Chapter One

 

 

 

 

Signing out. Text you when it’s done. Yours, D.

Dale looked at the words she’d typed into her phone and closed her eyes. She’d sent the same words to Maria every time she’d gone into a potentially dangerous situation. The simple act of typing the text had been her lucky charm, her talisman. Until it wasn’t.

A year had passed, and she couldn’t shake the desire to type the text even though she knew no one would read it. Maria was gone—three words that never failed to dash a bucket of cold water on any lingering notions of sentiment, chilling her inside and out.

She pressed her thumb against the backspace button, slowly and methodically erasing every trace of her good-bye, but her eyes stayed closed and, against the backdrop of self-imposed darkness, she replayed the worst moments of the worst day of her life.

 

She’d powered her phone back up the minute the plane touched down. The sunrise flight from El Paso had only lasted an hour and a half, but the agent she’d met with there had promised she’d have the reports of Zeta Cartel activity in her e-mail inbox by the time she returned to Dallas. Before she could open her email account, her phone started blowing up with messages, voice and text. Her boss, Hector Diego, had called three times, and she had calls from several unfamiliar numbers, as well as a series of texts from the office with vague requests for a callback. She thumbed through them all and seized on the one call from a friend, ATF Agent Mary Lovelace. She touched the number and waited for Mary to pick up the line. She didn’t wait long.

“Dale, where are you?”

“At Love Field. Just landed. What’s up?” She pushed aside a rising sense of panic fueled by the unfamiliar anxious undercurrent in Mary’s voice. She’d met Mary during one of her tours in the Middle East where they both served in the Marine Corps. Sure and steady was their calling card, and Maria often joked that when they were on the job, folks would only be able to register one beating pulse between them.

“I’m ten minutes away,” Mary said, her voice tight with urgency. “I’m coming to get you.”

The offer of a ride was welcome since she’d been planning to catch a cab to the office, but she couldn’t help but feel something was off. “What’s the deal? Hector’s blowing up my phone, and he knows I was on a flight. Seriously, it’s like you guys can’t make it without me sometimes.”

Mary’s response was clipped and to the point. “Stay put. I’ll explain when I get there.” The line went dead before Dale could say another word, and her stomach roiled with unease. She hadn’t checked a bag, so she paced outside, watching for the sight of Mary’s Jeep and checking her watch as each of the promised ten minutes ticked slowly by before a loud honk shook her into awareness.

Mary pulled up next to her and leaned over to unlock the door. Dale barely had time to slide into her seat before Mary floored the accelerator, barely missing the Dallas cop on a Segway who shook his fist in their wake. When she looked back at Mary, her gaze was firmly fixed on the road ahead. “Where’s the fire?”

“We’ll be there in a minute.”

Dale shifted in her seat. Mary’s vague response fanned the flames of her anxiety, and as she watched familiar landmarks flash by, her apprehension became more acute. She asked again, and this time she didn’t try to hide the urgency in her voice. “Where are we going?” When Mary hesitated, she pressed the point. “It looks like we’re headed to my neighborhood. Are you going to tell me what’s going on or am I going to have to jump out at the next stoplight and figure it out for myself?”

Mary turned the Jeep down the main street that led into the Oaklawn neighborhood Dale and Maria called home. She pulled over a block from their street and turned in her seat. “Dale, I’d give anything in the world if I didn’t have to tell you this, but I need you to prepare yourself.”

“Tell me what?” Dale scoured Mary’s face for a clue, but she got nothing. Her stomach started churning, and she could feel a trickle of sweat along the back of her neck. “For Christ’s sake, Lovelace, quit stringing me along.”

“It’s Maria. There was a shooting. It happened less than an hour ago when she was leaving the house.”

Dale saw Mary place a hand on her thigh, but she barely registered the touch. Her heart thumped wildly, and her skin felt tight and suffocating. She fought for breath.“Where is she?”

Mary opened her mouth to answer, but her expression telegraphed the message before the words could leave her lips.

Dale’s gut clenched. She pushed her door open, jumped out of the Jeep, and started running. She could hear Mary’s voice calling out to her as the cement sidewalk blurred under her feet, but her entire focus was on the loud pounding of her boots against the pavement, guiding her home.

She pulled up short at the yellow ribbon of tape. Her yard, her house, a crime scene. Unbelievable.

