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She had that Earth Mother kind of natural feminine beauty, the type of woman who belonged at a bake sale or a PTA meeting, not in an interrogation room on the Texas border. Then again, smugglers came in all shapes and sizes.
Dressed in mom jeans and a simple T-shirta crew neck, so there wasn't even a hint of cleavageshe wore precious little makeup. Her chestnut hair hung in a simple ponytail, no highlights, nothing fancy. She did her best to look and sound innocent.
Moses Mann, undercover special commando, did his best not to fall for the act. "Let's try it again, and go for the truth this time."
If all her wholesome goodness swayed him, he was professional enough not to show it as he questioned her. He wasn't in the small, airless interrogation room in the back of an office trailer to appreciate Molly Rogers's curves. He was here to pry into her deepest secrets.
"When did you first suspect that your brother, Dylan Rogers, was involved in illegal activities?"
The smell of her shampoo, something old-fashioned like lemon verbena, filled the air and tickled Mo's nose. He kept his face impassive as he leaned back in his metal folding chair and looked across the desk at her.
Anger flared in her green eyes. "My brother didn't do anything illegal," she said in a measured tone. "Someone framed him."
Mo's gaze dropped to her round breasts that suddenly lifted toward him as she pulled her spine even straighter. He caught himself. Blinked. "Your brother was a coldblooded killer."
He'd personally seen the carnage at the old cabin on the Texas-Mexico border not far from here, the blood-soaked floorboards and the pile of bodies. He'd been the one who'd taken to the hospital the two children Dylan had kidnapped to sell into the adoption black market. Dylan had ended up with a bullet in the head during the takedownwell deserved as far as Mo was concerned.
He didn't have much sympathy for the man's sister, either. "Have you ever helped him smuggle illegal immigrants into the country? Drugs? Weapons?"
Her jaw worked with restrained anger. She clutched her hands tightly in front of her. The nicks and red spots on her fingers said she saw her share of farm chores and housework on a daily basis. Her full lips narrowed, but somehow remained sensuous.
"Let me tell you something about my brother. He stood by me all my life. By me and my son. I don't know if we'd be alive at this stage without him." She stuck out her chin. "He was a good man."
Her absolute loyalty to family was commendable, even if misguided. Mo waited a beat, giving her time to calm a little before he said, "People are multidimensional. The face he showed you might not be the face he showed to others."
For the four men he'd killed at the Cordero ranch, Dylan Rogers had been the face of death, in fact. And he would have killed Grace Cordero, his neighbor, too, if not for Ryder, Mo's teammate, who'd arrived just in time to save Grace and those two kids.
Dylan Rogers had been a dark-hearted criminal. And the crimes he was publicly accused of paled in comparison to the one Mo couldn't even mention. Dylan was likely connected to people who planned on smuggling terrorists into the countrythe true target of Mo's six-man undercover team.
As far as the locals were concerned, the teamall seasoned commandowere working with CBP, Customs and Border Protection. They'd come to survey the smuggling situation and investigate recent cases so they could come up with budget recommendations for policy makers. A fairly decent cover while they did their counterterrorism work without anyone being the wiser.
Smuggling was big business in the borderlands, sometimes even with customs or police officers on the bad guys' payroll. His team gathered information from local law enforcement, but shared nothing. They trusted no one at this stage. They kept to themselves while gathering every clue, following every lead. And one of their best leads right now was Molly Rogers.
But instead of cooperating, she was looking at the time on her phone in front of her. She bit her bottom lip.
"In a hurry?"
Too damn bad. "If you want to leave, you need to start talking." Mo tapped his pen on the desk between them. "Are there any illegal activities going on at your ranch at this time, Miss Rogers?"
"No. I already told you." She glanced at the phone again. "How long are you going to keep me here? If you're not charging me with anything, you have to let me go. I know my rights."
He regarded her dispassionately.
She had no idea how quickly a "terror suspect" designation could strip away all her precious rights. He'd seen people go into the system with that tag and disappear for a good long time, sometimes forever. If her brother's smuggling career included terrorist contacts If she knew about it..
