Warning bells blared in the helo, and the instrument panel flashed like the twinkling lights on a Christmas tree.
“We’re going down, Mac,” said Luke “Helo” Jones as a hard shudder rolled through the bird.
DEA Special Agent Mac McNamara had figured that much out when smoke filled the cabin. He felt the bird tip to the left. “Coming in hot,” he called to his men over his shoulder. They braced for impact, knowing that if anyone could save their asses, it was Helo. Lord knew he’d saved their asses too many times to count.
“The subject’s house is just over that grove of trees,” said Mac. “You can put down in her front yard.” It wasn’t an option that he would have considered, but he wouldn’t risk his men’s lives by trying to find another place to land. Of course, he’d have to change tactics. Sneaking up on the suspect now would be out of the question.
“What happens when the guards fire on us for trespassing?”
“Let’s hope they’re not that stupid,” replied Mac. “They should know that we’ve radioed our position, and the smoke rolling out of this thing should be an indication that we’re in trouble. I doubt they want the DEA, FBI, and the military to come down on their asses.”
The aircraft cleared the trees, bringing the suspect’s front yard and homey little cottage into view. Definitely not the mansion he was expecting. The big bird groaned, reminding him that this was supposed to be a walk in the park.
The suspect owned five hundred acres on the Texas/Mexican border, and it appeared that she used those acres to smuggle drugs into the good old US of A. The mission was to gather evidence and make an arrest. The bets were that it would only take a week. She was, after all, one woman against his highly trained DEA team.
The helo pitched to the right and started to twirl. It teetered one way and then the next as more smoke invaded the cabin. The helo’s tail rotor ate the roof off the white country porch before the big beast pitched away from the house and slammed into the ground.
“Yee-haw,” someone in the back yelled.
Helo cut the power, and the big monster started a pitiful wind down.
“Nice job,” said Mac as he slapped Helo on the shoulder. Looking out the window, he waited for her security detail to swarm on them like flies on shit. He took in the landscape. Where was the high fence that all drug lords used to keep out everybody and the badass dogs that smugglers were so fond of?
“Maybe she’s not home,” Moynihan said.
And leave the premises unprotected? Highly unlikely. Drug runners were as paranoid as the day was long. It was the first requirement on their resumes.
“Okay, girls. Change in plans. Since there’s no welcoming party, we need to convince our suspect that we’re here on a need-to-know mission, and she’s not the one who needs to know. I’ll pull something out of my ass to convince her; all you have to do is play along. Weapons ready. Let’s move.”
“Sir,” said Nate. “Look.”
Mac followed Nate’s gaze. That was when he saw movement in the bushes, right under the damaged roof. A small head emerged, followed by a short woman as she pulled herself to a standing position. Her tattered ball cap was askew, her sunglasses askance. She stumbled from the bushes, fixed her hat and sunglasses, looked at the damage to the house, and then glanced at the helicopter. Her sunglasses hid her eyes, and he wondered if she was glaring.
“What’s the temperature?” Mac asked.
“Ninety-eight,” answered Helo.
“Who works in ninety-eight-degree heat?” Mac asked, more to himself.
“Not by choice. Must be the hired help,” Nate said. “The military should hire her. She’d be right at home in Afghani.”
That was what Mac was thinking.
This mission was thrown together based on a tip that several million dollars of cocaine was coming across the border in two days. His team had landed and taken off in the same day, not giving Helo time to do a thorough maintenance check, just a rush job, hence the helo failure. So intel on her was sketchy -- it was her land, and she had millions in the bank. More intel about her would be ready tomorrow. Mac didn’t even know how many people she employed. Talk about going in blind.
The door slid open, and his men filed out, weapons pointed down, safeties off, fingers resting beside the triggers, ready to efficiently eliminate any threat. Mac always brought the same men home that he’d left with, and this mission would be no different, despite the present bad luck.
Her feet and legs were clad in knee-high black rubber boots. He watched as she limped a few steps, wondering if she hurt herself avoiding the flying debris. Of course, why would he care that an employee of a drug smuggler hurt herself diving for cover? He almost laughed until she pulled a cane from the ground. Leaning heavily on it, she hobbled toward the bird.
She stopped before him and held out her hand. “Parking. Five dollars a day.”
Several of his team chuckled. Mac sized up the lady. Her hair was wet at her neck and curling. The arms of her old, ragged T-shirt were cut off. Her shabby and dirty shorts encased short plump legs. He guessed she was in her forties, but he still didn’t know if she was the suspect or the gardener. He’d skipped over reading the suspect’s physical description, thinking he had plenty of time to familiarize himself with those aspects later when he was hunkered down in the woods, setting up surveillance.
