the bumper of his sports car.

Alex had also heard that the colonel had been trying to marry off his daughter for the better part of a decade now, and so far, that has been the only unsuccessful operation in Colonel Davenport’s long and illustrious military career. How many times had she used that ploy to get what she wanted?

Alex glanced over his shoulder at Cortney Elizabeth Brooks. A Davenport! She laughed at a group of children playing soccer in the street as they kicked the ball over to her, and her smile lit up her entire face. Yeah, he knew why he didn’t figure it out sooner. He’d been focused on how damn beautiful and crazy she was.

Well, no more. That pretty smile and those vibrant blue eyes weren’t going to charm him any more. I’ll get you to as close to the border as it takes to get that information out of you, and then it’s on to daddy dearest with you, sweetheart. I’m not babysitting you all over the goddamn desert!

The first hotel he found was not much more than a boarding house for migratory workers that passed through the area. But it had a public telephone. Alex pointed to a corner of the main room and told Corkie to stay there. She winked at him in response and did what she was told.

He stared at her suspiciously.

But he didn’t have time for her crap right now. He dialed the phone number to an operator that would connect him to the base and went through the procedures that would secure the call. “Lieutenant Alexander Spears checking in,” he said into the phone once he’d been cleared.

“Lieutenant Spears, location?”

Alex pinched the bridge of his nose. “Chihuahua.”

“Please hold.”

He waited, his eyes drifting over to Corkie. She studied fliers posted to the wall, her mouth moving as she read, and for some reason, he found that adorable. Damn. So much ignoring her charm.

“Lieutenant,” a gruff voice came over the line. “Where the hell are you, son?”

Alex closed his eyes and grimaced. “Sorry, sir. I’ve been delayed.”

“You failed to make your extraction time, lieutenant,” Captain Mans said. “Failure is not an option.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, hell, son. No need to get all penitent all of a sudden,” his commander said with a harsh laugh. “Send us new coordinates, and we’ll get you back a.s.a.p.”

Alex inhaled calmly. “Sorry, sir, I cannot respond. My mission has been compromised. I cannot return as yet.”

There was a small silence over the line. “Can you speak freely, lieutenant?”

Alex glanced around the front room of the hotel. Other than himself and Corkie, they were alone. The woman manning the front desk was engrossed in a television show in the back. “Yes, sir.”

“Then what the hell happened out there? We have satellite images of half the desert going up like a roman candle and you disappearing with another person.”

Alex quickly relayed what he could, omitting Corkie’s identity and the last twenty-four hours. “I am currently following an asset that will give us more information on Espinoza’s plans. I will have a report and an extraction location for you in three days time.”

“Is this asset you apprehended on site?”

Alex looked at Corkie again. She was watching him now, her head tilted to the side, listening to his side of the phone call. “Yes, sir, she is.”

“She? Lieutenant, this had better not be what I think it is.”

And Alex actually grinned at that. “No, sir. It’s a legitimate tangent.”

"Request accepted, lieutenant. Report back in seventy-two hours."

"Yes, sir." He hung up the phone.

Corkie grinned. "Lieutenant Alexander Spears, huh?"

"Is my name a problem, Cortney Brooks?"

"Nah…it’s cute…like you."

Lord Jesus…help me. Find some patience and baptize me in it!

"Transportation out of Chihuahua," he simply outlined for her. "Any ideas?"

"I always have ideas, lieutenant," she said, still grinning.

"Don’t call me that."

"Oh…sorry. Don’t want to blow your cover?"

"No. If I can’t call you nińa, you’re not allowed to call me lieutenant."

She laughed at that, straight into a full blown giggle until she pressed her hand to her stomach and emitted one hell of a heartfelt snort. "Oh, heavens! It’s been a long time since a man has made me laugh like that," she said, wiping away tears.

"I’m happy for you," he groused, his mood a reflection of his inner battle. He really, really wanted to like this woman, but he didn’t dare. He’d screwed up enough lately.

"Okay…okay. I’m good now." She breathed in a few times. "Transportation."

"Yes. Transportation."

"Shouldn’t you have all these contacts and backup plans when going out on a solo mission? Daddy is always stressing the importance of preparing for all circumstances."

Alex stared at her…when he really wanted to just ditch her right there, Colonel Davenport’s daughter or not. "You didn’t like my plan, nor did you wish to become acquainted with my preferred contact, so this is all on you, sweetheart."

Her mouth downturned in a petulant frown. "There’s no need to be pissy, Alex. I was just asking, okay? And yes, I know someone who can give us a lift out of town, but he only travels at night, so we’ll need to get a room and rest until this evening."

"I know I’m going to regret this…but why does he only travel at night?"

"It’s really better if you don’t ask too many questions right now, Alex. Just trust me to get us to the fence line by tomorrow morning."

"Please don’t tell me this friend of yours is another ex-mercenary.”

“Okay…I won’t tell you.”

He growled a profanity. “Get us a room, then let’s go see your friend…and do something about your hair. You’re the only blonde for two hundred miles.”

“Not true,” she countered. “Mexico has just as many blondes as anywhere else.”

“Not with electric blue eyes, they don’t,” he argued right back.

“You think my eyes are electric? How sweet of you to say so.” She was making fun of him, and he wasn’t in the mood.

“Just get a room.”

“Okay, but we’ll have to share,” she said in a teasing tone. “I have plenty of money, but we’ll need most of it to buy our ride tonight.”

“I thought you said your ‘friend’ was giving us a ride,” he replied, narrowing his eyes at her.

“He will, but we’ll be taking up precious space…we should pay him for the inconvenience.”

“Precious space,” he muttered. “God, I just don’t want to know any more.”

Corkie walked up to him and patted him on the cheek. “Good…it’s better that way.” She sauntered over to the woman at the counter to pay for a room. Alex caught some of the conversation. Stranded newlyweds, Corkie called the two of them.

There is an American hotel near the tourist spots.”

We’re the adventurous sort. My husband liked your mural out front.”

Husband? Yeah, she’d done this before. Alex scrubbed a weary hand over his face. He needed a shave, a shower, and a good long sleep. But that wouldn’t be happening. Not if he was to keep up with that blonde hellion over there.

Corkie gave some money to the lady, slung her backpack over her shoulder and walked over to him, room key in hand. “Come on, darling,” she cooed, looping an arm through one of his. “Luana says that she gave us the best room in the house…has a view of the sunset. Doesn’t that sound romantic?”

“Yes, romantic,” he said mutely, flashing a smile at Luana, who grinned and waved them on to the stairs. As soon as they were clear, he turned a glare on Corkie. “Why didn’t you tell me who your father is last night?”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “Have you ever met Daddy?”

“Yes,” Alex answered. “I admire and respect him immensely.”

“Well, he thoroughly disapproves of my profession and still treats me like a child.”

“And this the reason you keep your identity a secret?”

“You didn’t identify yourself either,” she pointed out.

“My reasons are for my safety,” he replied.

“And so are mine,” she said.

Their room faced the western horizon, and that so-called view of the sunset would come through a window small enough to poke one person’s head out. The walls were bare stucco with numerous patches missing, showing the brick underneath. A small air conditioning unit hung from a hole in the wall, and there was only one narrow bed, a washstand, and a faded rug on the floor. A few pegs by the door was the sole source of a wardrobe. All in all, it was one hell of a desolate, dreary place.

Corkie pursed her lips as she walked into the room. “It’s a good thing this place is cheap,” she said.

As soon as the door was shut behind them, Alex pulled his gun from his waistband. She saw him from the corner of her eyes, whirled around, and together, they had their weapons pointed at each other before he took his next breath.

“Alex,” she sighed, her 9mm aimed at his head, “I’m offended. Don’t you trust me yet?”

“No.”

“Ah, well…I guess that’s understandable.” Her eyelids lowered a little as she peered at him, amused. “I need my pictures back, Alex.”

“You can’t have them.”

“Why not?”

“You just can’t.”

She chewed on the inside of her cheek as they stared at each other. She moved slightly to the right, and he kept his .45 trained on her, stepping with her, circling the room in the one dance he knew well. She showed no signs of potentially shooting him, other than pointing her gun at him, but he wasn’t about to let her get the leg-up this time. She’d been leading him along ever since he came across her, and Alex was tired of her games.

“I only want proof that Niro Sultanovich is alive,” she said softly.

“Then your proof is worthless,” he told her, feeling smug as he said it.

Her blue eyes squinted. “Why do you say that?”

Alex smiled slowly. “Because Niro Sultanovich is dead, sweetheart. I was part of the task force that took him down two years ago.”

Corkie blinked at him. Her pistol lowered a fraction, and her gaze drifted inward. “Then who…? No, I saw him yesterday. That was Niro.”

“It wasn’t Niro Sultanovich,” he said.

“It has to be,” she said vehemently.

“Well, it isn’t,” Alex insisted. “So, you can stop this stupid obsession with your pictures and let me get you to safety.”

She didn’t seem to hear him. “If that wasn’t Niro, then someone must be impersonating him…why would he do that?” She seemed to smile at herself. “Oh, this will be good…”

“Are you not hearing a word I’m saying?” Alex said. “Niro is dead. No one is impersonating him. Your information was wrong!”

“My information is never wrong,” she said, refocusing on him. “I really need my pictures back, Alex. I’ve gotta get a closer look at his face—”

“You can’t have them,” he repeated.

“God, you’re stubborn,” she said with a heavy breath of aggravation. “I will get my memory card back, Alex. It’s only a matter of time.”

“You’d have to kill me first,” he said wryly, “and even then, you’d never find out where I hid it.”

The corner of her lip twitched. She knew something…she had no poker face. But he heard the conversations between Corkie and Juan. Apparently, they had searched him while he’d been drugged last night, and they didn’t find it then. So, what did she think he did with it? She already knew he hadn’t been in contact with base until today, and if she believed he destroyed the memory card, she wouldn’t have bothered to keep him around.

What game was she devising now?

In a blink, Corkie set the safety on her handgun and let it dangle from her fingers, offering it to him. “I wouldn’t shoot you, Alex. I like you, and I make it a rule to not shoot new friends.”

With his gun still pointed at her, he gingerly reached out and took hers. When he had both in his hands, he relaxed. “This doesn’t change anything, Corkie. I still don’t trust you.”

She shrugged again and walked over to the bed, dropping down tiredly. “Doesn’t matter. I trust you.” And she closed her eyes, and within two minutes, she was asleep…snoring softly. Only a clear conscious allowed someone drop off like that. Must be nice.

After an hour of watching her sleep, Alex figured it was safe for him to go ask about some lunch. He dug through her backpack and found her money. Locking her in the room and taking the key with him—and both guns hidden under his jacket—he quickly went down to Luana at the front desk and requested a meal to be sent up. Then he inquired about a shower, since there was no bathroom connected with his and Corkie’s room, and learned that all of the third floor shared a bathroom, but no one else resided on their floor. Alex paid for their food and a few items—a razor and soap—before heading back upstairs. He enjoyed a quick shower, dressed again in his borrowed clothes, and went back to the room.

Corkie sat cross-legged on the bed, glaring at him when he unlocked the door and walked in. “Was that necessary?”

He stuffed the key into his pocket. “Yes.”

She spied his wet hair and sniffed the air, smelling the soap on him. “You took a shower!”

He kept his grin on the inside. “Yes, I did.”

“What about me?”

“What about you?”

“You’re not the only one who could use a bath,” she groused, standing up.

“Fine, go take one,” he said. “Just expect an audience.”

She stared at him for a moment…then smiled. “Ah…a voyeur, lieutenant. Kinky, I like that.”

“I’m not letting you out of my sight,” he said.

“You left me in this room alone,” she countered.

“I locked you in this room alone,” he replied.

“Then you can lock me in the bathroom.”

“It only locks from the inside,” he said.

“Excuses, excuses,” she scolded playfully. “Admit it…you like watching.”

Briefly, Alex reflected on the astute reasons her father didn’t want her in Mexico. The woman was truly insane and damn lucky she’d not gotten herself abducted already. “You’re the photographer, nińa,” he reminded her. “The only thing I’ll enjoy is seeing the back of your head when I’m finally free of you and your madness.”

A funny little smile played across her mouth as she sidled up to him. He immediately tensed, wondering what churned in her pretty little head. “You know you’ll miss me when I’m gone,” she said, running a finger up the middle of his chest. “Everyone does.”

Alex captured her finger before it could reach the skin of his neck. He bent over and got right in her face. “Corkie…you are the most conceited, neurotic, and immature woman I’ve ever met in my life. If you weren’t the colonel’s daughter, I’d hand you over to the cartel myself.”

Her eyes sparked with indignation as she snatched her hand away. “I am not immature!”

Good grief…that angered her? He just threatened to supply her to the enemy, and she was insulted because he called her immature. “Like I said…neurotic,” he mumbled to himself.

She stomped over to the door and yanked it open. “Well, come on, soldier boy! Your peep show awaits!”

Marching across the upper landing to the bathroom, she pulled off her shirt, and he barely made it to the bathroom door before she could slam it in his face. His foot blocked the closing. She threw her shirt at him, facing him in her bra and khaki pants. Then with blue ice for a glare, she stripped right in front of him…all the way down to her birthday suit, daring him to demonstrate some sort of impropriety for her nudity.

Alex refused to look away.

But he had the moral decency to not ogle her. He forced his eyes to unfocus, only seeing her blurred shape as she climbed into the bathtub, which did not have a curtain or barrier of any kind. She didn’t look at him again as she washed her body and hair, used the razor he bought to shave her legs…and other parts of her body he didn’t need to think about. Alex just stood there, not moving. The hot water from the shower heated up the room, making it difficult to breath.

It was the most disciplined he’d ever been—Fort Benning had been a clambake in comparison—to just stand there, not letting her glorious beauty get to him…and he was quite proud of himself.

She turned off the water, got out of the bathtub, wrapped her body in a length of scratchy toweling and picked up her clothes. Sending him a deadly scowl, she walked past him and went back to their room. That door, she did slam unhindered, but she couldn’t lock him out without the key. He counted to twenty before following her, giving her a module amount of privacy to get dressed. When he entered their room, she had her arms crossed over her chest, fully clothed and staring out the window. Their food arrived not long after, but she didn’t come away from her petulant vigil of the western horizon. Alex heard her stomach growling earlier, so he knew she must be hungry, but he wasn’t about to force-feed the damn woman. He had enough dignity for that.

So, he ate his share in silence. Locked the door again and laid down on the bed with the key in his pocket and both their handguns tucked between the mattress and wall, claiming his turn for a quick nap, as pointless as it was.


Chapter 5

“Alex, this is Ivan,” Corkie introduced her soldier boy to a toothy, wrinkled old man with only a wisp of hair on his brown head. “Ivan, this is my friend, Alex. I hope we’re not too late to secure a few seats in your van.”

Ivan studied Alex intensely, and with a clipped accent, said, “U.S. Army.” Then he spit on the ground at Alex’s feet and turned to Corkie. “No.”

“Aw, Ivan,” she cooed. “He’s harmless.”

“No.”

Ivan turned and walked back into his auto repair shop without another word. Alex asked, “Do I want to know why he has a problem with the United States Army?”

“Well…it’s not just the Army.”

“Corkie,” he said in a warning tone. “Who is that guy?”

She licked her lips, thinking of how to put this delicately. “Ivan is…um, well…let’s just say, he’s familiar with the Border Patrol.”

He muttered something under his breath and then hissed, “He’s a coyote? Jesus, Corkie, how do you meet these people?”

“Hey!” she huffed and turned to him. “Ivan isn’t a bad person. He’s just trying to make a living, like everyone else in this world, and he does it by helping poor Mexican citizens achieve a higher standard of living in the U.S.”

“It’s against the law! You’re a colonel’s daughter!”

“That doesn’t make me less sympathetic,” she returned hotly. “Now, I’m not saying it’s right or legal, or that I even agree with it. But take a look around, Alex. Many of these people live in poverty! Their children starve, Alex. At least in the U.S., they can get a fairly decent job and send money to their families.”

“Illegal immigration is one of the biggest problems in our country,” he argued, “and you’re asking me to contribute to it!”

“There’s problems on both sides of the fence, Alex,” she said crisply, intolerant of his narrow-minded attitude about this. She was over her earlier tiff with Alex after she finally ate, blaming her attitude on hunger pains, since everyone knew folks get crazy when they’re hungry, and in Corkie’s case, crazy breeded crazy if her tummy rumbled. But now…right back to that à la carte, pissy state.

“America isn’t perfect either, you know,” she went on. “Our country has a eighteen-trillion-dollar national debt, there are nutcases walking into our schools with semi-automatic rifles, we can’t get a single law passed without the Senate going to war with each other, and my brother and his husband can’t adopt children because their state does not recognize their marriage!”

Alex frowned and tilted his head back a fraction. “Your brother is gay?”

Corkie stuck her fists on her hips. “Yes, Doug, the youngest. You got a problem with that?”

“No, of course not…it just took me by surprise,” he said quickly. “The colonel has a gay son?”

She felt hot irritation boiling inside herself. “Not really exonerating yourself here, lieutenant.”

He made a cursory gesture. “It doesn’t matter. Our problem right now is getting out of Chihuahua without being seen. We’ll just have to find a car.”

“We can’t do that,” she said. “If Espinoza is looking for me, then he’ll have all the major roadways watched. Ivan knows every back road from Cuidad Juarez to Tapachula. He’s the only chance of us getting to the border undetected.”

“But Ivan refused to give us a lift,” he reminded her sharply.

“Then we’ll have to talk him into it,” she said, walking toward Ivan’s shop.

“And how do you plan to do that?”

She grinned over her shoulder. “I am a very charming lady, Alex. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”

She tracked Ivan to the backyard of his shop and hunkered down beside him as he changed the tire of an old truck that had seen much better days. “Ivan…”

“No, nińa,” he said, cranking the tire iron to loosen a bolt. “I can loan you a vehicle if you need one that bad, but I can’t take you. Not with him.”

“Ivan, you weren’t this biased when you met Daddy.”

“Antagonizing the father of my Sophia’s husband is rude,” he said. “Unless he is your husband, nińa, I do not need to be nice.”

“Ivan, please. We can’t travel the highways,” she explained. “We need to get out of Mexico without being seen.”

Ivan stopped his work and looked at her. “What trouble follows you now?”

Corkie glanced away. She’d known Ivan for many years, longer than she’d known Juan. His daughter, Sophia, went to same college as Corkie on a student visa. Then Sophia gained American citizenship after marrying Corkie’s middle brother, Joshua. But only Corkie, Josh and Sophia knew the illegalities of Ivan’s lifestyle in Mexico. The colonel would probably have a coronary if he knew his daughter-in-law’s father smuggled illegal immigrants across the border. And yet, it were those illegalities that got Corkie out of so many scrapes in the past. So, Ivan should probably know what was happening. Maybe he had some insight on the whole mess.

“Hibram Espinoza,” she answered his question.

Ivan squinted at her. “So, you’re the senorita he’s looking for.”

Corkie frowned. “What have you heard?”

“Not much,” he said, resuming his tire changing. “Word came to me this day of a runaway puta of his, with golden hair…set a high price on her head.”

She gasped. “Puta?! Now, that’s just insulting! How much is he offering?”

Ivan chuckled. “Sixty-thousand.”

“Dollars?”

He shook his head, clearly holding back more laughter. “Pesos.”

“Sixty-thousand pesos?! That’s…that’s only…” She worked the math in her head, but Alex, who came up behind them, finished the equation.

“Five thousand dollars,” he said, a wry light of amusement in his gray eyes. “I didn’t realize your services were worth so much, Corkie.”

“I am not a whore, but I’m worth a whole lot more than five-thousand dollars,” she argued childishly. “How dare he!”

“Sixty-thousand pesos buys a lot of food and medicine for some folks,” Ivan said calmly, removing the flat tire.

“I suppose it does,” she groused, “but it’s still insulting.”

“Must be that infallible charm of yours,” Alex commented, planting his boots in the dirt. He crossed his arms over his chest and gazed around the backyard of the shop. Ivan got the new tire locked into place, and then rose to his feet in front of Alex, not liking the way he spoke of Corkie.

Alex ignored him. Then a curious expression came across his face. He pointed a finger to a far corner of the lot and asked Ivan, “Is that a ‘39 Crocker?”

Ivan eyed Alex with interest. “You know your bikes?” Ivan asked, and Corkie scrambled to her feet to see what they were staring at. What’s a ‘39 Crocker? Like an old Crockpot? She had two back home. One just for her cheese dip. Why would Alex get excited about a kitchen appliance?

Alex nodded. “I had a ‘51 Black Lightning that was my dad’s. But I sold it when my mom got sick.”

The two men walked around the old truck to where a rusted motorcycle leaned against the fence. Corkie was more fascinated by Alex’s response than the bike. It was the most personal information that she’d ever heard come out of his mouth. Unless, of course…he was acting, using those spy skills of his, or whatever he wanted to call them.

Within ten minutes, both Alex and Ivan were laughing like old buddies and tinkering with that junked-up old bike as if they did this every Saturday night. Corkie could almost imagine a barbeque grill and a cooler of longnecks next to them. Okay, so maybe Alex could be the one to convince Ivan to take them the remaining distance to the border. Her efforts were clearly not working.

She sat down on a drum barrel, snacking from a bag of bunuelos, to watch Alex work his magic. It only took an hour, and Corkie was fairly certain that most of that time was wasted because Alex and Ivan were too happy to play around with the ancient motorcycle. Alex mentioned that he knew someone who could track down a few parts for Ivan, and Ivan smiled and agreed to give them a ride that night…at half price.

Deed done. Corkie was happy.

“I can be persuasive, too,” Alex said in her ear as they loaded up in Ivan’s delivery van a few hours after sunset. They spent most of the afternoon and evening with Ivan, who would only speak to Alex about motorcycles and cars, and nothing else, and Corkie was able to plan her next move.

“Yes, you’re very charming,” she agreed. “Thank you.”

Somehow she had to get him into a position that would benefit herself, and then sneak her camera card away from him. How she was going to do that…well, she already discarded all her immediate ideas. Alex currently carried both their weapons and was plenty wary of her. There was no way she could use physical force or weaponry. She’d just have outsmart him at some point. Maybe if he’d ever take off his boots…

“Now, tell me again how you and Ivan know each other.” Alex broke through her scheming as he settled in the back of Ivan’s van.

“He’s my sister-in-law’s father,” she said offhandedly.

Alex whistled. “Does the colonel know about him?”

“Daddy met him at the wedding,” she said. “They got along very well.”

“But does he know everything?”

She shot Alex a quick glance as the van began rumbling down the street. They were in the back, across from each other and sitting on makeshift benches, with only an opening in the roof to allow fresh air into the compartment, but they were alone. Ivan didn’t have plans to make an actual border run that night. So, this was a real favor for them.

“No, he doesn’t,” she answered, “and me and Josh and Sophia would like to keep it that way.”

“And which brother is Josh?”

“Are you drawing up a Davenport Family Tree, Alex?”

“Just curious. You have how many brothers?”

“Five. Danny is the oldest. After him is Steven, then Josh, then Davie, then Doug.”

“The gay one.”

She scowled at him. She was very protective of her brothers, Doug more so than the others since she they were closest in ages. Alex said The gay one like it was a disease or something. “Yes. Does it matter?”

“Then you?” he inquired, ignoring her question.

“Yes, I’m the youngest,” she said shortly. “Momma really wanted a girl. What’s with the personal survey, lieutenant?”

He shrugged and looked up through the hole in the roof. “Just curious. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about Colonel Davenport’s daughter, but none about his sons.”

“I’m a very remarkable woman,” she replied indignantly.

“Does your father approve of your brother’s choice?”

“Are you referring to Doug’s love life?”

“Yes.”

“Daddy loves all his children.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.” He turned his gaze back to her.

She tipped her head to the side to consider his inquiries more closely. Her family history wasn’t a state secret. Alex could find out all this when he got back to his base, and he didn’t strike her as the type to initiate small-talk…

Of course! Corkie rolled her eyes.

One of Daddy’s favorite interrogation tactics—set them at ease, talk about what’s familiar and safe…then sneak in that one important question. Did Alex momentarily forget she’d been raised by the colonel?

Giving him something to chew on, she said, “All of my brothers are very masculine, including Doug, but he’s not exactly the Lifetime Channel‘s interpretation of a homosexual male, if you know what I mean.”

“I understand what you mean,” he said.

“It took all of us awhile to accept the news, but he and Henry are very happy, and that’s all that matters.”

Alex listened to her, watching her closely as she spoke of her dearest brother, and then out of the blue, he leaned forward and asked, “Your brother, Doug…is he Army? Reserves?”

“Why?”

“Just curious.”

“Marine,” she said proudly.

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Enlisted or officer?”

Corkie smirked. “Range Officer. He’s six-foot-four, two-twenty on a slim day, and he really likes to shoot. Not many folks care that he’s homosexual after knowing that.”

He laughed. “No, I imagine he doesn’t get a lot of flack.”

“What about you?” she asked, now that he’d warmed up to her. “What are your brothers and sisters like?”

His face solidified. “I’m an only child.”

“Oh…okay, then your mother. You mention her earlier?”

Alex gazed back up at the night sky. “My mother passed away. Her heart was too weak to survive the kidney transplant.”

“I’m…I’m sorry, Alex,” she replied softly, and meant it wholeheartedly. “And your dad?”

“I’m alone, Corkie.” His tone clearly said, Drop it.

But Corkie was never the type to “Drop It.” “How long have you been alone?”

He scowled at her in the dim light. “None of your damn business.”

She arched her head back and nearly gasped. Wow…touchy much? “You asked about my family. Why can’t I ask about yours?”

“Because you have family,” he said roughly.

Now, she sighed. “Fair enough, lieutenant. You got a girlfriend, at least?”

“No.”

“Ever been married?”

Those gray eyes of his sharpened. “No, Corkie. Have you?”

She laughed. “Surely, you heard this story when folks mentioned the colonel’s daughter. Daddy’s been pushing me down the proverbial aisle since college. I don’t have any desire to get married.”

He snorted. “You should…it would do you some good.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You need a keeper,” he said, offering her a wolfish grin.

“I do not! There’s not a man out there that can hold me down,” she insisted fiercely.

“Isn’t there?” he asked softly.

Corkie pursed her lips. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared up through the hole in the ceiling. Alex chuckled, but they did not speak again.

The trip from Chihuahua to the nearest safe border crossing normally took all night, according to Ivan…but their ride suddenly jerked to a stop just past the midnight hour. Both Corkie and Alex bolted into awareness. Alex pulled out his gun and didn’t hesitate to tossed the 9mm to her. They waited, listening. No sounds suggested they were near any city or village. In fact, there was complete silence. And that worried Corkie. The desert, though quiet at night, was never silent.

The back doors swung open, and both of them aimed to shoot. It was only Ivan. “You must get off here,” he said. “I am hearing too much radio traffic for my liking. The policia are patrolling this area. They are looking for two Americans now, a man and a woman, and they suspect me going this way. I must lead them away.”

Corkie put her pistol away. “How would they know we were with you?”

“It would not be difficult to learn,” Ivan said.

“Where are we?” Alex asked.

“About one-hundred-fifty kilometers northeast of Chihuahua,” Ivan explained. “But you cannot get to America tonight, I fear. You must travel to the east, to these coordinates.” He handed over a GPS device and a large canvas bag. “There is a house there, and a woman by the name of Marta. Tell her, ‘Es una lástima.'”

“‘That’s a shame’? Okay…”

“You can trust her,” Ivan said. “She will hide you until the patrols move away. Tomorrow night, I will meet you there, and it should be safe to continue.”

Alex grumbled, “Another delay.”

“It can’t be helped,” she said. It was a well known fact that Espinoza had the police on his payroll. And if he had the police forces looking for her, then he must want her very badly.

“Well, Espinoza knows about you now, too, Alex,” she said, climbing out of the van.

“It seems that way,” he said, seemingly unconcerned. “What’s in the bag?”

Ivan answered, “Food, water, blankets…it will get cold tonight. You have a two hour walk to Marta’s place.” He stuck his hand into his shirt pocket and pulled out Corkie’s money, which she used to pay for the ride in the van. “Here, nińa…I did not complete the job.”

She folded his fingers over the cash and pushed it back to him. “I don’t take returns,” she said. “Besides, you might need it when Alex’s buddy gets you those motorcycle parts you’ve been looking for.”

Ivan smiled. “Gracias, nińa,” he said. “And if you see Sophia soon, tell her I am disappointed. She does not call enough.”

“I will, Ivan. And be careful.”

She and Alex stepped aside as Ivan hopped into the cab of his van and drove in the opposite direction. “Do you know this Marta woman?” Alex asked.

“No.”

“We shouldn’t trust her. We should find a place to hide out for the night and continue toward the border in the morning.”

“Ivan trust her,” Corkie said. “I’m going to Marta’s.”

Alex grunted. “You’ll go alone…forfeit your pictures to drop right into a trap?”

“It’s not a trap, Alex. You need to trust more,” she said, studying the GPS screen and getting her bearings. She turned east and started walking, leaving Alex to catch up with the bags. She knew he would. He might grumble until he turned purple, but the man revered his responsibilities, and getting Colonel Davenport’s daughter to safety was at the top of his list for the moment.

The moon rose high in the sky and several constellations could be clearly distinguished. Ivan was right about the air cooling off; there was a brisk wind blowing from the north. But overall…a very pleasant night for an evening stroll.

Alex caught up with her, a disapproving frown on his face. "We should head for that ridge over there," he suggested casually, veering southeast. "It’ll help with cover and put a wall to our backs in case someone shows up."

Corkie laughed softly. "You sound like Daddy, always looking for the advantage. How long have you been a Ranger?"

“A long time.”

“How long is a long time?”

He gave her a none-of-your-business look.

Corkie ignored it. “Well, assuming you’re about, oh, thirty-three and the average Ranger student begins around twenty-three, but I’ll bet you dived right in, didn’t you? So…ten years?”

“Will you stop this endless chatter?” he snarled. “We’re supposed to be hiding.”

She probably should. The wind was carrying their voices, and if any of the police patrols were nearby, they could be caught. But that only caused her to whisper…loudly. "How do you think Espinoza knows about you, too? They were only looking for me this morning."

"I smell a rat," he answered quietly. “I’ve had my suspicions about one of my informants…he could be playing both sides.”

“But Espinoza was only looking for me this morning,” she said.

“And then I called my base,” he said. “All contact is logged in a file.”

“You seem really calm about that,” she said. “I’d be pissed if someone betrayed me.”

He glanced at her, snatched the GPS device from her fingers, but didn’t reply. They reached the ridge, and Alex continued at a fast clip, walking slightly in front of her, basically ignoring her, but when several headlights flashed in the darkness ahead, he was right there, grabbing her and pushing them both behind a pile of boulders. Face to face, plastered together, Corkie’s heart literally skipped half a beat. Her eyes landed directly on his lips, which were in a prime kissing position, and if she dared, she could steal one right now…right here…

He thinks you’re childish.

Oh, right…he gets no kiss.

Alex listened intently to the night, hearing vehicles passing their hiding spot. After a few minutes, all was clear. But he didn’t move. His eyes refocused and found hers. Corkie licked her lips, and Alex switched his gaze between both her eyes and then traveled down to her mouth.

“Comfortable?” she asked.

“Are you?”

She smiled smoothly and bent a knee, causing his weight to settle firmly between her thighs. “Very comfortable,” she said.

He jerked away, scrambling to his feet. “Behave yourself,” he commanded, with all the authority of the U.S. military in his voice. “Need I remind you we’re in the middle of the desert, hunted by a notorious crime boss?”

He held out a hand to help her up from the ground. She allowed it, and teasingly said, “You know, Ivan gave us some blankets, if it’s the sand in the nethers bothering you.”

He started walking again. “Are you always like this?”

“Mostly,” she answered. “What should we talk about now?”

“Nothing.”

“You want the spend the next couple of hours not talking?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Do I have a choice in this?” she asked.

“No.”

“Ah!” she razzed, pointing a finger at him. “But you’re still talking!”

He came to a complete stop, pressed his thumb to his temple, exhaled, and moved on.

“Come on, Alex…let’s talk about something,” she said. “I’m bored.”

“No…now stop pestering me.”

Corkie laughed softly. “I have five brothers, Alex. I can pester with the best of them. Tell me about yourself. Give me another reason to like you.”

“I don’t need you to like me,” he replied stiffly.

“But you want me to,” she said cheerfully.

“No, I don’t.”

“Please? Please, please, please?”

"Fine, I’ll tell you one thing,” he growled and slowed down. “What do you want to know?”

She skipped to walk beside him, giddy to the bones. “Where did you grow up?”

“Arizona…I grew up in Arizona. My dad was on the Border Patrol in Sierra Vista.”

“Ah,” Corkie commented slowly. “So that’s why you’re so fussy about Ivan.”

“No,” he argued gruffly. “That’s not the reason at all. In fact my dad was very sympathetic to most illegals crossing over, but it was his job and he did it well. He just didn’t do it out of spite or prejudice.”

“So why are you so fussy?”

“Because I’m U.S. military,” he stated as plain as the night sky, glancing ruefully at her. “I’m obligated to honor my country’s laws no matter where I am. What Ivan does is against our laws, therefore I’m against it. And I’m never fussy.”

She waved off that last bit, “Sure, sure. About your dad…how long did he work for the Border Patrol?”

“I’m done talking,” he growled.

“I think I hit a sore spot,” she mused. She peeked at his face, seeing the angry lines around his eyes…and the sheer determination. “What happened to your dad, Alex?”

His jaw clenched. His fingers tightened around the GPS device. Then he said, “What about you, Corkie? What are your daddy issues?”

Corkie licked her lips at that question. “What makes you think I have daddy issues?” she said calmly.

“Call it a hunch,” he said. “What’s wrong, Corkie? Daddy Davenport didn’t buy you a pony for your birthday?”

“A colt, actually,” she said. “A Colt .380 Mustang…stainless steel slide, 2.75-inch barrel, less than a pound in weight…” A lustful sigh escaped her lips. ” I really, really wanted one, but he refused to get it for me.”

“Which birthday was that? When you turned three?”

Smiling, she laughed softly. “No, silly…I was twenty-one, legally old enough to buy and possess, but Daddy said, ‘Little girls do not play with guns.'”

“Was he notified that you did not need his permission?”

“Daddy stubbornly refused to see me as anything but his little girl. I had to learn about weapons and such from my brothers. In secret, of course. After the argument of the century, Momma had to step in, and Daddy conceded only enough to sign me up for civilian training. It’s been a pirate’s life for me ever since.”

She heard a distinctly masculine laugh from her soldier boy. “And the photography?” he asked. “How did you get into that?”

“You make it sound like a hobby,” she said with a huff. “It’s my job. You shoot bad people and rescue damsels in distress, and I photograph it. I got into it because I was always fascinated with TIME Magazine, have every issue ever published. Loved the pictures, especially all those wartime photos. I decided at the age of eight that’s what I wanted to be.”

“Is that who you work for, TIME Magazine?”

“I’m independent. Don’t do contracts and bosses very well.” Which was why she had never joined the military. She liked her freedom. Loved it. And that, also, was why she’d never kept a boyfriend for longer than a few months. They’d start talking about moving in together, or settling down together, and she’d be gone in a week. Her father tended to make a fuss about her break-ups, depending on the status and/or rank of the boyfriend—ditching the lance corporal earned her two months of alternating silence treatments and outbursts; yet, when she got rid of the martial arts instructor, her father merely hugged her and said, “You can do better.”

Alex kicked at a stone, sending it skittering across her path, and he said, “And I thought you might be C.I.A.”

“Me?” she said with a laugh. “Heavens, no!”

“You just sell your photos to anyone?”

“I have a few preferred clients,” she answered.

“Like who?”

The New York Times, People, Us Weekly, and yes, TIME Magazine, too.”

He nodded thoughtfully and walked alongside for another few minutes. “Do they give you assignments or do you pick your own?” he asked, gazing ahead.

“Both. If I’m bored with no tips coming in, I’ll call and see if they’re looking for something in particular,” she answered. “But my adventurous lifestyle had its downtime, too. Sometimes, for endless weeks, I’d sit in my apartment, watching The Cartoon Network while pigging out on cheese dip and chocolate.”

“How often do you get tips?” Alex asked his next question while bending down to snatch a second rock from the ground and toss it toward the ridge. His voice was mellow and almost disinterested.

Corkie wasn’t fooled. “Oh, I see what you’re doing. Clever, Alex, but I never disclose my sources,” she reaffirmed.

“You will.”

She laughed out. “Keep dreaming, lieutenant.”

He said nothing else. For the next two hours, they traveled east, following the GPS route on Ivan’s device and avoiding the police. Twice more she found herself pressed up against Alex’s body as lights entered the area. Corkie began hoping for more patrols to come through so that he would touch her again, but as dawn neared, they arrived at Marta’s place.

Alex took one look at the large wood-frame house, fully lit up and bustling with activity while remaining isolated in the middle of nothing but more desert, and he groaned. "I hope you realize that your friend Ivan sent us to a Mexican whorehouse."


Chapter 6

Corkie licked her lips as she scanned the front of Marta’s place. She’d seen and photographed many of the red-light districts in Mexican cities, but she’d never seen a brothel like this. From the outside, it looked like a normal house. And considering that Alex got his impression of the place right off, it made her wonder if he had some personal experience with such places.

“Maybe we should go around back,” she suggested faintly to Alex.

“That might be wise,” he agreed, moving to skirt around some parked vehicles “Someone might confuse you for one of them.”

Corkie looked down at her dirty, wrinkled appearance and snorted. “Not likely. I might get chased off the property, if anything.”

Alex glanced at her, looking only at her face. “I doubt that…someone like you would bring in good income in a place like this.”

She blinked at the back of his head while he walked ahead of her. She wasn’t sure if what he’d just said was a compliment, or an insult. Was he saying she was pretty, even as ragged as she was, or was he calling her a whore?

“Hang on just a dang minute,” she called out as she trotted to catch up to him. They reached the back of the house. A small, well-tended garden sat near the back porch, but other than that, the darkened night stretched as far as she could see.

“What did you mean by that?” Corkie asked.

Alex didn’t respond and went up the porch stairs and rapped his fist on the door.

“What did you mean, someone like me, in a place like this?” Corkie insisted as she stopped next to him.

A voice called out from inside. “¿Quién es?

Alex answered, “We’re looking for Marta.”

“Circundar al frente!

Corkie glared at Alex. “Just what kind of person do you think I am?”

He turned to stare at her. “Do you really want to get into this now?”

“Yes!” she answered.

¿Qué quieres?" the voiced asked from inside.

Corkie turned her glare to the closed door before them. “We’re not going around to the front! We’re here to see Marta!” she yelled. Then she turned back to Alex. “I want to know what you meant by that!”

The door opened, and a seriously pretty senora in her late forties with deep-green hazel eyes and a tan-darkened caucasian face eyed them suspiciously. The woman looked first at Corkie, and asked, “Are you looking for sanctuary or work?”

“Definitely not work,” Alex said, but Corkie’s throat seized as she stared at the woman’s familiar face, an eerie realization floating through her brain.

“Are you…Marta?” she asked, thinking that Ivan knew this woman very well…since she was obviously the mother of his daughter. There was no mistaking those eyes.

“And if I am?” the woman asked.

Corkie swallowed and whispered, “‘Es una lástima.'”

The woman blinked…and then smiled. “Ivan sent you?”

“Yes,” Corkie said quietly, still gazing at her.

“How is he?” The woman stepped aside and allowed both her and Alex into the house.

“He’s fine,” Corkie said cautiously. “You are Marta, right?”

The woman smiled. “I’m Marta…owner of this house and an old friend of Ivan’s. And I must assume that you are friends of his, too?”

Corkie wasn’t sure how much she should divulge at the moment, but she figured…what the hell. “Yes, I’ve known Ivan for a while now. Sophia married my brother.”

Marta’s eyes narrowed instantly. “Sophia? Is that…isn’t that his daughter?” she asked calmly.

Corkie tipped her head to the side, studying Marta. Alex, so far, had not said anything else, but he was watching both women carefully, dissecting every word and nuance of body language. Corkie had a feeling he would question her about this later.

And suddenly, Corkie smiled. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to fool me, Marta…you look just like her.”

Marta sighed heavily. “Let’s talk in my room.”

Corkie turned to Alex. “I’ll be back later. Why don’t you go and…enjoy yourself,” she suggested.

He perked his ear to the sound of a giggling female from somewhere in the house. And he frowned. “I’d rather not.”

“Surely, you can set aside your job for a few minutes. Go have some fun,” Corkie said sweetly, teasing him, although the idea of him partying with any other woman irritated her, but she didn’t own him. He could do what he wanted.

Alex’s jaw clenched. “I don’t pay.”

Marta, hearing their small exchange, grinned and winked at him. “The girls work for themselves, so I do cannot dictate their charges, but two young ladies here owe me a favor.”

“Thank you…but no,” he replied sternly. He glanced at Corkie, saw her impatience for him to leave her alone with Marta for a while, and grunted. “But I could use a bath and something to eat, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“I think we can manage that,” Marta said. They walked into the kitchen, which was empty, save a dog laying in a corner. Marta called out and two lusciously-endowed senoritas bounded into the room. “This is Mia and Clara…they will take care of you.”

Mia and Clara smiled identical smiles at Alex, raking him from head to toe with dark eyes, and nodded as Marta gave them instructions.

“How long will your chat take?” Alex asked Corkie, obviously appreciating the new arrivals.

“I promise not to go anywhere,” Corkie said, scowling at him. “We need each other, remember?”

Then Alex was whipped away by the two girls, and Corkie stood, pursing her lips at his departure. For all his insistence on not participating in the house’s activities, he seemed quite happy to leave with those two. Maybe he changed his mind. They were pretty…and blessed with what God gave females. It wouldn’t be the first time Corkie had seen a guy go gooey-eyed over a pair of perfect breasts. And Alex had followed two pairs. He was probably groping them right now and trying to figure out how to squeeze four melons at the same time…the pig.

He never looks at my breasts, she groused to herself and then frowned, because that was such a stupid thought. Alex didn’t like her. He scowled or frowned every time he so much as glanced at her. Hell, he saw me naked just this morning, and nothing. Not even a smile of appreciation.

