Blurring The Line: A steamy romantic suspense novel that will have you on the edge of your seat Kierney Scott A deadly undercover mission, a sizzling attraction that cannot be denied…When DEA agent Beth Thomson recruits ex-soldier Armando Torres as an undercover agent, she knows she has hit the jackpot.He will infiltrate ‘Los Zetas’, one of Mexico’s deadliest cartels, and expose their drug-running into the USA. In turn, she promises to turn a blind eye to him finding and killing the rival cartel member who shot his best friend. Beth is good at overlooking the gruesome details of her job; her focus is the bigger picture – nailing ‘El Escorpion’, the mysterious and most-wanted leader of the ‘Los Treintas’ gang.Torres soon climbs the cartel ladder, and has the tattoo markings to prove his loyalty. So when a secret meet with Beth goes wrong, his cover is strong enough for him to save her from his fellow gang members. His silence hints at the horrors he has performed to get him where he is, and his brutality and strength both scare and arouse Beth simultaneously. The heat between them is unprofessional and yet undeniable. But has he gone rogue? Can Beth trust him to put her mission before his own revenge? And can she trust herself with him?Do not miss any books in The Firing Line trilogy:1 – Blurring the Line2 – Holding the Line3 – Crossing the LineWhat readers are saying about Blurring the Line‘If you want a story about love and passion then this is it.’ – Coco Butter Blog‘I loved every minute. I NEED MORE! MUST GET BOOK 2!!!!’ – Obsessed with Myshelf‘…keeps you on the edge of your seat. I just didn’t want to stop reading but I also didn’t want this book to end.’ – Maureen’s Books‘This isn't your average boy saves girl, story, far from it…be warned that once you start this series you'll want to read them all’ – Becky Lock‘full of tense and gripping situations that draw you in more and more as the story continues.’ – Angela Hamilton When DEA agent Beth Thomson recruits ex-soldier Armando Torres as an undercover agent, she knows she has hit the jackpot. He will infiltrate ‘Los Zetas’, one of Mexico’s deadliest cartels, and expose their drug-running into the USA. In turn, she promises to turn a blind eye to him finding and killing the rival cartel member who shot his best friend. Beth is good at overlooking the gruesome details of her job; her focus is the bigger picture – nailing ‘El Escorpion’, the mysterious and most-wanted leader of the ‘Los Treintas’ gang. Torres soon climbs the cartel ladder, and has the tattoo markings to prove his loyalty. So when a secret meet with Beth goes wrong, his cover is strong enough for him to save her from his fellow gang members. His silence hints at the horrors he has performed to get him where he is, and his brutality and strength both scare and arouse Beth simultaneously. The heat between them is unprofessional and yet undeniable. But has he gone rogue? Can Beth trust him to put her mission before his own revenge? And can she trust herself with him? Also by Kierney Scott (#ulink_ed2f20ac-309b-595f-a748-f03180e1d25d) Twice in a Lifetime Dirty Little Secrets Blurring the Line Kierney Scott Copyright (#ulink_e6cf290e-d7c1-55ab-ab45-0c7f2cd73eaa) HQ An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF First published in Great Britain by HQ in 2014 Copyright © Kierney Scott 2014 Kierney Scott asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. E-book Edition © June 2014 ISBN: 9781472099587 Version date: 2018-07-23 KIERNEY SCOTT is originally from California, but moved to Scotland to enrol in the PhD programme in Educational Research at the University of Edinburgh. Four days after she arrived, she met her husband, who persuaded her it would be more fun to get married than to write a thesis. After the birth of her daughter she decided it was time to go back to school, but soon she discovered all she wanted to write was romance novels. She admitted her literary proclivities to her husband, who promptly bought her a laptop and told her to start writing her book. When she is not writing, you will probably find her at a spinning class or baking (read eating) cupcakes. Her butter-cream icing is legendary, if only in her mind. If you want her recipe, or you just want to chat, you can contact her at KierneyScott@gmail.com (mailto:KierneyScott@gmail.com) or follow her on Twitter at Kierney Scott @Kierney_S (http://www.twitter.com/Kierney_S) For Alistair In the words of Fleetwood Mac: Sweet wonderful you, you make me happy with the things you do. And for Silvia. I love being your Gringa. Thanks to Moroni Lopez Jessop for translating all the words that Silvia is too sweet to know. Who knew there were that many Spanish words for the female anatomy? Contents Cover (#u4171aea8-ec3a-5e6c-bece-1139cd969942) Blurb (#u2ef74d30-4498-59cd-89b5-f352bfcdaad9) Book List (#ulink_430f6c0e-1546-562d-b82f-72ad84ba50a0) Title Page (#u2a2278d0-b273-52d1-9cf3-6fa4570c525c) Copyright (#u4ce3e31f-d42d-5b84-94a8-f27e1ac125af) Author Bio (#ud9aca9db-760c-588b-ba09-6d8fff043b96) Dedication (#u14e6e351-51cc-5e3d-bcbe-e367dec73d43) Chapter One (#ulink_d666ab4d-0102-548e-ae5b-aadc8e84280e) Chapter Two (#ulink_a4f0482e-c685-5ac8-a7ce-7f3b9db0c201) Chapter Three (#ulink_590ea0fd-413a-5f2c-a479-ae1e77d6f2cb) Chapter Four (#ulink_7139e946-2e83-529d-955e-05c512339f06) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Extract (#litres_trial_promo) Endpages (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#ulink_b4740c38-2a9c-5df8-a4df-c85418817881) Beth Thomson forced herself to open her eyes. Hot pressure burned behind her lids. She swallowed past the lump in her throat and reminded herself that crying would only excite them. She could pretend to be brave. She wouldn’t show fear. The only thing she could control was her reactions. There would be no screaming, no tears. If this was the way her life was going to end, she was not going to give these men the pleasure of knowing the terror that coursed through her. Men like this thrived on it, required it, it was the currency that funded their regime. She could only pray that the man holding her could not feel her heart’s violent assault on her ribs. Her heart was one thing she could not control. She tried but it refused to listen to her commands to slow: stupid heart. She took a slow deep breath, conscious of the cold blade held against her throat. Her eyes darted around the hotel room; there was nowhere to go, no escape. Even if there weren’t four of them, she was on the 15th floor. Even in her panicked state, she knew she stood a better chance against four gang members than the concrete 100 feet below. She needed to think. She could get out of this. She just needed to be compliant. It went against everything in her to ignore the reflex to fight back. Her training had taught her to fight, but common sense and self-preservation told her this was not a fight she would win. There was no doubt they were armed and she wasn’t. As a precaution she had come to the meeting unarmed and carrying no ID that would link her to the DEA. Her captor leaned in until his nose brushed the side of her face “Hueles bien,” he smirked, exposing a chipped front tooth. Ironic that he was commenting on how good she smelled when the only thing she could smell were the stale cigarettes that clung to his breath. She recognised him from his mug shot: Salvador Flores. Unfortunately for her, she also knew every crime he had ever been convicted or suspected of, and the list was long…and gruesome. Even among the ranks of a notorious drug cartel, Flores stood out as particularly savage. She did not recognise the others, which meant they were not in the system, probably because they were too young. Los Zetas preferred their recruits young as they were more compliant and fearless and their moral compass could be pointed any way the Zetas needed. Beth studied all their features, mentally noting heights and weights, every scar, every tattoo. If she survived this she was determined to be able to identify them later. Flores ran a tattooed hand up her side, settling on her breast.“Pequeno pero agradable,” he hissed against her ear. When he spoke she could see the missing incisors; a testament to his training with the gang. He had joined Los Zetas as a boy, only 13, and like all young Zetas, or Zetilla, his initiation was murdering someone at point-blank range. And then his real training began: by enduring torture so he would know how to torture. In this case, his incisors had been pulled out. It was hard to say what else had been done. Beth had seen cases where Zetillas had had their nails removed one at a time. Others were burned. It was a brutal coming of age for any young man but the results spoke for themselves; the Zetas wanted killing machines and that is what their system produced. His words were met with laughter from the other three men, each one staring at her like a vulture eying a dying animal, biding their time, ready to swoop in. Beth’s back straightened but she did not push his hand away and she didn’t let on that she knew he was talking about her breasts being small. She bit the side of her mouth to keep herself from giving away any clue that she understood them. Her Spanish was fluent, but it was in her interest that they didn’t know that. She wanted them to think she was just a silly girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. If they found out she was a DEA agent, she would be better off dead. “Quien es el primero?” Flores asked, but the question was rhetorical as it was clear he intended to be first. He was the leader here. Beth clenched her hands together until her nails bit into the soft flesh of her palms. No matter what happened she would get through this alive. She had a chance if she could get him alone. She needed him to take her through to the bedroom. If she could get him alone she had a chance. More than a chance. She could get through this. She would not let them take her from the hotel. She had seen too many files with women kidnapped by cartels and given as gifts. That was not going to be her. Flores grabbed her chin and pulled her face to his and pressed his lips to hers. She couldn’t stop herself clamping her mouth shut. His response was to grab a fist of her hair and violently jerk her head back. Again the room exploded in coarse laughter. His mouth came at her again, this time she allowed her eyes to close. She needed the small escape. His hands bit into her hips as he pulled her against him. This time she offered no resistance. She could get through this. She had to. A picture of her mom and sister came to the front of her mind but she pushed it away as quickly as it appeared. She could not think of them right now, how much she needed them, how much they needed her. Right now she had to put all of her energy into getting away. “Es mia.” She’s mine a low voice hissed from the doorway, the harsh tone like acid, burning through the room. At that moment everything stopped. Flores’ hands dropped from Beth as his head shot in the direction of the threat. Torres. He was here. Beth’s heart stopped in her chest. For a painful suspended moment, her blood stopped in her veins, stagnating in its course. And then a staccato beat began hammering against her ribs. There was an audible gasp. She could not be certain but she thought it was from her. When he had not shown up for their meeting, she assumed she would never see him again. No, that was a lie; she’d assumed it before then. She was always on borrowed time with Torres; once he got what he wanted, he would be gone. Lucky for her, he didn’t have it yet. Torres crossed the room in long strides, the men parting to make a path. His head was shaved now, only a dark shadow gave the impression of hair. He looked bigger than when she had seen him last and more menacing than the photo in his file. He was six foot tall, but he looked bigger, his presence sucked the oxygen from the room. In a room full of armed gang members, at least one with a rap sheet longer than his arm, Torres still succeeded in looking like the most dangerous one of all, hell, the most dangerous man Beth had ever seen. His features were raw and brutal; even his full lips did not soften his face. Everything about him was hard and cold. Large biceps strained under his white T-shirt. His skin was darker now too, a dark bronze that was more to do with the sun than his Mexican heritage. In second he was beside her. Powerful arms encircled her. “Hola, Mami.” The quintessentially Mexican greeting conveyed familiarity. She didn’t know of any other Spanish-speaking country where essentially calling a woman a small mother was considered appropriate, but Mexicans did it all the time. When he spoke only half his mouth moved, making him look like he was smirking or snarling, or both. His eyes narrowed, seeming to convey a message just for her. He had never been this close. There were gold flecks in his dark brown eyes. They were the only thing soft about him, everything else about his appearance was brutal in its severity, crossing the line from masculine to menacing. He looked as much a nightmare as a man. He was too close. His proximity sucked the air from her chest. He still scared her, even after two years. Few things still scared her, and he was one of them. His mouth lowered onto hers, publically claiming her as his own. Her tight joints did not loosen; her body would not accept that she was safe. But she was. Torres was here. There was no way these men would hurt her with him here. There was fear in their eyes when he came in the room, and deference, even from Salvador Flores. Torres was now their leader. For all the reservations she had about recruiting Torres, he had succeeded. He had not only infiltrated the cartel, he was now higher up the food chain than she could ever have hoped for. Cognitively she knew that she was safe in his hands. Despite her misgivings, she knew he would do whatever it took to get her out safe, not because he had any loyalty to her or to the Administration, but because he needed her. She was a means to an end for him as he was for her, a perfect symbiotic relationship, like a