Her brother was dead, beyond questioning. Without information from her, Mo's team sat without a paddle, trapped on the proverbial creek, with the rapids quickly approaching.
She squirmed in her seat. "I have to go home to meet the school bus."
Her weak point. He was about to get to that.
He patted his shirt pocket, pretending to look for something. "I can arrange for someone to pick up your son. I have a card here somewhere for Social Services."
All the blood ran out of her face as she caught the veiled threat. She was a single mother without family. If they took her into custody, her son would go to foster care.
"I don't know anything about any illegal business," she rushed to say. "I swear. Please."
He liked her pleading tone. Progress. He'd scared her at last. He'd done far worse before to gain usable intelligence from the enemy. He'd done things that would shock her.
He pushed his chair back and stood. "I'm going to step out for a minute. Why don't you give some thought to how you really want to play this? For your son's sake."
"I'm not playing."
He didn't respond. He didn't even turn. He simply walked out and closed the door behind him.
Jamie Cassidy, the operations coordinator, sat at his computer in the main part of the office the team shared. He looked up for a second. "Singing like a bird in there?"
"I wish. She says she doesn't know anything."
"Do you believe her?"
Mo considered that for a moment, recalling every word she'd said, adding to that her body language and all the visual clues, and the depth of his experience. He didn't like what he came up with. He wanted her to be guilty. It would have made everything much easier.
He shrugged. "Bottom line is, we have nothing to hold her on." Maybe her brother did keep her in the dark about his smuggling. Either that, or she was an award-worthy actress.
"You gonna push her harder?" He could have. "Not today."
Not because he felt that stupid attraction, but because of her son. Whatever she did or didn't know about smuggling, her son was innocent, and Mo wasn't ready to turn the kid's life upside down until he had damned good reason.
The boy had just lost his uncle. He didn't need to come home from school and search through an empty house, wondering what happened to his mother.
"You got anything?"
Jamie shook his head. "Shep just checked in. Everything's quiet, he says."
Shep and Ray were patrolling the border, Ray's leg still in a cast, but well enough for a ride along. Ryder, the team leader, was off tying up loose ends with a human-smuggling ring the team had recently busted. With what stood at stake, the six-man team wasn't about to leave any stones unturned. They pushed and pushed, and then they pushed harder.
"Keith called in, too," Jamie said. "He's getting frustrated over there." Keith was across the border, doing undercover surveillance to identify the local players on that side.
"He's young. He'll learn patience." Not that Mo felt any at the moment. "Once we have our third man, we'll have our link."
From what they'd gathered so far, three men coordinated most of the smuggling activities on this side of the border. They'd gotten two. Dylan Rogers had been shot, unfortunately, before he could be questioned. Mikey Metzner, a local business owner closely tied to human smuggling, was in custody, but seemed to be the lowest ranking of the three, and without any direct knowledge of the big boss in Mexico.
"The third guy is the key." Even if he hadn't been the link to the big boss before, he was now. "We'll get him."
Mo nodded then turned and walked back into the interrogation room.
"I can't tell you something I don't know about," Molly Rogers said immediately. "Look, I think you're wrong about my brother. This is not fair. I"
"We're done for today. I'll take you home." He'd picked her up earlier, so she didn't have her car.
He held the door open for her, and she gave him as wide a berth as possible as she passed by him, clutching her purse to her chest. The top of her head didn't quite reach his chin. About five-four, no taller than that, and curvy in just the right places and Mo tried not to notice her enticing figure or the way her soft chestnut ponytail swung as she hurried ahead of him.
Jamie caught him looking and raised an eyebrow.
He ignored him as he led her through the office, then scanned his ID card and pushed the entry door open. Outside, the South Texas heat hit them like a punch in the face.
His black SUV waited up front on the gravel. "Better give it a minute to let the hot air out." He opened the doors, reached in and turned the air conditioner on the highest setting.
Renting office space in Hullett's business district would have been more comfortable, would have come with climate-controlled parking. But from a tactical standpoint, the trailer office by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere made more sense for his team.