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to step back.”

Her head took a slow motion turn toward the voice, and she registered the uniform, the badge. A local cop she didn’t know, but whose face she would never forget. Before she could growl her anger that it was he, not her, who was a trespasser, a hand touched her arm and she whirled to face her boss. She had only one question. “Where is she?”

Diego shook his head, and his eyes cast shadows of regret. “I’m sorry, Dale. She’s gone.”

Dale closed her eyes, praying when she opened them, time would have turned back to yesterday when she’d lingered in bed and tried to tempt Maria to do the same. She’d teased and cajoled, but Maria insisted she’d be late for a hearing. “When you get home,” she’d said. “We’ll spend an entire weekend in bed. I promise.”

Dale, reeling from the memory, opened her eyes, but nothing changed. Her lawn was crawling with law enforcement personnel. Measuring, photographing, bagging, and tagging—all the things she would be doing if this weren’t her house, her wife, her life. She might not be able to join in, but she had to know more. “What happened?”

Diego started talking, and she closed her eyes again to block out everything except his words. She cringed as he relayed the details provided by a neighbor who’d seen everything unfold.

Maria had walked out the front door. The neighbor waved from his own front yard. Maria called out a greeting and was bending down to retrieve the newspaper when a black SUV roared up to the curb. The neighbor had been startled at first, but the sound of rapid-fire gunshots spurred him into action. He ran back into his house and dialed 911 while straining to get a better view from his living room window. Before he was done with the call, the SUV drove off, leaving Maria sprawled on the lawn. With the phone still in his hand, he’d run across the street, screaming for help, but it was too late. Maria’s body was riddled with gunshots. She was still and lifeless, lying in a river of blood.

Dale listened to the account, allowing the horrific images to penetrate her consciousness, but filing away her pain for later. Right now, paralysis was her friend, but she needed one more thing to make sure what they were telling her was real and not some tragic nightmare. “I need to see her.”

Diego stared at her with a frown of reluctance, but finally nodded and grasped her arm. She stumbled, feeling faint, floating above her body—she wondered vaguely if she would ever feel normal again. A second later, she saw a different hand on her arm and she turned to see Mary standing beside her.

“I’ll take her.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“We’re fine.”

“I’m here if you need me.”

Dale saw their mouths move, but their words drifted through the air like they were discussing someone else, something else. Anything besides her. It didn’t matter—all the talk was just a delay of the inevitable. Without waiting for an escort, she stepped over the crime scene tape and walked slowly across her lawn toward a cluster of people kneeling on the ground. As she drew closer, she saw Mary out of the corner of her eye, waving everyone away until it was just her and the torn and bloody body of the woman she loved. She dropped to her knees, clutched her chest, and keened her sorrow, not caring who heard.

 

Dale shoved her phone into her pocket and slid her arms into the bulletproof vest, flinching as she adjusted the Velcro straps tight around her chest and shoulders. She hated the bulk and the vulnerability the vest symbolized, not to mention her left shoulder was still sore from the gunshot wound she’d gotten while checking out a lead at one of Cyrus Gantry’s warehouses. If she didn’t need to set an example for the rest of her team, the vest would have stayed in the back of her truck.

She waved at Mary, her second in command. “Do we have eyes in the building yet?”

Mary held up a finger, spoke a few words into her phone, and nodded. “Heat sensors picking up one body inside. Sniper from the house roof confirms, but he doesn’t have a clear shot. Beams are in the way.”

They’d received a tip from an unknown source early in the morning that Sergio Vargas would be doing a major deal at the barn on this property today. Dale wasn’t big on anonymous tips with no opportunity to evaluate the source, but the prospect of bringing in the fugitive chief of the Zeta Cartel was worth taking a risk on shaky information. If Sergio Vargas was in that barn, chances were he wasn’t just doing a one-time deal. He’d probably been hiding out here. The entire homestead was unoccupied, and this farm had been on the market for months. With no one to interrupt his dealings, this was the perfect setup for a drug lord on the run, and the fact that his co-captain and brother, Arturo Vargas, had been arrested just last week, probably made the solitude even more appealing. The owner had given the task force the run of the place to clear out any outlaws. Sergio Vargas’s oasis was about to become the doorway to his prison cell.