“Do you need some help?” she asked, her voice full of concern.
“No,” Mac replied. “But you do.”
She glanced at her arm, where a deep gash had sliced through her skin. Blood poured from it. “I guess I do.”
“Who are you?” Mac asked.
“The gardener,” she replied in a husky voice.
Who employed a crippled gardener? Seemed cruel, but drug dealers weren’t known for their hospitality.
“Medic,” Mac said over his shoulder.
“There’s no need. I’ll drive myself into town.” Her voice was deep, sensual, and slid over his skin like silk. Her sultry voice was made for phone sex.
“How far is town, ma’am?” He knew how far she was from civilization but wondered if she’d tell the truth.
“A couple of hours.”
“You’ll bleed out before you get there,” he said. It wasn’t true, of course, but he couldn’t let her leave. Damn, why didn’t she remove her sunglasses? He needed to read her reactions, needed to know how suspicious she was, needed to know just how damn smart she was, if she was a threat. His nose told him she was irritated.
She looked at her arm and frowned. “I don’t think so, but I’ll call a Life Flight to come and get me.”
The sarcasm in her voice told him that she didn’t believe him. “I can’t let you do that.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Mac didn’t say anything, just waited.
She removed her glasses and shoved them on top of her ragged ball cap that was so worn, it was nothing but strings. “Exactly who do you think you are? You shred the eaves of my porch, bounce that bird on my lawn, and then have the audacity to tell me that I can’t call for help?”
Well, what a surprise. A drug smuggler who did her own weeding, if she was telling the truth. He inhaled deep. Yep, she was telling the truth. This was her land, and that would make her the suspect.
“That’s what I’m telling you...ma’am.” Her eyes narrowed as fire shot from her gaze, even though they were as blue as the winter sky. “Now, if you’d be so kind as to sit on the steps and let Moynihan tend to your wound.” His wolf nose detected a sweet scent underneath her sweat and dirt, something flowery with a hint of feminine musk. It bothered him that he’d even noticed. His wolf pushed him to get closer. Instead, he turned and ordered his men to secure the area.
Mac had to give it to her, though; he admired the bleeding hellion, all five feet of her, who’d stick up for herself when surrounded by trained killers holding big badass weapons. His team was hard-core DEA -- seen it all, done it all, and she chose to bow up to them like a Chihuahua. There was a good possibility that she was what she was accused of -- a drug runner with brass balls. The only thing missing was the arrogance that most drug runners seemed to possess -- that and the hired guns. Most drug smugglers would immediately demand that he leave, but she asked if they needed help. Mac scratched his head. This smuggler was an anomaly.
Moynihan stepped forward and gently took her good arm. She immediately jerked her arm away, lifted her cane, and settled it between his legs, against his balls.
“Don’t touch me unless you want to hit the high notes in church.” She turned and limped toward the steps.
Moynihan shot him a surprised look, and Mac grinned. No man wanted his balls rung by a cripple’s cane.
He watched his men throw a camo tarp over the bird, for now. After they secured the area, his team would haul it somewhere out of sight. The best they could hope for was that someone didn’t do a flyover and spot them.
* * * * *
Callie Johnson decided she was in big trouble. An unmarked helicopter was parked on her front lawn, and ten black-clad men with dangerous-looking weapons had disappeared behind her house, guns drawn, looking for something.
She was lucky to be alive. She’d been wearing her iPod and hadn’t heard the helicopter, but she had felt the rush of wind right before it trashed her porch, raining debris down on her.
She studied the man in front of her as he opened his medical kit. “Are you any good?”
He grinned at her. “I’m the best.”
“Sure you are.” His smile was pleasant, and he kinda looked like the GQ type: young, with dark hair that curled at this neck, and his eyes were the color of whiskey. She glanced at the apparent leader’s hair. It was kind of long too. She could tell these weren’t military men. Military trained, maybe, but not in the military. A couple of them even had ponytails.
“I’ve never lost anyone, and I don’t plan on starting with you. Now, I’m going to clean the wound and see what the damage is.”
Callie debated telling the man the truth -- that she was terrified of anything medical, especially needles -- but decided that she needed to be strong and figure out what in the hell they wanted.
GQ dabbed her arm with something that hurt like hell and peeled back the lips of the gash.