Corkie looked down at her chest. Okay, so she wasn’t enriched with more curves than she needed. God stuck her in the brains and bravery category that day he was handing out boobs. But Alex didn’t like her cleverness or her spunk either. He just didn’t like her period, and that kind of hurt her feelings.

What’s wrong with me?

After Alex left, Marta’s smile softened. “How is Sophia? She’s…twenty-six now?”

“Twenty-seven,” Corkie answered, turning back to Marta. “She just had a birthday.”

A distant light entered Marta’s eyes. “Yes…it’s becoming more and more difficult to remember that day.”

Corkie licked her bottom lip and said, “Sophia told me her mother died when she was born.”

Marta nodded. “It was better that way…Come. My room is this way. We can talk there, and no one will bother us.”

Corkie followed Marta, with one lingering glance at the door Alex had gone through only minutes before. He’d better behave himself…

 

*****

 

Alex leaned his head back and sighed…immensely. He was in heaven. The two girls taking care of him had been gentle, diligent, and friendly.

He’d never enjoyed a hot bath more.

Clara and Mia brought him upstairs to the room they shared—apparently, they specialized in sharing—and set him up in their private bathroom with a tub large enough for Alex to stretch out. They offered to wash him, but he declined…politely. So, all they did was set out some towels and sat down on stools to watch, with small smiles on their lips.

Alex had never been ashamed of his nudity. In his line of work…well, there were times when a little nakedness was a given. And even now, the two girls didn’t bother him. It was almost as if he were immune to their apparent interest in him. Actually…he was immune. He had no curiosity to indulge in their “friendliness” toward him. They could watch, or they could leave. Either way, Alex didn’t care.

The dust, aches and pains, and weariness of his nighttime trek through the desert melted off him. He could still hear the music and laughter from downstairs, but as the morning dawned bright, it started to calm down. He heard doors close and cars leaving outside, and soon, the house was quiet. Alex closed his eyes, allowing his body to relax, and thought about the crazy, blonde-haired minx.

He learned a lot about Cortney Brooks these past two days, and yet, she was still a mystery to him. How had a woman like her, with her background and family, come to be acquainted with so many different kinds of people? And why the obsession with Niro Sultanovich? Why would she go to such lengths to put herself into so much trouble and danger, just to get his picture? The man was dead, yet Corkie believed someone else was taking his place. Alex understood why she’d want proof of that, but surely, she would have cut her losses after all this disaster and tried again another time. Any other normal person would have.

Why bother crossing a known devil like Espinoza for a few photos? It was crazy, and the more Alex thought about it, the more insane Corkie was to him. The woman needed to go home. Get married. Have kids and get on with a normal life. His job would be easier here in Mexico. Her life would be safer. And Espinoza would eventually stop looking for her. But she was so damn stubborn. She was traipsing around the world, following the ghost of one man, and to Alex, she was going to get herself killed one of these days. Just the notion of that quickened his breath.

God, how can one woman get into so much trouble so fast?!

Alex wanted to hate her, but the woman had spirit. She didn’t back down. She was intelligent and beautiful. Deadly combinations. If he wasn’t on a mission—and she wasn’t the colonel’s daughter—he considered seducing her, just to see what’d she do in return. Would she would be an adventurous lover, or a gentle one? Alex couldn’t decide. She was both sweet and feisty while fully clothed. What kind of woman would she be between the sheets?

A soft sigh from the other side of the bathroom brought him out of his contemplations. He raised his head as Mia—Or was it Clara?—stood and left the room.

“Is there anything you need, Senor Alex?” the other one asked softly in her native language. She walked over to the bathtub with a smile and her small stool and sat down again, dipping her fingers into the water. Alex watched her with hooded eyes. He was wary of everybody these days, but this girl looked to be barely twenty years old.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“I am legal,” she said. “I have my papers. Senora Marta said to provide for your every need. What do you need, Senor Alex?”

He inhaled deeply and sat up, exiting the tub while she watched with those lovely, deep brown eyes. “I do not wish to sleep with you, Clara,” he said in a firm voice as he grabbed a towel from a nearby shelf.

The girl folded her hands in her lap and looked up. “No?”

“No,” Alex said. He dried his body and wrapped the towel around his waist. He felt no desire in his groin for this girl, and she noticed his lack of physical response. Here he stood, naked, and he obviously did not have any urges for her or her clandestine proposal. A flush crept up her cheeks as she gazed thoughtfully at his broad chest, her eyes taking in his tattoo and the few battle scars that dotted his skin.

“The senorita you came with, the American…you are hers?”

“Tell me about Senora Marta,” he said, avoiding her question. “She is not from Mexico, is she?.”

The girl’s eyes drifted up to his face. “The Senora’s secrets are her own.”

The girl had loyalty, he’d give her that, but it still didn’t answer his questions. Clearly, there was a connection between Corkie and Senora Marta. Corkie’s mention of her sister-in-law, Sophia, suggested that Marta might be Sophia’s mother. And Corkie had not known that. It caused his thoughts to circle back to Corkie, and how her life intertwined with so many different kinds of people in this world. Corkie was the real mystery. Alex was baffled by her…and his reactions to her.

But in the end, he sighed and asked if there was a change of clothes for him lying around somewhere. His borrowed outfit from Fr. Ramiro was beyond filthy, and it had started to itch. He couldn’t bear putting it back on, not after that amazing bath. The girl—Alex finally asked which one she was, and she said, “Clara,” with a saucy smile—hopped up from her stool, her cleavage bouncing vigorously, and guided him into her bedroom. The other one, Mia, was asleep on the solitary, wide bed.

“Senor Alex,” Clara whispered to him, opening a large wardrobe in the corner. “Choose.”

Alex stepped over to her and peeked inside the wardrobe. It was full of men’s clothing. He didn’t want to think about why they were there, or who had worn them previously. He was only too happy to change into something clean. He picked out a pair of faded denim pants, a gray t-shirt, a pair of socks and boxer-style underwear…he noticed that those were still new and wrapped in plastic, so he was thankful for that small blessing.

After donning his new clothes, he went back to the bathroom to get his boots, check to make sure Corkie’s camera card was still there. Then he sat down in a chair to look over his gun, quickly disassembling it, blowing out some sand, and putting it all back together.

Clara reclined on the bed, her head propped up on her hand, watching him. He noticed that her clothes were artfully arranged to entice him, the short sleeve of her tight dress falling off one shoulder and further exposing the deep cleft of her breasts. Her feet were bare and rubbing against one another. Politely, he thanked her for the clothes and asked where he could get a bite to eat. Clara scooted off the bed—again, that jiggle making his eyes draw straight down to her chest—and looped her arm through his.

“I will cook for you,” she said, escorting him out of the room. He glanced back at the sleeping girl.

“Aren’t you tired?” he asked Clara.

“I will rest later,” she said, smiling delightfully at him. “I will take care of you first. Anything you need, Senor Alex.” There it was again, that hidden proposal. He frowned severely, and she laughed and led him downstairs to the kitchen.

That’s where he saw Corkie again, digging into an omelet that filled her entire plate. She was alone. She’d bathed and changed, too, and now she was wearing a dress similar to Clara’s, only in a light beige and not quite so revealing. Her golden hair was no longer in that knot, and it fell around her shoulders in shimmering, damp waves. Alex’s groin stirred for the first time that morning. She was absolutely beautiful.

Corkie glanced up from her breakfast, saw Clara smiling prettily at him with their arms entangled, and glared as she stabbed her omelet. “Where’s the other one?” she asked.

Alex recognized a mad female when he saw one, and this one at the table was biting back a whole mouthful of bitter nails. He grinned to himself. “She’s asleep…very tired.”

“I’ll bet she is,” Corkie muttered and took a sip of her coffee. There was another omelet, already fixed for him on the table, so he turned to Clara with more thanks—as heartfelt and mischievous as he could manage without laughing at Corkie’s attitude—and kissed the girl on the cheek.

Clara took him by the head and turned that kiss to her mouth. She surprised Alex, but he played along for now. It served Corkie right. She left him alone in this brothel. She got him into trouble and danger these past two days. She was the reason he was here in the first place. Let her simmer in anger as he kissed another woman.

Muchas gracias, Senor Alex,” Clara purred gently, but loud enough for Corkie to hear. “It was…fun.”

Corkie’s fork clanged against her plate. Clara shot Alex a bemused grin and sashayed out of the room. He watched her go, keeping a smile on his face.

“I thought you don’t pay,” Corkie said hotly as he sat down across from her at the table and pulled his plate toward him.

“I didn’t pay,” he replied honestly.

She stared at him for a long while. He was halfway finished with his omelet when she spoke next. “She’s pretty,” she said casually.

“Yes, she is,” Alex said and continued to eat.

“She’s a prostitute, Alex.”

He poured himself some coffee from the coffee pot on the table and glanced at Corkie. “I’m very aware of what she does for a living, Corkie.”

Corkie fumed in front of him. Alex watched her with amusement. They’d been separated in this house for the last two hours. For all he knew, she could have enjoyed its amenities.

“Did you fuck her?”

Alex choked on his next bite. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” he stated when his throat was clear again. “And watch your mouth. What would your daddy think?”

“I’m a big girl, Alex,” she snarled. “I can say fuck if I want to. Fuck, fuck, fuck...fuck!”

He eyed her coolly. “And I’m a man, Corkie, who does not answer to you. I can do whatever I want to.”

“You disgust me,” she said and got up from the table, dumping her plate and coffee mug in the sink.

He sat back in the kitchen chair and watched her bristling. “And you confuse me, Corkie.”

She turned around, her skirt and hair flying with her movement. “What does that mean?”

“Why should you care if I slept with every girl in this place?”

“I don’t care!”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

She stomped over to him and planted her fists on the table top. “Fine…I care. I thought you said you are obligated to follow your country’s laws, no matter where you are. Frankly, I’m disappointed in you, Alex. You talk the big talk, but when gigantic temptations fling at you, you forget all that. I thought you were a better man.”

He listened to her speak, and he watched the blue fire in her eyes. She had trusted his morality, and now she felt betrayed. Something like that made him feel honored.

“I didn’t have sex with her,” he said quietly. “Or any girl here. I had a bath. I was given a change of clothes. And now I am eating.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that? What about that kiss?”

“What about it? I cannot control Clara’s personal desires and actions.”

“You kissed her back!”

“So?”

Her glare seared through him. Her blue eyes delved straight into his gray ones, and she began to look more and more infuriated. “You kissed her to make me mad, didn’t you?”

“And? Did it work?”

“What do you think?”

He smiled. “I think you’re pretty when you’re mad.”

Instantly, her face dropped its intensity. “You’re teasing me, lieutenant.”

“Do you like me teasing you, Corkie?”

She sat down in her chair again. “Yeah, I do.”

He snorted and finished his omelet. “Your friend Ivan said Senora Marta will help us. What did she say?”

Corkie fluffed her hair, fiddling with it for a moment, twisting a small tendril that fell across her shoulder and tickled the tanned skin of her collarbone. The collar of Alex’s shirt got very tight as he watched her. “She said we are welcome to stay for as long as we need.”

“Does she know about Espinoza?”

She shook her head. “No. The less she knows the better. But I managed to contact Ivan. He learned that Espinoza suspects we are heading toward the U.S., and he’s got all the normal paths covered.”

“That will make it difficult,” Alex commented. “You still want to do it this way? I can have that chopper here in a few hours. I’ll even run interference with your daddy.”

Corkie heaved a tired breath. “That’s sweet, Alex, but Ivan said he talked to Juan, and Juan said they found Espinoza’s rat in Enrique’s office, but where there’s one, there’s usually a lot more. He also discovered that Hibram Espinoza has been monitoring all U.S. military movements since yesterday afternoon. He would know where we are if you called your base again. If he has any men in the area, then they would be on us before your rescue arrived. I don’t want to mix Marta up in this, if I can’t help it.”

H stared at her. “How does Juan know all this?”

“Juan knows most of what happens in this area,” she said. “I haven’t figured out how he does it, but I trust Juan and Ivan with my life.”

“What about Senora Marta? Rats come in all shapes and sizes.”

Corkie looked down and frowned at the table. “We can trust Marta, too. She’s Sophia’s mother. She’s family.”

Alex looked across the table at her. “She owns a whorehouse, Corkie…how trustworthy can she be?”

Corkie stopped playing with her hair and brushed it over her shoulder, glaring at him, but Alex now had a clear view of her graceful neck and wasn’t too concerned he upset her again. His mouth burned to press his lips to that curve, right there, where her jaw met her ear.

“They’re not all prostitutes, Alex,” she said. “There’s more to this place than meets the eye.”

He snorted with disbelief. “I doubt this is one of those cases where the ‘eyes can be deceiving.’ The two girls I left with…those were prostitutes,” he said shortly.

Her eyes sparked again. “Yes…I suppose you didn’t notice anything but the two pairs of boobs bouncing at you, huh?”

“I noticed a lot of eagerness to provide me with everything I desired,” he said, and Corkie sneered at him, saying, “You’re such a typical man. Didn’t you notice anything else—other than the boobs?”

“I noticed you diverting the conversation,” he said. “What exactly does your new friend do here, besides tailor to her customers? And God! Don’t tell me that Marta is trafficking drugs, too, because if you do, then we’re out of here.”

“What is wrong with you?” she huffed. “Why do you always think the worst of people?”

“That’s life, sweetheart,” he replied.

“Well, there’s more to life than the bad things, Alex,” she said. “I know that it isn’t always rainbows and daisies, but you could try seeing it differently once in awhile. It won’t kill you, you know.”

He sat forward. “Listen carefully, Corkie. This is a whorehouse. Marta is a whore—”

Retired,” she corrected hotly.

“—and those girls I met are the same,” he plowed on. “It may be legal here, but there is no coloring that a brighter shade of pink to make it pretty. And if you think you can make me see differently, then give it a shot. I’m all ears.”

She inhaled deeply, her expression saying she’d rather box his ears, but instead, she said, “Some of these girls came from far worse situations. Marta takes care of them, making sure they are healthy, safe and protected. They all have their reasons for choosing the line of work, but at least, here, the girls aren’t abused or forced to do what they don’t want.”

“Are you really condoning this lifestyle?” he asked her curiously.

“No, Alex,” she insisted quickly. “I don’t condone it, just as I don’t condone what Ivan does, but sometimes the worst kind of life we could think of is better than what others have. Marta doesn’t own the girls. She helps them however she can, even educating them so that they can go to the United States on student visas and begin new lives. They don’t have to service anyone if they don’t want to.”

Alex cocked an eyebrow at that. “Oh, really…so, Clara and Mia choose to sleep with strangers? That doesn’t shed a golden light on their integrity, Corkie.”

She heaved out a tired breath. “No, I suppose to someone like you, it wouldn’t look that way.”

“Someone like me?”

Corkie raised her head and slanted him a speculative gaze. “Don’t you ever see the world without the black and white, Alex? Haven’t you ever just stopped and looked…really looked? Don’t you look into people’s eyes? See the depths of their lives, their happiness, their grief, their anguish and love? Can you not see that a smile is sometimes more than just a smile, and that there’s more than just shades of gray?”

He sent her a solid frown. “Spoken like a true photographer, Corkie,” he said.

She threw up her hands. “I don’t need my camera to see colors in every face, not the black and white, and just the good and bad, or the right and wrong. I see life, Alex! And sometimes it isn’t that pretty pink! Sometimes it’s damn ugly and hideous!”

He sat there, silently, for a good two minutes, watching the animation and frustration in her own blue eyes. Then he said, “Is this where you tell me there’s a rainbow after every storm, that there’s a silver lining to every cloud?”

And she stared back at him. “Believe what you want, Alex,” she finally said quietly, standing up. She drew in a deep, calming breath and walked away from him. “Heaven knows, I can’t change your mind.”

At the door, she paused and said over her shoulder, “Marta says you can have the bedroom upstairs at the end of the hallway, on the left. It’s empty. No one in there to insult your impeccable integrity.” Then she disappeared into another part of the house, leaving him to stew on her parting remarks.


Chapter 7

Alex stared out the window. His mind raced and his heart tightened, thinking about Corkie. She was headstrong, mischievous, and a magnet for trouble…but her soul was pure. And that was what intrigued him. He’d seen evidence of her true nature during their short acquaintance. Those character traits that came straight out of her heart were subtle, but they were there, and she argued with him just now from her heart. It was invigorating. It was captivating. It was enlightening, and it was enough to drive any man crazy with wanting her.

The door behind him creaked, and he sat upright, smoothing out his frown. He had a job to do, and he couldn’t allow his growing feelings to show on his face or in his behavior. But Corkie didn’t return to the kitchen.

Marta approached him carefully and asked, “Senor Alex…is everything alright?”

“Fine,” he answered and stood up to put his plate and coffee mug in the sink. “I think I’m just tired. Thank you for the hospitality, Senora Marta. I’ll go up to the room you’ve offered and sleep a little.”

She shifted and glanced through the open doorway, of which she just entered. “I was just up there…I thought I’d make sure you and Corkie had everything you needed before I turn to my own room, but she wasn’t there.”

“She left here a few minutes ago, to go to her own room.”

“Her own room?”

Alex looked carefully at her. “Yes…we have separate rooms, right?”

Her hazel eyes came back to him and they seemed searching and thoughtful. “No, Senor Alex…Corkie said that the two of you will share a room, since it is the only one available.”

“And she’s not there?”

Marta studied him for a long moment, apparently feeling the tension that had been in the room moments ago. “Maybe she no longer wishes to share a room with you.”

Alex stomped out of the kitchen. Where the hell had Corkie run off to? Without him to protect her, she would end up in Espinoza’s grasp. He rushed to the front door. It was locked, bolted tight. He pivoted, glanced through a doorway to his right and saw her, lying on a sofa, sound asleep.

Carefully moving over to her, he looked down at her peaceful face. Her hair had fallen across one cheek, and she was curled up as best as she could in the small space, clearly uncomfortable. She had chosen to come in here rather than share a room with him again.

That hurt his pride. All he’d been trying to do was keep her safe. So they had an argument. It wasn’t their first, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be their last. What was she really mad about? That kiss with Clara, or her assertion that he didn’t trust enough. Hell, the woman trusted too easily. He wasn’t happy about the events of the last few days, but he believed that his suspicions would keep Corkie out of Espinoza’s grasp. That was the only thing that mattered.

The only thing? Jesus, when had his mission become so compromised!

Hibram Espinoza order the hit that took out three Border Patrol officers twenty years ago, the gunfight and massacre that killed Alex’s father. And Alex had damn well never forget that again! A bothersome colonel’s daughter or not, Alex’s main goal was Espinoza. Stopping that bastard before he orphaned another child. What was most important here was learning Corkie’s contacts and busting Espinoza for every crime that man committed.

Still…he couldn’t leave her like this.

With a heavy sigh—because he had never been this soft-hearted to any other woman who was such a nuisance—Alex bent, scooped her up in his arms and carried her upstairs to their room. She moaned and mewed against his chest, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, but she did not wake up. And to him, that meant she was more exhausted than she would have admitted.

Alex tucked her into the double-sized bed and joined her. He wasn’t able to close his eyes, his mind too active and his body too tense…until she turned over, dropped a hand over his chest and snuggled up to his side. And suddenly, just like that, he relaxed and fell asleep.

Some five hours later, Alex jerked awake by the woman next to him. She sat upright in the bed, her eyes open wide, her mouth pulled back in agony, and she sobbed openly, begging for something or someone to stop…stop hurting her, stop the pain, stop, stop, stop…

Alex gently shook her shoulders, seeing her stare right past him, and he knew she was dreaming—or rather, having a horrific nightmare. She lashed out, punching him in the chest, and fighting with claws bared and a wild light in her blue eyes. For him to let her go. To stop touching her, leave her alone, to just stop, stop, stop. He did, and she sank back to the mattress and fell into another deep slumber.

He gaped at her. Good God…what was that all about?

But she appeared restful now, so he reclined next to her again, watching her for the longest time, growing more and more drowsy by the second. Then she screamed.

Alex bolted from the bed and had his gun cocked and ready before he realized it. His head swam crazily as the repeated abruptions from sleep worked him over. Once his vision cleared, he sighed and put his gun on the table by the bed. Corkie continued to croak out raspy shouts, and he didn’t know what to do. She would have the entire household in here, all of those girls and Marta, if he didn’t calm her down. Quickly, he crawled back into that bed and pulled her to his chest, holding her tight, and this time, she didn’t fight him. Her fingers curled into his shirt, clutching him as she moaned and twisted faintly in his arms.

“Shh,” Alex crooned against her temple, rocking her gently. “No one is hurting you, nińa…you’re safe with me…I promise.”

But if she heard him, she made no sign of it. For the next few minutes, he continued to talk to her quietly, smoothing her hair back from her face, holding her tightly. Her legs tangled with his, and her skirt had risen up above her knees, showing a good length of smooth, tanned thigh. Alex refused to look that far downward. He stared across the room, holding, whispering, fighting the warmth that spread through his entire body.

And then, just as quickly, she whimpered almost peacefully, and began snoring.

A soft knock on the door preluded Marta’s entering the room. “Senor Alex? I heard screaming.” Marta’s eyes landed on how him and Corkie lay entangled on the bed.

“Everything is okay,” he told the older woman. “She had a bad dream.” He glanced down at Corkie, his fingers caressing the soft strands of hair that covered her shoulder. “I think she’ll sleep now.”

Marta nodded and turned to leave, but she glanced over her shoulder. “Take good care of her, senor…she is family.”

Alex heard the veiled threat, but he dismissed it. This mission had become so out of whack, he was beginning to wonder if it was all real or just a bad dream of his own. Time slowed as he continued to hold Corkie, letting her sleep against his body, but he was unable to follow suit. His mind raced. Someone hurt her. Nightmares didn’t form on their own. What happened to her? Other than what she told him in the last few days, he knew nothing about her past. So far, she’d just been another asset to attaining Espinoza. A crazy, bothersome, incredibly soft-hearted asset, but still just another card in this game he played.

For the past year, this mission had been his life. He lived and breathed Espinoza, thought he knew everything about the man, right down to where he bought his booze and cigars. But now…someone was leaking information to a blonde-haired photographer who lived in Washington D.C., and she knew people who knew Espinoza personally. People like Juan.

And Alex told himself that was the only reason he held her. Because she knew things he did not. Not because he liked holding her. Not because her hair still smelled of honeysuckles, even though she’d washed it at least twice since he met her. And not because he thought she was the most beautiful and sexiest woman he’d ever come in contact with. She was driving him crazy on so many levels. Alex was ready to get his regular life back, to go back to work on Espinoza, and to stop feeling so damn responsible for someone else’s safety and behavior. He never had to worry about the guys in his unit. They knew their jobs and performed them without question or hesitation. But Corkie…Corkie needed a guardian.

He removed himself from her embrace and crawled out of the bed, requiring a breather from her…just to clear his mind for a while. She whimpered a protest as his warmth left her, but she didn’t stir otherwise. He prayed she didn’t wake for another couple of hours.

Needing to do something—other than stare at her—Alex found an old cloth in the bathroom across the hall. He moved a small table and chair over to the bedroom window and sat down to clean out both their guns. Without his kit, he could only disassemble the weapons, wipe them out and put it all together again.

There was a clear view of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the distance, and the grays, tans and yellows of the hills danced in the afternoon sunlight. They would have to travel over or around those mountains to get to the border, and in that time, Alex had to get information out of Corkie. He only needed the right leverage. The problem being…he had no leverage over her, with the exception of her pictures, and he had the sneaky suspicion that she knew he carried it with him. Or else, she wouldn’t be so determined to get back into the States—Daddy Davenport’s ire or not.

Alex knew her game. She was trying to maneuver him into her own playing field, getting him as close to the border as possible before she struck…then wham! She probably thought she would get that card away from him with one of her crazy tactics and disappear into the next country. And goddammit, he couldn’t follow her. He couldn’t leave Mexico without strict orders, and no one would grant that right now. In an insane way, Alex almost looked forward to her next move.

A throaty breath sighed behind him. “Alex? What time is it?”

He calmed his features before he turned to her. And he was glad he did. Her hair had tangled around her shoulders, and she still had that soft look of sleep in her eyes as she gazed at him from the bed, her arms curling around a pillow and a tiny smile on her lips. God, she was stunning like that.

“Almost two o’clock,” he answered evenly.

“That early?” She stretched and yawned. “Wow…I could sleep for three more days!”

“There’s no need to get up,” he said and turned back to staring out the window.

“Yes, there is,” she laughed. “Bathroom!”

He heard the mattress springs bounce as she hopped up. Her bare feet padded toward the door and she opened it. A second later, he was alone. But not for long. With his back still to the room, his ears perked up when she returned and curled up on the bed again.

“Hmmm,” she moaned. “Did you sleep much?”

“A little.”

“What time did you get up?”

“A little while ago.”

She chuckled. “Wow, Alex…I’d ask if you’re always such a grouch when you wake up, but so far, I’ve known you three days, and you’ve got a perfect score on the grumpy meter.”

He stood up and rested against the window ledge. She smiled playfully at him as she stretched out down the length of the bed. All signs of that nightmare gone.

“Who hurt you, Corkie?”

Her smile arrested on her face. “I’m sorry?”

“You have nightmares about it,” he said. “So don’t try denying it to me. Who hurt you?”

The blue in her eyes darkened as she looked away. Her eyelashes shielded any further emotion from those blue pools, and she picked at invisible lint balls on the blanket. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I do.”

“Tough, Alex.”

“Was it Espinoza?”

Her eyes rolled around with rancor. “No.”

“Then Sultanovich?” he asked. “Is that why you’re after him?”

“Of course not,” she said. “I told you, I’ve never met either of them before.”

“Then who?
She laid flat on her back and covered her eyes with the crook of her arm. “Alex…I don’t want to talk about it.”

His fingers fisted in tight balls. “You were screaming your head off an hour ago. Tell me who hurt you!

She peeked at him from under her arm. “I did not scream my head off.”

“You most certainly did.”

“Did I disturb anyone?”

“Just me…now tell me, dammit!”

He was awarded an icy glare. “No,” she said.

“Yes!”

“I won’t, and you can’t make me.”

He stomped over to the bed and towered over her, his fists by his sides. “Why must you be so freaking stubborn!”

“Because I can,” she said in a sugary-sweet voice, though her eyes were still like cold crystals.

“All I want to know is who hurt you!”

She rose up on her knees, facing him. “Why? So, you can run off, playing my knight in shining armor? Go after the bastards that abducted me and tortured me with a razor blade down my spine?! Go ahead! Go, Alex! Wave your gun around and do what you have to do! It won’t change anything. You’ll become just like them, another monster!”

His breath stalled in his chest. “A razor blade down your spine?” he asked quietly, shocked because he had not seen a scar on her back when she showered in front of him yesterday morning. But then again, he hadn’t looked too closely at her naked body. He didn’t dare.

Corkie blinked and clicked her mouth shut.

“Who did that, Corkie?” he whispered, raising a hand to smooth back a flyaway strand of hair that tickled her cheek, but she jerked away from him.

“I told you. I don’t want to talk about it,” she said stiffly. The sapphire rims of her eyes shined brightly, as if holding back hot tears.

Alex placed his palm alongside Corkie’s cheek, and this time, he didn’t allow her to move away. He caressed her soft skin with the rough pads of his fingers. “Who, Corkie?”

Her gaze roamed over his face, searching, prodding for…something. She seemed to hold her breath, swallowing thickly as if a flash flood of tears were about to let loose. Alex was mesmerized by the play of emotions in her brilliant blue eyes. There was her initial stubbornness and some hesitation, but most of all, the trust. She slumped down, resting her rear end on the bed and her legs bent in the shape of a W…like a child, sitting on the floor, looking extremely guilty and innocent at the same time. Alex’s hand stayed against her cheek, glued to that soft, lightly freckled skin.

“It happened when I went to Syria to capture some candid photos of its civil troubles,” she began. “A group of extremists caught me in the wrong place at the right time.”

Alex was familiar with the Syrian civil war—really only a continuation of many civil wars—and Americans had been advised to stay out of that part of the world. Apparently, this woman in front of him had not listened. No, of course, she hadn’t. If Alex knew one thing about her, if someone told her to jump, she would crawl instead, sticking her bottom in the air with caustic defiance.

“Is that all they did to you?” he asked delicately. “Just cut you?” His hand had moved down to cup her chin, and his thumb was dangerously close to running across her lower lip, a heady temptation he had no business exploring further.

She let out a small laugh. “If you’re asking if they raped me…no.” She inhaled smoothly and let it out just as carefully. "It’s not my best moment, Alex, getting caught like that—I’ve been trained to never trap myself in such situations—but I’m alive, so it’s behind me now. I went back to Syria three months ago and photographed some of my best work. So, I guess you can say things like that are merely occupational hazards. It’s fine. I won’t stick my camera on a shelf because of one small kidnapping."

“One small kidnapping?” he asked in a growl. “You could have died, Corkie. You can disguise your fears with bravado, but I’m not buying it. No woman could live through such a thing and not come out emotionally unscathed. No man, for that matter either. If you’d been a man, you would have been killed!”

“Well, I wasn’t,” she said, tipping her chin up. “I’m alive, and I refuse to let it rule my life.”

Alex had said the same thing about all his close calls. Only a strong-willed, confident person knew what those words truly meant, and the clarity in her eyes told him that she understood. Without thinking, his thumb grazed her bottom lip. “Show me,” he said.

Her forehead crinkled, and yet, she continued to allow him touching her like this. “Show you what?”

“Your scar, on your back.”

“Didn’t you see it yesterday? Or were you just ogling other parts of me while I took a shower?” There was heat in her voice again. And he wasn’t sure if she was offended that he hadn’t really watched her that closely in the shower or pissed off because she still thought he had been looking at more provocative parts of her body.

He smiled…slowly. “If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t watch. I shut down everything when you stripped.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You watched.”

He shrugged and his thumb continued to graze that perfect mouth of hers, and he lost a good three seconds of his life by mentally devouring it. “I swear to you, Corkie…I didn’t ‘watch’ watch. I’m not that kind of man.”

And that earned him a derisive snort. “Could’ve fooled me.”

And that earned him a smidgen of irritation to his already turbulent emotions. “What do you want from me, Corkie? For me to admit that I think you’re crazy beautiful, crazy irresistible, and crazy erratic? Do you expect me to take advantage of you? Is that it? Because I won’t.” He let go of her chin and mouth, and he tapped her forehead. “You’ve got information in there that I want…and that’s the only reason I’m with you right now. Is that clear?”

That time, she yanked her head backward, away from him. “Crystal clear, lieutenant,” she sneered as she scooted off the bed and paced the length of the room. “There’s only one thing I want from you, too.”

“Oh, right…your pictures. How could I forget?” He crossed his arms over his chest and watched her stiff, edgy strides, like a caged animal.

She stopped and planted her hands on her hips. Their stare-off lasted for several minutes. Alex saw the thoughts turning in her head…a hamster on her wheel, running and running, turning that wheel around and around, and going nowhere. Her eyes showcased a lot of behind-the-scenes designs and constructions, once he learned to read her…and right now, she broadcasted like a 3D movie.

Finally, she smiled and said, “I’ll show you my scar if you give me my cameral card.”

He slowly and deliberately walked over to her and stopped when the tips of his boots nudged her toes. Returning her smile, he inserted the right amount of deviltry to his. “Tell me the name of your informant.”

“For my cameral card?”

“Yes.”

She narrowed her gaze at him. “With all my photos still on it?”

“What do you think, nińa?” he asked, thinking Hell would sprout icicles before she got her pictures away from him.

Her big blue eyes collided with his gray ones. He saw her mouth pinch and a muscle twitch over her eyebrow. She knew the possibility of him handing over her camera card intact was…well, not possible. She was never getting her pictures back.

“You’re a real bastard, lieutenant,” she said, and then her lungs filled with air and her hands went to the ties of the dress she wore. With a solemn glare, she ripped the strings apart and turned her back to him. The top dropped below her shoulders as she flicked her hair to one side.

There, about three inches below the base of her neck, hidden from the world under the neckline of her clothes, was a clean-edged scar that ran almost a foot down the side of her backbone. It had faded to a paler shade of her natural coloring, and it had been sutured perfectly so that it had not puckered or healed awkwardly. Ironically…it was quite a beautiful deformity.

And Alex could not stand to see it. He pivoted roughly on his heels and stomped back to the window. Why did he have to meet her now? Why couldn’t he have met her a year ago? He could have saved her from that kind of agony…talked some sense into her before she ever got to Syria.

But who was he kidding? She barely listened to her own common sense.

“I hope you’re happy,” she said behind him.

“Not really,” he replied gravely.

“When are you ever, lieutenant?” she asked haughtily. A few seconds later, the bedroom door opened and slammed shut. Alex rested his palms on the window’s edge and hung his head. In his mind, he could see some faceless man dragging a ragged, rusty razor blade down Corkie’s back while she screamed in agony.

And yet…she still managed to smile and laugh and go off on her crazy adventures. She amazed him with her uncanny perseverance and empathy, and Alex admired her more for that…dammit.


Chapter 8

Corkie attacked her plate of cold enchiladas like she wanted to strike at that man up there. How superior could one person get? Well…Alex took the whole cake on that one—with the ice cream, the appetizers and the steak dinner thrown in, too. So, she had nightmares. So what? Yes, she was going to have some emotional scars after what she’d been through, but did he have to be such an ass about it? Like he was such a freaking superhuman that he didn’t have bad memories? God, what a jerk!

She finished eating and sat back in her chair to breath normally. The girls around the table, joining her for dinner before the house opened up to clients, had not said a word since she snarled out a particularly violent profanity when she entered the kitchen, and she felt bad for it. She didn’t need to open up her can of worms in their presence. Everyone here had been so kind and helpful, and Corkie liked all the girls she’d met so far. They were good people, living the best they could in the situations that life served them.

“Sorry,” she said across the table with a small smile.

The girl, Mia, grinned at her. “That is fine,” she returned. “Men are often the reasons behind our foul mouths. We are not unfamiliar with any of it.”

Corkie had half a mind to ask these girls if they would assist her in strapping Alex down long enough for her to get her camera card from him and flee into the desert. But that wouldn’t work. She was still too far away from the border, and she knew Alex would catch up with her before she could cross over. She’d just have to wait for that right moment. She’d get her pictures back, if it was the last thing she did in Mexico. And it probably would be.

For the next hour, Corkie chatted with the girls of the house as they filtered into the kitchen that early evening. The beer came out, and Corkie drank two hearty glasses as they laughed and shared stories amongst themselves. Now Alex…oh, Clara and Mia had a lot to say about him. Mostly appreciative comments that Corkie didn’t really want to hear. She didn’t want to like him right now. Later, she’d forgive him, because that’s how she was, but for now…he could just stuff it!

Clara and Mia giggled to each other as they talked about him bathing last night and how he turned down their offers, and Corkie’s temper spiked. He just walked around naked in front of them? Two strangers! Jeez…what a pompous ass. Yeah, he didn’t partake in the two girls’ invitations, but big deal. He seemed quite proud of his body, if he was that bold about it. Clara went on to describe—in detail—how marvelous he was…how marvelously endowed, and Corkie downed another beer to hide the heat in her cheeks.

That man affected her enough, with his piercing gray eyes and fully-clothed body. She didn’t want to know about the rest of it. Especially since she won’t be sampling any of it. Her mind wandered back upstairs, when his thumb caressed her lip and it had tingled from his touch. He said she was…how did he put it? Crazy beautiful. Had he considered kissing her?

And how would he kiss? Rough, savage, controlling? Or gentle, slow and cultivated? She just didn’t know. Sometimes, she saw both sides to him, making it impossible to guess on his lovemaking skills…

“Corkie,’ Marta announced, entering the kitchen and startling her out of her fantasies. “I received notice from Ivan. He said he has been delayed, and may not make it here until morning. You and Senor Alex are welcome to stay another night.”

“Thank you, Marta,” Corkie said. “I cannot tell you how much I, at least, appreciate your help.”

Marta cast Corkie a sly, soft smile. “Senor Alex is also appreciative, Corkie. I think he feels very deeply for you. But he is a man, and his emotions are not as open as ours.”

“Hmm,” Corkie replied, not believing her. She’d seen Alex’s emotions. And he had two—irritation and indifference.

Eventually, the rest of the girls drifted upstairs, too, to get ready for their night. Corkie remained at the table, nursing one more Mexican beer before she had to face Alex again. In return for all the hospitality she’d received, Corkie cleaned up the kitchen. She didn’t know if there was someone who normally did the cleaning, but she felt she should contribute something in lieu of her stay. As she finished wiping down the table, she heard a bustle of commotion from the front of the house. A glance out the back window told her that night had fallen, and she figured that the girls were seeing the first of the visitors. Corkie wondered if she could manage to sneak up the stairs without being seen. She didn’t want to be confused with some of the other women here. That would be awkward.

She stuck her ear to the door which led into the hallway beside the stairs and listened. There were boisterous greetings, names called out by female voices with familiarity, and then…

And then, Corkie heard a name she was very familiar with…

A deep, smooth, male voice spoke in broken, unskilled Spanish, “Call me, Niro, sweetheart.”

Corkie’s breath seized. Niro! He’s here! Or rather the man imposing as Niro Sultanovich.

Her next thought was… Why is he here?

Then…. The horny bastard!

And her final—and most appealing—thought… Where’s my camera?!

Corkie cracked open the door and peeked through. The hallway was clear. She dashed out and rounded the corner up the stairs as fast as she could. At the top, she peered over the railing to the room where she could still hear Niro’s voice and laughter. Gotta get my camera! Niro Sultanovich’s imposter! Think of the price of that photo!

She rushed to the room she shared with Alex…and stopped just outside. Dang it! She didn’t have her SD card back! She knew she should have brought more than just the one. But that card could hold a terabyte of memory…more than she ever needed, and yet she used up every last bit of that card the other morning.

“Well…I’ll just have to erase some photos from the internal,” she muttered to herself. She wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip.

But there was one small problem…Alex. Her camera was in her bag, in that room, and he was in there, too. If he knew she had photos on the camera, then he’d take that away from her, as well. What to do…what to do?

Clara came out of the room next to them, smiling a greeting, and Corkie instantly grabbed her arm. “I need a favor,” she whispered, and she explained that she needed Alex out of the room for two minutes.

Clara smiled as her dark eyes lit up. “Only two minutes?”

“Yes, only two minutes,” Corkie confirmed, not really pleased with Clara’s delighted eagerness. “I just need to get something, and I don’t want to see him right now. Can you get him to come to your room for a few minutes?”

“Sure, Corkie,” Clara said and pushed her breasts up higher, showcasing a good bit of cleavage. “I would love to have him back in my room.”

Corkie shook her head, amazed that Alex managed to charm this girl when he irritated the crap out of her. Clara winked and entered the room. Corkie heard the girl explain that she saw a snake in her bathroom, and she was terrified of snakes, and could he please come and get rid of it for her? Corkie sighed and moved down the hall, hiding in a small closet and keeping the door open just enough so she could see Alex and Clara leaving when they did. It took longer than she thought. They finally disappeared into another room, and Corkie ran to hers. She got her camera out of her bag, quickly checked the photos stored on it, and found several that were too grainy or blurry, so she erased them as she left to go find Niro.

But before she exited the room completely, she glimpsed herself in a mirror. My hair…okay, gotta cover that up. If she went down there, every man would see her blonde hair. She didn’t want to be noticed. Especially by Niro.

Quickly, she found a scarf in a dresser drawer, tied her long locks up in a bun and wrapped the scarf around her head, concealing every bit of blonde. There. Other than her blue eyes, she was tanned dark enough to be overlooked as just another Hispanic girl…if no one looked closely enough, and she wouldn’t let that happen. Creeping down the stairs, she listened for that accented voice and located him in on of the parlors. Corkie glanced around and saw a potted palm in the corner of the downstairs hallway opposite of the room. It was just tall enough for her to crouch behind and take a few pictures between the leaves. Making sure no one could see her, she tiptoed over and scooted the terra cotta pot out enough for her to get into the corner.

After a minute of holding her breath and waiting, she peeked through the foliage, and she had a clear view of Niro, sitting in an armchair, with a girl in his lap. Corkie smiled to herself. Oh…how the international press was going to love this! She held her camera up to her eye and paused until the girl turned her head away. There was no reason to include the girl’s face in the photo. Finally, she got the shot she’d been waiting for. And she clicked the button. And again, and again, focusing only on Niro, until a small light appeared in her viewfinder, alerting her to the full status of her camera’s memory. She got only a total of twelve pictures, and that was fine by Corkie. Better than fine. Ecstatic.

Strong fingers wrapped around her arm, and she was jerked to her feet, her camera falling into the palm tree. “What the hell are you doing?” Alex asked, hissing in her ear.

“I’m spying on Niro Sultanovich,” she whispered, deliriously happy by her luck tonight and praying Alex hadn’t noticed her camera.

Alex’s face was red with fury. He glanced over his shoulder into the room where Niro sat, and he clenched his jaw. “Are you crazy?” Alex snarled under his breath when he turned back to her. Alex tugged her away from the corner and down the empty hall, out of sight of the open rooms and away from her camera.

“What if he saw you?”

Corkie shrugged. “We’ve never met, I told you that. So what if he saw me?”

“You don’t exactly look like you belong here,” Alex said darkly.

Corkie touched her scarf. “I covered my hair.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “You could cover your whole body, and you’d still look out of place.”

She wasn’t sure how to take that…compliment? Or something else? “Well…I’m done. I’ve looked my fill, so—”

A door to their right opened. Both of their eyes darted in that direction, and in Corkie’s next breath…Alex kissed her. Full-on lips and tongue. His hands cupped both sides of her face, and he shifted his body to cover all of hers, pressing her back into the wall.

Corkie was so surprised, she gaped at him, wide-eyed, while he assaulted her mouth with the roughest, most urgent kiss she’d ever received.

It was…incredible.

Her fingers clenched his shirt, going numb from the sensations scrambling through her system. So, this was what it was like to kiss Alex. She actually moaned and sank into him.

Voices from emitted from the open doorway behind Alex and Corkie. She recognized Marta’s, but not the other one. A male voice, full of importance and refinement. Marta and her companion paused for a moment, and Alex dug deeper into the kiss, his hands tightening around Corkie’s face and his lower body crowding her further into the wall. She could feel his full arousal through his jeans and her skirt, and that confused her for a moment, more than him actually kissing her.

