Authors: Joan Swan
Tags: #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense, #Romantic suspense fiction
Copyright 2013 by
Cover art and design by
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real.
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SUPERVISORY BORDER PATROL AGENT ZOE BROOKS muscled the ATV beneath her at top speed across the rock-studded desert terrain of El Centro, California. Her heavy breathing echoed in rough pants over the headset.
“Boss.” Nighthawk’s voice scraped over Zoe’s headset. The chopper cut through the sky almost directly above her and the whap of its blades sounded simultaneously in real time and in the background over the radio. “You’ve got three runners due east, copy?”
With a jerk on the handlebars, she steered east and scanned for the smugglers through her night vision goggles.
“Copy. Do they still have the cargo?” Zoe said, the rough earth bouncing under her tires, making her voice jerk.
Her tires hit a puddle left over from a recent flash flood, and the ATV floated sideways. Zoe shifted her weight, twisted the handlebars, and eased out of the skid.
“Nice moves, boss.” Nighthawk’s voice warmed with appreciation. Zoe grinned, and the mud on her face cracked. The icy desert air cut through her uniform. “You’re coming up on them, boss. They’re still carrying packs. Another ten meters— Whoa, hold on.” Nighthawk’s voice rose with urgency. “They got spooked. Dropped the drugs. Took a hairpin. All three are headed freaking
straight at you
Zoe’s heartbeat kicked higher. Her gaze scanned faster, searching for glowing green figures in her viewfinder. “Come on, where are you…?”
“Nighthawk to Roadrunners.” The pilot spoke to the team as a whole, which included four other Border Patrol agents scattered through the desert surrounding these Mexican smugglers from the El Diablo cartel. “Boss is going to need cover, over.”
“Copy that, Nighthawk. Trigger and Smoke inbound.”
But they wouldn’t reach her in time for anything but cleanup. “Runners in sight.”
Zoe angled sharply, gritted her teeth, gripped the handles tight…and let the first one run right into her ATV.
He grunted, and his momentum nearly flipped him over her handlebars. She stopped the ATV and fisted the man’s shirt, throwing him to the ground.
Alto! No se muevan
,” she yelled at smugglers two and three, who’d stopped running just out of her reach.
With her boot on the first smuggler’s back, Zoe drew her weapon, turned on her flashlight and flipped up her night vision goggles. “
Déjame ver sus manos, sus manos! Al suelo!
The second smuggler put his hands up as directed. But not the third. And his eyes darted around, searching for escape. She ordered them to the ground, threatening to shoot.
“Voy a disparar! Conseguir Al suelo o disparo!”
Number Two dropped face-first to the ground.
As Zoe suspected he would, Number Three ran.
“Goddammit.” She holstered her weapon and jerked handcuffs from her duty belt. Breathing hard, she wrenched the first smuggler’s hands behind his back. “Nighthawk, I lost one.”
“I see him,” the pilot responded. “Running south.”
“Not for long,” Zoe muttered, securing the free cuff to the thick trunk of a manzanita bush and pulling out a second set.
Once Number Two was secure, Zoe took off on foot after Number Three. The brush was too thick for the ATV here…and she had a lot of adrenaline to burn.
“In pursuit…” she said between heavy breaths. “Give me…eyes, Nighthawk.”
The chopper’s floodlight cut through the night sky, swamping the desert in a circle of halogen. Zoe lifted her arm to shield her eyes until they adjusted to the sudden light.
“Little more to your right…” Nighthawk said.
She altered her path.
“Two meters dead ahead, boss. Trigger and Smoke have your other two runners. Joker and Ranger have the drugs. Huge haul, boss.”
Zoe couldn’t take in the details. Couldn’t feel the triumph. Not yet. There was still one out here. One loose.
Even one was one too many.
Number Three moved in the distance. Excitement spurted through her chest. “Got you,
She pushed all her strength into her legs and pumped out the distance, coming up on the smuggler fast. He caught sight of her, turned into a frenzied, hunted animal, and hauled ass.
“No, you don’t.”
Zoe pushed harder. Past the burn in her legs. Past the stab in her side.
An unexpected downhill slope turned the chase into a chaotic sprint, and with her muscles depleted, she lost control of her speed. Zoe let the momentum carry her and reached out with both hands. A split second before she fisted the guy’s shirt, everything slowed to quarter time and flashed in her mind like mini events.
Her body slammed into his. The smuggler crumpled. Zoe landed on top of him. Together they rolled several yards. Two, maybe three hard hits against the ground stuck in her memory, but no pain registered. Her mind filled with the sole objective of keeping her fingers clenched in the fabric of his shirt. That and keeping her head off the ground.
Zoe didn’t know how many times they rolled before her boot finally dug into the earth. Finally stopped their forward motion. All she knew was lying against the hard ground, then Number Three straddling her and pointing a handgun at her forehead.
Her brain didn’t go instantly sharp as she’d expected. Her thoughts pinged first to irrational places, contemplating bizarre, useless things.
When it did focus, everything inside her body chilled. And she thought of Cody. But instantly forced him from her mind.
She pulled in a breath to request cover but realized Nighthawk was already speaking.
“More to your right, Trigger,” the pilot said. “The weapon is in his right hand, against her head.”
But memories trickled in anyway. Cody’s smile. His laugh. His blood spilling over her hands.
She dragged herself back into the moment and forced words out of her mouth to make him consider the consequences of killing a Border Patrol agent. “
Ya sabes lo que te va a pasar si usted mata a un agente de la Patrulla Fronteriza?
