Can't Hide From Me
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Charles Hunter’s team is on a mission to extract an unidentified ATF agent from an undercover job gone wrong. All they’ve got to go on is the rendezvous location—until Charles recognizes the ex he hasn’t seen in years. Their “simple rescue mission” is about to get a lot more complicated.
For Ángel Medina, adjusting to life after his cartel nightmare is hard enough without confronting memories of a failed relationship. All he wants is a fresh start. But when a violent stalker lashes out from the shadows, Ángel realizes his nightmare is far from over.
As the stalker’s obsession escalates and bodies start dropping, Charles and Ángel are thrown together in a desperate search for the culprit. Tempers flare and old passions reignite, drawing them back into the same turbulent relationship that once ended in disaster.
But the stalker isn’t letting go—and the next strike might hit straight through the heart.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“All right, comm check,” Jade said, her honey-sweet voice coming clear and strong through Charles’s earpiece. “Siren here. Everything looks good on my end. Valkyrie?”
“Online,” said Eva. She slipped her arm into the crook of Charles’s elbow as they strolled along a crowded sidewalk in downtown El Paso. A tall woman even while barefoot, Eva’s strappy heels put her at height with Charles, a couple inches over six feet. The drape of her silky black dress over lean, hard muscles drew more than a few admiring glances. “We’re approaching the restaurant now.”
“Copy that. Griffin?”
“Online,” Charles said. He scanned the hordes of Saturday night pleasure-seekers thronging both sides of the street, alert to any behavior out of the ordinary. Though only in his early thirties, he felt ancient next to the swarms of fresh-faced college kids who made up a big chunk of the population, compliments of the local branch of the University of Texas. Had he ever had that much energy?
With a crackling sigh, Sakura said, “I’m sitting literally three feet away from you.”
“Yeah, but I just love the way your forehead scrunches up when you’re annoyed,” Jade said. “This isn’t only for my benefit, you know.”
“Fury online. Wheels ready to go at extraction point.”
“Thanks, sweetie. Sandman?”
“Online,” Shane said. “I’m in position across the street. Someone want to remind me why I’m being relegated to lookout?”
“Because you’re a young white man,” said Charles, lowering his voice as he and Eva entered Bar Medianoche, joining the line for the hostess stand. “Nobody’s going to harass you for sitting alone in your car on a busy city street.”
“I don’t know—some of these ladies walking by are looking very interested.”
“I’m sure your wife would be thrilled to hear that.”
Charles and Eva reached the front of the line, where the beleaguered hostess gave them a tight smile and said, “How many?”
“We’d like to just sit at the bar, if that’s all right,” Charles said.
“Of course,” she said, her smile relaxing. “Go right ahead.”
“Remember, people, this is an extraction,” Eva said once they were clear of the hostess stand. “There will be no engagement or apprehension of any criminal suspects unless absolutely necessary. There will certainly be no shots fired. Is that understood, Sandman?”
“Ouch, Valkyrie, way to call a guy out,” Sakura said.
“You shoot a mannequin one time,” Shane grumbled.
Bar Medianoche was a large establishment, classy and upscale, packed to the rafters with a diverse clientele. An enormous three-sided bar dominated the center of the restaurant, with tables expanding outward in concentric arcs and booths lining the walls. Charles and Eva merged with the mob at the bar, where there wasn’t a single empty seat; the din of conversation was so loud that people had to shout their orders to the bartender.
“I’ve got the camera feeds up,” Jade said, accompanied by the sound of clicking keys. “Nice of the manager to let us piggyback, but if he thinks I couldn’t take control in three seconds flat—”
“No,” Eva said.
“I’m just pointing out that I could,” said Jade, all wounded innocence. “Oh, I see you guys—damn, Griffin, you are looking fine in that suit. Hey, how come there’s never been a black James Bond?”
Charles adjusted his tie, trying to catch the bartender’s attention. “Do you really want me to answer that?”
“Well, you’re way hotter than Daniel Craig. And that’s saying something.”
“Siren,” Eva snapped, over Shane and Sakura’s snickering.
“Sorry, Valkyrie. You look awesome too, as per usual. That dress is really working for—”
There came a loud thud, a yelp, and a sudden silence.
“Thanks, Fury,” said Eva.
“No problem,” Sakura said.
Eva lifted one hand and smiled in the direction of the bartender, who all but dropped the shaker he was holding to hurry toward them. She and Charles accepted their swiftly poured wine and stepped away from the bar.
“Now all we have to do is find one total stranger in a jam-packed restaurant,” Charles said, directing his remark to Eva, though the other three could still hear him.
“Yeah, but on the plus side, we know he’s a Latino man in his late twenties,” Jade said. “Who could be easier to find in El Paso?”
Charles sighed. Their target, a fellow ATF agent who’d spent two years undercover with the Esparza cartel, had requested extraction when the cartel leader’s sudden death destabilized the power structure. Straightforward enough—until the agent’s handler, Paul Warner, had gone missing the night before the scheduled meet up.
As per protocol, Warner was the only person who knew the undercover agent’s true identity; all of the agent’s electronic records had been purged. The single paper copy of his file had been safeguarded in a secure room in the agency’s Dallas office, tucked away in a lockbox to which Warner had sole access. When Warner’s disappearance was confirmed, Dallas Division had instituted emergency protocols to break into the lockbox, only to find it empty.
Warner had filed a bare-bones report on the extraction request, including place and time. But with everything else missing, that was all the agency had to go on. Concerns of internal corruption had prompted Dallas Division to call in Eva’s team from two divisions over to handle the extraction. For all they knew, the undercover agent was already dead.
