Authors: Cate Noble
“Gee, you think?” Harry ground out. Travis Franks
had already pulled his own disappearing act. What good was an inside contact when all the players operated outside?
“Well, on the bright side, it should keep Rocco off Minh Tran’s radar,” Ian pointed out.
“That’s only helpful if we know what Tran is up to.”
Harry would bet that Minh Tran had probably panicked when he’d learned that Rocco was in lockdown. If Tran’s pattern was the same as it had been in the past, he would cut and run, withdrawing to one of his jungle lairs until things cooled down. Or until he tracked down a new leverage point. All the more reason Harry needed to get to Gena.
Within days, Madison Kohlmeyer’s body would probably be recovered, a graphic message not to fuck with Minh Tran. And with the analyst being only a low-level peon, the Agency wouldn’t waste man-hours over her death.
“Recheck your intel, all of it. Find out where Dante Johnson and Max Duncan are right now and get back to me,” Harry snapped. “I need to know what I’m up against here.”
“I know for a fact those two are en route to Kentucky, chasing down a lead on Taz. I’m guessing Rocco’s on his own.”
“Don’t guess, confirm!” Harry disconnected just as Rocco came back out the front entrance with a woman.
Harry squinted at the woman. Gena? What had happened to his ex–trophy wife? He’d heard she’d fallen on hard times, but damn. Didn’t the town have a beauty parlor?
Harry called Edguardo, who was covering the ER
entrance. “Our subject’s out front, but she has company. Stand by to follow.”
But instead of leaving, Rocco stood off to one side while Gena chatted it up with some old lady, pointing and gesturing as if giving directions. What the fuck was going on?
Rocco had his back to Harry, and Gena was in the shadows, so lipreading was out. What Harry wouldn’t have given for an electronic eavesdropping aid just then. Still, Gena’s body language came across loud and clear, her spine ramrod straight. She was pissed.
“That makes two of us, darling,” Harry muttered.
Harry’s phone vibrated briefly, indicating a text message. It was from Ian, confirming that Rocco’s official whereabouts were “unknown” and he was “believed unaccompanied.”
Sounded like Harry had one up on the Agency.
Watching Rocco and Gena made Harry think about that Marine’s sniper rifle again. Given the right angle, he could have lined up a shot and taken them both out with the same bullet.
Except that would’ve been too damn pain free.
On the other hand, if he only shot Gena …
He would have made it a messy head shot. Lots of spray and splatter.
Hey, Gena! Still wanna give Rocco a piece of your mind?
Harry’s cell phone vibrated again. This time it was Edguardo. Harry activated the wireless earpiece to answer.
“You still see them?” Edguardo asked.
“Yes. They got waylaid by some old biddy.”
“Let’s hold our positions. They can’t stay here forever. Once they leave, we’ll follow at a distance, see
where they’re headed. With luck, they’ll each drive their own car.” That would make it a little easier to separate Gena from Rocco.
“Keep me posted,” Edguardo said.
“I’ll call you when I see some action here.” Harry disconnected.
Rocco showing up by himself at least kept the odds in their favor.
Now Harry just needed to figure out how to get Gena alone.
Rocco had followed Gena out the front entrance of the hospital. An elderly woman, who seemed very confused, interrupted them, asking for directions. He stepped aside, allowing Gena to assist the woman.
He welcomed the break. Needed it to pull his mangled wits together.
Seeing Gena again had slammed a fist in Rocco’s chest. Certainly he’d expected an emotional punch; he had thought of little else since leaving D.C.
Their shared history spanned from supreme ecstasy to bitter strife to an unresolved ending. And it felt like he’d revisited every moment, good and bad, during his flight here.
What caught him unaware just now, however, was the tsunami of regret and its vicious, resentful undertow. All the things he wished he’d said and done differently collided with the brick wall of all the things he wished
had said and done another way. His way.
Gena also looked … not like Gena.
When Rocco had first arrived at the hospital and
asked for Gena Armstrong, he’d been directed to Helen Newton, the administrator of New Beginnings. Helen had been perched on a bench near intensive care, trying to watch the medical pandemonium unfolding nearby.
She had eyed Rocco with open disdain when he’d walked up and said, “Ms. Newton?”