Then she heard Marta leading the man from the room down the hall, and the man commented that he would prefer to have all the girls to himself and his associates. It was more like a direct decree, and Corkie got the impression the man was referring to Alex’s presence, and him kissing her in the middle of the hallway. Marta said that she refused to ask the regular customers leave, especially since the girls dictated their own choices in that matter, and that he—the important, refined man—would have to be happy with the extra company.

Alex’s kiss softened as Marta and her guest left the hallway. He lifted his head and stared down at Corkie. Their eyes met for the briefest of seconds, and she saw raw desire there. Probably the same crazed lust in her own eyes. But he didn’t give her more time to think or wonder about that. He grabbed her arm in a vice-like hold and hauled her into the kitchen, quietly shutting the door behind them.

Corkie staggered on weak knees and trembling legs. She could still feel his lips on hers, his tongue tackling the recesses of her mouth. “What just happened back there?” she asked in a breathless whisper.

Alex pressed his ear to the door and listened, not answering her.

“Alex—”

“Shh!”

Corkie eyed him scornfully. All normal feelings came back to her body, and she immediately cooled off. “Did you just…shush me?”

Alex whipped around to her, taking her by the shoulders. His expression had lost all of that raw desire, and now he looked at her with venom in his gray eyes. “That was Espinoza!” he rasped out. “What if he had seen you?”

“Espinoza? Really?” And now it all made sense. Alex had kissed her to conceal her from discovery. And that was the only reason for that kiss.

Dang.

“Yes, really! You and your stupid fascination with Sultanovich is going to get us both killed!”

“I didn’t know he was here, too!” she argued.

“Would it had made a difference?” He didn’t wait for her answer. He slashed a hand across her vision. “No, it would not have. You would have still gone down to get your demented jollies by peeking at your boyfriend!”

She stuck her fists on her hips. “Well! Neither of them saw me, so your anger is pointless here, and you’re just pissing me off, too!”

“No,” Alex growled. “What Espinoza saw was a customer soliciting a whore, so you’re damn lucky I was there!”

That did it. Corkie reared back and aimed to punch him in the jaw. “Stop calling me a whore!”

Unfortunately, that punch never landed. Alex, quicker than she, blocked her hand from making contact, and he jerked her flush with his body. “And don’t you ever try to hit me again, Cortney Brooks.”

It was still there…she could still feel it…a hard, steel erection begging for freedom from behind his button fly. Corkie gasped. Her free hand slid down between them and cupped his groin…just to be sure.

His eyes narrowed and locked onto her. “What are you doing?”

The heat flooded into her cheeks, hot and horribly embarrassing. “I…I don’t know.”

“You don’t know,” he repeated evenly. “Then stop doing it.”

With an uneasy nod, she stepped backward and rubbed her hands together. She told her eyes not to look down, but they weren’t listening, and by the grace of all things wonderful and giddy in this world, he had one hell of a protrusion straining the seams of his pants. And he just stood there, letting her gaze trancelike at his noble soldier-at-arms.

“Are you done?” he eventually asked, a slight taunt to his tone. “Or would you like to see more?”

Her eyes darted up to his. “There’s more?”

And with that, he let out a deep chuckle, his expression softening just a little bit. “Jesus, Corkie…someone might think you’ve never seen a man’s cock.”

“I have, too,” she protested. “Just not yours, cuz you know, they’re all different.”

“I wouldn’t know. I don’t go around comparing mine to everyone else’s.” He shook his head and sighed. “Can we get back to the big problem? Espinoza?”

"Right…Espinoza," she said, clearing her throat. Now, her hand tingled. "Okay…sure…"

It was still there! Goodness, how in the world could he even breathe, when all of his blood flow was centered between his thighs?

"Corkie?"

"Hmm?’

"Stop staring."

She blinked and brought her eyes back to his face. "Sorry."

Finally, he turned his back to her…and of course, her eyes went to his butt instead. Dang, I should’ve grabbed that when he kissed me instead of his shirt.

"I am just going to assume that he’s here out of coincidence," Alex spoke to the room, and to her, she supposed, but he seemed to be talking to himself more than to her, so…she went back to admiring his body.

I must be ovulating, or…okay, no. I’m just horny, Corkie mused as Alex paced the kitchen, the snug denim of his jeans molding and highlighting every hip, butt, and thigh muscle.

"Do you think anyone will mention us?" Alex glanced expectantly at her.

She blinked and smiled, scrambling in her brain for what he asked. Thankfully, he answered his own question, "No, Marta promised our confidentiality, and the girls wouldn’t talk on purpose…so, we can be gone before someone slips."

He paused for a moment, clearly planning the rest of their night. Corkie knew she should be perturbed by his commandeering attitude, but…there was his rear end, and his front had started to deflate, and Corkie was just fascinated.

"We need to get back upstairs," he was saying, "and get our stuff. Did Marta say when Ivan will get here?"

Clara was right, Corkie sighed to herself. He does have a great ass…

"Corkie!"

"What?!"

He had shifted slightly to the side and glared at her. "Focus!"

"I’m trying! But you keep interrupting!"

He muttered a curse. Corkie didn’t care. Now she could see his bulge and half his butt. And if, he’d just kiss her again, she’d write this off as a great night…easily in her top twenty, even with the fight they’d had earlier.

"Change of plans," he said gruffly. "You stay here. I’ll go upstairs and get our bags."

"No, I’m going with you," she huffed, her mind mostly back on track and thinking about her camera that she left in that palm tree. But then again, if they went back to that bedroom, with her knowing they had to stay another night… She just couldn’t shake that kiss and his arousal from it…which he still had!

Good lord, he’s going to be sore tomorrow.

“I am not risking both our necks,” Alex said hotly. “You stay here.”

“I will not,” she returned, quickly thinking of an excuse why she had to go with him without telling him about her camera. “Besides, how is it going to look if you’re alone, when you’ve clearly been enjoying the pleasures of…how did you put it? A whore.”

"I’ll manage…just stay here!"

She crossed her arms in a snit and refused to agree to that. Because if he caught her going after her camera, then he’d take away that, too. So, instead, she fumed in silence as he cracked open the door, waited, slipped into the hallway, and shut the door behind him.

Corkie counted to twenty.

Then she picked up a nearby basket with some folded linens in it, repeated Alex’s pattern for escaping the kitchen and went to get her camera. She’d be back into the kitchen before he realized she was gone.

Fortunately for Corkie, the hallway was empty. She managed to get to the potted palm unseen, stash her camera under the linens in the basket and wriggle with pleasure as she stood up. But unfortunately…she whirled around and bumped right into a tall, dark-haired man with an aristocratic jaw and a sprinkle of gray at the temples. Corkie squeaked, shuffled backward, and dipped her head right after her blue eyes lit upon the fact that she was standing face to face with Senor Hibram Espinoza.

Corkie scurried up the stairs, hearing Espinoza asking, “Who is that girl?” and Marta replying, “She’s my housekeeper,” and Corkie heard Espinoza grunt with suspicion, and she dashed to the bedroom where Alex was gathering their things, because if anyone could save her now…it was him.

 

*****

 

“Senor Alex…you are leaving us?”

Alex turned around at the familiar voice. He saw Clara standing in the bedroom door, and he returned to packing up the last of his and Corkie’s things into the two bags they carried with them. He said nothing, as he was in a hurry to get back downstairs before Corkie did something stupid or they were both spotted again by Espinoza. Already hypersensitive after nearly getting caught, and then there was that kiss with Corkie…Alex’s nerves jumped when Clara gently touched his shoulder.

“You cannot stay another night?” she asked silkily.

“No, Clara, I cannot,” he replied. “We must be going.” He frowned to himself, because something wasn’t right…Corkie’s pack was too light…what was missing…

Sonofabitch! Her camera. That’s what was missing, and that’s what she was doing downstairs! Taking more pictures of Sultanovich!

I’m going to kill her myself! he roared inside his skull. The little troublemaker was just begging for it at this point! Where the hell did she get another camera card? Unless…

“Fuck,” he muttered to himself. Internal memory. He hadn’t thought about that. What else was on that camera?

“I had only hoped for a kiss,” Clara said happily, “but if you’re not in too much of a hurry…”

He gathered the bags and turned to the girl. “I’m sorry, Clara…I am in a hurry.” To wring Corkie’s neck…or spank her, or…

“Then just a quick kiss?” Clara offered, conspicuously placing herself in his path. Alex eyed her, not really wanting to hurt her feelings, but any kiss Clara had to bestow could never compare to what he forced out of Corkie. He could still feel the way her lips molded to his mouth, the sweet taste and texture of her tongue, and the way she struggled to fight against the fire that flared between them from the moment their lips touched. If a kiss like that had been given freely…

Alex shook his head. Dangerous territory, his thoughts wandered now. “A small kiss,” he agreed, just wanting to be gone, and maybe Clara would help his mind clear-up from Corkie’s kiss. Clara smiled and placed her hands on his shoulders. She lifted her chin and closed her eyes.

Alex swallowed. He wasn’t the least bit tempted.. Shifting the bags to one hand, he gently took Clara’s jaw between his free fingers and lowered his mouth—

“Alex!” Corkie burst into the room and quickly closed the door behind her. “I’m in trouble—What the hell are you doing?”

Already mad at Corkie, he said, “Saying goodbye,” and pecked Clara on the lips with a strategic smile. “I told you to stay in the kitchen. What if Espinoza saw you?”

“Um…” Her cheeks flushed a scarlet red. “He…did.”

Dear Lord…grant me strength and patience and calm…for if I so much as blink, I will lose it! Alex inhaled a strong, patient, calm breath. “Nińa…”

“He only saw me for a second, and Marta said I was the housekeeper, so we’ll be fine…right? I mean, what’s the worse that could happen? He can’t do anything to me here, just cause a scene, and…”

Alex held up a hand to stop her. Clara watched them both carefully. “You two are hiding from Senor Espinoza?”

“Yeah,” Corkie said, grimacing.

Clara nodded. “There is a back way…an old dumbwaiter shaft, but we still use it. It will take you down to the washroom off the kitchen.”

“Where?” Alex asked.

“In a closet, down the hall,” Clara said, walking to the door. Corkie moved aside, the basket in her arms bumping on the dresser and tipping over. Out spilled her camera, and Alex exhaled all his strength, patience and calm.

“I can explain,” Corkie said quickly as Alex picked up the camera and stuffed it in one of the bags.

“Don’t bother,” he growled. Clara opened the bedroom door, froze, and immediately closed it.

“He’s coming,” she whispered. “I think he’s searching the rooms…”

Alex didn’t have time to think of an escape. He only had to disguise his existence in that room and hide Corkie at the same time. Pointing at Clara, he said, “Take your clothes off.”

Clara immediately began stripping, and Corkie’s eyes widened. “What?

Alex pointed to her next. “You…shut up.” He went over to the wardrobe cabinet in one of the corners, stripping his shirt as he moved. After shoving the cabinet aside, he went back for Corkie, grabbed her elbow and hauled her across the room.

Clara was already naked to her underwear and crawling under the covers in the bed. Alex sent a prayer of thanks up to heaven for Clara’s immediate participation and acceptance of his demands. Corkie, on the other hand, sputtered and fought him the whole of the ten feet across the room. “What are you doing?” she hissed.

He shoved her into the dusty corner behind the cabinet, pushing her arms and hands into the space. “We happen to be in a whorehouse, Corkie. You are not a whore, so you get to hide. Now, I swear to God, if you make one single sound, and if we get out of this unscathed, I will call your father and leave you here in this corner until he shows up to get you…do you understand?”

She huffed. “I understand.”

“Good.” He tossed their bags into the small space with her, pushed the cabinet back into place and pulled his pistol from his pants as he returned to the bed. Voices outside their room were getting louder. Alex’s boots hit the floor, his belt cleared belt loops, he stuck his gun under a pillow where he could easily reach it if he needed, and fell on top of a smiling, eager Clara.

Then he kissed her again.


Chapter 9

Corkie’s nose itched. But she didn’t dare sneeze. She stood in that cramped, dark, dirty corner and listened to Clara purring and the bedframe groaning.

I’ll kill him.

If he’s actually…doing that with Clara, after kissing her downstairs in the hall…Corkie decided that she hated Lieutenant Alex Spears now, just a little bit.

Okay, fine. He was doing exactly what any other man in this place would be doing—bedding a prostitute—and he was saving her neck at the same time, but—

Did he just laugh?

A second male chuckle reached her ears, and Clara’s throaty giggle followed. Then everything went quiet…and Alex called, “Room’s taken, buddy. Get the fuck out.”

Corkie froze in her corner.

“My boss wants to see your woman,” a scruffy voice said in return. Corkie heard the hammer of a revolver cock loudly in the silence that followed.

Alex said, “I paid for this one…go get your own.”

“Her face, amigo…we only want to see her face.”

“Fuck off,” Alex growled.

A second later, Clara screamed, Alex shouted more curses until he was subdued with a bone-crunching sound—probably fist meeting face—and Corkie pressed a hand to her mouth to mute her own protest.

There was a small scuffle, and the whiff of cigar smoke drifted to Corkie’s corner, and she promised God that if they got out of here safely, then she’d do exactly what Alex wanted from her from now on…okay, God? Just don’t let him and Clara get hurt…

 

*****

 

His jaw throbbed from the suckerpunch, but Alex wasn’t about to cow before Espinoza and his grunt. Clara sat up in the bed, clutching the blanket to her chest as Hibram Espinoza sucked heavily on a cigar and studied the girl. Alex struggled, as any man in this situation would do, but mostly he prayed that Corkie stayed quiet in her little corner and didn’t screw this up.

Because Alex was about to change gears here, and if either of those women got offended by it—especially Corkie, who would likely dare to say something—then all of their necks were toast.

Seemingly satisfied with what he saw in Clara, Espinoza turned to Alex. His dark eyes traced Alex’s face and fell to the Ranger tattoo. "American."

"Yeah? So what?" Alex growled, shrugging against the grunt’s hold on his forearms.

"How are you enjoying my country?"

Alex glanced at Clara and gave her a crooked grin. "Loving it."

Espinoza held his cigar to his lips. "Why are you in my country?”

“I’m on vacation,” Alex sneered.

The hand holding the smoldering cigar touched Alex’s tattoo, the burning end hovering very close to his skin. “We do not like American soldiers on our land,” Espinoza said calmly. He glanced over his shoulder to Clara. “Or with our women.”

Alex forced out a snort. “Soldier…right. I’m done with that shit.”

A dark eyebrow rose on Espinoza’s face. “Is that so?”

“Fucking straight,” Alex growled. “Fucking C.O. had me tossed me out for dealing…same goddamn C.O. that smuggled in the damn drugs, but his ass was about to be on the line, so he fucked mine instead. So, you could say I’m retired. What’s it to you, anyway?”

Espinoza gazed thoughtfully at Alex, sucking from his cigar until there was only a stub left. He dropped it to the floor and smashed it with his shoe. Alex glared, keeping himself in character — a character he didn’t particularly enjoy portraying, but people who cuss a lot usually weren’t taken too seriously, and right now Alex was counting on that. He didn’t want Espinoza getting the wrong ideas as to why he was here in Marta’s house.

“You done with the Q and A? I’m wasting good money standing here,” Alex said angrily, twitching against the vice-like hold on his arms. Espinoza opened the bedroom door and motioned to Clara.

“Get out.”

“Now wait just a damn minute,” Alex protested, but Clara was already scrambling off the bed, taking the blanket to cover her body. She paused only long enough to gather her clothes from the floor before exiting the room.

“That’s just fucking great,” Alex snarled. “Do you have any fucking idea how much I paid for her?”

“What is your name, gringo?” Espinoza asked.

“Mickey Mouse.”

The guy behind Alex stuck a knife to his jugular instead and harshly rasped out, “This is Senor Hibram Espinoza, you dumb fucking gringo. Show some respect.”

Alex sneered. “Never heard of him.”

And Espinoza’s face changed expressions quickly. He looked slightly insulted. “What is your name?” he asked again, and the knife pricked Alex’s flesh in warning.

“It’s Mike,” Alex answered convincingly. “Mike Holmes. Most folks call me Mikey. Now what the fuck is this all about?”

Espinoza crossed over to the chair by the window, very near to where Corkie hid, and sat down elegantly, importantly, completely in control of the moment. “How long were you with the U.S. army?”

“Too damn long,” Alex said, rotating around so that he faced the man who made that scarred wooden chair look like a throne.

“How long?” Espinoza repeated in slightly sterner voice.

Alex sighed. “Ten fucking years. Like I said…too long.”

“And how do you know Espanol so well, Senor Holmes?”

Alex frowned as though he couldn’t believe any of this was more important that the girl he’d been about to screw, and said, “I grew up knowing it. My stepmother was from Guadalajara, sweet lady…never could figure out why the hell she married a mean fuck like my dad though.”

“And what do you do now, Senor Holmes?”

“Now? I was trying to get laid. Tomorrow, I’ll try to get rich. What else could I want to do?” Alex tried to shrug away from the man behind him. “Would you get this fucking leech off me? I swear to God he’s got a fucking hard-on.”

The knife drew blood as the man rattled off a slew of profanities, but Espinoza raised his hand and said, “Let him go, Pancho.”

Pancho snarled, but he shoved Alex aside. Alex touched his neck and gave Pancho a smug smile. “Really? Pancho? What a fucking typical name for an ass-licker.”

Pancho’s face turned murderous and he flashed his knife at Alex, though Alex mentally shook his head. The guy had a gun in his hip holster, and he was waving a four-inch blade instead. Espinoza spoke sharply to his man, telling Pancho to leave him and Senor Holmes alone in the room. Pancho grumbled, but he complied, and the man who Alex had been hunting for two damn years smiled politely at Alex.

“My apologies, Senor Holmes,” he said. “Pancho is loyal, but not always…civil.”

“Yeah…whatever. What do you want?” Alex said darkly. There he was…Hibram Espinoza. Drug dealer, terrorist, crime boss…murderer. Did the man even notice the blood stains on his hands anymore?

Espinoza’s smile deepened. “I want to know the man standing in front of me.”

Alex pressed down the rage inside him, got back into character and raised his palms. “Whoa! Sorry, pal. I’m not a fucking sword-fighter. I like women, and I like them young. No offense, amigo, but you are neither.”

Espinoza chuckled. “I should be the one to apologize, Senor Holmes. I only wish to know a man who is just as interested in financial gain as I am.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “You’re talking about money, right?”

“I do hope you are not this slow with everything, Senor Holmes. I am saying I could use a man like you, as a business associate,” Espinoza said.

Alex grinned. I’d rather cut off my own head…but this was a big break in his mission, and he had a job to do. “Whatcha need done?”

*****

 

Corkie, on the opposite side of the room, was only thinking about her nose. Her face screwed up tightly, holding in the tingling and the urge to sneeze. Dang it, Alex….hurry up! She heard everything he and Espinoza discussed, and Corkie rolled her eyes every time she heard the F-bomb spew from Alex’s mouth. And he griped at me for saying it.

A little while ago, Clara left the room, so that relieved Corkie’s mind, but her nose still itched, and her shoulders were getting stiff from the cramped space, and she swore there was something crawling up her leg a few minutes ago. But after a raunchy bout of loud name-calling and cursing, and the door slamming shut, the voices of the men lowered, and Corkie could only make out part of what they were saying. Something about money and sex and a deal—not about me, I hope. Surely, Alex wouldn’t sell her out; the man respected her father too much.

Then after straining to listen for a good two minutes, she just gave up. At least they weren’t yelling at each other anymore, or shooting each other. They actually seemed to be talking affably, and that could either be really, really good, or really, really bad, and in either case, there wasn’t a whole lot she could do anyway, so Corkie took to concentrating on her nose and not sneezing.

It was very, very frustrating…to not sneeze, when you need to sneeze very, very badly. Corkie twitched and rubbed her nose over and over, feeling the thick dust settling along the inside walls of her nostrils, wishing she had a handkerchief or tissue. But again, since she couldn’t make any noise—Lieutenant Spears forbid it—she couldn’t blow her nose clear, so it really didn’t matter if she had a tissue or not, now did it? She had half a mind to go ahead and pick the debris out with her pinky finger, but wouldn’t that be something? The second she got knuckle deep in there, the cabinet would move aside, and Alex would catch her scratching the bottom of her brain…and after that crack he threw at her yesterday, about her being childish… Yeah, that would be wonderful.

Finally, she heard the door close again, and the sounds of Alex buckling his belt and putting on his boots. But she still didn’t dare say anything. Besides facing Alex’s ire and his threat to call her father, if Corkie opened her mouth at all, she would surely sneeze a big one.

And then the door opened one more time, and clicked shut. Corkie frowned and perked her ears. Did Espinoza come back?

But no…it was Clara returning. “Senor Alex,” the girl said sweetly. “Everything is okay, now?”

“Yes, Clara,” Alex answered, his voice cheery. “Everything is great. I’m sorry you had to go through that, but thank you for your help.”

“It was not a problem,” she said. “Perhaps…we have time to finish what we started?”

Alex laughed, and Corkie figured she’d been quiet long enough. “Oh no, you—ah-ah-aaachooo!—don’t!”

“Gesundheit,” Alex called out.

Corkie banged her palms on the back of the cabinet. “Let me out right now!” She sneezed twice more. “I mean it! I’m inhaling dust particles the size of meteors!”

“I’m coming,” Alex growled. “Keep your voice down.”

The cabinet scraped on the floor as he moved it aside…a crack. “Toss the bags over,” he demanded.

“You let me out,” she hissed, pushing on the heavy piece of furniture, but it didn’t budge.

“Not until you hand me the bags…all of them. Your gun and camera, too.”

Corkie glared at him. “Why my camera?”

He stared back, a stern look that said he wasn’t about to argue or explain. “The bags,” he repeated. “Now.”

“And if I don’t?”

The wardrobe cabinet slid back against the wall, trapping her again. “No! Wait…” No answer. “Alex…come on. This is ridiculous.”

Silence.

“Clara?” Corkie called upward, hoping to appeal to the girl’s feminine rationality. “Please tell him to let me out of here. He can’t keep me in here like this. It’s not right….Clara?” Corkie waited. Alex muttered something to Clara that Corkie couldn’t hear, and she began to panic. “Clara?! Please!”

“I am sorry, Corkie,” Clara said reluctantly.

“Give me the bags, Corkie,” Alex said again.

Corkie closed her eyes, tears of frustration threatening to leak out. She knew why he wanted her camera… “Please, let me out.”

The cabinet moved aside, a little further than the first time, but still not wide enough for her to escape. “This will be the last time I say it,” Alex said, his face dark and brooding through the opening. “Give me the bags, Corkie, or you will stay here until Espinoza leaves.”

Unwillingly, bitterly, and with a ton of blue-iced resentment, she tossed the two bags over the wardrobe. “There…now let me out!”

“Just a minute,” Alex murmured, digging around for her camera. He turned it on, and his expression darkened as he scanned through the photos on the internal memory, inhaling roughly at the ones she took at the airstrip, and exhaling when he came to what she captured earlier.

Then he began erasing them.

“No!” Corkie stuck an arm out and tried to reach him. “I need those!”

“I told you before, nińa,” he said quietly. “You can’t have them.”

“Please,” she begged. “Just one…I just need the close-up of Niro…please!”

“No,” Alex confirmed and finished his erasing. He looked up at her as he stuffed the camera back into her bag.

Corkie let her arm hang as she slumped. A pain, stronger than anything she’d ever felt, even when she’d been abducted, shot through her veins and throbbed behind her eyes. “I hate you,” she whispered, her throat catching.

“I know,” he said softly. “But it’s for your own safety.”

“Just let me out,” she said and looked away from him. She scrubbed her eyes with the back of a dusty hand and slithered through the opening when he widened it for her. Her body released the tension around her shoulders and neck, and she moved toward the bed he shared with Clara only moments before, seeing the rumbled state of the blankets and sheets, and she really, really didn’t like him very much.

Alex slowly approached her. “Corkie…” He raised a hand to her cheek, but she shied away from him. Clara watched this with fascination and confusion.

“I swear to all that good and noble in this world, Alex,” Corkie said, angrily calm, “if you touch me right now…”

His hand dropped to his side. “I am trying to help you, Corkie, even if you can’t see that. I’ve been trying this whole time, but you just don’t want to let me.”

“I don’t need your help,” she replied in a leaden voice. “I’ve never needed any man’s help. All of you think you know what’s best for me, but I know, and…and I just want to get out of here. The sooner I’m back home, the sooner….”

“The sooner you can get rid of me?” he asked. Then he nodded, understanding her. “Clara will help you get downstairs in the dumbwaiter. I’ll go find Marta and see if she’s got any good news for us about your friend Ivan.”

“Marta said Ivan isn’t coming tonight,” Corkie said, not really caring if it made him angry.

“You’re just now telling me this?”

“I forgot,” she said.

Alex scrubbed his hands through his hair. “We still need to get you to safety.”

Clara said, “There is a basement. The entrance is in the washroom. You will be safe there for now.”

“Fine,” Corkie said and gathered the two bags. Alex grabbed her arm as she passed him.

Nińa…

Corkie raised her eyes to him, wishing she had never met him. “I won’t do anything stupid, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’ll be a good, little girl for the rest of the night, I promise, lieutenant.” She snatched her arm back and followed Clara out into the hallway.

The younger girl led the way to a small closet and opened the door. Corkie couldn’t look at her as she climbed onto the platform, she was so numb from her eyebrows down, and curled up inside the small space. Clara said, “You are angry with me,” looking straight into Corkie’s eyes.

“I’m not angry with you,” Corkie said.

Clara smiled. “We did not have sex,” she said. “He cares for you.”

“He cares for nothing and nobody but himself.”

“I have never seen a man look at a woman like Senor Alex looks at you.”

Corkie snorted out a harsh laugh, everything crashing back down on her. Male laughter came from the bottom of the stairs, and Clara glanced over her shoulder. “You should go,” she told Corkie and closed the door, pausing long enough to add, “The hatch to the basement is in the back corner of the washroom.”

Corkie felt around for the old pulley rope, found four, and fiddled with them until she began to slowly drift downward. Upon hitting the bottom, she pushed against the walls of the shaft until a door opened and crawled out. The washroom was just that, a room to do the laundry washing. But two of the walls were lined with shelves and ladened with canned foods and sacks of corn flour and sugar. There was only a bare light bulb hanging overhead, and she had to search for a switch. The bulb flickered and came on, illuminating the space. Corkie sneezed again. A few minutes later, Mia showed up instead of Alex.

“Where is Alex?” Corkie asked.

“He and Clara have been delayed,” Mia said, her dark eyes telling Corkie something else.

“Delayed? Delayed doing what?”

Mia shook her head. “Stay here. Senora Marta and Senor Alex insist.” She hastily shut the door, and Corkie heard a click.

“Oh no, they did not lock me in here!” she hissed in the small room, rushing over to try the door handle, but sure enough…it was locked tight. Corkie let out a curse that would have made the Devil Himself blush. “I cannot believe this!”

There wasn’t even a window to aid an escape. Corkie stamped her feet and fumed. Twenty minutes passed, and Corkie still stood and stared at the locked door. What is he doing?!

Well, one thing was for sure. He wasn’t letting her out of that washroom. Those twenty minutes turned into thirty and steadily approached an hour. Corkie got bored staring at the peeling paint on the washroom door. The hatch to the basement was nothing more than a covered hole in the floor, and when she lifted it, she was sure she heard something moving around. Nope. They could lock her in the washroom, but she was not going down there. Mutant spiders live in places like dark, unused basements.

Corkie sighed and turned around. “I’m hungry,” she said to herself and went over to the food shelves. Digging around cans and dried goods for a few minutes, she found some packaged snack foods, sat down on the floor and stuffed her face. A couple bottles of red wine slanted down from a rack to her left, and she said, “Eh…what the hell.” She grabbed a bottle, popped the cork and started her own little party.

Another half hour later, Alex was still absent, Corkie was quickly on her way past tipsy and onto drunk. When she finished the wine, she really, really had to pee, but with no way of knowing exactly what time it was or when she would leave this jail cell, Corkie curled up in a corner on top of a blanket she found in a laundry basket and dozed. It had to be nearly dawn when the door opened again.

 

*****

 

Alex took in a deep breath before turning the key to the washroom lock. She’s going to be pissed. But he couldn’t help it that she’d been stuck in there almost all night. When he walked downstairs, his only real thought was to find Marta and figure out how he and Corkie were supposed to get out of there. But he couldn’t find Marta right away, and then Espinoza saw him again and asked Alex if he wanted to join him and his associates in one of the parlors, and since Alex had been searching for a way to get into Espinoza’s inner circle for a year, he couldn’t pass up that opportunity.

So, he kept Clara with him for appearances, caught Mia by the arm, whispered to her to make sure Corkie didn’t go anywhere, and sat down to work his way into Espinoza’s good graces.

Niro Sultanovich’s fake was there, and Alex studied the man angrily, blaming him for all of Corkie’s foolishness these past few days. He blamed Corkie, too, but right now, Sultanovich sat in front of him.

By two o’clock in the morning, everyone around the table was smashed, with the exception of Alex, who knew a few tricks for fake-drinking, and Espinoza, who merely watched with amusement. Marta popped her head in once, saw what Alex was doing, but didn’t say anything. Then “Sultanovich” stumbled upstairs with three girls on his arm, and Alex was given the opportunity to chat with Hibram Espinoza.

The two men talked for hours. Alex didn’t learn anything new about Espinoza’s plans or the secret meeting three days earlier, but he learned a lot about the man. Espinoza never lost his cool. He never lost a deal, and he never lost a prey…until Corkie.

“How long did you say you were in the army?” Espinoza asked, coolly, offering Alex a cigar and lighting up one for himself.

“Ten years,” Alex growled, keeping up with his bad-tempered act.

“What do you know of a man by the name of Lieutenant Alexander Spears?”

Alex screwed up his face in disgust as he sucked fire into his cigar. “Lieutenant Spears?” he said hatefully. “Yeah, I know the guy. Fucking pussy, if you ask me. He’s got this Holier-Than-Thou attitude. What about him?”

“Do you know him well?”

Taking a sip of whiskey and smoking his cigar, Alex leaned back in his chair and said, “Couldn’t stand the jackass when I did know him. We were stationed in Afghanistan together, for about three months. I stayed out of his way, he stayed out of mine.”

Espinoza smiled. “It is good that you do not like him.”

“Yeah? Why is that?”

“Because…I want you to find him and kill him.”

Alex stiffened. “Why?”

Espinoza poured them both another shot of whiskey. “He has something I want.”

“Well, hell…just take it back.”

The man shook his head, still smiling. “I think I would rather have him dead first.”

“Yeah, well, that’s won’t be easy,” Alex said. “For one thing, I don’t know where the fuck he is.”

“He is here in Mexico,” Espinoza commented unemotionally.

“Well…shit. What’s he got that you want so bad? Money?”

“A woman.”

Alex barked out a laugh. “A woman? She must have a fucking goldmine between her legs if you’re willing to kill for her. Why not just get yourself another one?”

“I want that one.”

“I’ve never met a woman worth the price of a bullet,” Alex refuted.

“This one is special,” Espinoza commented in that same even, cool tone.

Alex’s mind drifted to Corkie, thinking quickly of the short time he’d known her, and he silently agreed, Yes, she is. And there’s no way you’ll ever get your hands on her, Senor.

“What’s so special about this woman?” Alex asked, almost too eagerly. Why do you want her so bad?

“It is…personal,” Espinoza replied.

Alex sighed heavily. “Listen, Senor Espinoza, I’m not in the killing business. Now, if you want dope smuggled across the border, I can do that. If you want me to kidnap some brown-eyed senorita from Veracruz or wherever, no problem, but killing an asshole lieutenant in the U.S. military? Something like that just makes me a fucking dead man, and I look out for myself first and foremost.”

Espinoza eyed him calmly. “She is American, the woman I want.”

“The hell you say!”

Espinoza nodded, just as unruffled as ever. “Blue eyes, blonde hair. Pretty. A photographer.”

“She got a name?” Alex asked, snarling on the inside.

“Davenport,” Espinoza said. “Cortney Elizabeth Davenport, but I believe she goes by Brooks.”

So, it was confirmed. Hibram Espinoza knew Corkie’s identity, even knew her birth name, and he knew she was with Lieutenant Spears of the U.S. Army. Alex prayed that Espinoza didn’t know that she was a colonel’s daughter or that they were all sitting under the same roof.

As he stood before the washroom door later that night, he vaguely remembered agreeing to find out more information on the woman Espinoza wanted, but not really agreeing to do anything about it. Then he managed to change the subject, and when Niro Sultanovich made his way downstairs, the party broke up and Espinoza and his men left Marta’s house. Alex received an invitation to Espinoza’s mansion to discuss more business. Alex finally got his in with his father’s murderer. Now, all he needed was to get Corkie safely back on American soil.

Corkie.

She’d been locked in that room for over five hours. Had she even gone down into the basement? What would she do to him when he unlocked the door?

“Corkie?” he called softly, turning the key. She didn’t answer. He cracked open the door. There was a bare light bulb shining in the room, and at first he didn’t see her. He made his way over to the basement hatch, but his foot stepped on empty peanut shells, and something moved in the corner. Alex turned, and there she was, half asleep on a thick blanket and clutching a wine bottle to her chest. Red liquid dribbled out onto her dress, staining the fabric.

Alex sighed. “Corkie?” he whispered, bending down to brush hair off her face. She blinked aimlessly up at him.

“Where the hell have you been?” she slurred.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It couldn’t be helped. I got delayed.”

“Don’t care,” she groused and rose unsteadily to her feet, dropping the bottle. “I’ve had to pee forever, you jerk!”

She swayed and staggered past him toward the door, and Alex grabbed her arms. “Are you drunk?”

“Yes, I am. I’m assuming I have your permission to exit my prison cell?”

“Yes,” he answered, tired from his long night. “Espinoza is gone. It’s safe to come out.”

She jerked from his grasp and reached out to the doorframe to help her stay upright. “And Niro? I suppose he’s gone, too?”

Alex glared as he gritted his teeth. “Yes, he’s gone, too.”

“Well, that’s just great,” she groused, entering the kitchen. “This was my chance, and you ruined it. Now, someone else will get the first photo of the phony bastard, and if that happens, I’m going to be really pissed, Alex Spears!”

“You’re already really pissed,” he mumbled. She stomped through the kitchen, pausing at the table to catch her balance and went through a door on the far side. She slammed it, and a couple of minutes later, she came out again, looking not quite so tense. Must have been a bathroom.

“Yes, I’m pissed,” she snapped. “What took you so long?!”

Alex rubbed the back of his neck. “Espinoza already knew I was here. I couldn’t just leave right away. I had to keep up the ploy.”

All night?! Well, I hope you had lots of fun!”

“I didn’t sleep with anyone, if that’s what you’re getting at,” he replied tersely. “I spent the whole night talking with Espinoza. I was working!”

“You were working?” she asked sullenly. “You have lipstick on your mouth, Alex.”

Alex swiped at his mouth, and sure enough, the back of his hand came away with a red smear. Damn.

“It wasn’t like that,” he began to explain, and then he thought, why explain? Nothing he’d done with Clara should mean anything to Corkie. Or did it?

He looked at her, really looked at her. And she stared back…sad, stubborn and stricken. Her blue eyes were glassy with the aftereffects of the wine, and her cheeks flushed with her annoyance. Her mouth set hard and quivered, and her hair was a tangled mess around her shoulders. Alex forfeited any further argument. She was bewitching, even stained, disheveled and drunk.

Nińa,” he murmured, moving closer to her. She lifted her chin as he approached and wobbled perilously to the left in her drunken state. Alex grinned at her. She’d probably be a fun drunk, if she wasn’t so mad right now.

“I thought I told you not to call me that,” she said, catching herself before she fell over.

“You said I couldn’t say it if I was being catty,” he replied. He grasped her waist in his hands and held her upright in one spot.

“And you’re never catty, right?”

“No,” he said, lifting one hand to tilt her face and peer at her flushed cheeks more closely. “I never intended for you to stay locked up all night—”

“Still doesn’t change the fact that I was!”

“I’m sorry, Corkie; I really am.”

She pacified—only a tiny bit—but she huffed and asked, “And what about the cabinet? And locking me in the motel room? And watching me shower? And taking advantage of Clara? And kissing Clara? Right after you kissed me!”

“I already apologized to Clara,” he said, but she snorted. “I kissed you to keep you hidden from Espinoza in the hallway. I normally try not to take advantage of women when on a job, but sometimes it can’t be helped.”

“So that’s all I am to you? A job?”

He breathed out and shook his head. “You were, but now…”

“But now what?”

Alex looked straight into her beautiful, glassy eyes. “Now, I don’t know what you are anymore.”


Chapter 10

“What does that mean?” Corkie asked.

Her head was fuzzy and her eyes kept trying to blink the world back in and out of focus. It was the wine. Normally, Corkie had no issues with alcohol. Give her beer, she was fine. Shots of whiskey, some gin, bourbon, vodka, straight-up or mixed in cocktails, she knew exactly where her limit began, and it was usually way past what other people could tolerate. But wine…

Wine got her every time. It had to be the taste…went down too smoothly. Took its time, tricked her into thinking she was okay, just a few more glasses, and then wham! A foggy stupor propelling straight to her brain. Champagne did the same thing. Which was a shame. She really liked champagne.

Alex smiled vaguely at her. “I said I needed to know your informant, remember?”

“I remember. I’m drunk, not slow.”

“Well…I’ve decided that your safety is more important.”

Her head swayed as she tried her hardest to stare at him. But his face blurred around the edges, and her skull banged out a parade tempo, with a drum line, trumpets, baton twirlers and all. Corkie plastered her palms to the sides of her head, groaning.

“Does your head hurt?” he asked, his voice very concerned, but that could just be another one of his many acts.

“Yes,” she groaned louder. “What do you mean you don’t care about my informant? You can’t not care! I want my pictures back!”

“Dammit, Corkie,” he said darkly. “You can’t have them. I promised I’d get you to the border, and I’m going to do that.”

"How chivalrous of you," she muttered.

It sucked being drunk. What was I thinking? If she’d been sober and steady, she could fight him, right here and now, and maybe have a chance to get her camera card away from him. All she needed was something sharp, a length of rope and a good grip on his boots. He hadn’t taken off those freaking things in her immediate presence once. Not once! Not even when he slept. Now, she had to wait until she had full control of her limbs again. And if he intended to get her to the border, then she needed to come up with something fast, maybe another delay somewhere.

But she only had until tonight before Juan called her father, because even if he was aware that she was trying to get back to America, that wouldn’t stop him from following through with his promise. And let’s face it, if her father knew about those pictures, too, then she would never see them again.

Normally, a whole day would be plenty of time to set a trap, but right now, she couldn’t think straight, and her stomach was quickly catching up with the rest of her foolish revelry in the washroom, and it had been a very long time since she’d been this drunk that she wasn’t sure how long it would take for the effects to wear off.

In the meantime, she was drunk; Alex wasn’t; and she wasn’t any closer to getting her pictures back!

“Corkie?” Alex touched her cheek again, this time tilting her head up so he could see into her eyes. It wasn’t because he liked touching her. It was just one of his habits, she guessed, a controlling thing, like She won’t look at me when I’m talking to her, when I want her to look at me, so I’ll make her.

“How many bottles of wine did you drink?” he asked.

“Um, just one.” Of course, now that she was drunk, she could use that as an excuse to touch him more, so she did. She placed her palm over his heartbeat.

“One?” he asked in disbelief, not noticing her hand on his chest. “Are you a lightweight?”

“Of course not,” she protested weakly, curling her fingers into his shirt. Up went the contents of her stomach, and she swallowed it back down.

“You were in there all night,” he reminded her, as if she had completely forgotten that little sin of his. “Are you sure it was just one bottle?”

“Yeah…I think,” she said and swallowed again. That time, she tasted chilies and salted plums, and it wasn’t as great coming up as it had been going down.

“Are you going to be sick?”

She batted her eyelashes, and not in the flirtatious way. Her head began to droop as her stomach rose again, and that was never good. “Yes.”

“Shit,” he muttered, picked her up like a child and rushed her to the bathroom. He set her down just in time, and as she expelled her late-night snack, he kept her hair away from her face and rubbed gentle circles down her back. “What am I going to do with you?” he asked in a tender voice.

“You can…give…me back…my pictures,” she answered between heaves. And he chuckled.

“I really wish you’d understand where I’m coming from,” he said, still soothing her. “Even if all you wanted were the pictures of Sultanovich, I can’t allow you to publish them anywhere. Government agencies all over the world will want to know why a dead man was in Mexico, and word will get around about that secret meeting. I’m this close to taking down Espinoza. If you print anything, then he’ll get spooked, and I’m back to square one. And you’ll put me and everyone involved in this in mortal danger. Do you want that?”

Corkie’s stomach finally felt hollow enough for her to sit back and rest. Alex handed her a small wet towel and she wiped her mouth. “What was really going on down in that valley, Alex? I swear all I was told was that Niro was supposed to be there.”

He shook his head and let out an exhausted breath. “I can’t tell you. The fact that you knew what you did worries me. It took me months to get the intel on that meeting. I can’t give you anymore information, I can’t give you those pictures back, and you have to promise that you won’t say a word to anyone about this.”

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall. This wasn’t working out the way she hoped. There was no changing his mind.

“Corkie,” he said quietly, getting down his knees in front of her. “I need you to trust me on this.”

“You don’t trust me,” she said from behind her eyelids. “So any promise I give you won’t be taken seriously.”

Nińa, please,” he said.

She looked at him. “I won’t make that promise.”

Why?!

“Because those photos are my job!”

“That man is not Niro Sultanovich!” Alex roared as he shot to his feet. “He’s dead, nińa!”

Corkie stood up, too, using the wall to support her. “You say you’ve been working on Espinoza for one year…well, I’ve been working on the Sultanoviches for nearly ten. In my line of work, they are my insignia. I am known for my photos of that family. I have catalogued every freaking birth, death, marriage, divorce, scandal, crime and secret that family owns for the past decade. The only thing that ever got by me was Niro’s fake death. And now I find out it was real, and this Niro is a fake, and I will not let someone else get a photo of him first!”

