As the owner of a flourishing Latin American crafts boutique, Karina Strauss should be basking in her success. Instead she’s worried about her troubled sister, the girlfriend—and prisoner—of drug lord Carlos Moreno. Kari wants no part of that life, but when she helps a friend cross into the United States illegally, two men on opposite sides of the law take notice: Moreno and Adam Cortez, the handsome border protection officer who lets Kari off the hook. It’s not just Kari’s tantalizing flash of skin that catches Adam’s attention—her drug cartel connections bring back the demons of his past.
Moreno demands that Kari smuggle a package for him in exchange for her sister’s freedom. Adam also gets dangerously close, tempting her to surrender and fulfill her wildest desires. As Kari prepares for the drug run, dark secrets, violent criminals, and deadly consequences lurk around every corner. But concern for her sister drives Kari toward a terrifying act, despite Adam’s warnings, despite her overwhelming fears—and despite the odds against coming out alive.
Karina Strauss approached the San Ysidro border crossing at a snail’s pace, her cargo van idling among a thousand other vehicles.
There were twenty-four lanes on the Tijuana side, a massive snarl of traffic that found order in the last hundred yards. Before the inspection booths were visible, the dividing lines were ignored. The more aggressive drivers made their own lanes, squeezing into narrow spaces and zigzagging across the chaos. Everyone else lurched forward in semi-regular intervals while street vendors navigated the shifting aisles, selling everything from chicle and cold drinks to silver jewelry and colorful hammocks. Some of the peddlers were children whose shoulders barely cleared the hoods of the cars.
Kari let out a slow breath, removing her sweaty hands from the steering wheel. She’d turned off the air-conditioning and rolled down the windows in hopes that her van wouldn’t overheat. At just past noon, the summer sun was blazing. Her left shoulder, exposed by her sleeveless cotton top, felt burned.
As the crush of vehicles evened into single rows, Kari became aware of impatient drivers angling toward the right. Her lane seemed more backed up than the others—not a good sign. Some of the inspectors were very thorough, checking the contents of each and every car. Normally she appreciated their diligence.
Today she was desperate for lax security.
She put on her signal and tried to merge into the next lane, with no luck. A woman in a midsized sedan stole the spot, her radio blaring Juan Gabriel.
The space in front of Kari cleared and she was forced to move ahead in the same lane. Now there were only a few cars between her and the inspection booth. She met her startled reflection in the rearview mirror, swallowing dryly. Her heart slammed in her chest, beating too hard, too fast.
Stay calm, she told herself. Act cool.
The officer stationed at the booth ahead didn’t appear lax in any way. His dark blue uniform fit well. He had short black hair and a stern face. She couldn’t see his eyes behind the lenses of his authoritative sunglasses, but she’d bet they were brown.
Kari watched the officer walk around a dusty Oldsmobile, gesturing for the owner to open the trunk. His short-sleeved shirt stretched across his back as he leaned forward to glance into the trunk’s recesses. He looked strong, broad-shouldered, bronze-skinned. There was nothing unusual about him, other than an eye-pleasing physique, but she sensed that he was sharp and precise.
Sweat trickled between her breasts.
Too nervous to sit still, she unfastened the top buttons on her blouse, searching around the front seats of the van for a tissue to blot her perspiration.
The line crawled forward again. Damn!
She used the hem of her skirt to wipe her chest and left the buttons undone. Maybe she could entice the inspector to look down her shirt rather than inside her vehicle. Tapping the gas pedal, she eased the van closer.
She’d been waiting in traffic for over an hour and the final moments were the most intense. Blood pounded in her ears, her temple, her throat. She took a small sip of water and fiddled with the radio, trying to disguise her fear. Her pulse was racing, her hands trembling. She didn’t dare glance back into the cargo space.
At last, it was her turn. She pulled up to the inspection booth, which was underneath a shaded structure, and prayed for a wave-through.
“U.S.,” she murmured, handing him her passport. Most of the stamps marked her visits to Mexico. Others were from the Czech Republic, where she’d been born. She watched him handle her paperwork, fixating on the almost indiscernible grain of stubble along his jaw, the smoothness of his taut brown throat.
Officer A. Cortez, the name tag on his shirtfront read. He was Hispanic, but that didn’t relax her. There was no room for mixed sympathies in his profession.
“Anything to declare?” he asked.