“We’re looking for high-level lieutenants of the Esparza cartel,” said Eva. “Phoenix’s communication indicated that he wouldn’t be alone. It’s the only hope we have of identifying him.”
“Split up?” Charles suggested.
Eva nodded, and they went their separate ways. While Eva headed to the east side, Charles went south, making a slow circuit of the restaurant and sipping casually from his wineglass. He skimmed every table and booth he passed, but it was a losing proposition. The patrons were in a partying mood, milling back and forth between tables and many not sitting in their seats at all; the servers had a hard time getting through the crowded aisles. About half the men present were Latino and relatively young.
“Anything on those cameras, Siren?” Eva asked.
“I’m doing my best, but these are shitty restaurant security cams. The resolution is terrible, and it’s not like I can run face-recognition software on this system.”
Charles completed his perusal of the restaurant’s south section and headed up the west wall, narrowly avoiding a collision with a server bearing a trayful of cocktails.
“Worst-case scenario, we could evacuate the restaurant,” Sakura said. “Position someone at each exit, watch everyone who comes out.”
“And risk collateral damage in the panic that would cause?”
Charles considered the tables he wove between. If he were cartel, he wouldn’t sit in a wide-open space like this; he’d want something against the wall, with easy access to at least one of the exits. This restaurant was a logistical nightmare judged from any angle, and the only tables that offered real protection were the booths along the sides. Maybe by the kitchen, for the added possibility of escape through the back . . .
He turned his head, humming in thought, and met the eyes of a man he never thought he’d see again.
He stopped short right in the aisle, shock reverberating through his body. A woman bumped into him from behind, muttered something uncomplimentary, and skirted around him. Charles’s hand spasmed around his glass.
Ángel was too good to give himself away. His jaw tightened, but he otherwise showed no reaction as his eyes slid naturally past Charles’s and returned to his companions, two burly, bearded Latino men at least two decades his senior.
“I . . .” Charles cleared his throat and moved away, returning to the bar before he could call any unwanted attention to himself. “I found Phoenix. Booth in the far northwest corner.”
“On my way to you,” Eva said.
“I’ll grab a visual,” Jade said. “You’re sure it’s Phoenix?”
Setting his wine on the bar, Charles said, “I’m positive. I know him.”
“You know him?” Shane said.
“We worked together in Tucson,” Charles said, just as Eva rejoined him.
Her eyes widened; she was the only one on the squad who understood the full import of that statement. She glanced in Ángel’s direction, then back at Charles with raised eyebrows. He pressed his lips together.
“All right,” said Jade, “let’s see what I can do here . . . Oh. Oh, wow. Hot. Super hot. Turn up the A/C, Fury.”
Eva groaned in exasperation. “Siren, do you remember the conversation we had about not saying every single word that goes through your head?”
“Let me see that,” Sakura said to Jade. There was a short scuffle over comms, a squawk of protest from Jade, and then Sakura said, “Looks like Oscar Palomo to me—Esparza’s brother-in-law. What do you guys think?”
“Agreed,” Charles said. Palomo’s square jaw and cold eyes were easily recognizable from the dossiers Charles and his team had reviewed on the flight to El Paso.
“We’ve got more than enough for a positive ID, then,” Jade said. “That’s Phoenix.”
“He’s scared,” Eva said quietly.
Charles nodded. Ángel was an excellent actor—the best Charles had ever met—but his shoulders were tense, his smile strained at the edges as he chatted with the two men. Palomo laughed at something Ángel said, clapping a hand over the back of his neck and squeezing, and Charles saw Ángel’s harsh swallow all the way from where he stood.
“Take a look at that security,” said Charles, jerking his chin toward the table diagonal to Ángel’s booth. Four beefy, hard-eyed men occupied it, their plates untouched.
“Way to be inconspicuous,” Jade said with a snort. “They might as well be wearing buttons that say ‘I’m cartel, ask me how!’”
“We need to be careful about this,” Eva said. “I don’t think they’ll risk gunfire in a public place, but you never know. Sandman, Fury, how are we looking?”
“All quiet out front,” Shane reported. “Well, not quiet, but you know what I mean.”
“Ditto in the back. I’m ready to move when you are.”
“All right.” Eva smoothed out her dress, flipped her long blonde hair over one shoulder, and lifted her glass of wine. “Siren, be prepared to scramble cell phones on Griffin’s signal.”
Eva started across the restaurant, heading for Ángel’s table, teetering on her heels as if drunk. Charles set his own glass on the bar and moved in the opposite direction, though he kept an eye on her.
As Eva reached the booth, she stumbled over her own feet and lurched forward, dumping her red wine all over Ángel’s front. Ángel jerked in surprise, reaching out to steady her with one hand. The guards at the next table shifted, wary, but all it took was batted eyelashes, a smile, and a few charming apologies on Eva’s part to draw forth disarmed replies from Ángel’s companions. Eva tottered off, and Ángel slid out of the booth.
“Now, Siren.” Charles turned and walked as quickly as he could without drawing attention. The restaurant’s kitchen was massive, spanning the entire north wall, with doors on either end—one by the cartel’s booth, and the other opening into the same wide hallway that provided access to the restrooms. Palomo couldn’t have chosen a table more convenient to their team’s plan if he’d done it deliberately.
“Cell phones scrambled. Ninety seconds.”
“Whoa, they’re having two guys follow him,” Sakura said. “I thought his cover hadn’t been blown?”
