Jeff Duncan trotted his black gelding through the sprawling
valley between his grandfather’s ranch and the El Diablo mine. There weren’t
too many things that could top a horseback ride on a cool desert morning. And
certainly nothing much that could rival the glory of a desert sunrise after a
day of gentle winter rain. Too bad he was about to ruin it all in a
confrontation with his boss.
He nudged Thor to a canter, anxious to top the saddleback
dip between the low mountain ridges. A well-worn path led the way. He wasn’t
the first Duncan drawn here, definitely not the first human. The place was rich
Jeff topped the small ridge and eased Thor to a halt scant
seconds before the sun peeked above the horizon. The edges of low clouds in the
distance shimmered with molten gold. Midnight blues lightened, skipping all the
spectrums of the prism to leap right to pink and gold, as if the sun couldn’t
wait to start the day. Then the fiery ball inched higher, shooing what remained
of the night until all that was left was a beautiful blue sky.
He shifted his gaze to the shimmering lake bed below. With
the recent rain, water skimmed the surface of the formerly dry lake. A
hard-packed road ran around the perimeter, but some fool had ignored it looking
for a short-cut or cheap thrills by cutting across. A hint of vehicle tracks
gouged in the fragile surface thrust in parallel lines above the water. By late
spring the water would all be gone. The tire tracks would mar the lake bed for
years to come. Scars on the desert landscape weren’t easy to erase.
Jeff shut the disfigurement out of his mind. He could easily
see how it had been tens of thousands of years ago, when the area had swarmed
with Native American tribes. This was their home. The place was rich with
artifacts, an archaeologist’s dream. Thankfully, the Bureau of Land Management
had quickly recognized that fact and protected the area. It was now adjacent to
the vast Joshua Tree National Park.
The sun scattered the last of night’s shadows. Some of
Jeff’s peace drifted away with them.
He’d shifted through the mound of evidence collected from
the previous month’s drug bust at least a hundred times. Despite the haul, his
boss insisted it was a small part of an even bigger puzzle. Frankly, Jeff
couldn’t see where Ray Culverson got that idea. He’d sat for hours memorizing
each statement and the tidbits of detail they provided. Then he’d poked in the
brown contacts to cover his bright blue eyes, and crawled into the underbelly
of the drug world to try to find more clues. So far…nothing. And that left him
testy, to say the least. That seemed to be happening with far too much
The longer he did this job, the more reclusive he became. He
could barely live with himself under these circumstances; he sure wasn’t going
to inflict his bad mood on friends and family. Thankfully, they understood.
Jeff wished he could.
It didn’t used to bother him, but years of undercover
assignments, coupled with the Christmas just past, had left him unsettled.
Seeing his brothers with their wives and kids, then learning his cousin Kurt
was getting married, made Jeff really open his eyes and wonder where his life
was headed. The only real friends he had were those he worked with, and they
didn’t associate outside the job. Girlfriends were nonexistent. In fact, he
hadn’t had a girlfriend in…
Jeff frowned. Hell, he hadn’t had a girlfriend since before
he started with the DEA. It can’t have
been that long! The more he thought about it, the more he realized it was
true. Oh, he’d had his share of women, but no permanent relationship and none
he wanted. His job was his sole focus. He thought he was satisfied…until this
last family visit. For the first time in ten years, Jeff found himself resenting
the drain of time and energy his job took, not to mention the danger. It was
fine when he was younger and considered himself immortal. Now…well, he’d seen
too many co-workers killed.
It had taken him a month to realize he needed to make some
changes. A month spent chasing clues that led nowhere, except to more
frustration. Then it took another week to get Ray to meet with him about it.
Jeff knew Ray wouldn’t be happy about his decision. The man would probably try
to talk him into doing one more job. Jeff was willing, but that was it, and
he’d be firm about that. He’d seen Ray one-more-job agents into retirement…some
What Jeff wasn’t prepared for was giving Ray an alternative
to his present undercover work. He didn’t want to leave DEA behind, just the
undercover assignments. But the thought of sitting behind a desk drove him
nuts. Jeff liked to be out and active. Training might be an alternative, but
he’d be away from his family again. After all these years of traveling, Jeff
really wanted to be closer, not farther away.
