Six months after the mysterious yacht explosion that killed Cassie Christo’s mother and stepbrother, authorities still have no answers to the cause. Searching for closure, Cassie returns to her childhood home on the Pacific Coast of Baja, Mexico, where she launches her own investigation into the accident. She never expected to find an adversary in the man who had once touched her heart with kindness in her darkest moment.
Rio’s been fantasizing about reconnecting with Cassie for months. But not here and sure as hell not now. As an undercover agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he’s working the biggest sting operation in all of northern Mexico, and he definitely doesn’t have time for the wild attraction he feels for Cassie.
Not only is his cover on the line, so is his heart. Because as the end of a yearlong operation draws closer, Rio knows if he tells Cassie the truth about who and what he is, it won’t only jeopardize his mission, it may result in him losing her forever. And if he doesn’t, his lies and deception could get them both killed.
Read an Excerpt
Cassie Christo navigated the desolate stretch of northern Baja highway, surrounded by the darkest night she could ever remember.She should have waited until morning to make this drive, but God, that parole hearing at Ironwood State Prison… Cassie rocked her shoulders and shifted in her seat, but the pressure in her jaw, her neck, and her shoulders remained. So did the sight of Blake Sharpe in that Popsicle-orange jumpsuit.She’d needed to get away from that place. As far as possible. As fast as possible.
Cassie had crossed the US border into Tijuana before dusk. She had passed through the highway running between the Sierra de Juarez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean by twilight. But she still hadn’t made it to her destination by dark.
Now, the sea spread like spilled ink into the distance. The coal-black mountains loomed against a plum sky. Behind, nothing but darkness reflected in her rearview mirror. Ahead, nothing but asphalt shone within her headlights. And with each mile, the deepening isolation crept over her, making her skin feel tight and uncomfortable.
Her fingers flexed and released around the steering wheel. Her gaze darted toward the dark roadside. Her knee bounced. Mexico’s rising violent crime took center stage in her thoughts. All those malicious, unnecessary, brutal murders over territory. Over the need to control. It was all so senseless. So terrifying.
She lowered the window and inhaled the cool crisp sea breeze. The salty tang lay heavy on the back of her tongue. She tried to relax. It had already been one piss-perfect shitty day, and it was only half over. The worst was still to come.
Cassie turned her thoughts in the same direction she always did when fear or stress overwhelmed her—to the stranger she’d been thinking about since she’d last been home; the man who had stayed beside her during the funerals. She didn’t know his name. Didn’t even remember what he looked like. But she’d never forget how kind he’d been.
She didn’t experience true kindness often. As an emergency physician, Cassie received more curses than compliments. And since her attempted rape by Blake Sharpe years before, relationships had been difficult. When her mother and stepbrother died, the last real portal to her heart had closed.
Locating the man who’d supported her, extending a proper thank-you, would be, she hoped, one of the highlights of this trip. She held on to that now, just as she’d held on to what he’d given her in the cemetery—compassion, hope…something. Something she couldn’t name but that had kept her functioning in her darkest moments over the last several months. And it gave her something to look forward to now, because confronting her stepfather would be…testing. Trying. More taxing than even the most brutal month in the emergency room.
The bastard expected Cassie to ignore his use of estate funds to buy prostitutes? And bring them into her mother’s home? Cassie’s childhood home? Seriously?
She laughed out loud, the sound pleasantly wicked to her ears. She hoped the whores had been worth it, because that would be his last power play. His days of residence at the estate, where she’d been raised by her mother alone in blessed splendor, were numbered. In single digits.
The road swayed toward the ocean’s edge. Northbound lanes headed straight for her until the last minute, when the highway veered east with only a narrow strip of dirt separating the lanes.
In the distance, lights teased her eyes into that restricted center space. She looked away, then back, and refocused. The lights hadn’t moved. Her chest tightened. Another quarter mile closer and she saw a small moving van overturned on the divider strip.
Her tension morphed to resignation. “Shit.”
She eased off the gas, but suspicion had her studying the situation hard. Anywhere in the US, she wouldn’t hesitate to stop. Here in Baja, there was no telling who was involved in the accident. Or if it even was a true accident at all.
