Authors: Kori David
He reached out to hold her hand. It made him feel good that she automatically laced her fingers with his. “Zach has Beth in a safe place and did you get a look at him? He was having fun and it was a good tension release for him. He’s been so worried about the delivery that he’s been growling and snapping at everyone. Now he gets to kick some ass and relieve that stress.”
“But he can still be hurt.”
“Nah. He’s a Marine and one of the most indestructible guys I know.”
Lily shook her head but she gifted him with a small smile. “Neither one of you are Marines anymore. You’re merely civilians.”
“I should wash your mouth out with soap, woman. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
“I can pay for any damages your house sustained.”
Jesse glanced over at her. The moonlight illuminated her elven features and made her green eyes dark and mysterious. She was earnest, but he didn’t want her money. He wanted her to trust him with whatever was going on. He hadn’t pressed her, but he wasn’t stupid either. And even though he’d let her distract him before, he wanted some answers. He couldn’t fight the enemy without good intel.
“What I want is for you to tell me what’s really going on.”
“I don’t want to involve you.”
Lily could see that it was the wrong thing to say. It even felt wrong. He was already involved and had saved her life several times in the last twenty-four hours. Jesse hadn’t even yelled at her about any of it, and she certainly deserved it. Not only was he in danger, but his friends could get hurt too.
“I really think you should drop me off in Phoenix and just leave me there. I can figure out my next move then,” she said.
“You’d be dead within the hour.”
“Then I wouldn’t stay that long, or you can take me to the airport. I can fly home and sort this out.”
He shot her an incredulous look. “Are you being naïve or purposely stupid?”
That stung, especially after their intimate moment, but he was right. She was being mule-headed, but it was only to protect him from her problems. The truth was she had no idea what to do next. Her only thought was to get home and give all her information to the authorities.
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. This whole situation was going to drive her to drink heavily. “You’re right. I am being a little naïve.”
“Why don’t you start with what is really going on. Try and trust me to help you.”
“But I do trust you. You’ve done nothing but help.”
He shifted in his seat and watched the road. There were only a couple other vehicles on the highway with them. His phone buzzed and he stared at the screen a moment and said, “The bad guys are on the road again.”
He nodded. “That’s my guess.”
“I have a tracking device on me somewhere, don’t I?”
There was a tic in his jaw that she became fascinated with. “Where?”
“Were you injected with anything at any point during your abduction?”
She really thought about it. She’d been conscious for pretty much everything except at the very beginning when they’d attacked her outside the hotel room. But even then, she’d only been stunned and unable to fight them.
“No, and I’m reasonably sure about that. I was awake the whole time. Besides, isn’t that pretty high-tech stuff? The guys that grabbed me acted like street thugs.”
“I agree, but I thought I’d ask. It’s in your leather satchel, then. It’s the only thing you’ve had with you the entire time.”
“I can’t get rid of it.”
“I don’t want you to. At least not until we get to Phoenix. I want those assholes as far away from Zach and Beth as we can get them. I want them focused on that tracking device.”
“Can we find it and disable it?”
“I’ll call one of my friends and have him meet us somewhere. He’s got some equipment that will locate it and we’ll make sure it’s destroyed.”
She settled herself more comfortably in the seat. It was going to be another long ride. Seemed like she hadn’t been still in the last six months. Between assignments, she’d been doing a bit of investigative journalism. She had a need to prove herself as more than just a little rich girl. She wanted to prove that she was good at something. To her mother and to herself.
She snuck a peek over at her silent companion.
Jesse sat, partially slouched, one hand on the wheel and the other relaxed against his leg. Those hard, calloused hands had been tender as they’d held her…stroked her. And he was patiently waiting for her to tell him what she’d been doing. And why her life was in danger.
It wasn’t easy.
“Six months ago I was in Tucson for Arizona Highways magazine, shooting a local festival. I was just taking shots of the crowds and the surrounding buildings. There wasn’t anything unusual about the day.” She sighed. “It wasn’t until I started developing the pictures, three days later, that I saw something suspicious.”
“What was that?”
“It was an exchange. At first I thought it was drugs or something so I threw the picture in the discard pile and didn’t look at it again until the next week. But something about that shot bothered me. Maybe it was the body language or the expressions, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
“You recognized someone in the exchange?”
She nodded. It was like he could read her mind. “Yes, but at first I couldn’t remember from where. It was a bit of a puzzle for a couple more days. One of those things that's right at the edge of your consciousness. And then it came to me. He was at one of my mother’s political rallies several years ago. When she made her first bid for Governor.”
She remembered him because he’d been in a military uniform, standing erect and formal with a group of her mother’s supporters. Then he and her stepfather had excused themselves into the study, only to remain there for hours. The only reason Lily had even been there was because she’d been in town for a visit and her mother expected her to “make an appearance” as a proper daughter should.
“I did some digging and found out that he’s a one-star Army General. His name is Alton Maddox and he runs the Army base outside of Sweet Hill, and became one of my mother’s supporters when she lobbied to save the base from being closed down.”
“So who was he meeting in Tucson?”
“Who is Ramon Garcia?”
Lily grimaced. Just saying his name was scary, the rest was downright terrifying. “He’s the Huerta drug cartel’s enforcer.”
Jesse glanced at her but didn’t look surprised.
“You already knew that.”
“About which cartel was involved, yes. Zach looked into it and found out they basically own everything in the town you were held in. How did you find out about this Ramon?”