plover and a crocodile. Beth was all too aware she was the small fragile bird in this scenario, and Torres the powerful jaws of a prehistoric creature that could snap and destroy her at any minute. But he wouldn’t. Not yet because he still needed her. So why would her body refuse to believe she was safe? Her muscles coiled tightly, painfully rigid and aware. His mouth left hers and trailed a path to her ear. “Pretend you are liking this or you will get us both killed,” he seethed. The anger had not left his voice, if anything it had intensified and taken root. Her back stiffened. He had nearly been assaulted by a bunch of thugs because he had not made contact but he had the audacity to be angry with her. She was reminded again how much she disliked him, and really hated being dependent on him. That was the part she hated the most. She needed Torres. Beth placed her hand on his broad chest; her fingers shook as they fanned out over hard muscle. His heart beat under her hand, slow and strong, unfazed by the danger that engulfed them. He was either apathetic or cooler under fire than any human should be, either way it was what made him such a good field agent. Torres did not give a shit about anyone or anything beyond his own interests. His mouth opened on hers. She must have flinched because his hand was suddenly on hers, squeezing with a pressure that made her eyes water. It took all her focus not to cry out at the biting pain. But the message was clear: she needed to play along. Eventually Torres pulled his head away, his eyes narrowed, warning her not to speak. “Change of plans; we’ll leave in the morning,” Torres said. He spoke in Spanish, his heavily accented words coming quickly. In both English and Spanish he spoke like a native, an American accent in English, a Mexican accent in Spanish. His linguistic abilities had been a selling point when she recruited him; it made him a valuable asset, as did his ability as a leader. Admittedly those were both invaluable skills, but only time would tell if they were enough to offset the baggage that Torres brought with him. From the corner of her eye Beth saw Flores nod his head. Flores was second in charge. She already knew that, but she noted it again, already writing up her report in her head. Nothing happened that wasn’t written down, documented and analysed. Torres pulled her through the open door to the bedroom. The massive room was dominated by floor-to-ceiling patio doors that let in bright Texas light. In the centre of the room was a kingsize bed, a table on each side, one with a telephone, the other fresh cut flowers. It was picturesque, the kind of room for romantic getaways or recharging. And it was also their designated drop off. As soon as they were through the door Torres dropped her hand like it was a lead weight. He turned to her, his glare murderous, his eyes narrowed into angry slits, making his face even harsher than she thought possible. Suddenly a boulder settled in the pit of her stomach. Her heart picked up its already frantic pace. If they weren’t on the same side, she would be terrified; as it stood, she was far from comfortable. He was too much in every way: too aggressive, too unstable, too jaded, too damaged, too hell bent on revenge. “Do you have the—” Torres cut her off with a raised hand. “They’re listening,” he mouthed, his lips curling around every syllable. She wondered how a single movement could contain so much anger. He motioned her to the bathroom. Once inside he locked the door before quickly turning on the shower. The sound of the spray of water splashing against the tiles was enough to mute their voices. “What the hell are you doing here? Are you trying to get yourself murdered or just raped?” he demanded. His low voice was laced with anger and resentment. Beth shook her head, the fear in her replaced by her own resentment and indignation. God she hated him. He was trying to put this on her. She was many things, too many to list, but a bad agent she wasn’t. She had played by the rules here. “You said you would meet me tonight. You know the routine, if you don’t come, I’m to assume you have left me something here. And how was I to know you were going to bring the Zetas to our meeting spot?” The tautness in her muscles eased as anger spread over her. “Check your watch, Gatita.” Beth’s eyes narrowed. Gatita. She burned to ask him why he called her little cat, was it because of her reputation in the Administration for being uptight and in the company of her cat more than men? But she was not going to show her hand yet and let him know she spoke Spanish. She would get more information on Torres if he did not know she understood everything he said. Necessity meant she relied on him, but she did not trust him. Beth looked down at her watch. “It’s midnight.” Torres grabbed her arm and lifted it to her face. “Look again, Gatita. I still have two minutes. You were going to get yourself killed because you’re too impatient. I said I’d meet you by midnight. And I did, I was there. You weren’t. Maybe you need to rethink your career. Perhaps you can get the stick out of your ass long enough to figure something out.” Beth’s back straightened. This was not on her. Torres was the one who compromised their position. “Yes, because I knew you would be entertaining gang members at our drop off. That was a logical conclusion.” Beth shook her head in frustration. It was all she could do to keep from screaming at him. “And as for the stick in my ass, you had better pray I keep it there, or I will use it to beat you within an inch of your life.” She was properly angry now, angrier than she had been in a long time. Her hands twitched with the rage. She had never had the desire to hit another person, but now she was consumed with the desire to punch him square in the jaw. It was a combination of the unspent adrenaline racing through her body and indignation about having her abilities questioned. Torres surprised her by smiling, not a real smile, only half his mouth curled into a smirk, but still it was in the smile family. His face changed with the small action, softening just enough for him to look human. “You didn’t think I would come. Trust issues, Mami? Is it all men or just me? Did daddy leave you or did a man do you wrong?” Beth shook her head in exasperation. Again he was trying to make this about her, her failure, her shortcomings. This was about him. “We both know you will be gone as soon as you find the man who murdered Moses Archila. It’s only a matter of time before you don’t show up.” The muscles in Torres’ jaw tightened at the mention of his best friend’s name. He did not bother denying what they both knew: his tenure with the DEA would be over as soon as he hunted down Archila’s killer. She just hoped she was able to get what she needed from him before then. “Any word on El Escorpion?” Beth asked hopefully, remembering why she was there. A terse shake of his head was his response. Beth let out a stream of air. She didn’t expect him to have anything but she always hoped. The entire Administration was hunting for the head of Los Treintas and so far there were more verified sighting of the Loch Ness Monster than their elusive leader. “Eye witness” reports had him ranging in height between five feet and six foot six. Some people said he had straight black hair, others reported curly brown. Some said he was covered in tattoos, other people reported a single scorpion tattooed between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. One report said he was a married father of eight, though she took that one with a pinch of salt because it came from a prison informant desperate to cut a deal. It was like chasing a ghost, and the fact that no one could say for certain what he looked like, let alone knew his real name, only complicated things further. What the DEA knew about the man called El Escorpion fitted comfortably on a single page of paper: he was the leader of one of the most dangerous and heavily armed narco-terrorist groups to come out of Latin America. All details beyond that were speculation. “Last I heard he was in Sinaloa.” Beth nodded. She had heard the same thing, but again it had come from a prison informant, and it needed verifying. Not that knowing El Escorpion was or may be in Sinaloa narrowed it down enough to be of any use. Sinaloa was a large state. She could not exactly fly down to Mexico and start knocking on doors. A sudden thought crossed her mind. Her pulse picked up again. “We need him alive,” Beth blurted out. “We both know he ordered the hit on Archila but you can’t kill him. Do you understand?” She had worked too long and too hard to not get El Escorpion. She could not deny that Torres would get a pass on almost anything he did undercover. There was no doubt in her mind that if Torres found Archila’s killer before she did, the man would be dead. And the case would be forgotten before the body was cold. She would make sure of it. But she needed El Escorpion alive. Torres’ eyes narrowed, staring through her. There was no emotion on his face save for the simmering cold anger that he always wore. “Tell me that you know that. Tell me if you find him, you’ll bring him in safe.” His lip curled again into a facsimile of a smile. “You assume I’ll kill him. But you also assume I’ll tell you the truth about it.” She had forgotten how deep his voice was, like the slow plucked strings of a bass. Had there ever been any warmth in his tone, it would not have been a stretch to call it melodic. His eyes were dark now, the irises consuming any illusion of colour. She had never met anyone else whose physical presence made the hairs on the back of hair stand taut, and that was saying a lot. Beth was often in the company of felons. She could walk into any prison in Texas and not feel as unsettled as she did when she was with Torres. “That’s not an answer. I know this is all about avenging Archila but you need to see the big picture. This isn’t just a squabble between warring cartels. This is national security. El Escorpion is wanted for arms dealing. You get that, right? He is supplying terrorists. If we don’t get him there will be thousands of other Archilas.” She tried to appeal to him in a language he understood; as an ex-Marine, Torres knew better than most the exact price of the war on terror. She had been so proud of herself when she recruited Torres, and not just because he was such a valuable asset: she was proud of herself for facing him. Torres shrugged his shoulders. “Well you’d better catch him.” He left the words “before I do” unsaid, but they were there, hanging between then, palpable. Beth shook her head. She would find him. She quickly changed the subject. “How are you for money?” “Good. I—” Beth cut him off with a raised hand. “Don’t tell me. I just need to know you have enough. I don’t need to be an accessory after the fact.” The Administration had not given Torres money in months. They both knew that any money he had now had not been obtained by legal means and Beth liked to ignore the many less than savoury aspects of her job. Most the time she could if she focused on the big picture and did not let herself think too long about things. Again Torres shrugged. “Your rules, Gatita.” Beth flinched again at the cat reference. She really wasn’t the pathetic lovelorn shrew people thought she was, or maybe she was, either way she did not appreciate having it thrown in her face. Not that she cared what Torres thought. But her pride niggled away at her like a feral cat clawing at her stomach. Was it so unbelievable to imagine Beth Thomson in a relationship? She wasn’t hideously deformed or unhygienic. And when she tried she could almost pass as charming. Beth tapped her foot against the terracotta tiles of the bathroom floor. “Are we done here, because I really need to get back to my…boyfriend.” The word caught in her throat, barely making it past her dry lips. It wasn’t a lie; she was dating someone…she just would not characterise him as a boyfriend yet. Maybe at some point she would but it was too soon to tell…and she was not going to share that with Torres. God she just wanted to get home to her house. And, yes, her cat. “Sorry to interrupt your quality time with your…boyfriend. Is that why you came? To tell me about your sex life? Must be pretty fantastic if you’re willing to get us both killed.” His tone changed when he said “boyfriend” but it was hard to tell if he was mocking her because his face remained blank. If there was any emotion behind his dark eyes, he hid it well. She wondered if he learned that in the military or if it had been a gift from Los Zetas. She did not let herself think about the things he must have seen undercover. And the things he must have done… “No I didn’t come here to talk about my boyfriend – about Neil.” Beth stopped and cleared her throat. She had come to tell him about Archila’s murderer. She glanced to the door, fully aware that Flores and his three associates were still there. Once Beth gave up her information, there was no need for Torres to protect her. Trust did not come easily to her, and he had done nothing yet to earn it. “I came to see if you had any more information on El Escorpion, but you don’t so I will go. We need to change our meeting place. I’ll pick somewhere along I35—” Beth reached for the door handle but Torres stopped her by placing his large frame between her and the door. His eyes were darker than before. There was emotion there now, but not a welcome one. His demeanour had changed in an instant going from indifferent to alert, like a cheetah ready to pounce. “You’re leaving after five minutes? Didn’t think that one through did ya, Gatita? I just told four gang members that you are my woman and you expect them to think five minutes would be enough time to get…reacquainted? I’ve been with them two years and they have never seen me with a woman. You’re gonna need to fake it a bit longer than that.” A hot flush crept up Beth’s neck, settling high on her cheeks, burning as the blood rose to the surface of her skin. The way his lips curled around each syllable made her stomach do a flip, especially when he said “my