With his fists clenched tightly by his side, Alex’s face turned to pure stone. His gray eyes were granite chips set menacingly in that stone, and he bent over and said, “Let me repeat, nińa…You. Can. Not. Have. Them. I’ll burn that memory disk before I let you have it.”

Corkie sucked in a breath, tense with her frustration and fury, and grimaced. Eww. Vomit mouth. "I have to brush my teeth," she announced stiffly and managed to stay relatively vertical as she went in search of her backpack and toothbrush. Alex muttered something with the words God and beautiful and damn and crazy, followed her and grabbed her arm as she came out of the washroom again.

“Corkie…please!”

She shrugged him off. “Leave me alone.”

“I can’t,” he said. “I have to protect you, Corkie, don’t you understand that? I can’t let Espinoza have you, too.”

“What do you mean? Me, too?”

Alex rubbed the spot between his eyes. “Corkie, that man is responsible for too many deaths…my father, for one, and I won’t let him take you.”

She frowned at him. “He killed your father? I didn’t know that. I’m sorry, Alex.”

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “Now, do you understand? Now can you see why protecting you from yourself is the important thing here?”

“Protecting me from myself?” she said, back to feeling irritated. “I don’t need a babysitter, Alex.”

“Yes, you do.”

“The hell I don’t!”

Marta came into the kitchen. “Senor Alex, we need to talk— Oh,” she paused, seeing them, both angry and mirroring each other’s frowns. “I am interrupting.”

“No,” Corkie said to her. “It is okay. We’re done talking.” She shot Alex a pointed look and went back to the bathroom, closing the door behind her. She heard Marta ask, “Is she feeling well?” And Alex answered, “She’ll be fine. What did you need, Senora?”

“It is about Senor Espinoza,” Marta said, and Corkie pressed her ear to the door and listened to their conversation.

 

*****

 

Alex sighed. “I suppose you want an explanation?”

Marta shook her head. “I only need to know if my girls are in danger after the events of last night.”

“I don’t believe that will be an issue,” Alex said. “I do wish to apologize for an trouble we may have caused you.”

Marta sat down in a chair and studied her hands. “Senor Espinoza…he has patroned my house a few times in the past, when he is in the area, and I am aware of his reputation, but so far we’ve had a pleasant relationship with him, and like so many people in Mexico, I have no wish to get on his bad side. However, if this is the trouble that follows you and Corkie…”

Alex raised a hand to her. “You do not have to say it, Senora. Again, I apologize. Corkie and I did not want to involved you in the details—for your safety and ours—so soon as Ivan arrives, Corkie and I will be gone.”

“Thank you. That eases my mind.”

“Ivan will arrive this morning?”

“Yes. I talked to him not long ago.”

“Good,” he said, looking toward the bathroom. “She needs to go home.”

Marta followed his gaze. “Ivan also said that, for some reason, Senor Espinoza is no longer monitoring the roads between here and there.”

Alex let out a relieved breath. “That’s also good news.”

Marta smiled again. “However…the border crossings are still watched.”

“Well…crap.”

She laughed. “It will be okay, Senor. Ivan can get anyone into America. But he said it will take some time to explore all the possibilities. You can speak more with him when he arrives. Why don’t you get cleaned up? I’ll have breakfast ready when you return.” She stood up and checked the coffee on the stove.

He sighed heavily and pushed away from the table. Coming up behind her, he planted a kiss on her cheek. “Thanks, Marta. For everything.”

Marta actually blushed. Alex smiled and went upstairs to find a vacant bathroom. He stripped to his underwear and scrubbed down with a wet cloth, wishing for another one of those glorious baths, but there was no time for such luxuries right now.

And right now, the only extravagance Alex truly desired was to repeat that kiss with Corkie. Did she blush when he kissed her? He couldn’t remember. They only shared the one kiss, and it had been a knee-jerk reaction. If he’d not been so damn scared out of his mind for Corkie’s safety while he feasted on her mouth, he might have done a better, more thorough job with it. Or at least paid more attention to her reaction afterward.

I kissed Corkie…and wasn’t able to enjoy it.

How long had he been thinking of her mouth? Of her smile, and how it would taste? Since he first saw her up on that ridge. If she didn’t have such a perchance for arguing with him all the damn time, he might have kissed her sooner. But she just would not let go of her stupid pictures!

How many goddamn times do I have to tell her no?

Alex marched into the kitchen, Corkie’s mouth still on his mind, saw Corkie pulling sweet rolls out of the oven, and he paused. Marta was there still. And there was still that fight between him and Corkie. If he tried to kiss her now, she’d probably slap him. But she laughed at something Marta said, and her lips curved upward deliciously, and her blue eyes got that crazy little playful gleam in them, and Alex thought, The hell with it.

“Corkie,” he called as he crossed the kitchen.

She turned to him, stopped smiling, and said, “What, lieutenant?” and he asked, “Did you brush your teeth?”

She rolled her pretty eyes and said, “Well, yeah—”

And he was there, on her, before she finished speaking. He figured she would fight him as his fingers slid into her thick, golden hair; and he thought she would knee him in the groin as his mouth grazed impatiently against hers; and he certainly thought she would reach for that butcher knife behind her as he glided smoothly into her mouth, tasting mint on her tongue from her toothpaste.

But she did none of those things. She squeaked, yes, and she pressed her palms to his chest, but within half a second, she began kissing him back, and moaning and purring, and just the fact that he was inside Corkie’s mouth inflamed him.

She pulled back first. “What was that for?”

“Because I’ve wanted to do that since I met you.”

“You kissed me last night,” she said, and he shook his head, chasing the heat on her lips, saying, “That was work; this is play,” and he kissed her again.

She pulled back a second time. “Is this about Clara?”

“No.” He went back for more. She stayed fused with him long enough for him to wrap his arms around her waist and explore the way her body fit against his.

"Is it because you’ve been around all these women tonight?" she asked breathlessly, breaking contact a third time.

"No." This time he started at her neck and worked his way back to her mouth. "Hush."

"Then why are kissing me?" she asked through a throaty moan.

Alex sighed and stopped kissing her. "I don’t know anymore."

"Oh," she said and stood there, licking her lips. "Okay."

"Well…if the two of you are finished," said Marta behind them, "breakfast is ready."

Alex released Corkie. That didn’t work out the way he hoped. Well…that wasn’t entirely true. He came away from her lips without any extra holes, bruises or rope burns, so that was a plus. But she could’ve at least said she—

"Thank you, Alex" she said, grinning beautifully, "I enjoyed that very much."

"Did you?" he asked, suddenly wary and feeling like he should check for his wallet. "I couldn’t tell."

"Oh, yes," she said, nodding and grinning and happy.

He crossed his arms. What was she up to now? "What did you enjoy about it?"

Her tongue darted out and tasted her lips, and he followed the motion avidly. "Well…" she said. "I really liked the way you went for it, no hesitation, and I liked how you paused for just that split second before you stuck your tongue in my mouth, and there was the way you had your tongue in my mouth—that part was really, really great, and…well, all of it."

She stopped talking and breathed in, held it, and let it out with a dreamy sigh. Her candid honesty nearly made Alex speechless…nearly.

"If you enjoyed it so much, why couldn’t you hush up and enjoy it while I was doing it?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I’m confused."

“Confused about what? Haven’t you ever been kissed for the hell of it?”

“Sure,” she said, “but not by someone who doesn’t like me.”

Alex jerked. “Who said I didn’t like you?”

“You did,” she said with a grin. “Just yesterday you said I am—how did you put it?—childish, neurotic and…uh…”

“Conceited,” he finished, clenching his jaw. He made a huge mistake—Corkie wasn’t the least bit conceited. Cheeky and a little arrogant, yes, but not vain and conceited. The woman didn’t have a freaking clue how beautiful and sexy she really was.

“Yeah, those,” she agreed, nodding again. “I figured you didn’t like me because of those. You’re awfully mad at me a lot.”

“Only because your foolishness will get you killed,” he stressed. “If you were back home, sitting in your living room and being stupid, I could forgive you for this, but here?”

She sighed and now shook her head. “I’ve survived worse situations, Alex,” she said and absentmindedly rubbed the back of her neck where her scar began. He inhaled sharply. Damn. Did she have to bring that up? He could never forget seeing it, but he preferred not to think about it when he was arguing with her. Otherwise, he might do something stupid himself…like try to hold her and comfort her.

So instead, he turned around and sat down at the table. “Let’s just forget it,” he said.

“Forget that kiss?” she asked, astonished. “I don’t think I can, Alex. It wasn’t as powerful as the first one, but I know you kissed me this time because you wanted to, so I think I enjoyed it a lot more. I’m pretty sure I felt a little tingle down in my lady parts—”

Marta made a noise, half-laugh, half-choke, and Alex bit back on his teeth so hard, his molar threatened to break.

Corkie eyed him with that wide grin. “What about you?” she asked. “Did you get excited this time, too?”

Alex put his head in his hands and just breathed. Marta cleared her throat. “I think I hear a car driving up,” she announced and rose to her feet. “I’ll go see if that’s Ivan.” And she left them in the kitchen together…alone.

Corkie sat down in a chair next to him, and the next thing he felt was her palm against his groin. He bolted upward and out of his seat. The chair crashed to the floor. “What the hell are you doing?”

She blinked guilelessly up at him. “You didn’t answer me. I was seeing if you had a hard-on this time, too.’

“You do not go around cupping men’s crotches every time you get kissed!” he roared at her.

She smiled. “Well, I know that. Really, it was harmless. I was just checking.”

“Are you just asking for me to lay you over this table and screw you?!”

She blinked again as that thought centered in her mind. “Um…that’s going a little too far, don’t you think? You sure you’re not affected by all the half-dressed women around here?”

“You really are crazy, aren’t you?”

She laughed at him. “You and Daddy have a lot in common, you know that? He had me tested once, to see if I was abnormal.”

Alex stared at her, disbelief all over his face.

Again, she nodded. “He really did. In tenth grade. I disguised myself as a boy and tried out for the football team. Actually got on the roster as third-string quarterback before I was discovered, but by then, they couldn’t do anything about it. There was no rule that said girls can’t play football.” She frowned at herself for a second. “Didn’t get to play any, though. The coach didn’t want me to get hurt…bad for his career.”

Alex began to wonder if she was making stuff up at this point, or if it was the wine still talking. “Why couldn’t you just be a cheerleader?” he asked, exasperated with her.

“You know, that’s the exact thing Daddy asked me,” she replied, shaking her head. “I didn’t want to be a cheerleader. I wanted to play football. It’s all my brothers’ faults. They corrupted me at an early age.”

“Yes…you’re completely blameless,” he muttered and sat down—across the table from her. He was saved from more crazy talk by the appearance of Ivan and Marta. Corkie shut up—finally—and the four of them sat around the table, eating breakfast and making plans for the day. Alex looked at Corkie only once during all this. She looked back, and she smiled and winked at him.

God, what does normal feel like again?!

An hour later, Alex sat in Ivan’s truck with Corkie between the two men, and he tried very hard not to think about her pressed up against him in the small space. The trip from Marta’s house to the border took another two hours. Corkie and Ivan chatted pleasantly with each other, and Alex kept his mouth shut for the most part, because what he heard wasn’t anything consequential. They spoke mostly of Ivan’s daughter, Sophia, and how she and her husband, Corkie’s brother Josh, were enjoying married life.

“Sophia is ready to have children,” Corkie said to Ivan, “but Josh wants to wait a little longer. He says they need to think about getting a bigger house before starting a family, and he’s worried about getting transferred again. Sophia says she’s about to take desperate measures.”

Ivan glanced at Corkie. “Desperate measures?”

Corkie waved a hand, nearly slapping Alex in the face. “Oh, you know…hold out on sex until Josh can’t stand it any more and then wham! Come on hard and strong until he’s crazy with wanting her, and he forgets all that other crap.”

Ivan chuckled, and Alex closed his eyes, shaking his head.

“That sounds like my Sophia,” Ivan commented as he drove along. The truck hit a bump, knocking Corkie sideways. She put a hand on Alex’s thigh to brace herself, and Alex nearly groaned. He already felt crazy with wanting her, and if Sophia was anything like Corkie, then poor brother Josh didn’t stand a chance. Corkie’s hand stayed on his leg, so Alex purposefully moved it, planting her palm in her own lap and hating that the warmth left him immediately.

She smiled at him. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I forgot how you don’t like women to touch you there.”

“I never said that,” he replied calmly, staring out his window.

“Oh well…it must be me then.”

Alex turned to look directly in her bright blue eyes. “It’s not you.”

Corkie pursed her lips. “Okay.” A wrinkle popped up between her eyebrows. “Your signals are confusing, Alex. You do like women, right?”

Alex stared at her, his brain going numb from her implication. “Beg your pardon?”

She still frowned and began chewing her cheek. “Well…you do seem to like kissing women, but you didn’t seem to find Clara’s attentions appealing, and I know I don’t do it for you, so…” She shrugged. “I was just wondering if you liked women much at all. Do you swing the other way sometimes?”

Is she trying to make me angry again? he wondered. The truck slowed down, and Alex glanced at Ivan. The older man leaned forward, listening to them talking, his concentration diverted from driving.

“Eyes on the road, old man,” Alex grunted and looked at Corkie again. “I am not gay, nor am I bi-sexual,” he clearly stated.

“Oh…good,” Corkie sighed and smiled. “I apologize if I offended you. It’s just that you’re not like most guys I know. They would have been all over Clara, if given half the chance.”

“Is this more of your brothers’ influence?” he asked.

Corkie’s eyes widened. “What? No! My brothers can be downright reverent around women. Take Josh for instance…Sophia would have never fallen for a man who wasn’t courteous and honorable. Right, Ivan?”

Ivan said, “Sophia takes no crap from anyone.”

“See?” Corkie said, smiling again. “Josh treats her right, and in return he gets the love of a very beautiful and appreciative woman. I was talking mostly about the men I’ve dated in the past. Their code of ethics was a bit more…um, open to influence.”

“What kind of guys have you been dating?” Alex asked, getting angry anyway…because some nameless bunch of assholes had treated her poorly.

“Oh, all kinds,” she answered. “But not soldiers. They’re too controlling. I don’t do controlling.”

Alex turned back to his window. “Maybe a soldier is exactly what you need…someone with a firm hand.”

He could feel her smile, even if he couldn’t see it. “Are you offering to be put on the shortlist, lieutenant?” she asked silkily.

“I don’t date,” he grunted, and Corkie sighed once again.

“Maybe that’s your problem…how long has it been since you had sex?”

The truck swerved. Corkie laughed. “Sorry, Ivan.”

“Not a problem, nińa,” he muttered and focused on keeping them all on the road.

Corkie’s hand had found its way back to Alex’s thigh during that little change in trajectory, and Alex looked down at it. Then he looked up at her. “Corkie,” he said in a low, dark tone, “My sexlife is really none of your damn business. Shall I ask you when you last had sex?”

“Um…nine or ten months, I think,” she answered. “I guess that’s why I’m so agitated with you. I don’t date soldiers, but I do get a little antsy every time you smile at me.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

She nodded. “Yes…I’m just horny.”

That time, the truck hit the side of the road, spewing gravel off its back tires. At this rate, they were never going to get to the border in one piece.

“For the love of God,” Alex said to her, “if you want your friend to have an accident, keep this up. Otherwise, drop it, Corkie.”

She smiled. “Okay.” She leaned closer to his ear and whispered, “You haven’t moved my hand yet.”

He groaned and pushed her hand away. “Try to control yourself, Corkie.”

She laughed softly. “Maybe you should take your own advice.” Her eyelashes drifted down as she peeked at his groin. It was full and throbbing behind the fabric of his jeans and had been at half-mast ever since he kissed her again that morning. Now, with all this talk of sex and her being horny, he was back up again. If she didn’t stop this incessant teasing of hers, he was likely to do something stupid…like prop her sweet ass up against the first vertical surface he found.

She laughed again in his ear, leaning into him. His erection twitched joyfully, and he thought, Hell, I may not wait until we’re alone.


Chapter 11

Alex had his mission; Corkie had hers—get her pictures, at all costs. And as their destination steadily approached and her Mexican adventure waned, Corkie thought fast. She had approximately ten to twelve hours to get her photos away from Alex. The border-crossing plan, by Ivan, was to hole up in a small hotel until he scouted out the best time to sneak Corkie across the river undetected. But if Alex left right away, thinking Ivan would take care of her—well, hell, then she was screwed. She guessed she could always ask Ivan to knock Alex out or something, but Ivan had always been more of a runner and hider than a fighter, and to ask him would insult his conscious. Besides, getting back what Alex stole from her was personal at this point. Corkie Brooks, and only she, would reclaim her property.

I wonder if Ivan has a spare bit of rope in the back of his truck…

Alex had been up all night, too, and surely he was tired. He might take a nap soon while they waited to get her butt back to America. Yeah, that could work. She could pretend to sleep, too, and then quickly hogtie him to a bed frame. She was pretty good about slipping a trucker’s hitch when in a hurry…but that knot was too easy to untie. A constrictor knot was better, but difficult if the person wasn’t cooperating. And Alex wouldn’t cooperate.

Corkie sighed to herself as the outskirts of town dotted the horizon. Alex shifted in his seat, rubbing his leg against hers, and she smirked as another thought came to her, I can always seduce him.

And then she snorted, earning a suspicious glance from him. Yeah, that’ll work. Clara tried to seduce him, and she was a professional. I don’t stand a chance. The guy is a statue!

She looked down at groin and silently added, Literally. She’d been covertly watching him ever since that sex discussion. She kept seeing rigid movements every time she brushed up against him. He’s gotta be uncomfortable. Corkie heard guys complain about the physical discomfort of going without sex for too long, and she always assumed that was an excuse for men to get laid on a regular basis. Corkie’s breasts swelled when she got a little randy—like now—and that was annoying enough, so she could only imagine what guys went through.

Alex leaned over and quietly said, “Whatever it is you’re thinking…stop it. It won’t work.”

She put on a pretty smile. “I don’t know what you mean, Alex.”

He looked down at her mouth and slowly drew his eyes up to hers. The lighter shade of gray, right there in the center, darkened as his pupils dilated. “You’re going home—empty-handed,” he said, “so cut it out.”

She tilted her head closer to him, their noses nearly brushing, and she said, “I don’t give up that easily, lieutenant. You should know that by now.”

He stared at her for nearly half a mile. “Then I’m warning you now, nińa…don’t start anything you don’t intend to finish.”

Corkie grinned. “Is that the soldier talking…or the man?”

His smile was slow and easy. “You don’t do soldiers, remember? So, don’t screw with me, Corkie. I won’t be lenient with you, just because you’re a colonel’s daughter.”

She decided to call his bluff. “Yes, you would…because I’m a colonel’s daughter.”

“You’ll feel guilty afterward,” he said.

“Then I’ll feel guilty as I do a happy-dance,” she returned.

He grunted. “Face it, Corkie. You might be crazy, but you’re not stupid. I’m onto you, so don’t think you can pull one of your tricks over me.”

She turned away. “I don’t know what you mean, Alex,” she repeated.

“Sure you don’t,” he muttered, and they sat together in silence until Ivan stopped the truck outside of a two-story, yellow brick building. The bottom floor faced one of the town’s avenues and showcased typical tourist-trap items in its storefront, though Corkie couldn’t imagine it getting a lot of business since Manuel Ojinaga wasn’t exactly booming with tourists. But the upstairs advertised a small hotel.

“Here we are,” Ivan announced, getting out of the truck. Corkie waited for Alex to move so she could get out, too, but he didn’t budge.

“Alex?” she said. “Sometime today would be nice.”

He studied the building and the street, carefully eying each individual he saw. “I don’t like the look of it,” he said.

“What’s wrong with it?”

He pointed toward something. “Do you see what I see?”

Corkie squinted past his finger. “Uh…a store and hotel?”

“Look closer.”

She did…and then she saw it. The small sign at the bottom of the window that simply read, “Banderas.

“You see it,” he murmured. “Do you know what that means?”

“Um…it’s Spanish for flag,” she said.

“It’s Espinoza’s call sign,” he replied carefully, keeping his eye on the street. “Businesses put that sign out when they have a shipment of goods for him. Couriers in the area show up and transport those goods down to Puerto Vallarta where he resides. For all we know, you’re that shipment, and we’re not going in there.”

Corkie looked at him. “I trust Ivan, Alex. He wouldn’t purposefully put me in danger.”

“He’s a criminal,” Alex argued, “and I don’t care if he is part of your family. Criminals don’t care about anything but themselves. He knew Espinoza was looking for you, and now he’s delivering.”

Corkie inhaled sharply. She didn’t care what Alex thought. Ivan would never do something like that. "Then why would he avoid the police and send us to Marta’s instead?"

"Maybe, he didn’t want to meet the police, but he thought we would run into them on the way."

Okay…now she was plainly pissed. How dare he talk about Ivan like that? Ivan was practically her uncle! “Let me out. I’ll go talk to him right now.” She tried to crawl over him, but he clamped his arms around her waist and held her still.

“Don’t be stupid, Corkie,” Alex growled in her ear. “I have to get you out of here.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” she said hotly. “Ivan wouldn’t do that!” She struggled to get loose and go out through the driver’s side door. Alex hauled her back so that he lay on top of her on the bench seat, glaring down at her.

“Stay still!” he commanded, “If someone sees you fighting me—”

The passenger door opened, and Ivan stood there, frowning suspiciously at Alex. “Nińa? Is everything okay?”

Alex froze. His hand inched to his gun holster. Corkie bucked her hips and sent Alex halfway into the floorboard. “I’m fine, Ivan,” she said. “Alex was feeling a little frisky, that’s all. Nothing I can’t handle.”

Shifting slightly around, Alex managed to clear the gun from its holster, but Corkie kicked it out of his fingers. “Stop it,” she told him. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation.”

Ivan’s eyes narrowed as he saw the gun fall out of the door. He bent to pick it up. Alex tensed. Corkie crawled over and plucked the gun from Ivan. “What is going on?” Ivan asked. Corkie checked the gun’s chamber and set the safety.

“Banderas,” she said, while stuffing Alex’s gun in her bag. “Alex saw the sign.”

Ivan sighed heavily. “This is my brother’s place. I promise you, nińa, you will be safe here. Miguel, like many people, have little choice in displaying the sign.”

“See?” she said to Alex. “It’s okay. We’ll be safe here.”

“Like hell you will,” Alex growled. He got back up on the seat, putting himself between her and Ivan, and he still didn’t get out of the truck.

"You will be safe here,” Ivan repeated. “I swear on my life.”

That was all Corkie needed to hear, but Alex was a different story. “This is bullshit,” he snarled. “This whole goddamn march across the desert has been bullshit! Everywhere you go, nińa, he finds you! What makes you think he won’t find you here? In one of his own goddamn stock houses?” He turned to her and grasped her arms. “He will not get close to you again. I won’t allow it. We are not staying here!”

Corkie straightened and blinked at him. The vehemence in his voice was so…real. The same emotion he expressed that morning when he spoke of his father, when he said Espinoza couldn’t have her, too. Maybe there was more to this side trip of his than just him protecting Colonel Davenport’s daughter. He looked really, really panic-stricken about this.

She nodded. “Okay, Alex,” she said softly. “We’ll go somewhere else.”

“What?” He sounded surprised, and she smiled, saying, “Yes, Alex. There’s a few other hotels in the area. We can go to one of them.”

His gray eyes narrowed. “Why are you changing your mind?”

“Because I trust you,” she said, and he said, “You trust him, too,” nodding his head toward Ivan, “and he’s family. You barely know me.”

“I know,” she said, “but I figured I’d give you this one…think of it as a parting gift.”

His suspicious gaze bore into her. “Why do I get the feeling you’re playing with me? What other hotel, exactly, were you thinking of?”

Corkie huffed out a breath. “You don’t trust enough, Alex—”

“And you trust too much,” he countered. “That naive view of the world you carry around is going to get you killed one day, Corkie. You, of all people, should know better.”

“Why me, ‘of all people‘?” she asked, planting her fists on her hips, which was kind of awkward while still sitting in Ivan’s truck, but she managed to make it look quite defensive and convincing.

“Have you forgotten that you’ve already been abducted, beaten and tortured once in your life? Wasn’t that enough?” Alex asked. “You—” He jabbed her in the chest with his finger. “‘Of all people,‘ should know not to trust strangers.”

“Well, excuse me,” she hissed, “if I don’t go around with a black heart and a bitter soul, Lieutenant Spears. I’m not that kind of person. I can’t live like that, because to me, that’s not living. I don’t keep my head buried in the sand, or high up in the clouds, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go around waving a gun at everybody who looks at me wrong. And why the hell do I have to have this same freaking conversation with every—man—I—know! I swear, you’re all alike! You and my brothers and my father and all my ex’s! Stop telling me how to live my life! Now, do you want to go to a hotel or not?!

“Yes! I want to go to a hotel!” he shouted back.

“Fine! Ivan! Let’s go!”

The passenger door slammed shut, and Ivan climbed behind the steering wheel. “Which hotel would you like, nińa?” he asked calmly, starting the engine.

“I don’t care,” she said, suddenly tired and getting a headache. “Just pick one.”

“No!” Alex nearly roared. “I’ll pick one.”

Corkie groaned. “Oh, good Lord…we’ll be driving around all day.”

 

*****

 

Alex settled on the third hotel they visited. A nice place, Corkie admitted as she climbed out of Ivan’s truck. And not a Banderas sign in sight. Thank God!

Ivan announced, “I shall be back in an hour. I need to look around.” He smiled at her as he left…and scowled at Alex, who didn’t seem to notice. All the hotel rooms were exterior to the building, and that seemed to make Alex nervous. He muttered that he felt exposed as he peered through the earth-colored curtains. Corkie rubbed the back of her neck. It was a room, four walls, a door, a window, a bathroom. And it was a clean room, so really…

He just needs to relax a little, she thought, dropping their bags onto the solitary full-sized bed. She was the one who should be jumping at shadows. She only had a few more hours to get her photos away from him, and that prospect wasn’t looking too good. They were a scant mile from parting forever. This was her last chance.

Looking back, Corkie realized there had been lots of missed opportunities. But she kept putting it off, making excuses, enjoying the chase and the company. She thought about that first night at Juan’s house, and how she and Juan should have done a more thorough job of searching Alex then. This whole mess could have been avoided, if she’d just been more diligent…or stupid enough to think she could convince Alex to give them back. Alex was right; I trust too much.

“Crap, did I just think that?” she wondered aloud, and Alex asked, “Think what?”

She jumped, nearly forgetting him in the room with her, though how that was possible, she couldn’t fathom. Corkie brought her gaze to his eyes, solidly staring right at him. “That you’re right…I trust too much.”

Alex smiled, slow and easy. “Why do I get the feeling this is another one of your games?”

“I think we’re past the games at this point, Alex,” she said tiredly. “I know you still have it. You know that I know you still have it. And I was stupid to think you’d happily hand them over.”

"I don’t think you’re stupid Corkie," Alex murmured. “But the three friends of yours I’ve met so far happen to be an ex-mercenary, an illegal coyote and a madam.”

She sank to the bed, lying back on the mattress. "Don’t start that now. I’m tired. I have a headache, and I smell like old wine. I want a shower, some clean clothes, something to eat, and a very long nap. If you can’t provide any of that, then just…leave me alone for awhile."

The silence that followed was a blessing to her pounding head, but horrible for her nerves. She dared to peek up at him, and found him studying her. "Do you have anything else to change into?" he asked.

"Nothing clean." Turning her head to him, she added, "And if I recall, you owe me dinner for the feelski when you took my camera card."

He stretched out on the bed beside her, reclining on an elbow. "And if I recall, you were a real smartass that day. I don’t take smartassy women very seriously, so if you want me to buy you dinner, then you’d only have to ask."

"You don’t have any money," she reminded him.

"Then I’m afraid you’ll have to take a raincheck.”

Corkie shifted so that she faced him entirely, her mind racing. “Are you…asking me out on a date?”

“I don’t date,” he said. “And you don’t do soldiers.”

“Right…” She stared up at the ceiling. “How stupid of me.”

She sensed a slight tug on her hair, like when she twirled a strand around her finger, rhythmic, calming and sensual in its own way. Alex massaged his fingers into her scalp. It felt so good, she didn’t question his motives.

“I saw a secondhand shop when we arrived,” he said as her eyes lulled closed. “How about I escort you across the street and we call it even?”

A small laugh escaped her. “After all the trouble you’ve caused? You owe me more than that.”

He tugged harder, sharper, but not painfully. It was playful, and she smiled wider. “Me?” he inquired. “You’re the troublemaker. I could be back at base right now, playing a harmless game of blackjack with the guys.”

“Oh, you poor baby,” she cooed.

His fingers brushed hair behind her ear. “About this excursion across the street…”

“Mmm,” she moaned, her eyes closed again as his fingers gently soothed her toward sleep. “If you don’t stop that, I’m not going anywhere.”

It stopped. And she expelled a sluggish breath. “Dang it,” she said. Alex tapped her forehead.

“Hop up, lazy,” he said. “Let’s get you shopped, showered and changed before Ivan gets back. You may not get another chance, if you have to leave right away.”

That’s what he thinks, she thought. I’m not going anywhere without my pictures.

She scooted off the bed as he stood up. Would I be able to get the phone cord knotted around him before he managed to get loose?

He dug through their bags for his gun, checked the clip, and tucked it into the back of his pants, covering it with his shirt. Her eye turned away from the phone cord, and she watched him rub his hand down his face and adjust the tension of his shoulders. He was just as tired as she, and she could use that to her advantage. But there was only one way to catch him off-guard enough…probably the only thing she’d rather not do for this particular reason…because she’d much rather do it for the fun of it, but…

I’ll have to sleep with him.

 

*****

 

Inside the resale shop, Alex took a moment to scan the large open room while Corkie moved off to the clothing racks. The store had just about everything except food, and Corkie might dig a while until she found something to wear that pleased her. That gave Alex time to look around. A few glass counters circled the front register, full of rings, watches, knives of all types, electronics, and…

Alex stopped. Cameras.

One caught his attention immediately. It looked almost exactly like Corkie’s and that gave him an idea. If only…

"Excuse me," he said to the clerk and asked to see the camera. He glanced to see that Corkie stood on the other side of the shop, her head bent away from him. The young man pulled the camera from the case.

"It does not work, senor, a bad lens.”

Alex didn’t really cared if it worked or not. He fiddled with it until… Bingo. The memory card was still inside. And it was also the same brand as Corkie’s.

When the clerk turned away for a moment, Alex slipped the small disk up his sleeve and set the camera back on the counter. He told the man, “Gracias,” and walked back to see if Corkie was done browsing.

 

*****

 

Peeking over the clothes around her, Corkie saw Alex by the front counter. She pulled the leather belt from a nearby rack. The leather straps were thinly braided, and she experimented with its flexibility and grip.

Perfect. It knotted up quite well.

"Find what you needed?" Alex asked behind her. Corkie jumped a foot off the floor.

"Don’t do that!" She clutched at her heart. He chuckled.

"What’s wrong, nińa? Got a guilty conscience?"

“Well, with you jumping at shadows and signs in windows, what did you expect?” Quickly, she gathered the clothes she found to wear, and she put on a smile. “This place is great, isn’t it? I love resale.”

Alex shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets.

“Did you want anything?” she asked.

“Why?”

“Well…because,” she said. “You’ve been wearing that same outfit since yesterday morning. Don’t you want to change, too?”

“As soon as you’re back on American soil, I’ll be in a chopper headed to base. All I need for that is what I’m wearing,” he said, shifting his gaze over the few occupants inside the store.

Corkie pursed her lips. He had no intention of getting those boots off any time soon, and she was aggravated with him because of it. “You’re impossible,” she said, “You know that? Here I am, offering to buy you some other guy’s hand-me-downs, and you’re turning your nose up. Some of this stuff isn’t all that bad. Look at what I found.”

She held up the lightweight denim shorts with the cute rhinestones on the pockets and the sleeveless shirt that would hug her from the shoulders to her bellybutton, keeping the belt bundled up in her fist. Alex peered quickly at the clothes, and his eyes drifted back to her.

“Where’s the rest of it?”

Corkie frowned. “The rest of what?”

“Those shorts,” he answered, his gray eyes darkening. “Are they supposed to display everything God gave you?”

“They’re not that short,” she argued.

He snorted. “You wear those and bend over, and everyone else will get to see what God gave you, too.”

“It’s a hundred-freaking-degrees outside! Would you rather I wear a mumu?”

“Does a mumu cover your ass better?”

She wadded up the clothes and held them to her chest. “Why should you care, Alex? The second I’m gone, you’ll be on your helicopter, and you won’t have to see my ass anymore.”

He shot her a devious grin. “And won’t that be a shame?”

“Oh, please,” she said. “You’re such a prude about your virtue. I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests you enjoy anything about my ass.”

His whole body stilled as he stared down at her. “Then what would you call that kiss this morning?”

Corkie raised an eyebrow and cocked a hip. “Toying with a drunk chick?”

Toying with a—” He sucked in a strong breath, and she could see his hands making fists inside his pockets. “I don’t toy with women, Corkie. They always know up front what to expect from me.”

“I don’t,” she said with a smile.

He took a step forward, and something in his eyes made her step backwards. Plastic hangers dug into her back as he crowded her against a clothing rack. “Then let me tell you right now,” he said softly, deadly soft, “if I was not responsible for you, if you were not who you are, and if I wasn’t working, then I’d toss you over my shoulder, lock us both in that hotel room for a week, and when that door opens again, you’d be soaking wet and walking bowlegged.”

Corkie’s eyes widened as her lips parted. “So…um…wow…you think maybe we can pretend those ifs don’t exist?”

His gaze roamed all over her face, landing on her mouth, and he leaned closer. “Don’t, Corkie. Just don’t.”

“What’s wrong, Alex? Don’t think I can handle it?”

“I don’t think you do,” he said honestly. “The things I could do to you…the ways I could make you scream…everything I’ve thought about doing to you since I smelled honeysuckles in your hair—”

“Honeysuckles?” she asked suddenly, pulling a strand of hair around to smell it. “I haven’t used that shampoo in almost a week, not since I left D.C.”

Alex stood upright and inhaled a calming breath. He raked a hand over his face. “You’re crazy,” he muttered. “I’m this close to fucking you right here on the floor, and you’re worried about how your hair smells. Go pay for your clothes, and let’s get out of here.”

Corkie sniffed her hair again. “It smells like wine,” she said to him. “And dust. Maybe I should take a shower before we resume our conversation.”

“I’m not resuming anything,” he said and stalked to the front of the store.

She smiled after him. No…but he’s thinking about it, she said to herself and followed him.

 

*****

 

Yes…he was thinking about it. Alex blessed the fact that his hands stayed in his pockets during the majority of Corkie’s sporting tease. Because if he’d touched her…a fingertip to her arm, or his palm to her cheek, he would have lost control. Here they were, in a second-hand shop, a skip and a throw from the U.S. border, hunted by one of the world’s most dangerous men, and she was…horny.

God help me!

He was half afraid that if he succumbed to his blood-red lust for that woman, he’d lose what control he had left over his life. Sex with Corkie would be crazy. Insane. Deranged. And fucking phenomenal.

She’d already dug a hidey hole into a part of his brain and was making herself cozy. If he actually allowed his body to get involved, he’d have to slice off a chunk of his heart and pass that to her, too, because physical intimacy was just about the only thing they had left to experience together, and then he’d do something really, really stupid, like fall in love with her.

He waited by the glass door while she paid for her clothes. In three days, if she wasn’t making him crazy with want, she was pissing him off with her theatrics. If he made it through the rest of the day, he was heading straight to his commander and demanding a medal of honor. Dealing with Espinoza was the safer component of this mission…and considerably more boring, a hell of a lot more boring. When agreeing to be the leading operative to go after Espinoza, Alex knew he might not come away unscathed, and maybe not alive. But with Corkie…survival was the least of his worries.


Chapter 12

Ivan waited in their room when they returned. Alex stopped in the doorway and said to Ivan, “The door was locked.”

Ivan chewed on a burrito, said nothing, and Corkie pushed Alex aside to enter.

“By now, you should know not to assume such things, like locked doors, with my friends,” she said, and rushed over to grab one of the wrapped burritos. “Bean and cheese?”

“It was what they had,” Ivan muffled around a bite.

“Who had?” Corkie eyed the contents of the burrito suspiciously. Alex shut the door with a click and stayed by it.

“One of those food trucks…out by the Pemex station.”

Corkie dropped her burrito with disgust. “Couldn’t you find a nice little taqueria? Or something that wasn’t sitting out in this heat in a metal box on wheels?”

Ivan swallowed and said, “You are too picky, nińa. I was working on a way to get you across the border legally.”

“And you couldn’t stop to grab a couple of decent tacos?”

“Allow me to repeat,” Ivan said slowly. “I…was…working.”

Alex made a sound from his corner in the room, and then said, “She doesn’t understand the concept.”

“I do, too,” she said, and grabbed some tortilla chips from the bag. “You two take work way too seriously. You should both lighten up and relax once in awhile.”

“Coming from the woman who’s been chasing a ghost for two years,” Alex replied and walked over to take the burrito she discarded on the small table. She watched him sniff it, scrutinize it, and shrug at it—then he took a big bite. Corkie shuddered. She liked to eat, but she liked knowing she’d keep it down later, too.

“But I know when to have a little fun,” she said. “I betcha, Alex, if given half a chance, we could have a lot of fun together—”

Alex choked on his burrito, and Corkie hopped up to smack him on the back. “Slow down there,” she told him. “Don’t kill yourself on cheap burritos. I’ve got plans for you later—”

Then, Ivan started coughing and gagging on his food. “Not you, too,” she said, whacking him on the back at the same time. “I knew those things weren’t good—”

“Stop,” Alex choked out, waving her off. He sucked in some deep breaths. “It’s not the damn burritos. It’s you!”

“What did I do?”

He stared at her while wiping his mouth with a paper napkin. “You honestly don’t know, do you? After all that talk in the store, and your teasing and your questions, and hell, don’t even get me started on you groping my crotch every time I kiss you—”

Ivan, drinking from a soda can, spurted cola all over the table, burritos, chips and all.

Corkie sighed. “Ivan…are you okay?”

Ivan stood up. “I’m too old for this, nińa. Juan…maybe he can tolerate your ways better than me, but you’re too much like my Sophia. There are some things a father just does not want to hear.” He kissed her on the cheek and said, “You will not be able to cross the border here until tomorrow. Hibram has men everywhere, looking for you. But I managed to call a friend of mine and let it spread that there is a blonde American woman asking a lot of questions up by Cuidad Juarez. I should be able to slip you across in the morning.”

Corkie breathed. She had time for Alex. And she gave Ivan a smile. “That’s fine. But can you call Juan and let him know? I’d hate for him to tell Daddy I’m in Mexico when I’m practically swimming across the Rio now.”

“I can do that, nińa,” Ivan said. “Get some rest—” He glanced at Alex and shook his absently head. “Never mind…just be ready to leave at six in the morning.”

“I will be,” Corkie promised.

Ivan left, and Alex disappeared into the bathroom. Corkie felt a wave of exhaustion come over her, but she needed all her strength for what was coming next. How hard could it be to seduce a man that didn’t want to be seduced and steal from him when he was clearly expecting her to steal from him? She had to outlast Alex. She needed for him to pass out just long enough…at the right moment. Preferably by six o’clock the next morning.

But how to initiate it? That dang control of his was her biggest hurdle. To make him feel something. Because when he got riled up, he did things. She sat down at the table, tapping her fingernail, and thought, What will provoke a reaction out of him? The right kind of reaction.

Hmm…what motivated him?

His mission, yes, that prompted him into action, but she didn’t want him thinking about work. She wanted him thinking about her, and what he could do with her.

There was also his promise to get her back home, and there was protecting her from Espinoza. What else?

There wasn’t anything else. All the man thought about was his stupid mission. And getting rid of her.

Wait. Corkie sat up. What if… What if he thinks I’m already gone? He will assume the worst…he always does…

Quickly, before he came out of the bathroom, she rushed to the door and slipped outside. But where to go? That would seem logical to her, but make him pissed? At the end of upper floor landing there was a bank of vending machines set back in an alcove. She ran to them. Just give it a minute…wait for it…

Damn it, Corkie!

She smiled to herself and started pushing buttons on the nearest machine. Alex tore out of the room a second later, his entire body bristling with anger. He spotted her, but she kept her gaze averted.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Corkie glanced up and blinked guilelessly. “Getting a drink…but the stupid machine took my money.”

The concrete floor of the walkway vibrated as he stomped down to her. His face contorted with such violence she almost shied away from him, but she stood her ground. He grabbed her arm and bodily hauled her back to the room. “Hey!” she protested.

The door slammed behind them, rattling the windows, the walls, and even the lamp on the bedside table. “Are you trying to give me a coronary?!” he yelled at her. “You are not to leave this room without me! Do you understand?!”

“Jeesh,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I got it.”

He released her arm, and she rubbed the sore spot, wincing as she felt a five-fingered bruise beginning. He snatched her arm back and studied it…still angry as all hell, and he filled his lungs with a quick breath.

“I’m sorry,” he said, though he didn’t sound like he was sorry. “But you scared me. I thought…”

“You thought what?” she asked, shaking him loose. “That I’d make a run for the border on my own? You know me better than that. I told you…I’m not going anywhere without my pictures.”

Goddammit!” he roared. “Is that all you think about? For all we know, Espinoza is watching this place right now, and you could have been snatched up the second you stepped out that door! You don’t even have your gun with you!”

Corkie smiled sweetly at him. “Why would I need a gun? I have you.”

“You won’t have me around forever, nińa,” he said. “You’re going to have to use your brain and stop doing stupid stuff, like painting a goddamn target on your forehead!”

She watched as he paced the length of the room, but inside she was dancing.

“I can’t…” He gazed down at her, “I can’t protect you forever. You have to go home, Corkie. You have to go see your father and tell him what happened here, tell him that Espinoza is looking for you. He can protect you, because I know that bastard won’t let a little thing like the Rio stop him from getting to you. He wants you too bad, and I haven’t figured out if it’s because of those pictures you took, or not. But at least, you’ll be safer in the U.S.”

