Bianca Cruz clenched her jaw and glanced at the clock on the wall as she waited for the judge to make his ruling. She’d worked her whole life to become a litigator, but now that she’d achieved success in the courtroom, her most important work was taking place outside of it, and she wanted nothing more than to get back to the task force’s clandestine operation.
Finally, the judge sustained defense counsel’s objection and motioned for Bianca to continue. Breathing a sigh of relief, Bianca announced, “I have no further questions.”
“May the witness be excused?” Judge Casey directed the question to defense counsel, and Bianca shot a glare at her adversary, daring him to ask more questions. What was supposed to have been a straightforward hearing on a motion to suppress, lasting a couple of hours at most, had turned all O.J. Simpson right out of the gate. They’d started at eight this morning. Now it was almost seven p.m., and they’d only had a quick thirty-minute lunch break which Judge Casey had grudgingly granted. Casey hated taking breaks almost as much as he loved his reputation as the hardest working jurist on the federal bench. Bianca would never understand why he cared so much, considering his bench was a lifetime appointment. It wasn’t like he was going to get impeached because he went home at five o’clock.
“No, Your Honor, that was my last witness,” the defense attorney said. “Would you like to hear argument now?”
Bianca tapped her fingers on the table, no longer bothered with trying to hide her annoyance. The law was clear, and the facts supported her position about the admissibility of the evidence in what amounted to a standard case of drug trafficking. The defendant had been stopped by a Texas State Trooper for speeding on Interstate 45, a known route favored by drug mules looking to get product in country. The defendant had failed to produce his ID, stating he must have lost it somewhere on his trip, and he was evasive when the trooper asked him simple questions about his destination. Suspecting there was more to the story, the trooper had called for a K-9 unit, and the troopers recovered eighty pounds of weed along with a few fat stacks of hundred-dollar bills.
Defense counsel had mounted an all-out assault on Bianca’s short presentation of the evidence with a show-all-your-cards, trial-style display, including an expert witness on drug-sniffing dogs and three witnesses to lie about the defendant’s real plans that of course had nothing to do with drug smuggling. When Bianca had received the defendant’s list of witnesses earlier that week, her first reaction had been to respond with a list of her own, including an expert, but her mentor, Peyton Davis, had talked her down, and she’d chosen instead to rely on the experienced testimony of the state trooper along with the clear view of the entire incident as it had been recorded on his body cam. She’d presented her best case, and now that it was time to argue, she had little more to say and a strong desire to break for the night. When defense counsel finally finished his over-the-top diatribe, she spent less than five minutes making her key points.
“Well, counsel,” Judge Casey said, “you’ve given me a lot to think about. I think considering the time, we’ll adjourn for now and I’ll issue my opinion in the morning.”
He’d probably stay up all night writing it, but Bianca was so happy to hear the words, she nearly shot out of her seat, already reaching for the powered-off phone in her bag, certain when she turned it on, it would be on fire with messages.
She wasn’t wrong. When she reached her car, she took a moment to scroll through her messages while she let the Miata’s engine warm up.
Mom, can’t wait to tell you what happened today! You’re going to go crazy!!
Bianca smiled at her daughter’s hyperbole and scrolled to the next message, this one from her own mother.
Those people know you have to eat sometime, don’t they? Or do they ignore their mothers too?
A few more clicks revealed more of the same. Bianca tossed her phone back in her bag and drove out of the lot behind the federal building, finally on her way home. She spent the drive reflecting on how much her life had changed over the past few years. She’d gone from being a lackey of sorts, drafting motions and doing research for other AUSAs, to handling her own docket while working on a covert task force investigating both the Zeta Cartel and the potential of a leak inside the US Attorney’s office threatening their investigation. She had a lot to lose, but she was doing what was right and that was all that mattered.
When she finally reached home, Bianca had switched gears, replacing legal analysis with thoughts of family, but as she stepped up to the front door of her house, work rushed back in. She paused with her hand on the handle to her front door, torn between answering the buzzing cell phone in her purse and ignoring it in favor of a family dinner. The smell of her mother’s posolé voted for the latter, but the buzzing phone was a significant distraction. She pulled the offending device from her purse, glanced at the screen, and knew it would keep ringing until she answered.
I’ll make it quick. She almost believed the lie before she punched the answer button and let reality flood in. “This better be important,” she said curtly.
“Are you at the office?” Dale asked.
Dale Nelson was a DEA agent who worked with her on the task force. Bianca had spent most of the weekend with Dale and other members of the task force after a nationally-known investigative reporter, Lindsey Davis, had been kidnapped by members of a drug cartel. Lindsey was safe and sound, but her rescue raised more questions than answers, and now the task force was spinning in several different directions, not entirely sure which one would lead to the capture of the criminals they were trying to take down.
Bianca liked Dale, even enjoyed her company. Most of the time. But after a bruising day in court, she needed to erect a wall between the part of her dedicated to taking down heinous criminals and the part determined to spend a normal dinner with her daughter and her mother. “I’m at home. If you’re going to mess with family time, prepare for the fallout.”
Dale laughed. “No need to threaten me. It can wait until tomorrow. I just wanted to know if you’d seen the article in the Morning News, and let you know we were able to run down some additional information about the other owner of Valencia Acres. You’re not going to believe what—”
A sharp scream from the other side of the door interrupted Dale’s announcement and almost caused Bianca to drop the phone.
“What was that?” Dale asked.
Bianca jerked on the handle with one hand and pounded on the door with the other. Her phone was jammed up under her chin and she ignored Dale’s increasingly loud “are you okays” while she focused all her energy into getting into her house, but the door resisted her attempts to break through.
Of course it was locked. She jammed the key into the lock and turned again, barreling through the entryway faster than the heavy door could move, slamming into the wall at the end of the foyer. Her phone clattered to the ground, cracking against the hard tile and skittering to a stop at the feet of her mother who stood to the side with her hands on her hips.
“Mija, where is the fire?”
Semi-conscious of the fact Dale’s pleas for information were still wafting up from the downed cell phone, Bianca ignored her mother’s question and asked one of her own. “I heard screaming. What’s going on?”
