By By Beth Ciotta Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One Superstition Mountains - Arizona
"Snake dead ahead."
"Rattlesnake. Just veer off and don't provoke."
"Do I look like a bonehead?"
Joseph Bogart peered over the rim of his UV shades at his adopted brother, Colin Murphy-former Marine/current protection specialist AKA major badass. The man not only veered off, but scaled a six-foot boulder in the rock-choked gully to bypass the basking serpent. Joe adjusted his own path, navigating a dense patch of desert chaparral and cactus, before delivering a good-natured rib. "Since when are you afraid of anything, let alone a snake?"
"Since a slithery bastard swam up my shorts in '97. Don't ask." Murphy quickened his pace, borrowed hiking boots eating up the challenging terrain of the Siphon Draw - Flat Iron Trail despite the steep loose slope. "And I'm not afraid, just cautious."
Without turning, Murphy flipped him the bird.
Smiling, Joe snagged his water bottle from the side pocket of his lightweight backpack and drank. Some things, gratefully, never changed. Even though their chosen careers had kept them apart for extended periods over the last twenty-odd-years, they were still in best buddy sync. "Gotta say, I miss you, Murph."
"Easy fix." The Irish-born, Italian-reared man turned and bullied him with one of those I'm-six-months-older-than-you-hence-I-am-wiser brother gazes. "Come home."
Damn, Bogart. Set yourself up, why don't you? Just the thought of heading back to the east coast, dealing with family and ex-coworkers at the Bureau, bunched his neck muscles. He rolled his head to ease the kinks, pocketed the water bottle, and took the lead. "We've been through this."
"No, we haven't. I brought it up. You shut me down."
"Like I said."
"Paulie Falcone's behind bars. Since when are you afraid of anything ... let alone a wiseguy?"
Smirking, Joe peered over his shoulder, happy for the company if not the topic of discussion. Murphy had flown from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona for a meeting with a prospective client. Since he was in the area he'd tagged on two extra days to visit with his "brother turned recluse". Recluse, he'd assured Murph, the same as he'd assured his parents, and former boss in the organized crime section, was an exaggeration. "You're determined to discuss the hell out of my resignation, aren't you?"
"Rather than handling life, you're hiding from it. That's what I'm determined to discuss."
A pro at evasion, Joe turned his attention back to the trail. Up ahead, Flat Iron rose in four-hundred-foot sheer cliffs from the canyon head, a huge outcropping of volcanic rock jutting forth like the bow of a ship. His honed body buzzed with the familiar challenge. He made this strenuous trek into the Superstitions at least twice a week.
"Seven months ago you were a top fed kicking ass on organized crime," Murphy continued. "Now you're giving desert jeep tours to snowbird tourists. If you don't want to deal with government bullshit, come work for me."
"Babysitting paranoid dignitaries isn't my style."
"There's more to executive protection than stereotypical bodyguard duties, and you know it."
Yeah, he knew. He also knew Murphy wouldn't take the slight to heart, but he had hoped to derail the conversation. He latched onto an overhang and got a toehold. "Concentrating here."
"Save your breath, hot shot. You're going to need it." Though the ascent up the slick, narrow wall didn't call for technical climbing skills, it did require concentration and careful hand and foot placement. Overall, the five-mile hike tested a person's strength and stamina. Even though his brother was in prime condition, Joe perversely hoped he'd feel the burn big time tomorrow. Payback for his pain-in-the-ass nagging. "Careful you don't stick your hand into any crevices out of your line of sight." He quirked a devilish grin. "Snakes."
"You know, when you put your heart in it, you can be a real bastard."
He heard the smile in Murphy's voice, knew the comment had been made in jest, but all the same his stomach cramped with familiar guilt. He'd slept with an insecure, substance abuser and conned her into believing that he loved her in order to crack down an international drug smuggling ring and a notorious Jersey crime family. To make matters worse, every time he'd bedded Julietta Marcella, niece of mobster Paulie Falcone, he'd fantasized about Sofia Marino, another jaded, confused soul. His sordid undercover antics, no matter the success of the case, pretty much qualified him as a bastard.