“You’re gonna need stitches.”
“I’d figured that much out myself, GQ.”
He grinned, apparently liking her nickname for him. “I’m gonna shoot it full of numbing medicine and then stitch you up.”
She could only nod. Did she mention that she hated needles? She’d had enough of them to last a lifetime.
“Where’s your husband?” the apparent leader asked.
She lifted her gaze to his, wishing he’d remove his sunshades. This man was taller than QG and bigger. Authority rolled off him, along with a big dose of arrogance. But apparently, he didn’t know much about her if he didn’t know about her husband. “Behind the house...up on the hill...six feet under.”
He hesitated, probably weighing the truth in her story. “I’m sorry,” he said, which surprised her.
“Don’t be. I piss on his grave every day. Feel free to do the same. In fact, I insist you all
do that while you’re here.”
She saw a slight grin on her medic, but she was dead serious. She thought about having his body moved off her land, but since he was looking up from hell, she wanted the opportunity for him to see that she had survived.
“How did you get shot?” her medic asked as he pointed to her dirty thigh.
Callie looked down at her fat thigh, the indention clearly present, along with a ten-inch scar running down beside it, hence the reason she disliked needles. The bullet had shattered her bone, requiring metal rods and pins that ached every time it rained, every time she moved, every time she breathed. “I don’t believe that’s anyone’s business but mine.”
“Yes, ma’am,” GQ replied.
Callie looked at the leader. “Do you have a name?”
He stood emotionless, his face a mask, giving her the impression that he was an asshole, the asshole in charge. “Well, what is it?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because it will be easier to argue with you if I know what to call you.” A cough came from GQ.
“It’s Mac. What’s your name?”
She responded with “Callie,” but just to piss him off, she didn’t reveal her last name either. “Well, Mr. Mac. You want to tell me what the fuck is going on?”
A dark brow arched over his shades. “It’s highly classified. You don’t have clearance.”
Clearance? Who were these people? “Classified, my ass. I need to see some ID.”
“We don’t carry ID.”
She glanced at GQ, and he slightly nodded. No ID? Were they mercenaries? “Okay. How about a contact name and phone number?”
“We’re on a highly classified mission. That’s all you need to know.”
“Then I’m a hostage?”
“No, you’re just unexpectedly involved. But make no mistake: you will do what I say, or it’s not going to go so well for you.”
Mac the Asshole didn’t know to whom he was talking to. Nothing in her life in the past few years had gone well for her, but she’d never let anyone just walk over her.
“And if I don’t do what you say, you’re going to what? Kill me?” She’d been close to death before. Yeah, it was frightening, but she was a survivor, and no arrogant son of a bitch was going to scare her.
“Hopefully, it won’t come to that.”
Okay, she knew he was bluffing, because GQ stiffened.
“So, when will you be leaving?” Because you can’t leave here fast enough for me.
“Why?” Mac asked. “Are you expecting company?”
“Yes,” she replied. It was a lie, but she had no problem with lying when necessary. Hell, she’d gotten really good at it lately.
“Then, there’s gonna be a problem. You need to call and cancel your date.”
Date? She hadn’t dated in years, and damn if she’d start now. Nobody dated a cripple. The only callers she’d had were men who wanted her land. When she died, it went to the National Parks Service, but she couldn’t get it through their thick heads.
Looking at the conceited man in front of her gave her a feeling that the Parks Service may be getting the land early.
She felt the tugging of her skin as GQ worked on her arm, and her belly protested. Sweat popped out on her lip, and her mouth went dry.
“Did you hear what I said?” Mac asked.
She narrowed her gaze at his stern voice. “I heard you.”
“I’m just ignoring you.” That, and trying not to hurl. Or course, hurling on Mac had merit.
GQ tried to hide a laugh. Apparently, no one talked to Mac the Asshole that way.
“People don’t ignore me.”
Her eyes snapped to his sunglasses. “Let’s get something straight, Mr. Mac. I don’t take orders from arrogant assholes running around with guns on my property. If you’re going to kill me, do it. Otherwise, I will ignore you when I choose to and confront you when I choose to.”
She glanced at her arm, where the medic was putting a bandage on. When he was done, she stood. “Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to take a shower and wash the roof out of my hair.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Mac.
“What? I can’t shower by myself?” The last thing she wanted was to have this yahoo in her bedroom.
“I’m sure you can.”
“Oh, I get it. You want to watch a cripple shower. Pervert. Are you going to tie me up too?” She didn’t know why she said that. She never pointed out her disability to anyone but herself, but here, with these bigger-than-life men, her disability was just so obvious.
