Part 13 – Thursday in the Danger Room

***On the road, somewhere in South Texas***

Will stared across the front seat of the vehicle at his companion. The blue-white lights from the dash cast shadows on Roberto Garcia’s face. It was getting late, and they would cross into Mexico soon. Still, he knew better than to suggest they stop for the night. The man was under orders to bring Callie back as quickly as possible.

He looked between the seat. The young girl that he had sacrificed his career for was sleeping now. Or at least she appeared to be. They had not stopped since picking her up. Not really, just one quick break for gas and snacks. Diego had escorted her to the bathroom while Will pumped gas. How had he come to this? Kidnapping an innocent kid? One that he had sworn to protect.

But he knew the answer. Bebe and Mercy. He had looked for a way out. But there weren’t any. His only hope now was that this man meant what he said about helping them to escape. Even when Roberto Garcia was nothing more than a few facts in profile, Will had never understood the man. He did not make sense.


“Why what?”

“You have a fucking MBA from Harvard. You could have gotten a job with any Fortune 500 company. Why go back to dealing drugs, kidnapping kids, and pimping out little girls? Why be your brother’s lackey?” While he did not yell the words for fear of waking Callie, the anger was there nonetheless.

“Do you know how the Kennedys made their money?”

Will shook his head at the question, “What are you talking about?”

“Bootlegging, racketeering. Yet, two generations later, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was President of the United States. His brother came damned close. The family still holds a great deal of power. And it all began with illegally obtained wealth and power.”

“John Kennedy never kidnapped a kid or slept with a fifteen-year-old?”

“That we know of. He certainly fucked around with enough of them.” Roberto’s laugh irritated Will even more than usual.

He wanted to wrap his hands around the guy’s throat and squeeze the last bit of life from him. But he knew he could not. If he did, then his cousin’s and Mercy’s lives would be forfeit. And the little girl in the back and her mother at the mercy of Diego Garcia. But, oh, did this man get under his skin.

He fought down the anger. The more information he had about the enemy, the better a plan he could make. “How do you expect to become President or whatever when Diego and your mother see you as nothing more than the dumb, expendable henchman?”

The man chuckled again. “Oh, yes, but in how many of those movies is it the henchman that betrays the mastermind?” He took his eyes from the road and turned to smile at Will, “Better they underestimate me.”

Will’s blood ran cold. He knew at that moment he could never truly trust this man. Hell, Diego Garcia had more honor, as warped as it was, than his brother. “You’re going to betray your brother.” It was neither a statement nor a question.

“I don’t need to. His wife, god, Fate, whatever already has. And he and Mama are laying the opportunity I need right in my hands.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Rafael Dominguez. What do you know of the man?”

It might have been years since Will worked undercover Vice for Houston PD, but he knew all the major players. “He’s one of your brother’s rivals. Dom has controlled the drug trafficking in Chihuahua almost as long as your family has along the Texas border.” He could not understand what that had to do with anything.

“Constanza is her father’s only child. He was older than Diego when she was born.”

Will frowned; this was new information. The DEA and, to his knowledge, everyone else believed the man to be childless. There was loads of speculation and unrest about what would happen when the elderly man died. “But I thought….”

“Everyone does. Dom was smart. Smarter than most. He realized that his only child was his biggest weakness. So he sent her to a convent when she was little more than a baby.”

Will was too stunned by this latest piece of information to say much, so he merely listened. “What he did not count on was that the good sisters would turn his only child soft. As soft as my Tio Manuel or Martin. Connie hates what her father is, what he does. She can’t stand the idea. Hell, the girl prays almost constantly for her father’s sins.”

“Honestly, she doesn’t want this marriage any more than I once did. She never even knew who she was until a year ago when Dom dragged her kicking and screaming from the convent. Right before she took her final vows.”

“Rafael Dominguez’s only child wants to be a nun?”

That laugh still grated, “Yeah, go figure. But the old man is having none of it. She might not be the son he hoped for, but through her, he can make sure that his family will continue to hold power as he always has.”

“So, your family and his would merge? Through this marriage?”

“That’s what Mama and Diego think. But I have other plans. Connie and I. If the Kennedys can do it in your country, why can’t we here?”

“You’d turn the Dominguez cartel legitimate?”

Will hated that half-smile. In the dim dashboard lights, it looked as sinister as any villain from a B-rate super-hero movie. “At least in part. I know that my little experiment with Stephen McBride failed. That’s why big brother and Mama have me back to doing their dirty work. Punishment because my plan failed.”

“Your plan? You knew Stephen McBride?”

“Exeter. We went to school together. The three of us were best friends. Got into all kinds of trouble, not that anyone could ever prove it. But you know what they say, boys will be boys.”

He shook his head again as screams, pain, and blood filled his mind. He wanted to throw up. It took every bit of willpower inside of him not to. It was just snippets like a montage of grotesque crime scenes from a detective show. But it only confirmed one thing. This man was dangerous. Even more so than his brother. And despite the suave veneer, they could never trust him.

He glanced in the rearview mirror to Callie McBride wrapped in his jacket. And he had brought the kid into this mess. Her mother too. What the hell had he done? Now it was not just his cousin and Mercy’s lives that rested in his hands but theirs as well. He had no choice at this point. He had to play along with this man. But he knew…

***Grandfather’s ranch in the Hill Country***

Jack glanced around the room. Grandfather’s large living room was packed. Some people sat on pillows on the floor while others leaned against the log timber walls. Most of them were organized in small groups, eyeing one another, trying to size up people. He did not need Grandfather’s gifts to know that these people did not trust each other.

He had taken up a place alone by the door. He knew most of the people there. But there were a few faces that he did not recognize.

His cousin Rex stood guard by his pregnant wife at the front of the room. Jaycee was fiddling with those markers and the giant pad that stood on an easel in front of the fireplace. “Alright, everyone, let’s get started. For those of you, who don’t know me, I’m Jaycee Ranger. It was the death of my ex-husband that kicked off this mess.”

“Well, actually, the agency had been investigating McBride Industries for some time. But it was Sean Riley’s suicide and Jaycee’s statement that gave us just cause for the warrants we needed to launch a full investigation.”

Jaycee nodded, “Thanks, Ryan, for the clarification. Ryan Ranger was undercover as General Counsel at McBride for several months. I would suggest that we go around the room and introduce ourselves, but that might take all night. So, how about this? If you have something to add, please begin by stating your connection to this….”

“Fuck storm? I’m Jack Greywolf, and I’ll be damned if I know how I am involved here. Other than knowing most of you and doing some old friends a favor.”

Jaycee smiled at him, “Jack is also former Army Ranger, my husband’s cousin, and friends with both Reb and the Reynolds. I’m not sure that is the technical word for it, but I am glad that the children are asleep.”

She flipped her chart back to the page they had filled during that phone conference that seemed a lifetime ago. “Okay, so let’s review what we knew or thought we knew at the last meeting. First of all, can we now agree that Diego Garcia is the man behind McBride Industries?” She looked around the room at the nodding heads.

“I would say so from what this Will fellow said to my Rose.” Reb’s friend spoke as he drew the woman that Jack recognized from the news from her perch on the chair arm into his lap. Cassandra McBride had dyed her hair; it was almost the same shade of red as Stacey Reynolds now. But her features were the same.

“Thanks, Chad, right? Cassie and Callie McBride have even been in hiding at Chad’s ranch in East Texas. Until…”

“Rose. Please call me Rose now. And my daughter is Grace. Grace Wilson.” The woman looked up at the man. Their eyes held for a long moment until the man nodded silently. From the heated looked they shared, the woman’s following words did not surprise Jack at all.

“Grace is not Gerald’s child. Chad is her biological father.” Her cheeks flamed, and her eyes filled with tears.

The man turned her so that her face was buried in his chest. “We share that information so ya’ll will understand. This shit is serious for me. No one messes with my family.”

The man’s eyes traveled across the room where Reb stood with his small band, most of whom Jack had no idea who the fuck they were. Except for the woman. He’d known Wanda Kerr since he came to live with his grandfather, almost a quarter of a century.

Reb nodded his head before he spoke, “I know that, Chad. And I know that you aren’t certain you can trust any of us, especially since it was Will that kidnapped Callie.” He nodded to them, “My apologies, Grace.”

Before he could speak again, Ryan walked to where the couple sat in a chair. Another man Jack did not know seemed to stand guard at their backs. From the looks of the guy, another Marine. Ryan met Chad eye-to-eye, then he reached out his hands to take the woman’s. Cassandra McBride, or Rose, if that was what she wanted to call herself, turned in Chad’s arms and looked up at the man Jack had known for almost two decades.

“I know Will, Agent Caleb Williams. We went through the academy together. I know this looks bad, but I promise you I have never known a more principled agent.”

She nodded her head, “I had thought so, but….”

“But the bastard kidnapped an innocent child,” Chad erupted.

Ryan nodded his head but held the man’s gaze, refusing to look away. “Yes, sir, no one here is denying that fact. But as your woman admits, Will told her the reason. Diego Garcia kidnapped Will’s twelve-year-old cousin from a Dallas bus stop over three years ago.”

“The police would not even open an investigation for forty-eight hours. They said the girl had probably just run away or was involved in drugs or gangs. An honor-roll student at one of the top academies in the state?”

“But she was also black and a scholarship student. I don’t mean you, Rose, or anyone else in this room any disrespect, but if his cousin had been white, we all know it would have been all over the news in less than an hour.”

“I admit I’ve had it easy. I might have been born a ‘bastard,’ as they say, but my family’s wealth, prestige, and the color of our skin meant that my mother never had to face those kinds of assumptions. Hell, when I went to kindergarten, I broke a boy’s arm for calling me that. I was expelled and choose to homeschool until high school because I was not sure I could trust myself after that.”

“But let me ask you, what do you think would have happened if I were black like my friend? Social services? Foster homes? Maybe even reform school? So before any of us go judging anyone else, we need to walk a mile in their boots.”

Ryan’s eyes caught Laura’s, and Jack’s heart almost exploded out of his chest. He’d give his life for a woman to look at him like that. Even just once. Of course, his cousin and Ryan always had been the special ones.

“I’m a father now too. So, I do understand how you’re feeling. But let me ask you, man-to-man, wouldn’t you do the exact same thing to protect your family? Cause I’m sure as hell not ashamed, or proud, to admit I would.”

Stacey Reynolds looked to the woman, “And he’s got my daughter to think about too. Diego Garcia might be her half-brother, but from what Elena told me, that only makes things worse.”

Grandfather stood from his place in the old rocker by the fire. He walked to stand beside Jaycee. Those dark eyes that had always seemed to Jack knew the secrets of the universe and the hearts of man scanned each and every face in the room.

“Fate, the great spirit, or whatever god you call upon has brought each and every one of you to this place and this moment. Each of you has a role to play in their plan,” the old man smiled at Jaycee. “All of you are warriors, in one way or another, pure of heart.”

His gaze stopped at the small group in that chair, “But you must choose. The human spirit and free will are greater than anything else in this universe. Even the will of the gods.”

Jaycee cleared her throat as she brushed tears from her eyes; hers were not the only ones. “Thank you, Grandfather. How about we all take a short break? Get some coffee and talk.” She looked to the old man, “Decide if this is where we belong.”

Grandfather nodded his head and smiled. For Jack, there was no doubt. It was not like he had a damned thing to lose. Less than a month and everything his grandfather had left him would go to the tribal council. But it went deeper than that. Being in this room, with his cousin, Ryan, and now even Reb, it seemed, reminded him how alone he truly was now.

Still, maybe that was all for the best. Jack had spent close to a year doing his damnedest to keep that fucking casino afloat. It seemed a losing battle between Kerr’s harassment, the economy, and now this damned new virus.

The second. His grandfather’s stipulation in the will aside, Jack wanted what he saw in this room. He wanted a woman that trusted him enough to cuddle into his arms, even when her daughter was lost and her whole fucking world was turned upside.

He wanted someone that looked at him with so fucking much pride like Laura had Ryan. Hell, the man had accomplished the impossible; he had softened his friend’s cold-ass ‘I don’t need no man’ attitude.

It had been bad enough when it was just Rex and Jaycee. He had been able to control his jealousy then. But, fuck, even Reb? Hell, he’d never even imagined that Stacey Reynolds could mellow like that. And Reb? In a fucking month, the man looked different. There was some new peace that he could not begin to explain.

No, he needed to get the fuck out of here before all that gods-be-damned love made him sick. He stepped out the door that he stood beside and leaned against the rail of the porch. Always for others, but never for him. But what did he expect?

Ryan might be a bastard, but at least he had a mother. All Jack could remember of the woman who gave birth to him was drugs, booze, and men. His grandfather would never say, but Jack had hacked into his social service’s file once. It confirmed what he had always suspected. His mother had been a whore, nothing more than a street prostitute. She probably had not even known who his father was.

The stars in the pre-dawn sky twinkled as Jack stared up at them. Jack liked to believe that out there somewhere was his mother and even that love-sick puppy that had raised him. He hoped that they were happier than they had been in this life. Maybe the Buddhists were right? Perhaps happiness in this world was not possible?

But when he looked back at the lights glowing from that room, he was not so sure about that. Those people, his cousin, Ryan, even Reb, had something special. Something that would make even the most challenging times a bit easier. And as usual, he was the loner, on the outside looking in, at things he could never have.

“Son of my brother, always so pessimistic.”

Jack felt the hand on his shoulder and shrugged it off. The old man might know his every thought, but the man had never been able to make Jack’s dreams come true.

“No, son, no one can do that but you. Remember what I said in there. Your free will is stronger than anything. Even the love you say you would give anything to have. If I were you, I would not tease the gods with such thoughts.”

***Garcia hacienda, near Torreon, Mexico***

Will was exhausted as they drove up the circular drive to the Garcia compound. He was not sure what time it was exactly, but definitely after midnight. They had been gone more than twenty-four hours. Driven probably close to two thousand miles with only a handful of stops for gas, food, and toilet breaks.

But it was not the physical exhaustion that beat at him. It was the mental and emotional strains of the past few weeks. Yes, he knew now that none of this had been for naught. Not only had they confirmed that it was the Garcias who were behind McBride, but he had found his cousin. Though Will had yet to lay eyes on Bebe, he had no reason to doubt Roberto’s words.

The man smiled at him before turning in the driver’s seat. “Wake up, ElizaThornberry.”