Dale glanced back at Mary and the rest of the group. Everyone was amped and ready to charge, no matter what danger lurked on the other side. She’d carefully chosen the team with her today, purposefully not including a few of the task force members she’d been working with over the past year. The events of the last week signaled someone was leaking valuable information, and until she figured out who it was, she was on high alert.

“We’ll go in from both sides with flashbangs. The object is to take Vargas alive. Do you understand?” She waited until each of the dozen agents nodded before saying anything else. “Everything by the book. If he resists, take him down, but no unnecessary force. And don’t get hurt yourselves. I can’t spare you, and I don’t have time for the paperwork.” She flashed a grin as she delivered the last words and led the way to the barn door, certain everyone on her team would follow.

When they were all in place, she shouted, “Federal agents. Come out with your hands in the air. You have five seconds to respond or we’re coming in.” She held up her hand and started ticking off the count on her fingers. When she reached five, she closed her hand in a fist and pointed to the door. Two agents were ready with a battering ram, but stood down when Mary tugged on the door and it opened.

Dale tossed a flashbang into the room, bracing for the loud noise and the acrid smell of smoke. Hoping the suspect’s visibility was impaired, she crouched down and stepped into the room, sticking close to the wall while she tried to get a read on anything moving inside. The rest of her team followed with the exception of Mary, who was assigned to secure the door in case Vargas somehow made it past them. Even if he did escape, he wouldn’t get very far. The sniper on the roof of the house next door was poised and ready to take the shot.

Through the haze, Dale detected a chair in the center of the room. Someone was seated in the chair, and as the smoke cleared, Dale saw that his hands were in his lap, held close together, and his head was covered. What the hell? She raised her gun and stealth-walked the short distance until she was standing directly behind him. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the other agents approaching from the left, and she shook her head. With the gun still pointed at the guy’s head, she sidestepped around to the front of the chair and issued a command. “Put your hands in the air. Right now!”

The guy shoved both hands skyward immediately. She was close enough to see everything clearly now. His hands were tightly bound together with twine and his head was covered with a burlap sack, most likely a castoff, found in the barn. His legs were bound to the chair with heavy rope, tied tight. If this was Sergio Vargas, someone had beaten them to him. Before she found out if they’d captured their intended prey, she shouted to the rest of her group. “Report.”

Responding shouts of clear came from the front door, the stables, and the loft. Dale waited until everyone had reported in before waving Mary over. “Go ahead and unmask him.”

She kept her gun trained on what she imagined was the spot right between his eyes, as Mary carefully lifted the sack from his head and, as every inch was revealed, Dale scrambled to make sense of what she was seeing. Finally, she could no longer deny the truth.

“Who the hell is this?” Mary said as she laid the bag on the ground. “Dale, what is it? You look white as a sheet.”

Dale stepped closer, as if reality would change upon closer inspection. No, not a chance. The man they’d captured wasn’t the highly sought Sergio Vargas, but someone she and others had been looking for. Someone she wasn’t altogether sure would be welcome now that he’d been found. The sense of familiarity was like a punch in the gut. She leaned down and removed the gag from his mouth. “Not sure what to make of the fact we found you here. You care to explain?”

The man’s voice cracked, but his tone was adamant. “I want a lawyer and I’m not talking to you without one.”

Dale shook her head. “Of course you do.” She motioned to Lieutenant Raphael Martinez, a Texas Ranger assigned to their task force. “Take him to division headquarters. I’ll call AUSA Cruz and we’ll figure out the charges. I have to make a stop on the way in. I’ll meet you there.” She walked out of the barn and back to her truck, but before she could open the door, she felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to face Mary.

“What was that all about? You know that guy?”

Dale sighed. “Let’s just say he’s a person of interest in the Cyrus Gantry case.” Mary nodded, and Dale made a split second decision to tell her the rest. “Oh, and he’s AUSA Peyton Davis’s brother, Neil.”


Chapter Two

Lindsey leaned toward Senator Levenger and posed the final question of the interview. “Are you prepared, right now, to tell the viewers of Spotlight America whether or not you plan to resign?”

The senior senator from Ohio cleared his throat and shot a furtive look at his attorney who was sitting across the room. As the seconds of silence ticked by, Levenger’s face reddened, but Lindsey simply waited for the answer. Clearly, he’d believed the show booker’s promise that she would stick to an agreed outline of acceptable questions. Lindsey had made no such promise, and she struck a pose of nonchalance as he stuttered his response. Something about duty, family, and remaining loyal to his constituents. She nodded as he spoke, but steadfastly refused to throw him a lifeline, instead preferring to let him hang himself with his own scattered attempt at an explanation.