She assessed the scene as she passed. The wheels on the truck still spun; dust still whirled. Several people, looked like mostly women, wandered the site like haphazard zombies, but a few also lay on the ground.
Damn. It was real. And she was almost home. Another two miles and she’d be passing through Terra Del Mar’s security gates, just outside Ensenada. Damn, damn, damn.
Had they all been walking wounded, she could have coaxed her conscience into letting her pass with a quick call to emergency. Now, she had to stop. There was no other option. She clicked on the flashers. Her piss-perfect day had just turned piss-poor.
She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and braked hard, angling the BMW sport coupe onto the median south of the overturned van. Another dust cloud kicked up. Gravel pinged and scraped along the wheel wells.
She came to a complete stop and turned in her seat to survey the scene, murmuring, “What have we got?”
The truck lay on its side and at an angle to the freeway, its cargo door partially open. A light shone from within, but Cassie didn’t have a clear view inside. Three victims lay on the ground—one unmoving by the truck’s rear wheel, two more, writhing, ten feet from the first.
With the vehicles’ headlights shining in opposite directions, the scene hung in heavy shadow cast by weak moonlight and filtered side beams. Some of the victims huddled in groups of two or three; some sat on the ground beside the injured.
She reluctantly downshifted into doctor-mode.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
After popping the trunk, Cassie grabbed her cell and dialed emergency. She called in the accident, slipped her phone into one pocket of her shorts, and the pepper spray from her glove box into the other. She left her keys in the ignition…just in case she needed a quick exit.
She grabbed her medical bag and a Maglite from the trunk and started toward the victims. Even from twenty feet away, the heavy-duty flashlight’s beam illuminated the scene as if Cassie were standing over the injured. By the time she reached the group, she’d identified three head wounds and several likely broken bones.
“Hola.” She spoke to the group using her emergency room greeting, voice friendly but businesslike. The switch to Spanish was natural. These were her people. “Soy una doctora Americana. Estoy aquí para ayudarles.”
“What the fuck you doing?”
The bark of heavily accented English came from Cassie’s right. She stopped short, flash fire in her chest. She swiveled, the crunch of gravel beneath her heels loud, and hit the man with the Maglite’s beam. He had a big chest. And big arms hanging wide at his sides. And a big gun stuffed in the front of his jeans. Clean jeans. He definitely wasn’t one of the victims.
She fell back a step. Then another. Her heart thumped at her breastbone, an urgent warning, as if she didn’t already know she was screwed. So fucking screwed.
Her brain lit up like a circuit board, synapses exploding like firecrackers.
Her gaze darted toward her car. Too far. It was too far.
She took in the scene again: one truck, a dozen women, headed toward the US border.
This wasn’t any ordinary accident. She’d walked in on a human-smuggling deal. In the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere. Alone.
Shit. She shouldn’t have stopped. She knew she shouldn’t have stopped.
Cassie judged the distance to her car again. Still too damn far.
“I ask you what the fuck you doing.” His hard, sharp words stabbed at her like arrows. Cassie’s muscles contracted with each hit. The man stepped forward and leaned in, crowding her.
She looked at the man’s face for the first time. Middle-aged and rough. Acne-scarred skin, dark eyes, dark hair. Nondescript. Just plain old fucking scary.
“I’m a doctor.” That had sounded confident enough, but what now? She licked her lips. Took in air. Forced the next words forward. “I called for help. An ambulance and the police. They’re coming.” She gestured to the group. “Is this everyone? Are there any more victims?”
Behind him, a wail escalated to a high-pitched keening. The man swung around, a rigid arm outstretched, and pointed at a girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen. “Cállate perra o te voy a matar.”
Another woman gathered the distraught girl into her arms, muffling her cries, and Cassie repeated his words in her head, sure she’d heard him wrong. But she hadn’t; he’d just threatened to kill the girl.
A double dose of emotion shot straight into her veins—fury and fear.
Cassie had to show strength and guts. Any hint of weakness and she’d find herself in a stateside brothel by morning. But she also had to hold her temper. If she crossed the line, he could kill them all.
“Step back.” She kept her voice level but direct. “I need room to work.”
He cut a cold, challenging gaze back to her and took a marginal step out of her way. “If you here to fix them, do it.”
