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Letter of the Law

By Carsen Taite

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Carsen Taite

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Letter of the Law

Federal prosecutor Bianca Cruz has spent her life balancing motherhood with the call of her career. As she draws closer to making the case against the notorious Vargas brothers, danger casts dark shadows over her family. When her case leads her to a gorgeous horsewoman with a mysterious background, will she take a chance at love even if it means risking everything she’s worked her entire life to protect?

To horse breeder Jade Vargas, happy family is a fiction. Unlike her privileged half sister, she grew up knowing her heritage was rooted in darkness, yet she’s managed to live in the light despite the looming criminal enterprise ever poised to drag her down. When crisis strikes, will she burrow back to her past or will her undeniable attraction to the prosecutor investigating her family pull her out of the darkness once and for all?

What Reviewers Say About Carsen Taite’s Work

It Should be a Crime

“Law professor Morgan Bradley and her student Parker Casey are potential love interests, but throw in a high-profile murder trial, and you’ve got an entertaining book that can be read in one sitting. Taite also practices criminal law and she weaves her insider knowledge of the criminal justice system into the love story seamlessly and with excellent timing. I find romances lacking when the characters change completely upon falling in love, but this was not the case here. I look forward to reading more from Taite.”—Curve Magazine

“This [It Should be a Crime] is just Taite’s second novel…but it’s as if she has bookshelves full of bestsellers under her belt.”—Gay List Daily

“Taite, a criminal defense attorney herself, has given her readers a behind the scenes look at what goes on during the days before a trial. Her descriptions of lawyer/client talks, investigations, police procedures, etc. are fascinating. Taite keeps the action moving, her characters clear, and never allows her story to get bogged down in paperwork. It Should be a Crime has a fast-moving plot and some extraordinarily hot sex.”—Just About Write

Do Not Disturb

“Taite’s tale of sexual tension is entertaining in itself, but a number of secondary characters…add substantial color to romantic inevitability.”—Richard Labonte, Book Marks

Nothing but the Truth

“Author Taite is really a Dallas defense attorney herself, and it’s obvious her viewpoint adds considerable realism to her story, making it especially riveting as a mystery. I give it four stars out of five.”—Bob Lind, Echo Magazine

“As a criminal defense attorney in Dallas, Texas, Carsen Taite knows her way around the court house. This ability shows in her writing, as her legal dramas take the reader into backroom negotiations between the opposing lawyers, as well as into meetings with judges. Watching how Carsen Taite brings together all of the loose ends is enjoyable, as is her skillful building of the characters of Ryan and Brett. Nothing But the Truth is an enjoyable mystery with some hot romance thrown in.”—Just About Write

“Taite has written an excellent courtroom drama with two interesting women leading the cast of characters. Taite herself is a practicing defense attorney, and her courtroom scenes are clearly based on real knowledge. This should be another winner for Taite.”—Lambda Literary

The Best Defense

“Real life defense attorney Carsen Taite polishes her fifth work of lesbian fiction, The Best Defense, with the realism she daily encounters in the office and in the courts. And that polish is something that makes The Best Defense shine as an excellent read.”—Out & About Newspaper

Slingshot

“The mean streets of lesbian literature finally have the hard boiled bounty hunter they deserve. It’s a slingshot of a ride, bad guys and hot women rolled into one page turning package. I’m looking forward to Luca Bennett’s next adventure.”—J. M. Redmann, author of the Micky Knight mystery series

Beyond Innocence

“Taite keeps you guessing with delicious delay until the very last minute…Taite’s time in the courtroom lends Beyond Innocence a terrific verisimilitude someone not in the profession couldn’t impart. And damned if she doesn’t make practicing law interesting.”—Out in Print

“As you would expect, sparks and legal writs fly. What I liked about this book were the shades of grey (no, not the smutty Shades of Grey)—both in the relationship as well as the cases.”—C-spot Reviews

Battle Axe

“This second book is satisfying, substantial, and slick. Plus, it has heart and love coupled with Luca’s array of weapons and a badass verbal repertoire… I cannot imagine anyone not having a great time riding shotgun through all of Luca’s escapades. I recommend hopping on Luca’s band wagon and having a blast.”—Rainbow Book Reviews

“Taite breathes life into her characters with elemental finesse… A great read, told in the vein of a good old detective-type novel filled with criminal elements, thugs, and mobsters that will entertain and amuse.”—Lambda Literary

Rush

“A simply beautiful interplay of police procedural magic, murder, FBI presence, misguided protective cover-ups, and a superheated love affair…a Gold Star from me and major encouragement for all readers to dive right in and consume this story with gusto!”—Rainbow Book Reviews

Switchblade

“I enjoyed the book and it was a fun read—mystery, action, humor, and a bit of romance. Who could ask for more? If you’ve read and enjoyed Taite’s legal novels, you’ll like this. If you’ve read and enjoyed the two other books in this series, this one will definitely satisfy your Luca fix and I highly recommend picking it up. Highly recommended.”—C-spot Reviews

