“Come again?” Sam ‘Durag’ Rivers had heard his boss, Chief Patrick Donley of the National Border Interdiction Agency—NBIA—just fine, but he needed to buy time to devise an exit strategy. This was a pooch screw assignment from start to finish. “Wouldn’t Sassy Pants Sid be a better choice?” He motioned in his friend’s direction. “He knows which finger to raise as he sniffs his bourbon.”
As expected, Sid shot him his middle finger. Sam sent a shit-eating grin back at him.
“I’m the guy who poses as a murderer or a drug dealer. I don’t know anything about diplomacy,” Sam continued to argue his case.
“Sid will serve as your handler for this one.” The chief tossed a manila envelope onto the table. “He’ll help you choose the correct attire and school you in the proper etiquette for the diplomatic corps.”
The chief appeared war-torn and weary. Sam sure as hell didn’t want to add to his plate. He would walk through fire for Donley, but posing as a diplomat was so far out of his of expertise he figured he’d be drummed out or shot dead by lunch on the first day.
Although the phrase ‘why me?’ was on the tip of his tongue, Sam knew that would piss the old man off. He decided to go a different route. “Sir, what skills could I possibly have that would make me right for this mission?”
Before he got what was sure to be a sarcastic reply, the phone on the chief’s desk buzzed.
Donley glanced briefly at the screen then dismissed them. “I need to take this.”
Both Sam and Sid immediately stepped outside of the room to give their boss some privacy.
“This is fucked up, man. Why am I getting saddled with this crap? You know it’s bullshit. Ever since the chief’s buddy turned out to be the Weasel, he’s seeing conspiracies where there are none and everyone is a suspect.”
Sid slapped him on the shoulder, obviously enjoying himself. “You have the brooding dark looks the ladies love and you speak the language.”
Sam’s irritation was growing by the minute. Would his heritage ever stop screwing with him? How many times had he been told he was a mistake—a daily reminder of one rebellious act? His parents had both come from traditional families, both had been pressured to find someone from within the same community. He could only imagine what it had been like for his mom when she’d explained to her parents that she carried the baby of a Lakota. He could still hear the sneer in his grandmother’s voice as she would have recounted how their proud Japanese heritage that could link their bloodline to the emperors had been permanently tarnished with Native American genes.
“You’re also the only single guy that meets the criteria.” Sid grew more serious. “He’s not going to drop this, so you might as well make the best of it.” Sid shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I do think her previous two husbands were murdered, so you need to be careful.”
Husbands murdered? What the fuck?
The door opened and the chief waved them back in before Sam could ask for the details. As he sat down in front of the projection screen, Sam was captivated by the woman seemingly looking back at him. Her long, dark hair was pulled up, giving him a tantalizing view of her neck. Her high cheekbones accentuated her delicate nose and plump lips. God, that mouth of hers brought several fantasies to mind. Suddenly, he was seeing this assignment in a different light.
“This is Eliza James. Currently, she’s stationed at the state division of the World Affairs Bureau downtown and is in charge of the international exchange program,” the chief began.
She was beautiful, incredibly so. Although physically she was stunning, her beauty seemed to radiate from within. He was quick to get an impression of people. Ever since he’d been a kid, he’d been able to get a sense of someone with not much more than a glance and, so far, his instincts hadn’t steered him wrong.
The boss clicked the touch pad on his laptop and the image switched to a wedding photo.
“Eight years ago, she married Harry Becker. He was a tough son of a bitch, impressed the hell out of me.” The chief’s jawline quivered, yet another sign that the man wasn’t back to full strength after suffering a heart attack. “I tried several times to lure him away from the diplomatic corps, but he was convinced he could make a greater impact there than as an agent.”
The smile on Eliza’s face and the twinkle in her startling green eyes spoke of true love. The admiration on her face as she gazed up at Harry sent a pang of longing through Sam’s gut. What he wouldn’t give to have someone look at him that way.
“Seven months later, Harry was involved in a single-vehicle collision. Though the circumstances were suspicious, it was ruled operator error.” There was little doubt what the chief thought of the determination. “Our grieving widow was left with a two-million-dollar insurance policy, but less than a month later, she took a transfer from New York to Arizona and was right back to work.”
Another image filled the screen. Eliza was still beautiful, but something about her had changed. As Sam continued to scrutinize her picture, he realized it was her eyes. They’d lost a bit of their sparkle. Though she gazed at the man standing beside her with obvious affection, she seemed—he couldn’t put a finger on it—fearful, maybe?
“Daniel Ortez was an ambassador from Mexico. He’d been stationed here as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. From all accounts, he and Eliza were fast friends. They married five years ago in a quiet civil ceremony. Before the year was out, Ortez was hiking in Papago Park where he suffered a heart attack and fell to his death.” The chief sighed heavily. “He was twenty-eight years old.”
“I assume the coroner ruled it natural causes.” Sam was willing to admit it seemed fishy, but heart issues did go undiagnosed. Even high school kids had been known to drop dead during a workout.