“No se. Emma is talking to one of her friends on the phone. I told her three times you were going to be home soon and she needed to get off the phone, but…” Her mother placed her hands over her ears to demonstrate her granddaughter’s behavior. Before she could say anything else, another sharp scream filled the air, but this time the screamer bounded into sight.
Bianca shook her head. “Emma, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
Emma cocked her head. “Mom, don’t be silly. The likelihood of someone your age having a heart attack is pretty slim. Besides, I’m so excited to see you. I have amazing news!”
“What’s going on?”
As one, Bianca, her mother, and Emma looked down at the floor where the question blared from Bianca’s forgotten phone. “Oh crap,” Bianca said as she reached down and scooped up the phone.
“Language!” Emma and her mother said at the same time.
“You two are spending way too much time together. Hold that thought.” She held the phone to her ear. “Dale, are you still there?”
“Is everything okay? I’m in my truck. Should I head that way?”
“Everything is fine, except for the derelicts living at my house. Seriously. Can I call you back in the morning?”
“Absolutely. Go be with your family. I’ll fill you in tomorrow.”
Bianca set the phone on the counter and turned her attention to her daughter. It never failed to surprise her that Emma looked exactly like the father she’d probably never know, and almost nothing like her. Where she was petite, Emma was tall, with long legs and willowy arms. And Emma possessed a natural athletic grace that made Bianca look even more clumsy than she actually was. Bianca embraced their differences, never letting them interfere with the close relationship she and Emma shared. “Tell me, what’s all the screaming about?”
“I’m going to be the lead in the school play. It’s a remake of Romeo and Juliet and I’m, you know, Juliet. Jake Swan is Romeo. He’s a hunk.”
Bianca’s stomach turned at the boy-crazy look on Emma’s face, and she had to resist the urge to shut it down, instead opting for a more subtle approach to gather information about the boy who’d captured her daughter’s attention. “That’s exciting, bug. Tell me about your costar. What’s Jake like?”
Emma settled into a chair at the table. “I don’t know him very well, but he seems super nice. He plays basketball and he’s the eighth grade class president.”
Bianca bit down hard on her tongue to keep from shouting eighth grade! She glanced over at her mother, standing behind Emma, shaking her head. She had no doubt there would be a full round of “see what I went through when you were young” after Emma went to bed. Resisting every protective urge she felt, Bianca pared her response down to a simple. “He sounds nice. Maybe I will get a chance to meet him soon.”
“Sure, Mom. How was your day?”
The sudden switch in subjects restored her faith that Emma wasn’t entirely boy-crazy, and Bianca sighed with relief. “Long, but I’m glad to be home. Did your abuela make us posolé or is my nose just wishing it was so?”
Her mom cleared her throat. “It’s not polite to talk about me like I’m not here.”
Bianca laughed at her mother’s stern tone and faux frown. She knew her mother would cook for her every night if she allowed it, but she tried to keep some form of normalcy with her erratic schedule. Lately, it had been even more unpredictable, and she didn’t know what she would’ve done if her mother didn’t live down the street, ready to fill in at a moment’s notice. “Sorry, Mama. I just didn’t want you to get a big head.”
“Enough already.” She pointed at the table. “Sit down, both of you. Your dinner is getting cold.”
Bianca took two steps toward the kitchen table when her cell phone rang again. She recognized the ring tone right away. She’d programmed it into her phone on her first day at the US Attorney’s office, when her boss, Herschel Gellar, informed her she might be called upon at all hours and he expected her to be available. He’d rarely called her himself and, considering the events of the last week, she was reluctant to hear whatever he had to say.
“Don’t answer it,” her mother said.
But Bianca was already reaching for the phone. “I have to.” She punched the line to answer. “Cruz here.”
“I heard your hearing went well today.”
“I think so, sir. Judge Casey said he’d take it under advisement.”
“His clerk thinks it’s a slam dunk. I bet you get your opinion in the morning. Speaking of which,” he said in the poorest of segues, “Did you see the article in the paper this morning?”
The article again. “Actually, no. I was busy preparing for the hearing, but I plan to read it tonight.”
“Good. Do that. And I need you to come in early tomorrow.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s important that I talk to you before anyone else is here. Privately.”
Uh-oh. Something was up and it wasn’t good. She and the rest of the disbanded task force had been working off the books for the last two weeks, running around behind Gellar’s back to shore up the case against the Vargas brothers that he seemed to have shuttled to the back burner while he focused on what appeared to be a personal vendetta against a prominent Dallas oilman. Had he figured out his team wasn’t playing by his rules anymore?
All she could think about was that she needed to get off the phone and call her friend and mentor, AUSA Peyton Davis. Peyton was the de facto head of their task force and she also happened to be in a relationship with the daughter of Cyrus Gantry, the focus of Gellar’s prosecution. Gellar’s voice faded in the background as she parsed through the complications of her professional life.
“Are you there, Cruz?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be there. First thing in the morning.” She waited until he clicked off the line before she did the same. When she looked up from the phone, she saw both her mother and daughter staring at her. “What?”
“You don’t have to go now, right?” Emma asked, her voice quiet with disappointment.
“No, bug. I do not.” She held up the phone and made a show of turning down the volume. “And no more interruptions. It’s time for dinner.” She tossed the phone on the counter next to the current edition of the Dallas Morning News. She was dying to read the article now that both Dale and Gellar had mentioned it, but for the next couple of hours, her primary focus was her family because no matter how complicated her career had become, the simple pleasure of a home-cooked meal shared with the people she loved was the most important part of her life. She would let nothing steal these simple pleasures from her.
Jade Vargas climbed the steps to the front porch, her boots clomping against the wide planks of wood and echoing in the cool night air. She wasn’t expected until the weekend, and she hoped the key was hidden in the same place it always was since the quiet signaled no one was home to greet her.
She rested her suitcase against the door and pried away the already loose board in the railing. Within seconds, she freed the key and let herself into the ranch house.
“Hello?” she called out as she parked her suitcase in the front entry and made her way back to the kitchen. “Is anyone home?” The hum of the refrigerator cut through the silence, and she let out a huge breath in relief. The delayed flight home after a month of living out of her suitcase had taken its toll, and all she wanted was a stiff drink and her own bed.
