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Texas Hold 'Em
By Kay David, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Carla Luan
All rights reserved.
Aqua Frio, Texas
He didn't need another frigging disaster.
But when Timothy Santos found himself in a fight, he didn't back down. Some of his friends might have even said he looked for them. Either way, his life depended on how he handled the scuzzy biker coming his way. And not just because of the broken whiskey bottle the man was waving in the air.
They'd been pounding at each other for what felt like the whole damn night. His cowboy boots slipping on the sawdust-covered floor, Santos swayed in the lingering September heat, one bloody fist at his temple, the other one protecting his jaw. The roadhouse was nothing but a roof, a bar, and some scattered picnic tables. Corrugated sheets of rusted tin, propped up with sawed-off broom handles, served as windows. A dry west Texas wind whistled through the openings, leaving a layer of grit that covered everything from the beer kegs to the barstools. On their own accord, the ceiling fans spun overhead.
The local bikers used the place for entertainment, to do business, and generally make trouble, and it'd been packed since midnight, the band behind the chicken wire making their steel guitars wail. The temperatures had finally begun to cool off, but the same couldn't be said for the crowd, especially the man drawing near. Santos blinked then shook his head, his sweaty hair sticking to his neck, his cowboy hat lying crushed on the floor.
"C'mon, old man," he taunted. "Is that the best you've got?"
The men who ringed them hooted with laughter and urged his opponent to hit him again, their catcalls lewd and vicious.
"Let's see it, Nasty," someone cried out. "Show the bastard how a real rider fights. Cut off his dick and send him back to his momma ..."
The sunbaked biker standing opposite him had been called Nasty so long no one knew his real name anymore. Grey hair frizzed around his face, a skinny braid the same color hung off his chin. His eyes were bloodshot and red patches of broken veins dotted his nose. Underneath his tattooed gut was a layer of hard muscle — Santos knew because his fist had bounced off it twice, and all the big guy had done was smile. What made things even worse was that he didn't even know why Nasty had started the fight. The other biker didn't have to have a reason, though. Arguments broke out on an hourly basis at the bar. That was part of the fun, or so the other patrons claimed.
Nasty closed the gap between them and thrust the jagged spike of the bottle neck so close to his face, he felt the air move. Santos stumbled into the sticky wall behind him but the other man moved faster than he expected. The glass sliced his skin from his shoulder to his elbow. The cut didn't feel deep, and for a second, it didn't even hurt. Then a bright red line burned down his arm like a fuse, and the explosion of pain that followed almost knocked him off his feet.
He tottered for a second, and then he held up his palms, blood dripping down his left arm, leaving ruby drops between his cowboy boots. "All right, all right ..." Leaning over, he took a deep breath then swept up his straw cowboy hat, beating it against his thigh before cramming it back on his head. "You win, damn it, you win."
Nasty roared then strutted in a circle, the bloody glass in his hand glinting off the bare light bulb swinging overhead. Cheers went up around the room while a flurry of money changed hands. Finally, he dropped the bottle, ground it beneath his feet, and bowed to the applause that followed.
Santos pointed a wobbly finger. "This ain't the end of it, Nasty. Next time, I promise you're gonna be the one bleedin' —"
The biker stilled, and everyone seemed to freeze with him, the sour smell of bodies, booze, and confrontation rising between them. Then Nasty threw back his head and howled. Wrapping his arms around Santos in a bone-crushing hug, he squeezed until Santos saw pinpoints of light.
"You betcha there's gonna be a rematch, you worthless piece of shit," the old biker cried. "You and your sorry gang ain't nothing but cowboys on Harleys, and I mean to beat your dumb asses 'til them hats is the only thing left!"
The audience bellowed, a loving family brought together once again by sharing a little old-fashioned fun. Someone slapped a beer in Santos's hand, and someone else crashed into him and he spilled it. When the men finally parted enough for her to get by, a redhead with dark roots moved to his side and handed him a stained towel. As he pressed it to the wound, a dark-haired girl took his good arm and pulled him toward the bar. A battered metal box that looked like it got plenty of use was handed over by the bartender, and the two women began to patch him. He let them slap a couple of bandages on the wound then he pushed them aside. "That's enough," he growled. "I don't need you two operating on me."
They giggled, the younger brunette, Brandy, he'd learned earlier, laughing a little too long as she pressed her breasts against his chest. Another biker had told him she was quite a prize. "Warm and sweet going down," he had promised with a wink.
She'd had her eye on him as soon as he'd shown up. Twenty-one if a day, soft curves, and inviting eyes, she had tempted him to bed her, the episode going a little farther than he had planned a few weeks back. After they'd been interrupted, he'd been relieved and put her off with an empty promise for more. The way her gaze met his now, he knew she expected her more sometime soon. When he turned to the bartender instead, her pout told him how she felt.
