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Elena Sophia Carranza gunned the throttle to make it up the steep, rocky slope, doing her best to keep up with Hector. Thank God he'd taken the precious extra time to train her on how to ride a dirt bike in rough terrain. There was no more treacherous landscape than the border crossing between Mexico and the United States leading into the Big Bend National Park.
"You can do this, Senorita Elena, but you must be brave," Hector had insisted when they'd set off on their desperate escape. "Once we leave, we cannot return."
She'd known that from the start. Her ex-fiance, Antonio, would not stop until he found her. And if he did catch her, there would be the devil to pay.
Squeezing Hector's hand, she'd whispered, "You must call me Sophia from now on. Elena no longer exists."
"Si," he'd agreed before mounting his bike and taking off.
It was imperative Sophia commit to her goal, or she'd die. Others had risked too much to help her break out of the compound. Hector had risked his life and his future to get her this far. The least she could do was hold up her end by keeping pace with him, not going so slow as to put them both in jeopardy. They had come across the United States border without being detected thus far. Now all they had to do was find help.
They'd splashed through the Rio Grande at a low-water crossing before dawn and headed into the canyons, zigzagging through the trails, climbing, dropping down into the shadows, heading north as far as they could before Antonio discovered their betrayal and came after them.
No matter what, Sophia couldn't go back. Even if she could withstand another day of physical and mental abuse, she refused to let the tiny life growing inside her suffer the same.
Escape seemed impossible from the far-reaching Mexican Mafia la Familia Diablos. As soon as Antonio realized she'd left, he'd send a gang of his sicarios, enforcers, to find and return her to Mexico or leave it for the Americans or the vultures to clean up her body.
As far as Sophia was concerned, she'd rather die and take her baby to heaven with her than subject another innocent life to the evil of Antonio Martinez and the drug cartel he called family.
Anna, her only friend in la Fuerte del Diablo, the Chi-huahuan compound, had compromised her safety and that of her young son to get Sophia out. Sophia couldn't fail. Too many had risked too much.
Deep in the canyons of the far edges of Big Bend National Park, Sophia dared to hope she could evade Antonio and his band of killers long enough to find a place to hide, a place she could live her life in peace and raise her child.
Sophia had been born in Mexico, and her mother was an American citizen, ensuring Sophia had dual citizenship and could speak English fluently. Unfortunately, she no longer had her passport. Antonio had stripped her of identification after he'd lured her away from her family in Monterrey.
Once she found a safe haven, she'd do whatever it took to reinstate her citizenship and ask for asylum. In exchange, she'd give the Americans any information they wanted on the whereabouts of Antonio's cartel stronghold on the Mexican side of the border. Not that it would do them much good. The Mexican government struggled to control their own citizens. What could the Americans do across the border?
Sophia knew that Antonio had contacts on the American side. High-powered, armed contacts that guaranteed safe passage of his people and products for distribution. Since the death of the former cartel boss, Xavier Salazar, Antonio had taken over, amassing a fortune in the illicit drug trade of cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin and marijuana. His power had grown tenfold, his arrogance exponentially, but he reported to a higher boss, a mysterious man not many of the cartel had actually seen. Rumor had it that he was an American of great influence. True or not, every time he visited, cartel members who'd betrayed la Familia were executed.
Sophia's only hope was to get far enough onto American soil and reach Hank Derringer. Anna said he would help her and protect her from Antonio. She'd said Senor Derringer was an honest, good man who had many connections on both sides of the border.
Her motorcycle hit a rock, jerking the handlebar sharply to her left. Sophia's arms ached with the constant struggle to keep the vehicle upright. She slowed, dropping farther behind Hector as they climbed yet another steep trail. They'd been traveling for hours, stopping to rest only once.
Her stomach rumbled, the nausea she'd fought hard to hide from Antonio surfacing, telling her she needed to eat or her body would set off a round of dry heaves that would leave her empty and weak.
When she thought she could take it no more, the beating sound of chopper rotors swept into the canyon, the roar bouncing off the vertical walls.
Adrenaline spiked through her, giving her the strength to continue on.
