“Got a light?”
Beckett withdrew his attention from the only bit of calm he’d managed to locate, the heavens, and focused on the woman standing before him. Her bold red lips parted slightly as if anxiously awaiting the cigarette dangling between her two fingers. By his take, it was an act—and not a good one. She’d probably choke on the first drag if he had a light to offer.
That really your best pickup line? “I don’t smoke.” Beckett looked around the patio outside the club and tipped his head toward one of the men puffing away to his heart’s content, calling her bluff.
The too-young-for-him blonde tucked her cigarette into a little metallic bag before propping the purse under her armpit. “Are you about to tell me why I shouldn’t smoke as well?”
“Not my business, ma’am.” Beckett exhaled sharply, his eyes moving back to the midnight-blue sky.
“Well then.” Her dramatic breathy pause meant she wasn’t going anywhere.
He inwardly groaned. Rejecting this girl tonight wasn’t on his list of shit to do.
“What brings you to this side of the border? You from El Paso?” she pressed.
He wasn’t from Texas, but El Paso was just over the border. And it was where he and his brother-in-law, Jesse McAdams, had rented a blacked-out Chevy Suburban before making the journey into Mexico an hour ago.
What the hell am I doing here though? Were the last three weeks of nearly sleepless nights the culprit? Was the lack of sleep to blame for why he broke a promise he made to his three brothers to never go on such a “hunt” again?
After the cutoff “I’m in a lot of trouble, and I need your—” voicemail he’d received three weeks ago, Beckett had told himself he wouldn’t fall victim to that woman again.
And if she died one day from her reckless and irresponsible behavior . . . well, God rest her soul, if she ever had one, because she wasn’t his problem anymore. Well, that’d been the plan, at least. Yet here I am.
Not that he was about to provide this girl with the truth. He wouldn’t let her know his brother-in-law was currently doing an internal perimeter sweep of the club, calculating any potential problems for a mission Beckett wasn’t supposed to be on.
A knot of guilt tightened in his stomach as he thought back to that morning when he’d looked his sister, Ella, square in the eyes and lied to her. Told her he was taking her husband away for a hunting trip in Texas.
He was hunting. Just not deer. And not in Texas.
“A bonding trip,” he’d lamely added while trying to stand strong beneath his sister’s don’t-bullshit-me gaze while Jesse had still been blinking away the remnants of sleep.
“No answer, huh? Is the sky really all that more interesting than me?”
A feisty one, huh? He lowered his gaze and started to reach for his hat to tip it in apology, then remembered it wasn’t the Stetson he usually wore. Instead, he flicked at the brim of the uncomfortable hat and drew a hand over the scruff on his jawline. “Why I’m here doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, come on, don’t be so salty. You won’t even tell me if this is a business or pleasure kind of trip? This place is pretty lit.” She batted her false lashes. “And I’m here, so. YOLO, right?”
Lit? YOLO? Sweet Jesus, he was too old for this.
She was probably some rich girl from one of the schools in El Paso, looking for some “adventure” across the border on daddy’s dime.
God help him when his daughter went away to college. More like help the men who’d be dealing with an overprotective father. McKenna was thirteen going on twenty, and that thought alone was enough to keep him awake at night.
“And if I say I’m not here for either, will you leave me alone?” He crooked his head, waiting to see if he’d offended her enough to send her on her way.
Her pout wasn’t remotely subtle.
Yup, a bored rich girl, for sure. Not that he had anything against money. But some of the privileged women he’d come across back when he lived in Los Angeles may have been to thank for his quick assumptions about the perky blonde dressed like a 1920s flapper girl.
Of course, it was his job to size people up. Sheriff of his hometown, Walkins Glen, Alabama, after all.
“Do you really think you should be at a place like this?” Beckett couldn’t help but switch to father mode. She didn’t look more than eight to ten years older than his daughter. Was she even legally allowed to drink in Texas? And good Lord, am I really going to be forty-two next month?
