Read Eagle's Last Stand Online

Authors: Aimee Thurlo

Eagle's Last Stand

Danger is his destiny…

When his homecoming is rocked by an explosion, former FBI agent Rick Cloud puts R & R on hold. His undercover instincts warn him he’s the target; his Navajo gifts tell him the reason is well hidden...deep in the walls of Copper Canyon. And only local beauty Kim Nelson can lead him to it. He saved her life in the explosion, now she must help him save his.

Is love his legacy?

Concealed in the canyon is a message from his medicine-man foster father that only Rick can decipher. But someone will kill to keep it there. Trapped in the line of fire, the lawman loner knows only one thing: he must protect Kim from danger...and himself from giving in to desire.

“We've lost our brakes. Hold on.”

He glanced at Kim. Her eyes were wide with fear.

Ahead was a sharp curve and a steep drop. At this speed they'd fly over the edge. Rick had no choice. He rammed into a scrub oak thicket. They fishtailed, then finally slid to a stop, dust enveloping them in a cloud.

“This was no accident,” she said.

He crawled beneath the SUV and studied the damage. “You're right. Someone cut the brake line.” When he came back out, his jaw was set. “I let my guard down, Kim. I'm sorry.”

“I don't understand.”

“I'm on the job. I should know better than to get so distracted by you.”

“I wouldn't trade a second of what happened between us,” she said, holding his gaze. “It drew us closer, and if you allow it, it'll make us even stronger.”

It could also get them killed...

Dear Reader,

Aimée always believed in the power of love, and the forty-three year romance we shared kept us together from the moment we met. I was with her when she died in February, just a few weeks after completing
Eagle’s Last Stand
. We spent those days side by side—I had her back, and she had my heart. Those hours were precious because we were together, doing what we loved most. There were no regrets. Aimée was at peace, in our own home with her beloved pets, friends and family.

I’m proud to have been the husband, lover, best friend and writing partner of one of the most talented individuals I’ve ever known. We worked as a team, but it was Aimée who led the way, creating these stories of love, family, loyalty and honor that will live well beyond her life here on earth.

As you read
Eagle’s Last Stand
, open your mind to the words, thoughts and feelings that flow from Aimée’s heart into your own, and never forget that friendship, love and romance
can
last longer than a lifetime.

In Aimée’s own words—“With love we can soar and accomplish anything.”

David Thurlo

EAGLE’S
LAST STAND

Aimée Thurlo

IN MEMORIAM

Aimée Thurlo was an internationally known bestselling author
of mystery and romantic suspense novels. She was the winner of a Career
Achievement Award from
RT Book Reviews
, a New Mexico
Book Award in contemporary fiction and a Willa Cather Award in the same
category.

Aimée was born in Havana, Cuba, and lived with her husband
and writing partner, David, in Corrales, New Mexico, in a rural neighborhood
filled with horses, alpacas, camels and other assorted livestock. David was
raised on the Navajo Indian Nation. His background and cultural knowledge
inspired many of the Aimée Thurlo stories for Harlequin Intrigue.

We at Harlequin are saddened by the loss of Aimée and
collectively send our deepest condolences to David.

Aimée was a genuine
and lovely woman who we, along with her many fans, will miss greatly.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Rick Cloud—
The former FBI undercover operative had escaped death once before, but now he and his family had become targets. Rick was forced to uncover what really happened to his foster father. He struggled to retain his focus, but was distracted by the intriguing young woman who’d become his partner in the search for the truth.

Kim Nelson—
She’d been taking police science courses and working part-time jobs until the explosion took away much more than her uncle’s tavern. Her only hope for a future required her to team up with Rick, the cynical, scarred Navajo man who’d stolen her heart the night he’d walked into her life.

Preston Bowman—
His Navajo foster brothers and their families had almost died during an event that was supposed to be a homecoming celebration. Preston was a Hartley detective, though, and quickly took control of the investigation. This was a family affair, and the more he learned, the more personal the case became.

Hosteen Silver—
For months the six foster brothers believed that the
hataalii
(medicine man) who’d turned their lives around had suddenly become ill, then walked off into the desert to die—as was the custom among traditional Navajos. Yet no body had ever been found. Was he murdered, or was he still alive, hiding out and targeted by a relative of one of his patients?

Angelina Curley—
The Navajo woman had been Hosteen Silver’s apprentice, until he discovered she was stealing and recording sacred rituals for her own purposes. Angelina was a wealthy businesswoman now, but she made no secret of her hatred for her former mentor and his adopted sons.

