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She frowned. “How did you deceive me?”
“I don’t have to leave for New York for a while. I’m staying longer, and I should have come into the bar and told you.”
“Why are you staying?”
He tilted his head and tapped her chin. “Like you need to ask.”
She let out a little exhale of satisfaction.
“He seems like a great kid,” Dan added, glancing at the house.
“He is. He’s amazing. And …” She closed her hand over his, and pressed it to her cheek. “So are you.”
Baba, send me a sign. It’s Maggie, calling for help.
Maggie curled her legs under her, fitting nicely into the undersize backseat of the sports car, listening to the two males in the front discuss cylinders, horsepower, and torque.
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Did the numbers 9:28 portend great things?
That they’d get married on September 28? That he’d kiss her nine hundred and twenty-eight times in their lifetime together? Or just tonight? That’d work, too.
She and Quinn had just spent four hours with the most delectable man she’d ever met, and all the three of them had done was laugh over burgers and basically have more fun than she’d had at a dinner since Smitty died.
Who needed a sign? Face facts, sister. You’re over the moon for this guy. Totally crushed out, as Quinn would say.
She looked up into the rearview mirror just as Dan caught her fighting a smile. He gave her a sly wink and the Fourth of July exploded in her stomach.
Not only was he a prime gorgeous hot, sexy hunk of human male, he also asked Quinn a zillion questions and listened to the answers. He never made fun of the teen talk, never excluded him from the conversation, and kept everyone laughing.
And made her blood boil with lust.
Could she possibly have a great guy to be around her son and a lust fest for herself?
But how could there be a future? Her mind whirred with possibilities and obstacles. He lived in New York. Would she move to New York?
In a heartbeat. The one that had been hammering her chest for the last three hours. Of course, she’d have to sell the bar, and after all Brandy had put into it, that would be tough. But maybe if she—
“Can I, Mom?” Quinn turned and asked the question, dragging her from the most ridiculous and premature line of thought she’d ever had.
“Uh, it’s kind of loud back here.” She put her hand to her ear. “Can you what?”
Dan looked in the mirror again, the smile in his eyes looking a lot like the one in Quinn’s. “That’s because the engine’s in the back,” he explained.
No, it’s because she was spinning stupid fairy tales.
“Can I put the stereo on full blast?” Quinn asked. “They’re Bose surround-sound speakers. Okay?”
She nodded. Maybe the first song would be a sign from the universe.
A guitar solo blared and Quinn shouted something over it, so Maggie just closed her eyes and conjured up her own signs. But all she could think of was the way Dan had kissed her and touched her on the beach. What would happen if they went further? Should she?
She sneaked a peek at his shoulders, at the dark blond hair that brushed his collar, at the hair-dusted forearm resting confidently on the gearshift.
She shouldn’t, but, whoa, she wanted to.
“Can I change the tune?” Quinn asked, sliding it to the classic rock station he liked.
A rocker wailed. “You . . . shook me all night long.”
Okay, Baba. Got it. Heard that one loud and clear. Maggie listened to the crashing rock and roll and felt her whole body coil into a knot the rest of the way home. She stayed wound pretty tight while Quinn took his captive audience on a tour of his room to examine his car posters, and the two of them Googled exotic sports cars for a little while.
When Quinn finally went to bed, she lit a few candles on the screened-in back porch, got Dan a beer, poured herself some wine, and left plenty of room next to her on the rattan sofa. It was dim, private, and romantic, with the smell of the sea in the air and wind brushing palm fronds together. Perfect.
When he joined her he seemed completely at ease, in no way put out by having to spend all those hours with a teenager.
“You’ve really been terrific to him tonight,” she said. “Thanks.”
“No need. He’s an awesome kid,” he said. “Smart and inquisitive. Great sense of humor.”
“He’s very dry-witted,” she agreed. “Sometimes downright sarcastic.”
“Hey, he’s a teenager. He’s doing his job,” he said, sitting down next to her. “I’m glad I got to know him.”
Did she detect a strange note in his voice? The same one she heard when he said he was staying in town . . . something was just not right.
“I have to ask you a question,” she said, lifting her glass. “And you have to promise to be completely honest.”
That got her a rueful smile. “Of course.”
“Because something you said, and did, has kind of been niggling at me all night.”
The smile disappeared. “Really? What?”
“When we got in the car to leave tonight, you had to take a duffel bag out of the backseat to make room for me.”
He took a sip of his beer, not looking at her as she continued.
“But right before that, you said you’d decided to stay a few extra days. So, when did you decide that? As you pulled up and saw—”
“You in those shorts.” The answer was fast—and a little too slick? “I drove around the corner, saw paradise plastered on the hood of a Chevy, and changed my plans.”
God, she wanted to believe that.
“Now I have a question.” His tone was serious, and his expression matched.
“Fair enough. Shoot.”
“You must have been pretty young when you got married, huh? I mean Quinn’s thirteen and you’re . . .”