An hour later, while she was carving into a steak at Del Frisco’s Grille, she got the call. She stared at the display on her cell phone and took a deep breath before answering. “Ryan here.”

“Ms. Ryan, I have Mr. Prince on the line.”

“Of course you do.” With a sigh, she pushed her plate aside. “Put him through.”

“Lindsey, what the hell were you thinking?”

“Uh, I don’t know, Larry. Maybe I was thinking a senator who can’t keep his hands to himself might have a constituency that wants to know if he plans to try to weather the shitstorm he sailed into. Even you can’t deny it was a fair question.”

“Fair? Who ever said we were supposed to be fair? Besides, we promised his attorney we wouldn’t ask the resignation question in order to get the exclusive, but I guess you think it was fair to pop him with it anyway, right there on live TV?”

“Sorry. I may have forgotten about that promise.” She hadn’t, and Larry didn’t believe for a moment she had, but she didn’t give a shit. Good journalism wasn’t about agreeing to what the story should be in advance, no matter what the network and their sponsors believed.

“Funny, I would’ve thought what happened after your interview with General Tyson would make you especially careful, for a while at least.”

Lindsey chewed a bite of steak instead of responding. General Randall Tyson had gotten everything he deserved as a result of the fallout from her interview. He’d openly ridiculed the president who’d appointed him as the commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, and then acted appalled when she refused his demands to edit his insults out of her broadcast. Several of the network’s key sponsors had been outraged at what they viewed as her lack of patriotism. To placate the network bigwigs, including Larry, she’d acted appropriately chastised, but when faced with Senator Levenger’s actions, her investigative instincts pushed her to ask the tough questions. “I only asked the senator what everyone else wants to, and you know it.”

“Whatever. I’ve got a new project for you on location in Dallas.”

Lindsey’s appetite plummeted at the abrupt change in subject. “We had an agreement. No more traveling for a while.”

“I may have forgotten that promise.”

Larry delivered the words in a singsong voice, and Lindsey wanted to punch him in the throat. “Don’t be an ass. We had a deal.”

“We do have a deal, but this is a puff piece. You’ll barely have to work. Infomercial about the DEA. Interview some real folks, put together a story about how they’re restructuring to meet the changing times. They have some big event coming up.” She heard the sound of shuffling papers before he continued. “It’s the tenth National Take-Back Initiative. People bring their drugs in, like those gun turn-in programs. Cover that and make it into something.”

“Sounds candy ass. Can’t you have someone else do it?”

“Susan promised someone with credibility would do the story. Naturally, I thought of you.”

Lindsey scoured his words for the hidden mine. Susan was the executive producer for Spotlight America and a network muckety-muck. A person at her level usually collected favors instead of handing them out. “Who did Susan make this promise to?”

“I don’t know and I don’t want to know. Neither do you. The important thing is you still owe me for the fallout from General Tyson and the stunt you pulled today. You realize how difficult it is to get these politicians to come on the show after they’ve imploded all over the Internet?”

Lindsey took a deep breath and silently counted to five before answering in an even tone. “Don’t get me started, Larry.”

“Look, I know coming back was an adjustment, but you’re not in a combat zone anymore. Relax and enjoy some well-deserved rest.”

“In Texas?”

“You’ll be down there a couple of weeks, tops. Cush trip. Hell, you’ll probably spend most of it in a four-star hotel going through the dailies.”

Maybe Larry had a point. Dallas wasn’t New York, but it wasn’t Afghanistan either. Puff pieces weren’t her thing, but adjusting to life back in first-world civilization had been harder than she’d expected. She could use a little down time. “I want to pick my own crew.”

A few beats of silence passed, and finally Larry said, “Uh, okay. I mean sure, camera, sound—you pick.”

“Producer?”

“I think we’ve already got someone lined up for the spot. She already did some of the prep work, and she’s ready to leave whenever you’re up to speed.”

Lindsey was certain she wasn’t imagining the nervous edge in Larry’s voice. “Larry, who is it?”

“Damn, I’ve got another call coming in. I’ll have Beth call you with the details.”

