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Close to Heaven: A Colorado High Country Christmas (Colorado High Country #5) —
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About Me

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I grew up in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then lived in Denmark and traveled throughout Europe before coming back to Colorado. I have two adult sons, whom I cherish. I started my writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor of two different papers. Along the way, my team and I won numerous state and several national awards, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service. In 2011, I was awarded the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. Now I write historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense.

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Seductive Musings

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hawt summer reading




Thanks so much to Jenn LeBlanc for sharing her amazing photos of Denver hotties with us yesterday for Man-Titty Monday. It takes a certain courage and craziness to walk up to hot men in gyms and ask them if they’d like to pose naked for you. It makes me wish I’d learned to take decent photographs!

If you want to check out Jenn’s illustrated romance, click here to visit her website. The idea of having photos from love scenes... Well, it has a certain appeal.

So what’s on your summer reading list?

Mine includes:

The rest of Christy Reece’s wonderful CHANCE books. I read the first one and then got derailed by surgery and trying to finish Breaking Point.

Marie Force’s FATAL series and Gansett Island trilogy. The first, Maid for Love, came out in April. The second, Fool for Love, came out this weekend and is is live at Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords if any of you want to give her a try.

Anna Campbell’s new historical Midnight's Wild Passion. She sent me a signed book from Australia, and I just love the cover. The colors are so lovely.

Julie James’ first two books — Just the Sexiest Man Alive and Practice Makes Perfect. (I loved Something About You and A Lot Like Love).

Can you tell I haven’t had time to read apart from research lately?

Also, Elisabeth Naughton has a book coming out today that sounds right up my alley. It’s actually an anthology titled succinctly Bodyguards in Bed and featuring novellas from Lucy Monroe and Jamie Denton, as well as Elisabeth Naughton.

Here’s the blurb from the back:


Bodyguards in Bed

There’s just one cardinal rule when it comes to being a bodyguard: no matter how tempting it may be, never, ever get romantically involved with the person you’re supposed to be protecting. But as these sensual novellas prove, even the most important rules are made to be broken–again and again and again. Join acclaimed authors Lucy Monroe, Jamie Denton, and Elisabeth Naughton as they open the files on an undercover operative who finds a sexy surprise under his covers, a hot case involving mixed messages and mistaken identities, and a mission impossible protecting a provocative beauty who lives to love dangerously.


Yeah, it’s a hard job,
but someone’s gotta do it.

What caught my attention was Naughton’s novella, "Acapulco Heat," perhaps because I’ve just recently written a novel about Mexico.

Here’s the blurb from "Acapulco Heat"

Sun, sand, skin and plenty of sex. That’s the name of the game in beautiful Acapulco.

Bodyguard Finn Tiernay’s new gig in the sultry city is nothing short of perfect. Too bad he can’t stand it. Hired to protect supermodel Lauren Kauffman during her very public, very sexy cosmetic shoot on the beach, Finn’s itching for a serious assignment and the chance to get away from the hot bod who’s set her sights set on him. Their mutual attraction has been brewing for some time, but he’s got no use for the super wealthy, isn’t about to become another diva’s boy toy. His no-fun-at-work motto might get him booted out of her bed, but when danger strikes, she won’t be able to shake him. And when he discovers things aren’t what they seem and that she’s more than a pretty face and smokin’ body, all bets are off. Lauren Kauffman’s about to take Finn for a ride he never saw coming. And there’s no telling who will survive.


Naughton totally had me at “Sand, sun and plenty of sex.” Sounds good to me!

The anthology got good a review from Publishers Weekly, so I think this will be my lazy-day read. Click here to read an excerpt.

So what releases are you looking forward to this summer?

Friday, May 27, 2011

I-Team Heroes Poll

Marc Hunter when Sophie meets him in prison (subtract leather jacket and shades)

We’re down to the last 24 hours of my latest poll, and I have no trouble predicting that Marc Hunter will be the big winner.

I am really surprised. I’ve been saying that all week. No matter how many votes came in, the spread remained basically the same. I really expected Julian or Zach to lead, followed by Marc, then Gabe, then Reece.

Reece Sheridan

I knew that Reece, lacking the über-alpha law enforcement personality, would come in behind the others. That's okay. He’s very secure in his manhood and understands. But I truly thought that Darcangelo — aka Dark Angel, aka Dorkangelo, aka Dickangelo — would come in first. He seems to get so much attention.

Zach McBride

I talked with some of you about this on Marie Force’s blog — the inner war of an author over which of her characters she hopes is most popular. Here’s how it goes.

A Writer’s Internal Monologue

“I hope they vote for Zach! If they do, it means they loved his story and that I wrote him well. Yes, I hope they vote for Zach! The book has been really popular, so they must all love him. Maybe my agent is right that my writing is getting better.

“Except that... if they vote for Zach, does that mean all the other heroes are crap and that those books stunk? Maybe the book were awful and no one could really bring herself to tell me that. Oh, God, they can’t all vote for Zach!
Did they love none of the others? Did Marc’s sacrifice and Gabe’s great loss mean nothing to them? What about the sucky-swirly thing?

“But what if they don’t vote for Zach? OMG! That will mean Breaking Point was meh and he was the Navy SEAL girly-man of romance novels. It means I’ll have written the only un-sexy Navy SEAL in U.S. history!”


And so it goes.

I’ve actually talked about this with people at work. Yes, they know the poll is going on. Most of them haven’t read the books — no reason they should — and don’t know Dickangelo from a hole in the ground. But they sure know what I think...

So here’s one theory for Marc’s success:

The poignancy of Unlawful Contact was built strongly upon the very real concept that Sophie and Marc had no future. Their time together was limited. The story could only end in one of two ways — either Marc dies in a hail of bullets or he’s locked away in prison. That heightened both the suspense and the sexual tension and gave each and every scene a sense of desperation. The fact that Marc is willing to hold a gun to Sophie’s head and the swagger with which he goes on the run makes him a bad boy — not a pretend bad boy who seems menacing but is just a fuzzy kitty cat. He actually does some bad stuff. But he does it for reasons we understand.