Cassie’s heart pounded so hard her ribs felt bruised. But she was in it waist-deep now, with no way out. She only had to hold tight until emergency service arrived, but in this remote area, that could take up to an hour.
She sidestepped the smuggler and flicked her flashlight over the older woman on the ground. From the size of the bloodstain beneath her head and shoulders, Cassie had little hope.
A younger woman bent over the victim, stroking the blood-matted hair from her face. “Despierta, Tia Rosa. Despierta. Por favor respondeme.”
She knelt next to the victim’s niece, who begged her aunt to wake up and talk to her. Something bit into Cassie’s knee—gravel, glass, metal—she didn’t know. She pulled on gloves and pressed two fingers against the woman’s carotid artery—and found a pulse. A little zing of shock traveled up her arm. The beat was weak and erratic, but the woman was still alive. Thoughts clicked through Cassie’s brain, fast, haphazard. How could she keep the woman alive with so much blood loss? What would her quality of life be even if she could be saved? How far out was that ambulance?
She spread her fingers and gently inched both hands over the woman’s head, starting at the front and working back. Just past the ears, bone gave beneath Cassie’s easy pressure. The softness and warmth of brain tissue surrounded her fingers. Cassie’s stomach plummeted. Twisted and revolted.
She pulled her hands away, rocked back on her heels into a crouch, and stared at the ground. Swallowed back the bile. Breathed. Swallowed. Breathed.
Don’t think. Just work.
She was about to push to her feet, then remembered the niece.
Cassie checked the older woman for a pulse again. Nothing this time. She took a deep drag of the cool night air, repositioned her fingers. Concentrated. Nothing.
A shallow numbness spread over Cassie’s body. Familiar. Not completely unwelcome. To witness how quickly life could slip away, day in and day out, as she did, Cassie needed that filter to keep her sane. Or mostly sane. If she was completely sane, she wouldn’t be kneeling in the dirt on the side of a deserted Mexican highway in the middle of the freaking night.
She was grateful for that distance now when she met the niece’s light brown gaze, prepared to smash the hope shining there.
“Lo siento, señorita.” She softened her voice to the tone she wished someone had used when they’d informed her of her mother’s and stepbrother’s deaths. “Lo siento pero ella está muerta.”
“No!” The niece fell onto her aunt’s chest, sobbing.
The poor girl’s anguish stirred Cassie’s pain. Pain she’d buried—the grief, the loss, the abandonment. Pain she would have to face again when she reached the estate. That thought in the midst of this visceral tragedy tore at the fragile barriers between her broken pieces as emergency physician, victim, and orphan.
But she couldn’t let those walls fail. She couldn’t practice emergency medicine if she was unable to separate herself from a victim’s trauma. She wouldn’t be an efficient physician if her mind was distracted with fear for the family of a patient in distress. Her boss had been right to put her on leave. She definitely needed to get her head on straight.
Cassie pushed to her feet and pulled off her gloves. An older woman broke from a group nearby and pulled the niece close. The girl went boneless in the woman’s arms, and a deeper level of pain echoed through her cries. And, God help her, Cassie’s entire body tugged and twisted with empathy.
Cassie caught her mind right on the edge of slipping out from under her. She sucked in air. Forced herself to think.
Holy hell, she was a mess. She had the other victims to help. The ambulance would be here by the time she’d done a prelim on the injured; then she could escape.
She dropped the gloves and grabbed the Maglite. Cassie turned toward the other victims but found them moving on their own. A siren drifted on the air. Yes! Escaping just became priority number one.
She scanned shadows for the smuggler and set a determined pace toward her car. The flashlight beam melted across the side of the truck, the partially open cargo door, the ground, the…
A fist of ice jabbed her stomach. Cassie jerked the light backward, over the ground, across the open cargo door, and stopped…on the arm hanging out.
A very urgent voice in her head screamed No! But her feet turned, and her body headed for the cargo bay.
A meaty hand closed around her arm. Fingers dug into muscle. And pulled. She jerked sideways. Her shoulder popped. The flashlight fell out of her hand, and pain shot deep into her shoulder, down her arm, up her neck. Not horrible pain. But bad. Bad enough to scare all the heat from her blood. Bad enough to spit spikes of rage down her spine. Bad enough to rip down those damaged walls and shatter her sanity.