He hung up before she could get another word in, and she stared at her phone wishing she could pull back her consent. He was up to something, and she wished she knew what it was. In the meantime, she could line up the rest of her crew. She scrolled through her phone contacts until she found the number for Alice Jordan, one of the industry’s top cameramen, and she punched in her number. Alice answered on the first ring.

“Jordan.”

“Hey, it’s Lindsey. Put on your boots and hat and fly with me to Dallas.”

“Hey, girl. They got you on that piece? What did they have to offer to get you to agree?”

“You know about it already?”

“Sure. Elaina’s been making a big deal about it. She’s been working us to death on another project so she can finish up in time to head down there.”

Lindsey was only mildly shocked at the sound of her ex’s name. She and Elaina Beall had broken up a couple of years ago, and they’d somehow managed to avoid the awkwardness of working together since. So, Elaina was the producer who’d already been picked for the project. No wonder Larry hadn’t wanted to mention her name. He probably thought she’d come unhinged at the thought of working with Elaina for the first time since their very public power couple breakup. She wasn’t looking forward to it, and frankly, she was surprised Elaina had agreed to take the job. Elaina had spent their entire relationship bemoaning Lindsey’s singular focus. Work always came first—a mantra Elaina had resented from day one.

Maybe she’d changed, and maybe working together on a human interest piece devoid of controversy was the perfect way to mend fences.


Chapter Three

Dale drove her truck up the long, rocky drive to the Circle Six ranch, rehearsing how to break the news to Peyton Davis that her brother had turned up under more than a little suspicious circumstances. When she reached the main house, she saw Peyton standing on the porch with a scowl on her face. She climbed out of the truck and called out as she walked toward the house. “Sorry to just drop by. Is this a bad time?”

Peyton shook her head. “It’s fine. I heard you driving up, but I was hoping it was Lily. She was supposed to be home a couple of hours ago.”

Dale heard a slight edge of panic in Peyton’s normally calm voice, and she couldn’t help but flash back to the memory of Maria’s death she’d relived earlier that day. “Where is she?”

“She left just before lunch to go out to Valencia Acres. She and Sophia haven’t had a chance to visit in person since last week.”

“I guess they have a lot to talk about,” Dale said. Lily, Peyton’s girlfriend, had met her birth mother, Sophia Valencia, who she’d been told her entire life was dead, for the first time the week before. Unfortunately, their meeting had been marred when she’d learned that Sophia’s brothers, her uncles, were the notorious Sergio and Arturo Vargas, co-heads of the Zeta Cartel and at the very top of the most wanted list being hunted by Peyton’s federal task force.

Dale was well aware that the fact that Sergio was still on the run had Peyton worried about Lily’s safety. She didn’t blame her. Sergio and his brother were responsible for dozens of gruesome murders and, although she’d never been able to prove it, she suspected they were at least tangentially responsible for Maria’s death.

As for Lily, she wouldn’t be safe until both of her uncles were in custody. She’d personally debriefed Lily after a shootout at Sophia’s ranch that culminated in Arturo’s arrest. Before he was taken into custody, Arturo had taunted Sophia about the circumstances that led her to spend most of her life having no contact with her daughter. When Lily was only days old, Sergio and Arturo had taken Lily from her mother and handed her over to Cyrus Gantry, Lily’s natural father. In return for the privilege, Cyrus had spent his life beholden to the criminal element, while lying to his only child about her parentage, insisting she had been adopted after her mother died in childbirth, a lie that once found out, would drive Lily to distrust his every word. Cyrus’s troubles were compounded by the fact that Peyton, the woman Lily loved, was investigating him for money laundering.

Despite her own sense of foreboding, Dale searched for something encouraging to say. While she was thinking, Peyton’s mother, Helen Davis, appeared in the doorway, her expression drawn with worry.

“Is she home?” Helen asked.

Peyton shook her head. “No, but I hear someone else coming up the drive. If it’s not her, I’m going to head out.”

“Maybe they just lost track of time,” Dale offered. She flicked a glance at Helen, and Peyton introduced them. “Mom, this is Dale Nelson, the lead agent on the task force.”

Helen shook Dale’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Dale. Any chance you could help Peyton here keep a cool head? She’s been pacing the porch for the last hour.”

Peyton shook her head. “I should’ve gone with her.”