woman”. Beth had no doubt that a plethora of woman had filled that role over the years. Some women probably got off on the fear. What was it about women and bad boys? She had a name for those women: stupid. Bad boys were just that, bad. People don’t change. If you date a bad boy, you end up with a bad boyfriend, and then a bad husband, and then a bad father for your children, simple as that. Though she could see how women could forget themselves with him. Her gaze drifted to the white cotton fabric that strained to cover the expanse of his biceps. Beth was fairly certain she could smell testosterone under the clean scent of aftershave. Once she got past the fact that his physical presence was completely terrifying, she could see in an objective way why women found him attractive, there was something primal about him. And the taut muscles that sculpted his body didn’t hurt either. Beth cleared her throat, remembering where she was. “Right…of course. We should give it some time…” Beth looked down lamely at her watch but her eyes did not register the numbers. She cleared her throat again. It had been a long day. “Um…how long exactly were you thinking?” If she wasn’t mistaken, Beth saw a flash of a smile crack over his full lips. It was hard to tell because it was gone so quickly, and the curve of his lips made it look as much like a snarl as a grin. “I don’t know, Gatita. How long does it take with Neil?” Beth let out a sharp breath. The mention of Neil in the context of sex temporarily put her on the back foot. She had not had sex with Neil yet but she was not about to tell Torres that. It would mean explaining that she hadn’t gotten around to sleeping with Neil because she fully expected it to be another lacklustre sexual experience. She was putting it off so she could pretend a little bit longer this would be the guy who made her see stars. “Um…you know, I don’t know, the normal amount of time. Now let’s go. I need a drink from the minibar.” Beth tried to push past him, but the wall of muscle that was Torres’ body did not budge. “No, I don’t know. It’s been a while. Remind me how long sex should take.” Beth dropped her hands to her sides and forced herself to look Torres directly in the eye. His mouth was not smiling but his dark eyes certainly were. The sides crinkled in amusement. He found her amusing. Her sex life amused him. She forced a confidence into her tone she did not feel. “Thirty minutes should be adequate if everyone knows what they are doing.” Yep, thirty minutes was usually enough time for her to realise it wasn’t working for her. Half an hour was how long it took for the guy to stop trying. Torres nodded his dark head. “OK then. Showtime,” Torres said and then turned off the water. “Let’s see what you’re made of.” Beth’s eyes narrowed in question, but the only answer she got was a quick flash of a smile. Like before, his lips curled up so it looked more like an act of aggression than a smile, but this time she could see his teeth, two perfectly straight rows of white. Clearly any initiation he endured had not involved having his teeth pulled, which must have been a relief for him because he really did have nice teeth. She wondered if he had had braces and then she wondered why she cared. “Ready?” Torres asked but he did not wait for an answer. He opened the bathroom door, kicked off his shoes and pulled back the duvet on the bed. “We’d better make this believable.” He gave her a warning glance so menacing that it shot a bolt of fear down her spine. Her hands were suddenly wet and her mouth dry. What was he doing? “Right side or left?” Torres asked but he was already making his way toward the far side of the room. Beth glanced at the chair in the corner. She expected to spend the next thirty minutes drinking cocktails made from minuscule bottles of overpriced alcohol. Clearly Torres had other plans. Beth raised her hand in protest but before she could say anything Torres smiled. He was teasing her. Her brain could not make room for the new information. In the long list of characteristics she attributed to Torres, playful was not one of them. He was cold and calculating and lethal when he needed to be. He wasn’t…whatever this was. “Just play along. You know what they’re expecting. Make them think that you are in here having the time of your life.” The crinkles around his eyes deepened, it was almost like he was smiling but his mouth had forgotten to play its part. Beth cleared her throat again. “Can’t we just go out in half an hour…maybe high five Flores and then let me go?” Torres shook his head. “They have not seen me with a woman. It’s going to take more than half an hour to make up for two years of celibacy.” Beth bit her cheek to stop from asking if it had really been that long since he had been with a woman. It was none of her business. And she didn’t care. “How much time would it take to make up for two years?” she asked instead when her curiosity would not be abated. A slight smile tugged at his lips. “Why, is there somewhere you need to be?” Again she forced herself to look him in the eyes. Lucky for her she was a good liar. “As a matter of fact I do. So the thirty minutes starts now.” This time he rewarded her with a genuine smile. “Well if we only have thirty minutes, we’d better make it one hell of a half hour.” Torres folded the floral cover and laid it across a stool at the foot of the bed before he stretched out. He looked completely relaxed like a lion lying down for his afternoon nap, or like a crocodile ready to snap the bones of a small bird and devour its tattered carcass. Beth suddenly thought of Torres having sex, no doubt he could accomplish a lot in a half an hour. She sat down on the bed. “Has it really been two years?” She could not stop herself from asking. The question was rude and entirely unprofessional but she was curious. Torres nodded but did not elaborate. Beth’s eyes narrowed as her gaze moved over his solid form. Their contact had been limited since Beth had recruited him just shy of two years ago. They met up every eight weeks or so to touch base, but other than their initial meeting and the time she had trained him, their conversations had been brief and to the point. They did not have much to say to one another beyond work, but thirty minutes would pass more quickly if they weren’t just staring at one another. She tried to think of another question to ask him, anything to pass the time, but her mind was mercilessly blank. Well that wasn’t true exactly, she could think of several follow-up questions about his sex life but she wasn’t about to ask those. Beth tapped her fingers against the scratchy cotton sheet. “So,” she began lamely. “How have you been?” She whispered so as not to be heard through the thin walls. She could tell by the coarse laughter that Flores and his partners in crime were still in the other room. She remembered she needed to ask Torres the names of his associates, though she doubted they would get her any closer to El Escorpion, and the elusive leader was all she cared about. Everything else was detail, and Beth didn’t do details unless they served her. Torres opened his eyes but did not look at her. “How have I been?” He shook his dark head. “I thought you wanted credible deniability.” “Yes – I mean no – I mean how are you other than anything that pertains to criminality?” The question sounded stupid even to her. Apparently she had forgotten how to make small talk. “Other than being the head of a Sicario and being personally responsible for bringing 100 kilos a month of cocaine and marijuana into Laredo every month, I’m great. How are you, Beth?” Torres turned and looked at her, pinning her in place with his dark eyes. A bolt of ice ran the length of her spine. There was a caustic sadness in his deep voice, it was tinged with a deep regret. She never really stopped to think how Torres was handling things his end; her focus was always on dismantling Los Treintas. Everything beyond that was filed with the other minutiae of her life, somewhere deep in the recesses of her mind. Beth liked to think of her work in abstract nebulous terms, because the reality of it was quite ugly. Sometimes what they had to do was amoral and illegal but it was also necessary, it served a greater good. But sometimes she remembered that the names in reports were people. Those were the moments she hated her job, but they were also the moments that reminded her why someone needed to do it. Torres did not have the luxury of distancing himself; he was part of a Sicario, a hit-man squad. She would never ask for details because she did not need to know and selfishly she did not want to know, those were details that she didn’t let exist. “You know I…I mean all of us appreciate your sacrifices. We couldn’t do it without you.” It wasn’t a platitude; it was the truth. If she never had contact with Torres again after tonight, which is what she suspected, he still would have been one of the best assets the Administration had ever had. They now knew the exact route drugs were entering the US in Texas and California and they had identified six border patrol agents on the Zetas’ payroll. Once Torres was out of the field they could act on the information and in the long run the country would be safer because of his service. “You have done Archila proud.” Torres sat up. “Don’t. I’m already whoring myself for the cause. Don’t make it worse. It must be so nice for you, not needing to bother yourself with details.” He ran a hand over his smooth head. She could tell there was more he wanted to say but something stopped him. A stab of guilt pierced her gut. Not for the first time she felt the twinge of a conscience asking if she was taking advantage of him. It would be incredible for anyone to think that of the powerful man in front of her, but she had read his file. She knew every gruesome detail that led him to this point, and she had used it all against him, manipulated him into joining the DEA. She appealed to his honour and his need for revenge. She had been calculating and mercenary, and she would do it again in a minute but it still didn’t make it any less of a dick move. “I’m sorry,” Beth whispered. Torres was quiet for a long time. “Me too.” His voice was so low she would have not known what he had said had she not been looking at him. He glanced down at his watch and sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger before he said, “Time to make it convincing. Show me your acting skills, Gatita.” Beth raised a brow in question. “We’re having sex not studying in a library. Make some noise, Beth.” Beth shook her head. Torres smiled and then rocked the bed back and forth in a slow cadence, the headboard hitting the wall at a steady pace. “Now,” he said in a tone that warned her not to argue with him. She doubted anyone argued with him…about anything…but no, she was not going to make any noises. “No,” she mouthed. “Now. I have to deal with these people. Just do it,” he said and she knew this was an argument she would not win. She reminded herself she didn’t care what Torres thought of her. Beth took a deep breath. Her heart pounded against her ribs. She closed her eyes and let out a small moan, it was a pathetic sound, something like a cat meowing. She opened her eyes to find Torres staring at her with a combination of amusement and disbelief. “What was that?” he mouthed. A rush of hot blood crept up her neck. “You said to make noise. I made a noise.” She tried to ignore the embarrassment that was stretching its fingers around her neck. Torres shook his head. His eyes were smiling again. “I didn’t think I needed to specify a sex noise. You have had sex before right, Beth?” “Yes!” she shouted a bit too forcefully. Of course she had had sex. Many times. Did he think there was no one who would sleep with the pathetic cat lady? Torres bit back a laugh. “Attagirl. That’s what I’m talking about. Give it more of that and we’re golden.” He was teasing her again. She really wished he would stop doing that. She could just about come to terms with the terrifying Torres, the teasing version was a step too far. “Why can’t you make the noise? I don’t see why I am the one who has to make an ass of myself.” “Because if we were really having sex, my mouth would be otherwise occupied.” Beth’s eyes widened as she realised what he was saying. Torres smiled again. “Try again. This time more passion, less wounded animal.” Beth shook her head. He had to be kidding her. This was definitely not in her job description. She needed a new job…or a raise. She took another deep breath and let out a moan. This time it was lower, a guttural sound that surprised her, it wasn’t anything that resembled sensual…unless a mooing cow was your thing. God she was pathetic. She wouldn’t believe anyone would willingly sleep with her after that effort. She opened her eyes to find Torres staring at her in disbelief. “Seriously? That is the sound you make in bed? Your poor neighbours.” “No that is not the sound I make in bed. And screw you.” Beth’s cheeks burned. Too bad punching wasn’t a sound usually associated with sex because she would gladly smack Torres in his smirking mouth. Torres nodded in a patronising way. “What sound do you make?” “Screw you, Torres.,” Beth said again, barely remembering to whisper. She clutched her hands into tight balls. So much for shaking the pathetic cat lady image. “Oh…I see,” Torres said almost apologetically. Beth’s head snapped round. “What?!” she demanded. “What exactly do you see?” “It’s fine, Beth. You don’t have to be embarrassed. I mean I think your boyfriend should be embarrassed—” “What the hell are you talking about?” “You’ve never had an orgasm. Nothing to be ashamed of, you just need to pick better men to share your bed with,” he said with a confidence that left no question about the satisfaction he provided his partners. “Don’t be an ass. I’ve had orgasms, plenty of them, thank you very much. Just quiet ones. So again, Torres, just…screw you.” Beth threw up her hands in exasperation. Torres smiled again. “I see, the well-known silent orgasm. Like the kind of orgasms you have by yourself. Those are fun too.” He was staring