He grabbed her arms again, but gentler this time. “Your father can find out why Espinoza wants you. Forget about Sultanovich and go home. Go, please, so I don’t have to worry about you anymore! Please, Corkie…please go home…”

As his last words sunk in, Corkie felt as if her heart would break, but that was crazy thinking. Nobody could break her heart. She kept it too well guarded. “Is that what you really want, Alex?” she asked softly. “To be rid of me?”

“Yes!” He closed his eyes. “No.”

And she frowned, chewing on her cheek. “Well…which is it? Do you want me or not?”

He shook his head.

She swallowed. “But I want you, Alex—”

His eyes flared open.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said honestly, staring straight into his steel gray eyes. “Maybe it’s all the danger, or our clash in personalities, or the hormones…hell, it could just be all the fresh air. It’s crazy to want you this bad, because I know that after today, we’ll probably never see each other again, and really, I don’t do one-night-stands, but…”

She saw no emotion in his face. He stared at her, nothing more, and she groaned to herself. This wasn’t going to work. The man just did not mix pleasure with business.

I’m never getting my pictures back…

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes with defeat. “Okay, Alex. You win. I’ll go home, and you’ll never have to see me again. I’ll go see Daddy and tell him everything, and then I’ll probably end up marrying some beefed-up Marine that Daddy picks out, because I’ll get to the point where I’m tired of fighting him about it, and…and be safe and absolutely miserable for the rest of my life. Would that make you happy, Alex?”

Alex growled low in his chest, “What Marine?”

“What?” she asked, and then rolled her eyes. “Oh. No, I meant Daddy keeps a running list of potential husbands—”

He pulled her flush against his body. “No Marines,” he snarled…and kissed her. A whole body kiss. A seizure kind of kiss. A kiss that hooked around her heart and soul, and…yanked.

Corkie’s bones melted instantly. Hot, ferocious, and feral, he licked a straight path to her tongue, claiming, twirling, curling around and up and sideways, and Corkie had difficulty keeping up as his heat simmered in her mouth, burned her lips, fried her good sense and whatever the hell she had been saying.

She’d never been blown away by a kiss before. She’d never been scorched by a man’s lips and tongue and hands and…everything. She’d never lost control of any kiss so fast. And she only wanted more, more time to explore, more heat, more Alex, but Alex tore away suddenly, saying, “Jesus Christ, Corkie…we can’t do this!”

He glared. He fumed. He set her back, as far as his arms stretched. Corkie wasn’t letting him seize back his inflexible scruples now…not now! She grabbed his head and pulled him to her mouth. He growled again, deeper in his chest, possessing her again, and again, with another mind-rocking kiss, never slowing, his need building hers, skyrocketing them both upward, her body rubbing against him, rough and needy, and he picked her up, twisted her legs around his waist, carrying her swiftly across the room. He dropped her on the bed, their lips separating long enough for him to say, “If you don’t want this, stop me now, or God help us both.”

But his hands cupped both her breasts through the wine-stained top of her dress, massaging her flesh a lot gentler than the tone of his words or the hot, crazed look in his eyes. Corkie’s only answer was to yank him down on top of her and latch onto his mouth again.

“You’ll feel guilty afterward,” he warned, kissing her as if he starved for her. He licked down her throat, his hands never straying or stalling from their ministrations to her breasts.

“I don’t care,” she said, biting at his earlobe.

“I will care, nińa,” he said, lifting his head to look into her eyes.

“Alex…don’t stop this, not now…”

He kissed her again, nibbling at her bottom lip. “I couldn’t stop if I wanted to,” he said, and from there, they collided. Hands became a blur as they both tried to touch and grope and claim each other as fast as possible. Corkie arched her back as he ripped the ties of her dress, dragging it down from her shoulders and off her hips. She kicked the offending garment to the end of the bed and moaned loudly, his lips and tongue licking down her neck to her chest, and he struggled to undo the clasp of her bra.

Corkie writhed, crazy from the heat of his strong hands and fiery steel-gray eyes, nipping at his throat, chin, earlobes, everything her mouth touched, causing him to fight to keep her still long enough to bare her breasts. Finally, frustrated, he shoved the bra upward—cups, straps and all—upward, trapping her arms above her head. Corkie wiggled free while she attempted to toe off her hiking boots. He licked down her body, down her legs and flicked the shoelaces loose without breaking stride. Then his boots hit the floor with a thump, jarring Corkie’s memory for a brief second, but she lost all focus as he worked his way back up her thighs and stomach.

When his mouth latched onto a bare nipple, she strained to get his shirt off, his jeans off, everything off, but he wasn’t helping her. He sucked on what he wanted at the moment, and he seemed pleased to stay right there for now. Both his hands molded her flesh as his tongue licked and swirled. She was ready, so ready; the past three days had built a tension between them, and the only way to cure that was to escalate their bodies to a great big, fat orgasm…multiple orgasms.

Corkie liked the freedom that came with complete nudity. She wanted to feel his skin on hers. She wanted him to take her, take her hard and rough and make her scream, but to do that, he had to get naked!

The combat knife on his belt dug into her thigh, and she grappled for it, but she couldn’t get his belt undone, she couldn’t get his pants off, and the handle bruised her with every shift of Alex’s body. He was oblivious to anything but his attentions to her nipples, so she slid the blade out, and as soon as he heard the whish, metal leaving its holder, he jerked, instantly snaked his fingers around her wrist and held her down.

His eyes, wild and magnetically gray, delved into her. “What are you doing, Corkie?”

“Getting you naked,” she said, squirming under him, feeling her bare chest against the soft cotton of his shirt, wanting to feel his hot skin on hers, but not feeling that yet, and aching inside and out from the wanting. “And it was hurting me.”

With his free hand, he pried the knife from her and threw it across the room. The blade sunk into the wooden wall, quivered for a second and then stilled. “Sorry,” he said. Then his shirt flew to the floor, he reared up on his knees, tore open the button fly while burning her with his hot eyes, and he pushed the remainder of his clothing from his body. Corkie watched, her nerve endings pulsating with her rapid heartbeat, and when that lovely, thick soldier sprang free, she curled her fingers around it, boldly stroking him. Alex tilted his head back and rocked into her hand.

She sat up, taking the invitation, and allowed her tongue to do a little of the work for a while. He bit off a curse when he felt her mouth around him, and his palms clamped around her ears, holding her there, rocking against her lips now, slowly, savoring the act. Eventually, he pushed her backward, and they rolled together on the bed, knocking the lamp off the bedside table, touching, kissing, heating each other to infernos of pure lust and wanting, tangling their limbs in the blankets and sheets, but not yet coming together. Corkie was close to ripping strips of sheet and tying him up, just so she could have him.

Then his mouth left her and sank further south, and she yelped when he lightly bit the flesh of her inner thigh. Their eyes met, and his were glowing. His tongue flicked out, licked directly up between the center of her thighs, and her eyes rolled back into her head. Her spine bowed upward. “Aye, yi, yi,” she mewed.

Alex buried his face into her liquid heat, and stayed there, sampling her for an eternity. Corkie thrashed from how wonderful it felt. She’d not been orally pleasured in too long. But all too soon, he raised his head and announced, “No condom.”

“Won’t need one,” she panted. “Implant.”

“STD’s?”

“I’m insulted that you would ask.”

“I’m clean.”

“Good,” she answered, ready to get on with it already!

Alex took her hips in both hands and yanked her down the mattress, his feet planted firmly on the floor. He impaled her quickly and pushed in all the way on the first thrust. Corkie gasped, staring up into his eyes, amazed that a single action could feel so freaking good. He exited completely and thrust again.

They gazed darkly at each other as he pushed faster and faster. And she responded with gusto, digging her heels onto the edge of the mattress for leverage and sinking her fingernails into his hips. She loved the way his muscles tensed with each thrust, enjoyed seeing the gray of his eyes darken to nearly black, the cords of his neck standing out as he inched them sideways on the bed. Their breathing quickened, synced, and became the rhythm for their hasty kinetics.

He leaned down, keeping to his amazingly fast pace and whispered in her ear, “I’m…going to…make…you…scream…”

And she did. When her peak smacked her upside and out, she emitted a half-scream, half-laugh, and he did not slow down.

“Again!” he growled. “Come on, Corkie! Again!”

Sweat coated his muscles with a satin sheen, and he pumped faster, faster, not tiring, and her legs were shaking, and she screamed again…barely a whole minute later. Her throat became dry and hoarse, but he wasn’t done. He flipped her over, hiked her hips high into the air, and entered again, rocking deeply into her over and over, not letting her body rest between crescendos, and to save her lungs from exploding along with the rest of her, she bit down on a pillow for the last one. Every muscle and bone in his body tensed suddenly, his pelvis secured firmly against her butt cheeks. His release was as explosive as all of hers had been. Corkie felt him pouring into her, filling her.

And she wanted more. But her legs had gone from shaking to pure jelly, and her arms were mere sticks attached to her shoulders. Alex collapsed on top of her, sucking in lungfuls of air and crushing her to the bed.

“Fuck…” he said hoarsely.

Corkie opened her eyes to stare at the blurry face next to hers. Fuck? That was it? No testimonials to how great it had been between them, how fiery and combustible they were together? Not even a kiss to seal-off their lovemaking? It had been exactly as she planned, a torrential heat of need and speed, and yet…worse.

She should have known better. She cooled off, and yes, now the guilt slapped her across the face. Dang it, what had she done? What was she thinking?! She’d only known this man for three days! She’d never slept with a man she hadn’t known for less than a few months.

Her emotions must have shown because he rolled to the edge of the mattress and picked up his pants, saying, “I told you, you would feel guilty.”

A lump formed in her throat. The tough, world-traveled photojournalist nearly broke down into the hurt little girl. But she would not let him see her cry. Even the worst sex she’d ever had before had made her feel better than this afterward.

She scooted off the bed and stood up. “I’m taking a shower,” she announced and stomped to the bathroom.

 

*****

 

He could still taste her. Damn, she’d been sweet. Alex stared at his pants in his hands for the longest time. She started this. He warned her. She wanted him as much as he wanted her; she said so. But that didn’t make him feel any better. Alex stood up and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. What just happened…good god, it had been unexplainable. Quite possibly the most volatile experience with sex he’d ever had. The last hour had been the definition of his and Corkie’s relationship to this point. Dangerous, dramatic, frenzied.

There was no point in getting dressed, he thought, kicking at his scattered clothes. Her juices still covered him. Her scent coated his skin with succulence. And he was starting to grow hard again, just by feeling her on him.

Dammit, he needed a shower, but the damn woman was still in there. Probably crying her guilty eyes out. Damn.

He could feel her remorse through the bathroom door. She shouldn’t feel so ashamed of what happened. It had been good. Better than good. Hell, better than the best of any kind of greatness. And she needed to damn well realize that! They were both adults, and neither of them had been first-timers today.

He pounded on the bathroom door. "Corkie!"

"I’m busy!"

The door wasn’t locked. Alex burst in, seeing her scramble to her feet through the clear shower curtain. "Get out, Alex!"

"No, nińa."

He ripped the curtain aside as he stepped under the cool spray. Gently, he grabbed her face between his palms. "Suck it up, sweetheart," he said, losing his anger. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. I’ve never known you to hide from a fight, and now you’re just sitting in here, crying and making me feel guilty!"

"Good! You should!"

"Why the hell should I feel bad?" Rivets of water streaked down her cheeks, and he couldn’t tell if that was of her own making or the shower. Alex’s heart clenched. God, how he hated to see a woman cry…especially Corkie, the sweetest, toughest woman he knew.

"Because!" She placed her palms on his chest and pushed. He didn’t budge. The neon blue in the center of her eyes ignited and sparked.

"Is that all you’ve got? Because? We both wanted this."

"You didn’t kiss me!"

"Yes, I did! That’s how all this started!"

"I meant afterward! The least you could have done was kiss me afterward!"

"You didn’t give a chance! You gave me that accusing look again, and this is not all my doing, Corkie." He accidentally glanced down, and his pulse leapt. Jesus, she was beautiful. All tanned and lean, with just the right amount of soft curves.

Corkie shifted under his scrutiny, and when she spoke next, her voice was quieter, “You said, ‘Fuck’ instead of kissing me. You kissed me first, so…you should have finished with a…a kiss….”

His gaze left her glorious body and stared into her eyes. “Who the hell made up that rule?”

“It’s always been the rule,” she said, licking her lips. Alex’s eyes shifted to watch her pink tongue wet her mouth. More than just his pulse leapt that time. And she noticed. A faint rosy blush filled her cheeks. The fingers against his chest curled and caressed him, sending a jolt of heat through his system. He wasn’t done with her yet. Not by half.

“Corkie…” He cleared his throat.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry…I told you I don’t do this very often, and…and you get to me in ways I can’t explain, and I’m sorry I didn’t kiss you.”

She blinked at him, tilting her head to the side in curiosity. “Are you apologizing, lieutenant?”

He tugged on her until their bodies touched. “Don’t be catty, nińa.” He lowered his head, barely pausing at her mouth. “You’re the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen, Corkie,” he muttered. “I won’t screw up next time, I promise.” He smothering himself in her kiss. Her answering purr tasted like honey in his mouth, and the cold shower did absolutely nothing it was probably intended to do. He heated up faster than he had before. Within minutes, they were back on the bed.


Chapter 13

“Bye, Alex…”

Alex opened his eyes and lifted his head when the door clicked. The morning sun had already peeked over the horizon. Corkie was gone. He pretended to sleep for the last hour, wondering when she’d make her move…because she would. He never doubted that. Then, about five minutes ago, he felt her roll off the bed, heard her tiptoe around the room…and leave.

With a heavy sigh, he dropped his head and eyed the belt knotted around his wrists, his mouth twitching in remembrance of her tying him to the bedframe that last round of sex. He couldn’t recall how she managed to persuade his permission for that, but during the time, he gave it freely. Tackling the loose knot, Alex’s mind drifted backward. The second he kissed her in the shower, they forgot just about everything but each other. Seventeen hours, they explored the boundaries of their bodies.

God, had it really been that long? It seemed just minutes ago he heard her say she wanted him. Alex smiled. His nińa had been a very naughty girl throughout the night. There were scratches on his back, bite marks on his shoulder and thighs. And he swore there was even a hickey or two where his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. She wasn’t shy, that’s for damn sure. He took her over and over on the bed. She brought him to his knees in front of the window. He hiked her up on the small table. And she demonstrated just how flexible she could be when clinging to the curtains. She didn’t seem to care about taste, texture or decency. When provoked, she was a woman guided by her lust, and Alex admired her adventurous nature. She was a woman he could love—

"Don’t even go there," he told himself. None of last night had anything to do with…that word. It had been pure, triple-x-rated sex…plain and simple.

Well…not simple. Nothing that lasted seventeen hours could be described as simple. Sure, they took breaks…bathroom, water, even ordered some food from a place down the street. But they were rarely not on top of one another throughout the afternoon and night. At times, he passed out, his body unable to move, but his little snoozes never lasted long. She would start with that tongue of hers, and he was right back to full-blown glory and readiness. After the third time she did that, he figured out what she was doing, why she wanted him to stay awake and active, but he had that fake camera card and was only too happy to follow along.

And looking back, he knew that the one thing he enjoyed most from the night…was her laugh. She told him stories about her childhood while he struggled to catch his breath, and she laughed. She teased him relentlessly with her wicked tongue, and she laughed. He tickled her ribs and inner thighs with his whiskers, and she laughed. God, when she wasn’t breathless or screaming his name, she was laughing, a joyous, sexy sound that kept him from succumbing to exhaustion, just to hear it one more time…and then again… and again…

And now, he’d never hear that laugh again. They were done. With a weary, exhausted breath, he pushed himself from the bed, looked out the window to see Corkie climb into Ivan’s truck with a triumphant grin, and thought, She’s finally going home, she’ll be safe, and I have a job to finish.

Alex quickly got dressed, retrieved her camera card from under the bathroom sink where he wedged it into a crack, and left the hotel room to trot the two miles to the border and make absolutely sure Corkie got back into America. A couple hours later, he met his covert extraction team on the outskirts of town and caught a little sleep as they transported him back to base.

That night, he sat across a table from Colonel Davenport, the legend himself, as he relayed the events of his three-day scouting assignment, disclosed everything relevant to his mission, and showed the pictures that Corkie had taken. Afterward, Alex sat back to watch the man’s face twitch.

The colonel leaned forward and said, "That’s it! That girl is grounded for life!"

 

*****

 

Getting into the States was probably the easiest part of Corkie’s entire week. Apparently, the rumor that Ivan spread about her being in Cuidad Juarez worked, because the border guards only glanced at her passport and asked the normal questions before letting her pass. She traveled with an elderly American Hispanic couple, returning from vacation, saying that she went to Mexico for a friend’s funeral and her boyfriend abandoned her when they had a big fight. The nice gentleman and his wife took pity on Corkie and offered to take her as far as they were going, which happened to be in Odessa, Texas. And that was fine with her. Get her as far away from Mexico as possible before Alex came looking for her and the photos she stole back from him.

So, she was back on American soil, just like Juan and Alex wanted. She had her pictures back, and she was thoroughly exhausted and invigorated from her night with Alex. A permanent smile graced her face. And really, it was a big shame that they wouldn’t see each other again. She could go another couple of rounds with Lieutenant Alex Spears…forever. It had been the best sex of her life, and it had lasted for hours. And hours. If he wasn’t so freaking narrow-minded, she might even have the temperament to fall in love with him, but that would never happen. She didn’t like soldiers.

But she sure liked him.

Upon reaching Odessa, she said goodbye to her new friends, walked into a bank, withdrew some money from one of her savings accounts and went in search of a convenience store to buy a prepaid phone. Then she called her brother, Doug.

“Hello?” Doug answered on the fourth ring. She was actually surprised he picked up. Doug didn’t answer numbers he didn’t recognize.

“Hey, Duggie,” she said cheerily.

“Who is this?”

“It’s Corkie! Don’t you recognize your own sister’s voice?”

There was a pause, and then Doug said, “Whose phone are you using?”

She sighed. “My satellite phone was smashed. I had to get a throwaway—”

“Smashed, how?” he asked suspiciously. “Where are you?”

Well, so much for brotherly love. “I’m in Texas, on a job. And never mind about my phone. Is Henry around?”

Doug paused again…and then he groaned. “Hell, Corkie…what are you up to now?”

“What makes you think I’m up to anything?” she asked innocently. Doug knew her too well. It wasn’t even funny anymore.

“Because the only time you want to speak to Henry is when you want information,” he answered.

“Not true! I call to say ‘Hi’ all the time.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Okay, fine…yes, I need information,” she said, sticking her tongue out at the phone and her brother. She walked along the street, headed to a motel she saw earlier, and hoped to get a room for the night before buying a bus ticket back to D.C. She needed to take a look at her pictures on her SD card, but her camera’s battery was dead, and she needed a room with a plug. Which happened to be in motel rooms.

“The last time you talked to Henry, you left for a whole week. Just up and disappeared,” Doug said, his voice getting that protective tone. “You know we hate it when you do that. Sometimes, it’s nice to know where you’re going. We worry about you—”

“Doug?”

“What?”

“I’m fine. I’m better than fine. But I do need to speak to Henry. Is he around?”

“Of course, he’s around,” Doug grumbled. “He’s always around. He never leaves that computer screen.”

“Uh, oh,” Corkie said. “Trouble in paradise, big brother?”

“None of your damn business. I don’t ask about your lovers. Don’t ask about mine,” he said. “Hang on…here he is.” Doug’s voice drifted away. “It’s Corkie.”

“Corkscrew!” Henry cheered. “Having fun in Mexico?”

Corkie grimaced, and Doug yelled, “Mexico?!” from the background, and she closed her eyes and groaned. “You weren’t supposed to tell,” she told Henry.

“Oh…sorry,” Henry said. “You know I forget these things.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said, and turned up the sidewalk toward the shabby motel near the interstate. The phone went staticky, and Doug came back on.

“Mexico! What the hell are you doing in Mexico?!”

“You sound just like Daddy,” she groused. “I was on a job.”

“You said you’re in Texas!”

“Well, I am now,” she said. “I just got back into the country. Now…can I talk to Henry again?”

“Don’t even think about going back into Mexico, Corkie,” Doug dictated. “It’s not safe. One of the drug factions down there has been kidnapping Americans right off the street. Three women went missing in Cuidad Juarez since yesterday.”

Corkie’s blood froze over, and she stopped walking. “What?”

“It’s been all over the news!” he roared at her.

“Just women?” she asked, fearing the worst. “What about men?” Alex, are you okay?

“No, just women,” Doug said, and she breathed again. She needed to get to the motel quickly and watch the news. Cuidad Juarez? Espinoza was supposed to be looking for her there. Alex had been right. She caused trouble. Trouble for other women now. The guilt washed over her like a ice-cold rain. What the hell did I photograph at that airstrip?

“I need to speak to Henry,” she repeated breathlessly. “Please, Doug. It’s important.”

“Corkie…”

“Doug, please.”

Henry came back. “You know, when I heard about those women, I immediately thought you were involved, because you know, they were all blue-eyed blondes,” he said, his voice teasing her.

“Listen, Henry,” she said impatiently. “You know when you told me about Niro Sultanovich being in Mexico?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know what he was doing there?”

“Not a clue,” he answered.

“How did you know he was still alive?”

“Got a tip on one of my spy networks,” he said. “That’s it. Just said that Niro was heading to Mexico and going to that location. I knew you’d want to know, so I told you about it.”

Corkie frowned, thinking that was weird. She had known Henry longer than he’d been with her brother, Doug. She introduced them, never thinking at the time that Doug was gay and the two men would fall in love with each other.

The thing was…Henry was a computer geek. Not in the sense of what movies and television portray, but a real-life world wide web information nerd. He knew backdoors to most government and private agencies, was an active participant to secret societies that only conversed through technology, and he could spot a cryptic message embedded in layers of code. It was what he did. He was a spy, just like Alex, but he used the internet to get his information. And normally, he used it wisely, briefing the CIA and FBI on events in the world that hadn’t happened yet.

And sometimes, he relayed some of that information to his favorite sort-of-sister-in-law. But to only get a name and a location was odd for Henry. Usually, he could gather enough intelligence to say what color underwear the Queen of England would be wearing to the next royal ball.

“And you’ve found nothing else about Niro in the last week?” she asked. She got to the motel and entered the lobby.

“Not a thing…not even his name popped up again. I thought it was just a fluke, but I know you like flukes, so I told you anyway.”

“What about the location?” she inquired, moving over to a corner of the motel lobby to finish her conversation in private. “Do you know anything about what happened there? Or what was supposed to happen?”

“Um…let me look…hmmm…nothing there…okay…no, nothing there either…that’s weird…let’s try…okay, yeah, pulling up satellite images from the past few days…nope, nothing. Sorry, Corkie. There’s nothing about it anywhere. The satellite images are just an old airstrip. Doesn’t look like anybody has been there recently. Did Niro show up?”

“Nothing there? Are you sure you’re looking at the last three days?”

“Corkie,” Henry said patiently. “Come on…give me some respect. Of course, I’m sure.”

“Then it’s wrong,” she told him. “That whole place blew up right before my eyes. I saw a war down there, Henry. I have photos to prove it. Somebody is covering it up. Dig deeper, because I need to know what was going on.”

There was some mumbling over the phone as Henry focused on his computer. “Well, shit…I see it now. Yeah, someone’s been screwing around with the images. I’ll try to get the real ones, but it may take some time. This looks like an inside job.”

Corkie said, “Okay. Just call me back on this number. I’m staying at a motel in Odessa until I can get a bus ticket back home. Oh! One more thing. Can you get me the location of an American military base in the area of that airstrip?”

“There are no American military bases in Mexico,” Henry said evenly. “America assists Mexico when invited, but they don’t set up shop.”

“Yeah…but trust me…it’s there,” Corkie said.

“Well, there’s this one place…it supposedly housing some American personnel working with the Mexican government. It’s just a cooperative arrangement, but they’re not to engage in any operations or carry weapons.”

“Do what you can to get me that information, okay?”

“Sure thing, Corkscrew,” Henry replied. “Is there anything specific I should be looking for? It would make the search easier.”

She chewed on her lip. “A man…a lieutenant by the name of Alex Spears. I just want to know if he’s okay.”

The conversation lapsed for a second, and then Henry said, “I thought you didn’t like jarheads.”

She laughed. “That’s a dumb thing to say, Henry. Not all military is a jarhead.”

“Your brother is.”

“Doug is a Marine, so yes, he’s a jarhead—in more than one way, but you can’t call them all jarheads. It’s bad manners.”

He chuckled, and then laughed outright at something Doug said to him. “I gotta go,” he said into the phone. “My jarhead is being a butthead. I think I need to teach him some manners, too.”

“Eww,” Corkie said and grimaced. “I didn’t need to hear that.”

“I’ll call you…later…stop that! It tickles!”

Corkie ended the call before she could hear anymore of her brother and Henry “tickling” each other. “Gross,” she said to herself. She loved Doug, and she loved Henry, and she loved that they loved each other, but she didn’t want to think about what they did together. Suppressing a shudder, she walked up to the motel’s counter, paid for a room, eager to charge her camera’s battery and view her pictures.

Ten minutes later, the camera had enough juice to power on, and she slipped in the memory disk, grinning to herself. The first photo was a wrinkled, sun-darkened woman in a strapless dress, standing in front of some bronze statue and waving.

“What the hell?”

The next picture was the same woman, with a man and two grown children, standing in some park’s fountain…again, smiling and waving.

“Alex!” she screamed as she flicked through the images stored on the SD card. The same family came across her camera’s screen over and over. And Corkie nearly threw her precious camera across the room.

He switched the cards!

The rat bastard!

Corkie stood up and paced her small room, fuming with such resentment and outrage, the veins in her temples might explode at any second. He knew! He let her go this morning because he knew she wouldn’t look at her photos until she was well away from him.

“Oh, Alex,” she muttered angrily, shaking her head. “When I catch up with you…”

And catch up with him, she was damn well going to do. No one screwed her over. That sexy, stubborn jerk! But that meant going back into Mexico. Crap. She sat down, flipped on the television to see the news, and scanned channels.

The count was up to five now. Five women abducted in Mexico, and the officials were calling for a mass exodus of all visiting Americans until the issue was resolved. Pictures of the women flashed on the screen, and all of them looked eerily like Corkie. Except one. A young girl with the same blonde hair, but obviously not built the same as she. He’s getting desperate, she thought. Just picking blonde girls at random now. And that was going to make it difficult to go after Alex.

The shame and guilt of what she caused made her sick. All those women. How many would never see their families again? What was Espinoza doing to them once he realized they weren’t the woman he sought? And why did he want her so bad? Because of the photos? Or something else? Alex hinted that the meeting at the airstrip was important and top secret. She prayed Henry could find out something…something to make sense of it all.

An hour later, it was reported that four of the women were found, hooded and tied up next to the Rio Grande, a scant five miles from where she crossed the border. Their hair had been shaved, and tied together in a bundle, with a note that the press wasn’t releasing to the public yet. But Corkie knew. It was a message to her.

Her cell phone rang, causing her to jump and her skin to prickle. It was Henry. “Did you see the news yet?”

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s awful, what they did to those women.”

“Well, that note that they found? I know what it says.”

Corkie didn’t want to hear this. “Tell me.”

“It says, ‘Te estoy esperando.’

She laid back on the bed, the phone pressed to her ear. “‘I’m waiting for you.‘”

“Yeah…Corkie, what’s going on? There’s stuff all over the place that Hibram Espinoza is responsible for this. Does this have something to do with that tip I gave you?”

Tears leaked out of her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered and told him what happened in Mexico. When she finished, Henry whistled.

“What should I do, Henry? How do I stop this?”

“Well, you can’t go back,” he said. “Your brother is in a fit as it is, and he doesn’t know everything. You have to tell your father—”

“No,” Corkie said, sitting up. “He’ll be so mad!”

“You’re not five years old,” Henry said. “He’ll understand. Hey, he understood about me and Doug, right?”

“I think this is a little more serious than finding out your youngest son likes to drive on the same side of the street,” she replied. Henry chuckled.

“Nicely put,” he said. “I’ll have to use that one. But seriously, you need to tell your father—oh, no…”

Corkie didn’t like the sound of that. She gulped and asked, “What?”

“Your father left for Mexico already,” Henry said mutely.

“Well…shit.”

“Whoa. Was that a real cuss word out your angelic little mouth?”

“Hey, I cuss,” she argued.

“No, you don’t…not like that. You psuedo-cuss, stuff like dang and crap. It’s cute,” he said, with a smile in his voice. “Oh, and I found your lieutenant. Guess where he is.”

“I don’t have to guess,” she said, groaning. “The same place my father flew off to?”

“Yup, outside of Durango. It’s horse ranch of some sort that the Mexican government is using for this purpose. I’d give you the coordinates, but you’d just do something stupid, like go back into Mexico.”

“I’m not stupid,” she said tersely.

“No, but you are crazy and can be very childish about things,” Henry countered.

“Alex said the same thing,” she said, regret working through her tear ducts.

“This Alex…is he good-looking?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Very good-looking.”

“I want to meet him, Corkie…I’ll need to approve.”

She smiled. “You’d like him.”

“If you’re worried about him,” he said, “then I know I’ll like him.” He breathed out a long breath. “You be careful in Mexico, Corkie. I’ll never hear the end of it if something happens to you. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Henry,” she said, and he rattled off the coordinates of Alex’s base and hung up, his voice choking as he said his goodbye. That night, her hair went from a sun-streaked blonde to a dull, mousy brown, thanks to Cheap-Disguise-In-A-Box, and she made plans to sneak quietly into Mexico again. She stared up at the water-stained ceiling of her motel room for a long time, listening to the economy update on the news. If her father and Alex were at the same place, then she was going to have to face them both…at the same time. And then figure out why Espinoza wanted her.

Henry called her back at ten o’clock. “Corkie…they know,” he said quickly.

“Who knows what?”

“Your father. He put you on a protection list, and he’s alerted the FBI, Homeland Security, Federal Marshals, all of them,” he said. “They know that Hibram Espinoza is looking for you, and where you are. They’re coming after you. If you still want to get back into Mexico, you have about twenty minutes to get a move on before you end up in a safe house in Indiana.”

“Crap,” she muttered, jumping up to get all her stuff together. Alex. He blabbed to her father, she just knew it!

“This will be the last time I can help you,” Henry said. “They’re on to me, too.”

“Thanks, Henry,” she said.

“Be careful, stay alive.” Then the call went dead, and Corkie had no choice but to leave her phone behind. Prepaid phones were not untraceable, after all. She exited the motel and dashed toward the nearest alley and as far away as possible. She had to get back across the border. Corkie wasn’t ignorant. If the officials caught up with her before, she won’t be going anywhere for a long time. They would question her, hide her, and who knows what Espinoza might do next if she was captured by her own country. Kidnap more women and torture them? Start a war? Over some freaking pictures?

No, she couldn’t let that happen. If it took sacrificing herself, then she would do it. Nobody else needed to suffer because of her.


Chapter 14

“Colonel Davenport,” a voice said behind Alex. Both he and the colonel turned to see a comm officer standing at attention to the entrance of the base’s headquarters, which was in reality the large dining room of a massive ranch home, compliments of the Mexican government.

“Report,” Colonel Davenport barked.

“Sir…Miss Brooks, she…” The young man shifted, his eyes darting away.

“What about my daughter? Has she been found?”

“Sir, we tracked her location to a motel in Odessa, Texas, but…”

“But what?!”

The man straightened to a full salute. “She’s missing, sir.”

“Missing?” the colonel roared, and Alex wanted to roar right along with him.

Missing? Kidnapped? Or just another one of Corkie’s crazy schemes. Alex turned and closed his eyes tight, making fists by his sides. Corkie, my little nińa…don’t get yourself in trouble…if you’re out there, go to the authorities…they can protect you.

She’d been trained well, he told himself. She had more guts than most men he knew. She’ll be okay…right? Corkie? You are okay?

Alex noticed that Colonel Davenport had the same reaction to the news of his missing daughter. The man stood, eyes squeezed shut and mumbling under his breath. It had been Alex’s idea to put Corkie in protective services until Espinoza was apprehended. The colonel wholeheartedly agreed, knowing full well what his daughter was like.

“Sir,” the young officer went on. “She received a phone call by Henry Benson only minutes before the police reached the motel. We believe he tipped her off.”

Now, the colonel turned purple. “Henry?! Damn that boy! He’s always getting my little girl into trouble.”

Alex nearly snorted. Corkie always got Corkie into trouble. “Henry?” he asked, turning back to the Colonel. “Is that your son’s…um, friend?”

Colonel Davenport’s dark eyes flashed at Alex. “What do you know about Henry and Doug? She tell you about that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did she also tell you that Henry is the man who whispers in her ear right before she jets off to unknown parts of the world?”

Alex blinked. “No…he’s her informant?”

“Those two are stuck together like glue.” The colonel turned back to the soldier at the door. “Inform me when she’s found. The second she so much as pops her head up, I want her secured. Dismissed.”

The comm officer saluted again and cut fast tracks to leave. Alex didn’t blame him. Colonel Davenport had been in a foul mood ever since he learned of Corkie’s adventures this past week. A part of Alex wanted to defend Corkie against her father’s wrath, but he didn’t dare. It wasn’t his position to say something. He spent three days with that feisty, crazy woman, and he slept with her, repeatedly, but that didn’t make him private to the Davenport family affairs.

Inhaling a deep breath, Colonel Davenport bent his head over the mission log they had been discussing before Corkie went missing. Alex asked, “Colonel, sir, Corkie also told me that Juan Romero is still alive. He could have been a valuable asset in securing Espinoza.”

The colonel looked up at Alex. “Sounds like you’re questioning my decisions on that, lieutenant.”

“No, sir,” Alex assured him. “I am merely curious as to why that information was not in the briefings.”

“Juan Romero is dead, lieutenant.”

Alex swallowed a rebuttal and politely said, “Yes, sir.”

Colonel Davenport’s lips twitched. “Besides, you would have to go through Ana to get him back on a job like this. Did you happen to encounter Juan’s wife on your foray with my daughter?”

Alex recalled the older woman and the spoon. He rubbed his shoulder. “Yes, sir. Point taken.”

“Do not concern yourself with what you don’t have, lieutenant,” the colonel said. “You are resourceful, it seems. Are you certain that when you spoke to Espinoza, he did not know who you were?”

“I do not seem to think so, but even if Espinoza is laying a trap for me, then I am prepared to walk into it, sir.”

“We shall assume that he knows who you are,” Colonel Davenport said. “Espinoza’s spy here has yet to be found.”

“We’ve been monitoring all communications in and out of the ranch carefully. He will be discovered before I leave for Puerto Vallarta. If not, then my plans will not change. I will finish this mission regardless.”

The colonel nodded thoughtfully. Then he looked up at Alex. “You’d make a hell of a son-in-law.”

Alex shied backward. “Sir?”

A twinkle shown in the man’s eyes before it was snuffed out. “What exactly is your relationship with my daughter, lieutenant?”

“I protected her and escorted her to the American border,” Alex replied simply.

“And that took three days?” the colonel asked.

Alex’s eyes narrowed a fraction. His physical relationship with Corkie had not been disclosed. “No disrespect to your daughter, sir, but she wasn’t always affable toward my presence.”

That light came back in the colonel’s eye. “An elegant way of saying she was a pain in the ass.”

Alex didn’t reply.

Colonel Davenport gave Alex a pointed stare. “Did you sleep with my daughter?”

Alex drew up tall and lifted his chin. There was no way he was answering that question. What happened between him and Corkie that night…it wasn’t part of his mission, and it damn well wasn’t the colonel’s business. “Sir, your daughter informed me incessantly that she did not enjoy the attentions of men in the military.”

“She said that, huh?” The man laughed and dropped into a chair, rubbing his forehead. “She says that to me, too. Incessantly. She won’t look twice at a soldier.”

Alex kept quiet. But his thoughts whispered, She looked at me…often.

“I’ve tried all of them,” the colonel went on. “Marines, Navy, Army, Air Force…hell, even a few D.C. cops, just to see if she’s consistent. She humors me sometimes, but I can see her gritting her teeth with every private, officer, or recruit I push on her. But, goddammit, the men she dates…hell, they’re pussies. She walks all over them. She finds these men that are half a man to begin with and castrates them, telling them what to do, how to do it, where to stand, what to say, walking out on them for no reason…. I don’t know what to do with her. If she’d been a boy…”

If she’d been a boy, we wouldn’t be having this awkward conversation, Alex thought.

“Sir,” Alex said, “as much as I would like to give you some advice, I don’t have any for you.”

Colonel Davenport nodded and glanced up. “Fine…but tell me one thing before I drop the subject forever.”

“Sir?”

“Did you find her attractive at all?”

Alex eyed the man before him. He saw despair and worry in the colonel’s eyes. Not because Corkie was in danger, but because Corkie was a danger to herself and her heart. She never allowed any man to claim that heart of hers, and it weakened her father. Fists by his side and standing at attention, Alex looked over the man’s head and said, “Yes, sir. Corkie is by far the most beautiful—and craziest—woman I have ever laid eyes on.”

A small smile etched across the colonel’s face. “That’s all I needed to hear. Thank you, lieutenant.”

Alex inclined his head slightly. “Sir.”

 

*****

 

It took Corkie two days to reach Alex’s base outside of Durango. It hadn’t been easy, but she managed…by paying eight hundred dollars to a kid on the street for a motorcycle she was certain had already been stolen. But by mid-afternoon on the day after she spoke with Henry, she rolled to a stop outside the gated fence of a large ranch.

"This is a private residence," said a plain-dressed, English-speaking Hispanic man who had "American Special Forces" written all over his intense stare and a distinctly Brooklyn accent. "Please vacate the premises."

Corkie sighed and turned off the bike. "I have a different idea," she said and the two soldiers tensed. "Please inform Colonel Davenport that his daughter, Cortney, wishes to see him."

A flicker of surprise and trepidation crossed both their stony faces. "Ma’am, this is the private home to—"

"Oh, for heaven’s sake! Would you like to see my passport? And do you really think that my father, Colonel James Davenport of the United States Army, wants me waiting out here when I’m wanted by half the North American continent?"

She climbed off the bike, and the guns inched higher at level with her chest. "Not to be rude,” she added, “but it’s hot out here, and I’ve been driving all night. And I’m hungry. Not a great combination for me. You gonna call my daddy or not?"

A third man came out of the brick guard house to the metal gates and whispered in the first guard’s ear. He paled under his bronzed tan as his eyes came back to her. "Ma’am, you mentioned a passport?"

She nodded and pursed her lips. "Yeah…" Okay, this could get awkward…but her underwear this time was just as pretty as the last time.

"Slowly walk forward and present it," he commanded.

"Right. About that…"

He aimed his weapon directly at her head now. "Is there a problem, ma’am?"

Corkie tipped her head to the side and put her hands on her hips. "Not for me," she said. "How easily are you embarrassed, soldier?"

All three pairs of male eyes bore into her. "Ma’am, I will only ask you one more time. Please present your passport."

Corkie shrugged. "Okay…but don’t say I didn’t try to warn you." And she dropped her pants to her knees, showing off a pair of sunshine yellow panties that she bought at the same time as she bought her new hair color—because a girl hiding from a known criminal and unknown government officials likes clean underwear every once in awhile—and unstrapped her secret pouch.

One man gaped. One blushed. And the other nudged up the brim of his cap and grinned.

 

*****

 

The ranch’s main house was a beautiful place. Exquisite in its Old Spanish decor and gleaming, airy interior. Corkie was escorted through a backdoor, into the kitchen and told to wait. While there, she helped herself to whatever she could find in the refrigerator. That’s how her daddy saw her—elbows deep in the veggie drawer with a wedge of cheese between her teeth.

“Cortney Elizabeth!”

Corkie jumped and bumped her head on a shelf, making a pitcher of milk wobble. She hastily swallowed her cheese and turned at his voice. “Hi, Daddy!”

“What in tarnation are you doing here, girl?! I’ve got half the U.S. government looking for you!”

“Yeah, that’s what Henry told me,” she said, and crunched on a fat carrot.

“You’ve been missing for damn near two days!” he roared. “I had to call your mother and tell her so she wouldn’t have a heart attack when your face gets plastered across every news channel!”

Corkie grimaced. “Ah, Daddy, you shouldn’t have done that.”

“How the hell did you get down here so fast, without anyone noticing? I had all your accounts and cards put on red alert.”

She smiled and rolled her eyes. “You should know me better than that, Daddy.”

“The guards said you showed up on a…a motorcycle! Where did you get a motorcycle? You know those things are dangerous!”

Corkie eyed her father. She loved him, she really did. He was a handsome man, dark hair going gray, dark eyes, chiseled features, even with the blood vessels bursting in his temples, and that air of power and importance. But sometimes he could be so dense. Dangerous? Riding that motorcycle was the least dangerous thing she’d done all week.

Her father wasn’t finished with his rant. “And how did you find me? Never mind — I know how you found me. When I get back home, I’m going to have Henry arrested for espionage or fraud or withholding vital evidence on an international investigation…or something! And didn’t I tell you to stay out of Mexico? This is the second time you’ve disobeyed me on that, young lady! You should have gone home, Cortney! I had everything arranged to put you into protective custody until all this mess is straightened up. Don’t you know there are lunatics out there kidnapping women because of you?! Well, do you?”

She swallowed the chewed carrot pulp in her mouth. Her eyes sprang with tears as it all crashed down on her. The authorities still haven’t found the fifth woman when she checked the newspapers that morning, and for all she knew, there could have been more abductions.

“Daddy,” she whispered grievously. “I’m so sorry…it’s all my fault…”

His face softened immediately, and he drew her against his chest in a giant hug, full of fear and heartache gone numb and weary. “Oh, Corkie,” he breathed against her hair. “When you went missing…I was so afraid, so scared you’ve been caught by that bastard. But you’re safe now. I won’t let anything happen to you. I love you, don’t you know that?”

“I do, Daddy,” she cried against his shoulder. “I love you, too.”

“Don’t ever scare me like that again, you hear? None of your brothers ever gave me so much grief. You’re going to be the death of me.”

She smiled wetly. “That’s just because you keep trying to wrap me in bubble wrap, Daddy. I can take care of myself. I learned a lot of that from you.”