She rummaged through the cabinets. Sophia didn’t favor strong spirits, and she had a tendency to push Jade’s prized finds to the rear of the cupboard when she was traveling, but it only took a few moments to locate one of the bottles. Jade pulled down the beautiful bottle of Amor Mio along with one of the handblown shot glasses she’d purchased on one of her trips to Mexico last summer. She’d purchased the bottle for its beauty, thinking even if the tequila inside was shit, at least she’d have a lovely vase, but to her surprise, the extra añejo liquor was delicious. She poured two fingers of the amber liquid into the glass and took a generous sip, enjoying the complex layers of hazelnut, chocolate, and cinnamon. She took another drink, sank into a chair at the kitchen table, and twisted her neck back and forth to shake loose some of the tension brought on by a day of travel.
Her hand rested on a stack of mail and the current edition of the Dallas Morning News. She sorted through the envelopes, mostly bills, before brushing the mail aside to check out the day’s headlines. She’d expected a little light reading before bed, but the glaring headline over the fold grabbed her attention. Local Oilman Facing Life Sentence.
Could it be? She unfolded the paper and spread it out on the table, quickly scanning the lead. Cyrus Gantry, President and CEO of family-held Gantry Oil, is the target of a multi-jurisdictional investigation led by a task force of federal agents seeking to root out the drug trade in North Texas. Jade gasped at the sight of the familiar name and she took another drink, more than a sip this time, before diving back into the article.
A federal grand jury issued subpoenas over the last few weeks, allowing the FBI to search all of Gantry Oil’s offices in the district. Sources close to the investigation say the search yielded evidence that implicates Gantry in a complex money laundering scheme with known drug lords, Sergio and Arturo Vargas, captains of the local faction of the Zeta Cartel.
At the sight of the familiar names, Jade set the paper down, not entirely sure she wanted to know more. These stories never ended well, but curiosity won out and she kept reading.
The subpoenas were the culmination of the work of a task force organized by US Attorney Herschel Gellar. Gellar put together law enforcement personnel from the FBI, DEA, ATF, and Texas Rangers to work with prosecutors in his office to investigate the activities of the Vargas brothers. One of the AUSAs originally assigned to work on the task force was Maria Escobar, a decorated JAG attorney who came to work for the Northern District of Texas US Attorney’s office following two tours in Afghanistan. Last year, AUSA Escobar was gunned down in front of her house, and the murder, while as yet unsolved, is widely believed to have been committed by members of the Zeta Cartel sending a message to law enforcement about the investigation.
Jade shook her head as her suspicions were confirmed, but she was too far into the article to stop reading now.
Escobar was survived by her wife, DEA Special Agent Dale Nelson, also a member of the task force. Agent Nelson, along with the other members of her team regrouped, and AUSA Peyton Davis, a native Dallasite, transferred home from the Department of Justice to take over Ms. Escobar’s role as the attorney liaison to the law enforcement team. In early October of this year, Nelson and Davis, following up on a lead that one of the Gantry Oil’s trucks had been used to transport undocumented immigrants over the border, were involved in a shootout at a local warehouse owned by Gantry. Agent Nelson was injured, but not deterred. Within a week, subpoenas were issued for all of Gantry’s offices, and forensic accountants began combing through evidence regarding his business transactions.
Sources surmise the pressure on Gantry caused the usually elusive Vargases to surface. Just days following the search of Gantry’s offices, Arturo Vargas was arrested outside of Dallas at the ranch of his estranged sister, Sophia Valencia, where he was holding Sophia and Cyrus Gantry’s daughter Lily at gunpoint while trying to steal Valencia’s prize stallion, Queen’s Ransom, last year’s winner of the All American Futurity. Arturo was shot during his apprehension, and after his condition stabilized, he was transferred to the Federal Detention Center in Seagoville where he is being held pending additional charges. Neither of the women would meet on the record to discuss why Arturo was targeting them.
Jade gulped the tequila this time, no longer caring about layers of complexity in the drink. She’d already known some of what she just read, but seeing the story stripped down to the bare facts brought home how close she’d come to losing Ransom.
Last week, the investigation took a twist when internationally known investigative reporter Lindsey Ryan was kidnapped outside of city hall while she was in town to cover a DEA Drug Take Back event. Ryan was held hostage pending the release of Arturo Vargas. The kidnappers were arrested at a farm near Denton where they were holding Ms. Ryan. They had forced her to make a tape calling on US Attorney Gellar to set Arturo free and drop all charges against both Vargas brothers in exchange for Ryan’s safe release. No one was injured during the raid that freed Ms. Ryan, but sources close to the investigation intimate the kidnappers’ motives were more complex than securing Arturo Vargas’s freedom.
Sergio Vargas remains at large, and he is now listed among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. Authorities continue to pursue all leads and have opened a hotline and offered a reward for anyone who has information that might lead to his arrest. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on Cyrus Gantry who remains free pending formal charges, but whom Gellar has told his staff will not survive this year without an indictment implicating him not only on charges of money laundering for the Vargases’ operation, but for other crimes as well. No one would speak on the record about what these other crimes might be, but sources close to the investigation tell us Gantry is likely to be charged as part of a conspiracy that may extend far beyond money laundering and could also be connected with the murders committed by the Vargases as part of their criminal enterprise.
Jade let the paper fall back to the table and took a long drink of her tequila. Before she could process the bombshells contained in the article, she heard a door slam and the sharp staccato of heels on the wood floor.
“I was gone no more than an hour and I come home to find you raiding the liquor. You know I don’t like it when you drink spirits.”
Jade raised the glass in a mock toast and smiled at her mother. “If you really objected, you could pour it out when I’m away.”
It was Sophia’s turn to smile. “What? And have you go running off to the nearest bar instead of staying here with me?”
“You know me so well.”
Sophia held out her arms. “Put down that glass and say hello to me.”
Jade pitched the remaining drops of tequila down her throat and slid the glass onto the counter. She stepped into her mother’s arms. The embrace was as awkward as always, but as Sophia pressed her closer and stroked her hair, Jade sensed an undercurrent of nostalgia. Had Sophia truly missed her for more than her help running the ranch? She had been gone for a while, but she’d taken extended trips before without this kind of welcome when she returned. Something had prompted Sophia to offer a rare display of motherly affection.