at her again, in a way she could feel. Heat from his stare pricked her skin. Beth’s cheeks burned as her embarrassment turned to mortification. She could not believe she was having this conversation. She opened her mouth to explain that it was possible to have thoroughly enjoyable yet relatively quiet sex but then she realised she didn’t have to justify herself to anyone. A long silence followed. She wished he would stop looking at her so intently. It was like he was studying her, taking in every small action. She felt scrutinised and judged, and the long gaps in conversation made her eager to speak, just to fill them. Therapists did the same thing; they would leave long pauses to force the client to talk more to ease the uncomfortable silence. He was doing it on purpose, to back-foot her. Clever, but it wasn’t going to work on her. She had already told him more than enough about herself. She liked a very clear line between her work and social life. “Just screw you, Torres,” she mumbled. “To be fair, if you were screwing me, you wouldn’t have this problem.” His voice was thick and low, his face impenetrable as always. He was teasing her again. He was, wasn’t he? He was still looking at her intently, why she could not begin to fathom, she knew first-hand that she really wasn’t that interesting. Beth shifted on the bed. Her palms were suddenly slick. It was hot in here; hotter than it should be for Texas in April. God she needed a drink, something strong that would make her forget this particular exchange. “We’re done with this conversation. Don’t forget I’m your superior.” Beth reached into the minibar and grabbed a small bottle of single malt scotch and a can of 7 Up. She poured the contents into a glass before swirling it round. She would have preferred a nice mojito or a lemon drop, but this would have to do. Torres’ mouth curved into a smirk. “Do you feel superior right now, Beth?” Beth let out a stream of air. Now he even sounded like a therapist. Now that she knew the game, she could beat him at it. “I feel tired and annoyed right now. How do you feel, Torres?” She asked with a saccharin sweetness that did little to conceal her sarcasm. Torres shrugged his shoulders. “Actually I feel better than I have in a long time. It’s been awhile since I laughed. Thanks for that.” “So glad I could be of some service,” Beth said before she threw back her head and downed the contents of her glass. She reached in the refrigerator and made herself another drink. “Do you want anything? Uncle Sam is paying tonight.” Torres shook his head. “No thanks. I don’t drink.” Beth turned to face him. “Like ever?” Why didn’t she know that about him? He nodded. Great. He didn’t drink. In her experience the only men who did not drink were recovering alcoholics. She would add that to the list of things about Torres that made fieldwork especially dangerous, an alcoholic, most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, hell bent on revenge. How could that possibly go wrong? “Well I’ll have your share then.” Beth took another drink. “Geez, when are they going to go home?” Beth pointed to the door. As if on cue, there was another burst of laughter from the other side of the door. “They’re nocturnal. It could be a while.” “Great. Should we pretend to have sex again? That passed the time nicely.” Beth finished her second drink before she moaned. “Oh Torres, that’s right. Just like that.” Torres stood up. “That’s better, but who shouts someone’s last name? You’re a freaky little thing, Gatita.” His eyes were smiling again. Beth’s eyes narrowed. Torres’ first name. She could not remember ever using it, or even seeing it written down. Of course she must have, it would be in his file along with his social security number, his life history, and the results of his psychometric tests. She knew for a fact he lied on those tests because his answers were too perfect, too normal. He was smart enough to cover up his crazy but she still saw it. She had his number, this man, this — Torres. Christ, if she could remember his first name. “Is it Miguel? No that isn’t right. Santiago?” She scrunched up her nose as she tried to remember his name. “Armando,” he said finally. “Armando? Are you sure?” Beth asked dubiously. Torres nodded. “Armando,” she said again trying the name on for size. “Armando.” She tongue-rolled over the R in exaggeration. “Armando Torres. Was your mother hoping you would star in a telenovela?” “I think she was hoping I would do anything other than run drugs for Los Zetas.” “Well it could be worse. You could be running drugs for Los Treintas. Those are some mean sons of bitches.” Beth leaned over and poured herself a third drink. There was no whisky left so she switched to vodka and Coke. She wasn’t driving tonight and the more she drank the less she worried about making an ass of herself or about her mom. Shit, her mom, she needed to phone her sister and check on her mom. Beth glanced at her watch. It was too late, even in California, which was two hours behind. Her sister would have gone to bed by now. She would have to call in the morning, which was fine by her. It gave her another night to pretend nothing was wrong. Denial was a powerful thing. Beth kicked off her shoes and sat back down on the bed beside Torres. God she was tired, and not just from today. She had not slept properly for over a week. Most nights she had been up until two looking up her mom’s symptoms and trying to decide which disease she was going to pray it was. None of them were great options, and they were past the point of being able to ignore it. Beth sighed. So much for alcohol helping her forget about her mom. She closed her eyes and began to rub her temples. She had been awake too long and her head was paying the price for it now. She had ten minutes left and then she would call a cab and go home to her lovely comfy bed. No looking up symptoms tonight, just sleep. “Beth?” Torres whispered just to make sure, but there wasn’t any need, it was fairly obvious she was sleeping. The first clue was that she had stopped talking; the second was the soft snoring. She looked slightly less agitated in her sleep, but she still had the deep furrow between her brows, which made her look like she was concentrating even in her sleep. She was always so serious, no laughs or jokes with her, always working, and frowning. He should wake her up and take her home. He should…but he didn’t. He could not remember the last time he had been in the company of someone he did not detest. And he didn’t hate Beth. He couldn’t quite stretch to liking her but he did not loathe her. He actually kind of enjoyed spending time with her, but to be fair he would have enjoyed any company at this point. It felt normal. Bizarrely he looked forward to their meetings. He could always depend on her for a dose of normality, a small reminder of how people were supposed to behave. The last two years had been spent on autopilot, trying to tune out everything but finding Moses’ killer. He was no closer now than he was a year ago but every day he sank to new lows, witnessing acts of depravity he could have only imagined before. The one perk of being in charge was he rarely had to pull the trigger. It was a small consolation, but he would take it. It wasn’t like he minded killing people, but he minded that he didn’t care. Torres studied her features and wondered how old she was. His guess would be thirty. She wasn’t a beauty by any stretch but she was pretty enough. She had dark blonde hair that fell just past her shoulders. Usually she wore it tied back in a ponytail, but today it was down. Her hair smelled of apples, which suited her: sweet and wholesome but also a little bit tart. She had just enough of an edge to her to make her interesting, but at her core she seemed like a nice person. Whenever she heard the details of a crime, she flinched a little. She always tried to cover it up, but he saw it. Even though she tried not to react, her body would betray her, if only for an instant. There was something nice about that, not that he could ever hope to explain it. He didn’t know many nice people any more. Selfishly he wanted to be around it for a few minutes longer, it was a nice reminder that not everyone was a pathetic piece of shit out to take as much as they possibly could. He was already looking forward to their next meeting; eight weeks, that was the schedule; they met face to face every eight weeks, he called every two, never to talk, just to say he was alive. Torres shook his head. How fucking pathetic had his life become, that he enjoyed sitting in silence with someone just because he knew she would not enjoy shooting someone in the gut and watching them bleed to death? Christ, he needed this to be done. Chapter Two (#ulink_7979a4e6-61ec-5739-92d9-9dc0bced0b0d) Beth wiped her sweat-slicked hands on her jeans. Should she have worn a suit? She was here in a professional capacity representing the DEA; maybe she should have dressed more formally. Too late now, she was here. Her phone rang. Beth fished it out of her bag and rejected the call when she saw it was her partner, presumably calling to check up on her or to gloat. Patterson thought she was wasting her time; there was no way Torres would come on board. She knew it was a long shot; she didn’t need to be reminded of that fact. And she didn’t need Patterson getting in her head. He didn’t think she could land Torres. Absently her hand patted the file she had put together about Torres. No one could accuse her of not being prepared. She took a deep breath before she rang the doorbell. She had practised her speech with Dr. Frazer, the Administration psychologist. He had given her pointers on how to sound more genuine and, more importantly, he had taught her how to be more convincing. There was a science to manipulation, and lucky for her she was a quick study. Beth rang the doorbell again and followed it up with a knock but still no answer. She was about to give up when she heard the screech of a power saw coming from behind the ranch-style house. She followed the noise to the back yard where she found a man, presumably Torres, bent over a table saw, pushing through a piece of wood with his bare hands. He wore faded blue jeans, slung low over narrow hips and a T-shirt. His skin was a rich brown, the colour heightened by the contrast with his stark white shirt. She was surprised to see him working, he had only been released from the hospital 48 hours previously. She cleared her throat to get his attention but he did not hear her over the noise of the saw. She didn’t want to startle him by calling out so she watched him silently. The muscles in his arms and back contracted as he guided the wood beneath the rotating blade. “Mr. Torres,” Beth called when the saw went quiet. Torres looked up. He eyed her dubiously. For a painful moment he didn’t speak and once again self-doubt pounded at her. She could hear Patterson’s voice telling her it was a lost cause. Her partner preferred getting information the old-fashioned way, from snitches and prison informants, but their information was unreliable at best. Beth knew better than most to never trust a convict. The DEA needed someone on the inside. Someone they had trained. Someone loyal. Someone hard. Someone who could withstand the cesspool of a drug cartel and yet not be pulled under. They needed Torres. He was perfect…at least on paper. His military career was exemplary. He would probably still be serving today if it weren’t for the IED that decimated his platoon. The military’s loss was her gain. Once she trained him, he would be a perfect asset. He already had a vested interest in bringing Los Treintas to their knees and most importantly, no one would blink at him falling into drug culture. His best friend had been killed by gang violence, just like his two brothers. Torres could easily pass as one more marginalised soul sucked under. “I’d ask if you were lost but seeing as you know my name, I’d say you’re right where you want to be.” Beth cleared her throat again, this time just to give herself a chance to think. “Mr. Torres?” She needed to be certain she was dealing with the right person. He looked different to the photo in his file: harder, angrier. If she saw him walking down a dimly lit road, she would cross the street to avoid him. Actually she would probably turn in the opposite direction and run. His glance caught hers and with the small look the air deserted her lungs. She fought the urge to turn and walk away. She had not anticipated her own visceral reaction to him. In his military photo he was less frightening. Torres put down the piece of oak he was working with. “We established who I am. Who are you?” Beth forced her feet to stay firmly in place. She reached out her hand. “Sorry. I am Beth Thomson.” Torres took her hand. His palms were rough. His hard calluses scraped against her smooth skin. “Well Beth Thomson, what can I do for you?” Beth pulled her hand away and reached into her bag for her blue and gold shield. Immediately his body language changed, his back straightened, his eyes narrowed. He gave her a hard stare that left her cold before he turned his gaze away, staring off into the open horizon. “I saw nothing. I know nothing.” His voice was impossibly low, like a growl. Beth shifted her weight from side to side. “Really? You didn’t see the man who shot you?” Torres said nothing. He didn’t even bother to look at her. “I’ve already given my statement to the police. I have nothing to add to it.” She was losing him. She had to get him onside. She needed an emotional response from him, anything she could work with, any button she could push. “I can find him. With your help we can bring him to justice.” Torres made a sound halfway between a laugh and a grunt. “Justice, huh? Is that what you are offering?” His tone was mocking. Beth stood straighter, bringing herself to her full height. It was a futile effort because Torres still towered over her but the small gesture made her feel less small, less vulnerable. “Yes. Together we can find the man that tried to kill you. We can bring him to justice.” Half of Torres’ mouth curved into