He sighed heavily. “Yes, you did, and now I wish I’d taught you to bake cookies instead.”

A laugh burst from her, picturing her father baking anything. He didn’t know the oven from the dishwasher.

His hand cupped the back of her head and then he pushed her away, holding up strands of her hair like they were snakes. “What in God’s name have you done to your hair?”

“It’s a disguise,” she said sadly. “I hate it.”

“So do I. Your mother would have a fit,” he said, and then solemnly asked, "Why did you come here, baby girl?"

"I had to see you," she said. "After I heard about those women…I had to come, Daddy. I had to tell you I’m sorry, and…"

A throat cleared behind them. Corkie glanced over her father’s shoulder to see another one of those plainclothes soldiers standing in the doorway. “Sir,” he said. “You’re needed in the HQ.”

Her father set her back. “I’ll be right there. Corporal, would show my daughter that spare bedroom upstairs?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Cortney,” her father said, his legendary authority back in his voice. “I know you feel terrible about what’s happening, but for now, I want you to stay out of sight. Tomorrow, we’ll get you on a direct flight back to D.C.” He bent lower and murmured, “We have a spy on site, and I don’t want Espinoza getting wind that you’re here, if I can help it.”

She recalled Alex mentioning his suspicions about that, and she nodded, not really promising because she did have other business here besides seeing her father.

“Cortney, I mean it,” her father warned. “Stay in your room, young lady.”

She sighed. “I’ll try my best, Daddy.”

“I want a solid promise.”

“You know I hate lying to you.”

“Then don’t lie to me. Promise me you will stay in your room.”

She blinked and smiled. He closed his eyes and amended, “Then at least promise that you will stay upstairs. That area is off-limits to most of the personnel around here.”

“That, I can do,” she said, smiling bigger, and her father left the kitchen, stopping long enough to mutter quiet orders to the man at the door. Corkie followed the corporal up a small stairway behind the kitchen. There was a long hallway, with several closed doors, and the man opened one at the very back. It was a small room, probably used as a servant’s room, but it had a private bathroom. A glance out the window told her why this was chosen as her room. It was a straight shot downward, nearly forty feet, to the ground, with no ledge or other windows nearby. She wouldn’t be escaping through the window. And after getting settled for a moment, she peeked out the door, and saw that corporal stood guard by the stairwell. She tested his orders and ventured out of her room. He glanced in her direction, but he didn’t say anything. She walked hesitantly toward him. He stood up straighter and watched her with that trained alertness.

“Sorry…Corporal, is it?”

“Yes, ma’am. Corporal Hicks.”

She smiled prettily at him. “Corporal Hicks. Do you have a first name?”

He shifted his feet and rubbed the back of his neck, clearly nervous. “Jim, ma’am.”

“Do you mind if I call you Jim?”

“I’m afraid that won’t go over well with the colonel, ma’am.”

“You might be surprised,” she murmured, thinking that if her daddy heard her call the corporal by his first name, they might be married before the day ended. Then she smiled again, making it wobble and appear pathetic. “I know this isn’t really your duty, since you’re supposed to be babysitting me, but is there anyway I can get some lunch? I haven’t eaten since last night, and…”

He smiled back and relaxed. Right where I want you… He glanced down the stairs. “I guess I can do that, if you promise to stay here until I get back.”

She placed a kind hand on his arm. “Thank you, Jim. I’d really appreciate it.”

He turned a violent shade of red as he trotted down the stairs. Corkie arched her neck to watch him disappear out of sight, and then she turned to face the hall of doors. Now, to find Alex’s room—if he was staying in the house—and eventually give him a piece of her mind.

 

*****

 

Alex wearily climbed the stairs to his room, stretching and yawning the whole way. It had been an exhausting twenty-four hours, trying to finalize the next stage of his mission—him, as Mickey Holmes, going to Espinoza’s mansion in Puerto Vallarta. Alex knew the perils, and he was ready for them. His only real problem upon reaching Puerto Vallarta was the fact that he would arrive empty-handed. Espinoza wanted him to kill Lieutenant Spears and deliver Corkie, but since that wasn’t happening, he would have to talk his way through the gates.

Corkie. Where are you? Are you safe?

There had been no news of Corkie’s whereabouts recently, not that Alex heard. He kept to the HQ, working on his mission plans all day with Captain Mans, and trying like hell to keep Corkie out of his mind, before he did something stupid…like abandon a whole year’s worth of intel and hard work to go after her sweet rear end. Didn’t she know she was driving her father crazy with worry? And him, too?

Alex had not seen much of the colonel today, who spent most of the afternoon in video conferences, so just after midnight, Alex returned to his room, eager to get a few hours of sleep. With the bedroom still dark, Alex removed his boots and his shirt, and clicked on the small television, wanting to check the news before getting some rest, to see if there was any updates on Corkie or those five women. He heard that four of them had been freed—tortured, disgraced and plagued with terror, but thankfully alive. The fifth woman, the youngest, well…

She was not so lucky.

Alex gazed with horror as a recap of that young girl’s murder was broadcasted over international news stations. They found her a few hours ago, in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, right there at that old airstrip, naked and lying face down in the sand. She had bled to death…from a severe cut that ran the length of her backbone.

Just like Corkie’s…

A muffled gasp had Alex on his feet and peering into the darkness. “Who’s there?” He reached for his gun. In the shadows of a corner, sitting in a chair, was—

“Corkie?”

He reached over and flipped on a lamp. She had a hand pressed to her mouth, staring wide-eyed at the television behind him. Her face had drained of all color, and her eyes glistened with the same horror he felt moments earlier, only intensified by the liquid blue of unshed tears. She slowly brought her gaze to him.

“Alex…” It came out as barely a whisper. “Oh God, Alex, I…I killed her.”

“What?”

“What have I done?” she asked, still too breathless to be heard further than the few feet he stood from her. “I did that…it’s all my fault…”

Alex glanced at the television. The screen showed a photograph of the girl and switched to family members sobbing grievously. “Shit,” he muttered and quickly turned it off. He rushed over to her, mindless of the fact that she wasn’t supposed to be here, and crouched down at eye level. “Corkie…listen. This isn’t your fault—”

“Yes, it is,” she argued, her words thick with tears that now flowed freely. “I shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have taken those photos. I should have listened to Daddy and to you, and now she’s dead, and it’s all my fault.” She covered her face with her hands and bent over, her body wracking with her cries. Alex’s heart began to splinter.

He noticed something different about her. Her hair…it spilled around her shoulders, and it was…brown.

“What did you do to your hair?” he asked suddenly, insensitively, but it was too late to take the words back. A bitter laugh followed, and she raised up, now furious.

“A girl is dead, Alex! And you’re asking me about my hair?!”

He winced. “I’m sorry. It just…came out.”

“Oh, Alex!” And she began anew with her cries. He didn’t know what to do. He was lousy at giving comfort. Alex had always been a student of Suck It Up, but she was in pain, real pain, and he felt that pain with her.

Her cries escalated, and if he didn’t do something fast, she would have the whole ranch knocking down his door, especially since he couldn’t explain her presence in his room. With some soothing sounds that didn’t make sense, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her to his bed. There, he held her, rocked her, kept her face pressed to his chest, until she calmed. Finally a couple of hiccups were the only sounds, and he was reluctant to let her go, but they couldn’t stay like this forever. They had their night; there was no point repeating it. Something like that would only make things worse.

He brushed a finger along her cheek, smoothing the hair back from her wet eyes. “Look at me,” he said softly, and she did. Even blotchy and puffy from her crying, she was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever met. He smiled tenderly because she needed it, and he said, “You are not evil, nińa. Only a malicious, hateful, vile person would do that to that girl, and you could never be something like that. You have rainbows in your heart. You love and trust and find brilliance everywhere. This is not, in any way, your fault.”

“But—”

“Shh,” he said, pressing a finger to her lips. “I know you feel guilty. I know you think you could have done something to prevent all this, but that is not true. Bastards like Espinoza don’t have consciences. They don’t care if it was something you did, or if it was something you didn’t do. They find excuses to rationalize their actions, so it’s easier to keep doing awful things over and over. You were just his excuse. That’s all. If it wasn’t you, then it would have been somebody else. I don’t know why he chose you, but I’m going to find out, and I’m going to stop him. I promise, nińa.”

She gazed at him through liquid eyes. “She’s dead, Alex. An innocent young girl. And it’s because of me. The way she died, where she was found…it’s all because of me.”

“I know,” he said softly. “But we don’t know why. Your father—wait, does the colonel know you’re here?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding and touching his chest, right there in the middle, where his heart beat wildly from her touch, from her beauty, from her pain. “I saw him earlier. He didn’t tell you I was here?”

“No.”

“Oh…well, that’s kind of surprising. You’re the first soldier with whom I’ve spent more than the obligatory few hours. I figured he would have given you the third degree and duct taped us together by now.”

Alex smiled. “I see you still have your sense of humor.” And that brought back a fresh wave of tears. “Whoa,” he said. “Don’t start this again. I do the stupid stuff when you start crying.”

She blinked rapidly, and frowned, her lush lips quivering. “What stupid stuff?”

Ah, hell, he thought, staring at her mouth. “Like this,” he murmured and kissed her. She sank into him, and she tasted just as sweet as before, with a little saltiness from her tears. It was a potent combination, her compassion and her torment. Alex drowned in it, loving the way she made him feel, like a man who didn’t know his big toe from his clavicle.

“Why is that stupid?” she asked breathlessly.

“Because kissing you always leads to wanting more,” he replied, and he saw her eyes widen and then felt her palm against his jeans…right there, cupping him where he was hardest. Alex sighed. “Corkie, you should know by now…that happens every time. Why do you keep checking?”

“Habit?” she said with a tiny, wobbly smile. But she didn’t remove her hand.

With a regretful sigh, he said, “Corkie, you should let go of that.”

She blew out a breath and stood up, hugging herself. “Sorry, Alex.”

He rose to his feet beside her. “Why are you here, nińa? You went home. You’re supposed to be safe now.”

She shrugged. “At first, it was because of my pictures—” She glanced at him. “I was so mad at you, Alex. I got all the way to Odessa, Texas before I checked, and when I did…” She laughed, shaking her head. “I thought, ‘I’m going to tie him to a burro’s back end and smack him with a cactus.’ Then…then I saw the news, and…”

Pushing her hair back from her shoulder, Alex asked, “And what?”

She turned to him. “And I don’t care about the pictures anymore, Alex. You can keep them. They’ve caused nothing but trouble, not just for me, but for…for…that poor girl…” Her face screwed up, and she started crying again.

Alex drew her against him. “Damn, nińa…please stop crying. You’re going to make me kiss you again.” She cried harder. “Please? I can’t stand to see you like this. I’m begging you, and you know I never beg. I can handle just about anything, but not you crying.”

“What am I going to do?” she whimpered.

“You can stop crying,” he said hopefully, burying his nose in her hair. It didn’t smell like honeysuckles anymore, and that was a damn crying shame.

“No…about that girl and Espinoza and—”

You are not going to do anything,” he said fiercely. “I will handle this. You are going back home where your father can put you somewhere safe. You shouldn’t be here. You should have gone straight back home or gone to the authorities the second you heard about those women. When you went missing the other night, I don’t know who aged ten years faster, me or your father.”

She lifted her head. “You were worried about me?”

“Of course, I was worried,” he said. “I didn’t risk both our necks to get you into the States, just to have you turn right back around.”

Shadows, deeper than the ones already present, filled up the blue of her eyes. “Oh…right.” She shifted out of his embrace and paced to the other side of the room, chewing on her bottom lip. “Was Daddy very mad?”

“You know he was,” Alex answered, watching as she distanced from him. The shadows reached more than her eyes, and he could see that he was the one hurting her now. But what could he do or say to make her face brighten up again? That he nearly suffered a heart attack when he discovered she disappeared? That whenever he thought of her smile, his brain went numb? That he found himself starting toward the door, wanting to go after her, just to hold her again, and then stopping short, knowing he had to finish Espinoza first? Because until that bastard was dead or locked away, she would never be safe.

“He’s sending me home tomorrow,” she said.

Alex cleared his throat and glanced at his closed bedroom door. “Does he know you’re…here? With me?”

She smiled wanly. “I was sneaking out of my bedroom when I was fourteen. If he knew about us…well, you could imagine. He’s been trying to get me married into the military for nearly ten years.”

“So…you should probably go back to your room,” he said cautiously.

“Yes,” she agreed slowly, shuffling toward the door. “I guess.” She came to a stop and peeked at him. “When do you leave? For Puerto Vallarta?”

Alex frowned. “How do you know about that?”

She lifted a shoulder. “Does it matter?”

“If someone is getting court-martialed, I want to make sure it’s the guilty one,” he stated.

“Oh, Alex,” she breathed. “Still seeing black and white, aren’t you? If you must know, it was Corporal Hicks, and it was harmless. We got to talking over lunch. He didn’t actually tell me anything. I kind of figured it out on my own. I just didn’t know when you were leaving.”

“Corporal Hicks,” Alex said evenly.

“Yes, Corporal Hicks.”

“Stay away from him,” he said, and she tipped her head to the side, and said, “Why?”

“Because we still haven’t found our rat, and you don’t need to be talking to anyone.”

She blinked guilelessly. “I seriously doubt Jim is your rat.”

“It’s Jim now?”

“That is his name.”

The jealousy speared him in the gut. If Corkie called any man by his first name, it would be him—Alex—and dammit, he wasn’t crossing that room and claiming her again. No, he wasn’t.

“You should get some sleep,” he said, studying the golden bird pattern woven into the rug under his feet. It was the same gold her hair had been before she colored it that horrible brown color. A slight smile came over him as he thought about that. It was a hideous color for her, the brown. He missed the sunshine gleaming off her golden waves, highlighting a million different hues of blonde in just one strand. Yet, her eyes still shone like a clear blue sky over the desert after a rainstorm rolled through.

She hesitated before opening his bedroom door. “Will I see you in the morning before you leave?”

He scratched at his chin. “Probably not.”

“Okay…then, be careful, lieutenant.”

“I will.”

She paused a second longer, and then she left, taking all the beauty in the world with her. Alex inhaled and let it out. The door clicked shut softly, and he was alone. He took a quick shower, climbed into bed and closed his eyes. Barely, an hour later, he groaned, climbed out of bed and went to find her.


Chapter 15

Corkie lay on her bed, facing the wall, and trying hard not to cry anymore. She left her door open, praying that a cross-breeze from the window would cool the stuffy room and let her sink into a deep sleep. But she couldn’t shut down, or ignore those emotions of guilt and heartache…or the feeling of abandonment by Alex’s rejection, which was stupid of her because she didn’t fall for lug-headed Army Rangers.

All that energy between them burst inside her, and it was their three days together, all over again, compacted into a single heartbeat. She could not imagine spending another three days, or months, or lifetimes, without him around to tell her what to do, where to go, or locking her behind furniture and doors. But his dismissal from his room splintered her soul. In the few minutes with him that night, while he comforted her, held her, kissed her, she felt more at peace and safer than ever.

She knew that his work and mission were more important than she’d ever be. How she yearned to be with him now, craved him like a tonic that would soothe her body, mind and reckless spirit. She laid there, eyes clenched tightly shut, hands clasped against the pain in her heart, legs and arms rigid with the misery of her loneliness…

Then a floorboard creaked behind her, metal pressed to the base of her skull, and a pistol cocked, an echo of sound in her small room. “Don’t make a move or a sound.”

Corkie smiled in the darkness. Alex. He came to her…he was here, when she needed him most…

“It took you long enough,” she whispered thickly. And just like that night at Juan’s, she flipped over, disarmed him, and he tumbled into the bed with her.

“Hi,” he said, settling on top of her.

“Hello,” she replied politely enough, though her heart was singing and her eyes suddenly stung with the elation of him with her. “Was that loaded?”

“No,” he said with a laugh. “I wasn’t taking the chance you’d shoot me.”

“What are you doing here? I thought you said this was stupid.”

He smiled as he gazed warmly into her eyes. “I’m stupid; you’re crazy. There’s no rationalizing this, Corkie.” Then he kissed her, and she felt that familiar burning sensation in her belly.

“Alex,” she sighed when he began to lick down her neck. She touched his jaw, scratching her fingernails on his day-old whiskers. "I missed you."

He raised his head. "I missed you, too, Corkie," he said honestly. "I’ve tried like hell not to, but…"

She waited for him to finish. "But what?"

He smiled into her eyes. "But you’re damn difficult to forget. You and those big blue eyes, and your laugh, and don’t forget those rainbows of yours. I tried, I really did. You are reckless and insane and too damn trusting." He kissed her softly. "But you’re captivating and adorable and so damn sexy, I ache for you.”

Shivers of delight shot through her extremities, contrasting with the warmth of the room and his body on hers, and she said, “I ache for you, too."

He claimed her mouth again, running his hands down her sides, stopping to murmur against her lips, “What are you wearing?”

“My pink pajamas,” she said, arching her back into him, loving how he felt along her legs and belly, and she touched his bare back, his muscles rippling under her fingertips. “I thought you liked them.”

“I’ll like them better on the floor,” he said, sliding the straps down her arms and pushing the whole ensemble, both pieces, down to her knees.

“Okay,” she moaned and traced her fingers down Alex’s spine, until they hit the waistband of his cotton shorts, and she pushed, baring his sculpted butt to her touch. “The door…I left it open.”

“I closed it and locked it,” he said, making his way down to her breasts.

“You did? I didn’t hear it.”

She felt him smile against her nipple. “I’ve been sneaking into girls’ rooms since I was seventeen.”

“Oh!” She playfully slapped a butt cheek, and he chuckled, sending those delicious vibrations spirally out from the nipple he sucked into his mouth. Corkie whimpered loudly with yearning, and he instantly smothered her with another kiss.

“Just a warning,” he whispered. “We’ve gotta keep this quiet…no screaming tonight.”

“Yes, okay,” she agreed quickly, wanting him back where he was and where he hadn’t been yet. “Don’t want Daddy in here…that would be bad.”

“Very bad,” he agreed. Then he left her mouth to kiss the rest of her, and in between rediscovering all those parts she loved his mouth on, he said, “I still owe you dinner…”

“Uh, huh.”

He curled his tongue around the other nipple. “When this is all over, can I cash in that debt?”

Her head felt fuzzy. “Wh-what?”

He moved to nibble at her ribs. “Can I take you to dinner?”

“Oh, yeah, sure…”

Bellybutton. “Can I take you to bed afterward?”

“Uh, huh…”

Pelvic bone, but still not there. “Then can we have breakfast together?”

“Oh…okay…”

He moved his glorious mouth to an inner thigh. “Then can I take you to bed again?”

“Oh, my god, Alex! I’ll let you take me to the moon, just stop torturing me!”

He bite her leg gently. “Hush…your father, remember?”

“Alex, please!” she said, panting and writhing with the agony of not getting what she wanted.

He clamped his hands around her hipbones and held her there. “Patience, nińa...I’m enjoying this.”

“I don’t do patience.”

“I know,” he said, laughing and blowing his warm breath against her heated core. “That’s why I’m enjoying this. Just close your eyes and relax. I’ll take care of you.”

“Can you take care of me a little faster?”

“No, now be quiet.” He blew another breath, and she felt his lips nuzzle below her belly, and she wanted to scream with frustration, but she wasn’t about to have someone interrupting them, so she brought a pillow to her face and screamed into it. Alex chuckled again, and then he licked her. Straight up the middle, and she gasped into her pillow, melting from the sheer pleasure of it, and she finally closed her eyes and relaxed as he took care of her.

In the midst of one monstrous orgasm, she felt him move up and enter her with one solid, smooth thrust, causing her to spasm all over again. “Oh, god,” she moaned, and clutched at his hips as he rocked high and deep, over and over, slowly, so slowly, making her feel every millimeter of the slide in and out while he buried his face into the crook of her shoulder and breathed hotly against her sweat-bathed skin.

It was a different kind of torture, but divinely agonizing all the same. There had been nothing slow, nor lethargic, about the last time they’d done this. Her heart swelled up with the pure beauty of what Alex was doing to her, and her throat caught as she tried not to weep against his shoulder, but a silent sob fell out of her mouth, and he stopped, raised his head to gaze down at her.

“What’s wrong? Am I hurting you?”

“No, no,” she said quickly. “You’re amazing…incredible, phenomenal.”

He smirked at her description. “Then what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said. I’m falling in love with you, that’s all. “Just kiss me. Kiss me as you…you know.”

He stared deeply in her eyes. “As I what?”

“What you’re doing,” she said weakly.

“Say it,” he commanded.

Corkie swallowed. “I…can’t.”

He raised up on his elbows, he hips pressing generously against her, and he said, “Making love, nińa.” He shifted and glided gloriously within her. “This is making love, and I plan to make it last as long as possible.” Bending his head down, he lightly touched his lips to hers, and flexed his pelvis, going deeper than ever before, filling her completely. “Don’t be scared of this; don’t be scared of me. We can get crazy next time, but now…now, let me feel you. I need this as much as you do. Let me love you, nińa.”

Tears fell from her eyes, and he kissed them away. “Okay, Alex. Love me.” Please, love me, she silently begged.

He dipped his mouth to her lips, kissing her profoundly, passionately, as he started moving again, and it was so elegant and seductive, she cried through it all. When they climaxed, they crested together, and still he kissed her, shuddering with his completion and setting off another wave of ecstasy within Corkie. She clung to him, afraid of letting him go, but he murmured, “Sleep, Corkie…everything will be okay.”

She believed him and fell asleep in his arms. But when the first rays of morning came through her window, he was gone, and she rolled over and cried into her pillow.

Then she got up and got moving. A letter to her father, her passport and what was left of her cash, and a few items she would need when the time came for them. Sneaking out of a secret military base was not as easy as sneaking out of her bedroom, especially when she was the only female around. But…

Alex wasn’t finishing this mission alone.

 

*****

 

Alex set out early. He regretted leaving Corkie that morning, but he had a job to do, and if he didn’t, then she would never be safe. Before leaving, he spoke with Colonel Davenport and asked why he wasn’t notified that she was on the base.

Colonel Davenport said in a stern voice, “I didn’t find it necessary, lieutenant,” and left it at that. Alex stifled his anger, but he let it go.

He recalled how she cried as he made love to her. Something she probably always fought against. Letting a man love her the way she should be loved in bed. Alex bet her wild and primitive sexual nature was a protective armor, never letting a man get close enough to have the justification to dictate her. But Alex couldn’t afford to fall in love with Corkie. He needed his head in his mission, and not back there with Corkie.

Alex left the ranch before dawn, riding out in an old truck with one of those camper shells covering the back, and winding his way west toward the coast. The drive from Durango to Espinoza’s compound would normally take about eight hours, but Alex needed to make sure he wasn’t followed or tracked from the ranch. Captain Mans had scoured the base all night, looking for evidence of their rat problem, and a guard had been caught where he shouldn’t have been. Alex hoped that solved that mystery, or else, he might actually be walking into a trap.

Around sunset that night, he rolled into Puerto Vallarta, and checked into a hotel, discreetly letting it be known that Mikey Holmes was in town, looking for Espinoza. Alex rested on a hard bed that night, missing the warmth of Corkie next to him, and barely slept. He dawdled in the town for a few hours the next morning before making his way to Espinoza’s hilltop mansion, overlooking the bay. He was met at the heavily-guarded metal gate by Poncho, Espinoza’s right-hand man from Marta’s place.

Buenos dias, fucker,” Poncho sneered through the driver side window of Alex’s truck. “Get out.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Alex growled, switching into Mikey Holmes’s character. “I was invited.”

Poncho raised his rifle to Alex’s head. “Get out of the truck, gringo.”

Alex glared at the ugly man, but he obeyed. He stood there, hands raised, as another man patted him down, took away his gun and knife, and was held against his vehicle while they searched it thoroughly. Tapping his finger against the rusted paint of the hood, Alex waited impatiently for the routine to be over.

A guard opened the back of the camper, and…

A shout rose from Poncho. A scrambling of guards. A crunch of broken bone. A manly cry of pain, and the truck rocked as Poncho yelled, “Grab her!”

Her? Alex froze, his heart leaping into his throat. He had a very bad feeling about this.

Feet tied together, hands bound behind her back, mouth gagged, Corkie was pulled—kicking and writhing—from the back and dumped on the pavement. Alex heard her head hit the ground, and he just barely stopped the wince from taking over his face. But at that moment, he was so shocked and terrified and furious, he could barely breath.

Corkie? Dammit, woman! What have you done?!

He took a quick step forward but was shoved back by one of the guards. Corkie’s eyes found him, and he saw a profound apology in them. Alex didn’t care if she was dying a horrible, soul-wrenching death from remorse and her foolhardy deceit. He was going to kill her himself!

Did she have any idea the kind of danger she was in? His emotions must have shown because she shook her head once with a warning and turned rebellious eyes up to Poncho.

“So the worm has brought a present,” Poncho said, crouching down to grab her chin, and Alex roared inside. The guard’s arm across his chest dug into his breastplate, but he barely registered any of it. His focus was on Corkie and how the hell he was going to save her now.

Corkie jerked her head away from Pancho and twisted to kick at him. The men laughed, also focused on Corkie, and Alex took the diversion to shove the man next to him, snagging his revolver, and before any of those jackasses could take the next breath, he had it cocked and shoved against Poncho’s temple.

“Touch her again, and I’ll fucking paint the ground with your blood,” Alex growled.

A dozen weapons aimed right at Alex and Corkie. Poncho didn’t move, but he glared hatefully at Alex. “Go ahead, shoot, gringo. You will die, too.”

“Like I give a fuck,” Alex said darkly, taking this new problem in stride. Dammit, Corkie! “That’s my prize, and no one touches her but me and your boss.”

Poncho slowly rose to his feet, the revolver barrel rising with him. Corkie scrambled backward, but all Alex could see was red. He didn’t know at whom to aim his anger…Poncho or her.

A black sedan rolled down the drive and stopped at the gate. Hibram Espinoza emerged from the backseat, immaculately dressed and dispersing the tension in the air with only his presence. Alex moved to put himself between Corkie and Poncho, barely paying any attention to the man who walked through his gates with all the ease and forbearance of a king.

Though petrified with his fear for Corkie, Alex managed to get back into character and put on an arrogant smile as Espinoza rounded the truck and came into his peripherals, because if he didn’t see this through, they were both dead.

I’m going to strangle her, I’m going to tan her pretty backside, I’m going to make her regret the first time her daddy saw her momma. If she doesn’t get us both killed, I’m going to have to marry her and lock a ball and chain to her ankles, so she never does anything like this ever again! Goddammit, Corkie!

“Senor Holmes,” Espinoza said as he approached with a pleasant smile. “You have arrived.” His dark gaze shifted to Corkie. “And I see you’ve brought me what I coveted.”

Lay one goddamn finger on her and I’ll stuff it down your throat!

“Cortney Elizabeth Brooks,” Alex replied viciously, still trained on Poncho. “It wasn’t easy. She changed her hair, but a little hair color doesn’t fool me.”

Espinoza walked around Alex, laying a hand on Alex’s arm, lowering the gun, and murmuring, “Relax, Senor…”

“I don’t like my merchandise to be handled,” Alex snarled.

Espinoza smiled again. “I understand.” He moved over to Corkie and gazed thoughtfully down at her. She trembled and stared back fearfully. Alex prayed she was afraid. She should be. Because if she wasn’t...I swear, Corkie, how could you do this?

“And what of Lieutenant Spears?” Espinoza asked, shifting to look back at Alex.

Alex shrugged, sticking the gun into the waistband of his pants. “Ain’t got a fucking clue. I found her in Texas, alone, and came straight here.”

Espinoza flicked his hand at Poncho, and Corkie was hauled to her feet. Espinoza touched a finger to her chin and lifted her face to him. Alex clenched his teeth.

“Careful,” he warned Espinoza, glaring at Corkie. “The bitch bites.”

Corkie’s eyes darted to him, taken aback, and then she glared hotly at him. Good, Alex thought. Let her hate me. Because right now, he didn’t like her too much either.

This had to be the dumbest, most maniacal, bravest, and most treacherous thing he had ever seen from anyone, soldier, civilian, man or woman, and Alex hated her and loved her for it. Sacrificing herself like this! He had a fairly good idea why. Her guilt. Because that bastard standing in front of her killed a young girl, and Corkie thought this would make it all better? By gift-wrapping herself at Espinoza doorstep?

Espinoza, apparently pleased with his findings in Corkie’s face, stepped back and said, “Come, Senor Holmes. Join me in my car. You are welcome in my home. Poncho, bring the woman.”

Alex stomped over and muscled Corkie away from Poncho. “I’ll bring the woman. I don’t trust your men.”

“Very well,” Espinoza said. Alex grabbed Corkie’s arm painfully and tossed her over his shoulder. He carried her to Espinoza’s waiting car, and set her down with a jarring thud. He bent his head slightly to the side, and from the corner of his mouth, whispered, “If we survive this…. I don’t even want to think about how you tied your hands behind your back.”

She snorted against her gag and tossed her head in defiance.

Alex shoved her into the backseat of the car.

 

*****

 

Corkie had caught up with Alex in the middle of the night, at the hotel he chose in Puerto Vallarta. She climbed into the back of the truck just before morning and bound herself as if she was a captive. The knot around her hands was a specialty of hers. It looked complicated and constricting, but it was easy to get out of, if she needed to.

Then she settled down and waited, trying to get comfortable on the hard truck bed. If Alex discovered her before going to Espinoza, she would be screwed. He’d take her all the way back to her father. But as it so happened, Alex seemed to be deliberately careless all morning, until he drove up to Espinoza’s property.

The note she left for her father said she was going home by herself and that she would call him in a few days. Hopefully, that would buy her and Alex enough time to finish off Espinoza. Otherwise, her daddy would have the entire U.S. military force down on them.

Corkie was so scared, her knees shook, and when Alex saw her, his expression darkened beyond furious. But this was something she had to do. Espinoza wanted her for some reason and now he had her. He could stop hurting innocent women now. She was here. She put herself and Alex in mortal danger, but it had to be done.

Oh, Alex…I’m so sorry, she thought as the car wound up the hill to a large, Spanish mansion with a terracotta tile roof and verandas dotting the exterior. Her body trembled violently next to Alex. He shifted away from her, despising the closeness of their bodies. She loved him, but after today, he would never love her back. And that was okay, she told herself. She was doing the right thing.

Hibram Espinoza casually studied her through the whole ride, never taking his despicable dark eyes off her, and she shuddered under his scrutiny. What is he going to do to me? Or to Alex, if he discovered the truth? How am I going to save us both when the time came? Because the way Alex was acting, he just might leave her to her fate.

The back doors opened, and Espinoza exited first. Then Alex, dragging her with him. “I mean it, nińa,” he warned, too softly to be heard by anyone else. “Behave.

He didn’t need to tell her that. She would behave perfectly, like a penitent child, until it was time to get nasty. Alex picked her up again, and she closed her eyes to the gentleness he now exhibited. She relaxed, hanging down off his shoulder, tears leaking out of her eyes and falling into her hair.

“I’m sorry,” she muffled around her gag, and he slapped her bottom, a stinging slap of anger.

“Shut up,” he growled loudly, and she sighed. Behave, Corkie. Let Alex do his job. And go home alive. Together.

Easy enough, she thought, until he dumped her on a bare tile floor just inside the front entrance. “Fuck! The bitch is heavy,” Alex said, rubbing his back and glaring down at her.

Call me a bitch one more time, her answering glare replied. He smirked and nudged his boot into the side of her hip.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, bending down, close and personal, grabbing one of her breasts. Now, is that necessary? she thought.

“You like it rough, don’t you? I know you do. You liked every fucking thing I did to you.”

Okay, now you’re just taking this too far, she scowled at him. I get it already! Be an asshole, but lay off the rape talk…jeez!

Espinoza, who had disappeared for a moment, came back to the entrance and caught that last remark. “You had her?” he asked indifferently.

Alex grinned evilly into her eyes. She shied away from him. “Yeah,” he said meanly. “Fought like a tiger at first…but then you screamed like a whore, didn’t you, sugar? I fucked you hard and you loved it.”

Corkie was getting tired of his act. He could tone it down a little! She drew her knees into her chest and aimed her boots at his groin. He caught her ankles before she could do more than twitch, and he laughed at her.

“Still got some fight in you, don’t you, sweetheart?” His eyes softened just a little, and Corkie saw the old Alex in them for barely a second. “You’re going to need it.”

“Untie her,” Espinoza said. Alex shot him a startled look.

“I didn’t drag her sweet ass all the way here to let her escape,” Alex said.

“Untie her,” Espinoza repeated, his voice growing dark and dangerous. “She is a guest in my house.”

“A guest? The bitch tried to kill me twice already!”

That did it. Corkie jerked free and this time, the heel of her boot found Alex’s jaw. He staggered backward, nearly losing his purchase on the ground. He bit off a nasty curse and bore down on her with murder in his eyes. And Corkie wasn’t sure if that was a real emotion or fake.

“That is enough,” Espinoza said, his voice now stopping Alex in his tracks. “Untie her.”

Alex snarled and flipped her over onto her stomach. His hands touched the knot, and Corkie breathed through a moment of fear. He didn’t know the trick to untying her. She felt him hesitate, and she arched a finger, inconspicuously pointing to the one loose end that would unravel the whole knot. He squeezed her fingertip and then the ropes fell away from her wrists. Corkie stretched her arms, moving to push herself up, but Alex pressed a knee into her back.

“Stay down,” he warned and went to work on the ropes around her ankles. That one was a standard knot, and he had it undone quickly. Then he shoved her back over, grabbed a handful of her shirt, right there between the breasts, and jerked her to her feet. Corkie’s head snapped from the force of it, and she let out a yelp through her gag.

That had to go. It left a foul taste in her mouth, and her lips were cracked and parched. She shoved it off her head, fixed her hair, and saw Alex smirk at her.

Then she slapped him. Clear across the cheek.

And he retaliated with a palm across her entire left side of her face. “I hit back, sugar,” he snarled as she reeled from the force of his blow, though she had a good feeling he held back most of his strength. It still hurt.

“Go screw yourself, Mikey,” she hissed, and pleasure flickered in Alex’s gray eyes that she remembered his alias.

“Are you two quite done?” Hibram Espinoza asked.

Corkie stepped back from Alex, licking her lip where she tasted blood. She saw Alex’s hand lift toward her, and she glared at him not to do anything stupid. Then she turned to Espinoza and asked, “What do you want with me?”

Espinoza gave her a warm, horrible smile. “All in due time, Miss Brooks. Please, join me for a drink.” He waved at a room off the main hall and she glanced back at the front door before stomping into a large library. Alex followed behind her.

She dropped into a leather chair, sighing with petulance and the severity of her situation. Alex hovered over her, and she wanted to sink back into his protective warmth. But she didn’t. She was supposed to hate him, so hate him she appeared. Craning her head around she asked, “Do you have to stand so close? You stink.”

He grinned and grasped a handful of her hair, painfully stretching her neck. “You don’t smell so sweet yourself, sweetheart.”

Espinoza ignored them and poured three glasses of amber liquid from a crystal decanter. He handed one first to Corkie, and then to Alex. Corkie sniffed her drink and touched her tongue to it before sipping. Scotch…the good stuff. She drained her glass and held it up for more. Espinoza eyed her curiously. He’d probably never seen a woman guzzle scotch before.

“You are a delight, Miss Brooks,” he said to her, taking her glass for a refill. “You would make a wonderful addition to my household.”

Corkie snorted. “Ain’t happening, buster. You killed a girl, because of me. I don’t live with murderers.”

The man sighed and returned with her glass. “Yes…Poncho misinterpreted my directions with that girl. You failed to heed my first invitation, so I need something a little more…personal.”

“She’s dead,” Corkie spit. “What the hell is wrong with you? A phone call or an email isn’t enough?”

Espinoza chuckled and settled into the chair across from her. “If Senor Holmes had not captured you, would you have come to me on your own?”

Corkie’s blood froze as the question hit a little too close to reality. “I don’t know.”

“Ah, but you do,” he commented, smiling politely at her. “Where were you going when Senor Holmes found you? Home? To your father? Or back here to me?”

She stared at him. “What do you want? Those pictures I took? Is that it? Well, good luck with that. I don’t have them. That bastard, Spears, stole them from me, and I haven’t got a freaking clue where he is. He dumped me at the border and took off.”

“Yes,” he said, brushing lint off his tailored slacks. “Lieutenant Spears has been a thorn in my side for a long time as well, nińa.”

Corkie stiffened, and she sensed the same reaction from Alex. “How did you know that nickname?” she asked in a whisper.

“I know quite a lot about you, Miss Brooks,” Espinoza replied. “Six years provides plenty of time to get to know your prey.”

She blinked at him. “Wh-what do you mean, six years?” Sheer terror filled her now. This wasn’t about those photos at all…this was something else.

His smile increased, and it looked innocent enough, but something dark and evil glittered in his eyes, and he said, “You do not remember, do you?”

The air behind her thickened with alertness, and Alex finished off his scotch, moving toward the small table to refill his glass…further from her, but closer to Espinoza. Corkie caught Alex’s warning glance, and Espinoza didn’t seem to notice, or to care, but he added, “Senor Holmes, would you please excuse us? I wish to speak privately with Miss Brooks.”

Alex went still, the scotch decanter clutched in his hands. He darted a look between her and Espinoza, but if he argued, he would appear suspicious. Corkie watched the play of emotions on his face.

"You never mentioned anything about a reward," Alex said to Espinoza. "What’s she worth to you?"

“You will receive your payment shortly, Senor Holmes,” Espinoza answered, not looking at Alex.

Alex clearly tried to stall, but what could he do? Pull a gun on one of the most dangerous men in the world and demand his fifty pesos? Corkie thought that’s exactly what Mikey Holmes would do, but Alex wasn’t really Mikey, and try as he might to play the role, Alex would never do anything to put her in danger.

Finally, Alex shrugged and took his glass with him. “Sure, whatever. You got a john I can use?”

Espinoza raised an eyebrow. “A john?”

“Yeah, a bathroom…I need to take a shit.”

The sigh from the man in the chair filled the room. “There is one near the kitchen. I assume you can find it on your own?”

Alex grunted and flicked Corkie a quick look of Be careful. Then he was gone. Espinoza watched her, never taking his eyes off her as Alex left, and he asked, “Senor Holmes lacks discretion and the respect due to a beautiful woman. How did you ever survive his presence for so long?”

“I survived, that’s all that counts,” she countered.

“Yes,” he agreed, a strange amusement entering his gaze now. “It is that survival trait which has kept you from me for so long. But I discovered your one weakness, Miss Brooks.”

“What weakness?” she inquired haughtily. “I’m infallible.”

He smiled for a moment. Then his gaze left her and focused on the door behind her. He waved someone in, and Corkie turned to see who it was. Her breath caught. Niro.

“Miss Brooks, I would very much like you to meet Luka Sultanovich…twin brother of Niro Sultanovich.”

Corkie stared at both men, unsure what to believe…Espinoza’s introduction, or her eyes. “Niro doesn’t have a twin brother,” Corkie said, still too shocked to breath normally.

Luka said nothing and went to pour himself a drink. Corkie turned her wide gaze to Espinoza. He plucked a cigar from a box at his elbow, prepared and lit it, and smiled at her through the smoke.


Chapter 16

Alex had no intention of letting this go on much longer. Screw the mission!

Whoa…did I just think that?

Alex thought about Corkie, and, Yes, I did. Something wasn’t right here. This smelled strongly of a trap, and he had the feeling he and Corkie stumbled blindly into it. He had to protect her. If anything happened to her…

Don’t…don’t think it.

Concentrate. Focus. Alex left the library at Espinoza’s demand—reluctantly, unless he wanted her dead right then and there—and scanned the main hall, planning to use this opportunity to his advantage. A set of winding stairs led to the upper floors. There were two guards there. One just outside the front door, and further toward the back of the house, he spied two more. He casually wandered toward what he thought would be the kitchen, peeking into rooms as he passed. Three more guards.

How the hell was he getting Corkie out of here? He needed five minutes with a phone, and Captain Mans could have a team here in two hours. If they survived two hours.

In the kitchen, he startled two cooks, but he grinned innocently and asked where the bathroom was. One of the women pointed to a small hallway and a set of doors beyond. Alex thanked her. He passed by a counter, where one of the ladies left her purse, and sticking out of a side pocket was a cell phone. Perfect. Alex snatched it as he passed, and went into the bathroom.

He didn’t have time to secure the line. He dialed straight to the ranch, demanded to speak to his commander, using the code word for an emergency, and when the captain came on the line, he explained the situation as quickly as he could. As it turned out, Colonel Davenport already figured out where Corkie was, and an extraction team was being assembled at that very second. The call lasted two minutes. The rescue for himself and Corkie would arrive at 13:00 hours on the dot, and they had to be outside in the open, when that happened. Alex hoped they could manage that. Both their lives depended on it.

Alex hid the phone under the sink, behind rolls of toilet paper, and exited the bathroom, walking casually down the small hall and out of the kitchen. In the main hall, he came face to face with Pancho.

Buenos dias, fucker,” Pancho repeated his greeting from earlier, his grin wider and spiteful.

Pain exploded in the back of Alex’s head…and everything went black.

 

*****

 

“I don’t understand,” Corkie said, gulping and breathless. “That’s not Niro Sultanovich?”

Hibram Espinoza angled his head at her and smiled. “You are an intelligent woman, Miss Brooks. I am certain you can decipher your confusion, if you relax and think about it. Tell me…what do you know about the Sultanovich family?”

Well…everything. Niro hadn’t been married or sired any children, and he was supposed to be the only child of Anton Sultanovich. But then Niro died two years ago. There had been no twin.

Corkie glanced up at “Luka”. He picked his back teeth with his pinky finger as he stood there. He looked just like Niro…right down to the mole over his left eye. How was it the whole world did not know he existed? A second Sultanovich son would have been news. But Anton Sultanovich had four ex-wives. The first was Niro’s mother, estranged and bitter. Just the type of woman to keep a grudge…in the form of a hidden son.

Frowning to herself, Corkie allowed those thoughts to gain strength. Did Anton know about Luka? She recalled parts of that family history and vaguely remembered Anton being absent during the birth. If Luka existed, then Anton must not have known about it. Anton valued his son, Niro, over all his children. It had been the wedge that drove Niro’s mother out of the picture.