He hated the way this man was niggling Callie about her part in this mess. Sure, she had done something stupid, but hell, so had he. Loads of them. At the moment, he felt there were perhaps too many to count. Still, he had kept his promise to his grandmother. He had found Bebe.

But things were even more complicated now. Not only did he have to find a way to get Mercy and himself out of here, but Bebe, Callie, and probably her mother too. The odds were definitely against them. And he knew that no matter what Roberto Garcia said, they could not trust him. Not if it came down to their lives or his ambitions. His mother and brother had seriously underestimated the man.

“Callie, I mean Grace, we’re here now.”

She shook her rainbow-colored head, “So what?”

“We go see my brother, sweet cheeks,” Roberto got out of the car and opened the rear passenger door.

“Is he as big a dickhead as you?” Will smiled at the girl’s moxie. He knew she must be terrified, and she had every right to be. Even he did not want to think about what would happen to her or Mercy if he failed.

“Bigger,” Roberto shoved her towards the same dark entryway they had walked through that first day.

This place gave him the creeps. All of it with its steel bars and thick adobe outer walls. But this walkway especially. And that altar or whatever the fuck it was made his blood run cold. As if he could feel some evil emanating from every candle and photograph.

Someone must have notified not just Diego Garcia but Consuela as well. Both were seated on that patio that overlooked the central courtyard. The older woman was still dressed and fully made-up. But Diego wore silk pajamas of some sort. He only nodded his head at his younger brother.

“Here she is. Callie McBride.”

“And you’re sure that her mother will follow?”

Roberto laughed as he nodded his head, “She’s her only child. What mother wouldn’t?”

The pointed stared that passed between the man and his own mother was not lost on Will. Was that what was behind all this? The young man’s ambitions were just another ploy to gain his mother’s love and approval?

“Take her to Esmerelda until the woman gets here.”

Will tensed at the mention of the woman he had learned was the madame, for lack of a better word, at the brothel. Sure, he realized that if he failed… He would not think about that now. But he needed to figure out some way of changing the man’s mind until he could plan their escape.

But that was a daunting task. While Will was confident that Cassie McBride and the man they were staying with would follow, he wished there was some way to reach the others. There had been no opportunity to stop in the desert just outside of Torreon. And while it was only a few miles away, there was no chance he would be able to get there unnoticed. No, they were on their own with this one.

But before he could come up with a plan, Roberto began to speak with his brother and mother. This time in Spanish. “If you want her mother to be cooperative, that’s not the best place.”

Diego was obviously displeased and started to wave his brother away, but the man would not back down. “Think about it, Hermano. If you place the child in the brothel, even if she is protected, her mother will not trust you. You need Cassie McBride to believe that you will keep your word and let them go if she cooperates.”

The older man paused, his face scrunched for a moment. “So, where do I keep her? I won’t have her here. Anna might grow attached to her, and when this is over….”

“I understand. What about Mercy? Our sister has been caring for Papa. Why couldn’t she also care for the girl?”

“And your black whore?” Consuela grimaced.

Will fought back the urge to lunge at the older woman. He had never hurt a woman. But that one… Besides, to his knowledge, none of them were aware that he spoke Spanish. He could not allow his expressions or actions to give that advantage away. They had so few.

“Mama is right, Roberto. Constanza Dominguez and her Papa arrived today. In three days, you will marry the girl. Your whore has to go.”

Will felt those words to the depths of his soul. He knew that ‘has to go’ did not mean sending his cousin to another brothel away from this man. Their intention was clear – they meant to murder Bebe. Three days, if that. And with Cassie McBride only a few hours behind, he was running out of time to come up with a plan.

Roberto Garcia did not even glance in his direction. He merely bowed his head to his mother and brother. “Even more reason not to place the girl with Esmerelda. I’m assuming that Rafael brought men with him and that they will need entertaining until the wedding.”

Diego nodded, “And that girl, your whore, was sent back there already. Let her earn her keep the way she was meant to. You will not disappoint this family again. Is that understood, Hermano?”

“And don’t think you can help that woman escape. Just because our father fucked her mother does make her our sister. When her usefulness is over, she will join your little friend and that girl where they belong. Let them be of some use to us, or they can die alongside the agent and the McBride woman.”

“You have always been too soft-hearted, too romantic. Like your father, you think with your cock,” Consuela accused her youngest son. “But I have always looked out for this family, and I will now too. Now that the girl is back in the brothel, where she belongs, I will deal with her.” The older woman turned and kissed Diego’s cheek before standing and walking across the courtyard.

Diego stared at his younger brother, “Alright, I agree. For now. Take the girl to that woman. But Mama is right. I won’t have Rafael Dominquez learning about your infatuation with a whore. Constanza is his only child, and the man will do anything to see she is happy.”

“I mean it, Roberto. In three days, Tio Manuel marries the two of you in the village church. And you will be the perfect husband to the girl. The ideal son-in-law to the old man. We have worked too hard and too long to build this alliance. When that old man dies, and he will, sooner rather than later, Chihuahua will come under our control too. I won’t have you messing this up the way you did with the McBride shit. Do we understand one another?”

“Perfectly, Hermano.”

“Then get the girl out of here. Take her and that damned agent out of my sight. I want to get back to my wife.”

Roberto bowed his head as Diego rose and followed the same route their mother had taken moments before. Then he turned back and motioned with his head for them to follow him. Once they were safely back in the car and headed back to the small apartment in the village, where they had been staying, the man turned towards Will. “I know you understood every single word of that.”

Will nodded, noticing Callie clutching his jacket tighter about her shoulders and scrunching into the corner of the back seat. “I was not expecting this so soon. But I promise you, I won’t let anything happen to Bebe.”

Will did not dare say what he thought aloud, not with Grace listening. But it was obvious that their ‘benefactor’ was as powerless as he was to protect Bebe from further degradation. And if he did not come up with some plan, soon Grace and Mercy would become their victims too.

He sent a prayer heavenwards. Not to the god that had obviously forsaken him, not that Will could blame him. Faith like his grandparents’ – some unseen force – had never been his strong suit. Instead, he directed his prayers to his Grandma. He could see Etta Mae Williams standing toe-to-toe with Consuela Sanchez de Garcia. And Will could sure use some of her help right now.

***Grandfather’s Ranch***

Chad looked across the room at the man he had once considered a friend. That woman conversed with the lady who had led this shindig. He was struggling with all the new names. But that was the least of it. He was wrestling with the hardest decision of his life – who to trust with the most precious thing to him – his daughter and the woman he loved.

“What’s your take, Travis?” He turned to the man he had known only a few months.

Though, that was not wholly accurate. Travis Baker had been that annoying little kid on the ranch next to his grandparents. When he visited them each summer and those last couple of years when they had taken him in after his parents’ nasty divorce, the boy had always hung around. When Chad had come home from basic training, the boy’s eyes had light up like the night sky at his Marine Corps uniform.

No, even though they had only been reacquainted recently, he knew this man. Now more as peers and brothers in arms. Despite the whispered rumors around town, he knew that Travis was a man of honor.

His new-old friend stared about the room, “Honestly, these people all seem on the up-and-up. I know that ain’t what you want to hear, and I know that some of them are even on the wrong side of the law in this whole mess. But as my Mama was fond of saying, ‘thems good people.’”

Chad nodded his head – Travis was right. It was not what he wanted to hear, but maybe it was what he needed to. His own gut certainly seemed to agree with that assessment. And he knew that was how Rose felt. All the way here, he had listened to her making excuses for this Will fellow. Telling him how Reb and Stacey were on their side, friends that they could trust.

And if it was just his own life, he’d go with that. But it wasn’t. It was her life and their little girl’s. Hell, he’d only known he had a child for a few weeks, and already that girl had him wrapped around her little finger.

But honestly, what choice did he have? Even with all the training and experience in this room, by his reckoning that about a hundred years or more, and that was not even counting a couple of men with Reb whose backgrounds he did not know. No, in this room were Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, federal agents, and of course, jarheads. Even with all that, they were up against one of the largest drug cartels in the world. Without the backing or support of their government.

Travis spoke again as if reading his mind, “I know this won’t be the first time that either of us has faced the enemy with people at our backs whose loyalties we aren’t sure of. And I promise you, I’ll be protecting your rear from the enemy or frienemies.”

Rose stood up from where she had cuddled in his lap since he had drawn her from the arm of the chair and into his protection. “I’m going to check on Stacey. See how she’s doing.”

Her eyes bore into his soul, “You know we aren’t the only one with a daughter in danger. She has three of them who have been for months. At least, I spoke with Grace today. She hasn’t heard from Mercy in weeks.”

He watched her walk away. He was torn – part of him needed to stay by her side, never let her out of his sight, but another bit knew she spoke the truth. The man’s word had hit home. Hell, he had thought the same thing himself. Yeah, for her life and Grace’s, there was not anything he would not do. Lie, cheat, steal, kill, yes, probably even kidnap an innocent child.

But it was not that simple. He knew himself well enough. He had been in situations where his orders and the ‘right’ thing were not the same. He had been tested in fire to the point that he was singed and would never get the smell of smoke or the burn scars from his soul. Not even the love of a good woman could wipe some things away. But it sure as hell made them easier to live with.

He turned to his friend, “There’s someone I need to speak with. Do me a favor? Go and find out what you can about the men that came with Reb.”

His friend nodded and gripped his shoulder, “I promise I’ve got your back.”

Chad was too choked up. Though they were eye-to-eye now. Hell, that little kid probably had a good three inches on him now. But it was that same look. Hero-worship? No, not quite. This man understood. He knew those hard choices, too.

He had led good men to their deaths. Been forced to kill ‘enemies’ that were mere boys. Had no choice but to watch women and girls abused because it was ‘their culture.’ Those ‘arranged marriages’ overlooked by their government were little more than the under-aged girls prostituted by Garcia.

No, this man and most of these others understood that truth. He reached out and gripped the man’s hand, “Thanks.” Travis turned and walked away with only the slightest nod of his head. Yeah, he understood.

Chad caught the eye of the young man who had spoken earlier. The man bent and kissed the top of the petite woman next to him. Where had the baby come from? But Chad knew. His chest constricted like that herd of elephants had plopped down on it again as the big man tenderly stroked the child’s cheek.

He fought the anger and regret for the thousandth time in the past few weeks. Not just at Gerald McBride for his lies, but mostly at himself. He had not listened to his gut that morning as he snuck out of that motel room.

And they had all paid for it. They still were. Hell, if he had been more of a man back then, they wouldn’t be in this mess. And he wouldn’t have missed moments like that with his little girl.

But no more. No more lies. When they found Grace and brought her home, they were telling her the truth. All of it. If she was angry, they’d deal with it. He swore he’d do whatever it took to be a real daddy to her. For them to be a family. A true family.

The man held out his hand though Chad had trouble seeing through the unshed tears. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had not even noticed the man approaching. He could not afford to do that again.

“I’m Ryan. Ryan Ranger. That’s Laura, Laura Reynolds, and our little girl Chloe.”

“Chad. Chad Wilson.” Looking up into the man’s face, staring him in the eye, he wondered how he had ever doubted these people.

But still, this was his family’s future, he had to know. “Tell me about this man. This Agent Caleb Williams. Why are you so certain that he is not part of it all? He let them go. Let McBride just walk away.”

The man shifted nervously from side to side, and for a moment, Chad feared that he had assessed the situation all wrong. Then he spoke, “As I said, Will and I went through the academy together. I know you understand that. You know what it’s like. When you train with someone like that, for that long, you come to know them.”

Chad wanted to believe the man, but that did not mean people did not change. From the sound of things, this guy had been some shit. How could this man be confident that it had not changed his friend? That the man had not betrayed the oath he took. It could not have been easy to see the laws you were sworn to uphold and defend applied differently to someone you loved, just because of her skin color.

“Because the berserkr blood of his ancestors tells him the truth.”

Chad turned to see the elderly Native American who had spoken of Fate earlier approach them. By his side was the only other man that Reb considered a friend. Chad frowned; both were named Greywolf. Was this the grandfather that had raised the man? But he thought Reb had told him that the man died?

“Yes, my brother died almost a year ago. Jack is my nephew. My name is Raymond Greywolf, but most people call me Grandfather.”

Chad frowned as he took the man’s hand. None of it made any sense. It was as if…

“I can read your mind?” The old man smiled, “It is not quite that simple, my new friend. But life never is.”

He shook his head, trying to put all of the pieces into place. But things only got more confusing as the man spoke again. “This gut you think of. This instinct. It has kept you alive before, yes? Kept others alive?” Chad nodded his head.

“It is a gift that we all have. But in many cultures and religions, we are trained to ignore it. Told to obey rules, commandments, and orders. You understand these things. But you have broken them too? When that gut told you they were not ‘right’?” Again Chad nodded.

“For some of us, those gifts are stronger. And for others, they train themselves to listen to that voice.” The man reached up and placed a gnarled hand on the other man’s shoulder. “I have trained Ryan since he was thirteen summers to listen. His instincts are always right. Though he demeans them by calling them his ‘golden gut.’”

Raymond Greywolf turned back and looked him in the eye. He would have sworn that he saw the answers to the universe in those dark depths as the man spoke. “He would know if Will spoke untruth. I would know. Though, I have not had the privilege of meeting the young man face-to-face yet. His spirit speaks to me. He is pure of heart. As are you.”

The man reached out his other hand and took his, “You will bring them home. I promise you.”

***Small village just outside Torreon, Mexico***

Mercy heard the shuffling and whispers. Her heart beat faster. Had Diego tired of these games? Sent someone to… Well, death would be preferable. And with Will gone, she was on her own. Without so much as a gun or even her phone to get a message to him or her family. Not that they could help this far away and deep inside her brother’s territory.

As she became more alert, her fears abated. Some unexplainable sense of peace overcame her. It was still dark, but moonlight drifted through the windows. Mercy could not see much, only shadows. Two of them, one large – a man, and the other smaller, an older child, perhaps a teen? Was it Bebe? But why would she be here in the middle of the night? Unless Diego had sent her?

Enough of this speculation. She was not going to wait for whatever these people had planned. “Who are you?” She clutched the blanket higher about her neck and brought her knees up to protect her abdomen, in case she had to fight.

“Shh, sweetheart, it’s me.”

Mercy sighed with relief and tossed the blanket aside as she launched herself at the larger shadow. Her curiosity about the smaller one was forgotten for the moment. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Mercy ran her hands over his head, feeling the roughness of his hair against her skin.