a smile. “No thanks.” Beth’s eyes narrowed. She expected him to at least hear her out before he rejected her. He was supposed to be upset when she mentioned the shooting, get choked up and then she would use that emotion against him to get him onside. But Torres’ response was far from emotional. He rejected her with the same indifference given to a salesman peddling encyclopaedias door to door. “No thanks?” she asked. “Don’t you want to hear me out?” Torres gave his dark head a single shake. Beth took a deep breath. She was losing him. With her foot she traced a line in the dusty ground. She didn’t lose. Nothing came easy to her, but she never lost, what she lacked in finesse she made up for in tenacity. “Giving up. I expected more from a soldier.” She held her breath and waited for his response. She expected anger. But Torres did not respond. Half of her was relieved; physically she was outmatched. He could snap her like a twig, but he did not appear angry. He didn’t even appear interested. Beth traced the groove her toe had created in the dirt, tracing it over and over. Time to change tactics. “As you know, the man who shot you is a member of Los Treintas. My job is to find their leader – El Escorpion.” “Good luck with that.” At least he looked at her, if only for a second. It was a start. “The drug trade is the tip of the iceberg for Los Treintas. They are heavily into arms dealing. They pose a grave danger to national security. As a Marine—” Torres’ head snapped round. His gaze bore down on her. “As a Marine what?” There was no mistaking the edge to his voice. She had a hit a nerve. She took another breath to try to steady her already frayed nerves. She felt uncomfortable with him, off balance and back-footed. It didn’t make sense; Beth stared down criminals for a living. But this was different, he wasn’t a criminal…yet…but what she was proposing would take him there. Beth licked her dry lips, suddenly forgetting where she was going with this argument. “Is this the part where you appeal to my patriotism? Maybe bring up the fact that as a son of immigrants I know better than most the importance of preserving the American dream. Trust me darling, I’ve done my bit, got the scars to prove it.” He also had a Purple Heart, but he didn’t mention that. Beth’s shoulders dropped. She wasn’t getting through to him. Maybe Patterson was right; this was a lost cause. Maybe her time would be better off sweet-talking jailbirds. She sighed. The only thing she had left was honesty. “Yeah it was, but clearly it’s not going to work. So tell me, Torres, what would work? What do I need to say to you to get you onside?” “You’re wasting your breath, Ms. Thomson. I’m not buying what you’re selling.” Beth shook her head. “Your best friend was murdered in front of you. I thought you would be more vested in getting justice for him.” His jaw tightened, tan skin stretched over taut muscles. The movement was subtle but she saw it. It was something; there was the emotion she was looking for. She remembered what Frazer had told her – use his emotion against him. Beth latched onto it. Moses Archila was the key. “I saw you with his sister this morning at the funeral. I get that you don’t care about getting justice for yourself, but Archila was your best friend. He saved you, don’t you owe it to him to bring his murderer to justice?” Torres stared at her. The anger in his eyes was palpable. There was no doubt that had she been a man she would no longer be standing. “What do you know of justice, Gringa?” “I know that if someone murdered my best friend I would not rest until I saw them behind bars.” Torres lifted his shoulders. “Moses would still be dead.” Beth let of a stream of air. She had played her last card. “Yes he would,” she admitted. She followed his gaze out to the great expanse of open land. With Torres, she had not found the man she expected; she had found something scarier and far more complex. She had naively hoped he would be easier to manipulate. Suddenly she had a thought, a niggling feeling. She turned and studied his hard features. Torres wasn’t unfazed because he was apathetic, he was unfazed because he had a plan of his own. She opened her mouth but stopped before she threw her Hail Mary pass. “We’re both looking for him. We will find him faster together.” He shrugged but he didn’t refute her statement. “We both want justice,” she pressed. Torres shook his head. “We don’t want the same thing. You want information. What I want is a whole lot uglier but we won’t talk about that because you’re a lady and ’cause that shiny badge of yours means our ideas of justice will never be the same.” His dark features were encased with raw unmitigated hatred; there was the emotion she was looking for, but she didn’t know how to act on it. Her body seized up, her thoughts froze. But she was right: he did have a plan. “Do you know who shot you?” she asked. She took his silence as an answer. “I can find him.” He turned and looked at her. Half of his mouth curled into a smile. “If that were true, you wouldn’t be here, would you?” She sighed. “You’re right. I need you. But you need me too, Torres.” Torres made a sound that could have passed for a laugh. “I don’t need you. Go back to your office, Gringa. Or better yet, go find yourself another Mexican to sweet-talk. That is why you’re here isn’t it? Because I’m Mexican? I already look like a thug, right? I’m already halfway there. Just give me a couple of tats and I will look like you plucked me fresh from the prison yard.” Beth shifted from one leg to the other. She considered how to answer him, wondered what Frazer would say. She was sure the Department psychologist would be able to phrase things in a way that wouldn’t offend anyone. But Beth wasn’t a psychologist and she wasn’t good at bullshitting. “Yep,” she said simply. When she saw the flash of a smile on Torres’ full lips, she continued. “I would be a pretty crappy agent if a tried to recruit a Gringo to infiltrate a Mexican gang wouldn’t I? But you looking like a thug is an added bonus. It is also a bonus that both your brothers and your best friend were Zetas. It wouldn’t take much work to get you in. So to answer your question, yes I want a Mexican, but not any Mexican. I want a Mexican who has proved himself loyal, who has a vested interest in bringing down Los Treintas, and has a tie to Los Zetas. Unfortunately for me, you are the only Mexican in the free world that meets those criteria. If you know anyone else, by all means, please point me in the right direction.” She held up her hands. She had played all her cards. Torres picked up another piece of wood and positioned it beneath the teeth of the circular saw. “That is unfortunate.” Her shoulders dropped. She was losing him, she could feel her tenuous connection to El Escorpion falling through her fingers. She could not let it happen. She needed to find him. “What do you want? What can I say to make you understand?” “I understand perfectly. I’m just not interested.” Beth took a deep breath. There were lines she didn’t cross, values she did not abandon. That was how she could deal with the less savoury aspects of her job. She would be no better than the men she chased if she compromised her morals. But she needed this, she needed Torres onside. “I will find him, even without you. I have all the resources of the Department of Justice behind me. Do you know what will happen when I find him? I will cut a deal. I will get all the information I can and then I will cut him loose. He is nothing to me, just a link in the chain that leads to El Escorpion.” Torres’ hand tightened on the wood, his knuckles turning white under the strain. There was no emotion on his dark face but she knew she had hit a nerve. “But it could go another way. Once I have the information I need,” she took a deep breath to fortify her nerve, she wasn’t just blurring the line: she was annihilating it. There was no morality in what she was about to do. In that moment she knew there was precious little she wouldn’t say or do to complete her mission. “Once I cut him loose, it is over. He doesn’t exist. If something happened to him, it wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar.” She left the rest unsaid. The words were bitter in her mouth. Her mind screamed at her to take them back but she couldn’t. All she could do was pretend that she had not just given consent for a man to be murdered in cold blood. *** Beth opened one eye and peered at the hard pillow she had just been sleeping on. She sat bolt upright when she saw that the uncomfortable pillow was actually the solid chest of Torres. He was staring at her, his dark face expressionless as usual. Beth’s hand flew to her head. Had she hit it on something in her sleep, because her temples throbbed like she had been clobbered over the head with a crowbar. And her mouth… It tasted like someone had stuffed a dirty dishcloth in there. This is why she didn’t like to drink things that didn’t come with pink umbrellas. The pain was never worth the temporary distraction. She glanced over at the clock on the bedside table: 7:27. Shit. She had fallen asleep and spent the night with Torres. Apparently the cat lady was also unprofessional. She noticed a small wet patch on Torres’ white shirt. Her hand flew to mouth. Drool! She had drooled on him in her sleep. She was really killing it on the charm offensive. Beth stood up and straightened her T-shirt. At some point in the night it had ridden up above her navel. She instantly regretted the sudden movement as the room spun around her. “Morning, Gatita.” Beth scowled at the name but immediately wished she hadn’t. How could such a small movement hurt so much? “Aspirin. I need some aspirin…and I need to call my sister.” Beth covered her eyes with her hands. Why was it so bright? She did not need this assault on her retinas. She could feel him staring at her again but she was too sore to care. He could study and judge all he liked. Thank God it was Saturday and she did not need to make an appearance at the office. She was going to be spending the next twelve hours on her couch, watching made-for-TV movies and promising herself she would never drink again. “I need to call a taxi.” Beth’s hands went to the back pockets of her jeans. “Damn it, I left my phone at home.” It seemed the sensible thing to do last night but this morning she wished she had it. She leaned over and reached for the hotel phone. Torres stopped her. “I’ll take you home.” Beth held up her hand. “It’s OK. I’ll just get a taxi.” Torres took the phone from her hands and returned it to its cradle. “We slept together. It’s the least I can do.” Beth’s head shot up. Surely they hadn’t! She wasn’t that drunk. Her heart picked up speed, but then she noticed the small curl to Torres’ full lips. He was teasing her again. He really needed to stop doing that.“Very funny.” “I try.” Torres stood up and peeled his shirt off. He folded it before laying it on the back of a chair. “I need a quick shower. Give me ten minutes.” Beth nodded because she couldn’t speak. She tried not to stare but she could not look away. In addition to the tight ropes of muscles that encased his body, his torso was also covered in the scars of an old burn. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw it. She shouldn’t have been surprised, she knew about the injury, but she wasn’t fully prepared for the degree his skin had been ravaged. And she wasn’t prepared for the large Santa Muerte tattoo that covered the entire left side of his chest. It reached from his shoulder down below his ribs. The artist had incorporated the worst of his scar into the design. Santa Muerte: Saint Death. Many gang members, especially Los Zetas, gave homage to the saint. She was thought to protect them and keep them safe while they inflicted misery on others. If there were a patron of drugs and murder it would be Santa Muerte. Beth flinched. Why did Torres have this tattoo? He didn’t have it when she recruited him. She knew for certain because there was a detailed description of every scar and mark on his body in his file. The DEA had collected the information in case he was killed in the line of duty. Los Treintas had a nasty habit of decapitating their victims and sending the heads to their families as a warning. Two years was a long time. Long enough for him to become fully immersed, long enough for him to become sympathetic to the Zeta cause? If he had, Torres was a threat, to her, to finding El Escoprion, even to himself. Beth opened her mouth to speak but shut it again. She needed to pull him in. She bit her lip until she tasted blood. Her conscience screamed that this was her fault. She was his handler. She was supposed to support him and debrief him, make sure he was handling everything. And shit if she had not messed that one up. She accepted his grunts and nods as communication and assumed he was doing fine because nothing ever bothered him. Shit, why hadn’t she noticed this before? She had let herself get so focused on El Escorpion and now they were paying the price. Not all details should be overlooked. She tried to take a deep breath to fill her lungs but a stronger force was squeezing out all the air, making her breath come in small pathetic pants. Beth closed her eyes and counted slowly to ten. “How long has it been since you talked to Frazer?” She tried to sound relaxed but her voice sounded strangled. Torres’ dark eyes were impossible to read past the cold anger that roiled behind them. He had changed again, going from the smiling teasing man she had seen glimpses of last night, to the terrifyingly emotionless man she knew. The change was so sudden and fluid, like a switch being tripped. Everything about his appearance changed, even the soft lines that fanned his eyes when he smiled, turned cold. “Why do you think I need to see the psychologist, Beth? Do you think I have gone native? Think I get off on watching the boys make el guiso? Am I thinking about it right now? Stuffing a body into a nice 55-gallon drum, adding just enough diesel so it burns slow. I know you love details. Ask me, Beth. Ask me how long it would take to burn you down to nothing.” Beth tried to look away but Torres grabbed her chin and held her firmly in place, his dark eyes burning into her with venom only matched by the ugliness of his words. He scared her. There was no shame in admitting that. She would be a fool not to be scared of him. By choice, she only knew the beginning of what he was capable of, and that was enough. “Ask me, Beth!” he demanded. “No,” she whispered. She forced herself to look at him. “What do you weigh? 