Chapter One

“Let me get this straight, sir.” Joseph stared at Colonel Hugo Gonzales, wondering if he’d hallucinated. “You want me, your daughter’s ex-boyfriend, to walk back into her life and protect her from some kind of threat? Sir, six weeks ago, Eva threw me out and screamed at me loud enough to wake the neighbors. And you made sure to keep—”

Hugo straightened in his seat and frowned. “I’d rather you not remind me of the past.”

Joseph laughed. “Well, I assure you she remembers finding me passed out, naked, with a stripper next to me. I doubt she’s forgotten.”

“You don’t need to convince me she still hates you. Hell, I hate you. But, I also know you’re the best shot in this city and the best option to keep her alive. And my love for her is stronger than my hatred for you.”

Joseph didn’t find it shocking he brought out such animosity in the man. Who wouldn’t dislike him in the same circumstance? “She’s not going to let me inside her house, yet alone close enough to keep her safe. The kind of vigilance she requires is twenty-four-seven.”

“She’ll do what she’s told. These are dangerous times in Mexico. She’ll agree to my demands, or she’ll return to America like I’ve begged her to.”

Hugo’s arrogance hung over the room like fog, stifling Joseph. A tug at his collar didn’t help, and he let out a dramatic sigh. At that moment, he had difficulty remembering all the enjoyable afternoons he’d spent fishing with Hugo…before the incident. “There’s another problem. Poza Rica is a good three hours from Mexico City, where my next assignment is located—”

“Not anymore. I spoke to your superior, and you’re officially assigned to the case.”

“I’m not Secret Service. I don’t do protection detail. Wouldn’t you prefer someone more experienced in these manners?”

“You’re the best shot around, and you owe her. I’ll accept no one else,” Hugo snarled.

“I’d been assigned to another mission.”

“Things change.”

Joseph ground his teeth in an attempt to bite back the sarcastic remark fighting to escape, but he just couldn’t help pushing Hugo’s buttons. “But people, obviously, don’t. You’re still an arrogant ass who thinks he can order everyone around—even when they don’t even work for you. And interfere in everyone’s life.”

Hugo frowned. “I’ve earned the right to order everyone around by busting my ass all my life. Including you. And you will damn well treat me with respect.”

Joseph stood straight and clicked his heels together. “Yes, sir.” Damn it all to hell, he was right. Joseph had a duty to show this ass deference, like it or not. He was a special agent in the ATF, and Hugo a colonel in the Mexican military. Though Joseph wasn’t in the military, he still owed the man respect. “What is the problem with Eva, sir?”

Hugo sighed. Opening the upper left drawer, he pulled out a file, dropped it on his desktop, and motioned toward it with a wave of his hand. Joseph picked up the thick manila file and sat back in the chair that had been placed in front of the colonel’s desk. Crossing his foot over his left knee, he laid the file in his lap.

After a few minutes of reading, he raised his eyes to Hugo’s. “She’s being threatened…why? What have you done?”

“I’m in a secret investigation, working undercover against the Cartel. My cover is Emil Riordes. I’m a trucking company owner who turns his head when, once a month, a shipment of guns is delivered to the coast of Falcon Lake by the Cartel.”

Joseph sat up straighter, dread in his heart. “Wait a second, sir. Are you referring to the same people suspected of all the murders and pirating of boats to ship firearms? The same group no one can seem to catch in the act?”

Hugo nodded. “Now, you see why I need you. They demanded I up my shipments to them to twice a month, and I refused. For the sake of my cover, I said I didn’t want to draw the suspicion of the authorities. They insisted. I still refused. I hoped to draw out a big shot by my refusals.” His voice wavered, and he ran a shaky hand over his mustache. “It worked, but I never imagined they’d find out about Eva. I got this picture today.”

Hugo took the photo of Eva leaving the school where she worked. On her face, smack between the eyes, someone had drawn a red X. Nothing more, nothing less. But the meaning couldn’t have been clearer. Joseph shoved the picture into the file before slamming it back on the desk.

“How long until the operation is over?”

“Three days. We expect to catch a very big fish.”

He ground his teeth and closed his eyes. Aw, shit. Eva would probably murder him before the mission reached completion.

“One of the Cartel’s top men, Captain Soto, is coming to Poza Rica for a huge shipment—and to deal with me. He’s suspected of murdering two border patrolmen a month ago, and the CIA wants him. Bad. The truck has been booked, and an undercover agent is the driver. After this all goes down, the threat will have been removed, and I’ll be off the case. And far away from this hellhole.”

“For both of our sakes, you should consider another option. I know a man who is excellent at guarding—”

“No.” Hugo shoved up from his chair and snapped, “Only the best will do.”

“Sir, with all due respect—”

Hugo opened the same drawer the picture of Eva had been in and pulled out another photo, shoving it under his nose. “Look at this. This is the last woman they murdered. Her fiancé managed to anger them enough that they shot him in the head and then stole his woman to rape her before mutilating her. Afterwards, they sent us her location to mock us. They left her next to a dumpster in an abandoned alleyway. Like garbage.”

Joseph looked down and fought the bile rising in his throat. The woman had been stripped naked and stabbed, the number of times impossible to tell due to all the blood. Not to mention the ear-to-ear slit throat—deep enough so he could see a peek of her vertebrae, creating a mockery of a smile.

“Still want someone else to protect Eva?” Hugo snarled.

Joseph threw the picture back on the desk. “Where do I find her?”

He wasn’t about to let Eva turn up in an alleyway like the woman in the photo. She might hate his guts, but he couldn’t say the same of his feelings for her.

In fact, he loved her.