“That was three days ago, and before his handler disappeared.” Charles ducked out of the dining room and into the restroom hallway.
“If his cover had been blown, he’d be dead, not having dinner with Palomo and company in a nice restaurant,” said Shane.
Sakura hummed agreement. “Either way, this is gonna get nasty. They’re only fifteen feet behind him.”
“I’ve got your back,” Eva said. “Just get Phoenix out of here.”
Ángel turned the corner into the hallway, pausing when he saw Charles. God, he was beautiful, as beautiful as the last day Charles had seen him—black hair falling loose into one eye, sensual mouth thin with anxiety, fine suit tailored to flatter every long line of his lithe, toned body.
Charles pushed open the kitchen door and tilted his head sharply. Ángel ran toward him.
They slammed into the kitchen together as the guards entered the hallway. The two men shouted in Spanish and gave chase, footsteps pounding behind Charles and Ángel as they bolted past the startled kitchen staff, dodging a cook coming off the back line. He dropped an armful of dishrags with a loud yelp.
“Palomo heard the shouting,” Jade said, all business now. “He’s realized his cell doesn’t work; he’s sending the other two guards after you. Move your ass.”
Charles grabbed Ángel’s elbow and hauled him through the back exit into the staff parking lot. Their black Suburban idled ten feet away, the rear door standing open.
The guards caught up with them then, one leaping forward to wrap an arm around Ángel’s throat. Without breaking stride, Ángel flipped the man over his shoulder so he landed hard on his back on the asphalt, then reached down and snatched his gun.
Charles drew his own gun as he spun to confront the second guard, who already had Charles in his sights. Eva came flying out of the restaurant, landing a hard kick to the back of the man’s leg that sent him to his knees. The man half turned, startled, and Eva grabbed his head with both hands, slamming his face into her kneecap. His nose broke with a loud crunch.
“Get in the car!” Eva said.
Ángel pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket, whipped it at the ground with a choked, angry cry, and stomped on it. Then he dove into the Suburban’s backseat with Charles right on his heels. Eva followed last, yanking the door shut. Sakura floored the accelerator and peeled out of the parking lot as the other two guards emerged from the restaurant at a dead run, firing off a few wild shots.
“Palomo came out the front; he’s getting in his car,” Shane said. “I’ll follow.”
Charles looked sideways at Ángel, silent beside him with a grim face and his hand tight around his stolen gun. Sakura swung the car onto the road that would lead them to the freeway.
“Uh, guys?” Shane said a couple of minutes later. “Palomo’s heading right for you. Like, right for you. I don’t know how, but he knows where you are.”
“Shit,” said Sakura. She changed lanes and made an abrupt right turn. “I’ll reroute.”
“What’s wrong?” Ángel asked.
“Palomo knows our location somehow,” Charles said. “You dumped your cell—is there another way he could be tracking you?”
“Fuck, I don’t know. It could be anything.” Gazing down at his own body, Ángel unbuckled his fancy watch, rolled down the window, and tossed it out onto the road. The watch was followed in short order by his suit jacket, his cufflinks, and—after a moment’s hesitation—his shoes.
“Okay, they’re slowing down,” said Shane. “They’re definitely confused.”
“Maintain evasive maneuvers for now,” Eva instructed Sakura.
Sakura nodded, taking them on a zigzagging route through a web of quiet residential streets with guidance from Jade, who sat in the front passenger seat with her computer open to a local map. Five tense, silent minutes later, Shane reported that Palomo had ceased pursuit. Everyone but Ángel let out a collective sigh of relief.
“Fury, get us to the airport ASAP,” Eva said. “Sandman, meet us there.”
“Looks like we lost them,” Charles said to Ángel.
Ángel set his gun down with a shuddering exhale, running both of his hands through his hair. He buckled his seat belt, then turned in his seat to face Charles with a small smile.
“Hello, Charles,” he said.
“Ángel,” Charles said evenly. He was stiff in his seat, his handsome face unsmiling, dark eyes as piercing and intense as Ángel remembered. His broad shoulders took up more than his fair share of the back, edging into Ángel’s space.
“Charles,” he’d introduced himself when they’d first met, Ángel fresh out of training and assigned to his first post in Tucson. “Never Charlie.” Ángel had spent a good six months after that greeting him as Charles-Never-Charlie just to watch him fight off one of his rare smiles.
“Dude, that was some intense littering,” said the woman in the front passenger seat, redirecting Ángel’s attention. Her voice was rich and sweet, pouring over his skin like molasses.
Ángel turned to her in surprise. “God,” he said, “you have the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.”
“Thanks,” she said with a smile. Her brown hair was plaited in a simple braid, her skin smooth and white. She held a laptop on her thighs. “I’m—”
“No,” Charles interrupted. “Code names only until he’s been debriefed.”
“Do you think I’ve gone native, Charles?” Ángel said softly.
Charles’s nostrils flared, but all he said was, “I’m not qualified to make that assessment, which is why information will be compartmentalized until you’ve been debriefed by the appropriate professionals.”
So composed, so proper. Even after everything that had happened between them, and everything that had come afterward, Ángel felt the old familiar urge to provoke Charles, to prick and sting him until all that careful self-control unraveled. He reined it in with difficulty.
“He’s right, though obviously you already know his name,” said the Scandinavian goddess on Charles’s other side. She leaned around him to shake Ángel’s hand. “I’m this team’s supervisory special agent. Valkyrie.”
Aptly named. “Ángel Medina.”
The woman in the front seat lifted a hand. “Siren.”