A secret child…a second son to inherit all of the Sultanovich fortune when Anton eventually died. And an ex-wife to have her revenge.

A derisive snort erupted from Corkie. It all had the ring of a soap opera. “Okay, fine…Niro has a brother,” she said. “What does he have to do with you and me?”

“Ah…as I am sure you know, I have not been allowed to leave Mexico in nearly ten years,” Espinoza said softly, dangerously.

“Yeah? So?”

“I wanted you, nińa, but I needed you to come to me. It was imperative that you made the sacrifice. Luka, here, was the bait…and you took the bite, just like I knew you would.” He crossed an ankle over his knee, looking smug and immoral. “Oh, the schemes I planned, but they were never enough, never interesting enough or as much as an appeal as Niro Sultanovich himself. I did my best to entice Sultanovich to my country. For you. And for years, he scorned me. Then he died…and my link to you died with him. You were slipping through my fingers, nińa. My anger and disappointment was great; I assure you.”

“Are you always this long-winded?” she asked. “Just get to the point.”

“You are as impetuous as rumored,” Espinoza said. Then, in that ridiculous story-telling voice, he continued, “Shortly after Niro died, I met his lovely mother…and Luka. They came to me. They heard about my discussions with Niro, and they needed my help to dispose of Anton Sultanovich. We made a deal. Luka helps me get you, and his father meets with an untimely death. We shall hear of his demise, I am sure, by the evening news. Luka has been impatient, you understand. His father should have perished a year ago, but you, my dear, managed to get captured by those bothersome Syrians and could not be lured out of your home for several months. And of course, my schedule being what it has been since then… We cannot express how pleased we are to finally meet you.”

Corkie stared at both men hatefully. "You went through a lot of trouble just to have me over for drinks. What did I ever do to deserve such admiration?”

Luka perched on the edge of a desk, bored with the conversation, but openly admiring her, his eyes trailing slowly up and down her body. Corkie shuddered with revulsion. Espinoza turned smoothly in his chair to reach a framed photo from a nearby table. “My own son, Mario,” he announced, handing her the picture. Corkie didn’t want to take it from him, but the look in his eyes said that she must. Licking her lips, she brought the frame into her lap.

She studying the photo and realized she’d been the photographer who took it…several years ago during an after-party for the Miss Universe Pageant, an event Corkie photographed annually as a favor to her mother who adored and sponsored beauty pageants. But this photo hadn’t originally focused on Espinoza’s son. If she remembered correctly, it had been a photo of Miss Brazil and her evening gown designer, with a crowd of people in the background. Now it was cropped to only show Mario Espinoza, who killed himself…seven years ago? Or has it only been six?

“Six years ago,” Corkie whispered to herself.

“Correct,” Espinoza said in response to her whispered musing. “Mario died six years ago. And do you remember why?”

She blinked up at the man. “He killed himself. Everyone knows that.”

For the first time that morning, Espinoza’s face changed, dramatically and physically enough to truly scare her. “No, Miss Brooks,” he replied softly. “He was murdered…by you.”

“Hey now,” she said loudly. “If I killed anyone, I’m sure I’d remember that. I’ve never even met your son.”

“That may be true,” he said, still in that deadly soft voice, “but you are responsible for his death.”

Now, she just got angry. Corkie really hated it when people accused her of doing things she never did. I do enough stupid things on my own, she groused. I don’t need to be blamed for other people’s crap, too.

“How the hell am I responsible?” she inquired archly, tossing the vile picture frame across the room to him.

“This is not the only photo you took of him that night,” Espinoza answered, placing the frame on the table with his cigar box. “Recall one particular photo that caused a scandal? A scandal that, fortunately, never made it to the front pages of the newspapers. But one that ruined my son’s life.”

She knitted her brows together. A lot of her photos caused scandals that never made news, mostly because the papers were bought off before they could be printed. It happened too often for Corkie. Many of the world’s juiciest stories were buried in drawers, waiting a good twenty years before seeing the light of day again. That night, when she got bored with the after-party, she followed some people to a dance club and continued to take photos. It had been a wild night. There had been a lot of drinking and drug use, some public nudity, and a tangle of about six bodies in a back booth at one point. But really, nothing highly outrageous. No one had been arrested, raped, assaulted, or wound up dead…of which she knew, anyway.

“You’ll have to refresh my memory,” she said spitefully, and glanced behind her. Alex had been gone a long time. Even “Mikey Holmes” wouldn’t have stayed away this long. "What photograph did I take?"

“Mario was in love…with a charming senorita,” Espinoza described, rather than answering her question. “Her father was a minister of the Supreme Court—”

“Yeah, I see where this is going,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Another one of your diplomatic connections? What happened? Mario got caught screwing someone else that night, the girlfriend dumped him, you got furious because now you don’t have a federal judge in your pocket, and then he drank himself numb and drove off a cliff?”

The man regarded her carefully and ominously. “He overdosed on cocaine, Miss Brooks.”

“But I got the rest right? And you’re blaming me for this? If the guy couldn’t keep it in his pants, then he couldn’t keep it in his pants. It’s his own fault.” She tipped her head to the side, knowing she was just digging her grave, but she couldn’t help it. She hated people who pointed fingers in the wrong direction.

“Or maybe it was really your fault,” she added. “Bad parenting? Not enough proper discipline? Too much discipline, maybe? Did Mario find it difficult to earn your love and respect? Is that really why he killed himself? Because you didn’t love him.”

Espinoza rose to his feet so fast, his body was a blur. Corkie craned her neck and glared up at him.

“Miss Brooks,” he said calmly, though there was nothing calm about his eyes. “If you wish to discuss love…then I would like to show you something.”

“Aww, right now? And we were having such a lovely conversation.”

Now, Miss Brooks,” he commanded. “Normally, I would offer my guests dinner before business, but I find that I am an impatient man after all…and you don’t want to miss this. I promise.”

She rose to her feet and planted her fists on her hips. “What I want is to end this stupid game of yours. I don’t care what’s so important that it can’t wait. I’m done with this! Kill me or let me go.”

His eyes glittered. “All in due time. Now, come along, like a good little nińa, or I will have someone drag you along.”

“Just try it,” she threatened.

An elegant, ivory-handled six-shooter appeared in his hands, and he pointed straight at her head. “Do not test my patience again, Miss Brooks. I could kill you now, and only my housekeeper will grumble when she cleans up the mess.”

Corkie licked her lips. Despite her bold words, her brain was so stupefied that that man was Niro’s twin, and this one had held some malicious grudge for six years, and Alex was not here, and she needed him right now because all her bravado and good intentions had finally said goodbye.

Alex! With leaden knees, her bluff called, she walked out of the library and down the main hall toward the back of the house. Breathe, Corkie. Look around. What do you see?

Guards everywhere. With guns. A massive set of windows at the back, two doors leading out onto a patio, and an expanse of manicured lawn beyond. And more men, more guns, and dogs. The property spread out toward a cliff overlooking the sea. High, twelve-foot walls bordering the yard. Armed men on the walls.

Jesus…how many guards does he need? She looked back at her host and thought, A lot more than he has…this bastard is going down. Alex, I hope you have a plan!

Espinoza stopped just past the stairway and opened a hidden door that led down into a sublevel of the building, a set of dark stairs showing the way. “After you, my dear,” he said. Luka Sultanovich had disappeared. Too bad. She had a few choice words to share with him…if she ever got out of here.

“Where are you taking me?”

If I go down there, I won’t come back, she thought. Alex will never find me. And Daddy…what would he say? Poor Momma…she’ll be so worried about me…

Espinoza smiled evilly. “I want to show you something,” he repeated. “It won’t take long.”

“Do I have to?”

His returned look said enough. Yes, I have to.

She braced her hands on the brick wall as she descended into a large basement room. Light came from high, thin windows, too narrow to climb out of, and the expensive carpet on the bare brick floor eased her mind a little. Surely, he wouldn’t kill me on that rug…it must have cost a fortune. Off to her right was an opening that displayed the massive wine vault—Won’t kill me in there either—but to her left was a set of closed doors, steel-enforced with a large lock.

That’s where I die.

She heard grunts, shouts and moans of severe pain from behind that door, and suddenly, she knew why Alex had taken so long coming back to her. Wide-eyed and frozen with fear, she stopped at the bottom of the stairs.

He didn’t bring me down here to kill me…he wants me to watch Alex die…

“Do not be afraid, Miss Brooks,” Espinoza said behind her. “You will enjoy this.”

Oh, god…Alex!

 

*****

 

The sharp jab sent Alex’s head whirling backward. He jolted to awareness, instantly alert and combative. Pancho, his ugly face grinning, punched him in the ribs before Alex took a whole breath. Alex grunted and sagged from the rope around his wrists, holding him upright from a low ceiling beam. He flexed his hands, testing his bindings, and shook out the pain.

“What the fuck is this?” Alex growled.

Pancho, and his foul breath, got right up in Alex’s face. “Payback.”

For the next ten minutes, the blows rained across Alex’s chest, back and head. When Pancho grew tired, another man took a turn. Alex braced himself, but the hits came in fast and powerful. His right eyelid swelled close, he was sure at least two ribs were broken or badly bruised, and his nose and lips were bleeding furiously. But Alex refused to wave a white flag. He still had to get Corkie to safety.

Alex spit blood out on the stone floor, grinning at Pancho. “That all you got, dick-sucker?”

Pancho snarled and grabbed a thin strip of wood. He beat Alex along his sides, legs and arms. Alex clenched his jaw and tensed his body, but he refused to cry out. Instead, he surfaced himself away from the pain and took in his surroundings, mentally logging every speck of dust. Four walls, brick, thick, solid. No windows. One light. No switch. No exposed wires. One door. Metal, thick, solid, just like the walls. Bare floor. No watermarks or drainage holes. No plumbing. One chair. Wooden. One table. Also wooden. No weapons, except that stick, a coil of rope on the table and a small folding knife on Pancho’s belt.

No way out.

Alex knew they would kill him. He had embraced that fact as soon as Pancho woke him. Death was always a possibility when Alex worked undercover, but this time, he had Corkie to think about. He wouldn’t survive, but she still could. He only had to last and stay alive until Captain Mans descended on this house. But he didn’t know how much time had passed since he called.

The strip of wood pounding on his back broke, digging a splinter into his back, but Alex barely noticed. Tossing the stick aside, Pancho came around, rubbing his fists, his knuckles barked up and bleeding, and Alex squinted his good eye to see the man’s wrist watch. It had only been half an hour.

Shit.

Come on, Spears, he told himself. Ninety more minutes. You can do it. Focus on Corkie. Don’t die yet, because if you do, then so will she. That, Alex also knew as a certainty.

So far, no one had used his real name, so he was praying they didn’t know it. And if they had kept him alive this long, then it was for a reason. Corkie had to be that reason. They would use him to get to her. But if they still believed him to be Mikey Holmes, why was he still alive?

The big metal door creaked open…and there she was, prodded into the room by Espinoza. Her blue eyes sought him, scanned him, and welled with horror and grief. She gasped and covered her mouth with her hands.

Oh, nińa, he thought, I’m so sorry. She should not be here, not seeing this, not after her own experience with torture.

Then Pancho sneered at her and planted another fist in Alex’s face. Corkie’s tears spilled over as she winced, and Alex was sure her knees would buckle at any moment. He had to make her fight…just a little. Get her back to the Corkie with fire in her blue eyes. Make her not give up, because he hadn’t yet. He was still fighting, and she should, too. She had to survive. She had to live. That was all that mattered right now. Corkie living.

Alex grinned crookedly at her. “Hey babe,” he cooed, like Mikey would have, swaying from his rope. “You come to take a swing at old Mikey, too?”

He watched her carefully. Don’t give up on me, nińa. It might be the only thing that saves you.

Espinoza moved to the center of the room. “Lieutenant Spears, I am sure we can stop pretending now.”

Alex shifted his gaze to the older man and grinned wider, not letting his worst fear show. “I like pretending. Holmes is a lot of fun.”

Espinoza sighed. ‘I am sure he is, but you would not be alive if you were Mike Holmes.”

Alex spit out more blood, sending it as close to Espinoza’s pristine shoes as he could, showing Corkie that he wasn’t backing down yet, and neither should she. “Then what are you waiting for?”

The chair was brought to the middle of the room, facing Alex, and Espinoza settled into it. Pancho’s compadre pushed Corkie forward to stand right next to the senor.

“Before I allow you to die, Lieutenant Spears,” Espinoza said, “I think you should know your role in all this. Our little nińa has only heard part of the story.”

“Stop calling her that, you psychotic asshole,” Alex growled.

Espinoza smiled. “I believe that Senor Holmes has rubbed off on you, Lieutenant Spears. Please refrain from further profanities in the presence of a lady.”

Corkie found her voice. “But you are a psychotic asshole,” she whispered. "And I’m rarely a lady."

Alex chuckled painfully.

“So, I am beginning to understand,” Espinoza declared. He made himself comfortable in the chair and snapped his fingers. “Diago, bring my guests some wine.”

The other man left and came back with a bottle and a handful of glasses. He set them down on the scarred table in the back of this torture chamber and poured three glasses. The first was handed to Espinoza, the second to Corkie, and the third was set at Alex’s feet.

“Got a straw?” Alex asked. Corkie held her glass with shaking fingers, but a small smile appeared on her lips.

That’s good, Corkie, he thought. Straighten your backbone, sweetheart. Survive this and I’ll love you forever.

Love?

Alex gazed longingly at her. Yes…he loved her. She was everything he’d ever want in a woman, craziness and all, and he could live the rest of his life, chasing after her, getting tied up and running from vile murderers, because living without her would be the worst kind of death. Yet for her, he would die gracefully, gladly leaving this world, if he knew for certain that she would still be here.

She met his gaze, and he saw the same loving emotion in them. Ah, hell. No, don’t love me, nińa. Don’t make my sacrifice worse.

Espinoza sipped his drink and sighed heavenly. “A good choice, Diago. A stout red, a compliment to Lieutenant Spear’s life blood.” He turned to Corkie. “Miss Brooks? Is the wine not to your liking?”

She paled and trembled as she stared back at him, and then she poured the wine out onto the floor, saying, “I don’t drink wine anymore.”

Alex smiled at her. That’s my girl.

Espinoza’s control slipped as the last drop splattered by her foot. If it had been anyone but Hibram Espinoza, Alex might have empathized with him. Corkie had a way of crawling under a man’s skin and slicing holes in his armor. She’d been doing just that to him for over a week. Corkie, on her sweetest days, could cripple a man’s patience and serenity with a smile and a child’s cuss word. But Corkie, on her jacked-up soap box and pissed-off rainbows, could destroy that patience and restraint with barely more than a twitch of her pinky finger.

It was mesmerizing and comforting to see it from the peanut section. Alex felt like laughing, but that was too excruciating right now, so he settled for a wan smile and standing up straight. She looked back at him and returned that smile, her shoulders falling back as she drew from his strength.

Alex winked at her. I love you, you crazy woman.

I love you, you stupid jerk, her eyes said back to him, and he had to shake his head at her when she almost took a step toward him.

“Tell me something, Miss Brooks," Espinoza said, his voice growing more and more incensed. "Did you go willingly to Lieutenant Spear’s bed, or did he, in fact, rape you?”

She stiffened, her lips thinning to a dangerous line, and she tossed her goblet over her shoulder, shattering it against the wall, as she pivoted to glare down at him. Ah hell, Alex mused, here she goes. Hopping up there on her rainbows.

“Tell me something, Senor Espinoza…did your son go willingly into his grave, or did you, in fact, push him?”

Alex frowned. Son? What’s this about his son?

Corkie and Espinoza stared at each other through angry eyes for a full minute. The room got very quiet, and Alex thought, She’s crazy; I’m stupid; he’s a psychopath; and we’re all going to die.

“Ahem,” Alex said loudly, drawing all attention to him and away from Corkie before she started choking Espinoza right then and there. “Can we get on with this? I have a date later. You like pancakes, right, Corkie? I know this great place on 10th street in D.C. Blueberry pancakes to die for.”

Corkie continued to seethe, backing away from Espinoza, moving closer to Alex, and she said, “You promised dinner first, Alex, not breakfast.”

“Oh, right,” Alex replied. “Hey, Senor! Hurry up and tell us the rest of his epic story of yours. How about steak, nińa? I know an awesome hibachi grill in Silver Spring.”

She turned to him. “Masa’s?”

“Yeah,” Alex said casually. “Been there?”

“All the time—”

“She murdered my son, Lieutenant Spears. Is that fast enough for you?” Espinoza interrupted.

Corkie sighed woefully, saying, “I did not,” and Alex grinned at her and said, “You did? Way to go, sweetheart! I knew you had just a little bit of evil in you.”

And Corkie gave him a lovingly, sarcastic glare, replying, “I did not kill anyone.”

“Nah,” he agreed, winking at her. “You wouldn’t, would you? You probably drove the man so crazy that he killed himself.”

Espinoza looked about ready to shoot both of them and get back to his scotch. “Miss Brooks,” Espinoza replied softly, deadly. “Since you and Lieutenant Spears fail to understand the severity of your situations, maybe it is time you understand what it means to watch a loved one die. Pancho? If you please…”

Pancho slithered evilly toward Alex, a sharp, gleaming knife in his hand, smaller than the width of his palm, but deadly nonetheless. Alex prepared himself. He gritted his teeth, but Corkie yelled, “No!” as the blade sunk cleanly into Alex’s side, right between his lower ribs, and he only had half a second to commit her beautiful face to memory before the agony claimed him…and the hand of Death approached.


Chapter 17

“Alex! Alex, no! Stay with me!” Corkie knelt down in front of him, mindless to everything and everybody else in the room. He hung limply from his bindings, his knees dragging the floor as he head sagged between his up-stretched arms. Blood flowed from the wound, soaking his skin and dripping onto the floor. It was a small stab into his flesh, but with his other injuries, it was just enough to cause unconsciousness. If left unattended, he would eventually bleed to death.

Corkie was too shocked, too scared, too numb to cry. But the tears rolled down her cheeks anyway. “Alex…come on, baby…don’t die…please don’t die.” She touched a finger to his pulse. It still beat, faint, but it was there. She opened his eyelids, checking his pupils. They dilated. That was good.

Then he groaned. “Corkie…”

“Oh, Alex,” she cried out. “Don’t you dare die on me, do you hear me?”

The bleeding had to stop…she had to do something. But there was nothing to staunch the flow, and the men in the room watched her with amusement.

“Okay…okay…I’ve got this,” she said to herself, and pressed her fingers to the cut. Her knowledge of first aid came from survival training. She wasn’t a doctor, but she knew how to treat a stab wound. That asswipe Pancho only sliced through Alex’s muscle layer, but he was bleeding steadily. Add the beating he already suffered and he wouldn’t last long. She whipped off her shirt, not caring that she knelt there in only her bra. She tore it into as many strips as she could and started winding and tying them around his torso. She wadded up the last piece and stuffed it under the makeshift bandage, right against the hole in his side, and Alex groaned again.

“I know, baby,” she whispered. “It hurts; I know. But you will not die on me. I won’t allow it.”

“Corkie,” he moaned, “live…you have to live…”

“I will, and so will you,” she said, her throat closing up.

“Miss Brooks,” Espinoza said behind her, and she turned her head, sending him a glare that should have fried him in that chair.

What?

He stood up and adjusted his tie and cuffs. “Please…have a seat.”

“Go to hell,” she hissed and turned back to Alex. She cupped his cheeks, feeling the slick of sweat coating his skin. He felt cool…too cool, and that couldn’t be good. His complexion paled under his tan, and—

Rough hands grabbed her arms, jerking her to her feet.

“Get off me!” she screamed and kicked out. “Let me go!”

Another set of hands wrapped around her legs, and two men carried her, twisting, biting and screaming over to the chair. She fought with every ounce of muscle and leverage she could gain, but in the end, her hands were tied behind her back to that chair, and her ankles together. Violent curses—real curses—spewed from her lips until Pancho stuffed a dirty wad of fabric into her mouth. And still she screamed around her gag.

“Now, Miss Brooks,” Espinoza said. “If you will be silent for a moment…”

Alex moved. Only she could see him. All the others looked at her, and she stopped struggling to focus on Alex. He lifted his head…dropped it…tried to stand…fell back…and flexed his fingers above his bonds. Alex…please, don’t move. They’ll kill you!

He seemed to hear her silent plea. His head lifted just enough to see her through swollen eyes, and he nodded once, before slumping down again. Corkie saw only him. She listened to only him, even as Hibram Espinoza continued the tale of his son dying because Mario could not live without his Daniela, and him—Espinoza—feeling nothing but cold inside, wanting only one person to answer for Mario’s death, her, and finding her, learning and following her activity for years, scheming his revenge, planning and replanning for just this moment. Knowing, because of who her father was, he could not capture her himself.

“I arranged the meeting at that abandoned airport just for you. There was no international espionage planned. I sent out Niro’s name, knowing it would find you, but others assumed I set up a business deal for secrets against the Serbians, and they were not happy to discover differently. What you saw, my dear nińa, down in that valley, was a lot of very upset buyers. It is a shame that so many had to die. I considered many of them friends…as close as friendship becomes when dealing with foreign terrorists.”

Alex’s head twisted slightly to the left, as if listening, and Corkie figured she might want to pay attention, too. If they got out of here, Alex will need as much information as possible. So, she turned her gaze up to Espinoza.

Espinoza went on. “I have been aware of Lieutenant Spears and his mission for a long time, but I did not know his face. That, I learned only yesterday, thanks to the man I placed on his base. I had his father killed, did you know that, Miss Brooks? Ironic, it is, that the lieutenant was the person to find you before myself. I had you in my grasp, and yet you continued to elude me. I could not figure out why.”

He walked over to Alex, circled him, keeping a wide berth from the splatter of blood on the floor. He came back to the center of the room and frowned at both her and Alex.

“You have a lot of friends in Mexico, nińa. Juan, Ivan, Senora Marta…and now the lieutenant. You should know the pain of watching someone you love die right before your eyes…before I kill you myself. It is only fair, do you not agree?”

Corkie looked away when Espinoza studied her as if she was an insect under a microscope. He sighed and shook his head, as if scolding a bad child.

“The lieutenant played me for a fool at Senora Marta’s establishment,” Espinoza said harshly. Pancho growled, and Corkie glanced at him. He eyed Alex with bitter disdain, and sensing her watching him, he brought his knife up to his mouth, still coated in Alex’s blood, and licked it.

Corkie grimaced with disgust and turned her head.

Espinoza sighed. “Pancho, mind your manners. Miss Brooks, I apologize. Pancho has always been very skilled with his blades, but sometimes I think he is more animal than human.”

Espinoza clasped his hands in front of him, smiled at her, and added, “Therefore, because Lieutenant Spears protected you, and because he insulted me, I decided to—how do you say it in your country?—kill two birds with one rock.”

Stone, you idiot, Corkie thought, rolling her eyes. It’s “Kill two birds with one stone.” Rock just sounds stupid.

“My original plan was to hold you until your father or a brother came for you, and have you watch one of them die, but I think the lieutenant will do nicely. You do love him, yes?”

Corkie glared at him. That is none of your business.

Espinoza smiled evilly. “You do. I believe you would not trust him so much if you did not love him, and you are both here, finally, despite the problems that have risen this past week. I could not be more happy. So, Miss Brooks…what shall I do to him?”

“You could let him go,” she mumbled around her gag.

Espinoza’s brows knitted together. “Pancho, let her speak. I believe she will cooperate now.”

Pancho yanked the dirty rag from her mouth, and she spit out the taste of it.

“You were saying?”

“Let him go,” she said hatefully. “Keep me, but let him go.”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid that is not an option.”

“Then what are my options?”

“Well…I want both of you to suffer, so I believe that I will give you three choices,” he replied importantly, benevolently. “One, you may watch the blood of Lieutenant Spears slowly drain from his body before I allow you to die in the same manner—”

Corkie stiffened.

Espinoza smiled again. “Two…I shall give you over to Pancho and Diago—”

She whipped her head to the two men with horror, who both grinned viciously at her.

“—while Lieutenant Spears watches, of course,” Espinoza added. “And then you may welcome a quick death, and if he survives the night, I’ll let him go.”

Corkie swallowed the bile rising up from her stomach. “Or?”

“Or three…I will allow you to pull the trigger on Lieutenant Spears now—”

Oh, god…no, no, no… She shook her head violently.

“— and I give you my word that you will leave here unharmed and into the arms of your father,” Espinoza finished smugly. “Personally, I do think you would murder the man you love.”

Alex lifted his head, croaking out, “Three. Kill me, Corkie. Save yourself.”

Espinoza turned to Alex. “Lieutenant, you have risen from the dead. You would sacrifice yourself for this woman?”

“Yes,” he answered in a hoarse voice, lifting his feet to stand up, then he fell back down, losing what little strength he had left. The impromptu bandage around his waist was soaked through with blood, and more left a trail down his side. By her estimation, he didn’t have much time left. He had already lost too much blood. She had to get him out of here.

“You see, Miss Brooks?” Espinoza said. “He gives you permission. I will have to hold the gun for you, of course.” He offered his ivory-handled revolver to her, but she shook her head.

“No,” Corkie argued. “I won’t do it. I want another choice. I’ll do anything to save him.”

“There are no other choices, nińa,” Espinoza said, and Alex said, " Don’t save me…save yourself."

She ignored Alex. She absolutely refused to let him die. “And there is no evidence that you will keep your word on letting me go,” she said to Espinoza.

Mockingly hurt, Espinoza said, “Miss Brooks, my dear, I am offended. Have I treated you poorly?”

She flexed her arms and legs, tied to that chair, as she glared at him. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. What the hell do you call this?”

“Bondage,” he answered. “And from what I understand, it is a favorite activity of yours.”

“Fuck you,” she snarled, and Espinoza laughed.

“Be careful what you wish for, nińa,” he crooned heinously as he replaced his gun in his holster. “That is an alternative I am still tempted to explore. You would find my bedchamber impressive. I believe that your capricious personality will welcome what I can accomplish with you. “

“You get me in a room alone, and you’ll find out just how capricious I can be,” she spit, and then had a few more choice phrases for him, but they were interrupted by the appearance of another man, a man who looked more like a secretary than a guard, though he wore a holster on his hip, too. The man motioned to Espinoza, who said, “Excuse me for a moment,” and conversed quietly at the door with the new arrival.

Then the secretary left, and Espinoza pursed his lips together, not pleased with what he had been told. “Miss Brooks, Lieutenant Spears, I apologize, but I am needed upstairs. Therefore, I must make the choice for you. Since I do not know how long I will be delayed, and I would like to continue this conversation later, I have decided to let you live for now. Nińa, you may watch the lieutenant slowly succumb to his death. If he still lives when I return, then…then we can review our options again.”

Espinoza approached Corkie from behind, and she shivered as he moved her hair over one shoulder. Then a finger touched the tops of her scar, and she thought she was going to be sick.

“Get your fucking hands off her,” Alex growled suddenly, trying to stand up again. His body trembled, and he swayed from his rope.

“Life is full of sweet irony,” Espinoza said to the top of Corkie’s head. “You, a mere woman, survived torture by the evilest of men, and yet Lieutenant Spears, a seasoned soldier, shall not. He has been a nuisance for too long. But it will give me great pleasure knowing you cannot do anything to help him."

Corkie’s head snapped back as Espinoza yanked painfully on her hair. "His blood will pay only a portion of the debt you owe me for killing my son," he continued, staring severely down into her upturned face. "Pancho, I want him to bleed…very slowly.”

Corkie began screaming, “No, no, please! Two! I’ll take the second choice, just don’t kill him!” as everyone ignored her and Pancho’s knife sliced into Alex…a dozen cuts, no deeper than the sharpened edge of the blade, but strategically arranged to prolong a definitive death. The gag was haphazardly stuffed into her mouth again, as she watched Alex’s face harden against the pain, his eyes locked to hers.

You should have killed me, he seemed to be telling her. You should have taken the deal.

I’m sorry, she silently pleaded with him. I couldn’t!

His gray eyes softened. I know, nińa…I know you couldn’t, and I’m sorry, too…I should have saved you…

I love you, Alex.

His lips curved up in a small smile. I know…

Pancho finished with a malicious punch to Alex’s nose, breaking bone. Alex fell, hanging unconscious, and Corkie closed her eyes, crying a torrential flood of heartache.

“Now, now, my dear,” Espinoza said. “Don’t close your eyes. This won’t take as long as you think. Spend your last moments together in torment, by lifting your lovely blue eyes to him and watching him die, knowing that when this is over…you will welcome death with open arms.”

He walked out of the room, calling, “Pancho, I’ll need you. Diago, lock the door. No one goes inside,” and Corkie was alone with Alex, who was surely dying before her eyes.

She squeezed her eyes tight, fighting against the burn in her heart. She should have told him last night how she felt, that she loved him. Maybe he would have delayed or canceled this mission…

No. If Corkie knew anything about Alex, it was that his job would always come first. If he felt any semblance of love for her, it would never be enough to counter his sense of duty for his country. And that was a big reason for why she loved him so much…because he had no one to care for him, not in a very long time, and he had turned that need for love into a responsibility toward his work and his moral fiber. She loved him because he needed her to love him…he would never admit it.

If only I could touch you one last time… Her hand twisted in response to her yearning, and her thumb grazed a loop in the knot that tied her hands to the chair.

Wait a minute…

She blinked and twisted her hand again, stretching her fingers to feel the rope, and…

I know this knot…I know how to get out…

But there was only one way…

I’m coming, my love… I’ll get us out of here…

She clenched her teeth, inhaled a deep breath, shut her eyes tightly again, using the chair back for leverage, tensing every muscle in her body for that little extra spurt of strength, and…

POP!

Sonofa…Beach blanket!” she yelled through her gag stuffing, with enough force to actually blow it out of her mouth. “Ow!!

Agonizing pain, on top of agonizing pain, shot up her arm, through her chest, and spread out from there. Dislocating a thumb was not something to…well, thumb your nose at. It hurt. It hurt so bad, her heart skipped through three beats to pool up enough adrenaline into her system for the after-effects, so that when her pulse started up again, she could barely feel the pain any more. Corkie had dislocated her thumb a few years ago, and now she could do it on a whim. It still didn’t feel good…not even close. But now, with her thumb joint pressed against her palm, her hand slithered through the coil of knotted rope and slipped free.

And still she groaned and sucked in full lungs of air, moving past the remaining pain. She glanced at Alex. He had not made a sound or a movement since Pancho hit him that last time. That couldn’t be good. He was dying, and unless she got them both free, there was nothing she could do to stop that.

Bringing her freed hand up to her mouth, she closed her eyes, placed the damaged joint between her teeth and gently shoved it back into place.

“Oh…god…” she moaned and let her hand fall to her lap, breathing through a new set of shooting spasms. But she didn’t have time to comfort herself. Quickly, biting her lip through the ache, she used that hand to untie the knot behind her. Then she went to work on her feet. Finally able to get out of that chair, she was across the room, kneeling down before Alex and checking his vitals. Heartbeat and breathing. Still alive.

“Don’t leave me yet,” she whispered to him as she stood and tackled the rope around his wrists. “We’re getting out of here…don’t ask me how. I still haven’t figured that out yet.”

The knot loosened, and the dead weight of his body pulled him free. He fell forward, right into her, knocking her to the ground and pinning her there. He was heavier than she remembered. “Alex…wake up. Come on, get up.”

He didn’t respond.

She pushed and pushed, and finally she got him rolled over to his back. The bleeding slowed, but she couldn’t leave him here. He had to get up. There was no way she could carry him. “Alex,” she said in his ear. “Get up, please."

She patted his cheeks. Nothing. She slapped him. "Dang it, Alex! You have to save me, remember? I need you to get up. Please, Alex!”

His head moved and a soft groan came out of his throat.

“That’s it,” she encouraged. “Come back to me—”

His head rolled to the other side and he faded from her again.

“Oh no, you don’t,” she said in a slightly louder voice, but afraid that Diago outside the room will hear her. “Don’t you leave me again. Fight it, Alex! Fight, goddammit!”

She saw his eyelid twitch, and she shook his shoulders. “Alexander Spears! You get your lazy ass off this floor, do you hear me, soldier! This ain’t no four-star resort, and I ain’t your fucking mother! You get up off this goddamn floor before a rat walks by and thinks you’re the dessert course!”

Oh, god, I’ve turned into my father! But it worked. Alex moaned again and flattened his palms to the floor, pushing himself upward, the muscles in his neck flexing as he struggled back to full cognizance.

“Is that the best you’ve got?” she scorned, though her heart was leaping with joy. “Did I give you permission to stop? This ain’t naptime at Baby Boo-Hoo Academy, so don’t think you can lay there and suck from your milk bottle. Unless your balls are the size of peanut shells, you stand up like a man, lieutenant!”

Something dangerous growled from his throat that time, and his head came off the ground. Corkie crawled around and lifted his shoulders, straining to get him into a seated position.

He sat there for a moment, then shook his head out and staggered to his feet. Corkie launched herself up and threw her arms around him with such happiness, she forgot how hurt he was. They nearly toppled over again. Alex hissed into her neck, but his arms wrapped around her waist.

“You’d make a hell of a drill sergeant,” he muttered.

“Oh, Alex! I thought you were going to die!” she sobbed, loving him so much because he was still alive, and he was still him, and he got off the floor.

"Not yet, sweetheart," he said hoarsely. "I have to save you first."

Corkie cried outright. He was going to be okay after all. “I’m so sorry! I screwed everything up, and I kicked you and slapped you when you were being Mikey, and I’m so, so, so sorry!”

“It’s alright,” he said squeezing her tightly. “From what I heard, we would have both ended up here anyway. At least now, we’re together and we’re alive. And I’m sorry I slapped you back. That wasn’t really me, I hope you know. It just about killed me to do that.”

"I know…that was Mikey," she replied. "You only did it to keep me safe." She swallowed thickly and trembled with fear and relief and all kinds of emotions she didn’t have the energy to describe. “Are you okay? Can you walk?”

“Sweetheart,” he said softly, “to get you out of here, I will fly.”

“Yeah, well,” she replied, leaning back a little, but not too much, in case he wasn’t fully balanced yet. “That might be a problem. The door is locked, and we’re going to need a miracle to get more than five feet out of this basement without getting shot.”

“The miracle is coming,” he said, standing on his own now. “We just have to wait for it.”

Corkie frowned. “What do you mean—”

A thunderous boom shook the whole building, sending dust raining down on them from the ceiling.

“What was that?” she asked, clutching Alex’s arm and looking up.

“That’s the miracle,” he said, smiling, though with his swollen face, it looked more like a grimace. Corkie still thought he was handsome. “I was able to contact my commander before I was captured. They’re early.”

“You called— Oh, no…Daddy knows I’m here.”

“Which is probably why they’re early,” he mused wryly. “But they’re never going to find us down here. I need to get topside.”

“We have to get out of this room first—hey, wait a minute! You need to get topside?” she inquired, putting her hands on her hips. “What about me?”

“You’ll stay here,” he said, “I’ll come back for you when it’s safe—”

“Like hell I will! I’m coming with you!”

“Corkie, dammit, we’ve had this conversation before,” he groused weakly. “For once, do what I say!

She shook her head. “You’re not in any condition to—”

A barrage of muted shouts came from outside the locked door, but one thing was clear—“Matarlos!

Kill them.

Corkie stared at the door. There was nowhere to go, no way to defend themselves…it would be like shooting rats in a cage…

Dang it, she thought, perturbed. Just when I get Alex back to the land of the living…this happens! But that’s the problem with terrorists and bad guys…they got in the way when trying to escape them…quite rude of them, actually.

“Um…Alex?” Corkie whispered, hoping he had a plan.

Alex stared darkly at the metal door. “I’ve got this,” he said in a tone of voice that was just as dark and deadly. He staggered over, clutching his bandaged side, to where she threw her wine goblet, picking up the stem, and flattened himself next to the door. “Go over there,” he told her, pointing to a corner on the other side of the same wall.

The lock turned, the door creaked, and when it opened, Corkie could no longer see Alex or what happened, but a gurgle sound followed, and a body dropped to the floor, the glass stem sticking out of Diago’s throat.

Corkie blinked at Diago’s dead body, amazed. Alex wavered for a moment, but he bent down to get Diago’s gun from the dead man’s grasp. Corkie rushed over, afraid that he would to fall again. He looked so pale, and his wounds had started to bleed again. A bullet whizzed by Alex’s head, and she saw another one of Espinoza’s men outside the door. Alex did not have Diago’s pistol free yet, so she did the only thing she could think of.

She bared her breasts from her bra, yelling, “Hey! Take a look at these!” The man hesitated just long enough, and she kicked him right in his sweet spot, using the toe of her boot to shove his little guys straight up into his spine. He fell to his knees, his rifle dropping to the floor, his hand cupping his groin, and she pivoted smoothly, planting another kick upside his head, rendering him unconscious. He dropped like a rock.

“Holy hell,” Alex said from behind her. “Where do you learn this stuff?”

She grinned. “Momma.”

"Your…mother?"

"Yeah," she drew out. "Having five boys was very stressful…she took up kickboxing after Doug was born."

Alex stared at her. “I’ve gotta meet this woman,” he muttered and handed her Diago’s gun. He took the rifle and the man’s shirt, tossing it to her. “Put this on…can’t have you walking around half naked.”

She quickly put the shirt on, hating the way it smelled, and hissed when her sore thumb got caught in the sleeve. Alex was right there, taking her palm gently between his fingers. Her whole thumb had swollen and was turning an awful shade of purple.

“What happened? Did they hurt you?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “I had to dislocate my thumb to get out of my bindings.”

“You did that?” he asked, his finger gently brushing the sensitive skin of her wrist.

“Yes. It’s no big deal.”

“It looks like you broke it.”

“I’m fine, really.”

He bent over and kissed her palm, saying, “You are some kind of woman, Corkie, you know that? To do this for me…for us. It must hurt like hell.” He stood up straight, winced and pressed a hand to his side.

“You’re bleeding again,” she said. “Maybe there’s a first aid kit somewhere…”

“We don’t have time—” He cut off when she turned to him and silently dared him to stop her from helping him. “Never mind,” he said, grinning sheepishly.

She turned and started opening the other doors in the basement. One led to a supply closet with a rusted sink that worked. The other door opened up to a tunnel that looked suspiciously like an escape route.

“Let’s see where this goes,” Alex said, peering into the dark tunnel, and she snorted because he just couldn’t push the pause button on his mission for two freaking minutes!

After we do something about your bleeding,” she said and went into the wine vault. There in a cabinet, she found some folded linens and a couple bottles of whiskey. She gathered up what she could, went back to the supply closet, ripped the linens into strips and wet them in the sink. Alex sighed, but he allowed her to treat his wounds to the best of their findings, dousing the cuts with whiskey, wrapped him in cloth strips and some duct tape she found on a shelf. In the end, he looked like a mummified zombie, and she had to giggle at the sight.

“Daddy would say that’s ‘Redneck field dressings’,” she said, pleased with her work. He was able to stand up straighter, and move a little more efficiently without wincing or groaning from every step.

“I feel better already,” Alex said, smiling softly at her. “Now…let’s get out of here.”

Halfway down the dark tunnel—and it was blacker than a no-moon kind of night—he faltered and had to stop to shake off the weakness, despite his assurances that he was okay. In the quiet of the darkness, Corkie heard footsteps following them.

“Alex,” she whispered. “Someone is behind us.”

“Shh,” he said, and pushed her body behind his, which perturbed her. He’d done enough already. He would never survive more bloodshed, not in his state. Corkie tried to get in front of him, wanting to shield him.

“Stop it,” he hissed as they scrambled with each other in the blackness. Then a beam of light came around a corner behind them, and they both froze. Alex aimed his gun.

“No,” she said in his ear. “It might be Daddy.”

A gruff Spanish voice—accompanied by Luca’s distinctly Slavic accent—echoed through the small shaft. “That’s not your father,” Alex said, and he pushed Corkie to the floor. He crouched over her, one hand holding his rifle, and the other cupped around her neck, keeping her down. Firing off a couple of rounds toward the men holding the flashlight, his body jerked with the recoil and slid along the wall to land on his butt next to her. The light clattered to the ground, but Corkie was free from Alex’s hold and she didn’t think for a second that the men were dead.

She got to her feet and pulled Alex up with her. “Come on…let’s go before they see us.”

The beam of light moved again…rose higher and flicked toward them. Alex shoved Corkie down the tunnel, getting up quickly and shooting again. Return fire plunked into the brick walls around them. “Run, Corkie!” Alex yelled, but she wasn’t going anywhere without him. She grabbed his arm and pulled him with her. He couldn’t move as fast as her. Not hurt like he was, and not while he shot at the persons behind them.

A little further, she tripped in the dark. Bricks crumbled around her feet, and when she felt around, she discovered that this part of the tunnel had collapsed, probably when her father descended on the mansion and the explosions started. Just past that, the tunnel split like a T. The right side had collapsed completely, leaving them only one way to go, but if that way was closed off, too, there would be no escape for them.

Corkie stopped to catch her breath. Alex wheezed beside her, determination rolling off him like a heatwave of energy and courage. She had to do something before he collapsed like that tunnel.

“Over here,” she said, dragging him into the section that dead-ended. She pushed a hand on his chest and told him to stay still.

“Corkie,” he moaned, his body shaking under her hand. “We have to keep going.”

She flashed him a smile in the darkness. “I’ve got this one. Now hush.”

Corkie crept over to the corner and peeked an eye around, listening. The light was gone now, but she could still hear him, or them. A second later, she felt Alex at her back, whispering, “Move over.”

“No,” she said back, barely above mute level.

His lips tickled her ear as he quietly cursed, “Dammit, nińa—”

“Shh…they’re getting closer.”

“You’ve never killed anyone before,” he argued insistently into her ear. “Let me—”

A man’s voice cursed in the darkness, and the skitter of rock across the floor told Corkie that their follower had tripped over the loose brick…about ten feet away. No other voice accompanied that one. The man was alone. Good.

She bent down and picked up a brick. It was heavy in her hand, and Alex’s weight pressed into her back. He breathed on her neck, and his panting was uneven and hot, telling her that he was tiring out too fast. Corkie reached back and carefully tipped him against the wall. The fact that he didn’t protest or fight her again told her so much. They really needed to get out of here. Alex needed a doctor, and he needed one quick.