Her mouth sought his, and for a moment, she forgot where they were, the dangers they faced, even the exciting news she had to share with him. All she knew was this man. The other half of her soul. Mercy lost herself in the flavor and smell of him.

But she could feel something else too. Exhaustion. Not merely physical tiredness. Will had been gone for more than twenty-four hours. Had he slept? Where had he been? Who was the other shadow?

It was more than that, though. Despair. Doubt. Fear. They all clung to him as tightly as she did. “What’s happened, Will?”

He pushed her aside and leaned down to turn on the bedside lamp. “Mercy, meet Callie. Callie McBride.”

She turned to see a young girl. The first thing she noticed was the rainbow hair, but how could she not? The girl’s head was down, the hair fell about her face. It was all she could see. She shook her head, “I don’t understand. What’s McBride’s daughter doing here? I thought they were missing?”

Will turned to the girl, “Callie, this is my….”

Mercy was not sure whether to be hurt or laugh. How did you explain these things to a teenager? Girlfriend seemed so utterly inadequate for what they shared. “I’m Mercy. Mercy Reynolds. My sister used to work for your dad.” She smiled and held out her hand, despite the unusual situation in which they found themselves.

The girl looked up and took her hand. Mercy was met with the most remarkable green eyes and a sense that something much more profound was behind them. “Hi,” the girl mumbled.

Mercy was not sure what to say. If McBride’s daughter was here, it could not be good. Had she been here all along? Oh, god, she did not want to think about….

“Diego sent us back to Texas. His idea of testing my loyalty was to kidnap an innocent child.”

“I am not a child.”

Mercy wanted to laugh. The girl had been kidnapped by a drug cartel, and she was ready to fight over being called a child. Oh, she remembered the joys of being that rebel teen. She hoped like hell they could keep this girl safe and that spirit alive.

“Trust me, such subtleties are lost on old men, Callie.”

“Grace. My name is Grace now.”

“That’s a pretty name. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Is there anything I can get you?”

The girl shook her head, but it was Will who spoke. “Can you get some blankets or a pillow or something? Your brother sent her here. You’re supposed to take care of her….”

“Until that bastard has my mother in his control.”

Mercy saw the fire in the girl’s eyes. Though it was directed at the man she loved, it would serve her well. It was better Callie, or Grace, be angry than scared. But Mercy did not like what those words seemed to do to Will.

Now, it was his head that dropped to stare at the rust-colored floor tiles. His shoulder slumped, and she felt his burden. That despair, fear, and helplessness. Now there was guilt as well as hopelessness. She reached for his hand, but it was cold and limp. He barely looked up, “Please, Mercy, just do what you can to make the girl comfortable.”

“Of course.” There was not much in the studio apartment they had been staying in. The old wrought-iron bed, a small table, and two chairs, and the ratty-old sofa. She supposed the girl would have to sleep there. “What was Diego thinking? This place is barely large enough for two people.”

“Yeah, well, it is better than where your brother wanted to send her.”

Mercy looked up from collecting the spare blanket that she had been using. It was cold during the nights, but with Will back, his body heat would keep her warm. She shook her head as their eyes met. But she saw the truth in his dark eyes as he nodded slightly. “Fuck.”

“If it hadn’t been for Roberto….”

“Asshole, like he was doing me any favors. He’s the one….” But before the girl could finish the statement, the dam broke. Anger seemed to disappear, replaced by tears. Lots of them.

“Dammit,” Will cursed, and Mercy would have sworn that she saw tears in his eyes as well. As much as she wanted to go to him, she knew that the girl needed her more. At least at that moment. “I’ll go see if I can find any more blankets or pillows. Clothes. I don’t know. Stuff to make her comfortable.”

Mercy nodded her head as Will opened the door and slipped into the night. She drew the young girl down onto the sofa. It wasn’t like she had no experience with crying teenagers. Her friend Lizzy had been barely out of her teens when her parents had been killed in a drunk driving accident. She had spent weeks holding her friend on those rare occasions when she could finally let go of some of the responsibilities of the diner and her caring for her younger brother. And Abby Jean? It only took one word to send that girl into hysterics – Jack.

But this was different. This was not stress and grief or unrequited love. This was life and death. For all of them. Still, the same principles applied. Just hold the girl, rub her back, and let her cry it all out before you try to reason with her or fix anything. Too bad someone didn’t give men lessons in that shit.

Finally, she heard the soft hiccups that she recognized meant the worst was over. Mercy pulled back and smiled at the girl. “Let me get you some water.” Grace nodded and wiped at her face and swollen eyes with the back of her hand.

There was no kitchen in this place, only a tiny bathroom. If Mercy had to take a guess, she’d bet this was one of the rooms the brothel used for entertaining its customers. How had they been this close to Bebe for weeks and never known? But she knew the answer to that one, too. Mercy filled a glass with water from the sink and grabbed a washcloth, wetting it also.

When she went back into the main room, Grace had curled herself into a ball, her knees drawn tight to her chest and her arms wrapped about her legs. Her head leaned against them. Mercy sat back down next to her, and the girl looked up with a weak smile as she took the glass. “Thanks.”

Mercy watched her drink a couple of swallows before holding out the washcloth. “I thought you might like to wash your face.”

The girl nodded and took it too. “You know, it’s not their fault. I want to be mad at Will. But I understand. He’s just doing what he needs to keep you and his cousin safe. Heck, even that other one, Roberto. He went to bat for me with that guy.”

Mercy only nodded, knowing that sometimes all a woman needed was to talk. “It’s all my own fault, actually. If I’d listened to Mama, to Chad, hell, even to Gerald, none of this would have happened. We’d still be safe on Chad’s ranch. If I hadn’t gotten so mad at them and broken the rules.”

The girl’s words were like an arrow piercing her heart. Suddenly, she was that little girl again, hiding in the shadows and listening to her muffled cries. Mercy wanted to burst into tears then, but she knew she could not. This young woman needed her to be strong. And so did the little peanut inside her. She was beginning to understand how her own Mama had felt that night.

“Mamas just want to keep their babies safe,” Mercy reached for the girl and wrapped Grace in her arms. The tears were not so strong this time, and by the time Will came back with more blankets, pillows, and what looked like clothes, Grace was asleep in her arms.

With his help, they got her settled on the sofa with a pillow under her head and a couple of blankets to cover her. Mercy brushed a stray lock of electric blue hair out of the shockingly innocent face. Their little girl would have darker skin and curly hair. And there was no way in hell that she was letting her ruin her hair with those kinds of harsh chemicals.

Mercy smiled, thinking about a little girl that was the size of pinky nail now. She turned to where Will sat at the end of their bed. His head was in his hands, and his elbows rested on his knees. She swore that she could see a gentle trembling of those broad shoulders too.

It looked like Callie McBride was not the only one she needed to be strong for this night. Wearing nothing but one of his shirts that she had stolen from the dirty clothes because it smelled of him, Mercy sat down next to him, wrapping her arms about those shoulders and pressing her face into the one closest to her.

“I have faith in you, Caleb Williams. We’ll get out of here. I don’t know how or when. But we will.”

He lifted his head and turned to face her. There were definitely tears glistening in those brown eyes, and others ran down his cheeks. She leaned in, her forehead pressed against his now.

“How? How can you have faith in me when I don’t have it in myself?”

“Because I love you. I know that you love me, too. I have always written about love that was stronger than anything the hero or heroine faced. But I never believed I would find that kind of love. Now that I have, I’ll be damned if I let anyone or anything take it away from me.”

He shook his head and tried to pull away. His words stung, “You don’t understand. I don’t deserve your love. I betrayed everything I believe in today. I helped a man I know is a killer, a drug dealer, and worse, to kidnap a little girl. I spent hours, more than a day, locked in a car with another man that thinks there is nothing wrong with having sex with a fifteen-year-old or betraying his own family. How, Mercy, how can you possibly love someone like that?”

“And why? Why did you do all that?” She held tighter to his shoulders. Mercy was not letting this man, her only lover and the father of her baby, get away that easily. “I’ll tell you why. To protect your cousin. Bebe is here, by the way.”

She grasped his hand and brought it to her lips, pressing a tender kiss to it, “And me.” She lowered their entwined fingers to her stomach, resting just above her pubic bone. She held his hand in place, “And your little girl. How could I not love a man who would do all that for us?”

His fingers squeezed hers and pressed a bit deeper into her abdomen. He inhaled deeply, and those dark eyes met hers as he nodded, “Whether I deserve you or not, you’re right. Whatever it takes, I’m not letting anything happen to you. Either of you.” He looked across the room to the sleeping girl, “Or her either.”

Mercy knew she should feel relieved, but instead, something dark and foreboding gripped her heart. She shook her head. Hell, no. She had meant it. She had waited thirty-two years, thinking she would never find a hero that made her feel like this. She was damned if she was going to let her half-brother or even god, Fate, whatever the fuck tear them apart now. She was a Reynolds. And hadn’t her Mama taught her – Reynolds women were strong.

*** Grandfather’s Ranch***

The sun was just beginning to rise over the rocky terrain that gave this area its name. Soft pinkish light was streaming in through the small window at the end of the room. Laura shifted Chloe’s weight in her arms to keep it from falling asleep too.

Her little girl was growing so quickly. Not quite six weeks yet, and that newborn look was filling in. She had a feeling their little girl would be more bruiser like her daddy than petite like the Reynolds woman.

She had listened to their plans. Unfortunately, she had little to add. Had she ever been more to McBride than a diversity statistic? She did not even know what was on those computer files that they had surrendered to the U. S. Attorney.

Maybe that was good? J. T. Tyler had indicated that she would not be facing prosecution when they had met in Austin for her deposition. No, logically, she knew that her first responsibility now was to her child. That had been her choice, too. And Chloe certainly did not need two parents placing their lives at risk.

But still, she felt so utterly useless in all this. Two girls were missing, her sister’s life was at risk, and her job was to put the biscuits in the oven for everyone once this meeting was over?

She loved Ryan. She had been so damned proud of the way he spoke up to that man. She knew how tough it was for Ryan to show any emotion. He had kept them under such tight control from the day that he lost it on that playground. And while she hated the idea of him being in real danger, she knew that they had no other choice. None of them did.

Her eyes met his, and he smiled, holding out his arms for their daughter. Jaycee was winding things down. It was her cue to put those biscuits they had made earlier into the oven to bake and start a fresh pot of coffee. She was in the process of lifting Chloe into Ryan’s arms when the other woman’s voice intruded.

“Okay, so I think all of you know what you need to do. That only leaves Laura and me.”

She almost laughed at how identical Rex and Ryan looked at that moment. Their arms crossed over massive chests. Of course, Ryan’s was more impressive. Their feet shoulders width apart, and that firm set to their mouths. Yes, it was definitely the mouths. You could tell these men were related.

“Nʉ Sʉmʉ….” The endearment that Ryan’s cousin used with his wife, which she had learned meant My One, did not sound as tender as usual. Jaycee’s dark eyes sparkled with mischief as she firmly placed her hand on that chest.

“Now, before you speak, and we have another fight in front of all these nice people. Hear me out, Rex.”

Laura knew those ‘arguments’ well. At first, she had thought they were a sign of marital troubles between the newlyweds. But Jaycee had quickly set her straight – the making up was worth it, her friend attested. Besides, pushing her husband’s buttons was just part of her job as a good partner.

But would the man’s protective nature give over this time? Rex studied his wife’s face before his eyes dropped to her distended belly. Their baby was due in just a few weeks. Laura was shocked by the slight nod of his blond head. Despite the man’s Native American ancestry, his hair was only slightly darker than his cousin’s. “I will listen, but that is all I promise.”

Jaycee beamed up at him for only a moment before she turned to face them. “Laura and I will go to Houston.”

“What? No, no way.” It was Ryan whose chest puffed out even more as he cradled their sleeping baby. “Absolutely not. Laura stays here safe with the baby. And if my cousin has any sense, so will you. That’s final.”

She stiffened under his gentle touch on her shoulder. She was unsure where the strangled laugh came from, but someone who obviously knew she would not stand for this. But stand she did – stand firm. Though she came barely to his mid-chest. She could almost look her daughter eye-to-eye, if the baby was not sleeping comfortably against that magnificent chest. Like mother, like daughter, it seemed.

But that did not mean she was letting him get away with this Neanderthal bullshit. She gave him the look. Maybe she was out of practice? She had not needed to stare down misogynistic assholes in a while. Okay, so he did not shrink back at first glance. That only made him a more worthy opponent. But she would win in the end.

Jaycee smiled at her and winked, “Ya’ll can’t take on one of the world’s most powerful cartels on your own.” Her friend glanced around the room, “Despite the impressive training and experience in this room and testosterone levels that are higher than Aggies and TU on Thanksgiving Day, you need back up.”

“You know that there are leaks, Jaycee. In the agency and probably the U. S. Attorney’s office too. I am not putting my family at risk….” Ryan looked to his cousin for support, but Jaycee stood her ground.

One hand still restrained her husband as she held the other out towards Ryan. “I hear your concerns, but it’s time, as Grandfather said. That means it’s time to ferret out those traitors as well. And who better to do that than two helpless women with a baby and child?”

Both men were shaking their heads as Laura spoke, “We’re not asking your permission. We’re telling you what we intend to do. So unless both of you are staying behind, tieing us up, and caring for the children, you’ll listen to what Jaycee has to say.”

“Go, get’em, babygirl,” Laura could not help but smile across the room at her mother.

She had been floored when her Mama showed up with a man. One who obviously was more than just the temporary bodyguard Jack had sent to protect her. She would have never believed that her mother was capable of such…softness?

But she had seen it herself from the moment Stacey Reynolds waited for the man to come around the truck and open her door. What the fuck, had been her first thought. But at least this man knew better than to try and keep her Mama on a goddamned shelf like a fucking China vase. She had to give him that. Though she noticed that even he shook his head as if agreeing with Ryan.

Jaycee spoke again, her voice more conciliatory. “We have a pretty good idea who these leaks are. And we are also confident that J. T. can be trusted.”

Laura wanted to laugh at the growl Rex made when his wife spoke of the other man, who had been her friend since law school. But she could not help but notice the softening of the man’s stance.

More flies with honey; she could almost hear her Mama whisper the old advice in her mind. But when she looked across the room, her mother was more interested in this Reb fella.

“Jaycee is right, Ryan. And you know it. You said yourself that while the man was one of the most uptight assholes you had ever met, you would trust him with your life. What has changed?”