The sound of the car engine was closer, and Dale raised a hand to shield against the sunlight, but she could only make out that the vehicle was big. While the three of them stood still, watching and hoping for the best, Dale listened as Helen offered words of advice to her daughter.

“The girl needed to be with her mother without you looking over her shoulder. There’ll be plenty of time for you to get to know Sophia.” Helen put her hand on Peyton’s arm. “Lily’s a tough one. She had to get that from someone, and it sure wasn’t Cyrus. I bet Sophia can handle any trouble that comes along. You can’t protect her from everything.”

Dale nodded at the wisdom of Helen’s words, but she sincerely hoped Peyton would never have to learn that last truth the hard way.

A second later, an SUV burst out of a cloud of dust and pulled to a stop right in front of the porch. Dale watched Peyton vault over the railing, run down the walk, and yank Lily’s door open. She couldn’t hear their exchange, but she imagined their words were laced with comfort and affection. She was happy for them, but couldn’t help but feel a trace of pain as she witnessed the relief of their reunion.

Peyton looped her arm through Lily’s as they walked toward the house and Lily called out a greeting. “Hello, Agent Nelson. Good to see you again. Mrs. Davis, I’m sorry I’m late, but there was a wreck on the highway and traffic was crawling. My phone was in the backseat, and I didn’t want to risk a wreck trying to get it. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

Before Dale could say anything, Helen pulled Lily into a fierce hug and said, “Don’t you Mrs. Davis me, young lady. I’m just glad you’re home. Now, I imagine these gals have a bit of business to discuss, so come inside and have some iced-tea with me.”

“Wait,” Dale said.

“What’s up?” Peyton asked.

“Maybe all three of you should hear this.”

“Out with it,” Peyton said.

“We got a tip on Sergio Vargas earlier today, and we conducted a raid at a farm over in Denton this morning.”

“Let me guess,” Peyton said. “He got away.”

“He wasn’t there. At least not when we arrived. But he’d been there and left us a present.” Dale shifted in place, unsure how her news would be received. “Your brother Neil was in the barn, tied up and left behind.”

“What the hell?”

“I’m not sure what to make of it, but the minute we found him, he clammed up, asking for a lawyer. I thought maybe he might talk to you. I can give you a ride in.”

Dale watched Peyton struggle to process the news that her brother, who’d disappeared after she’d caught him manipulating the family business, had turned up under even more nefarious circumstances. Peyton’s expression quickly changed from disbelief to anger.

“You should go,” Lily said, placing an arm around Peyton’s waist. “He might talk to you, and answers are what you need. Family’s complicated.”

Lily’s words and touch seemed to have a calming effect on Peyton who agreed to accompany Dale to the DEA office where Neil was being detained. As they drove into town, Dale couldn’t help but wonder what Peyton would have done if Lily weren’t around and, as she once again relived the pain of her own loss, she hoped she would never have to find out.

Dale waited until they were on the highway before attempting to engage Peyton in conversation. “I think he just got in over his head.”

“Neil’s always had big dreams, but he doesn’t understand having to work to make them come true. He’s the perfect pawn for a get-rich-quick scheme, but he’s also culpable for his actions. He has no one else to blame for the mess he’s made.”

“Like Lily said, family’s complicated.”

“Understatement of the year. What about you? You have much family?”

Dale winced at the question. She realized Peyton was asking about extended family, brothers and sisters, mom and dad, but the question nagged at the sore spot she feared would never go away. Maria Escobar, her wife and the prosecutor who’d held Peyton’s job before her, had been her family, her most precious treasure. Time had numbed the pain, but she didn’t think she could ever think family without feeling the enormous void Maria’s death had left in her life. She’d watched the way Peyton ran to Lily’s side at the ranch—eager to see her, desperate to know she was safe, affectionate no matter who was watching. She’d had that once, and now it was gone.

“Sorry, that was insensitive.”

Dale shook her head. “It was a fair question. I have an older brother and a younger sister. They both live near our parents in Austin. Law enforcement, through and through. Guess it only made sense I married a prosecutor.”

“I hear she was as tough as they come.”

Tough. Not a word she would have used to describe Maria, but it was true. Tough when it came to her job, but gentle in every way Dale needed when she came home after a day of watching ugliness try to take over the world. Maria had convinced her they could be safe in the home they’d built for themselves. That it would be the one place where viciousness of the world could not penetrate.