“Fury,” said the Asian American woman driving the car. She was short but solidly built, the sleeves of her T-shirt clinging to the impressive muscles of her shoulders and biceps. Ángel caught a glimpse of the tail end of a tattoo peeking out beneath one: —ER FI. Former Marine, then.
“Thank you all very much for the extraction,” Ángel said, “but where the hell is Paul?”
His stomach dropped at the uncomfortable silence that met his question.
“His wife reported him missing this morning,” Valkyrie said. “Apparently he never came home last night.”
Ángel sat back in his seat, blood roaring in his ears.
“We’re not sure if it was foul play or if he, ah, went somewhere willingly. His car is gone, and there were no signs of struggle at his home or his office. When Dallas broke into your lockbox, your file was missing too.”
Despite her insinuation, there was no chance on this earth that Paul had betrayed Ángel somehow and then made a run for it. If he was missing, he’d been taken. “Without Paul or my file, there’s no way for me to prove I am who I say I am,” Ángel said numbly.
“That’s not true,” said Charles. “I know you, and so does everyone who worked with us in Tucson.”
Ángel rubbed his eyes. “That’s not the same. There’s no paper trail now.”
“The FBI is looking for Warner,” Siren said. “They’ll find him.”
“You’re absolutely sure your cover wasn’t compromised?” Charles asked.
Lowering his hand, Ángel said, “If it had been, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now, trust me.”
“So your handler disappearing with the only copy of your file right before your extraction is just the biggest coincidence of all time?”
Ángel scowled at him. Charles glared right back.
With a slight cough, Valkyrie said, “I think we can table this discussion until we’ve had a chance to decompress a bit.”
Breaking eye contact with Charles, Ángel turned to look out the window. He pulled his sticky, wine-soaked shirt away from his chest and grimaced. “You said we’re going to the airport, right? Are we flying to Dallas?”
Valkyrie shook her head. “Given Warner’s disappearance, Dallas Division is concerned for your safety, so we’re taking you back to our own field office.”
“Which is where?”
“San Diego,” Charles said.
* * * * * * *
Ángel had been undercover for so long that he’d forgotten what it was like to not have to monitor and modify his behavior, speech, and body language every single moment. Over and over, he caught himself adjusting his responses to accommodate the others’ perceived expectations, his brain no longer able to react with natural spontaneity. Underlying it all was his constant companion, fear, warning him that one wrong word, one single misstep, could end in his death.
That’s over now, Ángel reminded himself. You don’t have to live like that anymore.
They arrived at a private terminal at the airport, where Ángel met the fifth member of the team, a cute, preppy white guy code-named Sandman. Forty-five minutes later, they were in the air, en route to San Diego.
Ensconced in a comfortable window seat in one of the jet’s four-top seating arrangements, Ángel accepted the bottle of water Siren passed him and gave her a grateful smile. She’d claimed the seat across from him, her face alight with curiosity; Fury and Sandman occupied the other two seats. Charles and Valkyrie sat across the aisle, the latter on the phone, reporting to the resident agent in charge of the San Diego field office.
“So, two years undercover,” Siren said. “How are you feeling?”
“I think it’ll take some time to adjust.” Ángel sipped his water.
Fury gave him a considering look, rubbing a hand over her short, spiky hair. “All the trouble the Esparza cartel’s been having the past couple of years—that was you, huh?”
“Well, it was a joint task force with the DEA. They had an agent undercover as well, though she wasn’t as central to the operation. I’m pretty sure she requested extraction too, but I lost track of her a few days ago when things went crazy.”
On the other side of the aisle, Valkyrie ended her call and started texting. Charles was reading his tablet, doing a pretty good job of pretending he wasn’t listening to their conversation.
“How’d you even get undercover with them in the first place?” Sandman asked.
“I was Raúl Esparza’s piece on the side,” said Ángel.
He watched for Charles’s reaction from the corner of his eye, and he wasn’t disappointed. Charles went abruptly, absolutely still, his eyes fixed on his tablet screen.
“His . . . piece on the side?” Sandman said, as if that couldn’t possibly mean what he thought it did.
“We were fucking,” Ángel said, so there would be no confusion.
His three seatmates regarded him with open mouths. Charles’s lips thinned out and his knuckles tightened around the edges of his tablet. Only Valkyrie showed no reaction, continuing to text without acknowledging that she’d heard anything out of the ordinary.
Old resentments flared to life as Ángel watched Charles. The wounds from their last fight had never healed, and knowing what Charles must be thinking now ripped them open further.
“You were Raúl Esparza’s boyfriend?” Siren said, her eyes wide.
“More like his mistress. Kept man, I guess you could say.”
Charles dropped his tablet on the table with a rattle and straightened his jacket, cracking his neck from side to side. Valkyrie glanced up from her phone to briefly meet his eyes.
Fuck, why was Ángel doing this to himself? There was no reason to be so blunt—except he wanted to upset Charles, to hurt him, even if it meant hurting himself as well.
Raising his eyebrows, Sandman asked, “How does a cartel boss get away with having a kept man?”
Ángel shrugged. “He also had a wife and several girlfriends. It was no threat to his machísmo to fuck a man the same way he would a woman.”
“Ah, I love the smell of misogyny in the morning,” said Siren.
Fury nodded with a derisive snort. “Plus, I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell Esparza he couldn’t fuck whoever he wanted to fuck. Sounds like a good way to get your throat slit.”
“You’re not wrong,” Ángel said.
“We heard about his assassination,” Sandman said. “Rival cartel, right?”