He bent down and placed one of those damned kisses on her forehead. The man was not playing fair. What woman in her right mind could resist forehead kisses? Especially from a man that was so tenderly holding their child. But if Ryan was not going to play fair, then neither would she.

“After all those ‘team-building’ exercises, I thought you trusted me, counselor?” She smiled up at him.

“Damn you, woman. But I want Grandfather going with ya’ll.”

Laura was about to agree when the old man spoke up, “I am sorry, my son, but my Fate lies with you in this Torreon.”

“No,” Rex turned to his grandfather, but whatever unspoken thing they shared, and Laura was sure they did. The younger man finally dropped his head and nodded. “Alright, Jaycee.”

She could tell that Ryan was still prepared to continue the battle when a sleepy dark, curly-haired little Angel wrapped her arms around Jaycee. “It’s okay, Unca Ryan. I’ll protect Mommy and Laura.”

The room broke out in strained laughter, but the look that the child shared with the old man made Laura wonder if those words might be more accurate than any of them realized.

“We will discuss this later, counselor,” Ryan’s gaze met hers as people began to break apart from their small groups, chatting with one another.

“If you want, counselor, but it won’t change a damned thing. Jaycee and I have a job to do in Houston, just the same as the rest of you. And whether you like that or not, you know damned well that it might be just as fucking important.”

“I am not letting Chloe’s father get himself killed just because he’s acting like a misogynistic asshole at the moment.” She turned to find Jaycee and Rex behind them, “Come on, let’s go start those biscuits and make the gravy. While we plan our mission.”

Jaycee nodded her head with a smile, but as they stepped away, the man whose call to Reb had begun it all gripped her friend’s arm. “Excuse me, you’re a lawyer, right?”

She smiled, “Yes, one of three in this room. Is there something we can help you with?”

The man nodded his head, but his eyes were glued to the woman across the room who was talking with her Mama. “Yeah, I need your help to protect my family in another way.”

“Laura, can you put those biscuits in while I talk to Chad for a moment?”

“Of course,” she turned to Ryan. “Come on, Neanderthal. At least you can put all those muscles to good use in the kitchen while we give our summations. But I’m gonna win this one.”

Ryan chuckled so loudly that their daughter whimpered and stirred in his arms, “You’re probably right, but dammit, a man has to try.

***The brothel just outside Torreon, Mexico***

BeBe LaToya Mae Jefferson looked at the image in the mirror. She used the threadbare washcloth to scrub her body. But it made no difference. She would never get the stink of this place off her. Not even when her ‘shift’ ended, and she had the luxury of standing under a hot shower. No amount of soap or water would ever remove the stains of the past three years.

She had believed this was her only future. That there was no hope. Until Bobby. She had known who he was. Hell, she had been trying to attract his attention for months. From the moment she gave up thoughts of escaping this life and returning to her dreams of Harvard, law school, and becoming the first black woman to be President.

But who would ever vote for a whore? Her throat tightened even thinking that word. She washed the unshed tears from her eyes. She had given enough time to those. Not one tear, not one plea to her Grandma’s god, none of it had delivered her from that auction stand. Or the endless nights, and occasional days, to follow. Hell, she had lost count.

This place – a whorehouse – was all she knew. Occasionally, one of her… Someone spoke about things that were happening out in the ‘real’ world. Esmerelda, the older woman who was Diego Garcia’s pimp in this place, had told them about this new virus. Bebe supposed that was one good thing about this place – they looked out for the health of their ‘girls.’

Because all of the women and more young girls, like herself, than she wanted to count, were the top of his offerings, Garcia enforced strict rules, including condoms. That’s how she knew…

“Bebé,” even her name had become an endearment on Bobby’s lips.

She ran the cloth over her face, making sure that the residue of those tears was gone. Then she plastered a smile on her face and turned to face her lover. “How did it go?”

Bobby smiled, but it was incredibly tight. Something was wrong. He could not hide it. Not even his words reassured her, “We just got back. My stupid brother wanted to bring the girl here.”

She shook her head, her heart pounding with fear. It always did whenever they brought another little girl. And that was way too often. Their high-end clientele demanded it. They forced her to work the auctions. All the girls there were young, not merely the virgin they sold off like real estate or some celebrity’s castoffs. Diego wanted to ensure that even those who did not win the auction had their perverse appetites satisfied.

Bebe felt her stomach roll and fought back nausea. Just as she had been doing all night long. Before she could turn around to the small bathroom, Bobby’s hands gripped her arms. She looked up into those dark eyes that had captured her heart from the beginning.

She had set out to attract Roberto Garcia’s attention because everyone knew that his ‘girls’ received privileges and gifts that no one else did. They were also excused from some of the more onerous demands of the ‘job.’ So, once she had finally accepted that this was to be her life, however brief, she had decided that this man could make it less crushing.

Except she had been the one caught in her own trap. No man had ever treated her kindly, actually listened to her, or held her as Bobby did. She knew that she was stupid for falling in love with the brother of a drug lord and pimp. But how could she not? His following words only confirmed that.

“I made sure that he didn’t. Callie McBride is safe with my sister and your cousin. For now, anyway. But, Bebé, we need to talk….”

Here, it came. She knew that something was wrong. Hell, she had a pretty good idea what that something was. Or, more accurately, someone. Constanza Dominguez and her father had arrived this morning. That was why Esmerelda had insisted that she ‘get her black ass back to work.’

Even as she went through the motions, her mind was elsewhere. It always had been. That was the only fucking way to survive this shit. Hell, Esme had been the one to teach her that trick. But instead of fields of bluebonnets or the quiet corner of a library that had once been her safe places, Bobby had become that over the past months.

Now all that was endangered. Why now of all times? Why did this fiancée and arranged marriage have to threaten the only future that she had dared to dream of? Steal away the only man that could possibly ever care about a whore. She dreaded his next words, though she stiffened her spine and waited for them to come.

“I think you already know that Rafael Dominguez is here, don’t you, Bebé?”

She nodded her head because that tightness in her throat prevented words. “He brought Connie with him. Diego has arranged for Tio Manuel to perform the marriage ceremony in three days.”

There it was. The truth that she had feared all day was out. The words said, there was no denying it now. Even as she shook her head, that tightness spread to her chest. She should have known better. Should have realized that even this man would never keep his promises. Hell, not even Garcia’s hired killers did more than use girls like her for their bodies. Then went home to their ‘madonnas’ or chose a ‘good’ girl from the village to marry and have their babies.

She had been a fool. But even then, what other future did she have? None. Sure, Will had come for her. And she would forever be grateful for that. To know that her family had not given up looking for her. She fought back those tears again. But her cousin did not understand. His woman did not either.

She could not go back there. She could not live with their pity. Or worse, their disdain about what she had become. A Jezebel. Harlot. Stained woman. All the words that her father had preached from his church’s pulpit each Sunday, Bebe knew them all. They had pounded in her head like ceremonial drums. No, this was the only place she had….

She shrugged as casually as she could. These years had crafted her into an Oscar-worthy actress. She painted on a smile and pushed out the words she had been practicing all day before she chickened out. “It doesn’t matter, Bobby. Marry Constanza. We’ll just continue as we have been.”

He stepped back, and in the process, he pushed her. She would have fallen had she not caught hold of the doorway. His words sent chills through her whole body. “You don’t understand. They will never allow that. They know I care about you.”

‘Care about.’ Not love. Her fingers gripped the wood tighter. Her mind only half paying attention to his words as the heart that she swore had died broke. She felt each word like a knife to it.

“Mama practically said as much tonight, Bebé. ‘Your whore has to go.’”

It was like a punch to her gut. She slid to the floor. How had she ever dared to forget what she had become? Even to a murderer. Yes, she was not that naïve little girl they had kidnapped from the bus stop. She knew that the man she loved had blood on his hands. How had she forgotten what he was capable of?

He had killed his best friend. With his own hands. Not leaving the dirty work or the vengeance to anyone else. He had switched places with a guard and killed Stephen McBride himself. Though he came back to her arms, half-drunk afterward, he had bragged about the way his friend had begged, pleaded, and promised he would not betray them.

She could not hold back the bile any longer. She barely made it on her hands and knees to the toilet. Though Esmerelda kept these places clean, after all these were their best clients, she could smell it all – urine, sex, death. She was not sure how long she spent bent over the porcelain god. But when she finished, when there was nothing left but dry heaves, he held out that old washcloth.

“I’m sorry. I know I promised….” He could not even look her in the eye. “At best, they will send you to one of the houses in the city.”

Bebe knew what that meant. That was where they sent everyone. When they were too old, no longer pretty enough, or too much trouble. She also knew that they were not nearly as careful of those girls. Esme said that most died within a year, two tops. Disease. Drugs. Perhaps just despair. It was the threat the woman used to keep them all in line.

Bobby finally met her gaze, “I think Mama plans something more permanent. You have to understand they have worked hard to arrange this marriage. Diego and Mama think it will give them control of Dominguez’s operation when he dies.”

“But it won’t, will it, Bobby?” Though she could not deny she still loved the man, this night had reminded her who he was, what he was capable of, and how silly she had been.

He shook his head, “No, Bebé, it will not. Connie and I have spoken. Not even Diego or Mama know this, but her Papa is not well. He has cancer. That’s why he took her from that convent. Why he arranged this marriage.”

“I will go back to Moctezuma with them. I will take over from her father. And when he dies, my family will discover that I am more than capable of holding what is mine. And should my brother die…well, he does not even have a daughter to marry off to someone like me.”

She nodded her head, glad there was nothing left in her stomach to come up. That look of avarice on his handsome face softened just a touch as he knelt on the floor in front of her. “I really am sorry. Maybe I should never have… Your cousin certainly thinks so.”

He exhaled, and in that single breath, the mask of the stone-cold killer was back in place. “But I can do one thing for you to make your life better. I can get you out of this place. Away from all this.” He smiled as if that made everything alright. “You can go back to school. Harvard isn’t such a bad place. I promise you’ll have the money.”

She wanted to cry. Need to. But not in front of this man. This monster. But that was not right. There was more to him than that. The tender lover that had touched her as no one else had was not an act. That man was in there too. It was just that he was not strong enough to overrule this….

His hand gently caressed her cheek, and for just a second, she lost herself in the softness of those brown eyes, that gentle lover. “But I need you to do something for me, Bebé.”

She found herself wordlessly nodding her head. As hypnotized as always by this man. “Do not eat or drink anything that does not come directly from my sister or me. Do you understand me?”

She frowned, “I don’t understand.”

“My mother. She has her ways.” He looked away as he spoke, “I know that she has tried to poison Anna once.” He turned back to face her as he brought her hand to his lips, “Promise me, Bebé. Until I can get you, that girl, and my sister out of here, you won’t eat, drink, or take anything that anyone else gives you.”

She nodded her head. As easy as it might be to just let it all go, she knew she could not. Not now. At least, this man had given her reason to live. Though, she did not know what kind of life or where. “I promise, Bobby. But how will you get us out of here? When?”

He shook his head and looked away as he stood up, “I don’t know. But I will. I’ll speak to Esmerelda before I go. Tell her that Mercy needs you to help settle the new girl.”

He turned back as he opened the door, and again those dark eyes softened. “Never doubt, Bebé, I did care for you. As much as I can anyway. I’m sorry if I’ve caused you more pain. And I promise Connie and I will do what we can to make your life as easy as possible.”

Bebe was glad that he closed the door behind him before he saw the tears fall or heard her sobs. She knew that all the tears in the world never changed anything, but she was powerless to stop them. She curled into a ball on that cold tile floor and cried until she fell asleep.

And in her dream, she felt her grandmother’s arms wrap about her, cradle her, and Bebe could have sworn she heard her grandmother’s deep alto voice singing, “Go down Moses. Way down in Egypt land. Tell all pharaohs to let my people go!”

***Garcia compound, Torreon, Mexico***

Rose tried to look around as the two big thugs dragged her towards what looked like any other lovely home. There had been a few similar ranch-style homes in Piney Point. Except for all the iron bars.

When she had arrived at the meeting point, four men had been waiting for her. She was still trying to place their leader. The man looked vaguely familiar, though where she knew him from, she was uncertain.

Two dark wooden, steel-reinforced doors that looked like something out of a medieval castle opened. The men pushed her through. Even though it was mid-day, the hallway that stretched out before her was dark. Only weird candles surrounded by what looked like family photos gave off light. Though she could see more light at the end of the tunnel, as it were.

She was scared. Hell, yeah, she was petrified. Nothing in her fucked up life, not even those months in the public spotlight after Gerald’s crime came out, had prepared her to face the leader of a drug cartel. A man who had young girls kidnapped, and… She could not think about that now.

They shoved her the last few feet into that light. She stumbled and fell. She felt pain slice through her knees and the palms of her hands. She closed her eyes. She thought about praying to Aunt Rose’s god for help, but why would he listen to her now? With all the shit that was going on in the world, if he didn’t care about that, then what was one woman and her daughter.

Instead, she focused on the only happiness she had known. That first night and these past weeks with Chad. She knew that as hard as it was, they had made the right decision for her to come alone. These men had torn the truck apart, looking for anyone or anything she might have brought with her to help.

She knew it would be a few hours before any of the others crossed the border. Even then, Chad and that Ryan guy were probably too recognizable to come as far as Torreon. At least until Jaycee and Laura brought in the federal agents. If they were even able to convince that hardass, by the books U. S. Attorney to help out. If whoever was the leak in his office or the feds did not tip off Garcia first.

There were so many what-ifs. But there was one thing that Rose was determined about, Grace was getting away from this place – safely. No matter what. With that thought in mind, she lifted her head.

If she had been expecting some crazed lunatic, hyped up on drugs, waving a gun, and referring to it as ‘my little friend,’ she would have been shocked at the non-descript man who sat in the wicker chair in front of her.  He looked like any number of early-middle-aged men at the hundreds of charity events she had attended. She could have drunk cocktails with this man and never known it.

“Welcome to my home, Mrs. McBride.” He looked to the younger man who seemed to be the leader of her captors, “Roberto, bring our guest a chair. Did you not recognize my younger brother?”

Rose turned her head as the man brought forth an ornately carved wooden chair. He smiled down at her as he held out his hand and helped her up. “Hermano, Stephen was not the ideal step-son.” He nodded his head just slightly as he helped her into the plush velvet seat.

Why had she not seen it earlier? Of course, that was the connection. Bobby, Stephen’s friend from boarding school. She remembered that they had stayed in touch. Even when they went to different colleges. So, it had been her step-son that had started all this?