That’s my theory.


Julian Darcangelo

Julian is... well, he’s Julian, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that he comes in No. 2. Perhaps the gap between him and Marc is wider than I imagined, but he is indisputably No. 2.

And Zach... Well, he’s No. 3 with Gabe not far behind him at No. 4.

Gabe Rossiter

And Reece is exactly where I knew he’d be.

So the silly part of this poll is that very few of you wanted to vote for one hero. I got lots of messages about the unfairness of having to choose one. Sorry, but that’s how this one went. And it was revealing.

Someone asked me if this will influence my future I-Team stories. Knowing what I know, will this impact the kind of heroes I write?

Yes, and then again no.

I can’t write a series of novels about guys who break out of prison or who are convicts on the run. That would get old fast, and I don’t like repeating myself. Plus, after five or so escapes, our entire prison system would be overhauled.

BUT I do know you love the I-Team heroes. Even if Marc is in the lead, every one of them got some love and some campaign support. No one took off his pants to find himself alone.

I wrote Marc when I was pining for Julian. I had such a hard time putting Julian behind me. All I could think was, “I'll never be able to top Julian. Ever.” So I decided I would have to forget the idea of writing a hero who was somehow BETTER than Julian and instead focus on telling a story that was special in its own way. Its hero and heroine would be unique, too. And that way, maybe, I could write a hero equal to Julian.

So that’s what I try to do, and that’s what I’ll keep doing — trying to write characters, both heroes and heroines, you can love for who they are. And I’ll try to stop the monologue in my head.

In the meantime, please enjoy your long weekend. Memorial Day is about real heroes, men and women who gave their lives in service to their country. I hope we all take time amid bike rides and barbecues to remember them — and the loved ones they left behind.


Monday, May 02, 2011

BREAKING POINT IS OUT! Contests, blogs & more!



Breaking Point is out!

Today is the day! It’s here at last. Yes, it’s Release Day for Breaking Point, my 10th novel and the fifth novel in the I-Team series. Uncork the champagne!

There’s a lot going on today with lots of chances to win books. Here are some of the highlights.

First, you might want to follow me on Twitter. I’ll be announcing any special giveaways or other fun events there.

Also, be sure to stop by my Facebook fan page. We’ll be having some fun there. A few other authors will be stopping by to talk about their books and hold giveaways. Plus, I’ll be holding a drawing for Amazon gift cards and signed copies of Breaking Point. To be entered, you’ll need to comment, and to comment, you’ll need to “Like” me. But you already like me, right?

I’m the guest author today at Seductive Musings, where Booklover has outdone herself in a post that includes a little guest piece by me, as well as the MP3 playlist from Breaking Point, a collection of links to Breaking Point excerpts scattered across the web, links to all kinds of I-Team extras — and some super-sexy photos of the I-Team heroes. It really is quite the I-Team extravaganza, almost an I-Team wiki, so even if you already have a copy of Breaking Point, you’re going to have a lot of fun.

There’s a fun chat between me and Marie Force on her blog today. Yes, two author/journalists dishing about dishy heroes and some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the I-Team series — including the scarier parts of my life that have gone into the books. It took us about a week to have this conversation via email because we’re both so busy. She would ask a question... And 12 hours later I would answer. But stop by, tell us which I-Team hero you wouldn’t kick out of bed, and be entered to win a signed copy of Breaking Point.

Reviews are popping up all over the Internet. I shared a few links to reviews in my last post, including this one by Kristin and Jess that was lots of fun. I also shared the first two chapters of the book. So if you want to peruse that, it’s still waiting for you, together with images that come out of the story.

If you want to help me spread the word, here’s what you can do:

  1. Post about Breaking Point in your Facebook status, linking to my Facebook page or to an excerpt — whatever you believe your friends would love to know about the book.
  2. Tweet and retweet, sharing links and updates about where you are in the story, what you enjoyed, where you saw the book on display. And don’t forget to use the hashtag #BreakingPoint.
  3. Update your status in Goodreads to let people know where you are in the book.
  4. Take photos with your cellphone of displays of the book or of you reading the book and email them to me (my email is listed in my info on Facebook).I might just post your photo on my blog.
  5. Post honest reviews after you read the book, sharing your feelings about the stories strengths and weakness (as if!). Don’t try to sell people. Just tell them, reader to reader, what you liked (or didn’t like — ha!) about the book.
  6. Mention what you’re reading in your readers groups, in chats, in threads on discussion boards.
  7. Fricking get a megaphone and stand inside your local book store shouting, “You haven’t read the I-Team? What the bleep is wrong with you?”

On May 12, I’ll be participating in the Berkley/Jove Author Chat on Writerspace.com. The fun starts at 9 PM EST. I will be giving away a signed copy of the book to one participant in that chat. To be a part of it, click here and sign yourself in. It’s easy. Other Berkley/Jove authors will be there, as well. These chats sometimes get a bit bawdy. A bunch of romance authors and readers chatting semi-anonymously? You bet they get bawdy. I once taught a group of women how to say “big, wonderful cock” in Danish during one of these chats, and you know what? They still know how to say it. They say it every time I run into them online, in fact. And my Danish friends wonder what the hell...

Ahem. Anyway, there will be other events coming up through the month, so stay tuned! I still hope to get a former U.S. Marshal in here to talk with you, as well as the I-Team heroes, which now number five strong. And by strong I mean ripped.

Wow. Ten novels. I know some authors have written more than 100. But to write those 10 novels while working full-time and raising kids... It truly feels like a day worth celebrating.