It wasn’t the first time she’d heard this. “I was nineteen when he was born,” she said, heat rising to her cheeks because she’d just demanded honesty, and he’d countered with the one and only thing in her life that didn’t get that same treatment. “And, yes, I married young.”
He would assume, as everyone did, that she and Smitty had to get married. And she would tell him the truth: that she and Smitty married when Quinn was a year old. No one had ever questioned anything beyond that. They’d met when she was two months’ pregnant, and almost from the beginning, they’d been complicit in the lie.
Except she’d insisted on putting the truth on Quinn’s birth certificate.
“So, did you meet your husband in high school?”
“Um, no.” She’d told the story enough times and it was so close to reality that it even felt genuine. “I dropped out of high school, and came down to the Keys really young. I got a job working in the kitchen for Smitty because I was too young to serve alcohol, and we . . . well, it was pretty much love at first sight.” Maybe not love. Maybe . . . need. Love came later. “We ended up getting married when Quinn was about a year old.”
She never actually said Smitty was Quinn’s father, but everyone made the assumption.
Except something about his expression said he didn’t believe her. “Why didn’t you get married before he was born?”
Why was he looking at her like that? “Lots of people wait. And I was really young. A lot younger than Smitty.”
He nodded, obviously thinking it all through, and for some reason, didn’t seem quite . . . satisfied.
“He was twelve years older than me,” she added.
Still, he didn’t respond.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, fighting a little wave of defensiveness and embarrassment. “A lot of people live together before they’re married,” she said, her voice sounding weak to her. “And have babies.”
The romance of the moment slipped a little, along with her heart. He didn’t like her story, she could tell. Well, he’
d really hate the rest of it, then.
Quinn’s not Smitty’s child. I was a drug dealer’s girlfriend who had an affair with a narc.
He picked up his beer and took a drink, then set it down a little hard. “Did you call the police?”
Call the police? For what? Then she realized what he was referring to.
“When we were robbed? Of course. Actually, it’s a sheriff in Marathon, and they did a full report. But they’ll never find who did it.”
“What’d they take?”
“Well, it was weird,” she said, lifting her wineglass. “They took only paper: old receipts, bar tabs, and a strongbox from my office, which had some legal docs and paperwork. But they left the small diamond ring in my jewelry box.”
“Any prescription drugs?”
She shook her head. “I don’t take them, but they only went into two places. My office and my bedroom. Nothing else was touched. For drugged up kids, they were neat.”
“No electronics? Laptop? TV?”
“And it happened Friday night?”
“Yes. Why all the questions, officer?”
“Can’t help it. My FBI background comes out.”
She barely covered the tiny intake of breath and managed not to sound shocked. “FBI?”
He nodded slowly, watching her reaction carefully. Too carefully.
“I didn’t know you were with the FBI.”
“That’s what I did before I joined the Bullet Catchers, the firm I work for now. I was an FBI agent.”
She sipped her wine, but it stuck in her throat and swallowing felt impossible. “Well, you’re welcome to look around for clues, but I’m pretty sure it was just a random robbery.”
Could any FBI agent—or former one—find her name in the old files from the Jimenez drug bust? Could they know her history? She’d never been contacted after she ran away from that life, but it always hovered in the back of her mind.
An FBI agent would hate how she’d lived. She hated how she’d lived. Or maybe he already knew.
She sat a little straighter. “So, how long were you with the FBI?” She forced her voice to be casually interested, not riddled with shame.
He nailed her with that green gaze again, direct and meaningful. “A long time.”
Oh God. He knew exactly who she was. And if he didn’t, he would. He’d run a check, and her name would pop right up in some federal computer.
But not Smith. It would say Varcek. Didn’t matter; it was only a matter of time. This party had officially ended.
She stood up. “You know, it’s getting late and I have to work late tomorrow night so I better get some sleep.”
He didn’t move. “Why?”
Why? Why did she live with a drug dealing son of a money launderer when she was eighteen, and screw around with an undercover federal agent? Why did she run away and never look back, pregnant with that bastard’s kid? Why did she change her name, her life, and her world? “Why what?” Her voice cracked.
“Why do you want me to leave?”
She blew out a breath, and offered a shaky smile. “Because, as you may recall, I have absolutely zero ability to resist you, and my son may or may not be asleep at this moment, and if you spend even one more second here, I will surely jump your bones and take a ride. So, good-bye. And thanks for dinner. I had a blast.”
He reached up his hand and tried to tug her back down. “We can just talk.”
She gave a dry laugh. “Yeah, that was some sparkling conversation on the beach.”
“No, I’m serious. I have . . . something I want to tell you, Maggie.”
I bet you do. “My name’s Lena. I haven’t been Maggie for a long time. That girl is . . . dead. Got it?” She underscored that with a look that said she would not talk, she would not confess, and she would not let some former FBI agent dredge up her past and smash it into the face of her unsuspecting son.
His expression grew darker and even more intense, but he didn’t say a word.
“So, please. Up and out, Irish.” She worked to keep her voice easy. “Night’s over.”