“What makes it safe for you but not for me, aside from your Y chromosome and the amount of testosterone I feel just oozing out of ya?” Her icy blue eyes collided with his as if prepared to tango. And he didn’t think it was to join those doing the actual tango on the dance floor of the 1920s-themed club.
He quietly studied her, hoping she’d give up and walk away.
No such luck.
She whipped her blonde hair to her back, and he caught a smell of what he assumed was her perfume in the process.
His eyes fell closed as he took his time to commit the scent to memory, trying to figure out why the smell of—cherries?—had him thinking about another blonde. Sydney Archer. “What perfume is that?” he asked instead of bothering to respond to whatever ridiculous question she’d posed.
“Oh, you like it? I swear I almost caught a smile from you. A nice change from your grumpy look.”
He ignored her compliment-jab, opting to continue thinking about Sydney. He’d brushed past her at his friend Savanna’s wedding reception last month in April.
The gorgeous woman, also a badass by what he’d learned, worked alongside Jesse at their security company, Falcon Falls. She was a single parent to a thirteen-year-old as well. Maybe that was the only reason he’d noticed Sydney? Who am I kidding? Every man had to have noticed her there.
“It’s Tom Ford. Lost Cherry,” she replied in a light, airy voice when he’d yet to speak.
Beckett nearly leaned in and took another whiff of her as if he were a K9 tracking a fugitive’s scent.
“It’s rather intoxicating, right? Makes me feel like a goddess, especially in this getup.”
Beckett forced open his eyes, trying to understand why the scent had him losing his focus.
Cherries. He almost did smile that time. At least I’ve still got it. He’d been afraid he’d lost his ability to observe the minute details since he’d left the LAPD over a decade ago. But the smallest of things, right down to scent, had always helped him identify a suspect.
“So, anyway.” She shrugged. “I’m here because I’m writing my senior thesis on the Prohibition Era. I go to school in El Paso.” Her words snatched his attention her way. Or maybe he’d already been looking at her, but he hadn’t actually seen her. Not with Sydney in his head. A woman he had no business thinking about, let alone remembering her sexy body in that backless dress she’d worn that night.
He’d brought a date to that wedding. His first date in ages too. The night had been short-lived for them because one thing Beckett was, was a gentleman. And he wasn’t about to take some woman home for a quick lay—even if it’d been far too long—when he knew he’d be picturing another pinned beneath his body instead.
Hell, he’d barely been able to look his date in the eyes during the reception after he’d found himself checking out Sydney. Every time he glanced her way, he’d imagine walking his fingers along the curve of Sydney’s spine straight to that ass of hers.
“Wait, what?” Beckett blinked, forgetting where he was again. The magnetic pull of Sydney, a woman he barely knew, was damn strong if she could hijack his thoughts on a night like this. “You’re here for a school essay?” Not what he’d been expecting, not that he’d asked her for that information.
“Mmhmm. One of my professors mentioned Al Capone used to cross the border into Juárez during that time to stock up on booze. And when I heard about this tourist trap of a location as a nod to that time period . . . well,” she said, speaking almost too fast for him, “I had to come see for myself. Although, I have to admit I feel like we’re two birds in a gilded cage here. We’re in a luxurious nightclub in the middle of nowhere, but we don’t have true freedom.” Her big, blue, seemingly innocent eyes found his as she whispered, “Cartel and all.”
He shuddered at the thought of his daughter ever doing something so insane. Did this girl’s dad know her whereabouts? Would he lose his mind to learn his daughter was in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the continent, not far from a place nicknamed Murder Valley and controlled by narcotraffickers?
Fuck, the idea of McKenna ever doing something like that for the sake of an essay gave him more than just heartburn. He set a hand to his chest and did his best to find a deep breath.
“I think this place is really a front for money laundering or drug smuggling. Something equally as shady as what Capone used to do himself.” She pointed toward the door leading into the club, and the sounds of jazz filtered out into the night air when it swung open and closed a moment later. “I mean, the club has framed images displayed from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of twenty-nine. If that doesn’t say it all.”