She pulled against his hold. “Don’t fucking touch—” Her gaze dropped to a tattoo on his forearm, an old cross wrapped in thorns. The same image her stepbrother had inked on his shoulder. Right before the explosion.
“They’re dead.” His response came in that dark bite, making Cassie flinch, but she didn’t back down.
“I’m the doctor”—asshole—“I’ll decide.”
She yanked from his grasp and turned, tucking the sight of that tattoo away for later. His hand landed on her shoulder. The one he’d nearly dislocated. Pain skewered her arm. Rage clenched her muscles. She ducked from his grasp, gripped the handle of her Maglite, prepared to strike.
“Leave her.” The deep voice—a new voice—came from the shadows alongside the overturned truck.
Cassie’s heart stopped beating. One extra-long pause. The blood pounding in her ears went silent. Then her heartbeat popped a double tap and picked up a quick rhythm. Her hands fumbled with the flashlight. Finally, she aimed it in the direction of the voice. A second man lurked nearby in the shadows.
She reached for the canister in her pocket. The siren grew louder. “That’s emergency. And the police. They’re coming too.”
“We also called them, señorita.” The Lurker’s voice was just as deep, just as raspy as the other smuggler’s, but delivered so easily Cassie felt like a ruffled bird having its feathers smoothed. “But thank you for your help. Pedro,” he said to the first smuggler, who dug those sausage-like fingers into her biceps again. “Leave. Her.”
The first ambulance pulled onto the scene in a swirl of dust. Gyrating red lights illuminated the night and cast orange blurs on the mountainside to the east. The headlights illuminated a scene far more devastating in the light. Two young attendants pulled equipment from their van.
The smuggler shoved Cassie’s arm away. Her stomach whipped, a whirlpool of acid. They were just going to let her go? Let emergency personnel tend the injured?
A dark film of realization slid through Cassie’s brain, and her developing suspicion was confirmed by the smugglers’ acceptance of the EMTs’ services. They were going to salvage the women they could and go ahead with the sale. All without any fear of discovery, because the majority of the Mexican police department was as corrupt and unethical as the American health insurance industry.
That was a problem centuries in the making. She’d done her part. Help had arrived. She was out of here. There was more than one way to skin a smuggler.
The two men watched the EMTs work among the victims. While their attention was diverted, Cassie pulled her phone from her pocket and turned on the video camera. Walking backward, she held her medical bag close for cover and secretly filmed the scene on her way to the car.
The first, threatening smuggler turned toward her. “’Ey. You!”
Adrenaline surged and made her heart skip. Made her think quicker, move faster. She shoved her phone into her pocket and ran for the car. Footsteps grated on the sandy dirt behind her. She let the strap of her bag slide off her shoulder and wrap around her hand. One solid strike in the head with this Maglite and that bastard would go down.
“What you doing? Get back here—”
“Pedro, don’t,” Lurker called from farther away, his voice harsh and impatient. “Pedro!”
Listen to him, dickhead. Listen to him.
Cassie propelled herself into the driver’s seat, hit the door locks, and reached for the keys hanging in the ignition.
Bang, bang sounded on her trunk.
Cassie jumped. Her fingers slipped off the keys.
Thump, thump. The smuggler pulled her door handle. It was locked.
His ugly face crunched and distorted with fury, his curses muffled behind the glass.
She reached for the keys again. Fumbled.
Pound, pound. The smuggler hammered her window with his fist. Then pulled the gun from his pants.
Terror burned up her chest. She gripped the keys. Twisted. The engine rumbled.
Clank, clank. Cassie jerked at the sharp sound. The crack of glass. She ducked. Gaze darted to the window. The smuggler hammered again with the butt of his gun. Clank, clank. Not a bullet. Not yet.
Cassie jammed the transmission into drive. Fishtailed onto the asphalt. The tires grabbed and the car shot forward. She had the gas pedal floored, the speedometer passing ninety miles per hour before she noticed.
Mind racing, heart hammering, Cassie strangled the steering wheel and eased her foot off the gas until she’d slowed to a more reasonable sixty-five then set her cruise control.
She shook—hands, shoulders, legs. Every breath rattled her chest. “Jesus.”