When Sophia released her, Jade backed away, wondering if her observation was fact-based or tequila-inspired. Didn’t matter either way. She would be here at the ranch for a while and then she’d leave. She never stayed long enough for the discomfort of their differences to get in the way of business. Sophia might be her mother, but their relationship as business partners was their strongest bond. “Is everything well?”
“The horses are fine. How was your trip?” Sophia asked, as if reading Jade’s mind.
“Good. I made a few purchases, and they’ll be delivered in the next couple of weeks.”
Sophia pointed at the small suitcase. “I’m certain you left here with more than one tiny bag. Did you trade your belongings for the new horses?”
Jade laughed, relieved at the mundane topic of conversation. “The airline lost my checked bags. Supposedly, they are somewhere in the Midwest and they swore they would have them to me by tomorrow.” The reminder of the rotten travel day she’d suffered through brought on another wave of exhaustion and Jade yawned. “If you don’t mind, maybe we can talk details tomorrow. It’s been a long day and I’m beat.” She didn’t wait for a response, instead reaching for her suitcase, but Sophia’s hand on her arm stopped her getaway.
“Actually, I need to talk to you about something and I’m afraid it cannot wait.” Sophia pointed at the paper on the table. “Did you read the article?”
Jade braced at the ominous tone in her mother’s voice. She hadn’t had enough tequila to stomach more unpleasantness, but if she didn’t hear her out now, her sleep would be ruined while she wondered what was so important that it couldn’t wait until dawn. “I did. What is it?”
Sophia strode over to the refrigerator and opened the door. “Would you like something to eat? How long has it been since you’ve had a home-cooked meal? I could make you an omelet.”
Jade gritted her teeth to stave off her building frustration and resisted the urge to point out she rarely had home-cooked meals even when she was home. “I’m not hungry, but I am very tired. Perhaps you can tell me what’s on your mind and then I can get some sleep.”
Sophia shut the refrigerator door and slowly turned to face her. Her expression was an odd mixture of expectation and dread, and she flinched as the words tumbled from her lips. “Lily Gantry was here. She’s been here several times. She knows.”
Jade’s gut clenched and she sagged back against the counter, all thoughts of sleep vanished with the vague, yet ominous revelation. “What does she know?”
Sophia’s gaze darted around the room, but Jade wasn’t about to let her off so easily. Some small part of her knew this day might come, but as time passed, she’d grown to think maybe it never would. Now that it had, she needed to be prepared. “What does she know?”
“She knows everything. Except…”
“Except what?” Jade was certain she knew the detail her mother had left out, but she had to hear her say it to make it real.
“Except she doesn’t know about you. She doesn’t know she has a sister.”
It was almost dawn when Jade strode through the tall double doors of the climate-controlled stallion barn that supported her standard of living. After her mother’s bombshell the night before, she craved the sweet smell of hay and the soft whinnies from the horses as she walked by their stables. The peace of this place never failed to soothe her, especially when she returned from a long trip away. She loved every one of these proud, beautiful animals, not for the trappings they’d afforded her, but for their gentle, unconditional affection. Jade walked through the wide hall, stopping at every stall to greet each one. These horses were her family, more so than the woman who’d given birth to her, the father she’d never know, or the half sister she didn’t want or need.
Family. The concept was bittersweet. She’d known Lily Gantry was her half sister since before they’d moved to Valencia Acres. She’d started figuring it out when she’d seen Lily’s father, Cyrus, at the much smaller ranch they used to own down in the valley. She’d been a teenager then. Her mother had introduced Cyrus as a family friend, but by his fourth visit, she knew differently. The casual way he interacted with her mother, who had a tendency to hold most people at arm’s length, the lavish gifts he gave her were signs there was more to their relationship. When she spotted his car in the driveway before dawn, and then saw him sneaking out wearing the same clothes he’d had on the night before, her suspicions were confirmed.
One day she’d gone through his wallet while he was doing God knows what in her mother’s room, and she’d seen a picture of his daughter, Lily, sitting astride a gorgeous mount. Something about the picture was deeply familiar, and she spent days trying to figure it out. When she came across the same picture in her mother’s bureau, the mystery was solved. Lily and Sophia looked so much alike except for the one or two features Lily shared with Cyrus. She hadn’t known if she should be more shocked by the fact her mother was sleeping with a married man or that Sophia had chosen to keep her daughters apart, allowing them to grow up as strangers occupying separate worlds.
Jade shook away the thoughts and returned her attention to her horse family. She took her time, greeting each horse in turn, but seeking out one in particular. When she finally reached the largest stall, she waited by the gate, quietly watching her favorite stallion, Queen’s Ransom. She didn’t wait long before he lifted his nose, sniffed the air, and stepped to her, nickering his pleasure at her return. Ransom had won the All American Futurity the year before, and now he was the most valuable asset of Valencia Acres, commanding substantial stud fees.
“Did you miss me?” Jade asked, nuzzling her face against his. “I bet Sophia’s spoiling you rotten. When’s the last time you went on a hard ride?”
Ransom answered by thumping a hoof against the ground and rubbing his massive midsection against the gate. His eager response sparked an idea, and Jade acted quickly before she could change her mind or consider the consequences. She told Ransom she’d be right back and strode to the tack room where she selected a bridle, blanket, and saddle before making her way back to the stall. When she returned, Ransom danced at the sight of her, confirming her hasty decision. She gave him a thorough brushing and then led him past the other stalls and out of the barn. Outside, in the cool, dark air of morning, she tacked him up and climbed into the saddle. Once astride Ransom, she finally felt like she was home. With only a passing thought to what her mother would think of her taking their most valuable possession for a trail ride, she pressed the heels of her boots into Ransom’s side and they rode toward the rising sun.
Bianca swiped her card to open the private entrance to the US Attorney’s suite of offices and eased down the hall, hoping she’d beaten her boss into the office. She’d need a full cup of coffee and a few moments to gather her thoughts before she faced whatever surprise he had in store. She fired up her computer. While it came to life, she gulped the lukewarm coffee she’d brought from home and mentally retraced the newspaper article she’d read that morning as well as her own recollection about the events of the last month, looking for any clues as to what Gellar might be on to.