Her two steps back gave him a chance to find that breath he’d needed.
“I heard a rumor that some billionaire has his eye on the place though,” she added. “Soooo, what was the Great Gatsby quote you used to get into the club?”
Wow, did this woman ever stop talking?
He thought back to his research on the place. Along with adhering to the strict 1920s dress code, patrons could only gain admission by quoting one of the famous Great Gatsby lines. The bouncer had a list on an iPad he’d scrolled through to verify, all part of the intrigue to bring tourists there. He hardly doubted the bouncer truly gave a damn about Gatsby.
Beckett had cursed the Amazon purchases he’d made a few nights ago when he’d ordered his era-appropriate outfits in preparation for a trip Jesse had been unaware of at that point. Then he’d praised Amazon Prime delivery for getting the shipment out to their small town so quickly.
“‘Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead,’” Beckett repeated the Gatsby quote he’d provided the bouncer earlier. When he’d researched quotes, he’d latched on to that one.
Subconsciously, he knew he probably selected it because he’d been such a jerk to Jesse not too long ago, and he truly did want to make amends and be friends again. Right his wrongs with his brother-in-law.
Beckett had only fessed up the truth about the trip to Jesse an hour before crossing the Bridge of the Americas into Mexico. Of course, Jesse wasn’t an idiot, so when Beckett had casually mentioned before they’d left Alabama to bring a passport just in case . . .
Maybe in Jesse’s mind tonight would be a chance to pay Beckett back for the nightmare they’d all survived in January when both Beckett’s sister and daughter had been caught in the crossfire of Jesse’s past.
But to Beckett, Jesse didn’t owe him anything, and he was now indebted to his brother-in-law.
“I chose a quote from Daisy Buchanan, of course.” She painted on a smile. Possibly a legitimate one, but he was losing faith in his ability to read her. “‘I hope she’ll be a fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’”
Yeah, this woman was a fool to be in a cartel-run club for the sake of a college essay, that was for damn sure.
“Will you do me a favor and dance with me? Do you know the foxtrot? I actually don’t, but we can fake it til we make it, right? The music does sound pretty dope. And we look snatched in our outfits,” she rambled. “I almost feel like we time traveled and are really in the nineteen-twenties.” She opened her palm. “Will you help me write my paper? Give me a night of a lifetime I won’t forget?”
“I’m twice your age. There won’t be any night with me.” He was tempted to remove his hat and show her his hair to reinforce that he was too old for her. Stress had done a number on him, and he now had a few silver streaks cutting through his brown hair at his temples.
“Mm.” She tipped her head with an almost curious expression, not what he’d expected. “There’s another cherry-scented-perfume-wearing woman you’d rather dance with, isn’t there?”
Sydney? The idea of anything ever happening with that woman, outside his imagination at least, was crazy. They were from two different worlds. He’d have to settle for admiring her beauty from afar if she ever came back to his small town for work. “No, but now I feel like it’s my duty to ensure you get back over the border safely.” Thanks for that. Like he needed any more responsibilities tonight when he was there with one mission in mind. To find Ivy.
“Ah. A chivalrous gentleman, even for a grump.”
Grump. Mr. Grumpy. That was his sister’s nickname for him. Maybe it was well-earned. Sometimes. Fuck. Okay. Most of the time.
“You’re why older men are preferable to guys my age. They’d take advantage of me.” She turned her open palm to the side as if a request for a handshake instead. “I’m Jennifer.”
He zeroed in on her hand. No way could he leave Jennifer in Mexico alone. He’d never sleep at night wondering if she’d gotten herself kidnapped by the cartel. “Well, Jennifer, I won’t be dancing tonight. But I’ll do my best to keep an eye on you from inside the club. And to make sure you get home after you’re done with your research.”