She swallowed. Pressed her hand to her forehead. Her mouth. Her chest. Let out a whimper. She rocked deeper into her leather seat and concentrated on breathing. That helped her from reliving all that could have gone wrong out there. All that nearly went wrong out there. So damn wrong.
Breathe in, breathe out. Focus.
Within seconds, her emotional defenses kicked in, and she smothered her terror with anger. Ridiculous, irrational anger. She glanced at her side window where a starburst with craggy arms reached outward. And all she could think was how it could have been in her skull. “That bastard.”
Cassie dragged her phone from her pocket and dialed 9-1-1 emergency this time, not the Mexican emergency number she’d called for the accident.
“Nine-one-one, what is the nature of your emergency?”
“This is Doctor Cassie Christo of UCSD Medical Center.” She hated leveraging her title but knew her call would be considered a prank in this situation if she didn’t. “I’m traveling south on Mexican Highway One and came upon an accident. Before you tell me to call Mexican emergency services, hear me out.”
She described the situation, the injured, the smugglers, the truck, and asked that Immigration and Customs Enforcement be alerted that the group planned to continue toward the border.
That last part was only a tiny lie. And she told it only because she believed it and because she knew the threat would ensure law enforcement’s attention. CYA—covering your ass—certainly wasn’t exclusive to the medical profession.
Once she hung up, her anger ebbed, but the fear remained. She kept a close watch in her rearview mirror. Only minutes passed before she’d reached the estate. When no lights appeared behind her, Cassie took the turn, eased up to the security gates, and stopped. She reached into the glove compartment, pushed the remote, and the ornate iron gates parted slowly.
The sight had always reminded Cassie of her mother’s arms opening to welcome her home. That hit her hard now. A pointed, powerful, painful shot straight to the heart.
She sat there even after the gates were fully open. Caught. She couldn’t bear to move forward. She couldn’t force time backward.
“God.” She clenched her teeth to keep the tears back. “This is so…wrong.”
On a deep breath, Cassie started up the palm-lined driveway, struggling for equilibrium. She couldn’t face Saul with any weakness showing.
Her pulse had slowed, but that devastating sense of loss remained. The road’s slight grade gave way to the estate’s roof peaks. Then the high taupe walls came into view, where exterior lights highlighted the rough surface. Stone walkways edged with miniature lights wove through flourishing gardens. Waves swooshed on the nearby shore. The estate was only a mile outside the city of Ensenada, but Terra del Mar’s tranquility had always made the urban chaos and crime seem much, much farther away.
Sweet nostalgia nearly choked her by the time she’d parked in front of the five-car garage. Her heart had descended into her stomach, and tears not only welled in her eyes but expanded in her chest.
Her trauma at the accident scene seemed trivial compared to the pummeling grief she now had to face. Her mother wouldn’t greet Cassie at the door of their home with that beaming smile. Her stepbrother wouldn’t sit up until the early morning hours, begging Cassie for just one more story from the ER.
She pressed a fist to the base of her neck, where her pulse rocked beneath. God, how did she do this? How did she learn to live without them?
She thought of the man from the funerals again. The strength of his arms. The sureness in his voice. And sighed. That gave Cassie enough stability to collect her bags from the trunk.
At the back of her car, she purposely turned her mind away from the night’s drama and back to her immediate future. To collecting evidence on Saul and evicting him. An involuntary shiver rippled her skin. Not even one foot in the house and she already felt greasy. Saul was already under her skin.
She grabbed an old Padres baseball cap from the trunk where it was partly wedged under the spare tire and pulled it on. She figured it was only fair she and Saul start the night off even.
On the porch, she took a moment to caress the deep patterns of the beautifully hand-carved wooden door, gathering strength from her mother’s memory before she passed through the entry and stepped into the foyer.
Her running shoes squeaked on the marble. She paused. Took in the house. The feel of it. The smell of it. The sound of it.
Empty. Disinfected. Silent.
So damn silent.
Her eyes closed. Chest squeezed. The warmth and personality had vanished. The scents of lilac and jasmine had disappeared. The music and laughter were gone.
The house was hollow. Barren.
Or maybe that emptiness lived inside her. She couldn’t tell the difference.
“What the hell happened?”
The deep voice cracked through the hush and ripped Cassie’s eyes open. A male voice filled with authority and anger.
A voice she didn’t know.