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This is a mistake.
Eva took one look around the dark, smoky bar and nearly sprinted right out the door. It took her a second to gather her composure, to force her feet to stay rooted to the dirty floor. She couldn't chicken out. She'd already come this far, traveled over seven thousand miles and crossed two continents to come here.
There was no turning back now.
Squaring her shoulders, she drew air into her lungs, only to inhale a cloud of cigar smoke that made her eyes water. She blinked rapidly, trying hard not to focus on the dozen pairs of eyes glued to her. Some were appreciative. Most were suspicious. It didn't surprise herthis place didn't seem as though it catered to many law-abiding citizens. She'd figured that out when she'd first spotted the dilapidated adobe exterior with its crooked wooden sign, the word Cantina chicken-scratched onto it.
The interior only confirmed her original assessment. The bar was small and cramped, boasting a wood counter that would probably give her splinters if she touched it, and a handful of little tables, most of them askew. Across the room was a narrow doorway shielded only by a curtain of red and yellow beads that clinked together. All the patrons were men; a few wore sombreros, several didn't have any shoes on, and all were looking at Eva as if she'd just gotten off a spaceship.
Ignoring the burning stares, she made her way to the counter, her sandals clicking against the floor. Her yellow sundress clung to her body like wet plastic wrap. It was nearly seven o'clock, and the humidity refused to cease, rolling in through the open front door like fake fog from a horror movie.
The bartender, a large man with a thick black beard, narrowed his eyes at her approach. "What can I do for you, senorita?" he asked.
He'd spoken in Spanish, and she answered in the same tongue. "I'm looking for someone."
He winked. "I see."
"I was told he's a regular here," she hurried on before the bartender misinterpreted her intentions. "I have business to discuss with him."
Gone was the playful twinkle in the man's eyes. He looked suspicious again, which made her wonder just how many times he'd heard this same old line before. Hundreds, probably. Paraiso wasn't the kind of town you visited on business, at least not the legitimate kind.
In her research, Eva had discovered that this little mountain town was a frequent stop for drug runners, arms dealers and men involved in all other sorts of nefarious activities. It was also the perfect place to hide. According to her sources, Mexican law enforcement turned the other cheek to what went on here, and with its mountainous landscape and neighboring rain forest, it was easy to disappear in a place like Paraiso. Its name translated to paradise. Irony at work.
"I'm afraid you'll need to be more specific," the bartender said curtly. He swept an arm out. "As you can see, there are many men here, almost all of them regulars."
She swallowed. "The one I want goes by the name Tate."
Silence descended over the room. The laughter of the patrons died. Even the music blaring out of the cheap stereo over the bar seemed to get quieter. From the corner of her eye, Eva noticed that the gray-haired man at the other end of the counter had blanched, his tanned leathery skin turning a shade paler.
So she'd come to the right place. These men knew Tate. And they feared himshe could feel that fear palpitating in the stuffy air.
"I take it you know him," she said to the bartender.
His dark eyes grew shuttered. "Actually, I can't say I've ever heard that name before."
She suppressed a sigh and reached into the green canvas purse slung over her bare shoulder. She fumbled around until her hand connected with the roll of American bills she'd secured with an elastic band. She peeled off four one-hundred-dollar bills and set them on the counter.
The man's jaw twitched at the sight of the cashabout five thousand pesos after the conversion.
"What about now?" she asked softly. "Have you heard of him now?"
Greed etched into his harsh features. "No, still doesn't ring a bell."
She added two more hundreds to the pile.
Smirking, the bartender pocketed the cash and hooked a thumb at the doorway in the back. "I believe you'll find Mr. Tate at his usual table, stealing money from poor, hardworking souls."
With a quiet thank-you, Eva headed for the doorway and slid through the string of beads.
The corridor was narrow, illuminated by an exposed lightbulb that dangled from the ceiling on a long piece of brown twine. Only one other door in the hall, all the way at the end, and she heard muffled male voices coming from behind it. A burst of laughter, a few Spanish curses and then English. Someone was speaking English. She immediately picked up on a faint Boston inflection. Having spent her entire childhood and adolescence in New York, she knew an East Coast accent when she heard one.
Tate was definitely in Paraiso.
Eva's legs felt unusually weak as she made her way down the corridor. She instinctively reached into her purse, tempted to grab her cell phone and call the babysitter just to make sure Rafe was all right, but she resisted the impulse. The quicker she did this, the faster she could get back to her son.
Still, she hated leaving Rafe alone for even a few minutes, let alone the two hours she'd already been gone. She worried that if she let him out of her sight, she'd never see him again.
Lord knew her son's father was doing his damnedest to make that happen.
Her stomach clenched. God, what a fool she'd been. And as humiliating as it was to admit, she had nobody to blame but herself. She was the one who'd left New York to volunteer with the relief foundation in San Marquez. She was the young and idealistic fool who'd actually believed in Hector's cause. She was the idiot who'd fallen in love with an outlaw rebel.
But now she had the chance to be free of Hector Cruz. After three years of running, after five close calls and half a dozen fresh starts, she finally had the opportunity to vanquish her personal demon once and for all.
Assuming Tate agreed to help her, of course.
Tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear, she approached the door and knocked, then opened it without waiting for invitation.
"Who the hell are you?" a rough male voice demanded in Spanish.
Eva did her best not to gape. Her gaze collided with four men sitting at a round table littered with colorful poker chips and a pile of crumpled cash. A lone cigar sat in a cracked plastic ashtray, sending a cloud of smoke curling in the direction of the door. Two of the men were dark-skinned, with matching shaved heads and menacing expressions. The third looked like a fat little character from a Mexican cartoon, boasting bulging black eyes and a generous paunch.