“We are a little busy right now, preparing for a wedding. So, I’ll cut straight to the chase, Mrs. McBride. Where is my money?” Diego Garcia drew her attention back.

She shook her head, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Garcia. But I don’t know anything about any of this. As I’m sure your brother could have told you, my husband did not take me into his confidences.”

“Sí, so Roberto has said. But since your husband refused to cooperate… Before his accident. And since he went to such trouble to hide you and the girl away from your government and us, then obviously you meant more to the man than we thought. Men don’t withstand that much pain unless they are protecting something they care deeply about.”

She shook her head; while she had often wondered if there was more to Gerald’s accident than it appeared, the man’s words did not add up. “Our marriage was not a love match. My father arranged it before his death. He bartered his virgin daughter to save his failing business.”

She thought she saw something flicker across the younger man’s face but had no idea what significance, if any, those words held for the man that had once spent holidays in her home. Hell, he had played with her daughter when she was a baby. Rose fought down the pile at that thought.

“Yes, I am well aware of that fact. As I am of the fact that your daughter is not McBride’s.”

She inhaled deeply, unable to hide her shock at that revelation. It was the younger man that filled in the missing pieces. “After his little sister was born, Stephen was worried that you might have another child. A son who might take his place. He did not give a shit if the old man cared about or spent more time with your child, but the idea that anyone would take what he considered his, now that worried him.”

“He got drunk and confronted his father one day. Gerald just laughed at him, told him there would be no more children because he had a vasectomy after Stephen was born. Were you aware that you and that bastard bitch were cut out of his will?”

“No, but if you know that Callie is not Gerald’s, I don’t understand. What makes you think that he would tell me anything?”

She noticed the older man nod his head, and suddenly her hands were drawn behind her. Held firmly in place. Her face exploded with pain as Bobby backhanded her. That young boy who had more than once visited her home was not to be seen in those cruel eyes and features. It was almost as if he enjoyed it, inflicting pain.

It was his brother who spoke from somewhere far away. “That is what we assumed, what kept you and the girl safe when it would have been so easy to take her from that posh school. One of my agents could have flashed his federal badge and walked out of there with the child. But we did not believe the old man would care. We do not make many mistakes, but when we do, we fix them. As Roberto handled his.”

The next blow was to her stomach. She was afraid then that she would die. She could not breathe; the pain was so intense. And when she finally did, it hurt almost worse than the punch to her midsection had.

“As I said, Mrs. McBride, people do not withstand pain for someone they do not care for. And we know how much that girl means to you. If you do not want her to end her short life as a street whore, taking on any man with a few pesos to spare, then you’ll tell me what I want to know.”

She could barely see the man now, her eye must be swelling, or perhaps she had a concussion from that first blow. “Don’t you think I would have told you from the moment I arrived? If I knew anything….”

She felt the hand around her throat. At first, it merely rested there, lifted her head up to meet eyes that she had once thought so innocent as the boy played with her baby. Now they were cold, expressionless, a killer’s eyes.

The hand began to tighten as the man spoke, “As my brother said, when we make mistakes, we correct them. Will you beg for your life? For your daughter’s? The way that your step-son did in that small cell.”

The blackness slipped in from the sides. A blessing, perhaps. Rose’s final thoughts were that the others had no idea what they were dealing with.

***U. S. Attorney’s Office, Houston***

Jaycee bit back the laughter. What a motley crew they were. Three women, one of whom was about to burst pregnant, a seven-year-old little girl, and a baby. But they were counting on that to throw their enemies off.

She motioned with her head for Wanda Kerr to take a seat on the leather couch with her daughter. They could have left the children in the hotel room with the woman while she and Laura talked with J. T.

But this way, they had eyes, ears, and Angel’s special senses out here watching their backs. It was a calculated risk, but at this moment, a very minor one. Whoever was working on the inside would not want to reveal themselves yet. Besides, what threat were an abuse victim and a little girl?

As she approached the desk where a young man sat, Jaycee smiled at Laura. “Good afternoon, Trent, isn’t it?” She extended her hand, noting that man’s surprise. Was that because she remembered the name of a supposedly inconsequential assistant? Was it their surprise visit? Or was there something behind that look? “I need to see J. T.”

Whatever the look had been, it was gone quickly behind a mask of smug, self-importance. “Mr. Tyler is a busy man. If you leave your name, a number where you can be reached, and what this is in regards to, I will relay your message.”

Jaycee was sure that her message would be relayed alright, but to whom? She nodded just slightly to Laura, “Oh no, I just changed her.” Her friend shoved the young assistant aside and laid Chloe in the center of his desk, and began unwrapping her daughter from the blankets.

Jaycee was not as confident in her ability to communicate mentally with her daughter as she was her husband, but she had to try. She smiled when Angel threw her crayons on the floor and stomped her foot, “No, I don’t want to color. I want ice cream. NOW!”

“Forgive me, precious,” she mumbled under her breath as she pinched the baby’s chunky thigh. Chloe added her wails of pain and outrage to Angel’s screams.

Trent shook his head, “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to do that somewhere else.”

But the words were barely out of his mouth before Angel launched herself at the man, “Leave her alone. She’s just a baby, bad man.”

Jaycee had slowly moved around the man and closer to the door. As Trent tried to extricate himself from her daughter’s death grip, she threw open J. T.’s door. Shit, she was not pleased with what, or rather who, she found with the man.

“Jaycee, what are you doing here?”

Oh, well, there was nothing to be done about it now. Besides, they had factored this into their plan. “Delivering Diego Garcia into your hands and wrapping up the McBride case for you.” That should get the other men’s attention.

Jaycee knew it was more than coincidence that Agent Saunders and Special Supervisory Agent Stephens were both with J. T. For a heartbeat, she even questioned whether her old friend had sold out his beliefs, too. If they were wrong, if J. T. were working with Garcia also, then she was almost certainly condemning good men to their deaths, including her husband and the father of her baby.

“This had better be good, Jaycee,” her eyes met his, and she hesitated.

“Mommy,” she turned to see Angel in the doorway behind her. Her daughter smiled as she felt the brush in her mind. Reassurance. “I need to pee.”

Jaycee almost burst out laughing at the looks of utter disgust on the agents’ faces. Obviously, the men were not fathers, not used to be around children. J. T. just snickered, “She’s your child alright, Jaycee. Go, get her settled. We were just finishing up here. Then we’ll talk. I’m assuming it can wait five minutes?”

She smiled and nodded, so Tyler had listened to those seeds of doubt she had planted last time. How much was he aware of? She heard the grumbles as she escorted Angel out, “As lead investigator, I should be….”

Now that they had J. T.’s attention, she and Laura settled their girls quickly with Wanda. She had never thought to see her client again when she placed her and her daughters in the underground network for domestic abuse. So when the woman showed up with Laura’s mother and the others from Arizona, she had been alarmed.

But she, of all people, understood the need to find closure with your abuser. Most days, she thought that she had. Then something would happen to trigger some memory, and she would wonder if she would ever be free of Sean Riley.

Without any special skills or knowledge that would help in Mexico, they had decided it was best if the woman remained behind. Though, Jaycee had a bad feeling about the whole thing. Instead, she would have put the woman on a bus or plane back to Arizona and her daughters, but Wanda insisted that her Fate lay here. Grandfather had agreed, and Jaycee was learning not to argue with the old man.

With Chloe asleep in Wanda’s arms and Angel quietly reading a book, she and Laura were ready when the door opened, and J. T. ushered out the other two men. Stephens was obviously displeased, but the men could not take any action without revealing themselves prematurely as they had counted on.

“I’ll await your updates,” the man looked pointedly at her and Laura. His nose curled at the other woman and children.

J. T. nodded and motioned for them to come in. Both men stood half-blocking the doorway, close enough to hear everything said. Though Jaycee would bet, they did not need to. She smiled and nodded as she walked past them, pulling the door closed behind them.

“Okay, Jaycee, what is all this drama about?” J. T. took his seat behind the impressive antique desk that went with the office and post of U. S. Attorney for the Southern District, Texas.

Laura spoke as Jaycee pulled her yellow legal pad from her overly large purse and went to her friend’s side. She laid it on the desk and began to write, ‘Play along with what she says.’

J. T. frowned but nodded as Laura started to speak, “I know that Diego Garcia has been one of your suspects as the money behind McBride. What if I told you that you were right?”

“How do you know that? He’s just one of the possibilities.”

“Because my sister and your former Agent Caleb Williams have been undercover in Torreon for the past few weeks.”

“Is this the preacher’s wife or the librarian that shot the sheriff?”

Laura laughed, “You take a guess.”

“I’m not here to play any games, Ms. Reynolds.”

“Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds. Do you want to guess where the Garcia came from, Mr. Tyler? I know that your office had a file on me. Why didn’t you ever connect the dots?”

“You’re telling me that you are related to Diego Garcia? That you’re the connection between the cartel and McBride? You know I can have you arrested right here. Your child taken into the care of social services. Maybe I should read you your rights….”

“I know my rights. And the answer to your first question is yes. Diego Garcia is our half-brother. Our father, Ignacio, was, or more accurately is, married to his mother. But no, I am not and never have been involved with that side of the family. But Mercy used our father to infiltrate the Garcia compound. You should know that they have Callie McBride now.”

“So that’s what happened to his wife and child. I’m sorry to hear that. Not just because we had hoped Mrs. McBride might have more information than we had thought. But well, Garcia is not the type….”

“To leave witnesses?”

He nodded his head, “And that’s where we need your help, Tyler.” This time it was Jaycee who spoke. “My husband and his cousin Ryan, remember I told you that former Agent Ryan Ranger and Rex were cousins? They have gone to Torreon to help Mercy and Will rescue Callie McBride.”

“And you want me to commit federal agents to this mess? With no evidence? Hearsay? You know I can’t do that, Jaycee.”

“No, we understand that you can’t commit your resources to an unauthorized covert action, J. T. But you can take custody of Callie McBride. You can use her testimony to arrest and convict Garcia.”

“When? Where? And what do you want out of this deal?”

“We want all charges against Ryan, Will, Mercy, and Laura dropped. If we deliver Callie McBride to your custody on Monday at noon. The border at Laredo.”

“Jaycee, you know I can’t grant immunity like that. Not without taking their depositions, gathering more evidence.”

She nodded and smiled as she scribbled, ‘Tonight seven, the park near your house, bring the kids.’

“Alright, J. T., have it your way. If you change your mind, you can reach us at the Motel Nine on Studemont Street, room two-forty-six.” On the pad, she wrote, ‘Send agents you trust there.’ She passed him the keycard for the room.

Her friend frowned but nodded. “I’m sorry that I could not be of any more assistance. I wish I could help your husband. But his cousin should have known better than to try something like this on their own. If they had come to me, brought me evidence first. But the law is the law, Jaycee. You know that.”

Jaycee nodded to Laura, who stood up from the chair across from his desk. “Ms. Reynolds, I need you to stay in town. We may have further questions once I consult my lead investigator.”

“Of course, you know where to find us.”

They left his office, huddled together, their heads down. “Trent, get me Stephens on the phone, now.” Jaycee could not stifle the chuckle, but she made certain that it sounded more like a sob. Wanda and the girls joined them as they headed towards the door.

“What now?” the woman asked.

“Back to the hotel,” Jaycee said loudly enough to be overheard. But she turned back and looked up long enough to see J. T. nod his head at her. She only hoped their ruse had worked. Lives depended on it. Including Rex’s. Perhaps even theirs.

“You can trust him, Mommy,” Angel whispered as they left the office.

***Garcia compound***

Mercy was just settling her father. Well, Ignacio Garcia, for his afternoon nap when the door to the small house flew open. Her younger brother walked in carrying something large cradled in his arms. At first, she feared it was Bebe until she noticed the red hair.

“Where can I put her?”

She pulled the door to the only bedroom closed, hoping that they did not wake Iggy. The man was especially disturbed by any change in his schedule, and he had not been well these past couple of days. She had not managed to get a single bite of food in him in at least three days. And only a few sips of water. Mercy feared they were running out of time, even before this….

“Cassandra McBride?”

Roberto nodded his head as he laid the woman on the couch. When he stood up, Mercy noticed that he was covered in blood. The woman lay unmoving. She had to look closely just to see the rise and fall of her chest. There was no point in asking what happened. She knew – Diego.

“I’m sorry. I tried to go easy on her, but Diego was watching. And Rafael in the corner, I think. I couldn’t let them think I was weak.”

Mercy fought back the anger at his excuses. Right now, she had far bigger things to worry about than the life choices of the little brother she had never known. “Get me blankets. And don’t let Grace see you. She’s in the garden playing with some damned cat.”

Why did these people think she was some damned doctor or nurse? She was a fucking librarian. Besides the First Aid course that she was forced to take every couple of years to check off some bureaucrat’s boxes, she knew nothing about caring for others. Hell, she was the baby. Everyone always took care of her.

But once again, she called on those skills she had learned but never thought she would need. She began to assess the woman, starting at the top of her head. Her face was swollen on one side, her eye almost closed. But that did not account for this amount of blood. Her arms did not look broken. She remembered to feel along the woman’s sides for any protrusions or sunken areas, but there didn’t seem to be any broken bones.

When she moved lower, it was apparent where the blood was coming from. The woman’s jeans were red, blood red. “Fuck!” She had no idea what to do.

Cassie McBride needed a doctor and a hospital. This much blood? The woman could die. Mercy felt panic rising inside her. Diego would blame her if the woman died. And Grace? She knew what that kind of guilt felt like.

When she felt the hand on her shoulder, she thought it was Roberto. But when she turned, she was shocked to see Anna. Since that day in the garden, they had taken to spending the afternoons talking. She recognized that her brother’s wife was insane, but how could you not be given everything the woman had endured all these years?

“Let me see, Mercedes.” Sometimes she could appear so calm, so rational. Mercy was glad this was one of those times. “Help me take off her pants.”

Mercy started to shake her head, “Roberto is coming back any minute.” She did not want to visit further indignity on the woman.

“Go to the door, send him to my ñaña. Tell him he must cover his face, but I need the bag she keeps in the cupboard. He must bring it, quickly.”

Mercy was confused. Did she dare trust this woman? Was she lucid now? But what choice did she have? Anna seemed to know more about the situation than she did.

Then it happened again. That calm overcame her. And she knew that this was right. She nodded and helped the other woman to remove Cassie’s jeans. It was not easy. The woman was dead weight. She was tempted for a moment to cross herself as she had seen this woman and others do over these past weeks. Instead, she tugged harder until they were down about the woman’s ankles. She lifted her feet and removed her shoes, pulling the jeans off completely.