“You got it. Ms. James walked away with a cool five million, but being the dedicated civil servant she is, she was back to work the next month.” The chief turned off the projector and moved the manila envelope in front of Sam. “All that money, yet she keeps returning to a job where she earns less than six figures. Makes you wonder what kind of perks she enjoys at work, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe working is her coping mechanism.” If anyone could understand the need to stay busy it should be the chief. He’d tried to retire a couple of times, yet he was still in the thick of things.
“Or she has a lucrative side interest that makes the seven million look like pocket change.” Donley’s speech pattern had slowed, as if he were talking to child.
Okay. I’ll play the game. “Do you think the husbands were in on it?” Whatever ‘it’ is.
“I can’t see Harry being involved in anything, but we can’t rule it out. As far as Mr. Ortez is concerned”—he shook his head—“I have no idea. Everything in his file suggests he was a straight arrow.”
“What type of operation is suspected? Trafficking? Guns, drugs, humans?”
The NBIA had been created to stem the flow of trafficking across the nation’s borders. He needed a direction. Each faction had its own routes and ways of operating.
“She runs the exchange program,” the chief informed him. “It could be any kind of contraband. Once the candidates are chosen, they’re allowed to bring three trunks with them. Very conveniently, they’re shipped through diplomatic channels, avoiding much of the scrutiny subjected to other packages.”
Sid tapped the envelope. “You’ll find all the background information in there. We’ll get started on your cover first thing in the morning.”
* * * *
Liz sat at her desk and glanced through her agenda for the day. Only one item held any interest for her. Diego Rivera, a Uruguayan diplomat interested in the exchange program, was penciled in for ten o’clock. She’d done her homework and was excited by the possibilities. As one of the most forward-thinking Latin countries, a partnership might be very beneficial to all parties.
“Liz,” the director, Jonathon Welch, shouted from his office, “can you bring me a cup of coffee?”
“Right away,” she called out.
Funny how somethings never change.
She got up and poured Jonathon a mug and another for herself. She added a tablespoon of cream and half teaspoon of sugar to his. Liz was sure he had no idea how offensive it was for a woman in her position to be treated as a gofer, but Jonathon had been by her side through some of the worst periods of her life. She wasn’t sure what she would have done if she hadn’t had her job to fall back on when her world had come tumbling apart, not once, but twice. Being able to focus on helping others had kept the pain at a manageable level.
She walked into his immaculate office and set the cup on the upper right hand corner of his desk, just where he liked it.
“On the way back from lunch, we need to stop and pick up the brochures from the print shop,” Jonathon commented, without looking up.
“I can’t.” Damn, he’s going to be pissed. “I’m meeting with the Uruguayan diplomat to discuss the exchange program. I can take care of it on my way home,” she offered, hoping that would soften the blow.
He glanced up and frowned. “We always lunch on Mondays.”
“I know. I’m sorry. His flight comes in at ten and I have to get him set up at the Biltmore.”
Jonathon was a creature of habit. He always wore a blue tie on Monday, green on Tuesday, brown on Wednesday, red on Thursday and on Friday he cut loose and went without one. Breaking their lunch date would throw his whole day off. She tried to be mindful of his nervous condition and adjust her schedule accordingly. Unfortunately, sometimes it was unavoidable.
“This is most inconvenient.” His eyes widened as if he were afraid.
She patted his forearm. “I’ll call the deli and have your lunch delivered today.”
“Ham and Swiss on sourdough at noon sharp?” he asked.
For the last ten years, on Mondays he’d ordered a ham and Swiss sandwich, no mayo, no tomato, one leaf of lettuce and two pickle spears. She went back to her desk and placed the order for him.
Liz checked that all her papers were in order then headed out. As she got into her car, she jotted down the mileage so she could be reimbursed for the business trip. While driving to the airport, she went over all the key details she needed to impart to Mr. Rivera during his stay. Once she entered Sky Harbor International Airport, she put everything from her mind and concentrated on maneuvering through terminal four’s parking structure in search of a spot. Finding one near the elevators, she figured it must be her lucky day.
She grabbed a small whiteboard from her brief case, scribbled ‘Diego Rivera’ on it then headed into the waiting area for his gate. After puttering through a few of the stores that lined the causeway, she noticed his plane had landed and passengers were disembarking. Liz found a conspicuous place to stand and she waited.
It didn’t take long before the passengers were filing past her. She locked eyes with a very handsome man who looked to be in his mid-thirties. Though she knew it was impolite, she couldn’t stop herself from staring. His shoulder-length dark hair and even darker eyes were a sharp contrast to the white collar of his linen shirt. He was tall and walked with a confidence that sent her heart fluttering. In his left hand, he held a gym bag. It was large and stretched tightly against the seams and probably quite heavy, yet he carried it with ease. One glance at his biceps filling the sleeves of his shirt and she had the desire to drool. He was everything she liked in a man. Please, God, don’t let that be him. If she was stuck working side by side with that man, she wasn’t sure her vow of abstinence would last much longer.