Ahead, Hector climbed a trail leading to the rim of the canyon.
Sophia shouted, wanting him to wait, seek cover and hide from the approaching aircraft. She feared Antonio had discovered her escape and sent his enforcers to find her and bring her back. He had the firepower and access to aircraft that would enable him to extract her from the canyon. Sophia had seen the airplanes and helicopters near the compound's landing field. Money truly could buy anything.
Hector cleared the top of the trail, then leaped over the edge and out of Sophia's sight. The helicopter pulled up out of the canyon headed straight for Hector.
Sophia prayed the aircraft was the bright green and white of the American border patrol. The setting sun cast the vehicle in shadow. When it moved close enough, Sophia gasped. The helicopter was the dull black of those she'd seen at la Fuerte del Diablo. Her daring escape had been discovered.
She skidded to a stop, hiding her bike beneath an overhang of rocks. Her entire body shaking, she killed the engine and waited, the shadows and the encroaching nightfall providing as much cover as she could hope to find until the helicopter moved on.
As the chopper passed over her without slowing, Sophia let out the breath she'd held, then gasped as sounds of gunfire ripped through the air.
Madre de Dios. Hector.
Her foot on the kick start, Sophia fought the urge to race to the top of the canyon rim to help Hector. Nausea held her back, reminding her she wasn't alone. The child inside her womb deserved a chance to live.
Sophia waited fifteen, twenty minutes, maybe more, for the helicopter to rise again into the sky, then realized it must have landed and the crew might be searching for her. She remained hidden for all those agonizing minutes, while the sun melted into the horizon. Storm clouds built to the west, catching the dying rays and staining the sky mauve, magenta, purple and gray.
When the helicopter finally lifted and circled back, Sophia pressed her body and the bike up against the canyon wall, sinking as far back into the darkest shadows as possible. The chopper hovered, moving slowly along the trail they'd just traveled, searching.
After what seemed like hours but was in fact only minutes, the aircraft moved on, traveling back the way it had come.
The smoky darkness of dusk edged deeper into the canyon, making the trail hard to find. Sophia eased her dirt bike out from the shadow of the overhang. Tired beyond anything she'd ever experienced, she managed to sling a stiff leg over the seat and cranked the engine with a hard kick on the starter. At first, the bike refused to start. On the fifth attempt, the engine growled to life. With a quick glance behind her, she was off, climbing the trail more slowly than she'd like in the limited light from encroaching nightfall.
At the rim of the canyon, her heart sank into her shoes.
The other motorcycle came into view first, lying on its side a couple hundred yards down the steep slope. Ahead on the trail lay the crumpled body of Hector, her ally, her only friend willing to help her out of a deadly situation.
She stopped beside Hector's inert form, dismounted and leaned over the man to check for a pulse.
The blood soaking into the ground told the tale, and the lack of a pulse confirmed it. Hector Garza was dead.
Sophia bent double as a sob rose up her throat. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks, dropping to the dry earth, where they were immediately absorbed in the dust.
Anna had sent Hector to guide her. Hector had been the one to encourage her along the way. He'd arranged to buy the bikes from a cousin in Juarez and had hidden them in a shed behind his brother's house in Paraiso.
The hopelessness of the situation threatened to overwhelm Sophia. The only thought that kept her going was that Anna and Hector would have wanted her to continue on. Sophia brushed away the tears and looked around, not sure which way to go. Instinct told her to head north. With only a compass to guide her, and the few provisions she'd loaded into her backpack, she was on her own. Alone and pregnant.
Afraid the helicopter would return, Sophia removed the rolled blanket tied to the back of Hector's bike and secured it to her backpack. She forced herself to climb back on the bike, the insides of her thighs and her bottom aching from the full day of riding and the strain of remaining seated on the motorcycle across the rough terrain.
She removed the compass from her pocket and clicked the button illuminating the dial. She set her course for north and took off across the desert, the night sky full of stars guiding her. With the threat of rain fast approaching, she increased her speed, refusing to give up when she'd come this far.