Anna looked up at her with a tight smile. “If Roberto does not come soon, I will need you to go. But you must be very careful. My ñaña, she has the sickness. I have not told anyone. She went to the city for some herbs. And she got ill a few days later. I am taking care of her.”

Mercy could not afford to dwell on what the woman said, its implications. She barely made it to the door in time to block Roberto’s entry.

“What’s she doing here? I haven’t seen her out of her rooms in days.”

“Anna needs you to bring a bag from her ñaña’s room, Roberto.”

If the situation was not so dire, she would have laughed at the face he made as he crossed himself. “No, no way. I don’t go near that bruja. Besides, Rafael and Diego will wonder what is keeping me so long. I need to get back, sister. Things are….”

The silence said more than words could. Mercy’s hand went to cradle her womb. They had to find a way out of here. Soon. When Roberto finally looked back up, she nodded, “Okay, go. I’ll see what I can do.”

He reached out and took her trembling hand in his. “I swear, I promise you, Hermana, I will get you and them out of here. Soon.” But that smile was less confident than it had been.

She knew from Will who Rafael Dominguez was and why they were here. As winsome as this man was, his promises could not be trusted any more than Diego’s. Not when his ambitions warred with whatever modicum of ‘good’ remained in his soul. But right now, she had more pressing matters.

She followed Roberto back to the house, listened carefully to his instructions on finding Anna’s private apartment and the old woman that she knew was her sister-in-law’s only link with her past or sanity.

She kept to the shadows, and with so few windows to the outside, there were plenty of those. She did not want Consuela or Diego to find out that she had been in this part of the house. When she finally stood outside the door, she hesitated. What if she got this wrong? What if she were lost? What if she opened the door onto Consuela or…?

Mercy swallowed back her fears. A woman’s life depended on her. Remembering what Anna had said, she pulled her shirt up to cover her nose and mouth. She knew it was hardly the mask they recommended, but if she stayed far enough away from the sick woman, then maybe….

But when she pushed open that door, tears filled her eyes. She choked down the bile. The thin layer of her shirt did nothing to filter that smell. It was overpowering. Why hadn’t anyone else noticed? She dared only a glance at the bloated and purple-bluish tinged figure on the bed.

She would figure this out later. Right now, she needed that bag. Or so the crazy woman said. But her gut instinct told her that in this one thing, Anna could be trusted. And that was her only choice.

She glanced around the sparsely furnished room. There was only the overly large and ornate bed, a small table next to it, a chair on the other side, and a massive wardrobe against the opposite wall. That must be the ‘cupboard.’ Mercy did not dare waste time as she rifled through it.

She found the overly large and heavy brown floral bag on the top shelf. Her brain searched for the term. She had researched such things for a regency romance that she planned to write – someday. If she had any more ‘some days’ left. Carpetbag. That was the word. The damned thing was so heavy it practically fell on her head. She heard the clink of glass jars but did not think any broke.

Mercy was far less cautious as she rushed from that death room. But she was careful to fully close that door. Right now, they could not afford for Anna’s secret to be discovered. She raced across the courtyard to the tiny house.

How could the woman look perfectly sane? But Anna did. She was calm and focused as she carefully washed the blood off the woman’s legs and thighs. She even smiled serenely as she turned, “Bueno, you have ñaña’s bag. Bring it to me.”

Mercy questioned her own sanity as she followed the woman’s instructions. It only took Anna a moment to find what she was looking for, a dark brown glass bottle with an eyedropper cap. “Next time, we will put the medicine in some tea. But now, she needs it to act quickly.”

Anna placed the dropper in the corner of Cassie’s mouth. A dark brown liquid seeped from the corner, but Anna only pushed it back into her mouth. Cassie coughed. It was the first sign of life since Roberto had brought her in.

“What is it?” Perhaps she should have asked that question sooner but considering these past few weeks, it was good she could think clearly enough to ask at all.

“It will slow the bleeding,” was as close an answer as she got. Anna arranged the towels between the woman’s legs and then covered her with a blanket. Then she pulled another bottle from the bag and administered more…whatever. “That will calm her. Help her to sleep. That is the best medicine now.”

Mercy numbly nodded her head, uncertain what to think or feel about this woman. “She has lost the baby, but the medicine should slow the bleeding. She should be okay in a few days.”

A soft sob escaped Mercy’s lips as her hand went to her own precious cargo. Tears fell from her eyes as the woman continued, “Naña always gives me this when I bleed too much.”

She shook her head, “Bleed too much?”

“Si, sometimes I must purge that man’s evil from my body.”

It took Mercy a moment for Anna’s words to sink in, for their meaning to registered in her scrambled brain. “Do you mean an abortion? But I thought you and Diego wanted children? That you had been trying all these years?”

That wild-eyed look was back, and this time the chill it sent through her soul was even worse. “They expected me to be their broodmare. To bring more murderers into this world. But I showed them.”

Mercy’s hand covered her mouth as she fought back that nausea once more. But when Anna turned around to her, her words spoke of the true depths of the woman’s insanity. “When I go back, I will speak with ñaña, see if there is anything else we can do for the woman.”

Mercy could feel the chill as Anna took her hand in hers, “Do not worry. I won’t let them hurt you. Or anyone ever again. I have waited many years for this, but it is time. They must be stopped.”

Mercy would have pressed her sister-in-law for more information, but the gasp from the doorway halted the conversation. Grace raced to her mother’s side. She lifted one of Cassie’s hands to her lips as she brushed back red hair that reminded Mercy way too much of her own mother’s.

How much had the girl overheard? How much Spanish did she understand? Mercy had lived most of her life under the heavy burden of her mother’s rape. She had almost suffocated under it – until Will. She could not begin to imagine what this girl would feel….

Mercy had never believed in god or prayer. She left that shit to Elena and Brad. But at the moment, she sent a plea to whatever the fuck was out there, that this child had not heard or understood the conversation.

***Village outside Torreon, Mexico***

Will paced the small apartment where they had been staying. Mercy should have been back by now. It was almost eight. The night nurse should have taken over at least an hour ago. And what about Callie? Grace, whatever. Diego had insisted that the girl went with Mercy during the day.

He had hoped that Mercy would bring some news with her as well. He knew that Diego and Consuela Garcia kept her relatively isolated, caring for the man who had sired her. But if Dominguez was there, surely it would be harder to hide what was happening. And what of Cassandra McBride? Callie’s mother must have arrived by now.

Fuck, if he stayed in these four tiny walls, he would go insane. Though, he had been questioning his sanity, or at least, his thought processes for weeks now. Why had he brought Mercy here? There had to have been another way. She should have gone into hiding with her mother, like their original plan.

But if she had, would he have been able to infiltrate the Garcia operation? Would he have found Bebe? Not that he had seen his cousin yet. While he might not trust Roberto Garcia, he was sure he could Mercy. Still, perhaps it was some elaborate hoax designed to ensure his compliance. How did he know for sure that this girl was Bebe? It had been three years. Would he even recognize her if he saw her?

He had to get out of there. He would take a walk. Maybe if he headed out of the village towards the Garcia ranch, he would meet them on the way back. And if not? What then? Did he confront the guards? Demand to see Mercy? Was it worth the risk to go to Torreon? Did he dare take a taxi to the desert? Attempt to contact Mercy’s family. Try to get some help. But what if someone followed him? What if….

“Fuck!” Will picked up his leather jacket. It got cold after dark in the desert. He closed the door as he left. There was no point in locking it. Garcia could get in anytime he wanted, and no one else would dare trespass.

As he turned right at the foot of the stairs, he noticed a rather large group of men trying to push and shove their way into the cantina that fronted for the brothel. He heard one speaking broken Spanish to the armed guard and older woman who ran the place on behalf of Diego.

“Aww, come on, man. It’s the dude’s bachelor party. And we heard this place has something special. Don’t you think he deserves his fantasy before shackling himself to one woman for life….” The man’s words were slurred as if he had been drinking. There was something vaguely familiar about his voice. But Will knew better than to become involved.

It was the woman who responded, surprisingly in perfect English. “As I told you before, we are rented out for a private event for the next three days.”

A darker-skinned man nudged his way forward. Mexican? Probably Native American from the features. He flashed the woman a smile that probably got him pretty much anything he wanted with women. But Will knew it would not do him any good this time.

“Please, chica, the groom just wants one taste of a sweet young thing before tying the knot. Come on, helps us out. We’ve come a long way to give our friend a bachelor party he’ll never forget. Just one girl? You have one that you can spare, right?”

“The lady told you no.” The goon by the door flashed a gun this time.

Will considered intervening. Perhaps he could both protect these drunk idiots and ingratiate himself with Diego. He was about to step out of the shadows when another figure appeared.

The woman turned to the newcomer, “And where do you think you’re going?”

If he had any doubts, they disappeared. While the words were Spanish, he recognized the voice even though he could not see her face. Bebe. His cousin was here. He was elated and heartbroken at all she must have been through.

“Bobby called the bar. I’m needed at the house. Now.”

The other woman continued to block the doorway, keeping the men out and his cousin inside. “Of course, if you want to argue with Diego, that’s your business, Esme.” He smiled to hear the fight that remained in her.

The woman stepped to the side, just enough to let the girl out. “I’ll be checking with Diego,” her words were more whine than a threat.

His cousin was barely out the door when hands drew her within the circle of men. “Hey, sweetheart, what’s your name? My friends and I have come all the way from Houston for my friend’s bachelor party. I promise you, we’ll make it worth your while.”

Will fought back the anger. How many sick propositions like that had his cousin endured? How many had she been forced to accede to? She was barely sixteen years old, for god’s sake.

“Any other time, handsome, I’d be more than happy to party with you. But right now, I need to help a sick friend.”

His stomach tightened to hear the teasing in her sweet voice. He remembered the innocent little girl who had sung so powerfully in the choir at her father’s church. How had this happened to her? And for the first time since this all began, Will faced the facts. No matter what happened, even if he did manage to get Bebe out of this place, nothing would be the same. She was not that little girl anymore.

As he stepped from the shadows, he was happy to see that the men had let his cousin go on her way down the road. He waited a couple more moments, listened as the men argued more with the woman. He waited until he was sure that the guard was too involved with the situation to notice him sneak away down the road behind his cousin.

Will waited until he was out of the village before he began to run. If he could just catch up with Bebe….

He was not sure how long he had been running. It was too dark already to see much further ahead, but he had to be getting close to her by now. And when he caught up? What then? What would he say? It wasn’t like he had any plan yet. But that didn’t matter. He just wanted to let her know that they had come for her. That he was not leaving without her.

He felt the arms wrap around him from behind. The guy was bigger and stronger than he was. He could tell that from the power behind the running tackle. He would have to use his brain to best whatever goon Diego had following him. They rolled for a moment in the dry dirt and rock. He looked for some advantage.

Until the man spoke, “Will, stop.”

He peered through the darkness, barely making out the bulky outline of the man that went with that voice, “Ryan? What are you doing here?”

Will’s heart pounded. If Ryan were here, were there others? Might this be the help he had prayed for? Their way out of this mess. But why now? He had not been able to get word to them. How had they known?

His friend held out his hand and helped Will to his feet. He could make out another figure in the darkness. This man was smaller, but most men would be when compared with Ryan Ranger.

“What are you doing here? How did you know to come? I couldn’t get to the phone to send you a message. I don’t understand….” His mind was reeling. He knew he needed to calm it. But Ryan’s words made that impossible.

“Will, this is Chad Wilson. Cassie and Callie McBride have been staying with him.”

Will found himself back on the hard ground. The man had tackled him so quickly that he did not have time to react. The wind was knocked out of him. And honestly, he did not have the will to fight this man. Whatever he did to him, he deserved. “Where are they? Where are my daughter and Rose?”

Ryan pulled the man off of him and helped Will to stand once again. His friend was careful this time to keep his body between him and the other man. “I don’t understand. Who is Rose? And what do you mean – your daughter?”

“Cassandra McBride is going by the name Rose now. And her daughter, Callie, isn’t McBride’s child.” Ryan turned to the other man, “But neither Cassie nor Chad knew the truth until McBride took them to him.”

Will nodded his head. “Makes perfect sense. That was why he was so sure that no one would ever find them.”

“But you did. You kidnapped my daughter, and now that monster has the woman I love too.”

He closed his eyes and sought courage deep inside of himself. “I know it doesn’t help, but I truly am sorry. I won’t try to make excuses because there aren’t any, but you should know that Garcia has my sixteen-year-old cousin and the woman I love too. My cousin was kidnapped off a Dallas street while she waited for a bus to school. She was just twelve. And….”

He could not bring himself to say the rest. The reality of what had happened to his cousin was still choking him, squeezing his heart. He felt the hand on his shoulder squeeze gently. “Okay, if we’re going to get them out of here, we need to work together. Is your cousin back in the village? Jack, Reb, and a bunch of the others are trying to get into that place now. But we figured that Garcia might be looking for Chad and me, so we decided to do a bit of recon out in the desert. There are a few more checking out the house.”

Will shook his head, “Bebe was right ahead of me. I was trying to catch up. I haven’t been able to talk to her. Hell, I hadn’t even seen her until tonight.”

“The young woman that went past was your cousin?” The other man spoke this time. Will nodded.

“Where’s Mercy? Her sister will have my balls if anything happens to her.”

“She’s somewhere on the Garcia compound. They have her caring for the old man, their father, during the day. She usually comes back to the apartment they gave us at night. But she should have been back there by now.” Will turned to the man. Chad, he said his name was. “Your daughter is with her.”

“Okay, this is good,” Ryan sighed.

“Good? How can you say that? Garcia has my cousin, Mercy, and Callie. Probably Cassie, too, though I don’t know that for sure. And trust me, that man is not the only monster in that family.”

“His mother and brother, too, I know. But think for a moment, Will. They are all in one place. You know as well as I do that it is easier than trying to coordinate simultaneous operations. Can you get in there? Provide us more intel on their exact locations and conditions?”

“No, Garcia doesn’t trust me. I haven’t been back inside the compound since the day we arrived. I’d hoped that….”

“Kidnapping my daughter would prove your loyalty?”

He could not blame the man for the bitterness in his voice. “Something like that. Though honestly, I was more worried about keeping the woman I love alive. I think we have that in common, at least. And just so you know, Garcia has my child too.” He turned to Ryan as he spoke, “Mercy is pretty certain she’s pregnant.”

