One Year Ago
Protect your sister.
As Natalia Vega sat in the darkened quiet of a home that wasn’t hers, waiting for a man she hardly knew, she let her father’s words—the last he’d ever said to her—flow through her. Let the promise she’d made harden her, keep her.
It was bend or be broken, she reminded herself, and Vegas didn’t break.
Not under threat of a knife.
Not under pain of betrayal.
And not beneath the weight of desperate choices and no-win situations.
As always, Natalia would do what she had to in order to protect Ana Maria.
A key slid into the lock, the door opened on quiet hinges, and Garrison Coates let himself into his apartment. Natalia had chosen her moment well. Returning from the gym, Garrison had his headphones on and blasting loud enough that Natalia could hear the thread of a heavy-metal guitar from across the room. He was tired, slicked with the sweat of a punishing workout, and most important, unarmed—his Glock securely stowed in the safe by the door.
Foolish. But then Garrison had marched into the cartel on an ironclad recommendation and backed his competence with a sense of ruthless disinterest and swaggering confidence. The ultimate yes-man, he’d risen through the ranks quickly, earned her uncle’s regard, caught Ana Maria’s eye, and snared Natalia’s suspicion.
He slipped his keys on the hook, hit the lights, then turned and froze. For a long moment, he stared at her, his face open and surprised, the honesty of his expression smoothing away jaded lines and adding youth to his thirty-two years. When it came to looks, her sister had good taste. Six feet tall, Garrison had wavy brown hair, moss-green eyes, and the tapered physique of someone who swam as much as he lifted.
“Natalia,” he said slowly, his surprise ebbing away beneath a tide of careful calculation. She could see the questions, the running assessment. Why was she here? How had she found him? What did she want?
None of it mattered.
“Expecting my sister?” she asked, letting a foot drop from the rung of the bar stool where she sat.
“She’s never been here.” He left his bag by the door and slipped out of the shoes he hadn’t bothered to lace. “But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“Here to warn me off?” he asked, glancing toward the side table with the safe on top before wandering toward the kitchen. That was the problem with responsible gun ownership—access. One of the many reasons Natalia preferred her knife.
“You never should have gone near her.”
Garrison shrugged and pulled open the fridge. “She’s a sweet, sheltered kid.”
“And an easy mark,” Natalia agreed. “My fault. I was so busy protecting her from the men within the cartel, I failed to warn her against those who’d come with easy smiles and studied interest.”
“She loves me.”
“I know.” Natalia sighed. It was why she’d come herself rather than send one of her uncle’s men. It shouldn’t have surprised her that Ana Maria had fallen in love. She was young and beautiful and so very lonely. For Natalia, it made everything that much worse, that much more dangerous. For Garrison, it would make everything so much easier—even if he couldn’t possibly appreciate it.
“I love her, too, you know.” He pulled a knife from the butcher block and cut into an orange he’d pulled from the fridge along with a bottle of water.
“I’m sure she believes you when you say it.”
“But you don’t?”
“You targeted her, used her, manipulated her, and for what? Access to an organization I’d sell my soul to free her from?” Natalia shook her head. “No. Whatever you might have come to feel—respect, responsibility, affection—it’s not love.”
“So . . . what? You’re here to tell me to leave her alone? To walk away?” He took a long drink of his water, his throat working even as his gaze met hers over the rim.
“It’s far too late for that.” She rose from her stool. Watched as his body stilled and readied. He set his water down on the counter, then emerged from the galley kitchen and around the peninsula, knife held loosely at his side.
It wasn’t his weapon. It was there in the way he held it: too tight, too forced. Like the grip of a gun instead of the hand of a friend. It was a complication, a distraction, but not a danger.
“Who else knows about you two?” she asked, squaring off to face him.
“No one knew.” His grin slipped loose, a thin rueful thing. “But here you are.”
When she didn’t say anything, simply stared him down to parse the truth from the lie, he added, “I would never put her in danger, Natalia. I meant it when I said I’d get her out of this life. That I’d give her a future free of your uncle, of the violence and constant danger. It’s not a promise I made lightly—and it’s one I intend to keep.”