But the most wonderful part of being an author and writing these books has been sharing them with all of you. I really do read all of your e-mails. I read your Facebook posts and tweets. And on days when I’m struggling, you really keep me going. When a book is done and it reaches your hands — that’s the best moment for me. Characters I love and have lived with for months become characters we share. Their stories become shared adventures.

So thank you to all of my readers and posters, my friends and family, for your support and for sharing this great adventure with me.

Enjoy Breaking Point!

And then come back to chat with me about it!

Contest #1: Really want to help me spread the word? Join my Fan Page on Facebook, and get your romance-reading friends to join, too. The person who brings the most new people to my Facebook Fan Page wins a signed copy of Breaking Point for herself — and one for one of her friends chosen through a random drawing. So that I can keep track, be sure to have your friends tell me you sent them.

Contest #2: Tweet your heart out. How creative are your tweets? How many times can you get yourself retweeted? The person who generates the most tweets and retweets with the hashtag #BreakingPoint will win a signed copy of the book. All I have to do to determine the winner is click on the hashtag and count.

And because these two contests might not work for people in other time zones or those who have to work all day — some bosses are total asshats when it comes to letting their employees goof off online during working hours — here’s Contest #3: Post a comment here about your favorite I-Team moment and be entered into a random drawing for a signed copy of the book.

(I can tell you right now, Breaking Point has an I-Team moment you won’t soon forget. Almost everyone who’s read the story has mentioned it.)

That’s three contests and four winners.

As for my part, I took the day off so that I could hang with you all day!

Now go get him. Zach in all of his Navy SEAL/Deputy U.S. Marshal glory is yours!
Sunday, May 01, 2011

First two chapters of BREAKING POINT — 1 day to go!


Tomorrow is the day!

We’re down to the last 24 hours before Breaking Point is released. Some of you have already read it, either because you won the book as a prize or you got a copy from Barnes & Noble, which released the book early.

As a result, there are reviews popping up all over the Internet. Click here to read one by Kristin and Jess that’s a little different from the rest. Or click here to read one from Night Owl Romance. Goodreads has quite a number of them up. Romance Reviews Today has one that’s about to go live.

In the meantime, I thought I’d put us in the mood for Zach and Natalie’s story by posting the first two chapters from the book here. Enjoy!





CHAPTER 1

Natalie Benoit watched the streets of Ciudad Juárez roll by outside the bus window, wishing the driver would turn up the air conditioning. It wasn’t yet noon and already the city was an oven. Even the palm trees seemed to wither in the July heat.

“With three other seasons in the year, why did SPJ have to choose summer for this conference?” She fanned herself with her copy of the day’s program, perspiration trickling between her breasts.

“Don’t tell me you think it’s hot, chula.” Joaquin Ramirez, the newspaper’s best shooter, grinned at her from across the aisle, his camera still aimed out the window. “This can’t be any worse than New Orleans in the summer.”

“Is that where you are from, Miss Benoit—New Orleans?” Enrique Marquez, a journalist from Culiacán, glanced back from the seat in front of her, his Spanish accent making both her name and the name of her hometown sound exotic. In his fifties, he was still a handsome man, with salt-and-pepper hair, a well-trimmed moustache and brown eyes that twinkled whenever he spoke of his grandchildren.

“Can’t you tell by her accent?” Joaquin gave Natalie a wink.

Natalie ignored Joaquin, refusing to take the bait. “Yes, sir. I was born there and grew up in the Garden District.” Which was why she did not have an accent, no matter what her colleagues might think. “I left Louisiana many years ago and live in Denver now.”



She hoped Sr. Marquez would let it go, but was almost certain he wouldn’t. Mention New Orleans, and people just had to ask about the storm. Given that journalists were far more curious than most people, Natalie supposed his next question was inevitable.

“Did you live there during Hurricane Katrina?”

She looked out the window, letting the words come with no thought and no emotion, as if what they represented meant nothing to her. “Yes, sir. It was a terrible time for so many of us. I moved to Denver after that.”

She said nothing about where she’d been during the storm or what she’d witnessed or what had happened to her fiancé, Beau, and her parents in the aftermath.

“Lo siento. I am sorry, Miss Benoit.”

No le gusta hablar de eso,” Joaquin said softly.

Natalie didn’t speak Spanish well, but she understood that much. And Joaquin was right. She didn’t like to talk about it. Even six years later, it still hurt too much.

People told her she should move on, get over it, get on with her life. Oh, how she hated those words! They were easy to say, but no one had yet been able to explain to her exactly how she was supposed to “move on.” Mourning her parents had been hard enough, but she’d always known she would lose them one day. She’d never expected to lose Beau. How could she “get over” him? How could she forget the man who’d died out of love for her?

It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried to move on. Selling her parents’ home—the house at First and Chestnut where she’d grown up—had been a big step, as had moving to Denver. After a year, she’d stopped wearing her engagement ring. She’d even joined an online dating service and gone on several dates. But none of the men she’d met, no matter how intelligent, kind or attractive, had sparked anything inside her.

It was as if some part of her had forgotten how to feel.

Banamex. Telcel. McDonald’s. Lucerna. Pemex.

The names of banks, businesses, restaurants and gas stations drifted before her, barely registering with her mind. What she did notice were the vibrant colors of the buildings. Bright oranges. Vivid blues. Lush greens. Lemony yellows. And blazing blood reds. Everywhere reds. It was as if the residents of Juárez had decided to strike a blow on behalf of color in defiance of the drab brown landscape that surrounded them.

Natalie had signed up for the trip because she’d wanted to get away from the newsroom for few days. She’d been working at the Denver Independent for almost three years now, and she felt stuck in some kind of professional ennui. Not that she didn’t love her job. She did. Having a spot on the paper’s award-winning Investigative Team—the I-Team—was every investigative journalist’s dream. But journalism wasn’t a low-stress profession even on the best of days.

Burn-out was a very real hazard of the job. Or maybe the lethargy that had taken over the rest of her life was affecting her job now, too.