“Okay, then let’s hope Rex and the old men have better luck than we have been so far.

***A park in The Woodlands, Houston***

Laura patted a sleeping Chloe’s back. She wore the baby sling that they had borrowed from Jaycee and Rex. Of course, she was not as sexy in it as a bare-chested Ryan with their daughter snuggled close to his heart. She fought back the tears. This was all she could do for him now.

For them – her baby sister was there too. Mercy was not much older than Chloe when Mama had to go back to work. They supposedly had a babysitter, but the elderly neighbor forgot them more often than not while she watched soap operas all day.

Back then, Laura had been so angry that the woman did not take better care of them, especially Mercy. Most days, she returned from school to discover a crying baby in the old crib who had not been fed or changed. Oh, she had hated that woman. Now, Laura realized the woman was probably showing the early signs of dementia that claimed her life.

Before junior high, she had convinced Mama they didn’t need a sitter. That it was an unnecessary expense and they could use the money for other things. From then until she went off to college, her sisters had become her responsibility. She lost the battle with those tears. Damned hormones should be better by now. She brushed them back and waved to Jaycee, who was chatting with that woman.

It turned out that Sheriff Earl Kerr’s wife was her friend’s client. She knew all the rumors about the woman – a drunk. Turns out there was another explanation for those ‘falls,’ bruises, and broken bones. She should know things were not always as they seemed. And through it all, Angel swang. Had she ever been that carefree? Probably not. She certainly could not remember it anyway.

Three other children came running onto the playground. The oldest looked to be a teen boy, another boy was seven or eight, and a little blond girl toddled on chubby legs. But it was the man in starched khaki pants, a button-down shirt, designer sweater, and loafers that drew her attention. Even a ‘casual’ J. T. Tyler had a pickle up his ass, as Mama would say.

He said something to his oldest son. She watched the older boy help the little girl into a swing as the other one began to converse with Angel. After only a few words, they ran off to the rope ladder and climbing frame. The man pretended not to notice Jaycee and, as casually as he could, walked to the bench where she sat.

“Is this seat taken?”

“No.” She waved with her hand, indicating for him to take a seat at the other end of the bench.

They sat in silence for several minutes, watching the children play. When he finally spoke, his voice was so low that Laura strained to hear it. “Sorry, I was late. They took Stephens into custody an hour ago at the hotel. He claimed that I had sent him to take you into custody.”

One down, but she believed, perhaps knew, there were two more to go. “They found a second cellphone on him. A burner. With numbers that rang through to my personal assistant and another agent. As well as Sheriff Kerr and a high-level soldier in the Garcia cartel. It isn’t enough to arrest any of them. But I have reassigned Trent.”

“And the agent? Kerr?”

“We don’t have enough to arrest Kerr. That man is more slippery than a greased pig. Hell, we know that he got away with murder by framing the district attorney for drunk driving.”

It had been big news when she had arrived back in town almost a year ago. The Sebida District Attorney, who had dared to prosecute the sheriff for the murder of a low-level drug dealer who had refused to cut him in, had been pulled over and arrested for drunk driving. Sure, everyone realized that it stunk to high heaven. Perhaps the man would have managed to survive the storm and clear his name, except for a letter to the editor of the local paper.

The author of that letter had been one of Mercy’s friends, a young woman who owned the local diner. Lizzie Patterson had lost her mother and step-father in a drunk driving accident. Her younger brother was left paralyzed.

Lizzie had been barely out of high school when the responsibility for her brother’s care and the restaurant were thrust on her. She had become a vocal advocate for stricter laws and enforcement. District Attorneys from prominent families were not above the law, and she made her case passionately.

Laura had to wonder if Wanda Kerr wasn’t right. None of them would be safe as long as that man was alive. She had no doubt that even behind bars, Earl would pose a danger. But that still left, “Saunders?”

The man half-smiled and shook his head, “I never said the agent’s name. But for now, I believe it might be more useful to keep Agent Saunders in his position. See if he can lead us anywhere useful. But be assured that we are watching the man closely. Now that we are not in my office where we can be overheard, what more can I do for you, Ms. Reynolds?”

She looked around the small neighborhood park in the affluent neighborhood. They were the only ones there this late in the day when most parents were finishing up homework and getting the children ready for bed. So, unless Tyler had worn a wire, and she had no reason to believe he would, then this was as safe as it would get.

“We told you this afternoon. Jaycee’s husband and Ryan are in Torreon. Most of the rest is true too. But we left out a few details. For obvious reasons. Rex and Ryan are leading a small band of highly-trained former military special operatives. They are there to rescue my sister, the McBrides, Will, and his cousin.”

If she had not been trained to observe her opponents for the slightest sign of weakness, Laura would have missed the brief look that flittered across Tyler’s face as he spoke. Discomfort? Perhaps even guilt? “Yes, Agent Williams told me about the young girl during his questioning.”

In a court of law, she would have focused on that weakness, dug deeper until she was satisfied, but this was not a courtroom, and this man was not the enemy. They were the ones that needed his assistance, so she let it go.

“Besides the numbers, the other thing that we lied about was the time frame. They are already in place. Jaycee received a text message confirming that a while ago. Right now, they are running reconnaissance. Trying to locate everyone, look for routes in and out of the compound, and how many men Garcia have.”

“And you want me to organize a take-down operation using that information?”

“No, a raid might be counter-productive. Garcia would just kill them and hid the evidence. Our team, because it is small, has a better chance of getting in and out. What we do need is your protection and diplomatic expertise in getting everyone back across the border. We need you to take custody of Cassie and Callie McBride, depose my sister and the girl. Gather the evidence that can be used in court. Then after everyone is safe, take your team in and make the arrests.”

“You’re asking me to sanction vigilante justice?”

“No, I’m allowing you to gather legitimate evidence from a private black op. Make no mistake, Mr. Tyler. This operation will move forward. With or without you. With you is our preference. It will be safer for those women if we can safely deliver them into your hands in Mexico. You get their testimony. And put Garcia behind bars where he belongs. Then everyone can go back to their lives. Or as close to it as they can.”

She paused for a moment to allow the implications to sink in before she continued. “Or we can get them all out ourselves. Place them in safehouses where not even you will find them.” Laura waved her hand towards the other woman leaning against the swing and chatting as if nothing were happening. “Do you recognize her?”

“Wanda Kerr.”

“What did you think happened to the good Sheriff’s wife?” She watched the pink spread up Tyler’s neck to his ears. Laura had forgotten how much fun it was making your opponent squirm. She loved her daughter, but damn, she was like a shark scenting blood. She and Ryan needed to talk. She wanted back in the game.

“We weren’t sure. We checked out Kerr’s story but could never locate her or his daughters back in Virginia. We found a couple of restraining orders, but the trail went dead. We were afraid….”

“That he might have done something to them? Wanda came to Jaycee a year ago. She helped her get those restraining orders. But there was no women’s shelter safe enough for them. And if Wanda filed for divorce, well, there was always the possibility that Kerr would get custody or even visitation. As Wanda says, they would never be free of him.”

“So, Jaycee helped them to hide. I’m sure that you are aware that this country still has an underground railroad. But it is slaves of a different kind that it hides and protects. Make no doubt about it; survivors of abuse are enslaved to the past and often their abusers. And sometimes, the justice system meant to protect them only perpetuates that.”

“So trust me when I tell you that we can all disappear. Ryan and I, my sister and Will, his cousin, the McBrides – all of us gone. And your case will be gone with us. With Gerald dead, you need us.” She sat back and patted her daughter for a moment, giving Tyler time to consider what she said.  

“Okay,” was all Tyler said. But it was enough. Now, they all waited. Waited for the information they needed from Torreon. And prayed. Prayed that it came. And for the safety of those they loved.

***Garcia compound outside Torreon***

Rex enjoyed the freedom. Though his mind was still weighed down with the burden of the situation, he could not fight the exhilaration of his other. He knew that a wild mustang running in the desert this close to Torreon was an unusual sight. But hopefully, not one that would raise suspicions on the Garcia compound.

Some of the others in their group could not understand why he was designated to infiltrate the ranch itself. His former job as an animal welfare officer hardly came with the type of training his SEAL, Ranger, and even Marine counterparts had. But Ryan, who was heading up the whole damned mess, knew and understood his secret gifts.

He pushed his senses out, feeling for others, as he approached the corral where a handful of mares were pinned. He heard the warning from the stud in the barn beyond. An elderly man clearing out the stalls looked up, then crossed himself.

The mustang clung to the shadows of the barn. Hopefully, if any of Garcia’s men saw him, they would think the horse had merely escaped its stall. Few humans noticed such things as animals on ranches like this.

He noted that more than a dozen men were patrolling the outer perimeter alone. That seemed a bit excessive, even for Garcia. Was something up? Had someone tipped Garcia off? If so, that meant his wife and Laura had failed. Were she and their unborn son alright?

Rex saw lights on in most of the house. It was hard to read how many people were inside it. Dozens and all were milling about from room to room but especially on the ground floor. It was almost as if Garcia were hosting some sort of party? Perhaps that explained the large number of guards outside. Maybe he would need to make another pass tomorrow?

He noticed a small house just behind the main one. There were lights on inside it as well. He focused and sent his senses out towards it. Three or perhaps four people inside. The scent of death hung in the air. And blood. He sniffed; female blood and lots of it. That was not good. And indeed, not news he looked forward to sharing with Chad Wilson.

He was about to turn back when he noticed a small figure approaching the house. A young woman. She did not smell like the McBride woman, so he eliminated both Cassie and her daughter. She did not seem to be related to Laura either. Of course, she could be anyone. Or no one.

He snuck a bit closer. He did not like being exposed, but he had to cross the clearing between the barn and that little house to get nearer. Was it worth the risk? He wasn’t sure. But if he could get closer, perhaps he could smell if the other women were inside. The animal was as quiet as it could be, traversing those fifty feet or so. But the shadowy figure looked up. It was as if she could sense him. She stopped and looked right at the horse.

But when she looked up, it was enough for Rex to catch a glimpse of her face. She was about the right age. The right ethnicity. Was it possible that this was Bebe Jefferson? They knew now that the girl was here, being used to control Will just as Mercy was. But the others were in town, at the brothel, looking for her. What would she be doing here?

Still, how likely was it that Garcia had two young black girls of almost the same? Sure they knew that place catered to the most perverse tastes, but Garcia wanted variety to appeal to a wide range of sickos. And that place was just not big enough to house more than dozen, twenty at the most women and girls.

He knew he was running out of time. It was unlikely they would get another chance like this. The horse made it to the shadow behind the house. In the blink of an eye, the man transformed. Damn, sometimes, he wished skinwalking worked like all those shifter romances that Jaycee read. Though he could not fault some of the kinks in them, they definitely needed more accuracy. Shifters did not appear fully clothed.

If the girl was Bebe, then she had probably seen more naked men than a sixteen-year-old ever should, but he was not about to be one of them. Rex took to his knees, though the thorns and needles embedded in his flesh. His knees and palms would be covered in abrasions, but he crawled through the bushes closest to the house anyway.

Rex regretted not surrendering more fully to his gifts for the first time, wasting the opportunity to train and hone them with his Grandfather. If the old man were here, maybe even Angel, they would likely be able to catch stray thoughts from the young woman, discover if this was the missing girl.

But the battle between his mind and his spirit had limited his gifts. While he could always read Jaycee, even break through her barriers if necessary, he caught only the occasional thoughts of others closest to him, usually Grandfather and Angel. Still, he suspected that was more their talents than his own.

With everyone else, Rex’s gifts were empathic. Vague feelings and emotions only. This girl was afraid, but that was to be expected. Hell, he was too. Hurt. Desperate. Shame. Anger. Betrayal. But all of those did not tell him what he needed to know most – could he trust her? Did he have any other option?

“Bebe,” he whispered softly from the bushes.

The girl stopped just a few feet from the house and looked around. Was that because she recognized her name or because she heard noises from the bushes? He could not be sure. “Don’t say anything. Just listen. If you are Bebe Jefferson, scratch your head.”

Relief flooded him as the girl lifted her hand to an imaginary itch on her head. “We don’t have long. And I know that most of what I say won’t make sense to you, but it will to your cousin and Mercy. Can you get a message to them? Wrap your arms around yourself like you’re cold if you can.”

Again, the girl responded in the affirmative. “My name is Rex Ranger. I need you to let them know that we’re here. My cousin has assembled a small team of highly trained ex-military types. Some of them are in the village now, looking for you. Right now, I need you to answer some questions for me. But we can’t be seen. Garcia has too many men around.”

“They’re not all his men.” The girl whispered as she approached the house slowly. “Day after tomorrow, his brother is to marry the daughter of another cartel leader. Dominguez. Some of these men are his.”

Rex processed what she said. On the one hand, that meant they faced almost double the fighting force, but on the other, a wedding was also a distraction. Could they use that diversion to their advantage?

“Where are they keeping the others? Your cousin, Mercy, the McBrides, do you know?”

He was close enough now to see the smile on her face, “Right inside these walls. Mercy cares for her father in this house. They sent the girl to her last night. They won’t let Will on the property, though. You should be able to find him in an apartment in the village. There’s some stairs on the side of the cantina that lead to it. Mercy goes there, too, when she isn’t here. But she hasn’t gone back there yet. Roberto called me and told me to come help her. That’s all I know.”

“Thank you. We’ll try to make contact with them in the village. But let Mercy know what I said now. I can’t stick around here any longer. So, I’m counting on you to get the message to her. Tell her we will get them out. All of you.”

The girl shook her head, and Rex felt more than saw the tears, “You don’t know what you’re up against. These men….”

“Yes, yes, we know, Bebe. But right now, we all need to stay calm and look for an opportunity to get you all safely out of here. That’s why we have to get the word to the others. Will you do that?”

He saw her lift her hand and brush away the tears before grasping the doorknob, “Of course.”

Then she was gone. And all he could do was have faith that the girl would keep her promise.

Mercy was not certain what time it was. After dark, for sure, but other than that, she had lost count of the hours. She went from the old man still sleeping in the bedroom, which worried her, to the woman on the sofa in the living room. Grace stayed next to her mother’s side, just holding her hand. They had managed to get a few sips of some herbal tea between her swollen lips, which was more than she could say for Ignacio Garcia.

Anna had left hours ago, mumbling something about needing to get everything ready. Though what everything was, Mercy had no idea. The woman had assured her that Cassie McBride would be okay. She just needed to rest. But given Anna’s precarious hold on reality, that was far from reassuring.