Holding her own breath, Corkie perked her ears and strained for that tiny boot step, that slight shuffle, that buzz to her system which told her how close the man was to them. One hesitant step…two…nothing…

She smelled scotch. Luca.

Then the flashlight blared into her eyes, she closed them to the pain of sudden light, swinging her brick at the same time, and smashed it into Luca’s nose—the flashlight clattered to the ground as he roared out with pain. A firecracker of pops and flashes burst into the tunnel. A bullet grazed her arm…and Alex grabbed a handful of her shirt, jerking her out of the way back around the corner.

Quicker than she could right herself, Alex leapt over her, grabbed the man’s throat with one hand, batted his weapon aside with the other, and proceeded to knock him out by bashing skull to brick wall. Sultanovich sagged and fell.

Corkie picked up the flashlight and smiled. “Now, aren’t you glad I’m with you?” she asked sweetly as Alex’s surge of energy left him and he clung to the wall for support.

“If we live through this,” he answered roughly, “then I’ll be glad. Jesus, Corkie! He could have killed you.”

She shifted just enough to get her shot arm out of the light, not wanting him to see it. But he noticed the spreading of blood against her sleeve. He muttered a curse and grabbed the flashlight from her, pointing it at her arm.

“I’m fine,” she said, seeing the dark shadows on his face. “It’s just a scratch.”

“A scratch, hell! He shot you!”

“I’m fine— Alex, no!”

He turned, picked up the Luca’s gun and pointed it right at the man’s head, and Corkie instantly swatted it from his hands. “You can’t kill him now!”

“He shot you!” Alex roared again.

“It’s murder,” she argued right back. “You’re not that kind of man.”

“When it comes to you getting shot, I am,” he replied darkly. Corkie sighed and cupped his face with her hands.

“Alex…” She didn’t know what else to say. The tension in his jaw softened as they stared at each other in the pitiful light. He bent his head down and touched his forehead to hers.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Please try not to get shot again. I can’t…”

“I know,” she said. “I couldn’t bear it if anything else happened to you either.”

His lips descended and he gently kissed her. Then he ripped the sleeve of her shirt, bound it around her bleeding arm and pressed a kiss to that. Gathering up all the weapons, he said not another word as he led her through the rest of the tunnel. Thankfully without any more problems. At the end, they found a set of stairs and followed them upward until a shaft of light came from under a door.

Alex cracked it open to see where they were. “Pool house,” he told her. “I think we’re clear.”

Random cracks of gunfire could be heard from the mansion, but the yard was empty. Spanish and English shouts mingled together in the distance, and another explosion rocked the house, spraying glass from the windows. Corkie gulped. She gripped her weapon in clammy fingers.

“Alex…,” she said again in a hoarse whisper, wanting so much to tell him that she loved him, but she wasn’t sure that he felt the same. Those silent signals they gave each other back in the torture chamber could have been just her imagination. But if she didn’t say it, and something happened to them between here and where they needed to go…

Alex had his ear cocked to the sounds outside. “Yes?”

“I…I…”

He turned to her as she hesitated, gazing down tenderly as uncertain tears pooled in her eyes. “What is it? Does your arm hurt?”

“No. It’s…I…”

“Corkie? What’s wrong?”

Corkie sighed. Stressful situations like this were the perfect and absolutely wrong time to tell him she loved him. “Nothing…let’s get out of here, okay?”

He stared for a moment more and gathered her closer to him. “Come here,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her softly once again. She refrained from putting too much pressure on his bruised lips, but he amplified the kiss beyond a simple touch, and she sank into him. He pulled away, kissed her forehead and said, “Stay behind me.”

He opened the door, scanned their surroundings quickly before pulling her out of the pool house. Corkie stuck to his back as he steered her toward the nearest gate, wishing she was strong enough to just say she loved him and let him decide the rest. But too many years of doing exactly the opposite had left a bitter hole in her heart. She would never be that brave. And in the end…she might lose him because of it.


Chapter 18

“Lieutenant Spears!”

Alex whipped around to see Captain Mans running toward them. “Thank god you’re alive!” the captain said. “This way!”

Alex could hear the beating blades of the evac chopper, and he picked up speed, wanting Corkie away from here.

“Espinoza?” he shouted at his commander over the noise.

The captain’s head shook. “Haven’t found him!”

Alex’s mind whirled as they trotted toward the nearest gate. All he heard from Espinoza earlier…about him haunting Corkie for six years, because the man blamed her for his son’s suicide, because she did what she always did…took a photo of the wrong person doing the wrong thing. It wasn’t because of what happened the day he first met her.

All that work…down the drain, he thought. Looking back, Alex realized that nearly every move Espinoza had made in the past few years was to get Corkie. Business deals that turned out to be nothing. Contacts that weren’t made. Money passing between hands that made no sense. It was things like that which kept Espinoza in the clear for so long…because nothing connected with anything else, not the way Alex had wanted to think. Who would have thought that the man was only after one thing…or one person? Espinoza had his fingers in so many pots for so long, that all of a sudden, he wasn’t dipping into those buckets anymore, and it puzzled Alex. The business deal at that airstrip was the one thing that would have put Espinoza away for good…if it had been real.

It just didn’t make sense.

Alex glanced back at Corkie as they hurried away from the mansion. It was all because of her. That, he understood. For different reasons, Alex would have obsessed over her for six years, too. She was…everything. Rainbows and thunderstorms, sunshine and fog, the wind and the earth, joy and heartache. She was his life. And there was no coming back from something like that.

“Daddy!” Corkie cried as they cleared Espinoza’s property and caught sight of Colonel Davenport near the emergency chopper just below the gate. Alex let go of her hand, which he’d been clutching for the last five minutes, and allowed her to run to her father.

She was safe. She was alive. And Alex felt her dad wouldn’t mind if he dropped to his hands and knees in pain and exhaustion. The adrenaline in his body depleted long ago, and he had run on fumes until now.

“Cortney!” the colonel shouted and barged through a line of soldiers to get to her. Two from the Mexican army and a medic came toward Alex. He wasn’t going another step on his own.

They had been lucky. This day could have ended a lot differently, but it was a shame they didn’t catch Espinoza. Right now, Alex was okay with that. All that mattered was Corkie, and saving her. The rest could wait.

Strong arms lifted Alex in a fireman’s hold. Alex dangled limply, unable to do more than stay conscious. His vision darkened dangerously, and he wasn’t going to last much longer on his remaining energy. The man carrying him took two steps…then automatic gunfire burst from behind. Alex fell forward as the soldier dropped to the ground for cover.

Corkie yelled, “No! Alex!”

Alex rolled over on the soft grass and gazed feebly at her. They were out of danger, dammit! The fight was over, and yet, there she was, struggling to get away from her father, fighting to get to him, and Alex turned his head toward the mansion, saw a blurry figure, wearing body armor over his tailored suit, firing a carbine at him, and he thought, Well…shit.

A bullet sliced through his chest, right above his heart, and he jerked backward, blinking, stunned, staring up at the clear blue sky that reminded him so much of something…someone…and he glared at his fate…because he loved Corkie, and he wasn’t done loving her yet. He didn’t just go through hell to have it all end at the finish line.

Ignoring his body’s desire to succumb to death, Alex tried to reach his rifle…then flinched as another shot—a deeper, more dominant report from a .44 Magnum—tore through the air above him.

His body won. He sank back to the ground as the blue sky turned black, and he silently growled, I hate dying.

 

*****

 

Alex heard voices…lots of voices, and one sweet voice shouting at the top of her lungs. “No, I won’t calm down!” Corkie yelled. “That man saved my life, and I’m not going anywhere without him!”

Dammit, Corkie, let me sleep.

“Well, you’re not staying here!” a deeper, man’s voice shouted back. “You haven’t slept in three days, Cortney!”

“I don’t care, Daddy!”

Alex groaned behind heavy eyelids, “Shut up, both of you.”

“Alex? Alex!” Soft lips kissed him all over his face, and he liked the feel of it, but he would really like to go back to sleep. His last memory, of pain, of blue sky, of Corkie, flooded through him, and… I’m alive. How…?

“Oh, Alex, you’re awake,” she said between the wet pecks of her mouth.

“I am now,” he mumbled, cracking an eye and saw the most beautiful face dropping tears onto his cheeks. He tried to grin—I’m alive, and she’s here—but it hurt too bad. “Am I in Heaven? Only angels are this beautiful.”

“Oh, Alex, I thought you were dead!” she cried and crawled on top of him, hugging him tightly. Bites of agony shot out from a dozen different areas, and he clenched his eyes closed, grumbling torturously.

“Cortney, for God’s sake,” her father groused. “Get off the man! He ain’t dead, but you’re going to kill him if you don’t get up.”

She gasped, “Oh!” and scrambled to the side. Alex hissed through his teeth as she jostled him.

“Jesus, nińa,” Alex said, hoarsely, gaining strength in his voice. “Quit moving around.” He lifted leaden hands to hold her still, and he felt the pull of an IV needle still stuck in his arm. “Just stay right where you are.”

“Cortney Elizabeth!” her father roared. “I demand that you get up!”

“Leave me alone, Daddy,” she called. “He likes me here.”

“What I’d like is for you to be still,” Alex mumbled as she continued to wiggle around. She sighed and sank into him, and he grunted as her weight pressed down on his shoulder. He’d really like some water, but that would mean her moving to get him some, and right now, he just couldn’t bear it. She squirmed enough as it was, and he pinched her bottom. “Stop moving.”

“I’m sorry! I’m trying!”

He smiled, feeling the tickle of her hair against his jaw and neck. She finally settled down, and he was as comfortable as possible, and all he could do was hold her, breathe in her sweetness, savor that familiar scent of honeysuckles in her hair, and he was content.

We’re both aliveNow, I can marry her. Now, he’d never have to worry about her getting into more trouble, because he’d be there to put a stop to it. And if he was a different kind of man, he might have cried.

Her face buried against his neck, and her warm breath heated his skin. He remembered feeling so cold, but not now. There had been glimpses of light and dark, and random sounds coming to his ears, and now he knew that he had survived, but he had so many questions.

He asked only one. “What happened?”

“Oh!” Corkie said aloud and lifted her head quickly, jolting more pain through his body. “I shot Espinoza. Right between the eyes.”

Alex blinked laboriously as he gazed up at her. “You did? Damn, Corkie, I’m sorry you had to do that.”

She shrugged—more spurts of pain through his torso and limbs—and said, “But he shot you.”

“Right between the eyes, huh?” he asked, twitching his lips. “From where you were?”

Colonel Davenport moved over to the side of the bed. They were obviously in a hospital room somewhere, and the older man frowned at his daughter. “Didn’t she tell you she could shoot an acorn off a tree at fifty yards? Best damn shot in the whole family.”

“Actually, it’s only thirty yards,” Corkie demurred, but she smiled proudly. “But at fifty yards, I can hit a man’s skull, and this time I had incentive.”

Alex inhaled deeply, feeling the tightness of his body and the aches and pains of his recent exploit with this crazy woman, and he asked, “How long have I been out?”

“Almost a week,” Corkie answered. “You lost a lot of blood, and the bullet grazed the top of your lung. You flatlined, Alex…it was horrible. I thought I lost you.”

“Cortney has not left your side since you’ve been brought here,” Colonel Davenport added, narrowing his eyes at Alex. “You’ll have some explaining to do, lieutenant, when you’re up and moving around.”

Alex shifted his gaze to the colonel and saw real anger there. He took a deep breath and forced his voice to sound sincere. “Sir, I was not aware of Corkie’s abduction scheme until we were already at Espinoza’s doorstep. Then, I swear, my only thought was to get her out of there safe and sound.”

“Hell, son,” the man roared. “I ain’t talking about that! I know that was Cortney’s doing! What I’m talking about is the fact that my daughter refuses to leave your side and she’s currently sprawled on top of you.” He looked at them, both together in the hospital bed, and growled, “And you’ve got your hand on her derriere, lieutenant.”

Alex kept his hand right where it was.

“Daddy…go away,” Corkie said. “You’re dismissed.”

The colonel turned a shade of magenta as his jaw flapped at her impertinence. But Corkie raised an eyebrow, and the infallible Colonel Steven James Davenport, III said, "Lieutenant, Captain Mans will debrief you in the morning," and left in a huff.

She watched her father go until the hospital door slammed shut, and then she turned a bright smile to Alex. “I’m so happy you’re okay. How do you feel?”

“Like I’ve been shot and tortured,” he replied. “Can I get some water?”

“Oh! Of course…just a little, though. Doctor’s orders,” she said, sliding over him to reach a bedside tray and the pitcher of water there. Alex bit down on his back teeth as she moved, refusing to let the spasms get to him because he liked her there, and now that she was there, she wasn’t going anywhere.

“Well, you look better,” she said, still smiling and helping him drink from a small cup. “Your face is almost back to normal.”

“Thank you,” he said when the cup was empty.

“You’re so very welcome, lieutenant,” she said, tossing the cup into a trash can. Then she kissed him.

Alex closed his eyes, not able to participate beyond parting his lips, but he savored the taste of her and the warmth of her body on his. “Corkie…” he murmured against her mouth. “Where, exactly, are we?”

“Walter Reed…you were transported here last night when you stabilized.” She kissed him again.

“So, you’re back home?” he asked between kisses.

She lifted her head and laughed. “Yes, lieutenant, you finally got me home.”

“Thank God,” he moaned and inched his face up to seek her lips again. She laughed again as she smothered him with one long, wet, sultry kiss, and he started to get a good feeling in one particular part of his body. She felt it, too, giggled, and reached down to cup him.

“Every time?” she inquired.

“Every damn time,” he said, and found the strength to ignore the now-familiar pains of wrapping her tightly in his arms, and he kissed her soundly.

The next day, Alex received visitors. The first visit came from the colonel and his commander. Corkie was still there, but when Captain Mans and her father arrived, she was told to exit the room. “But—”

“Miss Davenport,” Captain Mans began.

“I go by Brooks,” she told him brusquely.

Her father gave her a stern look for her impertinence with a captain. “Cortney, we need to speak to Lieutenant Spears. Now. Leave the room.”

She huffed, but she left, dragging her feet just to be obstinate about it. As soon as the door closed behind her, Alex pushed his breakfast tray away and sat up, ready to stand before his superiors during his debriefing.

“Lieutenant, there is no need to get out of bed,” Captain Mans said, seeing this.

“Sir, I have never given a report on my back, and I’m not about to do so now,” Alex stated. Captain Mans knew just how stubborn and to-the-letter Alex could be, so he said nothing else.

Colonel Davenport said nothing, but Alex saw the man’s speculative gaze and sighed. He and the colonel needed to have their own private conversation soon…about Corkie, and from the expression in her father’s eyes, Alex was certain that if he didn’t speak on the subject of marrying Corkie, then his new chance on life was about to become a living hell.

As the captain read through the standard documents and questions, Alex responded the best of his knowledge, leaving absolutely nothing out this time. Nothing. It relieved him that all he had to describe were the incidences between his leaving the ranch for Puerto Vallarta and the moment he was shot by Espinoza. In the end, his statement was heard, though not documented, and Alex stood up straighter, holding onto the bed rails for extra support.

He had just one question of his own. “Sir, what is going to happen to Corkie?”

Captain Mans raised his eyes in feigned confusion. “What do you mean, lieutenant?”

“She killed Hibram Espinoza,” Alex clarified, frowning at the looks he received from both men. “She’s an American civilian. There are laws in Mexico—”

“Lieutenant,” his commander interrupted, “I’m afraid that you must have your information wrong. Miss Brooks was nowhere near Puerto Vallarta when Hibram Espinoza’s mansion was besieged…solely by the Mexican government.”

Alex frowned further. “Sir?”

A small smile curved both the captain’s and the colonel’s lips. “According to the official report, signed by the Mexican President himself, Hibram Espinoza was killed by one of his own men during the raid on his mansion. The ballistics from the bullet retrieved matched a gun owned by a Diago Torres. There are no witnesses that could say for certain that Miss Brooks was there at all.”

Alex stared at them. It was too good to be true. “Sir, may I see that report?”

“Certainly, lieutenant.” Captain Mans handed over the bound file and Alex sat down in a nearby chair to read it. They were right. Corkie wasn’t mentioned at all. The paper stated that the reason for the siege on Espinoza’s property was because all those abducted women were finally linked to him, and the Mexican government had the right to search the property for more missing women. Espinoza and his men fired upon the soldiers, and Espinoza was caught in a crossfire, dying from a bullet to the head by Diago’s revolver. Espinoza’s reign of terror over the Mexican people was over.

It was all there…in black and white, with the stamp of the Mexican President sealing it as truth. Corkie was safe…again. She wasn’t going to rot in some Mexican prison for the next fifty years…not that she actually would. If she was arrested for killing Espinoza, then Alex would free her and hide her forever. But now, he didn’t have to do that. Thank God…he got very little sleep last night because he worried over her fate.

Giving the file back to his commander, Alex slumped with relief. “And Luca Sultanovich?”

“He was apprehended, treated for head wounds, and secretly extradited back to Serbia,” Commander Mans answered. “The prime minister has a few questions for Mr. Sultanovich. Is there anything else?”

“No, sir,” Alex said, faintly amused that Corkie might get her picture, after all.

“Rest up, lieutenant. You’ve been awarded some time off for your service. Make good use of that.” The captain left, but the colonel lingered, and Alex stood up again, ready to face a different set of questions.

Colonel Davenport took a seat and reclined thoughtfully. “You’re getting around well for a man who nearly died,” he stated.

“I have a reason for living, sir,” Alex began.

“Do you?”

Alex lifted his chin and opened his mouth to say exactly what he should to this man, but the colonel interrupted by saying, “Before Cortney comes back, I have a few things to say first.”

“Of course, sir.”

“I wish to repeat a question I asked you once before. What exactly is your relationship with my daughter, lieutenant?”

“I believe that answer is obvious,” Alex replied.

“Explain it to me, lieutenant.”

Alex forced himself to stand up tall. “Colonel Davenport, sir, as much as I respect you, I decline your command that I explain it to you.”

“You decline—! Lieutenant Spears, I’ll have you know that no one refuses to answer me!”

“When it pertains to your daughter, I’ll do just that,” Alex said resolutely. “Because frankly, any personal details of my relationship with her is none of your damn business.”

The colonel drew himself up in front of Alex. “Are you toying with my little girl, because if you are—”

“I don’t toy with women,” Alex said, feeling like he’d said this exact sentence once before. “My intention with Corkie is clear—or will be clear soon enough. I’m going to marry her—”

Colonel Davenport broke out in a giant grin and boomed, “I knew it! It’s finally happened! I knew you were the right man for my daughter!”

And to Alex’s surprise, that big, powerful colonel wrapped Alex up in a painful bear hug and kissed him. Alex didn’t know whether to throw up or punch the man.

“An Army Ranger Lieutenant for a son-in-law!” the colonel laughed aloud.

“About that,” Alex said, gritting his teeth as the colonel set him down, jarring his injuries from the force. “I’m resigning my commission.”

The colonel sobered rather quickly at that. “Say that again.”

“If I am to marry Corkie and protect her to the best of my abilities, I cannot continue my military career…”

“But…but…” stuttered the colonel.

Alex stood his ground. “I drafted my letter last night when Corkie was sleeping. If I give it to you, I ask that you make sure it goes through the proper channels as quickly as possible.”

“But…but…”

“These are my terms,” Alex said clearly, leaning heavily to the side. His body started to ache from standing there for so long. “I want to marry Corkie—I will marry Corkie, and to do that I need to know that I can keep her safe. How soon can I receive my discharge papers and certificate?”

Colonel Davenport looked about to cry. “But…but…”

Alex shook his head. He had managed to stupefy the Infallible Colonel Davenport. “If this is a problem,” Alex said, eyeing the colonel carefully, “then I can send in the letter myself and wait six months before I’m able to marry Corkie—”

“Six months?!”

“That is the normal time frame for these things,” Alex said, knowing he had the colonel right where he wanted him. Corkie’s father was so anxious to get her married to someone in the military, that he didn’t really care who or how that happened.

Colonel Davenport sighed and rubbed a hand down his face. “Let me make sure I’m hearing you correctly…you won’t marry Cortney until you’re discharged, right?”

“Correct.”

The man heaved another tired sigh. “Give me the damn letter. I’ll have you clear in a couple of days.”

“That soon?”

“I’ll take care of it personally,” he said.

“Thank you, sir,” Alex said, smiling, and the colonel grumbled.

“Just a suggestion,” the colonel said before he left the room with Alex’s letter, “Don’t let Cortney see you out of bed.”

An hour later, Corkie came back and in walked the Davenport brothers…all five of them, including Henry, a tall, lanky, somewhat nerdy guy who looked completely out of place among all those beefed-up guerillas. Corkie introduced each one, all while they glared hatefully at him, which she did not seem to notice through her joy and eagerness.

And Alex could have stayed happily reclined in his bed, while all those Davenports silently and menacingly lined up around him, but that wouldn’t be polite.

“What are you doing?” Corkie screeched when she saw him slinging his legs over the side of the bed. She had no idea he’d already been up and around once that day.

“Meeting your brothers at eye level,” he answered honestly.

“No, you’re not! Get back in that bed right now!”

Alex grinned at her as his feet touched the floor. “Make me.”

She pushed on his shoulders to force him back to the pillows, and he kept rising, standing, and there wasn’t anything she could do about that. Her brothers looked on, not speaking, not even twitching an eyebrow—well, except Henry, who tipped them a smile and adjusted his glasses with amusement.

“Alex!” Corkie huffed at him. “This isn’t funny! My brothers don’t care that you’re lying down…right?" She directed that last part at the Davenport militia standing at the foot of his bed.

None of them answered.

Chatty bunch of fellas.

"I care," Alex said roughly, regaining his balance carefully and painfully. He gripped the bed rail for support and felt most of the blood drain from his head in a single swoosh. "I won’t meet my enemy while lying flat on my back, if I can help it."

"Enemy? Those are my brothers!"

"Take another look, Corkie…your brothers aren’t here to swap handshakes."

She blinked at him, then turned to the six other men in the room. "Oh, for heaven’s sake!" she groused at all of them. "This is not a war! All of you are on the same side, and if any if you have something to say about Alex, about me and Alex, then just keep your trap closed or I’ll do it for you!"

"Corkie," Alex said behind her.

"What?’

"Shhh."

She gasped and sputtered, “Did you shush me again?!”

"Come back in half an hour," he said calmly.

She sputtered again.

Alex tested his weight firmly before hobbling down the length of the bed. The brothers stared solemnly, impatiently. Corkie stamped her feet childishly.

"You cannot dismiss me like that ! I have a right to be here—”

"I will toss you over my shoulder and dump your butt in the hallway if you do not walk out of here on your own," Alex told her and meant it.

"You wouldn’t!"

“I would.”

“Well…you can’t. You’re not strong enough yet.”

“Want to try me?" He stepped closer to her. It was with great effort he didn’t fall on his ass, but this was a delicate situation. The Davenports weren’t playing around—they didn’t care if he had been tortured and shot. From their identical glares, Alex better face them like a man should, or he’d spend the rest of his life feeling like he’d never be good enough for Corkie.

“You’ll hurt yourself again!” Corkie protested again.

“Probably,” he said, slowly ushering her backward to the door. “But what bothers me is you being in this room right now.”

“Alex, they’re a bunch of teddy bears. They just look deadly.”

The teddy bears shifted as one…deadly, solid and uncompromising.

Alex herded her to the door. He grazed a fingertip down one cheek and smiled softly. "Nińa," he murmured, " you’ve stayed by my side for a week, and I’ve enjoyed every second of your presence, but now…I’m asking for thirty more minutes without you."

"You were unconscious most of the week," she pointed out sullenly. "And you don’t mind lying around when Daddy was here yesterday."

“You were on top of me when your father was here,” he reminded her and one of the brothers grunted dangerously.

“But…but…”

“No buts,” Alex said stubbornly. “You sound like your father. Now, give me a kiss and tell your brothers you’ll see them later.”

She opened her mouth again, and Alex stuck his finger over her lips sternly. “A kiss, nińa,” he repeated. “Or you can leave without one.”

That caught her attention. She blinked and then she grinned impishly. “You know what I do every time I kiss you…”

Alex returned her grin. “Keep your hands by your side, or I’ll be a dead man in five seconds flat,” he warned her. Then he lowered his head and planted a soft kiss on her lips. She sighed wistfully.

“Go on now,” Alex told her when they both straightened.

“Okay.” She sent a hot glare at her brothers. “Behave…all of you, you hear me?”

She whipped around and left. Alex drew in a breath and turned back to the room. Dark expressions met his gaze.

Then, starting with the oldest—Danny, he recalled—they all burst out in robust laughter. Well, hell…they are a bunch of teddy bears.

 

*****

 

The door closed behind Corkie, and she lingered in the corridor, biting her lip. She knew her brothers could be overbearing at times, even Henry, but she didn’t think they’d all gang up in Alex like that.

Then the laughter started, and she stared wide-eyed at the door between her and Alex. The man was wounded! While saving her life! And her idiot brothers were laughing at him!

She nearly went back and gave all of them a piece of her mind. Until…

Doug loudly said, “Did you see that?”

“It was kind of hard to miss,” Davie, the jokester replied. “My god, man! What have you done to our sister?”

“Your sister is as she’s always been,” Alex said calmly, barely heard through the door, and she pressed her ear to the painted wood to hear better.

“I ain’t never see Corkie tied around a guy’s pinky finger like that,” Doug said, still laughing, and Corkie frowned spitefully.

I’m not tied around anyone’s finger!

Alex said, “Corkie can get out of any tied knot known to man…even one around my finger. I don’t keep her there, but I’m happy she stays put.”

Corkie shifted away, planting her fists on her hips. “Oh, really?” she huffed quietly. “We’ll just see how happy you are, lieutenant!” She shoved the door open again, and stomped into Alex’s room. All seven men in there shut up quick. But only six of them had the grace to flush with shame!

Alex, on the other foot…he turned comfortably around and asked, “Did you forget something?”

“Yes!” she grumped. “I’ll have you all know that I am not tied around anyone’s pinky finger! I am a grown woman, and I can make my own decisions! I don’t need any of you—hey!”

She cut off as Alex grabbed her wrist, bent over, and slung her across his good shoulder, stumbling critically as he straightened. She clung to his back frightfully.

“Oh, god, Alex! Put me down! You’re going to hurt yourself!”

He said not a word. With determined, painful strides, he carried her to the hallway. Her brothers all looked dumbfounded. And they all took a step forward, hands outstretched as they watched Alex careen and falter with her weight over his shoulder. He opened the door, swatted her behind and dumped her right outside the room.

Stupefied, Corkie landed on her butt and blinked up at him. His face turned ashen gray, and his jaw was clenched tight. A patch of blood began to spread through the bandage where he was shot, but he only pointed a severe pinky finger at her and said, “Take a good look at it, nińa. You come back into this room before I say you can, and I’ll wrap you so tight around this finger, it’ll take you centuries to unknot yourself. Do I make myself clear?”

She nodded…and blushed hotly, completely turned on and back to a full-blown state of insatiable horniness. Oh, man…I’m so tied around that pinky…

“You’re bleeding again,” she told him meekly. “Would you like me to send in a nurse?”

Alex inhaled strongly, his gray eyes darkening with agony. “Yes, please.”

She brushed herself off as she stood up, and kissed his cheek. “You’re going to pay for that later,” she whispered in his ear.

“I look forward to it,” he whispered back, and shifted to kiss her mouth. Corkie headed unsteadily toward the nurses’ station, her body aching for his touch, but until he was well enough, there would be no sex for a while.

Dang it.

Before she got ten feet down the corridor…the laughter started up again. She sighed and just kept walking.

Corkie learned the next morning that Alex was cleared to leave the hospital, and he checked himself out. She thought he could stand to stay a little longer. His left arm rested in a sling since he continued to rupture the sutures. After that row with her brothers, he insisted on getting out of bed, moving around and doing as much for himself as possible, and now she knew why.

“What do you mean you’re not asking?” Corkie came to a dead stop in the middle of the hospital corridor and crossed her arms over her chest.

“I mean I’m not asking,” Alex replied calmly and kept walking.

“What makes you think I’m going to marry you?” she asked hotly.

“Because if you don’t, your daddy is going to put a shotgun to your back,” Alex said smugly as he turned a corner. She hustled to catch up with him.

“Daddy knows?! Did you ask him?”

“Are you kidding me?” He stopped and turned to her. “As soon as I got the word ‘marry’ out, he was so happy, he kissed me. Kissed me, Corkie!”

Corkie glared at him. “Well, forget it, buster. I don’t do soldiers.”

Alex stepped closer, leaned down and got right in her face. “You want to run that by me again? Because the last time I checked, you were all over this soldier.”

She turned her head away. “That’s lust. I told you—I’m just horny.”

He snorted and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look back at him. “That makes two of us,” he whispered darkly. “Only, I’ve got a damn good reason to be horny.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” she challenged him.

He grinned. “Because you keep kissing me, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it until we get married.”

“Yes, there is,” she argued. “We weren’t married before.”

“You honestly think I have nurses coming into my room every five minutes because they’re checking my blood pressure?”

She frowned with confusion…and then it hit her. “Daddy…that conniving turd.”

“It isn’t just about your daddy,” Alex said, letting her chin go, but he raised that hand to run his fingers through her hair, which thankfully had been changed back to its original color, or as close as she could get it. “It’s because you deserve better than a quick tumble between the sheets. And I deserve better. We’re getting married today.”

He pecked her on the lips and started walking again.

Today?”

“Yes, today,” he called over his shoulder.

“Well, maybe I don’t want to get married,” she said to his back. “Ever think about that?”

“Yes.”

“And that doesn’t concern you?”

“No.”

She rushed ahead and walked beside him, knowing full well he was herding her toward the hospital’s chapel, regardless of her opposition. “No marriage license,” she argued brightly. “And there’s a waiting period. It won’t be legal.”

“Details,” he said. “We’ll work them out later.”

“Do you, at least, have a ring for me?” she asked.

“We’ll borrow one,” Alex informed her. “And get our own later.”

“Well, maybe I don’t want to get married like this,” she said, thinking fast. “I’d like a pretty dress and bridesmaids and a big reception, you know.”

He stopped once again, right outside a set of double doors, and looked at her. “Later,” he repeated. “Today, I only want to hear you say the words, and then we can do the whole big shebang, however you want.”

“Why is it so important to do this today?”

He cupped her cheek tenderly. “Because I’ve never known you to lie, Corkie,” he answered softly. “If I can get you in there, pledging yourself to me, then I know we’ll be together forever.”

“What about love?” she asked in frustration.

“What about it?”

“I refuse to be part of a marriage that isn’t based on love,” she wrangled.

“I agree.”

Which part?! That you refuse the marriage, too, or you think this one will be based on love?”

“The second part,” he answered and entered the chapel. Corkie stopped at the door and saw her entire family there and she felt sick to her stomach. Oh, god…this is really happening…

Alex sensed her hesitation and pivoted around to her. “Alex,” she whispered. “I…”

He glanced over his shoulder, and her father stared impatiently at both of them, clearly so happy he had tears in his eyes, and Alex returned to her, pulling her back into the corridor. “Corkie…why don’t you want to marry me?” he asked softly, tenderly.

Her heart ached. “Why do you want to marry me?” she countered. “I’ve been nothing but trouble for you since day one. You should hate me.”

“But I don’t hate you, nińa,” he said, taking her hand. “I spent a week of my life protecting you from you, and it was the best damn week I’ve ever spent.”

“That’s the thing,” she said, licking her lips, which had suddenly become very dry. “We’ve only known each other for a few weeks…and you want to get married? Can’t we just live together for a while?”

“No.”

“Please?”

He smiled at her. “No.”

Hot tears drowned her vision. “But…but you never said you love me or anything like that.”

His expression softened. “Is that what you’re worried about? That I don’t love you? Do you honestly think I would suffer your craziness for the rest of my life if I didn’t love you?”

She blinked back her tears. “You really do love me?”

“Yes, nińa,” he said, a husky timbre to his voice, “I love you…I love you enough that I could not leave this earth until I knew you would be safe. And now that I’m here to stay, I’m not going to let you run around unprotected ever again.”

“You’re not? What about your missions and your military career? You could be off on another job tomorrow, and—”

“Hush,” he said, putting a finger over her lips. “I’m not going anywhere. I resigned my commission yesterday. Your father is taking care of it himself.”

“Resigned?” she gasped. “No! You love your work!”

“I love you more, and I have a feeling a certain photographer is going to need some security when she heads off to places unknown.” He stood up straighter than she’d ever seen him stand, and he added, “Now, do you love me?”

She opened her mouth to declare just such a thing, but he stopped her one more time and said, “Before you answer, let me make myself clear. Marrying me does not now, nor will it ever, include the word divorce. That shall never come up between us. We’ll have our rough patches, I am damn sure of that, but we agree now to fight through them. I give you permission to tie me up to whatever chair, bed frame, or random piece of furniture you have available when you think I’m being a dick—as long as you promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?” she inquired, bemused by his conditions.

He shot her a crooked grin and said, “That you kiss me when it’s over. That you never stop kissing me, or checking me for my reaction, or blinking those beautiful, innocent blue eyes at me. You think you can manage all that?”

Oh, yes, and a lot more… “That’s three things. You only said I had to promise one thing.”

“Sweetheart,” he growled softly, “then just promise me you’ll kiss me, because the rest always follows.”

“Stop calling me sweetheart,” she sniffed. “You’re being catty again.”

“I am never catty,” he declared wryly.

“And I am not going to marry you until you promise me one thing,” she announced.

“Ah,” he said, shifting his stance into one of wariness. “Now, we’re bargaining. What do you want, nińa? Anything, just name it, and it’s yours.”

She smiled drolly and raised up on her tiptoes to whisper in his ear. He jerked back and stared at her.

“Right now?”

Rolling her eyes, she laughed. “No, not right now. These things take time, you know.”

He pressed a palm over his heart. “Christ! Don’t scare me like that! I thought for certain you expected me to steal one from the nursery.”

“Now, you’re being catty,” she sighed, still laughing. “But I’m not getting any younger. I’d like to have one soon, if you don’t mind.”

“Hell, no, I don’t mind! You can have a dozen, if you want,” he said.

“I’m only asking for one,” she said, and he eyed her seriously.

“And you are sure that’s all you want?”

“Absolutely,” she said, nodding her head.

“A girl,” he clarified. “Just one girl.”

“Yes, a girl,” Corkie confirmed. “Who can play football if she wants to, and will go fishing and hunting and can play in the mud in her pretty dresses and you don’t get to say a dang thing about it.”

“I refuse to raise a hell-child,” he said sternly. “She will respect her father, and that’s that.”

“Oh, she will respect her father,” she said, leaning into him and putting her head against his chest. His arm went around her waist and his jaw settled against her temple. “She will love him because he will always try to protect her, but sometimes he needs to know when to let go.”

“Never,” Alex vowed hoarsely into her ear. “I’ll never let go of my little girl.”

Corkie smiled. “God…I’m marrying my father.”

“And he’s a damn fine man,” Alex said. “But tell me something, what happens if all we have are boys?”

“You going to let a little thing like that stop you?”

He chuckled. “No…it’ll be a hell of a ride to keep that promise.”

“Won’t it though?” she agreed happily.

He leaned back and smiled down into her eyes. “Shall we get married then?”

“You finally asking me?”

“No.”

Corkie laughed. “I didn’t think so.”

“Seal it with a kiss?”

“Mmm,” she purred and raised her lips to him. Alex brushed her mouth gently, gathering her together for a deeper taste, and a voice boomed from inside the chapel, “Cortney Elizabeth! Lieutenant Spears! Get your asses in here! You’re gonna get married before you start that mess!”

Corkie sighed and lowered down to her heels. “Yes, Daddy,” she called over Alex’s shoulder. Then she looked at Alex and said, “Please tell me we can honeymoon on a deserted island somewhere, far away from them.”

Alex shook his head. “We’ll be honeymooning in the rehab center. I have another two weeks of recovery ahead of me before my shoulder is fully functioning again.”

“Dang it!”

“I should have mentioned that earlier?”

“It might have helped,” she sighed and walked with him into the chapel. “But we can honeymoon afterward?”

“When I’m back to normal, we’ll hop on the first plane away from here,” he answered.

She laughed. “Normal? What’s that?”

He winked at her. “My love,” he said with tremendous affection, “when it comes to you, normal is a relative term.”

Corkie smacked him gently on his hand. But then she smiled. “‘My love.’ I like that one. You can call me that anytime you like.”

“I can? Because, you know, I can say it in four languages,” he said as they came to a stop at the end of the aisle of gleaming pews, right in front of the presiding chaplain.

Daddy cleared his throat and said, "The only thing you get to say right now is ‘I do’…in English. I haven’t waited ten damn years for this day to have it annulled because the proper words weren’t said. And I don’t care if this is just a we-promise-to-get-married kind of thing. It’ll be just like you, Cortney, to start spouting Ukrainian or Italian, and the next thing I know, I’m back to square one with you.”

Corkie rolled her eyes. "Daddy, stop being a pest. People are going to think you don’t care who I marry, as long as he’s military."

"Not true," her father said. "I want you to marry for love…I’m just so damn happy he’s one of the Army’s finest!"

"Ex-Army," Alex pointed out, and he turned to Corkie and asked, “You can speak Ukrainian and Italian?”

“She speaks six languages, son,” the colonel informed him. “She would have made a hell of a linguist specialist, or really, any kind of military intelligence, but she’s got this thing about authority. You should know that by now.”

“Oh, I know,” Alex groused.

“Good,” her father said. “Then find some way to get rid of that damn problem.”

Alex looked right into the colonel’s eyes and said, “It’s only a problem if you let become a problem.”

Corkie held her breath as she watched her father stare down Alex. And then he grinned. “I knew you were the right man for her! You’ve got balls, lieutenant! Great big, hairy balls to go toe to toe with my daughter! That’s the Army in you, son!”

“I’ll be a civilian soon,” Alex said stiffly. “You might want to remember that. You agreed to that.”

"Once a Ranger, always a Ranger," her father argued with a silly grin.

“Oh, Daddy,” Corkie sighed, leaning into Alex’s uninjured shoulder. “What is it going to take to leave us alone for the rest of our lives?”

“Grandsons!” her father boomed. “Lots and lots of strapping grandsons! If I see one girl pop out of your belly, I’m disowning you, you hear me, young lady?”

Corkie and Alex smiled at each other, and turned to her father, and asked, “Is that a promise?”

The rest of her family, all her brothers and her mother, listened to this conversation with amused expressions. They’d heard similar ones before. And they had all learned early on not to get between Corkie and the colonel while they argued. But now, there was Alex, who was facing down her father with the same stubbornness, and everyone silently agreed…

That’s the man for Corkie.

 

*****

 

Two weeks after pledging to each other, Corkie and Alex legally married. They honeymooned in a cabin, in the deep forests of Alaska, a three-hour trip—by prop plane—from the nearest town. They stayed there for a month. By the end of the first week, her father managed to get them on the ham radio, just wanting to make sure they were still alive and if he should expect a grandson soon. Corkie told her father to leave them alone, and then Alex got on the mic and had a one-sided conversation with his father-in-law. The colonel didn’t bother them again after that.

Once they arrived back in D.C., Corkie and Alex moved out of her tiny apartment and found a place in the country. She traveled a little here and there on jobs, but she was always distracted by the insatiable husband by her side. By Christmas that year, she was pregnant. The colonel was so ecstatic, he went out and bought his future grandson a little t-shirt with U.S. Army on it, but neither Alex nor Corkie opted to learn the sex of the baby until it was born.

It was a girl.

A beautiful little girl with vibrant blue eyes and Alex’s dark hair.

The colonel…well, he acted annoyed, but as soon as Skylar Brooks Spears wrapped her tiny fingers around his pinky, he was smitten. He gave his granddaughter the t-shirt anyway. After all, girls can go into the Army, too. They added three more girls, Claire, Grace and Amelia, to their growing family in their first seven years of marriage.

“I think I’ve honored my promise to you,” Alex said to Corkie one day while all of his precious daughters ran around the house, chasing the smallest.

“Want to try for a boy next?” she asked, getting that look in her eyes.

Alex was on the phone that afternoon, calling up the colonel to babysit. They got their boy, nine months later, and to please the colonel—because they really didn’t have much choice—they named him James.

Corkie never got back into her adventurous photojournalism career. She discovered that, with a husband like Alex and a family of five children, she enjoyed staying home. But to keep her cameras in good working order, she photographed her children…and she found that she had a gift for getting those perfect, precious candid pictures that parents loved so much.

As though a rainbow crested across the sky, Corkie got the idea to venture into child portraits. And with Alex’s support, she opened up a studio in Washington D.C. after her son was born. Within two years, she was one of the leading child photographers in the country. Celebrities and politicians begged her to come and photograph their kids. She still got to travel the world, but at least now, Alex was happy she wasn’t going out of her way and putting herself into mortal danger to get that one picture.

 

*****

 

And now to clear up a few remaining details…

Ana and Juan are still waiting for a new kitchen chair and a Catrina doll. Ivan retired from his illegal activities, convinced Marta to give up her matron role in her house, and the two of them naturalized to the United States to be closer to their daughter, Sophia, and their new granddaughter, born soon after Corkie’s first child.

Doug and Henry relocated to a state that would honor their same-sex marriage and give them the right to adopt. They now have a set of twin girls from China.

In fact, after all the Davenport sons married and settled down, they all had girls. A total of eleven granddaughters…and the one grandson, which made the baby James all the more nurtured and militantly encouraged by the colonel. Unfortunately for the colonel, the boy grew up to become a Broadway Shakespearean actor.

The End.

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  1. Tirza van der Linden

    Dear Harlequin,
    I thoroughly enjoyed this read. It’s not as far fetched as some as the other stories in this top 10, and definitely appeals to me as a reader that I believe is within the target audience of your publishings (33 years old) The theme is well developed, with a balance of duty towards family, country and one’s own ideals. On top of that, the author shows a great sense of humor, which is again and again demonstrates throughout the chapters. I believe this work would be great to add to your portfolio.
    Sincerely,
    Ms. Tirza van der Linden