Daniel Hawk—
Luckily his security company had the resources to investigate and determine who was trying to kill off those closest to him.

Tim McCullough—
As a college professor he was required to maintain his credentials, but it was difficult learning the ceremonial secrets of a Navajo medicine man. Just how far would he go to get the information he needed, and at what price?

Nestor Sandoval—
It hadn’t taken Hosteen Silver long to determine that Nestor lacked the character to become a Navajo healer. As soon as he was turned away, Nestor turned on the old man, a serious mistake that now incurred the wrath of Rick and his five brothers.

Chapter One

He’d wondered what this night would be like, and now he knew. Rick Cloud smiled as he looked around the private dining room his foster brothers and their wives had reserved for his homecoming. For years the Brickhouse Tavern had been one of their favorite watering holes, so it had been the perfect place for the celebration.

Gene Redhouse, the only rancher among the six Navajo men, came up and patted him on the back. “Welcome home,” he said, then laughed as he saw their brothers Kyle Goodluck and Daniel Hawk clear away part of the heavy trestle table so they could arm wrestle. “They’re at it again.”

“Some things never change.” Rick’s eyes strayed to the pretty hostess as she moved around the room, making sure everyone’s glasses were filled and watching over them like a beautiful guardian angel. She was tall and slender, with shoulder-length honey-colored blond hair and beautiful green eyes that didn’t seem to miss even the tiniest of details. As he watched, she took away an empty dish of guacamole and replaced it with spicy salsa and blue corn tortilla chips.

“That’s Kim Nelson. Do you remember her from high school?”

“I never met her. If I had, I would have remembered,” Rick said without hesitation.

“She was a freshman when you were a senior,” Gene said. “To hear her talk when we were discussing the plans for tonight, I think she used to have a thing for you. Kyle says it’s because you were quarterback, but I fail to see the reasoning. You hand off or throw the ball, take some hits and run the option once in a while. Barely got your jersey dirty most games.”

“Jealous, bro?” Rick said, and laughed.

“Nah. I’m the one who ended up with the prize,” he said, looking across the room at the pretty brunette watching the match. “Lori’s the perfect wife for a cowboy like me.”

“You were born to be a rancher,” Rick said. “I’m glad you’re happy.”

As Gene went back to join his wife, Rick found he couldn’t take his eyes off Kim. Even the way she moved caught his attention. The woman possessed a presence; a dynamic combo of grace and confidence that kept him searching the dining room for her.

Finally he forced himself to look away. He didn’t need this now. Though he’d never been the ladies’ man his brothers thought him to be, he’d never had trouble finding company. Now that his face was marked by a scar that ran across his nose and cheek, a leftover from a deadly knife fight, things would undoubtedly be different.

As Kim worked the room, smiling but definitely staying in the background, he noted the way she’d sometimes glance in his direction. He was about to seek her out when she came over.

“You’re the guest of honor tonight, Mr. Cloud. Is there anything special I can get for you?”

“No, I’m good, thanks,” he said. She had spectacular green eyes that stayed on his, never shifting for a quick look at his scar. Kim couldn’t have missed it, yet she still focused on
him.

“I’m Kim, the events coordinator here at the Brickhouse.”

He shook her hand. “Nice to meet you. And call me Rick.”

“Your brothers wanted to make sure every detail of your homecoming was perfect, Rick. That’s one of the reasons I stayed to handle things personally. The other, I’ve got to admit, is because I was curious to see you again. I knew who you were back in high school, but I don’t think you ever noticed me,” she said with a little smile.

“Definitely my loss.”

She smiled. “When Preston Bowman came to book the restaurant for the private event, my uncle and I knew we had to make this evening super special.”

His brother Preston, the lead detective on the Hartley, New Mexico, police department, had a way about him that intimidated most people. “Preston carries that much weight?”

“Actually he does, with me and my uncle, that is.”

Something in her tone of voice caught his attention, but before she could say anything more, they heard a loud thump in the kitchen and the rattle of a pot or pan bouncing on the floor.

Kim jumped. “I better go see what happened,” she said, excusing herself.

“Wait,” he said, reaching for her hand. Something felt off. He took a shallow breath and caught the familiar scent of rotten eggs. It seemed to be growing stronger with each passing second.

“That’s a gas leak,” he told Kim, then called out to his brothers. “Everyone outside! Quickly.”