She fumbled for her inventory list. His voice was low and even, no trace of an accent. He was also disturbingly handsome. As she passed him the handwritten account of the items in her van—well, most of the items—she remembered her gaping blouse. The flat expression on his face suggested that he’d noticed but wasn’t impressed.
“It’s all just stuff for my store,” she explained, flushing. “Zócalo, on E Street?”
His gaze dropped to the insignia on the side of her van. Authentic Arts and Crafts from Latin America. The accompanying image was whimsical, a dancing skeleton in a sombrero. In Mexico, even death was a fiesta.
“Please turn off the engine and step outside the vehicle.”
Her stomach dropped.
She switched off the ignition and removed the keys, curbing the urge to ask if she’d done something wrong. Better to stay mum. With numb fingers, she opened the driver’s side door. The instant she climbed out, her rubber flip-flops soaked up the heat of the asphalt, and a warm breeze rippled through her calf-length skirt.
She followed Officer Cortez to the rear of the vehicle, her heart in her throat.
“Open the doors, please.”
Oh no. What could she do? Refusing to cooperate was not an option.
As she approached the double doors on shaky legs, her keys slid from her slippery grip, clattering to the pavement. She bent to pick them up, aware that her thin cotton skirt was clinging to her backside.
Cortez waited patiently, making no move to assist her.
Straightening, she unlocked the doors. Although her eyes had trouble adjusting to the dim interior, she could make out a few shadowy boxes and piles of textiles, her usual haul. She stepped aside, not allowing her gaze to linger.
Cortez glanced into the cargo space and then squinted down the line of cars, assessing the rows of vehicles. When he looked back at her, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, self-conscious. He touched the radio at his shoulder and spoke into it, engaging in a clipped conversation she couldn’t overhear.
Kari had to do something to distract him from the contents of her van. As he dropped his hand from the radio, she saw that he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. He had a lean, muscular build, and he was medium-tall, maybe six feet. Under different circumstances, she wouldn’t have to feign interest.
“This must be an exciting job,” she ventured, trying to sound fascinated.
He perused her cargo. “It has its moments.”
“Have you handled any big loads?”
That got his attention. He gave her a bald look, obviously wondering if she meant to be suggestive.
She smiled, fanning her cleavage with one hand. “Hot, isn’t it?”
Behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses, his eyes followed her movements. Although she’d dressed for comfort, not seduction, the outfit flattered her figure. Most men liked breasts, and hers were half showing. Cortez was also fairly young, which worked in her favor. He might be an exemplary officer, but he wasn’t immune to the stuff.
To her disappointment, he tore his gaze from her chest and continued the routine inspection, a muscle in his jaw flexing.
Her mind whirred with ridiculous options, like pretending to faint on the hot blacktop. Then a loud noise stole Cortez’s attention. Several lanes over, a trio of intimidating-looking German shepherds were barking up a storm, straining at their leashes. Alerting officers of illegal cargo.
Officer Cortez stepped away from her vehicle. “Have a nice day, ma’am,” he said, handing back her paperwork. After calling for another uniformed man to cover his station, he walked toward the commotion in long strides.
Kari shut the back doors of the van, dizzy with relief. She went around to the driver’s side and got in, ears peeled for a shout to halt. Thankfully, it didn’t come. She turned on the engine and pulled forward, crossing the border into San Diego. Clear, organized roadways and a clean ocean breeze greeted her.
She stepped on the gas and inhaled deeply, letting the wind whip through her shoulder-length hair. Even after she’d gone a few miles, her heart wouldn’t stop racing. She didn’t dare glance back into the cargo space for fear she was being followed.
“Oh my God,” she said finally, letting out a nervous laugh. “That was close.”
Normally she went straight to her store, which was near Old Town, to unload the van. Today she drove to her quiet little house in Bonita. The tiny San Diego suburb was only a ten-minute trip from the San Ysidro port of entry. As soon as she came to a stop in her driveway, she scrambled into the cargo space, wading through cardboard boxes.
She tore open the largest box. “Maria?”
Her stowaway was hidden in a very cramped space, her slender limbs contorted in an uncomfortable position. As Kari lifted the top flaps of cardboard, Maria Santos moaned, insensible. Her eyes were closed and her head lolled to one side.
“Oh shit,” Kari said, grabbing her bottled water. The box must have been hot, stuffy, and intensely claustrophobic. She poured water on the young woman’s dark hair, trying to rouse her. Maria choked and sputtered, shaking her wet head. Kari put her arms around her slight body and heaved, pulling the woman from the box. Although Maria was slim, she weighed at least 100 pounds and it wasn’t easy for Kari to get her out. When she was free, they lay together on the floor of the van, panting from exertion.
