Authors: Melissa Cutler
Camille’s father was retired, but his years on the force were legendary. She was constantly asked by her superiors to give her father their regards or forced to sit patiently through retellings of his most heroic moments. There had been a time Camille dreamed of following in his footsteps. The familiar needle of pain pierced her heart, but she refused to dwell. No more thoughts of dying dreams, not when she was about to become an aunt.
Juliana was two years Camille’s junior and as different from her as a sister could be. A lifetime of strained relations had finally given way to friendship two years ago, after Juliana fell in love with Camille’s former partner, Jacob. That he was the man responsible for Camille’s accidental shooting was immaterial. She’d known the risks of her high-stakes job when she signed on.
She grabbed her duffel and kept moving. She’d change out of the uncomfortable skirt and flats after she checked in with her sister.
* * *
Aaron Montgomery’s eyeballs hurt.
He could barely see the sun through the heavily tinted windows of the meeting room, yet it was still painful. Not even his special hangover energy drink helped when his head ached this badly. Sure he’d wanted to celebrate Tuesday’s big arrests, but what in God’s name made him down those last three tequila shots instead of calling it a night?
The answer, of course, was a petite college senior—at least, that’s what he thought she said—with long chocolate-colored hair and a waistline so tiny that when she ground against him on the dance floor, her little black skirt kept sliding down to reveal her thong.
Ah, good times.
“Something funny, Montgomery?” barked Thomas Dreyer, the ICE Field Office Director, who stood at the head of the table.
Aaron mashed his lips together in an effort to stop smiling. “Just thinking about how those cartel runners almost crapped their pants when we caught them, sir.”
“Add those two to the ten we expedited in December and we’re starting to send a clear message that these lowlifes can’t move guns through our country’s deserts and get away with it. If the cartels want to wage war against each other in Mexico, I’ll be damned if they’re going to do it with American firepower.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more, sir.” Staying on Dreyer’s good side was proving to be a tricky act—the man had no sense of humor—but Aaron was an expert at being a team player. And this was a team he was determined to rise to the top of.
As was usually the case in his life, Aaron had been handed the opportunity. His best friend, Jacob, referred to his luck as Aaron’s Golden Ticket. The label was fine for a joke, but Aaron knew better. He didn’t wait for luck to strike him where he stood, but instead kept his eyes open, ready to move into the path of the bolt at the first sign of a spark. So when, a year ago, the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, better known as ICE, handpicked him to participate in a regional joint task force to combat drug, guns and human trafficking through the Southern California desert, Aaron seized the opportunity.
And he had a goal for himself. A big one.
He had no interest in being a boss man, standing at the head of the table as an administrator like Dreyer. His ultimate goal was to prove his worth as an ICE field agent. Maybe undercover. Definitely abroad.
As one of two Park Rangers on a unit comprised primarily of Border Patrol officers and ICE intelligence agents, Aaron was in ambitious company. Although he came to the unit with thirteen years’ experience as a Backcountry Park Ranger, he’d invested months of rigorous field training in weaponry and combat tactics and countless hours of classroom time to understand border policing laws so when the opportunity to transfer from Park Ranger to ICE agent presented itself, he’d be ready.
The challenge couldn’t have come at a better time. The diversions that used to satisfy his wanderlust had lost their flavor. Though he still thought his Mustang Shelby GT 500 was the best money he’d ever spent, he no longer took it for day trips simply for the thrill of the drive. Even the club scenes he frequented felt like a waste of time. Rock climbing, speedboating, skydiving—nothing he tried could take away the restless dissatisfaction that had settled into his bones.
Last night, he’d stayed out way too late with Little Miss Thong because she was exactly the type of girl that got his blood pumping. But sometime during the night, the pointlessness of what he was doing dawned on him. Time and youth were slipping away from him at an alarming rate, a revelation he counteracted by drinking and dancing more than usual.
Since Jacob’s wedding a year and a half ago, Aaron felt
At first, he thought it was because Jacob no longer had much time to spend with him, but it was more than that. Maybe he was subconsciously jealous of Jacob’s marital bliss or maybe Aaron was bored, but the discontent that had dogged him since his friend’s wedding was damned annoying.