“Yes. I was there when it happened. It was . . .” Ángel trailed off, not fighting the tide of memories—the crack of the bullet, Raúl’s head exploding, the spray of blood that had drenched Ángel’s hair and the back of his neck. “Unpleasant.”
Siren tilted her head. “That’s why you had to leave, even though your cover wasn’t blown. You weren’t safe without him.”
Ángel nodded. She didn’t need to know the gory details; besides, she could probably fill in the blanks well enough herself.
“The Esparza cartel doesn’t operate in California.” Siren reached across the table, resting her hand lightly atop Ángel’s. “You’ll be safe there.”
Safe was a word Ángel had lost touch with a long time ago. How safe could he be, really, with Paul missing?
He glanced at Charles, who sat staring out his window with his arms folded across his chest. Ángel had burned that bridge thoroughly before he left, and what could have been a reassuring point of familiarity to ease his return was only another source of pain.
Refocusing on Siren, Ángel mustered a smile. “Tell me about San Diego,” he said. “I’ve never been.”
* * * * * * *
They touched down in San Diego around midnight. The team split up and headed in different directions, only Charles and Valkyrie remaining to escort Ángel to an ATF safe house. Charles didn’t say a single word to Ángel as they handed him over to the waiting agents, and for once Ángel felt no desire to goad him. He was beyond exhausted, fraying at the edges from the stress of the past few days.
The safe house was a bland suburban ranch, no different from its neighbors if one didn’t recognize the steel-reinforced doors and bulletproof glass in the windows. Ángel turned down the agents’ offer of food and retired to the bedroom at the back of the house, where the windows were further barred with thick shutters. He stood in the center of the room for a moment, struggling with himself, before he gave in and checked under the bed and inside the closet.
Assured that he was alone, Ángel went into the attached bathroom and started the shower. He stood in front of the mirror as he stripped out of his clothes, examining the livid bruises Oscar had left on his arm that morning. They weren’t as bad as the ones on his hips from the night before, or the bite mark just above his collarbone. Fucker had broken the skin.
Ángel frowned at his reflection and then turned away.
A hot shower did wonders to relax him. He changed into the boxers and T-shirt he’d been provided—both a couple of sizes too large—turned off the lights, and slid into bed, lying on his side so he faced the locked door. After a few minutes, he leaned over and switched the bedside lamp back on.
Hours later, he was still wide-awake, staring at that door.
After they dropped Ángel off at the safe house, Charles and Eva changed into street clothes and went to Susie’s, a twenty-four-hour diner near their office. For Charles, there was something comforting about the way diners looked the same everywhere in America. He could just as easily have been back home in Indiana, hitting the greasy spoon a few blocks from his high school with his teammates after a football game.
Eva was kind enough not to address the proverbial elephant until they’d been served their food. “So,” she said as the waitress walked away, “this must be weird for you.”
“You could say that.” Charles stabbed a link of breakfast sausage with his fork.
“Ángel is gorgeous.”
“Yes, and he’s very aware of it, believe me.”
Eva squirted a healthy amount of ketchup onto her cheeseburger, then more onto her plate for her fries. “I’m trying to decide whether or not we need to disclose your history with him to Ed,” she said, referring to the RAC of their field office.
“There’s nothing to disclose,” said Charles. “He and I had a sexual relationship years ago, and we haven’t seen or spoken with each other since.”
“You had a sexual relationship that blew up in your faces so badly it made him leave town.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Charles said, his voice tight.
Eva popped a fry into her mouth, her silence saying more than words could.
“He fucked my trainer, Eva.”
“You told me you two weren’t monogamous. It’s not like Ángel was your boyfriend; you were sneaking around hooking up in secret.”
Charles snapped a piece of bacon in half. “That’s not the point. He fucked my trainer on my birthday. We’d made plans, he knew I was on my way over, and he just couldn’t have cared less.”
The stunned pain of the memory was still fresh—letting himself into Ángel’s apartment, looking forward to the night they’d planned, and discovering Ángel bent over his couch, taking it up the ass from a guy Charles had introduced him to only days earlier. Charles had stood in the doorway for a full minute before either of them noticed he was there.
“He didn’t even apologize,” Charles said, dropping the bacon onto his plate. When he had recovered from his shock and started shouting, Ángel had shown no sign of remorse—he’d screamed back, and things had devolved quickly from there.
Their relationship had been tumultuous even before that point, a series of thrilling highs and wretched lows, and finding Ángel with Jared had pushed Charles over the edge. It had all come pouring out of him at once—all his frustration and pain and confusion, every insecurity that their secret affair had stirred within him, with Ángel the only viable target. His grandmother would have torn a strip off his hide if she’d heard the pure venom that had come out of Charles’s mouth that night.
“I’m concerned that you won’t be able to stay professional around him, given your history. And vice versa.” Eva took a bite of her cheeseburger, regarding Charles with thoughtful eyes as she chewed and swallowed. “The way he told us what he’d been doing undercover—that was for your benefit, wasn’t it? He was trying to get a rise out of you.”
“Probably,” Charles said. “He’s like that—or he used to be, at least. I don’t know him anymore. Two years is a long time, especially for someone who’s been deep undercover.”
“If your relationship had ended on good terms, or even neutral ones, I wouldn’t give this a second thought. As it is . . .”
He suppressed a sharp remark about how Eva, with her trouble-free ten-year marriage and three beautiful, perfect children, couldn’t possibly understand how things stood between Ángel and himself. It was petty, uncalled for; Ángel had always brought out the worst in him.
When he wasn’t bringing out the best.