“This area is off limits to the press.” Helen had responded coldly. “Go away and leave us alone.”
“I’m not a reporter. I’m a friend of Gena Armstrong’s.”
That had gotten Helen’s attention. “How close?”
“Ex-fiancé.” Only a slight lie, but more expeditious than the truth.
The commotion at the nurses’ station drew Helen’s gaze once again.
“Oh, God! Lupe’s dead,” Helen had whispered, crossing herself. “I need to go handle this. Maybe you can get through to Gena. She’s refused to leave.”
Helen had nodded toward the ICU’s doors just as they swept open. A woman had stood inside, her shoulders held too stiffly.
Rocco almost hadn’t recognized her. And it was more than the fact that her hair was shorter than when he’d last seen it. Touched it. Four long years ago.
This woman was practically a stranger. She was still drop-him-to-his-knees gorgeous, still blond. A shade of blond anyway. Beneath the soot her hair appeared tawny gold and barely brushed her shoulders.
The Gena he used to know kept her hair middle-of-the-back long and platinum. On rare occasions she’d worn it in a ponytail, but usually Gena Armstrong
looked like she’d just stepped off a fashion runway. Her PhD in beauty-pageant training, she’d teased. Even in bed, after gloriously wild sex, she’d looked perfect.
This Gena looked vulnerable. Any make-up she’d had on previously was either cried off or buried under dirt and dried blood. This Gena didn’t even wear earrings, he’d noticed, when she’d tucked her hair behind her ears. Ears she had rarely let show because she thought they stuck out. Ears Rocco had loved to—
Part of him had wanted to shake her and force her to admit where
Gena was. But a bigger part wanted to embrace her. Hold her. Protect her.
He listened as the elderly woman repeated the directions Gena had given and then moved away toward the hospital entrance.
Gena turned and faced Rocco. “Now. What are you doing in Texas? You said it was important.”
Rocco noticed that she cradled her left wrist as she talked. In fact, she favored her entire left side. Bruised ribs, he’d bet.
“I’m fine.” Gena tried to cross her arms but grimaced and went back to cradling her wrist. “Just answer my question, Rocco.”
He finished cataloging her injuries. The burns and scrapes visible on her arms looked as if someone had wiped them clean and smeared them with salve, but the dried rivulets of blood on her neck worried him. Scalp laceration? Concussion?
He wanted to march her down to ER and demand a couple X-rays, but he had a feeling she would reject any heavy-handedness. At the moment she was a
whirling cyclone of dark emotion that might just kick his ass if she didn’t crumble beneath her own sorrow and pain.
“I’m here because of what happened last night—” Rocco began.
Gena cut him off. “And why would the Agency be interested in that?” She held up a hand to keep him from interrupting. “Look, I know they’re claiming that Lupe was in the country illegally and that Border Patrol is looking for her ex-husband. And I’ll tell you the same thing I told them. I know precious little about Lupe’s past. I don’t even know how to find her grandmother to tell her Lupe’s dead. But when I do, you can bet Uncle Sam’s last gold piece that I’ll find out everything that woman knows about the lousy bastard who’s responsible for Lupe’s death.”
Gena’s voice cracked as tears rolled down her cheeks. She was angry—red hot—and he was fixing to pour gas on the situation.
But the urge to offer comfort first rose strong. “I promise I’ll seek justice for Lupe’s suffering,” he said.
“Why? It’s not your battle!”
“I’m afraid it is.” Rocco exhaled sharply. “What happened last night wasn’t about Lupe or her husband. It’s about you and me. I believe you were targeted by an enemy of mine. One woman has already been kidnapped and an attempt was made on my sister.”
Gena staggered as if off balance, but just as quickly recovered. “You’re saying Lupe died … not because of
past but because of
Because someone is after you? How is that even possible? I haven’t seen you in … in—”
“Four years,” Rocco supplied.
“But we’re nothing to each other. I’m not even sure we ever were anything to each other. Besides strangers.”
Her words drew blood like a knife plunged between two ribs.
“I don’t know how the connection between us was uncovered,” Rocco said. “But in light of the timing and other recent events, it can’t be a coincidence.”