The rumble in her stomach reminded her that she had not eaten since that morning. She had been about to prepare lunch for Grace and herself when Roberto had brought the girl’s mother to them. Grace must be hungry too. She watched the girl tenderly brush that hair back from her mother’s face.

Mercy fought back her own guilt and self-loathing. She better than anyone knew precisely what Grace was going through, thinking, and feeling. Even now, a quarter of a century later, she held onto the anger at that little girl who just wanted a candy bar.

The adult woman recognized that men like Earl Kerr would always find a way to get what they wanted. That if Miss Patsy had not caught them shoplifting and called the police, if Laura had not insisted on taking the blame, the man would have found some other way to manipulate her mother. A parking ticket she could not afford? Speeding? Hell, jaywalking. His badge gave men like him virtually unlimited power to abuse, especially the vulnerable.

But they were not weak. The Reynolds women had survived. And she was determined that the McBride women would too.

“Hey, sweetie, I’m gonna make us something to eat.” She wanted to scoop Grace into her arms and hug her, tell her everything would be alright, but she settled for gently squeezing her shoulders. They trembled with the soft sobs.

The girl shook her rainbow. And Mercy hoped they could somehow all manage to find those mythical pots of gold. “I don’t want anything.”


It was only one word, but it was the first sign of hope. Mercy knelt next to Grace, “Don’t worry about her. I’ll take care of your daughter. You just focus on resting and getting better.”

She brushed the hair out of the woman’s face, but her purpose was to feel her skin temperature. Anna had warned her that infection was the biggest worry now. Dammit, the woman needed an actual doctor, preferably a hospital.

She could tell it was a real struggle, but Cassandra McBride finally managed to open her eyes. “You look just like her. You know she’s worried about you.”

Mercy shook her head. The woman’s words made no sense. For a moment, she worried that blood loss or infection had made her delirious. Her following words seemed to confirm it, “What time is it? How long have I been out? Are they here yet?”

“I don’t know – late. It’s been dark for a while. Let me get you something to drink.”

“No, I’m fine. Help me sit up. We need to be ready. They should be here soon.”

Grace was sobbing still, “Mama, you need to stay there. They hurt you pretty badly.”

The woman turned to her daughter, “Your father is coming for us.”

The tears ran faster, “My father is dead, remember?”

“No, Gerald McBride is dead. Chad is out there somewhere, and he’s coming for us. We need to be ready, Grace.”

Mercy was more focused. Nothing the woman said made sense. Then again, she had been through so much. “Your daughter’s right. Let me get you something to help you rest, Mrs. McBride.”

“No. Stacey came with them.”

Before Mercy could respond, the front door opened, and a frantic-looking Bebe slipped inside. “Do you know a man named Rex Ranger?”

Mercy’s head was spinning so fast, her thoughts in a million different directions. “Rex? You mean Ryan?” Then, it clicked. Ryan’s cousin. “Yeah, why? How do you know about Rex? Did you talk to Will?”

“No, the man, this Rex guy just came up to me. He asked me all kinds of questions. Said to tell you that they were here. Who are they?”

Mercy opened her mouth to ask that same question, but she closed it quickly when the door opened again. The last person she wanted to see at the moment entered. Well, next to the last. Diego Garcia would be worse than his mother.

“Consuela,” on those rare occasions that she interacted with the woman, Mercy always used the woman’s first name. Simply because she knew it irritated her. “What are you doing here?”

The woman shoved past Bebe, her dark, soulless eyes taking the girl in from head to toe. “What are you doing here? I sent you back to the brothel. Where you belong.”

“Roberto sent for me. He said that Mercy needed my help.”

“My son is not in charge here. Go back where you belong. Now.” Bebe shifted from side to side, but in the end, she just nodded her head.

Mercy could not let her go without some answers. “Please, Senora Garcia. Your son sent me Callie McBride and now her mother to care for. In addition to my father. The woman is injured. Just let the girl stay and care for them, long enough for me to make us all something to eat. That’s all I ask, please?”

She knew from the set of the woman’s face that she wanted to argue, and for a moment, Mercy was sure that Consuela Garcia would. But finally, she inclined her gray head just slightly, “Fine, but only long enough for you to cook, understood? Make me some broth. I am going to sit by my husband’s side. I will feed him myself. So, you will not have to care for him as well.”

In all the weeks that Mercy had been there, she could remember only a handful of times that the woman took any interest in the man’s care. And each time, Ignacio Garcia had sickened afterward.

She looked around the room at the woman and her daughter huddled together and Will’s cousin slinking in the shadows. She had so many unanswered questions. She needed to speak with Bebe before the girl went back to the village. Cassie McBride too.

While the man who had sired her had become a tragic figure over the past few weeks, Mercy knew that her loyalties in this situation must lie elsewhere. “I’ll send Callie in with a bowl as soon as it warm, Senora.” She nodded her head and lowered her eyes. The words of deference stuck in her throat like bile.

But she did what was best for all of them. Because for the first time since she stood on that veranda and faced this woman and her half-brother, Mercy felt genuinely hopeful.

***The cantina outside Torreon, Mexico***

Bebe looked around the room that had been her prison and her only home for over three years. For the first time in almost two years, she felt a tiny ray of hope that she would soon leave this place.

She and Mercy had not been able to really talk. While Consuela Garcia spoke only Spanish, she was never sure the woman did not understand English. So, they had only exchanged a couple of whispered sentences in the kitchen. It was enough for her to know that others had come for them.

Would it be enough? Even the Rex guy, whoever he was, admitted that they were not prepared for the Garcia and Dominguez cartels’ combined forces. She knew better than anyone what would happen to all of them if they failed. Or worse….

“Hey, sugarcakes, how you doing?”

Her feelings for Esmerelda were complicated. The woman styled herself as a mix of the madame from some musical movie that Bebe never heard of and the house mother from another television show about an exclusive girls’ school. The truth was that she was just another whore like the rest of them.

But a smart one, who had seduced Diego Garcia himself and convinced him that she was an invaluable asset to this place. If Bebe were honest with herself, once she had lost all hope of returning to her old life, she had emulated this woman. Hoped to make the life that had been forced on her easier to bear.

“What do you want, Esme?”

The woman wrapped her arm around Bebe’s shoulder and drew her closer. She smelled of expensive perfume and sex. Had Garcia made one of his rare visits? Had Esme indulged in her womanly needs as she called the rare occasions when she chose to take a client, usually a young, handsome one? Perhaps the hot guy that she had seen outside the cantina earlier? Or was ‘business’ so robust that Diego had forced the woman to accept clients as well?

“I’m sorry, sweetie. You know I had high hopes for this to all work out for you, too.”

Yes, the woman had encouraged her infatuation and plans to seduce Roberto Garcia. Esmerelda had slept her way to the top of the dung heap, and she had groomed Bebe to replace her – someday. In the woman’s fantasies, usually when Diego’s weak and long-suffering wife finally died. Then, the man would realize that he loved her and bring Esme to the compound.

But Esmerelda forgot one thing, or rather one person – Consuela Garcia. That woman was not having her sons messing with common whores. She had made that perfectly clear tonight.

“Whatever. If there’s nothing else, I better get to work.”

The woman’s hand took hers. Bebe felt something pressed into her palm. Thick and papery. For a moment, she thought perhaps her benefactress was offering her money to help escape. But when she opened her hand, Bobby’s warning rang in her head. So, this was it. How it ended for her?

“I know that you got yourself clean. You know how proud I am of you for doing that. But I know these next few days are going to be hard, sugarcakes. This is just a little something to help you get through it.” She fingered a strand of Bebe’s curls and smiled.

For a moment, Bebe considered overpowering the woman. She knew she could. Forcing whatever poison Consuela Garcia had given her down the woman’s throat. But honestly, she felt pity as much as anything for Esme.

She was, after all, just another one of them. Perhaps even worse. To be sold to this place by her own mother was beyond anything Bebe could imagine. She could not blame Esme for making the best of the situation. Wasn’t that what she had been doing these last months? Besides, it was probably easier and quicker to just take the package of drugs laced with god knows what poison.

“Thanks,” she closed her hand back around it. The woman lingered. Had Esme been told to make sure that she took it? “I’ll use it. But Jose said a client was waiting for me. I’ll just take care of him first.” She smiled and hoped that the woman accepted the excuse.

Esme hesitated as if trying to come up with something more to say, but she smiled and turned to leave in the end. If Bebe had any doubts, the way the woman paused and turned back to look at her dispelled them. “You know, Bebe, you’re as close to a daughter as I got. I just want you to know that.”

But obviously, that pseudo-maternal love was not enough to overcome whatever scruples Esme had about Consuela’s plans. Bebe could not bring herself to respond with some lie. So, she just smiled, “Send in my client.”

“It’s one of Dominguez’s guys. One of his generals, in fact. If you please him, who knows what might come of it?”

Once upon a time, she would have grabbed onto that sliver of opportunity. Tried to please the man enough that he would consider taking her with them. It was not unheard of. Just as rare as Cinderella’s slipper.

But staying close to Roberto Garcia was no longer her top priority. She was not even sure she could trust him to keep his promise. He had already broken the most important one – that they would be together one day.

Feeling sorry for herself was not the best use of time or energy right now. Getting out of here was. That meant she needed to get back to Mercy and the others. And maybe, Consuela and Esme had unknowingly helped her with that.

Bebe reached for the bottle of wine that sat on the bedside table. She poured the white powder into the bottom of a glass. Of course, they had intended for her to snort it. But it was not the effects of the drug that she was interested in. It was the poison she was sure it was cut with.

Would the wine weaken its effects? But even if it just knocked the man out or made him sick, wasn’t that good enough? She poured the wine into the glass and swirled it around for a moment until the powder dissolved.

The door opened. She was not surprised by the man who was older than her father. He was not particularly tall, but he was stocky. It was the look in his eyes that frightened her, though. So, Consuela had a backup plan.

Bebe smiled and sent a prayer to her Grandmother as she held out the glass of wine. “Come in, handsome. Get comfortable.”

The man hesitated for a moment. So, he was an assassin. The question was – had Consuela told him about the drugs and poison? If so, then getting him to drink the wine might be impossible. And she could never hope to overpower this man. But she was beating that the old woman would not have shared her complete plans with either Esme or this man.

Now, she just had to use a bit of seduction to convince the man to sample the goods before he did the job he had been sent to do. She stood up with the glass still in hand and sashayed over to him.

She almost vomited at the snippets of memories when she lay her hand on his chest. He was not the first. By now, she should be used to the horrors she saw every time she touched someone. Even Bobby.

Until she had been kidnapped, Bebe had only allowed a handful of people to touch her. From the time she was a baby, her mother told her that she did not like to be touched. Not even by her father. Only her mother, grandparents, and cousin had been allowed. Sensory Processing Disorder was the label that the doctors had finally stuck on her. Only her Grandmother knew the truth.

That had been almost as hard as the rapes. Seeing into the souls of these violent and perverted men had nearly driven her insane. Esmerelda was right. In the beginning, she had abused drugs. It was her only chance for escape. While it never took the visions away, the drugs deadened the pain. Back then, she would have welcomed this opportunity for the ultimate escape from it all.

But now, she had a reason to live. And a small hope of escape. She was not about to give that up now. Instead, Bebe forced it all to that dark corner of her mind and pressed her body against the man she knew was a murderer, a rapist, and the worst type of pedophile. She just had to get through a few more moments. Or so she hoped. Because the alternative did not bear consideration.

She held up the glass, “Wine?”

The man continued to stare at her, but he accepted the glass into his pudgy, blood-stained hands. Bebe stepped back, and relief flooded her. She held the man’s gaze as she began to undress. He just watched.

She was beginning to lose hope. If she could not engage this man, then it was she who would not be leaving this room alive. She almost wished she had that wine back. Whatever death Consuela Garcia had in it would surely be better than the sick tortures in this monster’s mind.

Bebe was down to her underwear. She knew that she was too old now, her body too developed, to stir this man’s desires. She was running out of options fast.

Then he brought the glass to his lips and swallowed it all. She could only hope now. Hope that whatever was in it acted quickly. And was strong enough to incapacitate a man that was almost three times her size. She was counting on Consuela’s desire for vengeance and overkill.

The man made a face. If someone this large fell, everyone would hear it. She took his hand, and felt fear and death this time. For once, she hoped that hell was as hot and vicious as her father claimed it was. This man deserved it…and more.

She pulled him towards the bed. He fell face down on to. His body actually bounced. But she hoped the noise was not too loud. After all, bouncing beds were a way of life here. Surely no one would think of it. She had to get out of here. Bebe left the man where he was. Whether he was dead or just passed out, she did not care. As long as he stayed that way long enough for her to escape.

Bebe dressed quickly. She threw the long silk robe with a hood over her dress. It had been one of Bobby’s presents to her. She cracked open the door cautiously. But there was no one. The stairs were at the other end of the hallway. And those led back into the cantina. Diego had designed this place well. Only one way in and one way out. At least from the second floor.

She crept quietly down the stairs. The cantina was full of other ‘customers,’ drinking, laughing, and playing cards. She saw Esme in the corner with the handsome young man she had seen earlier. Was he one of them? The people who had come to help. With Dominguez’s men and Garcia’s, how could she tell? Without walking around the room, touching them all. And that was a stupid plan.

She huddled beneath the hood and prayed that Esme did not look her way. She would recognize the robe for sure since the woman had made such a big deal when Bobby gave it to her. The front door always had at least one guard on it. That left the kitchen.

She had turned that way when she felt the hand on her arm. There was blood on it too. But it was the other memories that stopped her. Regret. And hurt. Pain as deep as her own. This man understood. He knew and carried that shame too. He blamed himself also. Thought it was his own fault.

He was here for them. For her. “Through the kitchen.” She pulled him with her. She smiled at the toothless old hag and a couple of young boys that worked there. “The other one fell asleep in my room. It’s so busy that Esme told me to take this one outside.”

Whether the woman believed the lie or not, at least, Bebe had given her a believable story. She could only hope that Garcia would believe it. She liked Maria and her grandsons. The old woman nodded her white head and gave her a toothless grin.

They came out at the foot of the stairs that led to the apartment where Mercy and Will had been staying. She pulled the man by the hand up them. She was not sure she was ready to face her cousin, but she had run out of time to come to terms with it all.

She did not need to worry about it, though. The room was empty. She turned to the man. “Who are you?”

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