Charles twitched with irritation and shoved the thought away.
“I won’t say anything to Ed for now,” Eva said. “I know you don’t want to come out at work, and I don’t want to be the person who forces you into that position. But Ed does need you to come in tomorrow to give a statement about your history with Ángel at the Tucson office. It’ll help establish his identity since all of his records are gone.”
Eva sipped her water. “It’ll just be a couple of hours.”
“I didn’t have any plans,” said Charles.
They ate in silence for a couple of minutes until Eva said, “He won’t stay here. Once he’s been reinstated, there’s no way he’ll want to stay in the same office as you. I wouldn’t even want to be in the same division. He’ll be gone in a few days.”
Charles nodded. A few days, and everything would go back to normal.
Eva didn’t mention Ángel again. Once they’d finished eating, she drove Charles home. He let himself into his quiet, dark apartment, dropped his keys and wallet in the bowl by the door, and slipped out of his shoes.
The apartment was all but empty; most of the furniture and all of the art and knickknacks had been Amy’s, and she’d taken them with her when she left. A place this size was ridiculous for one person living alone, but it would be more expensive for Charles to break the lease than to just stick it out to the end.
The blinds over the sliding glass patio doors in the living room and master bedroom were drawn shut—Charles couldn’t remember the last time he’d opened them. He didn’t bother turning on any lights until he was in the bedroom, pulling his cell out of his pocket and heading for the charging station on his nightstand.
He’d deleted Ángel’s number from his phone within minutes after leaving Ángel’s apartment that day. When Ángel didn’t show up for work the following Monday, Charles had assumed he’d requested transfer to another office. Charles hadn’t just been relieved, he’d been glad—viciously, spitefully pleased that Ángel had been the one to run away, the one to feel like he couldn’t show his face.
Except Ángel hadn’t transferred offices. While Charles had been going about his daily life in Tucson, filled with self-righteous ire, Ángel had been in Mexico, fucking one of the most violent criminals in North America for access to information that had eventually crippled the cartel’s operations and infrastructure.
Charles’s phone creaked under the pressure of his grip. He shook his head, set the phone in the dock, and stretched out his aching fingers.
Just a few days.
* * * * * * *
“Looks good,” Ed Campos said, skimming Charles’s signed report. He was a Mexican American man in his early fifties, a bit stout with age but still powerfully muscular, his beard and moustache neatly groomed. “I’ve reached out to Tucson’s RAC as well. She’s new, but she put me in touch with the guy who was in charge when you and Medina worked there. I should hear back from him tomorrow.”
“Has the FBI made any progress in the search for Warner?” Charles asked.
Ed shrugged and dropped Charles’s report onto his desk. “They don’t report to me.”
Keeping a tight lid on his frustration, Charles said, “Medina could still be in danger. There’s no way Warner’s disappearance isn’t linked to his extraction.”
“I agree,” Ed said, “but if Warner was rotten, either he waited too long to flip on Medina or he told the wrong people, because from what I’ve heard, there’s just no way Oscar Palomo knew Medina was a mole at the time of his extraction.”
Charles inclined his head, conceding Ed’s point.
“The other alternative is that somebody figured out Warner knew the identity of a mole in the cartel, snatched him, and he held out long enough for Medina to get clear. That’s bad news for Warner, but Medina should be fine. Even if the cartel got their hands on his file, Warner didn’t know he’d end up in San Diego.”
“Once they know his name, they’ll be able to find him anywhere,” said Charles.
Ed spread his hands. “That’s true to an extent, and of course the agency will do everything within its power to protect him, but we’re going to have trouble proving that Medina is who he says he is. The cartel was floundering before Esparza was assassinated; now they’re fighting over succession on top of everything else. Tracking Medina down under the circumstances would take serious time and resources, not to mention the risks of crossing into other cartels’ territory to confront him here, where he has the full support of the agency behind him.”
He had a point, but Charles didn’t like the loose thread created by Warner’s unexplained absence. An undercover agent’s life depended on a clean extraction.
Watching Charles’s face, Ed’s eyes softened. “Look, I get it,” he said, leaning forward to prop his forearms on his desk. “You know this guy; you worked with him. We’re not gonna just hang Medina out to dry. After he’s been reinstated, I’ll encourage him to choose a posting as far away from the US–Mexico border as possible. New York, Chicago, somewhere interesting.”
“Thank you, sir,” Charles said. Ángel would never go for that; he hated the cold.
“Anyway, he’s taking his polygraph right now. Assuming everything checks out, we’ll set him up in a motel for the time being, give him a stipend for food and clothing. Apparently all his stuff is in storage in Dallas, and only Warner had the key.”
“He’s on the box?” Charles said, his hands tightening around the arms of his chair. “Could I have permission to observe?”
“Sure, knock yourself out.” Ed rose to his feet, gesturing for Charles to do the same. “I’ve gotta get home. I’m supposed to be watching my grandkids today, and my wife is going to kill me if I leave her alone with them any longer. Three-year-old twins are no joke.”
On a Sunday afternoon, the office was quiet, only a few agents and administrative personnel scattered here and there. Charles headed for the interrogation suites in the back and let himself into the viewing room of Ángel’s.
A bored agent—Ángel’s escort—was slumped in a chair in the corner, his arms crossed over his chest. He barely glanced up at Charles’s entrance.
“Campos gave me permission to observe,” Charles said, just in case.