His path was unswerving. With a side quirk to his lips, he walked straight to her. “Ms. James?”
“Yes, Mr. Rivera?” she asked in a breathy voice she didn’t recognize as her own.
“At your service.”
Service? Oh, the images that word conjured. She could see his tanned face poised between her pale legs. His probing gaze sending a shiver down her spine as he slowly lowered his face to her pussy.
Oh, my. She used the placard with his name written on it to fan herself. She cleared her throat and asked, “Shall we go to the baggage claim?” Liz quickly turned in the direction of the escalators. She was being rude. She hadn’t shaken his hand or even welcomed him, but to stop now and correct her lack of manners would only draw more attention to it. Damn.
“No need. The airlines and I have a simple arrangement. I don’t allow them to touch my luggage and they don’t lose my belongings.” He lifted the leather tote. “All my immediate needs are taken care of. My things are scheduled to arrive in a few days.”
“Oh.” Liz faltered a few feet from the escalator. “Ok, well, um, I guess we can head out to my car then.”
“Lead the way.” Diego stayed by her side as they walked through the airport and into the parking garage.
As they neared her car, she clicked the trunk-release button on her key fob. Diego hesitated for a moment then set his carry-on inside and closed the lid.
Was it rude to assume he’d put his bag in the trunk? He was obviously uncomfortable trusting people with his belongings. Damn it. Why is this so awkward? Because you’ve been with the man for less than five minutes and you’ve already imagined him devouring your pussy, she answered her silent question. Engage your brain, Liz. You can’t risk it.
“We booked a villa for you at a local resort. If you decide to stay with us a while, we’ll show you the homes we have available to our diplomats.” She glanced at him briefly, ensuring he was seat-belted, then backed out of the space and headed for the exit.
“Ah yes, according to the material you sent me last week, I’ll be staying at the Biltmore, the so-called ‘Jewel of the Desert’. It was designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Hopefully, I won’t have to duck as I pass through the doorways.”
Liz smiled and laughed nervously. He’d obviously done his homework and knew Wright preferred low ceilings. His tone wasn’t what she’d expected and she noticed his lips were tight. “You should be fine, but I can change your reservation if you’d like,” she tried to appease him.
“I’m a rancher. I come from a long line of ranchers. I prefer wide open spaces. Having said that”—he cocked his head to the side—“I can sleep damned near anywhere. The accommodations will be acceptable.”
She was used to dealing with difficult people, forced to try to accommodate ridiculous demands from prima donnas. Mr. Rivera didn’t fall into that category, but it was clear he wasn’t happy.
They drove in silence for a few minutes. It was on the tip of her tongue to apologize and book his stay elsewhere. She’d always been a people pleaser, but the desire to satisfy this man went a bit deeper than most. What was it about Mr. Rivera that had her so off-balance? It wasn’t like she was looking for a relationship with him. Men she cared about had a nasty habit of dying and she wasn’t willing to go through that again…ever.
“Was the city ‘Rivera’ named after your family?” Liz tried to change the subject. While learning about Uruguay, she’d discovered one of their key cities shared his name. Her concentration should have been on the traffic. Instead, she felt the full brunt of his gaze boring through her.
“I have no idea,” he answered in a tone that suggested he had little time for such notions.
* * * *
Sam watched Liz’s hand fist around the gear shifter.
“I’m sorry. I guess that was a silly question. As I recall, it’s one of the larger urban areas and you just pointed out your family are ranchers.” Her voice wobbled as she apologized.
Sam had learned everything he could about her. He’d seen countless photos, read her private emails and text messages—not that there was anything personal or private about them. She either had hidden, highly secure accounts the NBIA techs hadn’t found, or she had no personal life at all. He knew the floor plan of her home, her daily routine, even the shampoo she used, yet he hadn’t realized until he’d actually met her just how drawn to her he was. He got the impression she was a lost soul wandering through life on automatic.
Unless his instincts had completely failed him, the chief was wasting the NBIA’s time and money. Eliza was everything he expected her to be and more. She had a fire to her when she was riled, but it was quickly extinguished if he gave the impression he was displeased. She brought out both his protective streak and his dominant nature.
He was pretty sure the only crimes Eliza had ever committed were in the mind of an old man once betrayed by a buddy who now saw conspiracies where there weren’t any. While seducing Eliza would be a pleasure, doing it for the job went against his grain.
He shouldn’t have snapped at her, but he’d never heard of the town of Rivera and didn’t know how to respond. Playing the rude asshole card was the easiest way to get her to change the subject. Now she was close to tears, and it was his fault. He should have spent more time researching his ‘native’ land. Sam put his hand over hers and gently tugged. Once she let go, he drew her palm to his mouth and kissed her.
Before he could think better of it, he murmured “Relax.” Then he glided his lips along her index finger and nibbled on the tip.
Sam’s cock roared to attention. He pulled back, knowing he had to be careful. A woman like Eliza should have a vibrant, full life. He wanted to turn her over his knee and spank the hollow look from her eyes.