Regardless, she’d needed a change of pace, and this trip had offered that.

She and thirty-nine other journalists—most American, some Mexican—had crossed the border from El Paso into Juárez early this morning, part of a three-day convention and tour put together by the Society of Professional Journalists and the U.S. State Department as a way of bringing Mexican and American journalists together to learn about the intermingled issues of immigration, the drug trade, and human trafficking. They’d started the day with breakfast at the U.S. consulate. Then, under the protection of two dozen armed federales, they’d toured a police station and the offices of El Diario, the local newspaper, where bullet holes in the walls reminded them just how dangerous it was to be a journalist in Juárez.

“And I thought my job sucked,” one of the other American reporters had said, running his fingers over the scarred wall.

The sight of those bullet holes—and the empty desk of the journalist who’d been killed—had put a few things in perspective for Natalie, too. The worst thing she had to put up with during the course of the average workday was her editor’s temper. But no amount of yelling from Tom Trent could compare to flying bullets.

Now they were on their way to the Museo de Historia—the beautiful Museum of History—where President Taft had once dined. After that, they’d visit a new five-star hotel in the downtown area for lunch. It was clear that Mexican officials were proud of their town and were making certain that the tour included a look at the beauty and culture of Juárez, and not just the violence for which the city was unfortunately known.

She couldn’t blame them for that. There were at least two sides to every story, and although the drug cartels made headlines, most people who lived here were decent men and women just trying to raise families and live their lives. Despite the poverty the unremitting violence, Ciudad Juárez was a city that still dared to hope.

In the streets below, a young mother, her dark hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail, pushed a baby in a stroller. A shopkeeper in a royal blue apron swept the stone steps of his store. Two teenage boys in bright white T-shirts and jeans walked past a gaggle of pretty girls, their heads craning for a better look as the girls passed them. The girls, well aware of this attention, covered their mouths with their hands and broke into giggles. Nearby, two elderly gentlemen sat on a bench, lost in conversation, straw fedoras on their heads, cigars in their hands.

Natalie felt the bus lurch to a stop but was so caught up in the tableau outside her window that she didn’t realize something was wrong until the scene changed. The teenage boys stopped, then turned and ran up an alley. The shopkeeper dropped his broom and disappeared indoors. The woman with the stroller grabbed her baby and backed into a doorway, leaving the empty stroller to roll down the sidewalk, a look of fear on her face. The two old men dropped to their knees and crouched behind the bench.

And then Natalie heard it—the grinding fire of automatic weapons.

Shattered glass. Screams. Staccato bursts of gunfire.

“Madre de Dios!”

“What the hell?”

“Natalie! Natalie, get down!”

Joaquin’s shout of warning pierced Natalie’s shock and disbelief. She ducked into the small space between her seat and the seatback in front of her, crouching against the floor, shards of glass falling around her like rain. Pulse pounding in her ears, she looked across the aisle, her gaze locking with Joaquin’s as he reached out and closed his hand over hers.

# # #

It was pain and thirst that woke him.

For a moment Zach MacBride thought he was back in Afghanistan, lying at the top of that canyon wall in the Hindu Kush mountains, an AK-47 round in his back. He opened his eyes to see pitch black and then remembered. He wasn’t in Afghanistan. He was in Mexico. And he was a captive—blindfolded and chained to a brick wall.

He raised his head and realized he was lying shirtless on his right side, his hands shackled behind his back, his bare skin resting against the filthy stone floor. His mouth was dry as sand. His wrists were blistered and bloody where the manacles had rubbed them raw. His cracked ribs cut into his left side like a blade.

He tried to sit, but couldn’t.

Damn!

He was weaker than he’d realized.

Then something hard and multi-legged brushed his chest as it skittered by, bringing him upright on a punch of adrenaline. Pain slashed through his side, breath hissing between his clenched teeth as he bit back a groan. He wasn’t afraid of the mice or the spiders, but they weren’t the only creatures in here with him. The one time the Zetas had removed his blindfold, he’d seen scorpions. And the last damned thing he needed was a scorpion sting.

Dizzy from hunger, his heart pounding from sleep deprivation and dehydration, he leaned his right shoulder against the brick wall and tried to catch his breath, the chain that held him lying cold and heavy along his spine.

How long had he been here? Five days? No, six.

And where exactly was here?

Somewhere between Juárez and hell.

They were giving him only enough food and water to keep him alive, his hunger and thirst incessant, mingling with pain, making it hard to sleep. Only once in his life had he been this physically helpless. Only then it had been even worse.

If he survived, if he made it out of here alive, he would track down Gisella and kill her— or at least hand her over to D.C. The little bitch of a Mexican INTERPOL agent had set him up, betrayed him to the Zetas. She’d known what would happen to him—the Zetas were infamous for their brutality—and still she’d handed him over to them with a smile on her lying lips.

At least you didn’t sleep with her, buddy.

Yeah, well, at least he could feel good about that. It would suck right now to have her taste in his mouth or her scent on his skin, knowing that she’d put him through this. Long ago he’d made it a rule never to get involved with women while on assignment, and despite Gisella’s persistent attempts to get him to break that rule, he’d kept his dick in his pants.

Hell, they should carve that on your headstone, MacBride.

If he got a headstone.

Would they put up a grave marker for him if they didn’t have a body to bury? Barring one hell of a miracle, he’d soon be scattered across the desert in small pieces. A year or two from now, someone would spot a bit of bleached bone in the sand and wonder what it was. No one would ever know for sure what had happened to him.

Besides, who was there to buy a grave plot or erect a headstone? His fellow DUSMs? Uncle Sam? His closest friends were dead. His mother was gone, too. He hadn’t spoken to his father since his mother’s funeral four years ago. And there was no one else in his life—no girlfriend, no wife, no kids.

You’re a popular guy.

He’d always thought he’d get married one day and do the family thing. He’d imagined a pretty wife, a couple of kids, a house near the ocean. But life hadn’t turned out that way.