“Aire,” Maria rasped. “I need air.”
Kari leapt to her feet and shoved open the back doors, glancing around the deserted neighborhood. There was a vehicle she’d never seen before parked across the street, but it looked empty.
“This way,” she said, helping Maria out of the van. They stumbled across the driveway and collapsed on the front lawn. She rolled onto her stomach and retched, her slim back bowed, her arms trembling.
Kari retrieved her bottled water from the van and waited for Maria’s nausea to pass, wincing in sympathy.
After a moment, Maria straightened, wiping her mouth with her hand. She accepted the water and took a small sip, studying their surroundings with wet eyes. Her gaze moved from the vibrant green blades of grass beneath her to Kari’s front door. “This is your house?” she asked, pronouncing this as “thees” and your as “jour.”
Kari nodded. “Do you like it?”
“It’s beautiful,” she said, blinking the tears from her eyes.
Kari glanced around the front yard, surprised. The neighborhood was middle-class at best, and her house a modest two-bedroom. It was Maria who was beautiful, with her lovely dark hair and serene smile. She had a slightly crooked tooth in front, a tiny imperfection that added to her appeal.
They’d met in La Bufadora, a poverty-stricken tourist spot near Ensenada. Powerful waves met steep cliffs there, creating a gust of ocean spray known as “the Blowhole.” Kari bought crafts from the local women, but she also dropped off donations. She’d been a volunteer for a charity organization called Hands Across the Border for years, delivering clothes and school supplies to the needy.
Maria worked mornings at a nearby hotel and afternoons at a pottery kiln. The black clay of La Bufadora formed a very unique type of stoneware, and Maria was charming and loquacious, a natural saleswoman. Over time, the two women had become friends.
Kari knew that Maria was supporting her widowed mother and younger siblings. Last week, over lunch, Maria had confessed that her family was in dire straits. Her sister needed medical treatment, and her brother, who was only fourteen, was threatening to cross the border to find work. Maria had begged Kari for a ride to the United States. In San Diego, she could make a week’s wages in a single day.
Kari looked Maria in the eye, preparing to say no. It wasn’t possible to assist every person in need, and trafficking was against the law. She couldn’t save the world. But there was something special about Maria, an inner strength. She was desperate, and she was determined. Kari had heard the horror stories about single women who attempted to immigrate illegally, and she feared for Maria’s safety.
So she said yes. Kari had always found it impossible to turn her back on those in need. Hoping she wasn’t making the biggest mistake of her life, she made plans to transport Maria the following week. This morning, as Kari was loading up her van, Maria had grabbed a beat-up duffel bag and climbed aboard.
“You’ve never been to the U.S. before?” Kari asked.
“Just once,” she said, her smile fading. “I walked through the desert with a group. It was a long journey.”
She swallowed a few times, as if sickened anew by the memory. “I got separated from the others at night. I was lost for many days, I think. La migra picked me up and sent me back to Mexico.”
The story wasn’t at all uncommon. Dozens of illegal immigrants died every year making the same arduous trek.
Kari had never imagined that she was capable of smuggling a human being. And although she wouldn’t choose to repeat the experience, she couldn’t regret her decision. For some reason, Maria reminded Kari of her troubled little sister. She sensed a hint of sadness behind her disarming smile.
“Muchísimas gracias,” Maria said, giving Kari an enthusiastic hug. “I have waited years to return to the U.S. I am so happy to be here, to find work and send money to my family. You are angel from heaven. Bless you.”
Kari returned the embrace, remembering the last time she’d hugged Sasha. Her sister had tensed, holding herself at a distance. For years she’d been closed off from Kari emotionally, a stranger with a familiar face.
When they broke apart, Maria noticed Kari’s dishabille. “Your blouse needs repair. I will sew for you.”
“Oh, no,” Kari said, blushing as she buttoned up. “It’s fine. I was just trying to distract the vehicle inspector.”
Maria’s elegant brows rose. “It worked, yes?”
“Maybe,” she allowed, thinking about Officer Cortez’s searing gaze. She wondered if she would see him again. Hundreds of officers guarded the San Ysidro port of entry, so she doubted it. “What are your plans, now that you’re here?”
The young woman shrugged. “Find job.”