“The woman who was abducted, is she someone you’re involved with?”
“She works for the Agency. An analyst.” As soon as he said it, he realized his nonanswer was a mistake. He hadn’t lied to Gena, but it was damn obvious that he was holding back. Just like old times.
“A lot of people work for the Agency,” she snapped. “Are they all at risk or only the ones you’ve slept with?”
“She’s a friend. Yes, we dated. Broke it off when it became apparent we weren’t cut out to be lovers. Happy now?”
Gena shook her head. “My remark was uncalled for. I just … can’t believe all this.”
Rocco scanned the surrounding area, noting the police, sheriff, fire, and Border Patrol vehicles parked along the curb.
“Look, I know you’ve been asked a hundred questions but I need to go over it with you, as well. And I promise I’ll fill you in on everything during the flight back to D.C.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yes, you are. To a safe house. It’s for your own protection. Whoever did this is still out there and may come after you again.”
“Good,” she said. “We can trap him. I’m sure the local police will work with you to set up a stakeout. And— Why are you shaking your head?”
“No cops. At least for now. What I’ve told you doesn’t go beyond you and me.”
“Like hell! Lupe’s killer is running around scot-free while the police are wasting time chasing after an innocent man.”
“Do you mean Lupe’s ex-husband?” Rocco had read the dossier Catalina had provided. “Border Patrol has their own reasons for going after him. The man forces illegal minors to run drugs across the border. Hardly an innocent victim.”
“But what about the other blameless victims, Rocco? The man who died when the fire spread to another building? The people who suffered burns and smoke inhalation? The families who lost everything they owned? And the shelter we were building—” Her voice cracked. “It’s gone.”
“It’s tragic, Gena. And I agree it’s totally unfair. But the best I can do right now is to minimize the opportunity for more damage by removing the target.”
“By target, you mean me? And if I refuse to go along with you?”
“Don’t,” he replied, then added, “please.”
I’ll force you to go if I have to.
She looked away for long seconds before speaking again. “If I agree, do you swear to tell me everything?”
Gena nodded. “I need a little time to wrap things up here. Lupe’s … remains. Come back in an hour.”
Rocco moved to follow her back inside. “Thirty minutes. Lead the way.”
She didn’t move. “It’ll go much faster if I handle things alone.”
“A few more minutes won’t matter. Your safety does.”
“Don’t you get it? If it weren’t for you, none of this would have happened, Rocco. So if I want a little time alone to say good-bye to a friend, to make her final arrangements, you had better get on board with it. I’ll meet you in the lobby in thirty minutes.”
Without a backward glance, Gena stalked through the hospital doors. Rocco knew that if he went after her right then, he’d have one hell of a fight on his hands.
Out of nowhere came the urge to run after her anyway, to beg her forgiveness for long-ago sins.
Except where to start? Their past was tangled, checkered. She wasn’t happy to see him, but then he hadn’t expected her to be.
Fine. So part of him had hoped she’d seem glad to see him after four years, two months, and twelve days.
His ability to recall the exact moment and time he’d last seen Gena made him feel ashamed. He remembered very little about the last time he’d been with Maddy. Even less about the women he’d dated after Gena and before Maddy.
Jesus. Had he really been obsessed with one woman all this time?
In the last four years barely a day had gone by that he hadn’t thought of Gena. Great. So he needed therapy, too. But first he had to get her to a safe place.
He watched as another police cruiser pulled into the parking lot. The amount of law enforcement in
the area should have made him feel more comfortable, and maybe it did. Marginally. With two people dead from the fire, new faces in town, Rocco’s included, were being carefully scrutinized, so it was unlikely Minh Tran’s men had stuck around.
Still, Rocco wasn’t completely comfortable. He’d give Gena a little space, but he wasn’t leaving the hospital without her.
He headed into the lobby, took a seat where he could watch the elevators.
Tugging out the brand-new Blackberry he’d just picked up, Rocco checked his e-mail, including spam, but found nothing new from Minh Tran. Or Travis.
What had happened to Maddy now that the deadline had passed? Had Tran’s crony called Rocco’s cell and reached Travis Franks instead? If so, what had Travis done? Had he been able to reason with Maddy’s abductors?