Renegade prayed for death, but it was an angel who saved him.
She found him in the desert naked, bleeding from knife wounds, feverish, and left staked out for the desert animals to finish off. Her foreman said leave him as soon as he saw the sinister signature of Alejandro Martinez carved on the man’s chest. The leader of the drug cartel wouldn’t like her saving this man when he’d been left to die.
Amelia would do nothing that might jeopardize her own work. So far, Alejandro had left her alone because she never crossed into his territory—until today. The man was almost dead anyway, she reasoned. But the lines blurred between what she should do and what she was thinking about doing, and thoughts of her own self-preservation crumbled. Even if he eventually dies, she couldn’t just leave him.
His memories are foggy, but he remembers enough to know he was involved with very bad men. His biggest problem is that he doesn’t remember exactly which side of the law he’s on.
Is he putting the woman who saved him in danger and risking her life? Right now, it’s his only choice until he heals. Except she has her own secrets. Dark secrets that could get them both killed.
Renegade heard them call the man Jose. He was pretty sure he was like the fifth man down on the ladder to the main guy—Alejandro Martinez. Not that any of it mattered right now. Well, except that Alejandro ran most of the cartel in the south of Mexico—a mean mother who’d branched out and started shipping into Texas. Everything from drugs, to guns, to people—mostly women and kids. He was so evil both the Mexican and US governments were trying to shut him down.
Not that anyone had been able to. No one messed with Alejandro. If they did, no one ever heard from them again. So far, he’d been considered a ghost. No one had ever pinpointed his exact location.
Until Renegade tracked him down and began gathering crucial intel that would end his reign of terror for good. He was a damned good tracker. The best, in fact. That’s why they wanted him for the job. He’d only made one small mistake, and it would probably cost him his life. Damn, he never dreamed the man he was working with would turn on him.
Except he did.
That’s how he’d ended up in a tent in the southern part of Mexico, in the middle of a hot-ass summer, having the crap beat out of him. His body had almost gone numb from the number of times
Jose hit or cut him.
The incessant buzzing of flies sounded like helicopter blades. For a moment, he thought he was back in Afghanistan. He closed his eyes tight. No, don’t remember that time.
Instead, he focused on one fat, evil-looking fly that acted as if he was already dead, feasting on the open wounds. He wasn't sure how much more he could take. They'd been at it since last night, and his best guess by the light and heat coming inside the tent, it was late afternoon.
Jose’s fist slammed into the side of Renegade’s face. His head whipped to the right, blood and spit flying. Stars exploded in front of him as pain crashed inside his head like a demolition derby—except he had the losing car. Son of a bitch, this guy knew just where to aim.
“You ready to talk, Culero?”
Renegade wasn’t ready to talk last night, and even if he could make his mouth work now, he still wouldn’t talk. That would mean giving up the rest of the team, and he would die before that happened. Everyone knew the risk when they went on a mission like this.
Another man entered the tent. Renegade could just barely make out his features through his swollen eyes. The man wore all white: shoes, slacks, shirt, jacket. They'd called in the big guns—Alejandro himself.
He dragged a chair across from Renegade and sat, absently brushing at some dirt on his pants.
“You’re going to talk sooner or later, Amigo, you might as well save yourself some pain and tell us what we need to know.” His voice was soft and cultured like he came from money.
Amigo, his ass. No way was Renegade his friend. Yeah, that was a joke. He snorted, which was about all he could manage right now, but it seemed to upset Alejandro. Good.
“You think we can’t make you scream in agony?” Alejandro’s voice took on a hard edge. “You will talk!”
"Might as well kill me now 'cause I'm not talking," he mumbled, but he didn’t think they understood him.
Alejandro grabbed his arm, twisting it painfully. “You have the brand of a drug runner. It’s not like you’re a saint or anything. Come to work for me and I can give you everything. Or else I can make you pray for death. I can make your familia pay as well. Will they be able to stand the torture? Make the choice soon.”
Family? That had been a long time ago. Back when he was innocent of what really went on in the world. Back when he cherished his mother’s hugs and his papa’s smile of approval. Back then, he was called Rafael.
He closed his eyes. Alejandro’s words whipped around inside his head: drug runner, familia, torture…
Twenty years ago
“Your father can’t pay his rent, so you will come work for us,” Carlos said.
“He’s only ten. Don’t take my son,” Luis begged. “I’ll do anything.”
Rafael hated this man. His papa could barely earn enough money to put food on the table. Rafael had gotten a job sweeping the grocery store after school to help out. In return, they were given meat or vegetables that were about to spoil if they sat on a shelf one more day. When he’d talked to his papa about working there full-time, his father had immediately said no. It was more important to get an education.
Now he looked at his father. “It’s okay, Papa. I can help.”
Luis shook his head. “No, I will not have you doing his dirty work. I would rather die.”
Carlos shrugged, brought his gun out, and pulled the trigger. A red dot formed between his father’s eyes and a trickle of blood ran down his nose. As if in slow motion, Papa's legs buckled, and he dropped to the floor before falling forward, lifeless.