140 lbs? Five hours. I would add a little iron, keep it burning nice and hot, and that’s it, in five hours it would be like you never existed. Your life, your identity gone.” Beth’s joints went slack. She fought the urge to scream and tell Torres to shut up. She didn’t because she knew he was talking about Archila. He had never spoken about it with her before. She only knew the details through the police report. Torres knew all the details though, because he had seen it happen. He had seen Archila shot in front of him before Martinez turned the gun on Torres, shooting him in his left shoulder. Beth’s gaze went to the tattoo again. Under the ugly marking was proof of an uglier crime. Beth’s back straightened. Fear told her to keep quiet but something else compelled her to tell him, “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have stopped them. Archila knew that. That’s why he told you to go after you were shot. You couldn’t have stopped them. He was already dead, the moment they found him.” Torres dropped his hand from her. “Don’t,” he warned between clenched teeth. But Beth didn’t listen. The pain she thought she saw in his eyes made her continue, her compassion trumping her fear. “It’s not your fault Archila didn’t adjust when he got home from Iraq, and it’s not your fault he got involved with Los Zetas. He made his choices.” “And I made mine?” Torres shook his head. “That’s not what I meant.” Beth shrugged her shoulders. She wasn’t good at this part. She didn’t know what to say to make it OK. “Look, it’s normal to feel some guilt about what happened in Iraq and in Mexico. You survived, that’s what’s important. Why don’t you talk it through with Frazer? I know he can see you this week. Come in.” She realised she sounded like she was begging, but it was because she was. Torres needed to come in from the field. The DEA had gotten enough from him. She had used him enough. They had found Martinez, the man who killed Archila, and it was a dead end. Once Torres was properly debriefed, he could stay with the Administration or he could go back to carpentry, or do whatever he wanted. He just needed to be away from Los Zetas. She needed him to see that. “This,” Beth gestured to the tattoo, “this isn’t you. And this won’t bring Archila back. This will only get you killed.” Torres shook his head. “I haven’t gone native, Beth. You’re alive right now because of this.” Torres slapped the design. “The reason you weren’t killed last night is because of this. You don’t want details, Gatita, but this one you need to know, I hate this.” His voice was low, shadowed by emotion she had not heard from him before. “But I hate what is under it even more and that is why I am going to find El Escorpion. So take a good hard look at it, because this is what is going to save us both. And, no Beth. To answer your question, no I don’t want to see Frazer.” Beth nodded. She took a step back until her knees hit the side of the bed and she collapsed down onto the mattress. A few seconds later she heard the sound of water splashing against tiles. Beth held her head in her hands. Not for the first time that week, she questioned her career choice. It wasn’t too late to change, who needed a pension anyway? No, she just needed an aspirin. Once her head was sorted out she could worry about her guilt. Had she signed Torres’ death warrant when she recruited him? It had all seemed so perfect, he was an in to Los Zetas that she could not pass up. She hadn’t seen Torres as anything more than an asset, a human pawn she would happily sacrifice to get to El Escorpion. Christ, when had she become that person? When did people’s lives become inconvenient details? She closed her eyes and let shame settle over her. A few minutes later Torres returned, faded jeans slung low over his narrow hips. “Ready?” he asked. “Yeah.” Torres opened the door to the bedroom. Stretched on the couch were the three men she did not recognise, all passed out cold, the television playing soccer highlights in the background. In the corner of the room Flores sat, still awake, his tattooed hand wrapped around the neck of a beer. It was early to be drinking but he probably had not stopped from the night before. The fear she had felt towards him had given way to anger. It took all her energy not to spit in his face. Flores nodded at her, a small act of recognition, or maybe what he thought passed as an apology for attempted assault. Beth’s hands tightened into angry fists. Now was not the time or the place. She would bide her time. Flores would get what was coming to him. Flores apologised to Torres in Spanish, saying he did not realise Beth was his. Torres nodded in return and said something to the effect of “No harm, no foul.” Beth bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying that plenty of harm had been done but she didn’t because it would jeopardise Torres’ position to have his “woman” question his authority. The drug culture was savage and steeped in misogyny. She wanted to tell Flores exactly what she thought of him but instead she kept her eyes focused on the floor, studying a small stain on the blue carpet, reminding herself that justice would prevail. As her mom always told her, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.” Beth closed her eyes and for a brief second let herself beg the universe for the words to be true, not just with Flores, but with her mom. Flores apologised again and then surprised her by offering to take them to breakfast. From the corner of her eye, she saw Torres nod and then accept the outstretched hand that was offered to him. Beth’s head snapped up. She opened her mouth to say something but realised it would mean letting Torres know she spoke Spanish and giving away her one advantage. “There’s a waffle place down the street. Meet us there is fifteen minutes,” Torres said quickly, still speaking Spanish. Flores nodded and then reached out his hand again, this time to her. Beth took a deep breath. She didn’t want to be in his presence, let alone touch him. Torres put his arm around her waist and gave her a squeeze, his powerful fingers biting into the sensitive flesh. She winced and fought the urge not to cry out. She got the message and shook his hand. Torres led her from the hotel room. Once they were in the elevator she turned to him. Her hands shook. “Don’t ever do that again. I don’t want him touching me. You do realise what he was going to do to me?” “I know. I’m sorry.” Torres held out his hands, palms open. Remorse was written clearly on his dark features. Beth shook her head. She had seen it before. He could play any emotion, be anything or anyone the situation required. There was no way to tell what was going on in his head. She wondered if he even understood what was going on in his mind. Hell, she wondered if there was a “real” Torres. He was so good at adapting, his character changing on demand. God only knew what was left of him. “He was going to rape me. Do you get that?” Torres clenched his fists and then relaxed them, several times, his stare never leaving her. “I wouldn’t have let him touch you,” Torres said. Beth didn’t let the issue rest. “But he would have if you weren’t there. Has he done that before? Do you know of any other women he has attacked, because it didn’t seem like his first time.” Torres’ eyes narrowed into angry slits. “Are you asking me if I have sat back and allowed Flores to rape women? You’ve changed your tune. I thought that you didn’t want details.” Beth shook her head. “Tell me.” She needed to know this. This wasn’t about Flores. This was about how engrained the violence had become in Torres, how skewed his thinking had become. Torres’ lips curled into a bitter smile. “Do you want to know if I rape women? Is that what you’re really asking? You’re asking if I am willing to hold a woman down and force my cock into her? Is that what you want to know?” Beth nodded. “Fuck you,” was his response. The ice in voice sent a chill through her. “But you wouldn’t stop Flores,” she pressed. Torres turned on her. In an instant her back was pressed against the elevator wall, a large arm on either side of her, his weight pinning her in place. In a blink of an eye she was completely overpowered. It was hard for her to breath. Her knees buckled. If he had not been supporting her, she would have fallen over. Torres leaned down and hissed against her ear. “Yes I would stop him. But don’t ever ask me that question again.” When he spoke, his lips brushed her ear. She shivered as his hot breath cooled quickly on the sensitive flesh of her neck. Just as quickly, Torres released her. He righted himself just in time for the doors opening. “We’re going to breakfast,” he said, still not knowing she spoke Spanish. Beth took a deep breath and commanded her pulse to slow but it refused. Whatever was left of the real Torres was there. The anger, that was him. “I need to get home,” she tried to say but it came out a whisper. “Make time, Gatita. Flores needs to know there are no hard feelings.” Torres walked across the parking lot, not turning to see if she was following. Beth shook her head. What a sick world Torres inhabited, where trying to assault someone was glanced over with a nod of the head and an invitation to breakfast. But she had put him in that world. Guilt threatened to overtake her. If Torres was the monster he looked like, she had helped to create him. He opened the door to his black SUV and shut it behind her. His actions were more to do with making sure she got in the car than actual manners. The interior of the car was spotless but she wasn’t surprised. Torres was meticulous with everything. He had even made the bed before they left the hotel. And he had hung up the towels and wiped down the sink so neatly, it was almost impossible to tell anyone was in the room, except of course for the tiny graveyard of alcohol bottles in the wastebasket. They were only in the trash because Torres had put them there. Five minutes later they pulled into the parking lot of a breakfast chain. She hated to admit it, but she was glad they had stopped here because she was starving. She hadn’t eaten since lunch yesterday. A waitress seated them at a booth in front of the window, near the front of the store. The woman, whose name was Wanda according to the faded badge on her yellow pinafore uniform, smiled as she handed Beth a menu. There was a tiredness around her eyes that wasn’t concealed by her blue eye shadow. Beth recognised the look of an overworked woman. Her heart constricted painfully as she thought about her mom. The woman looked nothing like her mother, but she reminded her of her mom just the same: same job, same tired eyes. “I’ll give ya a minute to decide,” the waitress said. Beth knew without looking what she wanted. Only one food could cure a hangover. “Can I please get the buttermilk pancakes? And do you have peanut butter?” The waitress nodded. “Can I get a side of peanut butter please? Oh and a coffee please, decaf,” Beth asked. Beth looked up to see Torres staring at her. His habit of watching her a bit too intently did not look like it was likely to end. Torres ordered a black coffee and an omelette before he asked Beth. “Is the peanut butter for your coffee or your pancakes?” “Pancakes,” she informed him as Wanda filled up her mug with hot coffee. “Interesting.” She waited for him to finish his thought but nothing followed. Beth took a deep breath. Thirty seconds went by, and then a minute. He was doing it again, not talking so she would. But damn if it didn’t work. He had obviously figured out that she was uncomfortable with silence. “I get it from my mom. She puts peanut butter on everything. I think it started when we were kids. Peanut butter gives you a lot of bang for your buck, calorie-wise. We couldn’t afford very much but our cupboards were always stocked with discounted peanut butter. Do you remember the supermarket with the huge isles of discounted food with their yellow labels with black writing? You were never quite sure of what brand was actually inside because everything had a generic label. My mom said it was a culinary adventure.” Beth smiled at the memory. Only her mom could put a positive spin on poverty. But her mom could put a positive spin on anything. She saw everything as an adventure or an opportunity. “You can smile. Who knew?” Torres said. Beth nodded. “What can I say? Discounted food does it for me. Don’t get me started on government cheese.” Torres raised a dark brow in question but he didn’t say anything. “You don’t remember government cheese? It was the best. There was a surplus of cheese, so low-income families got massive blocks of cheese. We had to stand in line forever but at the end we got a ton of cheese. We are talking like the size of small house. Well not quite but they were big.” Beth couldn’t help but smile when she thought of the enormous pots of macaroni and cheese that filled their freezer for months. Somehow they never got sick of it. God she was talking a lot. Torres’ silence tactics were annihilating her policy of keeping her private life private. She supposed it didn’t really matter much if she told Torres things; it wasn’t like he had contact with anyone she knew. “Can’t say I have experienced that culinary delight. No government cheese for me.” “Maybe it was just a California thing.” Beth realised too late that she had assumed Torres had grown up below the poverty line too. She shouldn’t assume his family had received food stamps just because hers had. She never made that assumption about anyone else, weird that she would start with him. Torres shrugged his shoulders. “They might have had it here. My parents were illegal, so there wasn’t a