He’d met lots of girls in college, but none who’d held his interest. Then a confrontation with his father had sent him into the Navy. He’d tackled Officers Candidate School and then almost two years of SEAL training. The only women who’d been available during his short periods of leave were either professionals or women who were so desperate to marry a Navy SEAL that they spread their legs for every frogman they met. Call him strange, but he’d never found the idea of paying for sex or being used appealing. He’d wanted a woman who loved him for himself and not his SEAL trident. But war had interfered, and he’d never found her.

Something tightened in his chest, a wave of regret passing through him.

Feeling sorry for yourself?

No. He’d made his choices. He’d done what he thought was right. And although his life hadn’t turned out the way he might once have hoped, it was better this way. He’d seen firsthand what happened to women and children when the men they loved and depended on were killed in action. At least he wouldn’t be leaving a grieving wife and children behind.

Okay, so no headstone.

Mike, Chris, Brian and Jimmy were in Arlington resting beneath slabs of white marble, but for Zach it would be saguaro and open sky. That was okay. He liked the desert. And even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t make one damned bit of difference once he was dead.

Which will be soon if you can’t find a way out of this.

Not that he was afraid to die. He’d expected his job would catch up with him one day. In fact, some part of him had been counting on it.

But not yet. And not like this.

He’d been about to wrap up the biggest covert operation of his career when Gisella had called him and asked him to meet her at a nightclub in downtown Juárez, claiming to have intel vital for catching Arturo Cesár Cárdenas, the head of Los Zetas, who was wanted in the United States for the murder of Americans on U.S. soil. So Zach had grabbed his gun and fake ID—he never carried revealing documentation when he was working a black bag job like this—then crossed the border and headed straight to the club, where he’d found Gisella, dressed to kill, sitting at the bar. She’d bought him a Coke, walked with him to a table near the rear exit, and started telling him something about a shipment of stolen coke. And then…

And then—nothing.

The drink had been drugged. When Zach had awoken, he’d found himself here, surrounded by pissed off Zetas demanding to know whom he worked for and where he’d hidden the cocaine. He couldn’t answer the first question because it would imperil the entire operation, putting the lives of others at risk. And he couldn’t answer the second because he hadn’t stolen any coke and had no idea where it was. But his refusal to talk had only angered the Zetas more.

So they’d brought in a specialist—a man who knew how to inflict pain while keeping his victims alive. Electric shock was his area of expertise. He’d gone to work on Zach two days ago, and so far the two of them were at an impasse. He’d been able to make Zach pass out. He’d made him bite his own tongue trying not to scream. He’d made him want to cry like a baby. But he hadn’t made him talk.

Zach had the Navy and SERE training to thank for that—Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. Designed to help SEALs survive behind enemy lines, his training had been a godsend, helping him through hour after excruciating hour. Even though he was no longer in the military, he’d instinctively fallen back on that training, silently reciting bits and pieces of the military code of conduct, using it to stay strong.

I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense… I will never surrender of my own free will… If I am captured, I will resist by all means available… I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability… I will make every effort to escape…

As weak as he was, he knew he didn’t stand a chance of escaping. And that meant there was only one thing left for him to do—keep his mind together long enough for his body to give out, long enough for him to die as he ought to have done six years ago.

Killed in the line of duty.

It had a nice ring to it.

Strange to think there’d been a time when he’d thought of taking the coward’s way out. He’d come home from the war and tried to return to civilian life. But then the nightmares had started. The doctors had said it was PTSD, but didn’t have any answers for him that didn’t come in a pill. The Navy had pinned a medal on his chest and called him a hero. But there was nothing heroic about him. He’d come back from Afghanistan, and his men had not.

Finally, it had overwhelmed him, and he’d spent a long couple of months drinking rum and contemplating eating his own gun. But he hadn’t been able to do it. How would he have been able to face Mike, Chris, Brian and Jimmy if he’d committed suicide?

At least now when he met them, he wouldn’t have to feel ashamed.

Raucous laughter drifted into his cell from across the courtyard, voices drawing nearer, boots crunching on gravel.

Zach stiffened, dread uncoiling in his stomach, rising into his throat.

They were coming for him again.

Jesus!

He drew as deep a breath as his broken ribs would allow, swallowing his panic with what was left of his spit.

I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense. I will never surrender of my own free will.

# # #

“Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu Nombre.”


Holding fast to Joaquin’s hand, Natalie looked to her right, where Sr. Marquez crouched against the sliver-strewn floor, eyes closed, a rosary in his trembling hands, his whispered prayers barely audible over the pounding of her heart. She didn’t understand everything he was saying, and it had been years since she’d been to Mass, but she recognized the cadence of the prayer, her mind latching onto the English words, speaking them along with him in her mind.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The door of the bus exploded inward in a spray of glass.

Too afraid even to scream, Natalie watched as three armed men in dark green military fatigues stomped up the stairs, pistols in hand, automatic weapons slung on straps over their shoulders. One stopped long enough to point a pistol at the bus driver, whose pleading cries were cut short with a pop that splattered blood across the windshield.

Screams. Black boots. Another pop.

Sr. Marquez prayed faster, his voice shaking. “Danos hoy el pan de este día y perdona nuestras ofensas así como nosotros perdonamos a lost que nos ofendan.”

Then Natalie heard the mechanical click and buzz of Joaquin’s camera. Somehow she’d let go of his hand, her face now buried in her palms. She looked up, saw him lying out in the aisle, his camera pointed toward their attackers, a look of focused concentration on his face as he did his job—documenting the news.

She whispered to him. “Joaquin, no! They’ll kill—”

The boots drew nearer.

Joaquin kept shooting. Click. Click. Click.

“¡No! Por favor, no—” No, please don’t—

Pop!

Screams.

And Natalie understood.

They were killing the Mexican citizens on the bus but leaving the Americans alive.