She closed one eye as if contemplative. “You’re a hero-type, aren’t you? My grandfather was a cop in Boston, and you’ve got that vibe.”
He almost laughed. She really was more perceptive than him tonight. Cherry perfume aside, those three weeks of no sleep had screwed him up.
“Let’s just go inside.” He ought to locate Jesse anyway. He’d been gone for too long.
Of course, Jesse could more than handle himself. After all, he was a former Army Ranger and CIA hit man.
Beckett slipped a hand to Jennifer’s back and guided her into the club. The place really was a tourist trap, drawing mostly Americans, from what Beckett could tell, to spend money on an experience. The only thing calming his nerves was the fact the place would’ve long since stopped being a tourist hot spot if Americans kept going missing afterward.
“I’ll be over there.” He pointed to the only bar in the room, and she nodded a small thanks before wandering out to the dance floor near the live band currently playing a song Beckett’s mother loved, “It Don’t Mean A Thing”by the legendary Duke Ellington.
Beckett settled on an empty black barstool and removed his fedora. The fact he was wearing that was another example of his insanity. Same with the three-piece tweed suit, suspenders, and cap-toe Oxfords.
From the corner of his eye, he caught Jesse joining him at the bar. “I had to step out and call Ella. She’s been texting nonstop with worry,” he explained, and Beckett swung his gaze Jesse’s way.
Jesse looked every part a 1920s gangster. If he weren’t so worried about the outcome of this trip, he’d probably laugh at how they were both dressed. “And what’d you say to her?”
“I lied. Not happy about that. But the truth would keep my pregnant wife up all night, and she doesn’t need the stress.”
“I’m sorry,” Beckett earnestly apologized. “The last thing I wanted to do was put you in this position.” But I knew A.J. wouldn’t help, and my other brothers aren’t equipped for this. “I—”
“I’m glad you didn’t come here alone,” Jesse cut him off. “Remember, I do this kind of stuff for a living. But I’m not excited about going behind Ella’s back because I promised I’d never keep secrets again.”
“Shit, I’m really damn sorry about that. And I’m also sorry for the way I—”
“Please, if I hear one more apology from you, I’ll kick your ass,” Jesse said with a smirk. “I told the same to A.J. when he wouldn’t shut up with the apologies too.”
“Yeah, but we all treated you like shit in January, and you didn’t deserve that. Sure, we weren’t aware of the um, baggage, you were carrying at the time, but that doesn’t excuse our behavior. You’re family now, and I—”
“I would’ve reacted the same as you did if I’d been in your shoes, and you know it.” Jesse let go of a deep breath. “So, can we please bury this once and for all?”
“Fine,” Beckett reluctantly agreed. “But I still owe you for breaking your promise and lying to Ella tonight. Ten times over.”
“Just buy the drinks for the next few weeks, and we’re even,” Jesse said as Beckett checked to ensure Jennifer was safe and confirmed she appeared happily dancing.
“Deal.” And I can start tonight. Beckett swiveled back on his seat and waved over the bartender “¿Que le gustaría, señor?” His gaze fell to the bartender’s hands before him. Three black dots were inked between his index finger and thumb on his left hand.
He’d learned from his time as a detective with the Narcotics Division in Los Angeles years ago that those dots were often inked on ex-cons, meaning mi vida loca, my crazy life. Usually tattooed while serving time.
The bartender being an ex-con wasn’t a surprise given their location and the fact Jennifer was right about her research. It was well-known the club had connections to the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations.
He’d had his fair share of run-ins with the Sinaloas because of their connection to MS-13 back in LA. And the memories left more than just a bitter taste in his mouth.
A broken nose. A fractured rib. Two gunshot wounds. And did the gaping metaphorical hole in his heart also count as a wound? Maybe that last one wasn’t physical, but the pain seemed to last the longest for him.
“Un tequila, por favor, y una cerveza para mi amigo.” Beckett slid the bartender a thousand pesos, equivalent to about fifty bucks, more than double the cost of the drinks.