“It’s getting stronger,” Daniel said. “Let’s go, people!” He pulled his wife, Holly, toward the front door.

Rick’s other brother, Paul Grayhorse, got there first but the door refused to budge. “It’s locked!” He turned the knob and shoved, but the door didn’t open. “No, it’s stuck or jammed.”

“Force it,” Gene shouted. “Kick it open if you have to!”

“I’ll check the back,” Rick said, turning toward the kitchen.

“I’ve got to check on my uncle!” Kim rushed past him. She started coughing as she pushed through the double doors to the kitchen. “Uncle Frank? Where are you?”

As Rick caught up to her, they found Frank Nelson lying on the floor beside a long counter, blood oozing from the back of his head.

Kim knelt beside her uncle. “He’s unconscious. We have to get him out of here,” she cried out.

Out of the corner of his eye, Rick noticed movement. It was a flexible metal gas line against the wall behind the stove. Cut in two, it was fluttering slightly from the outflow of methane. Nearby lay a pair of heavy-duty, red-handled bolt cutters.

“We’ve got to get out of here before a spark sets off an explosion,” Rick yelled. “Help me pull him out the back.”

Her eyes narrowed as the foul stink of gas flooded the kitchen, but she didn’t panic. Kim took her uncle’s arm and Rick the other, and together they dragged Frank toward the rear exit.

Rick then pushed the left half of the double doors hard with his shoulder. It creaked, but only opened a few inches before it stopped with a rattle.

He looked down into the gap between the doors. “They’re chained from the outside,” he said, nearly gagging from the strong outflow of methane.

Putting his back into it, Rick pushed even harder. The doors squealed, but held tight.

“We’re trapped! Maybe the front door?” Kim looked toward the dining area.

Following her gaze, Rick could see his brothers all leaning into the door. Slowly they forced it open enough to give Erin, Kyle’s wife and the smallest of the women, room to slip through the gap.

“We can’t wait. I’ve got to break the doors down.” Rick pulled the unconscious man aside, lowered him to the floor and then took a step back. Bracing his arm against his body, he rushed the left door with a yell.

Rick’s two hundred and twenty pounds of muscle crashed against the doors. The brass handles broke with a loud snap and the doors flew open. Rick stumbled halfway across the loading dock and crashed into the guard rail before he could stop himself.

Racing back into the kitchen, he reached Frank and Kim, who was down on her knees beside her uncle. Glancing through the kitchen toward his brothers, Rick saw Daniel, the last of the party, just ducking out.

“Time to leave,” Rick yelled. He put Frank Nelson over his shoulder and strode quickly down the steps of the loading dock. “Hurry,” he added, looking back at Kim.

Kim slipped under the guard rail, jumped off the edge of the platform and met Rick at the bottom of the steps. Just then, Kyle and Preston came around the corner of the Brickhouse, running toward them.

“Get back!” Rick yelled, jogging toward the street with the injured man over his shoulder. “The place can blow any second!”

With Kim beside him, Rick angled left, heading for the corner of the next building over, a former theater turned furniture store. He wanted a solid structure between them and the upcoming blast.

As he reached the sidewalk, he saw his family, en masse, racing across the street in a loose cluster. They had no time to find cover. “On the ground!” he yelled.

Rick dropped to his knees and lowered Frank to the sidewalk. Pulling Kim down and against the wall of the building, he covered her with his body.

Suddenly the earth shook, shaking him back and forth as a massive concussive wave and flash of light swept out into the street. A blinding ball of hot air and flames followed, shooting out of the alley to his left and reaching halfway across the avenue.

The windows on the real-estate office a hundred feet away shattered, raining glass onto the sidewalk. Turning his head slightly, he could see the people he loved, facedown on the far side of the street beside the curb, arms over their heads.

A cascade of falling debris became an ear-shattering hailstorm of bricks and building materials. This went on for several seconds, then began to subside, overwhelmed by the roar and crackle of the resulting fire.

Rick rose to his feet, his mind racing. “You okay?” he asked Kim.

“My uncle... Where is his pulse?” She searched the area around his neck with a trembling hand.

“He’s breathing...he’s alive. Put pressure on the head wound and I’ll call an ambulance,” Rick said, turning his back to the wave of heat from the burning building less than twenty-five feet away.

“I called 9-1-1,” Preston said, coming up to him. He nodded at the older man on the sidewalk. “Let’s get him farther away from the fire in case there’s a secondary explosion.”

