Maria Lucia Rivera de Cruz scanned the single paragraph in the newspaper article for keywords first and found what she sought. Mogul’s son, returned home…
Her body surged with relief. The animated sounds, smoky smell, and pressing heat of the outdoor market and over-warm afternoon returned to her ears, even as caution returned to her mind.
She dared a look past the hanging curtain where she’d tucked herself away from prying eyes and determined that she had a moment to read more thoroughly. Then she would tuck the paper into her weaved tote and discard it at the first opportunity she found. If it made it all the way home under vegetables and goods, she would simply burn it in the kitchens. She bent her head and focused.
Suddenly, a light brown hand with manicured nails clamped down to crinkle the page and yank it from her fingers. One crisp shake and all but the page she’d been reading from fell, flip-flopping erratically before settling in the dirt between them.
“What is so interesting that you must hide to read, sister?” Soft-spoken and polite, of course.
Lazaro Rivera Valdez was both her eldest brother and the patriarch of the family. Handsomely built, he was lean, of average height, and fine of face. He favored well-made clothes and a cane topped with a gold spider curled around a globe.
As always, their brother Jorge, who fell between Lazaro and Lucia in years, shadowed el patrón. Darker, stockier, and somehow always rumpled, he wore a menacing expression that seemed at home with the rough scar that marred his cheekbone. His wide mouth pressed tight in contrast to Lazaro’s smooth, placid look. Lazaro’s face, however, could never be trusted, as it was only a polished mask.
“Nada,” Lucia replied coolly. “I sought shelter from the sun and was passing time with a newspaper.” Lazaro did not tolerate lies, and this was the truth. He did not need to know that she’d sought this particular paper—despite the fact that it was marked June and the local Spanish one was current at the first week of January. But she must sacrifice herself—and safeguard the vendor she’d paid to save it for her—to some degree or she would not be believed. So she raised her chin. “News from the States.”
Lazaro raised the paper and held it away from his body, the shiny wooden cane now tucked under his left arm. He would not be seen with reading glasses in public; it was a sign of age and weakness.
“Of course,” he said with a tone that said he was not surprised. “The L.A. Times.”
She’d long been fine-tuned to each of his nuances—a necessity—and she watched as his lips tightened almost imperceptibly. He could read English as well as she, yet he despised her time across the border. Even as a young man, he’d made no secret of his displeasure and disagreement with their father’s plans.
She held her breath, hoping that he would let this go and look no further. That her dangerous secrets, kept carefully and close, would not come crashing down.
Lazaro scanned the page for only a minute before his eyes stilled.
Dios, no. He’d seen it. He’d remembered the name.
He snapped the paper then folded it and handed it to Jorge. “Keep this,” he said, even as his right hand pulled the cane free.
Lucia forgot to breathe, as her eyes latched on to the arc of gold, wide and high, before a swift descent. Instinct had her arm raising to block the blow, but she was too late. Pain erupted near her temple, and instantly—mercifully—the world went black.
Three weeks later
If great sex could heal all wounds, Charlie Hart thought, then she and Mitch Saunders were well on their way to an incredibly healthy relationship. If not, well, they still had a lot of work to do.
“Never gets old, does it?” Charlie murmured, squeezing Mitch’s hand, the only place they were still linked after a spontaneous and sexy midday tumble.
Mitch levered onto one elbow and pressed his lips to her collarbone. He met her eyes with a grin. “I’m counting on that never.”
Charlie laughed, but the muscles of her neck and shoulders tensed.
He kissed her—she tasted both the salt of sweat and the tang of her own excitement—before he flopped onto his back.
She looked out the window at the gray winter sky and bare tree branches—standard fare for winter in Central Pennsylvania. Charlie knew he wasn’t fast-forwarding them to “until death do us part,” but she couldn’t help but feel the pressure. God… The Future. So friggin’ loaded.
They were in his bed in his apartment today, though more often than not they spent nights at hers. When she first returned to Blakes Ridge, they’d shacked up out of necessity, because she had nowhere else to go. But she’d been solo and on the run for too long, and all that togetherness chafed. He hadn’t been thrilled when she moved out a few months ago, but she needed her own place, her independence, and some room to breathe.
Breathing was hard a lot of times. Charlie was navigating—and in some ways very much enjoying—this first real relationship. Due to that bastard Thomas Weihle, she was also building a relationship with her mom, who was recovering from many years of illness. Little by little she was sorting out how to be part of her daughter’s life. Mackenzie was only seven, so that included the girl’s adopted parents, Pamela and Ray Hudson. Worst of all, she was fighting to remain Charlie Hart—when the legal system wanted her to relive her nightmare as Laura Macnamara.
She had no idea if she was doing any of it right.
She curled on her side, eyes raking over the hard planes of Mitch’s body, trying to bring herself back to the present. He stretched and turned, then caught her eye. “Don’t.” His laugh was warm, and his cock twitched. “I gotta get moving.”
“You can move right here.” Charlie slid a hand down her stomach and tucked her fingers between her legs. A bad habit—or maybe not—she’d developed, keeping the focus on sex. Sex she could handle. She could separate from it when she felt too much—a trick she’d learned by necessity during years of abuse.
With Mitch, though, there was also the closeness and tenderness that came afterward—and even when they weren’t naked. They had a connection she felt down to her bones. She never doubted his motives or her physical safety. With him there was no power play—at least not anymore. He simply gave.
But she didn’t really know how to receive. Invariably, she got freaked out, all skittish.
Mitch’s eyes heated, even as his brows lowered. Perceptive, especially when it came to her, he’d caught on to her game long ago. Still, he rolled toward her and slid a warm palm up her thigh.
Out of nowhere, his cell rang. “Shit.” He squeezed her hip and then rolled, vaulting off the bed.