“Dallas’s intrepid female bounty hunter, Luca Bennett, is back in another adventure. Fantastic! Between her many friends and lovers, her interesting family, her fly by the seat of her pants lifestyle, and a whole host of detractors there is rarely a dull moment.”—Rainbow Book Reviews

Courtship

“The political drama is just top-notch. The emotional and sexual tensions are intertwined with great timing and flair. I truly adored this book from beginning to end. Fantabulous!”—Rainbow Book Reviews

“Taite keeps the stakes high as two beautiful and brilliant women fueled by professional ambitions face daunting emotional choices… As backroom politics, secrets, betrayals, and threats race to be resolved without political damage to the president, the cat-and-mouse relationship game between Addison and Julia has the reader rooting for them. Taite prolongs the fever-pitch tension to the final pages. This pleasant read with intelligent heroines, snappy dialogue, and political suspense will satisfy Taite’s devoted fans and new readers alike.”—Publisher’s Weekly

Lay Down the Law

“Recognized for the pithy realism of her characters and settings drawn from a Texas legal milieu, Taite pays homage to the prime-time soap opera Dallas in pairing a cartel-busting U.S. attorney, Peyton Davis, with a charity-minded oil heiress, Lily Gantry.” —Publishers Weekly

“Suspenseful, intriguingly tense, and with a great developing love story, this book is delightfully solid on all fronts. This gets my A-1 recommendation!”—Rainbow Book Reviews

Reasonable Doubt

“I was drawn into the mystery plot line and quickly became enthralled with the book. It was suspenseful without being too intense but there were some great twists to keep me guessing. It’s a very good book. I cannot wait to read the next in line that Ms. Taite has to offer.” —Prism Book Alliance

Above the Law

“…readers who enjoyed the first installment will find this a worthy second act.”—Publishers Weekly

“Ms Taite delivered and then some, all the while adding more questions, Tease! I like the mystery and intrigue in this story. It has many ‘sit on the edge of your seat’ scenes of excitement and dread (like watch out kind of thing) and drama…well done indeed!” —Prism Book Alliance

Without Justice

“Carsen Taite tells a great story. She is consistent in giving her readers a good if not great legal drama with characters who are insightful, well thought out and have good chemistry. You know when you pick up one of her books you are getting your money’s worth time and time again. Consistency with a great legal drama is all but guaranteed.”—The Romantic Reader Blog

“This is a great read, fast-paced, interesting and takes a slightly different tack from the normal crime/courtroom drama having a lawyer in the witness protection system whose case becomes the hidden centre of another crime.”—Lesbian Reading Room

Letter of the Law

© 2017 By Carsen Taite. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-751-4


This Electronic book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: May 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Truelesbianlove.com

It Should be a Crime

Do Not Disturb

Nothing but the Truth

The Best Defense

Beyond Innocence

Rush

Courtship

Reasonable Doubt

Without Justice

The Luca Bennett Mystery Series:

Slingshot

Battle Axe

Switchblade

Bow and Arrow (novella in Girls with Guns)


Lone Star Law Series:

Lay Down the Law

Above the Law

Letter of the Law

Acknowledgments

Big thanks to the usual suspects. VK Powell and Ashley Bartlett, the best first readers and butt-kickers a girl could have. Rad and Sandy Lowe for running a top-notch publishing house that provides me with all the support I need and lots of room to grow. Cindy Cresap, my smart, witty editor who whips all my manuscripts into shape. Ruth Sternglantz for your magic marketing skills. All the associates at BSB who lend their time and talent to make our books shine.

A special shout out to all my BSB sister and brother authors who never fail to amaze me with their generous support and encouragement. Thanks especially to Barbara Ann Wright, Melissa Brayden, Nell Stark, Trinity Tam, and Ali Vali who joined me on a tour of McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds during the last BSB retreat so I could get a close up look at a horse breeding operation as research for this book.

Thanks to Sandy Thornton and Sheri Campbell for all the work they do to organize the Women with Pride book club each month and big hugs to all the members who make the club a bright light for lesfic authors and readers alike.

To Lainey, my amazing wife, cheerleader, and confidant. Thanks for making this wonderful life possible. Couldn’t do it without you. Wouldn’t want to.

And to my readers. Your kind words of encouragement and loyal support are appreciated more than you can ever know. I write stories because you read them. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Dedication

For L Always

Chapter One

Bianca Cruz clenched her jaw and glanced at the clock on the wall as she waited for the judge to make his ruling. She’d worked her whole life to become a litigator, but now that she’d achieved success in the courtroom, her most important work was taking place outside of it, and she wanted nothing more than to get back to the task force’s clandestine operation.

Finally, the judge sustained defense counsel’s objection and motioned for Bianca to continue. Breathing a sigh of relief, Bianca announced, “I have no further questions.”