“As I was saying,” Dreyer said with a hard glance at Aaron, “the latest intel is that the Cortez Cartel’s weapons distribution operation is being headquartered near the Baja capital city of La Paz, along the Sea of Cortez.” He pushed a button on his laptop and a satellite image of the Baja peninsula projected onto the wall behind him.
“As we already suspected, the Mexican government’s crackdown on cartels within Baja’s border cities has spurred them to move to obscure locations and utilize more creative means to smuggle weapons into their country.”
With another push of a button, Dreyer projected a grainy photo of a Hispanic man with jet-black hair and a round, oily face. “This is our next target, Rodrigo Perez, Alejandro Milán’s second-in-command. Perez has been running the weapons-smuggling division of the Cortez Cartel for approximately one year and manages a crew of at least thirty men.”
Aaron felt the vibration of his cell phone in his shirt pocket. He flipped it open to find a short text message—
Jul n labr.
“Look at that,” he muttered to himself. “I’m about to be a godfather.”
He caught the eye of Nicholas Wells, the other Park Ranger in the unit, and held up his phone. “Family emergency,” he mouthed, scooting out of his chair. He opened the door and slipped into the bright afternoon, his headache forgotten.
* * *
She should have known he’d be at the birth of Juliana and Jacob’s child—he was her brother-in-law’s best friend, after all—but Camille’s stomach still lurched when she heard the deafening rumble of Aaron’s obnoxious car pull into the hospital parking garage behind her.
Unwilling to park on the same level as him, she drove past whole rows of available parking spots, waiting for him to choose one first. To her chagrin, he passed every open spot, too. In her rearview mirror, she saw Aaron chuckling behind his wraparound sunglasses and knew he was onto her plan. Even in the dim light of the garage, his dimples sparkled. The man was like a barbed thorn in her side—irritating and impossible to dislodge.
Finally he conceded and pulled into a space on the fourth level. Camille drove to the roof.
Then it occurred to her that in a matter of minutes, she’d be sitting in a waiting room with the man she’d successfully avoided for over a year. She thunked her forehead on the steering wheel and groaned.
She first met Jacob’s best friend two years earlier, and it had been a miserable experience. Simply put, Aaron was the most arrogant man she’d ever known. Handsome to a fault, with wavy blond hair and a body so meticulously ripped it was the perfect advertisement for his bloated ego, he’d made her feel like a piece of meat from the moment he introduced himself without raising his eyes higher than her chest.
When he figured out she wasn’t going to drool all over his showy muscles, lame jokes and expensive car, he’d been equally put off by her.
At Juliana and Jacob’s wedding, Camille put on her game face and tolerated Aaron for the single dance required of the maid of honor and best man, then spent the rest of the reception watching him hit on all the young, single women in attendance. She couldn’t believe how easily they fell for his boyish good looks and perfect body. They didn’t even notice he was treating them like interchangeable objects. She made a game of predicting which one he’d invite to his room that night. Because the wedding party had rooms on the same hotel floor, it was an easy mystery to solve.
And her prediction had been correct.
She knew Aaron thought she was a killjoy, but unlike the girls falling all over him at Juliana’s wedding, Camille didn’t require the validation of a man. And it was a good thing, too, because being a young female cop with a statuesque figure was like being an island in a sea of chauvinism. Why this particular chauvinist rubbed her the wrong way, Camille wasn’t sure. Frankly, she tried not to think about it—ever.
She grabbed her bag of clothes and purse and locked her car. When she got to the stairwell, she paused. Which would Aaron be less likely to take—the stairs or the elevator? She decided to take the stairs, even though her dressy shoes were beginning to rub, because it would preclude any chance of being stuck in the tight confines of an elevator with him. If he chose the stairs, she could hang back and let him go first.
As she turned the corner onto the fourth level landing, Aaron materialized in the stairwell.
“Camille, what a...pleasant surprise,” he deadpanned, falling into step beside her.
“I see you’re still compensating for your shortcomings with that offensive car.”