Since the time Peyton Davis had returned to town to take the reins of the Zeta Cartel task force, events had occurred at a breathtaking pace. At first, Bianca had been reluctant to accept Peyton’s leadership. Bianca had had a close professional relationship with Peyton’s predecessor, Maria, and considered her a mentor, which had made it difficult to accept anyone taking her place. But it didn’t take long for Bianca to realize Peyton was a tough, no-nonsense lawyer who was more interested in justice than politics, which had quickly earned Bianca’s respect. Even when it turned out Peyton had fallen in love with the daughter of Cyrus Gantry, a well known local oilman accused of conspiring with the Vargas brothers, Bianca still trusted Peyton’s judgment over that of her boss who seemed singularly focused on Gantry as if to settle some unspoken vendetta.
Gellar’s obsession had recently turned into questionable behavior, and two weeks ago, he’d disbanded the task force and made several dubious decisions that placed all of their hard work in jeopardy. Unwilling to accept Gellar’s decisions, Peyton and Dale had taken the reins and urged the group to operate underground. Now she and the others were leading double lives, working regular dockets and caseloads while using every spare moment to find Arturo’s fugitive brother, Sergio, and shut down the illegal activities of the Cartel. Just last week, investigative reporter Lindsey Ryan had agreed to join their team, and they were ready to take their underground investigation to the next level.
Had Gellar caught on? Was that the reason for this secret, early morning meeting? Bianca pulled out her phone and sent a quick text to Peyton. Early meeting with the boss at his request. Any ideas?
She tapped her fingers on her desk while she waited for a reply. She didn’t wait long.
No idea, but you got this. Call me after.
Bianca took a deep breath and replayed the events of the last week, certain they carried a clue as to what Gellar wanted. Lindsey had been in town to do a piece on the DEA for Spotlight America, a prime-time TV news show. Lindsey had been paired with Dale, who’d spent the entire week showing Lindsey around during the day and working on the task force in whatever free moments she could grab. Despite Dale’s best efforts, Lindsey had figured out something else was up and discovered that Dale, Peyton, Bianca, and a few others were holding meetings at Peyton’s ranch. Before she could confront them about it, Lindsey had been taken hostage and held until the kidnappers’ demand to drop the investigation into the Vargases was met. After Lindsey was rescued, they’d figured out she’d actually been taken by the Barrio Aztecas, sworn enemies of the Zetas and Sergio and Arturo Vargas. Unable to figure out the kidnappers’ true motive, the task force made a pledge to double their efforts and scrutinize everyone outside of their tight-knit circle, including Gellar. They planned to ask Lindsey to use her investigative skills to help them root out the truth.
A sharp knock on her door rousted Bianca from her reflections. Herschel Gellar stood in her doorway, and she rose to greet him. “Good morning, Mr. Gellar. I didn’t realize you were here.”
His eyes swept the room. “I just arrived. Thanks for coming in early. Come to my office?” He turned and walked away before she could answer, but it had been more of a command than a question. Bianca grabbed a notebook and followed him down the hall.
His office was opulent, furnished with an expensive, expansive desk, a comfortable sofa, and large leather club chairs. The walls were lined with photos of him glad-handing many notables from politicians to celebrities and gilded certificates lauding him for his service to his country. She wasn’t impressed. In the three years she’d worked for the office, she’d found him to be a fickle, sometimes oppressive personality, prone to temper and personal bias. If the work were less challenging or rewarding, she would’ve sought a position elsewhere long before. Shortly after she joined the office, Maria had convinced her to stay after one particularly challenging exchange with Gellar, and then Maria had become her mentor. When Maria died, Bianca had stayed out of allegiance, dedicated to finishing the work they’d started, which included avenging Maria’s death. Dedication was the reason she was still working with the task force, despite the risk it posed to all of their careers if they were caught conducting an unauthorized investigation.
“Have a seat, Bianca.” He waved her toward one of the chairs directly across from his desk. “We’ve got some things to discuss.” He crossed his hands and stared intently into her eyes. “Things best dealt with face-to-face.”
She sat down but stayed on the edge of the seat, unwilling and unable to relax until she knew the impetus for this secret meeting. She rubbed her hands and braced for questions about whether she was the source referenced in the article. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, that’s a good question. The truth is, it depends.” He leaned back in his chair, feigning relaxation, but Bianca wasn’t fooled. She would stay on alert until she was certain he wasn’t toying with her. “I seem to recall that you and Maria Escobar were pretty tight.”
It wasn’t a question, but she knew he expected some kind of response. Thrown because she hadn’t expected him to mention Maria, she took a beat to gather her thoughts. Tight wasn’t the word she’d use to describe her relationship with the now deceased AUSA who’d been married to Dale Nelson, but she needed to say something. “Maria was very helpful when I was starting out. Federal criminal practice is different from what I was used to at the DA’s office.”
She came to this meeting expecting to have to dissemble, but everything she’d said so far was the truth. After graduating from Georgetown Law School and a judicial clerkship, Bianca had worked as a civil litigator. Her only criminal law experience consisted of a six-month stint in Fort Worth at the DA’s office as a lawyer on loan. The call of the criminal courts had been exciting enough to lure her from the otherwise lucrative practice of big law to pursue a position with the US Attorney’s Office, but nothing she’d learned had prepared her for the unending stream of cases exposing the vast criminal network in the Dallas Fort Worth area. Being part of the task force had given her the support she needed to navigate through her new career, and she’d come to rely on the strength in numbers that came with being part of the team. But here she was, facing Gellar on her own, wondering why he was asking about a dead prosecutor. She elected to get right to the point. “Do you mind if I ask why you brought up Maria?”
He grunted and leaned back in his chair. “Do I mind? No, I don’t mind. I guess I want to know why one of my prosecutors was killed and no one seems interested in putting away the man who was responsible for her death.”
His face grew increasingly red as he spoke, and his tone was harsh. Bianca could do little more than stare. Of all the things he could’ve hauled her in to discuss at the crack of dawn, she’d never expected Maria’s death to be one of them. The general consensus of everyone in the office and the DEA was that Maria had been gunned down by several of the Vargases’ lieutenants, but they’d never caught the gunmen. Gellar’s reference to a single man didn’t jibe with the facts. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I know who you mean.”