Very slowly, without taking his eyes from her, he stood. Then he put his thumb on her chin and rubbed it, the gesture pulling at something elemental in her.
“All right, Lena,” he said softly. “We’ll talk . . . later.” He lowered his face and kissed her so softly she barely felt it. “Good night.”
She didn’t move as he walked away. She listened to his footsteps on the tile floor, heard the front door open and close. Following him, she twisted the dead bolt.
His car started up with a loud rumble, then disappeared into the night. She dropped her head against the door and closed her eyes.
The first tear that slipped out surprised her. She never cried. She hadn’t cried since Smitty died. And before that, not since she’d been a teenager in trouble.
She wiped her face hard—but that didn’t get rid of the hollow pain in her heart.
ALONSO JIMENEZ KEPT his head low, his right hand on a pistol in one pocket, his left hand on the riveted handle of his dagger. Nighttime in the warehouse barrio of Las Marías, Venezuela, was no place to wander alone and unarmed.
Especially for El Viejo.
But his normal circle of protection couldn’t be trusted to accompany him on this trip. No one could. He’d made this visit three times in the past six months, and he’d run into trouble on a few occasions, but nothing serious. He’d been very, very lucky so far.
There were so few cars in Las Marías that he stopped when he heard an engine, slipping into the shadows to let the vehicle rumble by. Pressed against the dilapidated wood boards of a building less than one block from his destination, he turned his head to flatten himself as much as possible as the car passed.
A few seconds ticked by, and the car slowed.
He swore under his breath. He was old, and past his prime for street fighting. But the engine revved again and the old heap continued on its way, so Alonso did, too.
Around the corner he stepped into a littered alley, rats skittering at the sound of his footsteps. It grew darker as he moved deeper to the side door of a stucco-sided warehouse, pausing to listen for the car, or anyone who might have followed him.
Only his breath. His heartbeat.
One was quick, the other, sadly, getting slower every day. The cancer that invaded his body was taking its toll, no matter how much he tried to deny it. Just as it had for Caridad, his beloved wife, time was running out. And he had yet to finish the most important project of all. When he was done, to the victor went the spoils.
Well, to the boy.
He sheathed his knife so he could slip a key into the padlock on the metal side door. Silently he unlocked it and opened the door just enough to slide inside.
He paused in the musty darkness, giving his eyes a moment to adjust when he closed the door behind him. When he could see shadows, he rolled an empty barrel he kept near the opening against the door, standing it up so that he’d hear it scrape the floor if someone tried to get in. There was no internal lock; that would just be a signal that something extremely valuable was in this “abandoned” warehouse.
A rat scratched the rafters, but other than that the place was silent.
Alonso felt his way to the left, his fingers scraping the rotting wood of empty shelves. Five more steps, then four to the right until he reached the crates. He touched one, following the lines of the splintered wood until he found the opening. He reached for the crowbar he’d left on a shelf last time and just as his fingers closed over it, the scuff of metal on concrete echoed through the warehouse.
The door was shoved open so quickly that he didn’t have time to get his dagger. He dove to the floor, crawling between two crates, the crowbar in his grip.
A hushed whisper, a low male laugh. The rough tones of barrio Spanish.
They knew he was in here, or suspected it. And even if they didn’t find him, would they find what he
He couldn’t risk making a sound by reaching for his weapon. So he waited, dead still.
A crate moved across the floor, gritty dirt against ce ment. Feet scuffled, and a few words were exchanged in hushed whispers. If they had a light, he’d know it by now. And he’d be dead, or killing one of them.
“Que hay aquí?”
What was in here? More money than any of these maracuchos had ever seen in their lives.
Listening to the slow and steady beat of his pulse, Alonso waited.
One of them kicked a crate and called the others. “Pesado.”
Of course it was heavy; it was full of gold. He swallowed, keeping his mouth closed so his tongue didn’t click on the dry roof of his mouth.
He heard the sound of their moving one of the crates, discussing how to open it.
A motor revved, and a shout from the street stopped everything. “Anda! Anda!”
Yes. Go. Now.
The first prickle of relief started in his chest as one of them moved to the door. Then another. Then the third. They spoke, too quiet for him to make out the words. A little laughter. Another shout from the street.
They left the door open when they ran out, which gave out the tiniest bit of light. He waited, listening for the sound of the engine to fade away before he carefully pushed himself up from his hiding place. He took a few silent steps, the dim light from outside giving him a fairly clear view of the storage area. All of the crates appeared to be as they had been, except for the ones he’d emptied, piece by tedious piece.
He had a job to do. And a grandchild to do it for.
He lifted the crowbar to raise the lid of the crate he’d come to empty, just as he heard the infinitesimal whisper of a breath behind him.
Whipping around with the bar raised, he flung himself on instinct without seeing his attacker. The crowbar smacked against a head, the crack of the skull snapping through the warehouse walls, instantly followed by a yelp.
Alonso took another vicious swing as the man fell to the ground, landing the blow right on his temple. That silenced him. But was it enough?
He whacked again, thudding the skull one more time, then again, and again, until his attacker lay completely still.