Before long, she came across a barbed-wire fence. If she hadn't seen the silhouettes of the fence posts standing straight and tall in a land of short, rounded and oddly shaped cacti, saw palmetto and sagebrush, she would have run right into the razor-sharp barbed wire.
Hector had armed her with wire cutters for just such an occasion. He'd warned her that the wire was stretched taut and not to get too close or, when she cut it, she'd be wrapped in the sharp barbs, unable to extricate herself without grave harm.
Sophia held her arm out as far as she could when she cut through the bottom strand. The wire snapped, retracting into a coil farther down the fence line.
She cut the other two strands and drove her bike through, exhaustion making her movements slow and sluggish. If she didn't find a place to hide soon, she'd drive off a bluff or wreck.
With only the stars and her compass to guide her, Sophia picked her way across the terrain, dodging vegetation not nearly large enough to hide a dirt bike or a woman, but large enough to cause serious damage should she hit it.
After the third near miss with prickly pear cacti, she finally spotted the square silhouette of a small building against the horizon. No lights gleamed from windows and no electricity poles rose up into the night sky, which might indicate life inside.
She aimed her bike for the dark structure, her body sagging over the gas tank, her hand barely able to push the throttle.
As she neared the building, she cut the engine and drifted to a stop, ditched the bike in the dirt and walked the remaining distance. She swung wide to check for inhabitants. Nothing stirred, nothing moved around the exterior. The building had a lean-to on the side and a pipe chimney. The place appeared deserted.
Sophia opened the door and peered inside. With the starlight shining through the doorway, she could see twin bed frames, no more than cots with thin mattresses rolled toward the head. A potbellied stove stood in one corner, and a plank table with benches on either side took up another corner.
Not the Four Seasons, but heaven in Sophia's tired eyes. She trudged back to where she'd left the bike, pushed it under the lean-to and stacked several old tires against it to hide it from view. With nothing more than what she carried in her backpack, she reentered the cabin.
The door had neither lock nor latch to secure it. Too spent to care, Sophia shook out a thin mattress, tossed her blanket over it, placed the pistol Hector had given her on the floor beside the cot and lay down.
She stared up at the dark ceiling, thinking of Hector and Anna and all they'd sacrificed to get her away from Antonio. One tear fell, followed by another. Sobs rose up her throat and she let them come, allowing her fear and sorrow a release. Tonight she could grieve. Tomorrow, before sunrise, her journey continued.
Thorn Drennan hadn't planned on being out this late, but he'd promised his boss, Hank Derringer, that while he awaited his first assignment as a special agent with Covert Cowboys, Inc., he'd check the Raging Bull Ranch fences for any breaks.
With the number of illegal aliens and drug runners still crossing the border from Mexico into the United States, any ranch owner this close to the border could count on mending his fences at least two or three times a week, sometimes more.
On horseback, it had taken Thorn far longer than he'd anticipated. The sun had set an hour ago, and he still hadn't completed a full inspection of the southern border of the massive ranch. He'd continued on, despite how tired he was, taking it slow so that he didn't overtax his mount.
Since the stars shone down, providing enough light to see the fence, Thorn didn't have a reason to return to the ranch sooner. He'd just climb into his truck and head to his little empty house in Wild Oak Canyon and lie awake all night anyway.
Sleep meant nightmares. The kind that wouldn't let him get on with his lifethe kind that reminded him of all he'd lost.
Tonight was the second anniversary of the murder of his wife and their unborn daughter. He couldn't have gone home, even if he'd completed the inspection of the fence. And the bars didn't stay open all night.
His house was a cold, grim testament of what his career had cost him. He'd slept on the couch for the past two years, unable to sleep in the bed he'd shared with Kayla. He'd loved her since high school. They'd grown up together there in Wild Oak Canyon. She'd followed him across the country when he'd joined the FBI and back home when he'd given up the bureau to take on the role of county sheriff. He'd made the switch so that he would be home more often, and so he and Kayla could start the family they both wanted.
Their plan had gone according to scheduleuntil a bullet aimed at Thorn had taken Kayla's life and, with hers, that of their unborn child.