chance in hell of them getting in any government line.” Beth nodded. “You say were. Are they still illegal?” Torres finished his sip of coffee before he answered. “No. Dad is dead, Mom was naturalised. She was cleaning house for a government worker and he pulled some strings.” The waitress returned a few minutes later with their order. Beth spread the peanut butter over her pancakes before dousing it in maple syrup. She did not stop pouring until her waffle floated in the sticky concoction. Before she took a bite she cut off a piece and placed it on Torres’ plate. “You already had your childhood robbed of government cheese, you can’t miss out on peanut butter pancakes too,” she said by way of explanation. Torres eyed the offering dubiously before he stabbed his fork into it. “Well?” Beth asked before he had a chance to swallow. Half of Torres’ mouth curled in his signature half smile. “It’s good. I have to admit the combination of sweet and salty works.” Just to be sure he cut himself another bite from her plate. Beth smiled in return. Sitting with him here in daylight, he almost seemed…well, less scary. He still looked every part the hardened criminal but there was an ease about him that relaxed her in return. She wondered if there was an alternate reality where she could enjoy his company. Once she got past the terrifying part of him, he was actually easy to talk to, mostly because she could tell him stupid inane things as there was no pretence of them ever being friends. But there was something else, something she did not expect from him: he listened like he actually cared what she was saying. They continued eating and talking, mostly Beth talking, with Torres interjecting the occasional comment or question. Just as Beth finished her last bit of pancake, Flores arrived, alone. Torres nodded to him. Just then Wanda walked by and Flores grabbed a menu from her hands before sliding into the booth beside Torres. “Coffee,” he said, snapping his fingers and pointing to an overturned cup. “Now,” Flores added when he caught Beth’s eye. “Move your ass.” Beth’s shoulders tightened. Her gaze darted to the waitress. She tried to catch her eye, to smile, or apologise, let her know she knew Flores was a jackass, but the woman kept her head down. To most people she would have looked unfazed but Beth saw the tightness in her mouth and the subtle flair to her nostrils. “Please is the word you are looking for,” Beth said in the nicest voice she could manage. Flores’ eyes narrowed in defiance. “You going to control your woman?” Flores asked in Spanish even though he had just demonstrated his proficiency in English. His dark stare never left Beth. He was trying to intimidate her. There was no doubt it was the same dead stare he showed his victims. Beth bit the inside of her mouth to stop herself from speaking or showing any sign that she understood him. Torres laughed and said in Spanish, “I kept her up too late. She’s not a morning person at the best of times.” Flores seemed to find the explanation acceptable. He looked her straight in the eye. “She’s feisty.” He stood up and announced in English, “I’m going to the toilet. Give me some bacon and eggs, sunny side up, none of this scrambled bullshit.” His stare never left Beth even though he was speaking to the waitress. He was challenging Beth to say something. Torres leaned over and whispered into her ear. “Play nice, Mami.” There was an underlying threat in his words. “I’m trying.” Her head was killing her. Normally she might be able to fake civility but she was in too much pain to deal with Flores right now. Just her luck he pushed her buttons. Rudeness to people in the service industry was a particular pet peeve. She had seen her mom be humiliated by customers, because pathetic people thought it was acceptable to demean and demoralise people to show their own power. Her mom had always smiled and brushed it off, reminding Beth, “What Peter says about Paul has more to do with Peter than Paul.” Beth would pretend to be wise and tell her mom she understood but inside it pissed her off. Flores speaking rudely to the waitress brought back all the anger. With Flores out of earshot, Torres could speak normally. “You wear every emotion on your face. I can see everything you’re thinking. And so can everyone else. It’s not enough to say nothing. You can’t be openly hostile. You’ll get us both killed.” Beth nodded. She doubted Flores noticed anything about her face. He was too self-involved. He only ever looked at her to intimidate her. She was a piece of meat like every other woman. It was only Torres who studied her. “I thought I was a good liar. Until I met you.” “Thank you.” “It wasn’t a compliment.” Flores returned a few minutes later. When he sat down he snapped his fingers and pointed to his coffee cup. Beth let out a stream of air. She needed to stretch her legs, before she stretched her fingers around his throat. She turned to Torres. “I saw a gas station next door. I’m going to go get some aspirin. I’ll be right back.” Torres lifted a brow like he was going to say something but he remained silent. Beth pushed passed a busboy as she headed for the door. “Sorry,” she mumbled, looking back over her shoulder. She made her way across the street and bought a package of aspirin and a bag of M&M’s before she found her way to the curb and sat down beside a fire hydrant. Beth downed two aspirin without any water and then tore open the bag of candy. She wasn’t hungry but she needed them. She popped a single red sweet into her mouth and closed her eyes as the hard shell softened on her tongue. When the hard candy coating and the chocolate below had completely dissolved, she took another sweet, yellow this time, and repeated the process. Beth breathed in slowly, letting the combination of the sugar and the fresh air relax her coiled muscles. “Hey,” came a deep voice from above her. Beth looked up at Torres, his dark head encased by a halo from the morning sun. Even though she shaded her eyes with her hand, she still had to squint. His broad silhouette looked like the cover of a horror novel: shadowed and ominous, promising to inflict all levels of emotional trauma. He surprised her by sitting down beside her. “Still hungry?” he said gesturing to the M M’s in her hand. “No, not really,” she said but did not explain further. She would use his tactics on him and let her silence loosen his tongue. It only seemed fair, as she had divulged more this morning than she ever had. No one at work knew she had grown up poor, hell, no one in Texas knew. The thought of anyone knowing her family received food stamps turned her cold, yet she had told Torres with no prompting. Beth waited for him to say something, but the pause stretched from pregnant to painful. Beth popped another sweet into her mouth to keep from speaking, but this time the treat did not have its usual calming effect. She waited for the candy to melt before she said, “I know what you’re doing and it’s not going to work.” True to form, Torres said nothing, just continued to stare at her. Beth sighed in exasperation. “You can stop now. We both know the game.” Torres’ brow shot up in question. Beth shook her head. “Please stop looking at me like I am interesting. I’m really not. You’re putting me off my M&M’s and that takes a lot.” “I wouldn’t want to put you off your M&M’s. You seem very fond of them. Is that another California welfare thing? Did the state give out surplus M&M’s?” Beth shook her head, annoyed at herself for telling him about government cheese. Torres nodded, seeming to accept her answer. He was doing it again. Beth popped another sweet into her mouth and then another and another, repeating the process of letting it melt slowly. “Do you realise how annoying that is?” Her frustration built as she worked her way through her bag of M&M’s with no elevation in her mood. “Sorry?” Beth reached into her bag only to discover that she had finished the bag. She wadded up the wrapper and shoved it into her pocket. “Are you kidding me? I finished the bag? I have never finished the bag. That’s how annoying I find all of this.” Beth stood up and briefly considered going back to the gas station to buy another bag but realised her coping mechanism would only work if she was removed from her stressors. “You’ve never finished a bag of M&M’s?” Torres asked dubiously. “Yes. No. Not like that. Oh never mind.” Beth threw up her hands in defeat. She turned to walk away but spun on her heel to face him. “I know what you are doing with the whole silence thing and it is not working. I am talking to you so you know precisely how annoying I find the practice, not because it is effective. You understand the difference. You even managed to ruin my M&M therapy, which takes some doing. I have never made it past ten M&M’s before I felt better about something. And I just finished the bag and I still feel awful. So please stop with the staring and the silence. If you want to know something, just ask me. Stop looking at me like I’m interesting, ’cause I’m really not.” Torres’ eyes narrowed. “Why do you keep saying you’re not interesting?” “That was your take away from that conversation?” Beth noticed that he was still staring at her but she didn’t mention it, instead looked at him with the same intensity. “What did you want me to take away, Gatita?” Again with the cat nickname. It was like acid on an open wound but she would not show it. She shrugged her shoulders. “I would prefer it if you didn’t stare at me. And stop with the long silences that make me talk.” Torres smiled knowingly. “I see,” he said before, standing up beside her. What?! What did he see?! Beth didn’t wait for him to finish his thought, because he wouldn’t. “What do you think you see?” Torres leaned over and brushed a stray lock off of her face. “Just you, Beth.” His hands were worn and callused. Heat radiated off him, but his proximity, or maybe his words, made her shiver. His gaze was on her, palpable and hot. “You’re doing it again.” “Am I? What am I doing exactly?” Beth shrugged. It would sound stupid if she tried to articulate it. “You’re uncomfortable because I look at you when I speak to you? Is that it? Where I’m from we call that manners.” Beth shook her head. “Of course- I know that. It’s just-you look at me like you’re studying me.” Torres was silent for a moment and then he surprised her by nodding. “Sorry. Maybe I am. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around a normal person. You’re the only nice person I’ve spoken to for the last two years. So yeah, I guess I want to hear what you have to say. I’m sorry if that creeps you out.” Beth sighed. “That’s kind of sad. Now I feel bad for you. If your only normality is me, then you have bigger problems than my failed M&M therapy.” “What’s wrong with you? As far as normal goes, you’re pretty good.” “Nothing’s wrong with me except I have overshot normal and entered boring territory.” Torres shook his head. “You’re not boring. You’re nice, you’re normal, if that’s boring sign me up. I could use some of that kind of boring in my life right about now.” “Sounds like you could use an M&M right now. Shame I ate them all.” “Do you always eat M&M’s when you’re upset?” Beth nodded. This time she didn’t wait for the long silence that always followed her statements; she just carried on talking. She may as well not fight it; she was going to end up speaking to him anyway. “Sucking on them slowly calms me down. I usually feel better after four. Until today my high was ten.” “I’ll have to try it.” Judging by his pronounced lack of body fat, she doubted he indulged in chocolate very often, if ever. “What do you when you’re upset? If you don’t drink and haven’t had sex since you went undercover. What’s left? You’re woefully lacking in vices. That’s just not normal. Everyone needs something that they pretend to try to give up.” Torres thought for a second. “I work out. Not much of a vice, but it works.” Beth nodded. “You must be upset a lot.” She realised too late that she had said the words out loud. “I mean…you know…it is obvious you work out a lot…you know…you’re very muscular.” Beth’s cheeks burned hotter with each word, finally she decided to take a leaf out of Torres’ book and just stop talking. Torres’ mouth curled into a lopsided smile. “Sounds like I wasn’t the only one staring.” Beth cleared her throat. “I’m very observant,” she said in her defence, though someone would have to be legally blind not to notice how physically fit Torres was. His body was like an anatomy lesson, everything perfect and oversized. Each muscle was well defined and distinct from the others. “Apparently you are.” And apparently he had changed his tactics from silence and staring to flirting. Beth’s cheeks were burning now. She shifted from one foot to the other. This was probably a side effect of being undercover too long. He was flirting with her because there were no other women to flirt with. It was the equivalent of being the last woman on earth. Beth glanced down at her watch. She didn’t care what time it was, she just needed something to distract her. She could still feel his gaze on her, her flesh warming under the inspection. “I should…probably get back to the diner… I want to leave Wanda a tip. She shouldn’t have to deal with jerks like Flores.” Torres nodded. “I already did. I left her $100 of the ill-begotten money you don’t want me to talk about. And for the record no one should have to deal with Flores, but that’s why we get the big bucks.” There was a hint of sadness, or maybe regret in his voice. “OK. Well then I guess I just need to get home.” Beth paused to think. They were done, maybe forever. Once she told him she had identified Archila’s killer, she would have no reason to see him again. Should she tell him? She knew who Archila’s killer was. That was why she had tried to meet him last night, to tell him, but even now something stopped her. Last night she didn’t tell Torres because she needed his help, but now there was no excuse. Her head pounded as her conscience deliberated the consequences of telling him. She couldn’t be certain what Torres would do with the information, but in her