He chortled. “It’s good to know time hasn’t softened your icy heart.”
Narrowing her eyes, Camille picked up the pace. So much for hanging behind; she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. She motioned to his dark glasses. “Are you hungover again? Funny how every time I see you, you’ve been drinking too much. Maybe I’ll send you an AA pamphlet.”
With her skirt and shoes slowing her down, Aaron paced her effortlessly.
“Gee,” he said, “that’s a nice suit you’re wearing. Borrowing your grandma’s clothes again, are you?”
“You’re such a pig.”
“And you’re still a shrew, so we’re even.”
That was enough for Camille. “Out of my way,” she snarled. Elbowing him in the chest, she propelled herself into the lead.
He quickened his steps to match hers. “Always such a bully. When’re you going to figure out no one likes a bully, Blondie?”
“When’re you going to figure out I hate you, you misogynist prick?”
“Sweetheart, I figured that out the day we met, and I dropped to my knees, thanking the Lord for small favors.”
They broke into a sprint, their feet flying and their knees pumping like football players running a high-step drill. Camille knew she was acting immature, but she simply had to be the first person to the bottom of the stairs, the first person through the hospital doors, the first one to reach Juliana’s bedside.
As they traversed the last flight of stairs, Aaron shouldered past her, taking the steps two at a time. When Camille tried to match his stride, one of her shoes flew off. She grabbed the railing to keep from pitching headfirst to the ground.
Aaron reached the bottom level of the parking garage and scooped up Camille’s shoe. He turned to face her with a smug smile. “I’m sure your grandmother will want this back.”
Gasping at the insult, she yanked her other shoe off and hurled it at him.
He ducked, but his laughter was drowned out by a revving engine, its echo thunderous in the confines of the garage.
A white minivan screeched to a halt behind Aaron as its side door opened. Two masked men armed with fully automatic assault rifles were staged inside. Aaron whipped his head around, but it was too late. The men pulled him in and pointed their guns at Camille.
“In the van,
Now!” one of the men shouted at her.
Impossible. This couldn’t be happening. She was there for the birth of her niece.
“Camille, run,” Aaron called from within the van.
The only route was back up the stairs and then she’d still be trapped in the garage. Her eyes settled on the rifles, AK-47 knockoffs, probably Romanian. Wherever they were from, the guns made her only choice perfectly clear. Numbly, she got into the van.
Aaron sagged against the floor with half-closed eyelids as though he were drifting to sleep. “Aaron, what...? Why are you—” She yelped, turning toward the pain in her upper arm. An unmasked, baby-faced man with slicked-back hair was plunging a needle into her.
“Oh, God, no.” Then her tongue, along with the rest of her body, grew heavy, and she crumpled over Aaron’s limp form.
ody odor. Not the occasional whiff of someone who forgot to apply deodorant, but the cloying, inescapable stench of people who, as a habit, did not bathe. The smell was so pungent, Aaron tasted it in his mouth as it hung open, slack and drooling due to the drug he’d been injected with.
Time passed indeterminately. Perhaps they drove for an hour, maybe longer. He couldn’t see anything except the booted feet of his captors, nor feel anything except the weight of Camille sprawled over him. No one spoke except for comments in Spanish said in whispers too soft for Aaron to translate, though he was adept at the language.
When the van stopped moving, the kidnappers stirred.
“Ustedes dos llévense al hombre.”
You two take the man.
“Cuidado, Perez lo quiere ileso.”
Careful, Perez wants him unharmed.
With the mention of that name, Aaron knew why he’d been taken and what they were going to do to him. As the man who arrested two of Perez’s operatives, Aaron was going to help the cartel send a message to the U.S. government. Today he was going to die. Probably beheaded. Most likely paraded around the streets of Tijuana on a stick. And Camille, poor unlucky Camille, was going to die, too.
He was dragged from the van to a small plane on a cracked blacktop runway in the middle of a lettuce field. Camille was slung over the shoulder of a short man, her legs dangling and her skirt bunched, revealing the white of her panties. Another man walked to her, chuckling, and pulled her skirt higher.