It was only by sheer luck that he’d wound up in California.
But that good fortune was interwoven with the need to see his family was
protected. He’d had to be extra careful on what little off-duty time he had.
Thank God for his grandfather’s horse ranch.
Jeff smiled. The Sims’ ranch was in an isolated high valley
just east of Twentynine Palms. The only neighbor was Ned O’Connor, a half mile
away across the valley. As a kid, Jeff had thought this place was paradise. As
an adult, he knew it was. There was nowhere else on earth Jeff felt safer.
Obviously, Ray felt that way as well, since he’d chosen this location for their
Jeff had to admit he got some degree of pleasure from the
fact that the rain had forced Ray to hike in. The man had originally decided to
land a small plane on the dry lake. The thought of more damage to the fragile
surface had irked Jeff. Who knew what would be destroyed because of it? Arguing
was fruitless. Ray’s mind was made up—in and out. With the rainstorm, Jeff had
laughed out loud. That had begged the question from Gramps about what was so
funny. How could he respond without divulging too much? So he’d just shrugged,
shutting out family members as he’d had to do so many times in the past. They
knew what he did for a living and were used to it. It was Jeff who had grown to
hate his vague responses—it further cemented his isolation.
Thor shifted from hoof to hoof. Jeff patted the horse’s
neck. “I know, big guy. We’ll finish our ride in a few minutes.”
It had become their morning ritual since Christmas. Jeff
hated to miss it as much as the horse did. Unfortunately, time was running out.
Even if he did manage to convince Ray to move him to other work, he’d still
have to do one more job that would force him to leave the ranch.
He scanned the desert floor for some sign of Ray’s arrival.
An old dirt road entered the area from the west and skirted the lake. A
four-wheel drive could easily get Ray in. Just as Jeff was thinking that, he
heard a small plane approach.
“Please tell me that’s not Ray.”
Thor nickered in response.
Jeff pondered the sanity of any pilot stupid enough to try
landing as he watched the single-engine plane near. It was only when he noticed
the side hatch open that he realized Ray’s intent. Sure enough, someone leaped
into the air. Seconds later a parachute opened.
“Ten guesses who that is.” He continued to rub Thor’s neck,
assuring him all was well.
Ray had always had a flair for the dramatic. Jeff hoped he
landed in the middle of the lake and had to slog his way out. But his aim was
as precise as everything else the man did. He hit dry earth barely one hundred
yards from where Jeff waited, then reeled in the chute hand over hand.
Jeff swung from the saddle and left the reins to dangle on
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll run away?” Ray asked as he walked
“Nope…long as those reins are dragging the ground, Thor will
stay put.” He tucked his fingertips in the front pockets of his jeans. “Do you
plan to beam yourself back to the plane?”
Ray yanked off his helmet and dusted his fingers through his
silver-gray hair. “Something like that.” He smiled. “You know there’s a big
oasis on the other side of that ridge?”
Jeff glanced in the direction of his nod. “No, I didn’t.
It’s part of the El Diablo mine claim. The only access is through the mine, and
Ned O’Connor would never allow anyone inside. Said it was too dangerous.
Considering some of these old mines around here, I’d have to agree. None are
Ray nodded, then shifted into business mode. His own
demeanor changed from light-hearted and upbeat to down-to-earth serious.
Jeff didn’t give him a chance to speak first. “I’m done,
“I had a feeling that’s what was on your mind.” He stuffed
the parachute into his knapsack. “Well, you had a good run. This ketamine bust
you helped with on the base was top notch.”
Jeff waited. Ray was being too agreeable. It wasn’t like
him. He expected every agent to want to jump into the fray each time as he did.
Here it comes.
“Just as I suspected, it’s a bigger bust than we expected.
And a much bigger target.”
When Jeff still didn’t respond, Ray cocked his head. “What
can you tell me about Megan O’Connor?”
Ray could have plowed his fist into Jeff’s gut and it would
have had less impact.
He snorted. “There’s no way you will ever convince me Megan
O’Connor is involved in drug trafficking.”
“Didn’t say she was.” He spotted a smooth outcropping of
rock and sat down. “Just asked what you could tell me about her.”
Jeff stayed where he was, never once taking his eyes off his
boss. “You already know or you wouldn’t be asking me.”