The bartender tipped his head in respect and quickly pocketed the six hundred extra pesos for his tip. “Cómo no, señor.”
“Careful,” Jesse warned when the bartender went to retrieve tequila and a beer. “Show off too much money here, and we’ll have bigger problems.”
“Copy that,” Beckett returned in a low voice. He was out of his element there. It’d been thirteen years since he’d been in LA doing any type of undercover work.
Back in his small town, crime wasn’t an issue, which he was happy about, of course. It was one of the reasons he’d moved back home to raise his daughter there.
Jesse tugged at the lapels of his jacket. “You can put a man on the moon but me in this suit . . .” His voice trailed off when the bartender slid their drinks across the dark polished wood.
Beckett’s attention swerved to another one of the bartender’s tattoos. This one was of Santa Muerta on his neck. The queen of the underworld.
And maybe Jennifer was partly right in her gilded cage assessment. They were in a place gleaming with glitz and glamor. The art deco designs and geometric shapes screamed Jazz Age, but in reality . . . they weren’t free. They were in the belly of hell. If they weren’t careful tonight, they’d be swallowed right up. And they didn’t have sidearms. Not even a replica of an era piece like a tommy gun to shoot their way out of the place.
What if she’s gone? What if I’m too late? Beckett shifted the sleeve of his jacket and checked the time. Still early. Maybe her shift hadn’t started yet. If she even works here.
His guilt further suffocated him as he thought about the disappointed expressions his family would point his way if they knew where he was and why.
His mother would be the first to slap him all the way back to the actual 1920s for ever taking such a risk as leaving his daughter fatherless if shit went sideways.
I’m an idiot. A sleep-deprived idiot.
He shifted on his seat to put eyes on Jennifer once again. As he turned, his gaze collided with one of the servers walking by. She was wearing only a strand of pearls and heart-shaped tassels covering her nipples for her top. The woman paused to check if he was . . . well, interested in something beyond a drink. He shook his head, and she continued walking.
“If we’re going to make a move, we better do it fast. I clocked three rival cartel members on my check earlier. Probably the Juárez gang not happy about the Sinaloas taking more and more ground here,” Jesse informed him, keeping his mouth close to Beckett’s ear so he could talk without shouting over the poppy melody of the song “Sing Sing Sing”now being played by the band.
I have a daughter back home, and I’m here for . . . Beckett released a heavy breath, letting that thought go.
“I do have a question.” Jesse turned to the side. “Since you didn’t go to A.J. for help this time, how’d you find out she was here? Who supplied your intel?”
Beckett parted his lips, prepared to summon a response when he saw her.
The her he was there for.
She was hard to miss, and the sight of her gave him the chills. Not the kind Sydney had managed to provoke at that wedding, when he’d spied her tanned back in that dress that dipped dangerously low to her ass, making a man want to commit all types of sins.
No, these were the shit-is-about-to-go-down goose bumps that covered his skin beneath his heavy clothes.
Ivy’s dark hair was draped like a curtain over her shoulders, covering part of her gold flapper dress. She slowly descended the set of spiral stairs off to the side of the band, her eyes focused on the crowd. Was she searching for her next mark? Who was the vixen’s target?
Beckett pushed away from the bar and rose, leaving his tequila untouched. “She’s here.” He’d clamped down on his teeth, nearly chewing on the words as he’d spit them out. “And she sees me,” he announced as his eyes locked with hers, and she froze on the third step from the bottom.
“How are we playing this?” Jesse asked.
Ivy lifted her chin as some kind of directive. Where’d she want him to go?
“Jennifer,” Beckett hissed at the realization she was gone from the dance floor.
“Who’s Jennifer? Did I miss something?” Jesse asked.