He was a detective and close to retiring, but she knew being a cop would always be part of him. She wiggled her toes inside her socks, glad for them now in the chilly room. Not exactly sexy, but she and Mitch had been in a hurry. Charlie didn’t mind the hurry or the cop thing. She liked that he never shirked duty, that he took his commitments seriously, that he knew what to do in the worst situations, that he had morals and a strong sense of right and wrong.
Mitch snatched up the phone from the nightstand and sat on the bed, one knee up, back against the bare wall. Quite a view from her eye level.
There were a few grunted acknowledgments, and then Mitch yanked a pillow over his lap. “I wish I could help you, but I’m still with the force.” He shut his eyes. “I can’t take the case.”
Charlie scooted out of bed. It wasn’t his job this time. It was another brokenhearted, terrified parent who had found Mitch’s private number. Another family praying he could help them find their runaway son or daughter.
He’d found Charlie—known locally as runaway Laura Macnamara—after six long years. Ever since, he’d been known as a man who didn’t give up, a man who could do the impossible.
Mitch took the number of this caller and promised to let them know if anything changed. “I’m truly sorry,” he said.
Charlie grabbed her t-shirt and panties from the floor and slid into both, before finding her cargo pants under Mitch’s jeans. They were finally getting good and soft. She’d had to purchase a couple of new pairs from the nearest Army Navy store when she decided to stay in town. Her favorites were still in the apartment her dear friend Henrietta held for her in San Francisco. Henry had wanted to mail her things, but Charlie refused. She held on tight to the apartment and that faraway stuff. It felt like an out she could exercise at any time.
Mitch sat, elbows on knees, his palms pressed into his eyes. He blamed himself for his sister’s death. The need to atone had him in a chokehold. Charlie understood only too well.
Her heart lurched, and she rounded the bed to go to him, popping her sweatshirt over her head on the way. She wasn’t the only one with hard decisions to make and the future pressing in. “Not a missing dog this time, I guess.”
He looked up and sucked in air, nostrils flaring. “No.”
He didn’t say more, partly, she thought, to spare her, and partly because it wasn’t like she was helping matters. Because he didn’t just want to leave the force and set up shop as a private investigator. He wanted Charlie to join him. She’d been a runaway, after all. She’d lived on the streets, understood the desperation, knew the tricks to stay hidden, and had a keen instinct when it came to threats and self-preservation.
But for the first time in her life, she finally had the opportunity to pursue an actual career—one of her own choosing, one that didn’t require cash under the table. For now, she was buying time with another waitressing job—not as good as the one in San Francisco when she worked for her friend Cleo, but it was okay.
She was having trouble figuring out what she wanted to do, though. A lot of things had to factor in, like her mother, Mackenzie, Mitch… Still, she didn’t want another decision made for her.
Mitch understood, but the clock was ticking.
The damn clock was always ticking, wasn’t it?
Ian Cross woke with a dread so terrifying that he refused to open his eyes. He had a mother of a headache, he was ten seconds from hurling, and his tongue was as dry and stiff as corrugated cardboard. His shoulders burned and the arm he was lying on felt half dead.
In short, he felt like pure hell—which meant only one thing.
Except he couldn’t even remember it to enjoy the high. Fucking hell.
If he opened his eyes it would be worse. Ian groaned, picturing a ratty couch—but no, he was lying on a hard surface. Probably some shit-caked floor surrounded by needles and losers and God knew what. He knew it would stink and tried not to breathe. If it was daylight, the brightness would just about kill him.
Just as well. He deserved it.
He’d rather be dead than have slipped.
“Fuck, fuck,” he said.
Ian tried to raise his hand to cover his eyes but couldn’t. He shifted—testing—and discovered he was tied at the wrists, his arms wrenched behind him. Oh God. What the hell had he gotten himself into?
Ian’s eyes shot open, only to see wrinkled linen slacks, bare ankles, and scuffed loafers pacing two feet in front of his nose. The first irrational and childish thought was that it was his dad—but no. Stephen Cross wore socks. Plus, this guy’s skin was too dark.
Other possibilities, more probable, followed in short order. He’d traded sex for drugs—and the guy was a bondage perv or a total psycho. Or he’d been taken against his will to be sold into sex slavery. Please, please no. But he hadn’t been using, so it made no sense!
Could this this be a ransom thing because Dad was rich? Or—
Where was he, anyway?
His gaze darted around, past the shoes. On a plane? In a small rear cabin, maybe? The industrial-style carpet smelled new; the swivel-style captain’s chairs appeared to be real leather. But the engines weren’t screaming loud, so—
“Sî. On the ground. Where the hell is the transport?”
Christ. The man had spoken Spanish. Hungover as Ian was, he hadn’t even realized he was translating it automatically. The shoes stopped, tips aimed at his nose.
Ian looked up past the sand-colored slacks to see a man with a stocky build, thick arms, and a brutish face with a puckered scar that curved from one cheekbone into the hairline at his temple. Black eyes bored into him with animosity. Maybe even hatred, although Ian was pretty sure he’d never met this guy before.
The man lowered a cell phone, traded it for a syringe, and squatted down.
“No,” Ian said. He remembered now. He’d been in the garage, about to get in the car, when he felt a sharp prick in his neck and then beefy arms wrapping around him from behind.
Ian reared back and tried to kick, but his legs were bound, too. The man grinned and drove an elbow into Ian’s gut. Ian curled in pain.
The man put his forearm on Ian’s upper arm and used his body weight to hold him still. Panic tore through him as the man fisted the syringe and stabbed the needle into Ian’s neck.
What the ever-loving… Ian didn’t even finish the thought before it all went dark again.
* * *
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