It was four a.m. before the last call went out. Half an hour later, the bikers moved the party to the graveled parking lot, holding on to each other and their women as they stumbled outside. Tossing their beer bottles at the trash can, Santos's pack rose from the scarred table where they'd been sitting and followed.
Some of the bikers had already pulled bottles of Jack from their saddlebags and were passing the whiskey around in the dark. As he and his men walked by, they made smooching sounds and mocked him.
"Hey, cowboy, y'all going back to the ranch? Better be careful now — them Harleys buck better than your skanky-ass girlfriends!" More raucous laughter rang out. "Don't fall off and bust your butts ..."
He and his crew heard the same taunts every time they came to the Rio County dive, and they waved them away with one-finger salutes, the other men shouting with laughter in response.
Mounting their motorcycles, Santos and his men pulled onto the highway and rumbled toward their home away from home, a rundown house on the edge of the county line. The cold wind rushing over his raw face helped him stay upright, his stinging arm doing the same.
Thirty minutes later, they reached the caliche road that took them the rest of the way. He owned the house and the six-hundred-acre cattle ranch where it sat, but for safety's sake — his own and, more important, the people he loved — the name on the deed could never be traced back to him. His grandfather had turned over the property to him on his deathbed, the section of land having been in the family since Santa Anna had come and gone.
The ear-splitting roar of the Harleys echoed against the spreading mountains, a cloud of dust marking their progress. They reached the stone house after another thirty minutes and turned off their engines, the sudden silence as deep as the darkness. The mesquite trees smelled like heaven after the smoky bar, their hollow shadows leading the men toward the windows warm with light.
He made it to the living room and stopped before a ratty couch where he lowered himself to the cushions, every muscle in his body crying out. He was doubly glad the ranch was so isolated. If his newfound best friends could see him right now, they would have wondered just what kind of badass biker he was. Of course, if they knew the real truth, more than his reputation would be at stake.
Biker gangs and Texas Rangers didn't normally mix.
He had never been the kind of man who cared about normal, though, and even if he had, it wouldn't have stopped him now. He and his undercover team had come to Rio County to stop the violence that had taken control of west Texas — and he was there to make that happen, no matter what it took, including cutting some corners that might have made other officers uneasy. It wouldn't be the first time he'd broken one law to keep another one, and it wouldn't be the last.
That was the only way to catch someone like El Brujo. Santos had been chasing the brutal cartel leader, whose real name was Pablo Ortega, for two years from behind a desk when he'd learned some of the west Texas motorcycle gangs, including the one they had tangled with tonight, provided muscle for Ortega. Convincing the powers-that-be to let him take the investigation undercover, he'd handpicked a group of agents and formed ACES, the Ammunition, Contraband, and Explosive Suppression team. In the field, they'd become Smokin' Aces, a renegade biker gang.
Three months into the operation, the shit had hit the fan. His deepest-placed informant had gone silent.
They called her "Lilith." Only Santos knew her true identity. He'd tried so hard to forget who she really was that he never thought of her real name. In every way that counted, she'd become Lilith to him. But since he'd arrived in Rio County, her real identity had become a lot harder to ignore.
Ortega was behind her silence. He had to be. She'd pushed the situation to the edge just like she'd told Santos she would, and she'd fallen over. If she'd been lucky, Ortega had killed her. He didn't want to think about the other possibilities.
His main goal now was to recover her. He would have done the same for any member of his team, because no one got left behind on his watch. No one. He would find her or die trying.
He didn't notice the blood trickling down his arm until the wetness reached his fingers.
Jessie Delacourt, the only woman on the team, muttered, "Good grief ..." then she turned and stomped toward the kitchen where her own first aid kit was kept. A former medic in Iraq, she hadn't been at the bar tonight, because Santos had sent her and one of the others to Presidio the day before. They'd gone to investigate a tip that had, unfortunately, turned out false. The whole team was frustrated and angry.
When Jessie returned and saw Raymond Bentley's face, she motioned him over to the couch as well. Why the hell couldn't they do their jobs without getting beat-up? her disgusted expression said. If she'd been there, she could have put Nasty down for good and not even broken a sweat.
Bentley shuffled over and sat down beside Santos. The agent's ginger hair was spiked with dirt, and since he'd started the brawl tonight, his face was almost as bloody as Santos's. Bent's job for the team was to handle the biker angle and keep their cover intact. Jessica cleaned him up first, ignoring his protestations that she was hurting him as she swiped his face with alcohol.
"Grow up," she said, slapping a bandage on his temple. "You sound like a little girl. What's wrong with you people?"
Santos kept his silence when she turned to him and finished what the other women had started, cleaning his wound then wrapping it again, this time with a sterile bandage. "You should go get some stitches." Her voice was gruff.