Together he and Rick carried Frank into the recessed doorway of the furniture store. “Did you get a good look around the kitchen?” Preston asked. “What happened in there?”

“It was no accident. The gas line was cut,” Rick answered. “I saw bolt cutters nearby. Somebody must have decked Frank, then cut the gas line and slipped out into the alley.”

Preston’s gaze swept over his brothers, their wives and the two waiters from the Brickhouse. They’d walked down the street several feet away from the fallen glass and stepped up onto the sidewalk as the first fire truck arrived. “Looks like we’re all okay, and that’s nothing short of a miracle,” he said.

“I’m used to being targeted,” Rick said, his voice reflecting the darkness inside him, “but the cartel I dealt with liked keeping things up close and personal. Cutting a gas line and hoping I’d be caught in an explosion just doesn’t fit their M.O. My enemies are a lot more direct and efficient.”

“Whoever it was didn’t just come after you. They came after all of us brothers, and that was a big mistake,” Daniel said, coming up beside them.

“Not necessarily,” Rick said. Years of undercover work for the FBI, fighting human trafficking, had taught him that control and clear thinking spelled the difference between life and death. Emotions only got in the way. “Others were there, too.”

“You mean they were after our wives?” Paul asked incredulously.

“More likely the restaurant staff,” Rick said. “If the doors hadn’t been blocked, another motive would have been to burn down the business so the owner could collect the insurance.”

His gaze drifted back to Kim, who was crouched by her uncle. The bleeding had slowed from what he could see.

“Kim, who’s the owner of the Brickhouse?” he asked, going over and placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“My uncle Frank is half owner,” she said, never taking her eyes off her uncle. “His business partner is Arthur Johnson, but Art would never think of burning down the place or hurting anyone, especially Frank. Those two have been good friends for years, and the Brickhouse has always made money for both of them. You guys are off base on this.”

“I’d have to agree with Kim. There’s no way this place is losing money. It’s always packed,” Preston said.

“Gene’s grabbed a big wrench from the toolbox in his pickup and he’s going to shut off the gas at the meter. That’ll help the firemen,” Daniel said.

“Meanwhile,” Preston suggested, “let’s focus on what we know. Because of the timing, the firebug must have blocked the front first before entering the kitchen from the alley.”

“If it was an inside job, it wasn’t done by anyone who escaped with us,” Rick concluded.

They heard the wail of an ambulance followed by the sirens of several police cruisers racing up Main Street. “Time for me to get to work,” Preston said. “If any of you come up with a motive or a suspect, let me know. Right now, I’ve got to help secure the scene.”

The big white rescue unit came up the street from the opposite direction, just ahead of a second fire truck. Preston stepped out into the street and motioned to the approaching vehicles.

Less than a minute later the firemen were working to suppress the fire. Two EMTs, having gathered their equipment, approached Frank, then crouched next to him.

Rick stood back with Daniel. “Frank’s probably our best witness and may have some of the answers. There’s a chance he saw the arsonist before he got clocked.”

“Preston will follow up,” Daniel said, “but there’s something I need to talk to you about. Is it possible that the man responsible for the scar on your face came back to try to finish the job?”

“No, he’s dead,” Rick said, “but some of the ones he worked for in the Mexican cartel avoided arrest. They’re still at large and fighting for control of what’s left of their criminal operation. You never really defeat that kind of evil.”

“Any chance you were followed home?”

Rick expelled his breath in a slow hiss. “To the U.S., then all the way to Hartley? My gut says no. They know I can’t work undercover anymore. I’ve been marked in a way that makes it impossible for me to hide my identity. More importantly, I’m no longer a threat to them, so there’s no profit in taking me out. I doubt they’d waste their resources.”

“All right then.” Daniel glanced at the debris strewed in every direction. “Taking on one of Hosteen Silver’s boys is a bad idea, but taking
all
of us on is nothing short of a death wish. Whoever he is, he’s going down.”

“No doubt about it,” Rick said. He looked over to where Kim stood watching the paramedics work. “I’m going to follow her to the hospital. I’d like to talk to her uncle as soon as he’s conscious.”

“Better wait for Preston. He’s the only one of us who still carries a badge, and this is his turf, not ours,” Daniel warned. “You know how he is about going by the book.”

Rick gave his brother a mirthless smile. “Good for him. I started out that way, but undercover—”

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