Pop! Pop!

She looked over at Joaquin, at his dark hair, his brown eyes, his brown skin, and was blindsided by fear for him. They would think Joaquin was Mexican. And they would kill him.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

Blood ran along the floor, pooled beneath the seats, the air stung by the smell of it.

Pop! Pop!

“Y no nos dejes caer en la tentación sino que líbranos del malo. Amen.” Sr. Marquez opened his eyes, his gaze meeting Natalie’s, rosary still in his hands. “I am sorry, Miss Benoit.”

And then the men in the boots were there.

Sweat trickling down his temples, Sr. Marquez looked up into his killer’s face, pressing his lips to the cross.

Natalie cried out. “No, don’t—!”

Pop!

Then he lay dead, his sightless eyes open, blood trickling from a bullet hole in his forehead.

Without thinking, Natalie threw herself into the aisle, shielding Joaquin with her body, struggling for the right words. “Él no es Mexicano! Él es Americano! He’s a citizen of the United States! He’s American!”

Cold brown eyes—a killer’s eyes—watched her with apparent amusement, a pitiless smile spreading across a face too young to be so cruel. Then teenage assailant’s gaze shifted to his fellow killers, and he said something in Spanish that made them laugh.

Joaquin wrapped his arms around her and pulled hard, obviously trying to thrust her behind him, but constrained by the small space. “Natalie, stop! Don’t do this!”

The young assailant raised his gun.

“He’s American!” Natalie shouted the words. “Es gringo, americano! He’s—”

Then she realized the gun was pointed at her.

Her breath caught in her throat.

He’s going to shoot you, girl.

She wondered for a moment how much it would hurt—then gasped as the butt of the gun came down on her temple. Her head seemed to explode. Blinded by pain and limp as a rag doll, she fell forward and felt cruel hands wrench her away from Joaquin, who fought to hold onto her, shouting something in Spanish that she couldn’t understand.

“He’s American,” she managed to say, her own voice sounding far away, the world spinning as she was dragged down the bloody aisle and passed from one attacker to another. She struggled to raise her head and caught just a glimpse of the man who’d struck her aiming his pistol at Joaquin. “Joaquin!”

Pop!

And she knew he was dead.



CHAPTER 2



Her head throbbing, Natalie struggled to breathe in the strangling darkness, her heart beating so hard it hurt, the sweltering air suffocating her, breath catching in her throat before it reached her lungs. She had to get out of here. She had to get out!

God, please help me! Somebody help me!

She might have screamed the words, or she might only have thought them. She didn’t know. But, regardless, no help came.

She twisted in the cramped space, tried to stretch out, desperate for room to breathe, but the trunk was too small. Gasping for air, she reached out with bound hands to find only inches between her face and the underside of the trunk lid.

It was like being buried alive.

A screamed caught in her throat, panic driving her as she pushed on the trunk lid with her hands and feet, striking it, kicking it, trying to force it open.

It didn’t budge.

And for a moment, she was back in New Orleans at the hospital, the storm raging.

Come see, darlin’. They were already dyin’. I jus’ made it easier. Ya get on in there now. Go on.

No! You can’t shut me in here. I’ll suffocate!

Hush, you! Have a good death, a peaceful death.

Darkness. Cold. No air to breathe. The endless howling of the storm.

The car hurtled around a corner, throwing Natalie against the side of the trunk, her face pressed against rough carpet that stank of exhaust, the violent motion jolting her past the worst edge of her claustrophobia and back to the present, the pitch black of the morgue locker fading into the darkness of the closed trunk—and a reality just as horrible and terrifying.

Joaquin was dead.

He was dead, along with so many others. Dear Sr. Marquez, who’d loved his grandkids so much. Ana-Leticia Izel, who’d been about Natalie’s age. Isidoro Fernandez, who’d survived being shot in the leg on his way home from work last year. Sergio de Leon, who’d had to go into hiding after exposing several corrupt government officials as pawns of the cartels.

All gone. All dead.

And she was a captive of the men who’d killed them.

The cold, hard truth brought her heartbeat to a near standstill.

Oh, God.

What were they going to do to her?

What do think they’re going to do, girl?

The El Paso police had talked about it a lot on the first day—the unsolved murders of young women and girls in Juárez. Hundreds had gone missing, and those whose bodies had been found had been sexually brutalized and dismembered. At first, the police had believed there was a single serial killer to blame. Then they’d blamed copycat killers.

But now, years later, it was clear that rape and murder were just part of the violent landscape, with drug cartels, sex slavers, human traffickers, gangs, and serial killers from both sides of the border preying on the young women who flocked to Juárez hoping for a job in one of the maquiladoras. During the seminar, they’d shown photos of some of the victims, stark images of young women lying naked and dead in ditches, in garbage bins, in the desert.

And suddenly Natalie found it hard to breathe again, her heart tripping hard and fast, her stomach threatening to revolt. But it wasn’t claustrophobia this time.

It was straight-up terror.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to force the unbearable images from her mind, the distress and sorrow she’d felt at seeing what had happened to those women becoming fear for herself. Is that what these men planned to do to her?

I don’t want to die like that. Not like that.

She didn’t want to die at all.

Maybe they would hold her for ransom. She was a U.S. citizen, after all, and they knew she was a journalist. Maybe they just wanted money. Oh, God, she hoped so.

God, help me!

It was so hot, so hot. Her entire body was sticky with perspiration, her mouth dry from thirst—or was that fear? Claustrophobia began to take hold again, the close air pressing in on her. She had to get out of here. They needed to open the trunk now.

Except that…

What would they do to her when they did?

Abruptly, the car swerved, then accelerated. Men’s voices rose in shrill whoops and shouts, guns firing, the terrible sound making Natalie jump. Were they being pursued? Had someone come after them, hoping to free her? What if there was a fire fight and someone accidentally fired into the trunk?

She held her breath and listened, desperately hoping to hear sirens.