They could see for miles without obstacles, had complete control over the premises. They didn't expect an attack, but if anything did happen, the Kevlar-reinforced trailer with its bulletproof windows was a hell of a lot more defensible than a run-of-the-mill rented office. In his job, practicalities always came before niceties.
He gave the AC another few seconds then slipped into his seat and waited until she did the same on the other side.
"Thank you for believing me," she said, her faint, cit-rusy scent filling his car.
He raised an eyebrow. "Don't get ahead of yourself. We're not done here. We're just taking a break."
He let her sit and stew for the first five minutes of the drive down the dusty country road before he started in on her again, gentling his voice, switching to the "good cop" part of the routine.
"Anything you tell me can only help your case. If you got dragged into something against your will Things like that happen. The important thing now is to come clean. We need your help here."
Her posture stiffened. "Am I an official suspect?"
"A person of interest," he told her after a few seconds.
And when she paled, he found that he didn't like making her miserable. But he would, if the job called for it.
The op was too important to let something like basic attraction mess with his focus. She was the wrong woman at the wrong time for him to get interested in. Even beyond the op. He planned on this being his last job with the SDDU, Special Designation Defense Unit, an undercover commando team that did everything from intelligence gathering abroad to hostage rescue to counterterrorism work.
His focus was on his mission and nothing else. He could ignore the tingles he felt in the pit of his stomach every time he looked at the woman next to him. If he did well here, his CIA transfer was as good as approved. Molly Rogers wasn't going to mess that up for him.
The car flew down the road, Molly's stomach still so clenched from the interrogation she thought she might throw up. She took in the fancy dashboard, covered with computer displays, radio units, radar and other things she'd never seen before. She so wasn't going to feel guilty if she ruined any of that.
"When do you think I can claim my brother's personal effects?"
All she wanted was to put all this behind her, for her brother's name to be cleared. And an official apology in the local paper. Dylan didn't deserve to be dragged through the mud like this.
But instead of law enforcement investigating how and why Dylan had been framed, they kept on with their idiotic suspicions about him, even dragging her into the mess.
The man next to her kept his eyes on the road. "For now your brother's personal possessions are evidence in a multiple murder case."
"The sheriff won't let me into Dylan's apartment in Hul-lett, either." Everyone seemed to be against her these days.
"They need to get everything processed."
She hated Moses Mann. He had zero sympathy for her or her situation. He was twice her size and had used that in the interrogation room to intimidate her. He was missing half an eyebrow, which made him look pretty fierce. His muscles were just on this side of truly scary. She had a feeling he knew how to use his strength and use it well.
If he had a softerreasonableside, she sure hadn't seen it. He'd called her brother a conscienceless criminal and pretty much accused her of being the same. He threatened her with Social Services.
Her stomach clenched.
The day she saw Moses Mann for the last time would be a good day. He made her nervous and scared and so self-aware it bordered on painful. She had to watch every move, every word, lest he read something criminal into it. She looked away from him.
The land stretched flat and dry all around them as far as the eye could see. He drove the dusty country road in silence for a while before he resumed questioning her, asking her some of the same questions he'd asked before. She gave him the same answers. He was still trying to trip her when they reached her road at last.
Thank God. Another ten minutes and she would have been ready to jump from the moving car.
He parked his SUV at the end of her driveway, and she was out before he shut the engine off. Her dogs charged from behind the house, Max and Cocoa in the lead, Skipper in the back, all three of them country mutts from the pound.
They greeted her first.
"No jumping." She pushed Max down then scratched behind his ear.
He kept jumping anyway. Skipper barked, running around her in circles. They were worked up over something.
They checked out the man by her side next, tails wagging. They were about the three friendliest, goofiest guard dogs in Texas, trained to be nice to everyone, since her son often had friends over.
"Be nice," she said anyway, even if she wouldn't have been too put out if one of them peed on Moses Mann's combat boots. Not that she was vengeful or anything.
But the dogs were doing their best to crowd each other out as the man gave them some ear scratching. They seemed to think they'd found a new best friend. Figured.
He looked as if he enjoyed the attention. "There you go. That's a good dog."
She hoped he'd at least get fleas.