Murphy held silent as they ascended the steep, rocky slope. Joe focused on the climb, battled the guilt ... the longing. Two women. Two mistakes. One he'd never have a chance to rectify.
Ninety lung-busting minutes later they reached the top of the large, flat plateau. Straight ahead, a 150-foot-high grouping of rounded boulders known as the 'hoodoos". At 5,027 feet they marked the highest point on the western massif. Joe wiped his dusty hands on the seat of his loose-fitting jeans as he led Murphy to the tip of the Flat Iron, affording them a breathtaking view in every direction but east. Nearly three thousand feet below sprawled Gold Canyon, the small desert community he now called home. Five miles down the pike: Apache Junction, a quaint, but fast-growing town, while further west, forty-five minutes away via US Highway 60, shimmered the Valley of the Sun, specifically Phoenix and its surrounding boroughs.
Hands on hips, Murphy scanned the sprawling desert and chaotic jumble of distant hills. "Worth the climb."
Joe tossed his gear at his feet. "Always is." At the base of the trail vegetation had been typical of the Upper Sonoran Desert: mesquite, paloverde, jojoba, prickly pear, saguaro, and hedgehog cactus. The temperature climbed toward ninety. Not bad for early May. Up here the air was cooler, the vegetation sparse. Stark beauty and rugged calm. "I come up here to think."
"Yeah?" Murphy peered over the edge, a sheer drop-off to the lower plateaus, then farther to the desert floor. He glanced back, dark brows knitted with concern. "What do you think about?"
"I sure as hell don't think about jumping." Shaking his head in disgust, he squatted and unzipped his backpack. "You're as bad as the Bureau's shrink. I'm not suicidal."
"But you do have issues."
"Who doesn't?" Relegating thoughts of Julietta to an inner crevice as deep and infested as the canyon, he pulled two southwestern grilled sandwiches from his bag, and tossed one to Murphy. "Light seven-grain bread, turkey breast, reduced-fat Monterey Jack, and salsa." He kissed his fingertips in a wholly Italian gesture. "Delizioso."
"No doubt." Murphy sat on the ground next to Joe and unwrapped his lunch. "No one cooks like you. Except Mom." He cocked his head. "Speaking of ..."
"I'll call her tonight. As soon as I get back from taking you to the airport. Speaking of cooking," he said, changing the subject before Murphy could heap more guilt onto his already heavy load. "How's Lulu coming along in the kitchen?" A children's storybook teller and jack-of-all-artistic-trades, Murphy's bubbly wife's creativity stopped short of cooking. After nearly burning down his house while trying to fry eggs, Joe was shocked Murphy even let her near the stove. Murph had a thing about fire. He had an even bigger thing for his wife.
"I've always thought given the willingness to learn, anything is possible."
Reading into that, Joe gave a sympathetic nod. "She's hopeless."
"From the smile on your face I'm guessing you don't give a damn." He bit into his sandwich thinking his brother practically buzzed with contentment. Must be nice.
"Kind of hard to worry about my stomach when my heart's overflowing."
Joe choked on his turkey, wiped toast crumbs from his chin, and gaped. "I can't believe that sentimental puke came out of your gutter mouth."
Murphy swigged from his water bottle then dragged his muscled forearm over his moist brow. "How's this? I'm so fucking in love, who cares if her gourmet best is P&J on wheat?"
He laughed. "Better. Sort of. Christ, don't scare me like that."
"Love warps a man." He bit into his sandwich, chewed, and studied Joe an uncomfortable minute. "Almost as much as stifled infatuation."
Joe lifted an eyebrow.
"Still keeping tabs on Sofia?"
Joe concentrated on his lunch, hoping his brother couldn't read the severity of his sweaty-palmed obsession. He knew exactly where Sofia Marino was, who she was seeing, and what she was doing. How could he not? Her exotic face and killer body had made the cover of more than one Hollyweird gossip rag over the last few months. He didn't buy the tabloids, didn't have to. They were at his fingertips every time he stood in a check-out line. Who could resist skimming? And okay, yes, he visited her fan site twice or twenty times a week, and watched her farfetched TV cable show, "Spy Girl", every Wednesday night. Again, he couldn't help it. It was like watching a train wreck. Morbid fascination. She'd gone from Broadway bomb to TV action star in less than a year, with a short stint in between as a skimpily-costumed casino greeter girl. Her costumes were still provocative, a cross between Emma Peel of the Avengers and that Tomb Raider chick, but now she had a hefty bank account and a league of fanatic fans. Mostly teenage girls and horny, techno-geek males.