More shouts. More gun shots. And now singing.

But no sirens.

And then it came to her.

They weren’t being pursued. They were celebrating.

All those murders, the grief that would follow, the fear they’d caused on that street—they had committed a massacre, and they were reveling in its aftermath.

What kind of men could enjoy killing like that?

No, not men. They were monsters.

And she was their prisoner.

# # #

Zach lay on his side, no longer able to give a damn about scorpions. His body shivered uncontrollably from shock. His skin burned, seeming to shrink around his bones, every nerve ending on fire. His throat was raw from yelling—or whatever you called it when you screamed from between clenched teeth. He’d been through surf torture in BUD/s. He’d been hungry, cold, hot, sleep-deprived. He’d lain half-dead in the dirt for hours with a round lodged in his back. But he’d never ever been through anything that could touch this for sheer pain.

What was it Jimmy used to say when they went into combat?

Hoka hey! It is a good day to die.

Today was a good day to die. Yesterday had been good, too. The day before would have been even better.

Quit your whining, MacBride. You’re pathetic! On your feet!

“Hooya!” Zach answered aloud and raised his head before realizing that the voice he’d just heard had come from his own mind.

He was losing it. He’d hit the wall—hard. Time to rest. He needed rest.

He closed his blindfolded eyes and sank into oblivion.

# # #

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown

And poor Jill got stuck carrying the water by herself.


Natalie bit at the duct tape that bound her wrists, reciting nursery rhymes in her mind to keep her panic at bay. She spat out a little piece of tape and bit into it again, gratified when she realized she was down to the layer just above her skin. The tape was so strong and sticky that she’d had to nibble through it a layer at a time. Not that having the use of her hands would do her much good. There were more of them—and they had guns.

Hey-diddle-diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed…

And she couldn’t remember the rest.

She spat out another piece of tape and another, then twisted her wrists, the tape pulling apart where she’d weakened it and at last giving way. Biting back an exultant laugh, she tore off the strips that stuck to her skin and threw them aside, her hands finally free.

Then, careful not to bump anything or make a sound, she turned onto her side and brought her knees up toward her chest, reaching down to pull off the tape that bound her ankles. It was hard to maneuver, and it took more than a few tries before she was able to find the end, get a grip on it with her nails, and unbind her ankles.

For a while, she lay there in the stifling dark, breathing hard.

She was thirsty, so thirsty, the heat unbearable, the carpet itchy against her sweaty skin. She had no idea how many hours had gone by. Wherever they were taking her, it was far outside the city, far from any place where the police would think to look for her—if they were looking for her and not in cahoots with the men who’d kidnapped her.

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick

She reached out beside her, searching the darkness for something, anything she might be able to use as a weapon. A pair of boots. Bits of cord and what felt like burlap. A box of bullets. A roll of duct tape. Something cold and hard — a tire iron? No, it was too short to be a tire iron. Both ends had holes, as if it were meant to screw on to something. Was it a scope for a rifle or part of a gun barrel?

She closed her hand around it, then froze as smooth asphalt gave way to the crunch of gravel. The car slowed, turned, and then rolled to a stop. Loud music. Men’s voices. A burst of automatic weapons fire.

Oh, God.

She drew deep breaths to steady herself, fear slick and cold in her belly.

Little Miss Muffet, sat on a… sat on … on a tuffet

What the heck was a tuffet anyway?

Car doors opened and closed, scattering her thoughts, the sound of boots in gravel all but drowned out by the thundering of her own pulse. She clutched the metal rod, held it fast, rolled onto her back, every muscle in her body tense.

A key slipped into the lock.

The trunk opened, bright sunlight hurting her eyes.

She struck out blindly with the rod, kicking hard with both legs, her right foot connecting with something hard, hours of pent-up grief, fear, and fury rushing out of her in a long, strangled cry that sounded more animal than human.

She found herself on her knees, the rod still in hand, her breath coming in pants. Four men watched her from a safe distance, astonishment on their faces, assault rifles hanging from their shoulders. Another—the one who’d killed Joaquin and Sr. Marquez—stood doubled over, groaning and cupping a bleeding nose, the sight giving her a momentary sense of satisfaction.

Then the oldest one, a man with a thick moustache and a tattoo of a strange veiled skeleton on his left forearm, began to laugh. He said something in Spanish to the others, who also laughed—all except for the one still holding his bleeding nose.

The older one motioned for her to get out of the trunk. “Come, señorita.”

What else could she do? Slam the trunk shut and stay inside?



Natalie climbed out, the rod in her right hand, ready to strike, a hot breeze catching her hair, the midday heat cool compared to the sweltering environment of the trunk. Her feet touched gravel, and she found herself standing on trembling legs in the center of an old, abandoned town. To her right stood what was left of a mission-style church, a satellite dish perched on its bell tower. To her left sat a small adobe brick shed with no windows. Rows of adobe brick houses fanned out around them, their walls crumbling into dust, unpaved roads reclaimed by scrub and cactus. Beyond was nothing but open desert.

Her stomach fell, a chill sliding up her spine.

There was no one here to help her, nowhere to run.

She looked to the oldest man, the one with the tattoo, thinking he might be the leader of the bunch, only to find him raking her with his gaze. They were all staring at her now, their astonishment turned to something much darker. They spoke to one another, stared at her breasts, made little telltale thrusts with their pelvises, grinning and laughing.

Natalie took an involuntary step backward, the car’s bumper stopping her short.

They came closer, one of them reaching out to feel her hair.

Don’t let them see how afraid you are, girl.

She raised her chin a notch. “M-me llamo Natalie Benoit. Soy una periodista. Mi periódico Denver Independent le pagará—”

The blow took her by surprise, knocking her to the ground, the rod flying from her hand.

“¡Puta estúpida!” The one with the bloody nose glared down at her, then tossed his gun aside and reached down with blood-stained fingers to unzip his fly.