“If I kill
Border Patrol Agent…” Number Three’s English held a heavy Spanish accent, and his voice was rough with fatigue. Zoe focused on his face in case she needed to identify him again, but he was covered with mud. “Then we won’t have to worry about
La Perra Blanca
.” Trigger’s voice behind the smuggler filled Zoe with so much relief, she almost closed her eyes.
Then someone else moved on their right. Another person on their left.
.” Smoke’s dark voice rasped amid the thick whap of Nighthawk’s blades.
Zoe’s mind slipped. Back to Cody. To the way the sound of gunshots traveled in the night like wavelets. To the speed with which blood left the body from a gunshot to the head. To the way the sunbaked soil soaked it up like a sponge.
I’m not going to die tonight. Or like that.
She tore her gaze from Number Three’s face, homing in on his exact position above her. Her sleeve had ripped and flapped in the gust from the chopper’s blades, hitting her face. She squinted past, found the hand holding the gun in her peripheral vision, and let her adrenalin surge.
She brought her knee up with all her strength at the same time she grabbed the wrist of the hand holding the weapon. She tilted the gun toward the ground and rammed her knee into his crotch. When his hand released its grip, she twisted the gun away.
While he curled into a ball, holding his nuts, Zoe flipped him to his back, jammed a knee to his chest, and pointed the weapon at his face.
white bitch,” she rasped heavily, “ain’t going nowhere,
ZOE PARKED HER BORDER PATROL RIDE at the back of the café’s lot and pulled her uniform ball cap off. Leaning forward, she rested her cheek on the steering wheel and let the air-conditioning bathe her face.
She was still sweating. Still shaking. For Zoe, the fear always came after. In the moment, under pressure, she was solid. But later, when she had time to think and reflect, that was when all the what-ifs hit.
to get out.”
She’d needed to get out of this job since her teammate Cody had died. Could probably have gotten out faster if she’d admitted to the trauma his death had caused her. But—right or not—that would make her look weak. And as a cop, especially a female cop, weakness was the quickest way to lose alliances, respect, and opportunities. Besides, she didn’t want to take just any job.
She wanted the job she was here to talk to Rio about.
She wound her hair back into a bun and pulled her ball cap on, then shut down the engine and climbed from the SUV, wincing at the aches in her body—shoulders, hips, knees, hands.
“Damn,” she breathed through the pain.
“Good morning, Agent Brooks.”
Zoe spun toward Rio’s voice and found him strolling toward her. He had a big grin on his handsome face, and those pretty green eyes scanned her from shoulders to boot tips. Then his gaze moved to her SUV.
“I’m not sure who had more fun last night, you or your vehicle.”
“That’s nothing. You should see my ATV.” She made herself relax. Made herself smile back. Made herself push the memory of staring into the dark muzzle of a gun out of her mind. “I got held up and had to come straight from processing a rough group. I promise I did shower and change, but…” She held her arms out wide and shrugged. “This is my spare uniform, if you can believe that.”
Rio’s grin widened as he turned toward the café. “Come on. And call me Rio, please.”
Rio had spent eight years undercover all over South America, only recently returning to the states as the Director of Investigations for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Zoe had worked with Rio gathering information for investigations in the past and knew he’d be a great boss.
“How’s Cassie?” she asked.
“Amazing.” His expression softened when he spoke of his pregnant wife. “Finally getting a belly.”
He held the café door open for Zoe, and as she passed through, it seemed every gaze turned toward her. She was used to that—the uniform and the weapon always drew attention. Tenfold on a woman.
As soon as they chose a table, the waitress poured coffee and took their orders.
When the menus were gone, Rio said, “I didn’t want to ask you this over the phone when we talked the other day, but I’d like to know if your transfer request has anything to do with your teammate’s death last year?”
Zoe’s throat closed around a sip of coffee. She choked, forced the liquid down, and coughed into her fist. “I love that about you, Rio. Get right to the heart of it. And, no,” she lied. “I’ve been on Border Patrol for eight years. I’m ready to get out of the harsh conditions.”
Rio nodded. “Okay, then. Here’s what I’ve got.”
Zoe set her coffee down. Excitement bubbled in her gut. The stories she’d heard from investigators at ICE intrigued her. She knew she’d love working in the department, would enjoy working for Rio, and would be fascinated and challenged by the complexity of the cases.
“We have credible intel on a new tunnel leading into the Otay Mesa area here in San Diego from Tijuana,” Rio said. “Word is it belongs to El Diablo. The tunnel isn’t quite finished yet. In the next week, the architect will be making a visit or two to inspect the structure.”
“That’s a freaking long tunnel.” Zoe spun her coffee cup between her palms, keeping her voice low. “Shortest distance between Tijuana and Otay Mesa is over five hundred feet. It would be a modern marvel.”
“Which is why we want to get a hold of the architect. Not only so he won’t keep designing these marvels, but so we can get intel on El Diablo.”
Zoe nodded, staring at her cocoa-colored coffee. “What store is fronting it?”
Rio’s green gaze made a casual sweep of the café before returning to hers. “A smoke shop in the Otay Mesa Premium Outlets.”
“That mammoth mall at the border?”
Rio nodded. “The store requires membership to shop there, which is an effective way to keep people out. I had one of our guys go in last week to inquire about membership, and he was told they aren’t taking new members at this time.”
“Convenient. What’s your plan?”