He shrugged. “Just want to hear your thoughts.”
“Uh-huh, sure.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Her
uncle owns the El Diablo Mine. He’s actually her father’s uncle. Ned’s lived
here just about as long as my grandfather. They’ve been friends all that time.”
“And I understand the families are close.”
“Very. As kids we used to play together. When my brother got
his law degree, Pete O’Connor hired him. Adam’s now a partner, as is Megan’s
brother, Michael. I haven’t seen or kept in touch with Megan or her brother in
Ray flicked his hand in the air. “Michael O’Connor’s of no
interest to us.”
Yet apparently interesting enough to have checked him out
and dismissed him as of no consequence. “But Megan is? May I ask why?”
He nonchalantly brushed the sand off his jeans as he stood.
“Need to know only. Since you’re leaving this particular field—”
“Cut the crap, Ray.”
A hint of a smile flickered over his lips. Ray did like his games.
Jeff didn’t feel like playing.
“Are you in or out?” he asked.
“All depends on what ‘in’ means,” Jeff replied.
Ray did smile this time, broadly. “Just one more job.”
And there it was. At least Ray hadn’t lost his
predictability. Jeff’s smirk lifted one corner of his mouth. “I thought you’d
“But wasn’t the build-up worth it?” he said with a chuckle.
“Orgasmic, Ray,” he shot back. “So…what’s up?”
Serious once more, Ray resumed his spot on the rock. This
time Jeff joined him.
“There’s more involved here than ketamine. A little digging
uncovered a surprising link. We’re talking big money here—a hotline from
Columbia to the United States. All apparently processed through one
That made his eyebrows shoot up. “Are you crazy?” Jeff
laughed. “Vinnie Devlin is one of the most influential men in Southern
“Not to mention well on his way to being one of the
richest,” Ray added. “I was shocked as well.”
“I doubt that. Not much shocks you anymore.”
He gave a single nod. “True. But evidence is starting to
point right at him. And I’ve looked at it from all possible angles.”
“So pick him up.”
Ray tossed a rock. It plunked into the shallow lake, sending
ripples across it. “This is risky. If it’s as big as we think… I’d just like to
get a little more information, hopefully from inside.”
“And how does Megan fit into all this?”
Another rock followed the first. This one skipped over the
surface. “She’s an artist. A very good one from what I understand.”
“That’s what I’ve been told.” Jeff hadn’t seen any of
Megan’s work lately, but his family couldn’t say enough great things about it.
“Devlin fancies himself a recent patron of the arts. I
understand he’s been taken with her work and decided to open a gallery with her
paintings prominently featured. The grand opening is about a week away and will
be held in conjunction with a fund raiser. The proceeds will be distributed
locally to charities.”
“And you’re going to ask Megan to use his patronage to your
“No.” Ray swiveled his head Jeff’s way, nailing him in place
with a dark-eyed stare. “You are.”
He tossed his head back on a humorless chuckle. “I am not asking an untrained civilian to go
“You won’t have to,” Ray quickly replied. “You’ll go in with
her. Establish a relationship of some kind—romantic, business, brother/sister,
I don’t care. Just something, anything that’ll get you in that house.”
Now that might work. There was just one thing that bothered
Jeff. “I won’t lie to Megan.”
Ray’s gaze didn’t waver. “I wouldn’t ask you to. She needs
to know exactly what’s going on and the risks involved. I could have another
agent do it, but I thought the long-standing relationship between your families
would make her more comfortable.”
Who did Ray think he was kidding? “What you mean to say is
you knew I wouldn’t say no under these circumstances.”
The other man tilted a nod his way. “Whatever works to my
That was always the bottom line for Ray.
“All right. I’d offer to contact her parents for her address
and number, but somehow I suspect you already have that on you.”
His smile gleamed as he unzipped a side pouch in his
knapsack. Seconds later he pulled out a small slip of paper and handed it to
Jeff. “Here you go. She’s living in Palm Springs.”
“I knew that.” He snapped the paper from Ray’s fingers.
“Did you?” Ray’s eyebrows lifted in question.