“Cyrus Gantry, of course.” Gellar punctuated his declaration with a slap of his open palm on the desk. “It’s clear to me he arranged for Maria’s death to divert attention from his illegal dealings with the Vargases. She was getting too close to the truth and he took her out.”
A surge of anxiety-producing heat coursed through Bianca’s body, and she scrambled for air. Gellar’s obsession with taking down Gantry was already bordering on self-serving, but nothing the task force had uncovered implicated Gantry in Maria’s death. Of course, they’d never had any reason to consider he might be involved, but her gut told her Gellar’s focus on Gantry was suspect. She cast about for something to say, acutely conscious she needed to tread carefully. “You’re absolutely right. I don’t think anyone has directly pursued that angle. What would you like me to do?”
She’d apparently said the right thing because his eyes gleamed with satisfaction. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a slim folder that he pushed toward her. “That is a draft of an amended indictment which I plan to share with the grand jury in two weeks. I would like you to meet with the case agent, Tanner Cohen, and go over every detail in there and prepare a summary of the evidence for the grand jurors. Line up the witnesses—I have a list in there. Make sure everyone is on board. Whatever else you’re working on can wait. Do you understand?”
She nodded in agreement, but it was a lie. How could she be expected to understand when she didn’t know what he had in mind? She desperately wanted to open the folder and glance at the indictment, but his stern expression made it clear he wanted unconditional acceptance. The sooner she could get out of here, the better off she’d be. She took a risk and stood. “I’d better get started.”
He waved a hand in her direction. “Yes. Keep me updated. I expect a report by the end of the week.” He looked back down at his desk and thumbed through some papers. She took the abrupt switch of his attention as a signal to leave, but before she reached the door, he called out. “Oh, and, Bianca?”
“I picked you for this assignment because I have high hopes for you. I trust you’re not going to disappoint me.”
She turned to face him, but his focus was back on the papers in front of him. Good thing because she wasn’t sure she could lie with both her eyes and her mouth. “I don’t plan on it.”
Back in her office, she opened the file, quickly skimmed over the contents, and gasped as she read the text of the draft indictment. Instinctively, she picked up her phone to text Peyton, but hesitated with her thumbs hovering over the screen. Gellar was paranoid, and she had no idea where his paranoia might lead. Better she have an in-person conversation with Peyton than one that could be traced and misinterpreted. Dale needed to be in on this as well since she’d made catching Maria’s killers part of her life’s work. Bianca reached for her desk phone and risked making a call since that would be easier to explain away than a text. Peyton answered on the second ring.
“We need to meet,” Bianca said.
“Tonight, my place?”
“Sooner, and Dale should be there.”
“Actually, she and I are both headed out to Sophia’s. Should I swing by and pick you up?”
She didn’t have any settings on the docket and could easily duck out. Meeting at Sophia’s ranch was the perfect solution, but she couldn’t risk someone seeing her leave with Dale and Peyton since they were all supposed to be working on different cases. She had a different idea. “I’ll meet you there.”
Jade took her time on the ride back to the ranch house. She wasn’t anxious to hash over her business plans with her mother, but she knew they would need to discuss the recent purchases she’d made and plan for the arrival of the new horses. In a few weeks, it would be time to renew marketing efforts to ramp up for the next breeding season, and based on the observations from her ride, there was a lot of work to do before spring. The outer edges of the property were leased out to local farmers who rotated various crops throughout the year, but the parcels she and Sophia retained needed attention: fences in disrepair, trees in need of thinning, bridle paths cleared. Sophia wasn’t minding the property in the manner she’d come to expect, and Jade wondered what had distracted her.
She heard hoofbeats and saw Sophia galloping toward her on Descaro, a chestnut mare. There was no denying her mother was a striking woman, and age had only increased her beauty. What mystified Jade was why her mother would settle for a lifetime affair with a married man, especially when the rest of her family loathed that man, and she was accomplished and attractive enough to have anyone she desired.
She’d asked outright in the past, but Sophia’s answers had always been thin and veiled. She never mentioned love, but what other ties could she and Cyrus have? They hailed from completely different worlds—Cyrus from privilege and Sophia from finger-clawing labor and desperation. Lily, the daughter that had been born from their affair, hadn’t known either of them were her birth parents, so staying together for the sake of the child hadn’t been the motivation.
Until now. Lily Gantry had discovered Cyrus and Sophia were her birth parents just a few weeks ago. Jade wondered if Lily’s discovery would change things for either of their families. Did her uncles know about Lily? She’d be willing to bet they would not be happy to learn a Gantry had Vargas blood running through her veins. Before she could contemplate the issue further, Sophia’s mount thundered to a stop beside her. Ransom and Descaro nickered at each other, and Jade pulled Ransom back, squaring her shoulders for the scolding she was about to receive.
“I wish I’d known you were going for a ride.”
Jade leaned down and ran a hand along Ransom’s jaw. “So you could tell me not to ride him?”
“He’s your horse. You can do what you want.”
Jade shook her head at Sophia’s disapproving tone. Ransom was hers, purchased with her own money, but he belonged to the ranch, and right now, he was their primary breadwinner. If she had a proper sense of family, maybe Jade would defer to her mother’s wishes more, but years of forced independence couldn’t be overcome with a few touching moments of familial solidarity. Still, she reacted defensively. “He is my horse, but I’m happy to have him here where he is happy and can make us both a good living. Perhaps you could trust me to take care of him in the same way you trust me to run this business.”
Jade nodded. “Speaking of which, I noticed a few areas that need some attention.”
Sophia winced. “I’ve had a lot on my mind since you’ve been gone. I haven’t had a chance to tell you everything.”
“You have more surprises?” Jade tensed. “First, I come home to find you’ve decided to be a mother to a stranger and now what? Are you going to tell me I’m not really your daughter?”
Jade watched Sophia’s face for clues, but all she saw was a sharp wince of pain for which she had no sympathy. “You expected me to take last night’s news in stride and not be affected at all? I need some time to get used to the idea that you have cozied up to Cyrus’s daughter. She might be your family, but she’s not mine.”