Rafael stumbled back. Everything blurred. This wasn’t happening. Not his papa. He began to shake, no longer feeling like a man trying to help, but like the little boy he was. A fat tear ran down his cheek. He sniffed and swiped it away.
His mother ran to his father, dropping beside him and pulling him onto her lap as she screamed and cried. Rafael broke out of his trance and started to run toward his father, but Carlos grabbed his arm.
“You belong to me now.”
As he dragged him out the front door, two men pulled his mother away, ripping off her pretty blue apron. Their laughter and his mother's screams echoed outside. It wasn't long before he heard another gunshot, and his mother's screams stopped.
“I am your familia now. You will come work for me.”
Later that night, they branded his arm with the symbol of their drug runners. After he tried to run one too many times, they began calling him Renegade. Not that it stopped him. He didn’t care how many times they beat him. Someday, he would escape and make them pay for what they did.
A bucket of water was thrown on him.
“Rafael, wake up. Don’t let them win.”
Renegade blinked, expecting to see his father standing over him. Instead, Jose leaned down. Renegade tried to spit in his face, but his mouth still wasn’t working, so he gave up.
Jose laughed. "I thought we'd lost you for a while there. The boss wouldn't be happy if you died this soon. Besides, I'm having too much fun. I'm still trying to figure you out. You have darker skin than a gringo, but your eyes are bright green. What are you?”
His mother dusted the flour off her hands on the pale blue apron tied around her waist. When she saw he'd snuck into the kitchen, her eyes twinkled, and she smiled at him. His mother was beautiful, with dark blonde hair pulled back into a long braid. His father called her his angel. His beautiful wife who wasn't supposed to fall in love and run off with one of the workers on her father's ranch, but she had.
“Rafael, it’s almost lunchtime. Go to the field and get your father.”
Except he couldn’t move. He pulled against the ties that bound his wrists, but they were too tight. He couldn’t go get his father.
Time passed. Day turned to night, then day again.
“He’s not talking,” Jose finally said, voice flat. “I can’t break this one.”
“Take him up on the hill. Let the bugs and coyotes have him. Make sure if anyone finds him, they’ll know it’s a warning not to cross me or the same thing will happen to them. I don’t care how many law enforcement agents they send. I’m untouchable.” Alejandro laughed as he left the tent.
A few minutes later, men dragged Renegade out of the tent and up a small hill. The sun on his raw skin was brutal. Pain wracked his body and his mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow. What he wouldn’t do for an ice-cold beer right now. Yeah, he didn’t think Jose would bring him one. He grunted when they dropped him face down in the dirt.
“You’re one tough man, amigo. Let’s see how tough you are when the animals start to chew on you.”
They stretched him out, tying the ropes on his wrists to the stakes buried in the ground deep enough he would never get loose. Then they stripped off the rest of his clothes and stretched out his legs.
“I’m going to give you something to let everyone know not to cross Alejandro or suffer the consequences,” Jose said as he knelt beside him. He dug the knife in just deep enough to cut, but not deep enough to kill.
Renegade screamed. Sweat streamed down his face as he gulped in the hot air. When he thought he couldn't stand anymore, Jose stood, pocketing the knife.
“I admire you, Cabron. I never met a man I couldn’t break. Too bad you’re going to die out here in the desert all alone.”
Renegade heard the men moving around down the hill, then vehicles pulling away. He tugged on the ropes, but he was too weak. The sun beat down unmercifully. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry.
Night fell and the desert air chilled him to the bone. He shivered, teeth clicking. Brush rustled nearby. An animal crept closer. He raised his head as much as he could and yelled with what little strength he had left, then his head dropped back to the hard desert ground. There was a louder rustling as whatever had been there scurried away, but it would be back.
He prayed for death.
“Don’t give up,” his mother said. “Remember, you have a guardian angel watching over you.”
“Tired. Why can’t I be with you and Papa.”
“It’s not your time, son. You still have much work to do.”
He drew in a breath, then let it out. He just wanted to sleep.
The sun came up. Through one swollen eye, he saw a coyote stealthily moving toward him. His jaws salivating at the prospect of a meal he didn't have to work for. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
So, this was it. He silently prayed for a swift end.
A gunshot blasted, kicking up the dirt near the coyote and sending it barking and running in the opposite direction. Had Jose come back and decided to end it after all? That was fine with him.
“What are you doing, Amelia? The man is dead. You might as well let the starving animal have him.”
The softest hands he’d ever felt touched his face, then moved to his neck. “Except he’s not dead. He has a pulse, but it’s weak. Help me get him to the jeep, Tony.”
“It’s okay. I’ll take care of you,” she said. Here’s some water, but just enough to wet your mouth. I don’t want you choking or getting sick. I’ll give you more later.”
The small amount of moisture wet his lips and just barely his mouth. Renegade opened his eyes. The sun cast a light around her. She was beautiful, like an angel.
Maybe this was what death was like. If so, he didn’t mind dying—not at all.