The man with the skeleton tattoo shouted something at him, gave him a shove, and the two of them began to argue, their words coming too fast for Natalie to understand anything.



Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-tat!

The sudden burst of automatic gunfire made Natalie jump.

From the direction of the old church came a man’s voice, shouting at the others. Looking startled and almost afraid, her captors quit arguing, and the one with the tattoo reached down and jerked Natalie to her feet.

In the church doorway stood a man with an assault rifle perched on his bicep. Tall and rangy, he had a jagged scar that ran beneath his jaw line on the right, as if someone had tried to slit his throat but had missed, the right side of his mouth drooping. He looked at her through cold, brown eyes, then tossed a pair of handcuffs to the one with the tattoo, motioning with a jerk of his head toward the other building.

Words poured out of her. “Please let me go! I don’t know who you are or what you want, but my newspaper will pay ransom to get me back alive. Please call them! Mi periódico pagará dinero para mí—mucho dinero.”

But no one was listening to her.

In a heartbeat, her wrists were cuffed, and she was being shoved and dragged across the courtyard toward the smaller building. One of them opened the door, and the man with the skeleton tattoo shoved her inside.

It was a jail—or they’d turned it into a jail. Three cells that might once have been horse stalls lined the back wall. The stone floor was covered with mouse droppings, spiders clinging to webs along the edges of the low ceiling. Then something ran cross the floor in front of her.

A scorpion.

Her empty stomach lurched.

One of the men opened the first cell—a dark, windowless space, no bigger than the walk-in closet in her bedroom at home and hemmed in by thick iron bars.



Hush now! Have a good death, a peaceful death.

“Please don’t put me in there! Please don’t!” Her heart pounded, panic buzzing in her brain, breath trapped in her lungs. And as they closed the door behind her and left her in the pitch-black, she heard herself scream. “No!”

# # #

It was the sound of her first strangled scream that had woken him. It had been the feral scream of a woman trying to survive. Then a moment later she’d spoken, her voice soft, young, feminine, her accent unmistakably New Orleans.

Natalie Benoit was her name, and she was what the Zetas hated most after honest cops and soldiers—a journalist.

Zach had found himself sitting upright, his heart hammering, straining to hear while Zetas whose voices he didn’t recognized—newcomers—joked about raping her, clearly enjoying the rush of having her at their mercy, their laughter colored by lust. Rather than crying or begging for her life, she’d tried to bargain her way out of the situation.

Either she had a lot of guts, or she hadn’t understood a word they’d said. Given how poorly she spoke Spanish, he was willing to bet it was the latter.

Then one of the bastards had struck her—hard from the sound of it— and two of the men had begun to argue.

“¡La putita me rompió la nariz!” The little whore broke my nose!

Zach had found that remarkable. Good for her.

“¡Deja tu verga en los pantalones o te voy a cortar los cojones! El Jefe la quiere a ella solo para el—sin ser tocada.” Leave your prick in your pants, or I’ll cut off your balls! The chief wants her for himself—untouched.

The words had hit Zach square in the chest.

If Cárdenas wanted her as his personal sex slave, she was as good as dead.

A burst of AK fire had ended the fight.

I don’t know who you are or what you want, but my newspaper will pay ransom to get me back alive. Please call them! Mi periódico pagará dinero para mí—mucho dinero.

Her naïveté had been painful to hear. Clearly, it hadn’t yet dawned on her that life as she knew it was over. But the men had long since quit listening to her. Instead, they’d talked casually about what they hoped Cárdenas would do to her, bile rising into Zach’s throat at each graphic and brutal description.

Cárdenas had a reputation for abusing women. Zach had even heard rumors that he sacrificed women to La Santa Muerte—that macabre cult saint of narcotraficantes, Holy Death—as a way of giving thanks for his success in the cartel wars. To think that Zach had been this close to taking him, to ending his reign of terror…

Gisella should be in that cell now, not Natalie, whoever she was.

Please don’t put me in there! Please don’t!

She’d become almost hysterical the moment they’d brought her in here, her scream when they’d closed the door and walked away laced with primal terror. And for good reason. This filthy, dark place was probably beyond her worst nightmares.

Now she was in the cell next to his, and from the sound of it, she was about to hyperventilate, her breathing shallow and rapid, each exhale a whimper. He thought he could just make out the words of a prayer.

Sorry, angel, God seems to have taken the week off.

Then he realized she wasn’t praying. She was reciting a nursery rhyme.

“To market, to market, to buy… to buy a fat pig.” Her voice was unsteady, and she was clearly having trouble remembering the words. “H-home again, home again… I want to go home again… jiggety-jig.”

The sweetness of it hit Zach hard. He hung his head, the hopelessness of her situation tearing at him.



She might not be here if you’d done your job.

Men like him were supposed to stop bastards like Cárdenas and his Zetas from hurting people. But rather than putting Cárdenas away, Zach was going to have a front-row seat while Cárdenas raped and tortured this girl to death.

Son of a bitch! Damn it!

Zach didn’t realize he was trying to break free of the manacles again until his hands were wet, water from broken blisters mixing with sticky, warm blood.
Who are you fooling, man? You can’t save her. You can’t even save yourself.

No, he couldn’t. But he could reach out to her, let her know she wasn’t alone.

He swallowed, then sucked in as deep a breath as he could, wincing at the pain in his ribs. “Natalie? Can you hear me? My name is … Zach.”

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"I am an artist. I am here to live out loud."
—Emile Zola

"I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day."
—James Joyce

"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery."
—Jane Austen

"Writers are those for whom writing is more difficult that it is for others."
—Ernest Hemingway

"When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth."
—Kurt Vonnegut

"The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar is the test of their power."
—Toni Morrison

"No tears in the author, no tears in the reader."
—Robert Frost.

"I'm a writer. I give the truth scope."
—the character of Chaucer in
A Knight's Tale