She’d been wrong. Their home had offered no protection when Maria walked out the front door into a haze of gunfire. The medical examiner told her Maria had died in seconds, but Dale knew when she was being pacified. No one knew what Maria had suffered, what she’d thought in those final seconds, how she’d felt. All Dale knew was her own feelings—anger, sadness, guilt, but most of all, loneliness. What Peyton had found in Lily, she’d had all that and more. When it was ripped from her, she’d known she’d never have it again. The job was all she had, and she’d vowed to spend every waking moment until her dying breath finding justice for Maria and for all the other innocent victims of the vicious Cartels.

“Are you okay?”

Dale looked over at Peyton whose eyes reflected concern. “Yeah, I’m good.” Peyton’s expression didn’t change, but she nodded and didn’t ask anything else. Good thing since she didn’t plan to answer any more questions. Maria wasn’t a topic for casual conversation. She’d grown to respect Peyton since she’d shown up to take over the task force, but they weren’t at the point where they swapped sad stories. Just to make sure, she took the lead and changed the subject. “Let’s talk about Neil. What are you going to say to him?”

“I wish I knew. Have you got enough to charge him with anything?”

“Not yet.”

“Good. I think we need to make sure he knows he’s free to leave and then go from there. I’m pretty sure I can rile him enough to get him to talk to me. He likes to brag, especially to me.”

“You really want to let him go?”

“No, but making him think we do is probably the only way we can use anything he says. If he’s not free to go, we’re going to have to read him his rights, which pretty much kills any chance of him mistaking this conversation for a simple brother sister conversation.”

Dale heard the rumble of anger in Peyton’s voice. “You’re really pissed at him.”

“He had everything he could ever want and squandered it. I walked away from the ranch, the horse breeding, all of it, mostly because I knew I could be happy doing something else, but running the Circle Six was the only future he could see, and then he wasted the opportunity with his schemes. We’re in real danger of losing the ranch if we don’t honor some of the agreements he made, but if we do, we risk losing everything we wanted the ranch to be. I never should have left, and I never should have given away my birthright, especially to someone who wasn’t worthy of it.”

Dale reached over and placed a hand on Peyton’s shoulder. She got it. The passion, the anger, the purpose. Being on the job came with all of those, and she couldn’t help but feel she’d let her love for Maria distract her from the danger of their work. Part of her purpose was to protect, but the most precious person in her life had died on her watch because she’d been distracted by the desire to bring home a bigger prize. If she had things to do over, she would have… Hell, she’d been over it a thousand times, but she’d never come up with anything plausible except it should have been her on the lawn that day. Riddled with bullets, bleeding out, dying in the line of duty.

But she hadn’t died, and every day she lived, she could either regret her choices or make them worth something. She’d never bring Maria back, but she could make sure the work they’d done together continued so others could be spared. She wouldn’t let anything get in the way of running to ground every last drug dealer and anyone who helped them, which led her to bring up a subject she’d been dreading. “Peyton, I get the whole thing with your brother, and I know it was my idea that you come down and talk to him, but at some point we should talk about how you’re going to handle Cyrus Gantry. If you’re prosecuting his case, then folks are going to call the entire prosecution into question based on your relationship with his daughter.”

Peyton didn’t respond at first, but Dale waited out the silence, determined to get some answers. Maybe Peyton would think she’d overstepped, but she wasn’t about to let the AUSA’s love life muck up the investigation she’d dedicated her every waking moment to.

“You’re right, and the Vargas connection is a problem too,” Peyton said. “I’ve got to steer clear of the cases against all of them, and I will.”

“Good. Who’s taking your place?”

“Well, I’m not quitting the task force entirely. I’ll work on some tangential cases, but I’m going to recommend that Bianca take the lead on the case against Cyrus and the Vargas brothers.”

“She’s a little green, don’t you think?” Dale asked, unsure if replacing a conflicted prosecutor with an inexperienced one was the best solution.

“There’s only one way she’s going to learn. I get how important this is, and I promise, if I didn’t think she was ready, I would be the first to say so. Trust me on this just like I’m trusting you to make sure this case remains the number one priority for the task force.”

“You don’t have to worry about me.” Dale pulled into the parking lot of the Dallas division of the DEA where Neil was being held. “I don’t plan on letting anything get in the way.”