“But she is,” Sophia insisted, her tone pleading. “She’s your half sister. I think if you would get to know her—”
“I know her. She’s a debutante, adoring daughter to a rich gringo family who never had to work a day in her life. Don’t even bother with the poor little adopted girl, didn’t know who her real parents were sob story. I doubt she had time to notice between social events.”
“Jade, you don’t know her at all.”
“And I don’t plan to. Now, do you want to tell me what’s on your mind or should we talk about the ranch repairs that haven’t been done?”
Sophia looked around. “Let’s ride back and talk at the house. I have a lot to tell you. No sense in the horses just standing here waiting on us.”
Jade answered by nudging Ransom forward into a fast-building run. Seconds later, she could hear Descaro trying to keep pace behind her, but Ransom picked up speed without any urging from her. For the few minutes it took to close the distance to the stables, she forgot all the complications of her dysfunctional family and surrendered to the autumn wind in her hair, the cool breeze across her face, and the majestic beauty of her galloping stallion. So lost was she in the feel of the ride, it took a moment after they’d stopped for her to notice the two unfamiliar vehicles in the drive.
A large Ford pickup and a tiny Miata. Potential clients? Most made appointments, but occasionally interested breeders dropped by to check out an operation before they made a decision about breeding. The ranch’s website encouraged visitors, a fact Jade was instantly grateful for since she’d love a distraction from whatever weighty topic Sophia wanted to discuss.
She remained in the saddle and walked Ransom to the edge of the drive. If these visitors were looking for references, they could find none better than her mount. Might as well give them an up-close look.
A tall, rangy woman stepped out of the driver’s side of the truck and looked around. She was dressed in well-worn jeans and dusty boots. Jade couldn’t tell much else about her since her shades blocked her expression. The passenger door opened and another tall woman, similarly dressed, walked around the side of the truck. They could be potential buyers who’d dropped by to visit or perhaps they had an appointment with Sophia and she hadn’t bothered to mention it. One look at her mother dispelled that notion. Sophia’s jaw was set. Her gaze cast about wildly as if these visitors would disappear if she avoided eye contact.
Jade walked Ransom closer, enjoying the height advantage. She started to call out a greeting to the women, but before she could say anything, the door to the Miata opened and a voice called out. “I told you I could make it down the drive, but thanks for waiting. Next time—”
The woman stopped mid sentence and looked up at Jade. “Wow, who’s this super tall stranger?”
Jade couldn’t help but grin as the woman’s hand flew up to her mouth. While the woman cast an embarrassed look at her acquaintances, Jade took advantage of her diverted attention to assess this stranger.
Unlike the other two who’d arrived in the pickup, this woman was dressed more suitably for an office than a ranch in a metallic blue sheath dress and matching jacket, but it was the high-heeled, black patent, T-strap sandals with the perfectly pedicured toes that captured Jade’s attention and caused her to suck in a breath. She probably spent too many seconds staring at the pop of purple color on the woman’s toenails before she collected her thoughts. The first thought was that the tall heels were a sure sign this chick was completely out of her element at the ranch. What was she doing with these other two who looked like they worked with horses? Maybe she was one of those women who fancied having a few horses without a clue what to do with them and she’d brought along her pals to give her advice.
Jade started to shrug off the encounter as more likely a pain than a real prospect, but when she looked into the woman’s face she was struck by her beautiful light brown skin and very expressive, deep brown eyes, and her usual reticence faded. “I’m Jade. I am tall, but the horse is doing most of the work in that department.” She dismounted and gathered Ransom’s reins in one hand, holding the other out. “And you are?”
Jade was pleased when Bianca’s grasp was firm and strong. “May I show you around the stables? Maybe even a ride so you can see the ranch?”
“Uh…” The wattage of Bianca’s smile dimmed a bit as she glanced at the two women who’d arrived just before her.
Jade followed her gaze, reluctantly remembering they weren’t alone. In the few minutes since she’d locked eyes with Bianca, she’d forgotten about the other strangers, her mother, and her work. She had plans for Ms. Cruz. She’d show her the horses, the ranch, and then whatever else she wanted to see. Normally, she reserved her conquests to her trips on the road. It was less complicated to engage when she knew she’d be leaving soon, but she was captivated by Bianca. Enough to break a few rules. She crooked her arm. “Come on. My mother will talk to your friends, while you and I get to know each other better.”
Bianca’s eyes were locked on her now, and Jade was certain she’d won her over. She took a step closer to seal the deal, when one of the other women, the one with the dark shades, called out, breaking the spell. “Bianca, can I talk to you for a second?” A beat passed. “Now.”
Bianca’s brow furrowed and she squinted like she’d just shaken out of a dream and wasn’t sure where she was. Bianca shot her an apologetic glance, extracted her arm, and started picking her way down the gravel drive in her too-tall heels. One step, two steps before her heels lost their battle with loose rock. Jade sprang forward, catching Bianca as her feet skated out from under her.
Bianca barely felt the ground slip away before strong arms cradled her and she was looking skyward. But the big blue sky was no match for the full lips and dark, steamy eyes of her savior. Jade. She had no idea who Jade was, but she made an instant pledge to find out everything about her, starting with where Jade had been all her life.
“I’m sorry about that. Clumsy, I guess.”
Jade eased her upright. “Anyone would be clumsy in those heels. You’re not exactly dressed for a ranch.”
“True.” Bianca looked over at Dale and Peyton who were shaking their heads, and she snapped back to reality. She wasn’t dressed for a ranch because she’d just come from the office. The office where she’d received important information about the investigation that she needed to share with Peyton and Dale as soon as possible. She’d thought she’d have time for a quick conversation with them before they talked to Sophia, but she hadn’t planned to meet this female Don Juan astride a beautiful horse, let alone fall into her arms.
She stood up straight, brushed the wrinkles from her suit, and assumed her most professional tone. “My friends,” she pointed at Peyton and Dale, “and I are here to meet with the owner of the ranch. Maybe we could talk again after our meeting?” She couldn’t resist leaving the possibility open. She didn’t know who this woman was, but she knew for darn sure she wanted to find out.