She stood there, absorbed the shock of the blow, and pushed back the tide of regret. She believed him. Maybe it was because she understood the conviction, the desire. Knew what it looked like, how it felt, the suffocating weight and the comforting warmth of a goal that justified the means. An intimate feeling she knew well, had carried for years, and was able to spot in others.
It should have made this so much worse, so much more difficult.
But it didn’t. Garrison Coates couldn’t save them. He couldn’t even save himself.
“Hernan has you on video removing product. He had you followed to a meet—you’ve been exposed.”
Fear, milky white and cold, spilled across his face, stealing the flush of exertion and dulling the smug tilt of his chin. Good. At least he’d understood the risks. Had gone into this with his eyes open.
“Shit.” Garrison tugged a hand through his hair. “Your sister send you to warn me?”
“Does she know what you are?” Natalia asked, shifting toward the door, closing off the angles, and asking the only questions that mattered anymore. How much did Ana Maria know? How deeply had Garrison compromised her?
What would their uncle do if he found out?
“Of course not,” Garrison scoffed. His fist tightened around the knife, and his eyes went to the gun, safely out of reach.
A lie. Easy to spot in the dismissive tone and lack of eye contact. Somewhere along the line, in a stolen moment or between the sheets, Garrison Coates had told Ana Maria one secret too many.
And she’d said nothing. Not to Natalia, who might have found a way to avoid this, or to their uncle, who would certainly kill her for the betrayal.
If he found out.
Natalia couldn’t let that happen.
“I need to disappear.”
“You don’t know—I have resources. People. Thirty minutes. One phone call. I’m gone.”
“I didn’t come alone.” It would have been better. Safer. For her, anyway. “There are men on all the doors. I said I’d talk you down, get you into a car.”
“And then?” he asked.
She shrugged. He knew the answer. Interrogation. Torture. A life lost and an example made. It wouldn’t be easy or quick, and in the end, he’d beg. They all did. She could spare him that, at least.
“You aren’t here to warn me, are you?”
“It’s too late for that.”
“Then, why?” he asked, widening his stance, preparing for the fight. “I’ve been close to Vega long enough to know this isn’t your scene; you leave the torture and interrogation to those better suited to it. The people who enjoy it. That’s not you.”
“You risked my sister. Plied a betrayal from her. When you break—”
“You will. We all do,” she whispered. “I won’t gamble with her life.”
“I can help you, Natalia,” he promised, his voice taking on a desperate, pleading edge. “One call, that’s all it would take.”
“Signal’s blocked. Has been since before you walked in the door.”
“I can hold out long enough for you—”
She shook her head.
“You’d really do this? Kill a man in cold blood?” he asked, pivoting, bringing his weight forward and ready.
She didn’t say anything. Didn’t have to. Let him read the answer in her expression, in the way she turned her body to meet him, in the cold metallic snick of a switchblade. He rushed her on a shout, butcher knife raised—all desperation, strength, and fury. With a gun, he’d have the advantage. In hand-to-hand, they’d be well matched. But with a knife?
She let him come, stepped into and beneath the arcing slice he aimed at her face, and dropped to a knee, plunging her knife through the skin along the inside of his thigh, twisting, then withdrawing in a move that took seconds to execute and years to learn.
She stood as his leg crumpled beneath him. Sheathed her blade as he tried to stand but collapsed.
She plucked the butcher knife from his hand, watched as blood pooled against the gray fabric of his sweats. In a stroke, she’d severed his femoral artery. Death would be quick, at least. And the only comfort she could offer him.
She knelt next to him. Picked up his hand and laced their fingers together as shocked disbelief bled to agonizing horror and reality dawned on his face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her tone flat and distant. Resigned. The guilt would come, as it always did. But later. When she was alone. Then the memory of how easy it had been, how she hadn’t hesitated or flinched or allowed herself a shred of doubt, would creep in like a predator in the night. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, squeezing his fingers as he fought to keep his eyes open. “But you never should have involved my sister.”