“Do you need to use the phone?”
“I have no one to call. I don’t know anyone here.”
Kari stared at her, incredulous. “Where will you stay?”
Maria smiled. “Good question.”
“How old are you?”
She looked about eighteen, far too young to be wandering the streets, and much too pretty to go unnoticed. Kari didn’t want her sleeping on a sidewalk. “Why don’t you stay here? I have an extra bedroom.”
It was meant for her sister, of course. Kari had finally come to terms with the fact that Sasha wasn’t going to leave her drug lord boyfriend.
Maria’s jaw dropped. “A bedroom? For me only?”
“It’s nothing fancy, a small bed and some basic furnishings. Would you like to come in and see?”
“How much I pay?”
She tried to think of an amount that sounded reasonable. The house had been a bank foreclosure and a steal, so her living costs were low. Now that Zócalo was turning a comfortable profit, she could afford to keep Maria for free. “Half of the utilities,” she offered. “But don’t worry about it until you get a job.”
Maria was already on her feet, eyes bright with excitement. “I do housework. Laundry your clothes. Whatever you need.”
Kari laughed, closing up her van and walking toward the front door. During the summer months, she worked about sixty hours a week at the store, so she wouldn’t mind a little help around the house. “Can you cook?”
“Oh, sí,” Maria said. “Anything you like.”
They were discussing plans for lunch as Kari unlocked the door. The instant she crossed the threshold, a dark figure leapt out at her. Before she could draw a breath to scream, the man slammed her against the wall and pressed the cold barrel of a gun to her cheek.
Adam Cortez had been propositioned at the border before.
Every CBP officer had seen more than his share of exposed flesh and sultry smiles. Sometimes it was silly teenagers, coming back from a wild night on Avenida Revolución, Tijuana’s underage party central.
A more disturbing trend was for the Mexican cartels to use pretty girls as decoys. While a couple of slack-jawed officers were gaping at young ladies in short skirts and low-cut tops, they smuggled a shipment through another lane. Officers were trained to be aware of these tactics and respond accordingly.
Adam hadn’t responded accordingly to Karina Strauss. Yes, she had a knockout body, and her gaping blouse invited a man to take a closer look, but he shouldn’t have surrendered to temptation. She’d been acting suspicious, attempting to divert his attention. He shouldn’t have let her drive away.
And he definitely shouldn’t have used government resources to do a background check on her after he clocked out for the day.
She’d made quite an impression on him. It wasn’t the low neckline or her clumsy attempt at flirting that had captured his interest, although he’d taken note of both. What stopped him dead in his tracks was the familiar name—Strauss—and her arresting face.
Her sister, Sasha, was a platinum blonde, and thin to the point of emaciation these days, but the resemblance was striking. Karina appeared to have more substance. With her honey-colored hair and sun-kissed skin, she looked like . . . the really hot girl next door.
Although Sasha had a couple of marks on her record for drug possession and public intoxication, Karina had never been arrested. That didn’t mean she was innocent, just that she hadn’t been caught.
Adam wondered if the siblings had similar lifestyles. Sasha was the longtime girlfriend of Carlos Moreno, a Mexican-born drug lord. He’d seen her with the crew leader on numerous occasions, making the rounds at nightclubs, partying until dawn. As far as Adam knew, Sasha wasn’t involved in the smuggling operation.
Was Karina on Moreno’s payroll? She made frequent trips across the border, supposedly to buy items for her store. It was a good cover.
He stared at the information on the computer screen in front of him, which included her home address. The next logical step would be to take his suspicions to the investigations unit and let them do their job. Carlos Moreno had a very high profile. The DEA, ATF, and ICE all wanted a piece of him.
Adam wanted a piece of him, too.
A rap at the open door startled him out of his reverie. It was Officer Pettigrew, his superior. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much,” he said quickly, closing the screen he was viewing. “Just a routine background check.”
Pettigrew gave him a curt nod. “See you tomorrow.”
Adam logged off the computer and pushed away from the desk, his mind in turmoil. For several years he’d done unofficial surveillance on Moreno, waiting for an opportunity to get close to him. He’d spent too many nights chasing shadows, seething in solitude. At long last he’d abandoned the pursuit.
Seeing Karina Strauss had taken him back to a very dark place.
He knew he should file a report on her and walk away. Instead, he decided not to mention their chance meeting to anyone. Pulse pounding, he left the San Ysidro port and headed north, filled with thoughts of violent retribution.