“Yes.” Just not her exact location. On those rare occasions
when he was with his family, they mostly caught up on each other. Over the
years, he’d been told snippets of what was going on in the O’Connors’ lives,
but nothing too detailed—which was probably best, all things considered. If
he’d known where Megan was, there might have been more than a time or two he
wouldn’t have stayed away. The lure would have been too much. He wouldn’t have
thought about how he’d be exposing her to danger by going to her, being with
her. Wanting her, needing her, feeling her naked body twined with his in
passion would have superseded logic.
“Any history I need to know about the two of you?”
Jeff laughed and shoved the paper in the pocket of his jeans
as he stood. “Only one kiss when we were teenagers.” A hell of a kiss that
still left him wanting more, even after all these years.
Her mother had freaked out big time when she caught them.
Helen had whisked Megan away the next day. Chastity belts were less effective.
But she couldn’t keep them apart forever. Four years later,
the death of his grandmother drew them into each other’s lives. They were
adults this time, fully capable of doing what they wished, and so on fire for
each other, every caution was tossed aside. Sex had never been better—before or
after Megan. Nights he’d lay awake thinking of her, relieving his needs alone
or into whatever date-of-the-moment was spread beneath him. No one compared to
“Must’ve been a hell of a kiss if it still manages to give
you a hard-on after all this time.”
Jeff fought the reaction to cover his crotch. “All right,
you caught me. We had a brief affair four years after that.”
“How did it end?” Ray asked. “If she’s going to hand your
balls to you on a platter when she sees you—”
“We ended it by mutual agreement after a pregnancy scare. We
were young, crazy in love, but the scare put it all into perspective. We
weren’t ready for settling down. I was headed to DEA and she was off to Paris
to study art.”
“Still…it’s been ten years.”
Considering Ray’s personal situation, he should know better
than to say that. “I love her, Ray. Do you think I’d honestly expose her to the
danger of being an undercover DEA agent’s wife…or girlfriend? Or, worse yet,
dishonor her with clandestine liaisons and never acknowledge she exists.”
The comment hit its intended mark. Ray stared a hole through
him. The chirr of a helicopter pulled their heads toward the mountain range,
and conveniently saved Ray from having to reply. It wasn’t necessary. They both
knew the truth. Jeff had her name and number memorized. If anything ever
happened to Ray, his instructions were to contact her. That was the closest Ray
would come to acknowledging the woman he’d spent years with.
“There’s my ride.” Ray slung his pack over his shoulders and
tucked his helmet on. “If anyone asks, tell them an action movie was being filmed.
He set off at a trot as a ladder fell from the chopper. Jeff
shook his head. Ray snagged the bottom rung and scrambled up. The man was a
serious adrenaline junkie.
Threading Thor’s reins through his fingers, Jeff swung into
the saddle. The horse quivered with barely suppressed excitement. Leaning
forward, he patted the sleek black neck. “Okay, boy, once around the valley,
He didn’t need to show him the way. Thor was well accustomed
to the routine by now. Once they turned, the horse pranced off, head and tail
high. Jeff soaked it all in—the ride, the freedom, the fresh desert air. God
only knew when he’d have the time to enjoy it again. He hated like hell to tell
Gramps he was going to take off again. The old guy was really starting to show
his age, especially in the memory department. But Jasper Sims still did what he
wanted to do; he always had. He didn’t need a keeper. That didn’t keep Jeff
from worrying about him, or stop the feeling he was letting him down by leaving
again. Gramps had made no secret of the fact he appreciated Jeff being around
to help out.
God, I’m going to miss
He smiled as he scanned the desert landscape awash with the
pinks and golds of early morning. The view never ceased to chase away his
demons. No matter where he went, the desert always felt like home.
With the exception of the El Diablo mining claim a half mile
across the valley, all the land he could see belonged to grandparents. They’d
arrived in Twentynine Palms over fifty years ago and built the place up through
a hell of a lot of hard work. Turned out to be quite a legacy to be proud of,
but then his grandfather wasn’t one to be boastful.
Ned O’Connor’s mine and homestead were around the same age
as the Sims’ ranch. A well-worn trail tied the two properties. The gray
tailings of rock and dirt deposits from years of excavation cascaded from the
mine down the darker mountain. Too bad it hadn’t made Ned a wealthy man. But it
sure wasn’t for lack of trying. His little white clapboard house had every
comfort he needed.