“I won’t restrain you unless you give me reason to, but I might gag you just to shut you up.”
She smiled. “You’re not the first man who tried to shut me up.” She maneuvered the stairs with less finesse than she wanted to, each step shooting a pain down her leg. She’d overdone it today, and she’d pay for it later. She heard the scuff of boots behind her. Let him look. Maybe he’d be so repulsed, he’d throw up, and then she could whack him on the head with her cane. She cruised through the front door and purposely slammed it behind her. But it didn’t slam. Figured.
She took an immediate right and stumbled to a halt in her bedroom. One of the men was rummaging through her drawers, which just happened to contain her granny panties. She felt her face heat as she snatched the garments from his hands. “Get your slimy paws off my stuff.” She slowly turned and faced her captor. “If you tell me what you’re looking for, I’ll gladly tell you where it is, if
it will get out of here sooner.”
“We’re looking for weapons.”
This guy had to be kidding. “There are knives in the kitchen, aerosols in the bathroom. Oh yeah. There’s a broom in the laundry room.”
“No, guns,” he asked.
“There’s an old Mossberg in the closet, but it hasn’t been fired since my daddy died.”
Huffing, she hobbled to her closet, dug around in the back, and pulled out the shotgun. “Here. I want that back before you leave.”
He took it from her, cocked it back to check for shells in the chamber. “Where are the shells?”
She shrugged. “I don’t have any.” Well, she did, somewhere around here, but she wasn’t going to find them just to satisfy him.
She could tell that he didn’t believe her, but right now, she didn’t give a flying flip. “I have a question for you.”
He hitched a brow.
“This is America. I am an American citizen with rights. I demand you either arrest me, let me call my lawyer, or get the hell off my land.”
“What makes you think that we work inside the law?”
She didn’t know what to believe. Being on her property, uninvited, certainly wasn’t within the law, but would they stitch her up just to kill her later? She’d bet her life they were angling for a signature on a deed. Too bad. She’d go to her grave before she’d sign anything over to these slimeballs.
“Well, do you? Work inside the law?” Her granddaddy always said to face adversity head-on, throw it back at them.
“This is a covert operation. Your rights are the least of my problems right now.”
Covert operation, my ass
. There wasn’t anything covert about that huge helicopter sitting in her front yard. If it was covert, why didn’t they just say that they were on a training operation and had mechanical trouble? That was believable. “Covert operation? Heaven help our country. You’re not very good at this, are you?”
His jaw clenched, and a tic emerged at his temple. Good. She hoped she pissed him off. “Get the hell out of my way, so I can take a bath.”
“Listen, little girl, I’m not one you want to piss off.”
“Actually, I’m going out of my way to piss you off. How am I doing?”
He glared at her, but she wasn’t scared. If he wanted her dead, she would be, and surely no one would find her body if he chose it not to be found. She needed to find out what was going on. She wouldn’t put it past several of her suitors
to send mercenaries in here to scare her into signing over the deed. If she wouldn’t marry them, why not scare her to death with big men dressed in black, carrying guns, led by Mac the ass?
And their timing sucked. Tomorrow night, she had a midnight rendezvous, or lives would be in danger. Payment had to be made or else. And then she had another meeting two days after that. The last thing she needed was for these men to be here tomorrow.
She shucked her boots in the dressing area, limped into the shower room, and shoved the door closed behind her, again noting it didn’t slam either, but at least it was partially closed. Dropping her dirty clothes into a pile, she turned on the water and adjusted it to as hot as she could stand. She was tired, sweaty, and pissed. The world was filled with arrogant men. She’d thought that God had smiled on her the day she’d killed her rotten bastard of a husband, but apparently that was a short break in her miserable life.
She washed thoroughly, knowing she’d looked at some poison ivy today, and that meant it would show up somewhere on her body. She didn’t have to touch it, just look at it. After turning off the water, she toweled off and cursed. She didn’t own a robe. Near the end, her husband had demanded that she stayed covered up, that he didn’t want to see her fat ass. So when the bastard died, she’d decided to hell with the robe. She’d lived by herself since then and was totally used to walking around naked in her own home. Her body didn’t bother her. Her wounds didn’t bother her either. And if that moron out there thought she was going to change her routine because of him, he was dead wrong.
Besides, she was used to the pity in people’s eyes, especially the men. She wrapped a towel around herself, grabbed her cane, and opened the door.