The agent shrugged, and Charles turned his attention to the two-way glass. Ángel sat on the other side, his chair facing away from the examiner’s desk. He had a blood pressure cuff strapped around his right bicep, two corrugated rubber tubes placed over his chest and abdomen, and a couple of electrodes attached to the fingers of his left hand. His eyes were hollowed out with exhaustion, and his oversize clothing made him look deceptively vulnerable.
“Do you know the current location of Special Agent Paul Warner?” asked the examiner, a woman in a fluffy angora sweater and horn-rimmed glasses.
“No,” Ángel said.
“Have you ever physically assaulted another person?” she said next, an irrelevant question designed to provoke a deliberate physiological reaction, so it could be compared against Ángel’s reactions to the relevant questions.
“How long have they been at this?” Charles asked the observing agent.
“About twenty minutes. Shouldn’t be too much longer.”
Charles watched as the woman interrogated Ángel about his time undercover, based on questions he’d have answered in his pretest and interspersed with irrelevant comparison questions. While the polygraph was required of all returning undercover agents, it was pretty much bullshit, and there was no reason someone like Ángel—a natural-born liar backed up by a lifetime of experience and a master’s degree in psychology—couldn’t get around it if he wanted. After this, though, he’d be thoroughly questioned by a therapist trained to debrief agents who’d been undercover. Charles trusted that a lot more.
“During your time undercover, did you ever find yourself empathizing with Raúl Esparza?”
With a long, slow blink, Ángel said, “Yes.”
“Did you ever provide Raúl Esparza with information you knew would aid him in his criminal activities?”
“Did you ever deliberately withhold information from your ATF handler that you knew would have prevented criminal activities from taking place?”
“Yes,” Ángel said, frustration written all over his face. Charles had been there before, in that chair; the requirement to answer yes or no without elaboration could be maddening.
“Did you ever withhold such information in a situation where you did not believe its disclosure would compromise your cover?”
Ángel relaxed. “No.”
“Have you ever told a lie to someone you cared about?”
“Were you in love with Raúl Esparza?”
Ángel’s entire body jerked. “What the fuck kind of question is that?” he said, looking at the examiner over his shoulder. “That wasn’t in the pretest.”
“Agent Medina,” the woman said primly, “please face forward and only answer yes or no. Were you in love with Raúl Esparza?”
“No,” Ángel snapped.
“You’re having a strong response to this question,” she said, eyeing her laptop.
“Wow, I wonder why?” Ángel said. “Maybe it’s because you’re accusing me of being the kind of idiot who would fall in love with a murderous psychopath through sheer proximity!”
“It’s a question, Agent Medina, not an accusation, and please—”
“Esparza once shot one of his own men right in front of me, just to make a point to his other lieutenants,” said Ángel, talking over her. “Then he turned around and offered me more champagne like nothing had happened.”
The examiner paled, her throat working, and Charles rolled his eyes. How could she not see how Ángel was manipulating her—deliberately making her uncomfortable so she’d lose her motivation to pursue this line of questioning?
“Why don’t you ask me again if I was in love with the man who once fucked me while his hands were still bloody from gutting someone like a fish,” Ángel said.
That clinched it. The examiner grimaced and shook her head, though Ángel couldn’t see her. “Ah, no, that’s all right. Let’s move on.”
Charles stepped away from the glass, noticing that the agent in the corner was no longer quite so bored. The examiner wasn’t going to go anywhere near the subject of Ángel’s personal relationship with Esparza again, though, not after Ángel’s perfect little tantrum. She’d probably end the exam early.
Giving the window one last glance, Charles left the room. He wasn’t going to get the answers he wanted this way.
Of course, it would help if he knew what his questions were.
* * * * * * *
Much to Ángel’s amusement, the motel room was indistinguishable from the safe house—same oatmeal carpet, bland furniture, and absolute lack of anything resembling a soul. He set down the bags of groceries and clothing he’d bought at Target and gazed around the bleak room.
This was fucking ridiculous. All of his stuff was thirteen hundred miles away, and he couldn’t get to it unless Paul’s frantically worried wife managed to come up with the key to the storage unit. He couldn’t access his own bank accounts because he didn’t have his card or his ID. At least the San Diego office had supplied him with a cell phone—heavily guarded against external access, but linked back to the agency’s servers so they could locate him through its GPS in case of emergency. Or, he supposed, in case he turned out to have gone native after all.
Not exactly the welcome home he’d been expecting.
Ángel was wrung out, worn down to the bone from his sleepless night, that inane polygraph, and the three-hour psych eval that had followed. Standing alone in the motel room, he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to collapse into bed or use the little money he had left from his stipend to get drunk off his ass.
A soft knock sounded at the door. Ángel stiffened and spun around, staring at it with suspicion. He’d surrendered the gun he’d taken off Oscar’s bodyguard, and he wouldn’t be issued a service weapon until he’d been reinstated. The agency didn’t have the manpower to give him a protective detail 24-7, so if the person outside wanted to do Ángel harm, he was pretty much fucked.
Ángel sidled up to the window, twitched back the curtain, and peeked outside. Drawing a sharp breath, he yanked the security chain off the door and wrenched it open.
“Jesenia?” he said incredulously, greeting the DEA agent who’d been undercover with him in the Esparza cartel.
“Ángel, Dios mío, you’re really all right.” Jesenia threw her arms around Ángel, and he returned the hug. “I couldn’t believe it until I saw you myself.”
“How did you know I was here?” Ángel asked as Jesenia stepped back.
“I got out myself a couple of days ago, and when you never showed up in Dallas, I went to Bauer. He told me about Paul and that you’d been diverted to San Diego. I may have pulled a couple of strings to get in touch with your office here.”