The ranch was a great place for energetic kids, too. Jeff
remembered a childhood of cowboys and rustlers in this valley, when he and his
brothers divided up and declared war on each other. And Megan would always be
in the thick of it when the O’Connors visited Ned. She wasn’t afraid to get
dirty or climb the mesquite trees lining the Sims’ house. She could ride a
horse like a pro, hit a ball way past left field, and run faster than any of
them. Her mother had laughingly called her a tomboy. Jeff didn’t think it fit.
Her feminine side was just as strong as her masculine side. Before she could
top the counter, she was helping in the kitchen and loving it. By the time she
could work without a stepstool, Megan was putting out some killer desserts. She
made the best peanut butter cookies in the world.
That thought made Jeff smile. Her brown eyes would shine
when the boys devoured the treats. She was a pretty girl, a fun friend who’d
played and worked as hard as any of the boys. Then one summer, when the Duncans
and O’Connors converged on the Sims Ranch, it all changed. He’d never forget
that kicked-in-the-gut feeling when he realized the girl was gone, replaced by
a beautiful young woman. What a difference a year had made! She was curvy in
all the right places, sweet smelling in all the others. He’d followed her
around like she was a dog in heat, until that wonderful night he’d caught her
alone under the mesquite tree. He’d barely had time to slip his lips over hers
before her mother barreled from the house screaming her head off. They left the
Jeff didn’t see her again for four years. Another summer
gathering, this one to say good-bye to his grandmother. Megan at twenty took
his breath away. She buzzed around the house, taking charge, seeing to
everyone’s care. But at night, tucked away in the converted attic, she was his.
She stayed his until reality gave them a wake-up call. Ten years ago.
It was hard to believe so much time had passed. He wondered
if she was still as beautiful, if her smile was still as quick, her lips just
as soft, her body as tight. Just thinking about the way she’d melted into him
and clutched him in passion made him harder than he really cared to be.
Jeff shifted in the saddle, trying to find a comfortable
position. Thor snorted his annoyance. But all Jeff could think about was her
laugh, her spirit, and that summer. It had haunted him all these years, only to
worsen when he returned to the ranch. It didn’t take long to discover she
visited every spring. Her favorite room was the attic—their place.
Jeff couldn’t count the times he’d wandered there since he’d
gotten back. Her scent lingered on the daybed, energizing him and making his
spirits soar, while his blood raced like wildfire.
He wondered if she was involved with someone, then
alternately cursed the possibility and discounted it. If she was, Ray wouldn’t
have suggested a feigned liaison.
Feigned, hell. The
way he was going…
Jeff tried to shake the idea out of his head. You didn’t
pounce on a woman you hadn’t seen in ten years. A guy had to have some manners.
Jeff glanced toward Ned’s place and wondered if he was up
yet. Usually the old man was an early riser. If anyone knew about Megan, he
surely would. Jeff nudged his horse in that direction, then just as quickly
pulled back on the reins. Notwithstanding the fact he had an erection that
would arrive two minutes before him, the last thing Jeff needed to do was get
the family talking about his renewed interest in Megan.
With his luck, her mother would come tearing after him
again. Considering what he and Megan were about to become involved in—if she
agreed—Helen was definitely not a complication they needed.
He turned Thor toward the ranch. Time was wasting. Ray liked
his plans instituted quickly. Maybe she wouldn’t agree. Maybe she’d run
straight to Vinnie Devlin with the news he was being investigated. But if Jeff
knew Ray—and he did—all those things had already been researched and discussed.
Megan was in. All he had to do was ask. The question that remained was—phone
call or in person?
He debated on that while Thor picked his way home. Halfway
there, he tugged his cell phone from his pocket and punched in her number. She
picked up on the second ring.
Her voice felt like night desert breeze against his skin.
The problem in his jeans doubled.
“Blast from your past, Megan.”
“Jeff?” Was there a hint of laughter in her voice? And how
in the world after all this time could she know it was him?
“Wow…maybe you should put the art aside and set up a psychic
“I’ll consider it a fall-back job. Where are you?”
“With Gramps, but getting ready to leave. I need to come see
you, if that’s all right.”
“I’d love it. Business or pleasure?”
Both? But Jeff
kept that little comment to himself.
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