“I’ve made some interesting friends over the years. I showed a couple of people a copy of the picture with the General cut out. And the one that gave me the information looked like he was going to shake out of his boots when he saw the picture.”
“Well, then Ramon is likely involved if he’s an enforcer. I really hate dealing with psychopaths.”
Lily snorted. “You sound like you have experience.”
“There are only three kinds of people that join the military.” He held up his index finger. “The screw-up that is avoiding jail and wants to blow shit up.” A second finger went up. “The kid who wants to do his mandatory time and get college paid for.” Then he paused.
“And the third kind of person?”
His knuckles tensed on the steering wheel. “The third type of person is there to kill people. Men, women, children—it doesn’t matter. And they’re smart enough to do it legally. Sanctioned by the U.S. Government. From what Zach found out, this cartel specializes in torture and murder. Heavy emphasis on the torture. I’ve had my share of run-ins with the third kind.”
Lily was curious enough to want details, but smart enough to recognize a conversation thread that was off limits. Instead she sought to lighten the mood. “And did you get to blow stuff up?”
That pulled a reluctant smile out of him. “Damn straight.”
Jesse parked at a rest stop surrounded by desert just north of Phoenix. The bright lights of the city glowed in the distance. He hadn’t wanted to give whoever was chasing them any indication of where they were headed, so he’d had Mike Hansen rendezvous with him outside the city. “Little” Mike Hansen might have been shorter than Jesse, but he was one of those naturally muscled guys. Put him in a suit and he looked like a mafia thug or a nightclub bouncer.
He certainly didn’t look like a sergeant with the police department. “So what’s your next step?” Mike asked.
“Find a decent motel and get some sleep,” Jesse said. He’d left Lily deeply asleep in the front seat of the truck. He didn’t have the heart to wake her up until he could offer them both a bed to sleep in.
“You look worse than you did during that Op in Baghdad.”
Jesse chuckled and leaned on the tailgate while he watched Mike. “I was only tired because I had to pull your wounded ass out of that mess.” “Earning a purple heart and a first class chew-out by the CO in the process.”
“Our Commanding Officer,” he said with a snarl, “was a fucking retard.”
Mike shook his head while he set up his equipment and began going over Lily’s leather satchel, one square inch at a time. “Outlaw Jesse James. How many times did you lose rank because of your mouth?”
“He’s lucky I didn’t break his neck for almost getting us killed.”
“Yeah, well, my whole company is lucky to be alive thanks to your problem with authority.”
Jesse slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Pulling you out of bed in the middle of the night to chase down some bugs is payback, buddy.”
The wand beeped and Mike dug into the black lining of the case with a pocket knife to pull out a silver disc no bigger than the size of a small battery. “And here it is. The rest of the case is clear.”
The camera was large and looked expensive, albeit well used. Mike had five different lenses and extenders pulled out as he swept all the surfaces with his wand. “Camera is clear as well,” he said, pocketing the tracking device.
“What are you going to do with it?” Jesse asked.
Mike grinned while he continued putting Lily’s equipment back in place. “I’m going to put it in the middle of the main police station and see if they’re dumb enough to come and get it.”
“Now that’s something I would love to see.”
Mike pulled out a different disc from a small leather pouch he’d set to the side and held out his hand. This one was even smaller than the one he’d already removed. “Are you sure you want me to do this?”
Jesse nodded. “She’s in serious danger and she’s not telling me everything. I have a feeling she’s going to cut and run in some noble attempt to save me from myself. I need to be able to find her quickly when she does.”
He watched Mike’s eyes widen. “She has no idea who you are, does she?”
Jesse shrugged. “She knows who I was and she knows what I do now. That’s all that matters.”
“Jesus, Jess. Maybe if she knew more she wouldn’t run off on you.”
“She still would. I think she’s trying to prove something to herself. Besides, no one wants to hear old war stories." Jesse nudged him. “Unless you can use them to woo the ladies.”
“Shut up, Outlaw.”
“You just haven’t met the right girl yet, Mike.” Jesse laughed.
He rolled his eyes. “There’s no such thing, my friend. I’m only interested in Mrs. Right Now.”
“Spoken like a true coward.”
Mike grinned and shrugged. “All right, I put your bug on her camera, that way if the case gets damaged or left behind, she’ll still have it on her.”
Mike handed him the receiver, which was smaller than a cell phone. “This has the best range available, but if she gets airborne you’ll lose the signal until you're close again.”
“Good luck. Call me if you need anything else.”
“Will do. Thanks, Mike, now I owe you.”
“Bullshit. Just don’t get dead.”
Jesse watched him drive away then climbed back behind the wheel. Lily hadn’t moved once during the stop. He glanced over at her as he pulled out of the parking area. He hoped he was wrong and that she stayed with him so that he could protect her long enough to figure this out.
And he wanted her. Not just her body, he wanted her.
He finally admitted it to himself. Maybe it was watching his best friend, Zach, fall in love, or maybe it was just timing, but he’d been aware of something missing in his life for a while now.
And when she’d thrown herself into his arms after he’d rescued her, all those half-formed feelings he’d had for her as a kid coalesced into a tidal wave of need.
If she’d have him, he was all hers.
The motel was clean, if nondescript. It was a chain that promised a soft queen-size bed and complimentary continental breakfast. After sleeping strapped to a chair, in a cave, a helicopter, and finally off and on in the SUV, Lily thought the motel looked like a haven. Jesse had assured her that the bug in her case had been dealt with, so they’d be able to sleep without worry this time.