“Well, come in, please.” Ángel moved away from the door and shut it behind Jesenia as soon as she’d entered the room, slotting the security chain back in place.
Jesenia Santos had the kind of nondescript features that made her perfect for undercover work, attracting neither negative nor overly positive attention. She had her black hair up in a messy bun, and her lanky, athletic body was clad in a T-shirt and jeans that nobody would give a second glance.
Her role in the cartel had been minor, running drugs north across the border—but she’d been the one to introduce Ángel to one of Raúl Esparza’s lackeys, enabling them to maintain regular contact under the pretext that they’d been friends before. Despite his momentary shock, Ángel couldn’t have been happier to see her here. At least she’d understand some of what he was going through.
“I’m so sorry about Paul,” Jesenia said, her eyes sympathetic. “I can’t imagine what must be going through your mind right now.”
“I’m trying not to think about it, honestly.” There was nothing Ángel could do to help Paul now.
Jesenia frowned as she took in the motel room. “This is where they’re putting you up?”
“It’s just temporary.”
“I have to fly back to Dallas tonight, unfortunately, but will you let me treat you to an early dinner?” Jesenia asked. “I hate the thought of you stranded in this city all alone.”
Ángel smiled. “Sure, thanks.”
There were few enticing options in the strip malls that populated the drab stretch of highway by his motel. Neither of them were in the mood for pizza, Ángel didn’t like Thai, and Jesenia turned her nose up at the cheap, inauthentic Mexican joints.
It had been years since Ángel had eaten a genuine American hamburger, so they ended up at a casual burger restaurant, settling into a corner booth where Ángel could put his back against the wall. Jesenia didn’t comment on his choice of seating.
“So how’d your debrief go?” she asked, skimming the laminated menu.
“About how you’d expect. You’d think I was the first federal agent to use sex to establish and maintain my cover.”
“It is technically against protocol.”
“Which of course has stopped everyone from doing it before,” Ángel said.
Ángel put down his menu, restless, and looked out the window at the parking lot. It was that awkward period between lunch and dinner, and the restaurant was mostly empty. “If either Raúl or I had been a woman, nobody would say shit about it. Judgmental dicks.”
“They’ll get over it. Nobody can fault your results.”
He sighed. “I wish I’d had more time; we were so close. If Raúl hadn’t been shot . . .”
Jesenia dropped her menu and stared at him. “You can’t be serious. Ángel, you—”
She was interrupted by the arrival of their server. They gave him their orders and handed over their menus, and when they were alone once more, Jesenia lowered her voice and switched to Spanish for good measure.
“You can’t be serious,” she said again. “You didn’t have more time. Three months, tops, and that would have been pushing it. Esparza was falling in love with you.”
“I had it under control,” said Ángel.
Jesenia snorted. “No, you didn’t. Everyone was talking about it. It was one thing for Esparza to keep a pretty boy toy, and a totally different thing for him to fall in love with one. That’s crossing the line for men like that.”
Ángel shifted, the vinyl of the booth creaking beneath his weight.
“A few more months, and you would never have gotten out of there alive,” Jesenia continued, relentless. “Esparza would never have let you go. He’d have sent people after you to drag you back by the hair if he had to. And the other men in the cartel would have killed him and you for that.”
“I don’t think it would have been that dire,” Ángel said, smoothing his hands over the chipped Formica table. He had let things go too far, though; by the time he recognized the shift in Raúl’s feelings for him, it had been way too late to change them without endangering himself further.
“You weren’t watching from the outside.” Jesenia gave a one-shouldered shrug. “This is a terrible thing to say, but you’re lucky Esparza died when he did.”
“Yeah, I feel lucky,” Ángel muttered.
Brushing her fingers over the back of Ángel’s hand, Jesenia changed the subject, steering the conversation around to her family’s relief at her return and her plans for the leave she’d been granted before going back to work. Ángel was content to listen, scarfing down his burger and imagining what it was like to return from years undercover to people who welcomed you with open arms. Besides Paul and Jesenia, Ángel had no real personal ties left; his friendships hadn’t been the sort to survive an unexplained two-year absence, and his family was a sick joke. As far as Ángel knew, his parents hadn’t even noticed he’d disappeared, and that was just fine with him.
Jesenia paid the check and brought Ángel back to his motel, where she lingered on the threshold. “I wish I didn’t have to go back so soon,” she said. “I could try to stay a little longer . . .”
“Don’t be silly,” Ángel said. “You have a life to get back to. I won’t be here that long, anyway.”
“All right. Here, let me text my phone from yours so we have each other’s new numbers.” Once Jesenia had done that, she handed Ángel’s new cell back and squeezed his arm. “If you need me, I’m just a phone call away. Any time.”
“Thank you so much for coming,” Ángel said, unable to express the full depth of his gratitude. He felt worlds better now than he had that morning.
Jesenia kissed his cheek before she left, and Ángel locked the door behind her. He turned around to consider the tiny room.
The safest, smartest choice would be to stay in for the rest of the evening, watch some TV, and die a slow and painful death of boredom. Or he could go out—not to get drunk, like he’d been contemplating earlier, but to at least try to get back into the rhythm of a normal life.
Ángel stripped out of his shirt as he headed for the shower. He’d never been much of a guy for the safe, smart choice.
This story was such a Rush To Read!! Normally I love a really good book that keeps me guessing and this book had it in spades!!
[A] fantastic rollercoaster of emotions.
The combination of romance, eroticism, and the mystery of Ángel’s stalker is sure to keep readers turning the pages.