Unlike those espionage-wannabes, he did not have a boner for Cherry Onatop-and what kind of lame, rip-off Bond girl name was that? No, he'd fallen in lust with Sofia Chiquita Marino, pre-Cherry, during Operation Candy Jar. He'd been seduced by a vulnerability he was certain no one other than her sister even knew existed. A vulnerability that would suck the strength and sense out of him if he allowed himself to explore their undeniable chemistry.
He didn't need or want the complication. Just now he needed to keep life simple.
"Rudy Gallow bought a bed and breakfast up in Vermont," Murphy said of a mutual acquaintance. "A group of us are heading up there for a week-Lulu and I, Jake and Afia, Jean-Pierre and Sofia-partly to relax, partly to give Gallow someone to practice on." He shrugged. "What the hell? It's gratis, Gallow's an excellent cook, and I hear the scenery's kick-ass. Company's not bad either. You should come."
Joe stuffed the empty sandwich bags into his backpack. "Let me put this in words you can understand. Not just no, but hell no."
"I know what the tabloids say, but Sofia's not seeing anyone. Lulu would know. Jean-Pierre would know. The guy's living with her, for chrissake. He would have told Rudy and Rudy would have told Afia."
"Who would've told Jake, and now since you two are tight again, Jake would've told you. Christ, Murph. Three couples, one of them gay, and two incompatible, but hot-for-each-other singles. You're asking me to fly to Bumfuck, Vermont to take part in a warped version of The Big Chill."
"Good movie. Better soundtrack. Percy Sledge. Marvin Gaye. Smokey Robinson."
"You're still hooked on Motown?" Joe smoothed his thick, shoulder-length hair off of his face, pulling it into a stubby ponytail. "Step out of the sixties, man."
"Look who's talking, Mr. Tie-dye-T-shirt. All you're missing is a joint and a peace sign. When are you going to cut your hair? What's with the goatee?"
Once a Marine, always a Marine. Murphy sported a buzz cut and a clean-shaven jaw. When he wasn't undercover, Joe normally copped a similar look, topping it off with the classic dark suit, white shirt, and black tie. Stereotypical G-man right down to the dark shades. He'd kept the shades, protection against the Arizona sun, but chucked the suit in favor of T-shirts, jeans, and cargo shorts. The hair and the beard, well, hell, once a rebel always a rebel. He stroked his groomed facial hair, waggled his eyebrows. "Women dig this thing."
Murphy rose. "So you're not a total recluse then. You're actually dating?"
Joe pushed to his feet, and slung the pack over his shoulder. "Let's just say I'm not lonely."
"Anyone special? Because this thing with Sofia ..."
"There is no thing with Sofia." He felt his calm slipping. A calm he'd fought hard for these last few months. There'd been a kiss. Two kisses. Two un-frickin'-believable kisses. But there was no thing. After utilizing a pressure point to knock her unconscious, he was relatively certain Sofia would just as soon spend a week with a baboon than with him. Which was fine, no perfect. "Stop trying to fix me up. Stop trying to fix my life. I'm fine. I'm happy."
"Fuck you." The calm exploded. Shards of guilt and anger pierced his toughened skin, making him edgy and restless. Dammit. He searched the vivid blue sky, summoning tranquility. Turkey vultures circled above, probably hoping for remnants of their lunch, but vultures, Christ, wasn't that an ominous sign?
"You didn't kill that girl, Bogie."
"Yeah?" He eyed the precarious path beyond the hoodoos, needing to burn off the anxiety. He turned his back on his brother, faced his past, and hit the trail. "I guess that depends on who you ask."
Excerpted from Seduced by By Beth Ciotta Copyright © 2005 by Beth Ciotta. Excerpted by permission.
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