"Yeah, I should. I should do a lot of things, but I don't."
"Well, what about a tetanus shot? When was the last time you got — "
He dismissed her and glanced around the room. "Nothing counts right now except getting our source out, safe and sound. We know we're here to do a helluva lot more than rescue her. But we have to find her before our real work can even begin. She's in too deep with the bad guys, and until we figure out what's happening, we won't know how to proceed. Her disappearance may have blown our whole operation."
The others murmured their agreement as Bentley bumped Santos's knuckles with his fist. He winced and held back a groan. Picking up the first aid supplies, Jessica headed for the kitchen with Austin Wills, another agent, following close behind. The smell of coffee wafted out a few minutes later, and when they reappeared, they carried a full pot and five mugs.
Jessica passed out the cups and Austin filled them. Bentley sipped the coffee, then set the mug down and scrubbed his face with both hands, his beard rasping in the silence.
"What a night. We ought to get a medal for putting up with this kind of crap."
Sitting at the other end of the couch from Santos was Joachim Guillermo. At Bentley's words, Santos felt Joachim go still. A crack sniper and the man in charge of their drug investigations, the black-garbed agent saw everything and spoke rarely, his glittering eyes hooded with secrecy. He was deadly and efficient, and Santos was half afraid of him. Jessie picked up his tension as well, looking at him nervously from her seat at the kitchen bar.
It wasn't Joachim who reacted first, though. Before anyone realized he was even moving, Austin Wills slammed down the coffee pot on the rickety coffee table in front of the couch, making the rest of them jump. His specialty was gambling, and his hands were a blur when he dealt the cards.
"We knew the risks when we signed on." He spoke hotly, his Texas twang deepening as his anger got the best of him. "If you have a problem with that, you should hit the road."
Everyone stared in surprise. Austin and Bentley were like brothers.
Bentley held his hands up. "I didn't say I had a problem, shithead. All I meant was — "
Ignoring his friend's words, Austin took two steps toward the other man, his expression fierce. "You're about to have a real problem, buddy, and I'm it —"
Before they took a swing at each other, Santos intervened, his voice sharp but weary. "That's enough. Take it outside or shut the hell up, both of you."
The two men fell quiet, the angry glares they exchanged continuing the argument, albeit in silence.
As he wearily massaged his forehead with his thumbs, Santos wondered how long Smokin' ACES could survive. They were down to the bare bones, their nerves shot, their judgment slipping. It'd been three weeks since they'd learned anything useful and six weeks since he'd heard from the woman he'd planted so deeply.
If ACES's cover was blown, the real bikers would kill them, and if the cartel found out, they'd end up wishing they were dead.
The time had come for him to talk to the sheriff.
* * *
The stranger pressed the gun against her neck, the barrel cold and hard.
Sheriff Rose Renwick pulled in a breath as the man stood motionless beside the broken window of her Jeep Cherokee. His clothing was as dark as the west Texas sky, his face partially covered with a red bandana, another tied just above his eyebrows.
"Hand over the keys." He spoke with a forced bravado.
Her body froze but her mind went into overdrive. There was something familiar about the quiver in his voice and his jittery demeanor. Despite his threat, he seemed young to her and inexperienced. While Aqua Frio, the county seat, had its fair share of nameless drifters, same as all the border towns, she wondered automatically if she'd arrested him before.
"You really don't want to do this," she said calmly.
Jiggling from one foot to the other, he gripped the pistol tighter, his fingers trembling. "I've got the gun. You do what I say."
"And I'm the sheriff. Which means you do what I say." She paused. "Drop the weapon, step away from the vehicle, and spread out on the ground. Hands behind your back."
"Are you for real?"
"Do what I'm saying, then we'll discuss that issue."
"We ain't discussing nada." He shook his head, his momentary hesitation quickly replaced by a cocky attitude.
Courage from a crystal, she thought. "You're making a mistake."
He shook his head with a twitchy movement. "Just hand me the keys, bitch."
She sighed loudly, making her acquiescence as obvious as possible. "Okay ... okay. Hold your horses." Tilting to her left as if to open the door, she eased her right hand toward the gap between the seats. Her fingers should have found the butt of the Glock she kept there, the one she always made sure was loaded, but they brushed the floor instead.
"Don't bother," he gloated. "I already took it." He curled his hand impatiently, his gaze darting toward the car keys. "Gimme the keys."
Rose sent a quick glance toward the corner of the lot. She'd noticed the street light was out. Bob Wilson, the county's one-man maintenance department, had taken his daughter to visit the university in Austin. Which was also why Rose's broken vehicle window hadn't been repaired when she'd noticed it the day before.
Excerpted from Texas Hold 'Em by Kay David, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2013 Carla Luan. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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