“A new responsibility and I don’t see her.” He couldn’t let some young girl die because of his mission, but he also couldn’t lose his chance to talk to Ivy. He may not get another one. “Don’t let Ivy out of your sight. I’ll find you in a minute.” Ivy was downstairs now, meandering through the crowd and advancing toward the exit. “She’s leaving.”
“I’m on it.” The second Jesse started through the pack of dancers, Beckett began searching for Jennifer.
Why’d he have to meet that girl tonight? He didn’t need the headache. But he also didn’t need her death on his conscience.
Once at the center of the club, he looked around, hoping he’d just missed her out there, but there was no sign of her.
Where are you, damn it? He was near heart failure when he spotted a flash of blonde hair. His shoulders fell with relief as Jennifer exited the women’s restroom. For fuck’s sake. Thank God. He cut through the crowd to get to her.
“You okay?” She angled her head, appearing alarmed by whatever crazy look he must’ve been giving her.
“I have to step outside for a minute. Don’t do anything to get yourself killed in the meantime, okay?” he demanded, his worried, harsh tone washed out by the music.
“Um. Yeah, sure.” She shrugged, and that wasn’t all that comforting of an answer, but he had to get to Ivy before it was too late.
He rushed for the front door, but a thick, muscled arm stretched before him as a blockade. “I wouldn’t go out there if I were you,” the bouncer warned in English.
When Beckett shot him a menacing look, a demand to let him continue, the guy lowered his arm.
“Your funeral.” He folded his beastly arms and stepped clear, but Beckett didn’t make it far.
Twenty or so meters away, Jesse was in the middle of fighting not one, but three men. And before Beckett could step in for an assist, Jesse had managed to remove a 9mm from one of the gangster-dressed men and popped off three quick precision shots.
All three fuckers fell like dominoes.
Did I really just see that? He didn’t think those were kill shots, but damn, the way Jesse had dropped them so fast was eerily impressive. And it was also the first time he’d witnessed Jesse in action. Of course, he’d brought Jesse with him tonight for a reason.
Beckett stepped forward but stopped yet again when Jesse lifted a quick palm, signaling him to hold.
It didn’t take Beckett long to figure out why. Ivy was nearby, standing alongside a vintage Cadillac with her hand over her mouth and a man at her side. He had to be cartel.
“You just took out the trash for me. Juárez gang.” The suited man by Ivy approached Jesse.
Beckett hated standing in the shadows while Jesse handled whatever the hell was about to happen, but he’d trust his brother-in-law on this one and wait and see.
“They were trying to take her,” Jesse said, probably for Beckett’s benefit, to alert him to why he’d shot three people. Clearly, the suited guy had witnessed Jesse’s heroic acts in saving Ivy.
“I’d like you to come with me.” The man snapped his fingers, and several other men started for the moaning bodies on the ground. “Now.”
Jesse quietly nodded, then stole one last look at Beckett before stepping into the back of the Cadillac while Ivy slid onto the front passenger seat.
Jesse mouthed what looked like the name “Carter” to Beckett before the car door shut.
Carter was one of Jesse’s two bosses at Falcon Falls, so he assumed he was requesting an extraction.
What in the hell did I just do?
Beckett faced the bouncer, who, for whatever reason, had tried to save his life moments ago by keeping him from the fight. “The woman, is she—”
“She’s Miguel Diego’s,” he grunted. “The owner’s girl.”
Great. Ivy was in bed with the cartel. Literally.
And now his brother-in-law was in cartel hands.
My sister’s going to kill me.
While you’re waiting…
—-While you’re waiting for the release (which is around June 26th, 2022) – catch up on some of the other fun characters that you’ll see in The Guarded One. You do NOT need to have read these books first to enjoy The Guarded One, but if you’re looking for something to read in the meantime:
Jesse & Ella’s book – The Broken One
Griffin & Savanna’s book – The Hunted One
Mya & Oliver (major secondary characters in The Guarded One) are also in the book, Chasing the Storm
Elaina, Emily, and Liam are secondary characters in The Guarded One. Their book is – Finding Her Chance