heart, she knew. Telling Torres would be giving him tacit consent. But withholding the information would be a betrayal; he had only joined the DEA to find Archila’s murderer. Beth took a deep breath. “Um…before you leave. I have some information on Archila’s killer.” She spoke quickly so she wouldn’t be tempted to change her mind. He deserved to know, he had held up his end of the bargain. What he did with the information was on him now. Whatever he did, she would ignore, it would become one of the many details she pretended didn’t exist. Torres’ jaw tightened. “His name is Javier Martinez. Does the name mean anything to you? We got his name from an informant but it checks out. He is known to the DEA. My partner picked him up a few years ago on meth charges. He is small time. He won’t get us any closer to El Escorpion.” For the first time, he did not look at her. His eyes were glazed over, his thoughts somewhere else. He looked different again, like he had in the elevator. The switch had been tripped, all the warmth gone. In an instant he went from teasing to terrifying. Beth’s skin went cold. Immediately she regretted telling him. She wasn’t sure why, it wasn’t like the world would mourn the loss of Javier Martinez. But this didn’t feel right. If Torres was looking for closure, he wasn’t going to find it by killing Martinez. “We can speak to the office in Mexico City. I’m sure they can bring him in by the end of the week. He would face trial in Texas—” “No,” Torres cut her off. “You don’t need to—” He cut her off again with a raised hand. “I‘ll take you home now.” He wasn’t listening to her. She doubted if he could even see her through his rage. He was consumed by it. Every action now would be guided by his vendetta. Beth followed him back to his car. Letting Torres take her home wasn’t appropriate, but nothing about her relationship with Torres was appropriate. That ship had sailed when she recruited him. She gave him her address and settled into her seat. She racked her brain for things to say to dissuade him from going after Martinez, but her mind was blank. She had no argument to offer that he would listen to, so instead of speaking she stared out the window at the fields of blue bonnets. Usually she missed California, but when the blue bonnets were in bloom, there was nowhere she would rather be. All of Texas was covered in the bright wildflowers. Even the side of the freeway was softened by the delicate flowers. They made Texas seem smaller, softer, more like home, less like the consolation prize it was. Torres pulled up in front Beth’s house. He had not spoken for the entire drive and neither had she. This time the silence was not an invitation to speak, it was a carefully constructed wall designed to keep her out. “I should’ve known you’d have a picket fence. Very American dream.” he commented quietly. Beth nodded, looking past him to her small bungalow. It was modest, but it was her small slice of the American dream. As a kid growing up in a one-bedroom apartment that overlooked the freeway, her dream was to have her own house with a yard. And now she did. It wasn’t much but it was all hers, or it would be after twenty more years of monthly payments. Beth cleared her throat. She knew this was the last time she was going to see Torres and she had just started to get to know him. Maybe it was the finality of it, or the situation with her mom, but she wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. Torres looked like a monster but he wasn’t. He was different to Flores. There was something else to him, not just an unbridled passion for violence. “Do you want to come in and have a cup of coffee? Shouldn’t brag, but I make some of the best instant in Texas.” “No, I better go.” Beth nodded. There was more she wanted to say but she wasn’t sure what. She hesitated before she said, “If Martinez was brought back to Texas, he would get the death penalty. He killed two border agents. He won’t be getting a slap on the wrist. The Mexico City office is on his tail.” Torres nodded but did not say anything. They both knew what she was saying. Torres did not need to go after Martinez. But they both knew he would. He was too far in now to go back. If there was any question about that before, it immediately vanished when she saw the tattoo of Santa Muerte on his chest. Beth stepped out of the car and took a deep breath. This was it. “Take care, Torres.” “You too, Gatita,” he said before he pulled away. Chapter Three (#ulink_9bf2a9ab-432a-5198-8ac2-538e9fc36078) Torres stared down at the worn map. His finger circled the red dot, over and over, along the border of Sonora and Sinaloa, the last known address of Javier Martinez. He wouldn’t let himself believe it was almost over. He had spent so much time, given up so much to get to this point. He couldn’t yet imagine what it would feel like to live without the manacles shackling him to his disastrous past. He wouldn’t let himself be fooled into believing the guilt would go. He would live with that forever. But he would be done. Done. What did that look like? Shit if he knew, but he couldn’t wait to find out. First thing he would do, he would go and see his mom, explain things to her, make things right. She would understand, maybe even be proud. She would know he hadn’t become a drug lord. Her last surviving child was not running drugs for Los Zetas. It would take time for her to understand. And it would take time for Torres to forget the look of pain and disgust that had contorted his mother’s face that last time he had seen her. He still saw it when he thought of her; two years later and that was still the image he saw. The doorbell rang. Torres’ head shot up. He glanced at the clock. It was too late in the day for a delivery, and he wasn’t expecting anything. On reflex, his hand went to his back, touching the cold metal of the gun that was permanently fixed to his body. He slid the weapon out of its holder and clicked the safety off. “Who’s there?” Torres demanded. “Its Sal.” Flores. The short hairs on Torres’ arms stood taut. He rubbed his thumb over the barrel of the gun. Flores should not be here. He never came to Torres’ home. Ever. They met at Flores’ house or at a truck stop on I35. Torres wasn’t even sure how he knew where he lived. In the nearly two years he had been renting the one-bedroom apartment, he had had two visitors, and both of them had been delivering Chinese food. Slowly Torres slid his gun into the waist of his jeans, in front where he could reach it. “Que pasa?” Torres asked as he opened the door. Flores did not say anything, rather he shook his head and handed Torres a large manila envelope. “What’s this?” “Your woman. What’s her name?” A cold sweat broke out along Torres’ brow. His hand moved lower to the gun at his waist. “Why?” “Look at it. They found her. This was slid under my door. I tried calling you.” Torres glanced over at his phone sitting on the coffee table. He’d turned off his phone eight hours ago so he could concentrate. Torres slid a glossy photo free from the envelope. It was a picture of him sitting beside Beth on the curb outside the gas station. Torres ground his teeth together as he studied the picture. Across Beth’s face, someone had drawn a scorpion, the mark of Los Treintas. They had ordered a hit on her. Torres ran a hand along his jaw. “When did you get this?” Once a hit was ordered, it was carried out within hours. Torres was being taunted, that was what Los Treintas did, it added another layer of terror. They always sent the photo to the family. “About an hour ago. I tried calling.” Torres pinched his nose between his thumb and his forefinger. “Shit,” he said to no one in particular. He sat down on the couch and laid the photo on the coffee table beside his phone, scrutinising every detail. “I’m sorry.” Torres could hear Flores speaking but he didn’t know what he was saying. He needed to think. And he could not do that with Flores breathing down his neck. Torres stood up suddenly. “Thanks for telling me.” He put a hand on Flores’ shoulder and guided him to the door. The look on the man’s face indicated he was confused by Torres’ sudden change in demeanour. “I need to think,” Torres said by way of explanation, which was the truth. Flores nodded. Torres shut the door behind him and locked it. He turned and slid down to the floor, his back hard against the door. “Shit,” he said again. What was he going to do? Christ, she could already be dead by now. He shook his head when he realised that that would actually be the easiest solution. It was self-preservation, better her than him. He couldn’t die yet, not with Martinez still breathing. For whatever reason El Escorpion had ordered a hit on Beth but not on Torres. He was sending a message to him. Apparently he thought Beth was the way to hurt him. Torres almost laughed at the thought. He barely knew her. He had no loyalties to her. He had seen hundreds of people die, in Iraq, and just as many die since he got home. Her death would not even register to him. And that fact made him cold. At what point did he become the dragon instead of the slayer? He shook his head again. All these thoughts were too deep for him; he didn’t have the luxury of giving a shit any more. He didn’t owe her anything. His only loyalty was to Moses Archila. He would find the man who killed him. Nothing else mattered. Yes there would be casualities, but there always were. He could not mourn for every soldier lost along the way…or every agent. If he warned Beth, she would be taken into protective custody, as would he, for his own sake. And then Javier Martinez would get away. There was really only one choice so he would not let himself overthink it or second-guess himself. He would do what needed to be done. He always did. Chapter Four (#ulink_e6071980-f80c-527f-a7bd-a3ba586854ba) Beth entered the eleven digits of her sister’s cell phone number but hung up before the call went through and returned the phone to the cradle. Paige would be in the library studying or at the clinic. Beth shouldn’t bother her, not so close to finals. God knew she would be up to her eyeballs with only a trimester left before graduation. But that wasn’t the real reason Beth couldn’t make the call; she just didn’t want to know. If she could put off making the call forever, she would. If it would keep her mom the same strong vibrant woman, she would never make or receive another phone call for the rest of her life. Beth chewed on the pad of her thumb as she tried to decide what to do. She couldn’t actually pretend nothing was wrong, as much as she desperately wanted to; it wasn’t fair to her mom and it wasn’t fair to Paige. Her sister had borne the brunt of it, mostly because Paige still lived in Sacramento, but also because Paige seemed to be able to handle it. Paige faced everything head on. There was no hiding or pretending for her. Beth should be more like that. Was April too late for a New Year’s resolution? Beth picked up the phone and dialled the number before she could talk herself out of it. “I was wondering when you would call,” her sister said when she picked up the phone. Even across a thousand miles, Beth could see the cheery smile on her sister’s face. “Are you busy? If you’re busy I can call back later.” “No, I have a few minutes. A cat just bit me so I could use a break anyway. People think it is dogs you have to worry about, but cats are the real menace. If I could get away with it, I would totally open a no-cat practice,” Beth said. “A cat bit you? Are you OK?” Beth’s throat tightened as visions of her baby sister being attacked by a feral cat ran through her mind. She would have far preferred her sister to have gone to medical school because at least people don’t bite, but Paige had had her heart set on being a vet since Beth had read her Black Beauty when she was six. So in actuality it was Beth’s fault. She would add that to her list of things to feel guilty about. “I’m fine; nothing that a shot of penicillin won’t fix. Funny enough that is also what I said about my last date.” Beth laughed. “Don’t tell me these things. You know I worry. How bad is the bite? Text me a picture.” Paige sighed. “No, I’m not going to send you a picture. I’m fine.” “Well if you’re fine, send me a picture to prove it.” “Or what?” Paige asked. “Or I will get the next flight to Sacramento and see it for myself.” They both knew she would do it. “For God’s sake, Beth. Give me two seconds.” A few seconds later her cell phone chirped to let her know a message had arrived. Beth winced when she opened the attachment. “That isn’t a bite that is a mauling. Honestly Paige…” Her voice trailed off. There was so much she could say, but she had said it all before. If worrying about her sister were a job, Beth would be pulling double shifts every week. “Animals are far less vicious than humans. I’d be far more worried about the people you work with than the cranky pussycats I see.” Beth let out a breath. Her sister had a point. “So,” Paige asked after a long silence. “Are you going to ask about Mom?” “Yeah, how is she?” Fresh guilt gnawed at Beth. She was the older sister, she was the one who should be taking care of all this, not Paige. For the third time that day, Beth contemplated quitting her job so she could move back to California. She could easily take a pay cut and move back to the Sacramento office. She would happily deal with the meth cookers of the central valley if it meant she could be near her family. But she couldn’t afford to move back to Sacramento. Paige couldn’t afford it. Beth’s promotion was paying for vet school. She tried to think of it in those terms, but every way she looked at it, she still felt like the shithead who abandoned her family. “Well to tell you the truth, she is pissed off. I would rather deal with a room full of cats than her, most days. She still feels like we’re all in it against her and that there is nothing really wrong.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/kierney-scott/blurring-the-line-a-steamy-romantic-suspense-novel-that-will/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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