But it was the fourth man who caught and held her attention. He was sitting down, but she could tell he was tall, judging by the long legs encased in olive-colored camo pants. A white T-shirt clung to a broad chest and washboard stomach, the sleeves rolled up to reveal a pair of perfectly sculpted biceps. His chocolate-brown hair was in a buzz cut, and his face was ruggedly handsome, its most striking feature being eyes the color of dark moss.
This had to be Tate. The man had military written all over that chiseled face and massive body.
"Tell Juan thanks, but we have no need for a whore," he said gruffly.
"I'm not a whore," she blurted out.
She'd spoken in English, and she noticed his eyes widen slightly, then narrow as he studied her. His gaze swept over her sweat-soaked sundress, resting on her bare legs and strappy brown sandals, then gliding up to her cleavage, which he assessed for an exasperatingly long time. She supposed she couldn't fault him for thinking she was a prostitute. In this heat, skimpy clothing was really one's only option.
"Who are you, then?" he demanded, switching to English. "And what do you want?"
She took a steadying breath. "Are you Tate?"
The room went silent, same way it had out in the bar. The two men with shaved heads exchanged a wary look, while the chubby one began to fidget with his hands. All three avoided glancing in the dark-haired man's direction.
"Who wants to know?" he finally asked.
"Me," she stammered. "I have something extremely urgent to discuss with Mr. Tate."
He slanted his head, a pensive glimmer entering those incredible green eyes.
To her shock, Eva's heart did a tiny little flip as he once again slid his sultry gaze over her. She hadn't expected him to be so good-looking. Her uncle had told her that Tate was rumored to be a deadly warrior, and granted, he sure did look the part, but the sexual magnetism rolling off his big body was something she hadn't counted on.
"Look," she went on, "my name is"
He held up a hand to silence her. "Let us play out this hand." With the raise of his dark eyebrows, the man she'd traveled so far to see thoroughly dismissed her and turned to the fat man. "I call, amigo."
There was a beat of anticipation as both men prepared to reveal their cards. Tate went first, tossing a pair of aces directly on the pile of cash in the center of the table. With a resounding expletive, the Mexican threw down his cards and scraped back his chair.
"Tomorrow night, same time," the little man spat out.
Tate seemed to be fighting a grin. "Sure thing, Diego."
Eva resisted the urge to tap her foot as she watched Tate reach for the money he'd just liberated from his fellow card players. To her sheer impatience, he counted it. Then smoothed out each billone at a time.
Just as she was about to voice her frustration, he shoved the cash in his pocket, glanced at the other men and nodded at the door. At the unspoken demand, the trio shuffled out of their chairs and practically scurried out of the room.
Eva was unable to hide her amusement. "They're terrified of you, you know," she remarked.
The corners of his mouth lifted. "As they should be."
She suspected the warning had been aimed to unnerve her, but she received a strange sense of comfort from those four lethal words. Oh, yes. This man was exactly what she needed. Her uncle had been right about him. Then again, she really shouldn't have doubted Uncle Miguel. When a San Marquez army general warned you that you'd be getting tangled up with a ruthless warrior, he probably wasn't bluffing.
"So you are Tate, then," she said bluntly.
He nodded and gestured to one of the unoccupied chairs. "I am. Now why don't you have a seat and tell me what the hell it is you want from me."
Unfazed by his short tone, she sat down, crossed her ankles together and met his stormy gaze head-on. "I have a proposition for you."
He cut her off with a low rumble of a laugh. "Proposition, huh? Well, like I said, I'm not into whores. But" he cocked his head "maybe I'll make an exception for you. How much, sweetheart?"
Her skin prickled with offense. "I'm not a prostitute! My name is Eva. Eva Dolce. And I traveled a long way to find you, so please, quit calling me a whore."
Those green eyes twinkled for a second, then hardened into stone. "How did you find me, Eva? I'm not exactly listed in any phone books."
"I heard rumors about you." She rested her suddenly shaky hands on her knees. "Someone told me you might be able to help me, so I decided to track you down. I'm Well, let's just say I'm very skilled when it comes to computers. I studied Computer Science at Columbia and"
"You're from New York?"
"Yes. Well, I wasn't born there. My parents decided to move to the States when I was a baby. I was raised in Manhattan, we lived on the Upper East Side and" She halted, realizing she was babbling. She hadn't come here to tell this man her life story, damn it. "Look, none of this is important. All that matters is that I found you."
"Yes, using your trusty computer," he said mockingly.
She bristled. "I'm good at what I do. I started the search at the military base in North Carolina."
His jaw tensed.
"You're good, too," she added with grudging appreciation. "You left so many false trails it made me dizzy. But you slipped up in Costa Rica. You used the same identity twice, and it led me here."
Tate let out a soft whistle. "I'm impressed. Very impressed, actually." He made a tsking sound. "You went to a lot of trouble to find me. Maybe it's time you tell me why."
"I told youI need your help."
He raised one large hand and rubbed the razor-sharp stubble coating his strong chin.
A tiny thrill shot through her as she watched the oddly seductive gesture and imagined how it would feel to have those callused fingers stroking her own skin, but that thrill promptly fizzled when she realized her thoughts had drifted off course again. What was it about this man that made her so darn aware of his masculinity?
She shook her head, hoping to clear her foggy brain, and met Tate's expectant expression. "Your help," she repeated.
"Oh, really?" he drawled. "My help to do what?"
Her throat tightened. God, could she do this? How did one even begin to approach something like
"For Chrissake, sweetheart, spit it out. I don't have all night."
She swallowed. Twice.
He started to push back his chair. "Screw it. I don't have time for"
"I want you to kill Hector Cruz," she blurted out.