Jade’s eyes went from warm to distant in the span of a few seconds. “The owner? But…” She followed Bianca’s gaze to her mother. “Ah, you must mean Sophia Valencia? Yes, she is the grand dame of this ranch.” She swept an arm in mock grandeur toward Sophia. “By all means, discuss your business with her.” She didn’t wait for a reply as she grabbed the reins of her horse, and walked toward the stables with her gorgeous mount.
Bianca knew she’d said something wrong, but she didn’t have time to figure it out before Dale called out to her again. She walked over to where Dale and Peyton were standing, but chanced one look over her shoulder at the stunning beauty who had rescued her from falling.
Dale grabbed her arm and whispered, “I see that look in your eyes. Save it until we can talk.” She and Dale joined Peyton who was standing next to Sophia. Sophia didn’t look happy to see them, and she didn’t hesitate to let them know in an angry whisper.
“You cannot just show up like this. What if I have company or business dealings? How do I explain who you are?”
“You tell them you have business with us too,” Peyton said in the calm and cool tone that was her trademark. “We do have some unfinished business, after all. Now, why don’t you invite us inside unless you need to talk to that woman?”
Bianca risked a glance back at the woman who’d captured her attention to the point of distraction, but she was gone. Bianca shook away the disappointment and followed the group into the house.
A few minutes later, they were seated around Sophia’s kitchen table. Sophia sat at the head of the table, her hands clasped in front of her, and the air was thick with apprehension. Bianca glanced at Peyton and Dale. Under normal circumstances, Peyton would be the one to lead this interview, exchanging good cop/bad cop roles with Dale, but normal wasn’t at play since Peyton was in love with Sophia’s daughter. Truth was, Peyton probably shouldn’t even be here, but it wasn’t Bianca’s place to toss her out. If Dale, a stickler for making sure this investigation stayed on track, had no problem with Peyton’s presence, then she was on board as well, but she’d do everything in her power to make sure they got what they came for.
Bianca turned in her chair and faced Sophia. “We need to talk. You get that right?”
Sophia’s eyes closed and she nodded her head like she was whipped. “I know.”
Bianca shot a look at Dale who motioned for her to continue. She did a mental inventory of the things they wanted to know and settled on the one that had been bothering her most. The week before they had set up a prison visit so Sophia could see her brother Arturo. The purpose of the visit had been for her to get him to disclose the whereabouts of their other sibling, Sergio, who’d been on the run ever since Arturo had been arrested. Dale had been at the prison listening in on the conversation which had been completely without substance until the very end when Arturo pulled Sophia out of range of the prison microphone and delivered an ominous warning. Bianca decided to start there. “Let’s start with what really happened when you went to see Arturo in prison. Tell us again what he said to you.”
“He spoke about the threat on Lily’s life. He said Sergio wasn’t the one threatening Lily. He said she may be a…” she winced, “a gringo, but she is part of our blood and it would take an act of complete betrayal for them to go against blood.”
“Did he tell you who did make the threat?” Bianca held back a shudder as she recalled the image of the threat against Lily, painted with what was determined later to be animal blood.
“That’s not what you told Peyton before.” Bianca looked between Peyton and Sophia.
“I’m telling the truth. He didn’t give a name. He said only that it was someone who works with you. It could be anyone, I suppose.” She gave them each a pointed look. “It could be one of you for all I know.”
Dale started to move out of her chair, but Bianca waved her back. “Really, Sophia? You honestly think one of us would threaten your daughter? Peyton is in love with her and Dale has taken a bullet during this investigation. And me? What would be my motive?”
“Your motive for what?”
They turned as a group. Jade stood in the doorframe of the kitchen. Jade. She wasn’t quite as tall now, having switched her boots for loafers, but she was every bit as striking as she had been sitting astride her horse, looking like a model for Cosmo. Before Bianca could form words, Dale jumped in.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but we have private business with Ms. Valencia.”
Jade’s full, luscious-looking lips curled into a sly smile. “Is that so?” She didn’t wait for an answer before directing her next question directly to Sophia, in Spanish.
Bianca listened and then replayed the words in her head. Jade had just asked Sophia why she had brought these people around their family. Bianca looked back and forth between them as clarity dawned. She’d been too distracted to notice the similarities before, but with the two women standing so close, it was impossible to miss. She blurted out her observation to Sophia. “Is this woman your daughter?”
Sophia flinched, but Jade merely laughed, a hard, brittle sound. She held a hand out to Bianca. “I guess dear Mother didn’t tell you her other daughter had come home. Jade Vargas.”
Bianca stared at the hand extended her way, surprise robbing her of the ability to engage in normal social graces. Vargas. She knew Sophia had changed her name long ago, when she had fallen in love with Lily’s father and defied her brothers’ insistence she remain engaged in the family enterprise. But Jade, her daughter, said the name Vargas with a cocky attitude, like she was proud of it.
Thankfully, she was spared having to come up with a suitable response because Dale asked, “You’re Jade Vargas?”
“I believe I already said that, but you people have yet to answer my question. Who are you and what are you doing here at our ranch?”
“Your ranch?” Bianca managed the feeble question, but it was Dale who answered.
“Yes, she’s the other owner of Valencia Acres. That’s what I called to tell you last night, although I didn’t know Jade was Sophia’s daughter at the time.” Dale turned to Peyton. “I’m guessing by the look on your face you didn’t know either.”
“I didn’t. And I seriously doubt Lily has any idea she has a sister.”
“Half sister,” Jade corrected her.
“I was going to tell her,” Sophia said. “When the time was right.”
A loud slap echoed through the room, and they all turned toward the sound as Jade’s hand was raised to strike the counter again. “It’s time for one of you to answer my question. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Bianca looked at Peyton who shook her head. Peyton couldn’t handle this, and no one should expect her to. Dale could, but this situation required a more delicate approach than Dale’s rough and tumble style. It was up to her. Damn. She looked up into the deep, rich brown eyes of the most gorgeous woman she’d ever met and sighed. Jade Vargas—secret sister of Peyton’s girlfriend, niece of drug dealers, crazy good-looking horsewoman. Yeah, she could handle her. No problem.