“May the witness be excused?” Judge Casey directed the question to defense counsel, and Bianca shot a glare at her adversary, daring him to ask more questions. What was supposed to have been a straightforward hearing on a motion to suppress, lasting a couple of hours at most, had turned all O.J. Simpson right out of the gate. They’d started at eight this morning. Now it was almost seven p.m., and they’d only had a quick thirty-minute lunch break which Judge Casey had grudgingly granted. Casey hated taking breaks almost as much as he loved his reputation as the hardest working jurist on the federal bench. Bianca would never understand why he cared so much, considering his bench was a lifetime appointment. It wasn’t like he was going to get impeached because he went home at five o’clock.

“No, Your Honor, that was my last witness,” the defense attorney said. “Would you like to hear argument now?”

Bianca tapped her fingers on the table, no longer bothered with trying to hide her annoyance. The law was clear, and the facts supported her position about the admissibility of the evidence in what amounted to a standard case of drug trafficking. The defendant had been stopped by a Texas State Trooper for speeding on Interstate 45, a known route favored by drug mules looking to get product in country. The defendant had failed to produce his ID, stating he must have lost it somewhere on his trip, and he was evasive when the trooper asked him simple questions about his destination. Suspecting there was more to the story, the trooper had called for a K-9 unit, and the troopers recovered eighty pounds of weed along with a few fat stacks of hundred-dollar bills.

Defense counsel had mounted an all-out assault on Bianca’s short presentation of the evidence with a show-all-your-cards, trial-style display, including an expert witness on drug-sniffing dogs and three witnesses to lie about the defendant’s real plans that of course had nothing to do with drug smuggling. When Bianca had received the defendant’s list of witnesses earlier that week, her first reaction had been to respond with a list of her own, including an expert, but her mentor, Peyton Davis, had talked her down, and she’d chosen instead to rely on the experienced testimony of the state trooper along with the clear view of the entire incident as it had been recorded on his body cam. She’d presented her best case, and now that it was time to argue, she had little more to say and a strong desire to break for the night. When defense counsel finally finished his over-the-top diatribe, she spent less than five minutes making her key points.

“Well, counsel,” Judge Casey said, “you’ve given me a lot to think about. I think considering the time, we’ll adjourn for now and I’ll issue my opinion in the morning.”

He’d probably stay up all night writing it, but Bianca was so happy to hear the words, she nearly shot out of her seat, already reaching for the powered-off phone in her bag, certain when she turned it on, it would be on fire with messages.

She wasn’t wrong. When she reached her car, she took a moment to scroll through her messages while she let the Miata’s engine warm up.

Mom, can’t wait to tell you what happened today! You’re going to go crazy!!

Bianca smiled at her daughter’s hyperbole and scrolled to the next message, this one from her own mother.

Those people know you have to eat sometime, don’t they? Or do they ignore their mothers too?

A few more clicks revealed more of the same. Bianca tossed her phone back in her bag and drove out of the lot behind the federal building, finally on her way home. She spent the drive reflecting on how much her life had changed over the past few years. She’d gone from being a lackey of sorts, drafting motions and doing research for other AUSAs, to handling her own docket while working on a covert task force investigating both the Zeta Cartel and the potential of a leak inside the US Attorney’s office threatening their investigation. She had a lot to lose, but she was doing what was right and that was all that mattered.

When she finally reached home, Bianca had switched gears, replacing legal analysis with thoughts of family, but as she stepped up to the front door of her house, work rushed back in. She paused with her hand on the handle to her front door, torn between answering the buzzing cell phone in her purse and ignoring it in favor of a family dinner. The smell of her mother’s posolé voted for the latter, but the buzzing phone was a significant distraction. She pulled the offending device from her purse, glanced at the screen, and knew it would keep ringing until she answered.

I’ll make it quick. She almost believed the lie before she punched the answer button and let reality flood in. “This better be important,” she said curtly.

“Are you at the office?” Dale asked.

Dale Nelson was a DEA agent who worked with her on the task force. Bianca had spent most of the weekend with Dale and other members of the task force after a nationally-known investigative reporter, Lindsey Davis, had been kidnapped by members of a drug cartel. Lindsey was safe and sound, but her rescue raised more questions than answers, and now the task force was spinning in several different directions, not entirely sure which one would lead to the capture of the criminals they were trying to take down.

Bianca liked Dale, even enjoyed her company. Most of the time. But after a bruising day in court, she needed to erect a wall between the part of her dedicated to taking down heinous criminals and the part determined to spend a normal dinner with her daughter and her mother. “I’m at home. If you’re going to mess with family time, prepare for the fallout.”

Dale laughed. “No need to threaten me. It can wait until tomorrow. I just wanted to know if you’d seen the article in the Morning News, and let you know we were able to run down some additional information about the other owner of Valencia Acres. You’re not going to believe what—”

A sharp scream from the other side of the door interrupted Dale’s announcement and almost caused Bianca to drop the phone.

“What was that?” Dale asked.

Bianca jerked on the handle with one hand and pounded on the door with the other. Her phone was jammed up under her chin and she ignored Dale’s increasingly loud “are you okays” while she focused all her energy into getting into her house, but the door resisted her attempts to break through.

Of course it was locked. She jammed the key into the lock and turned again, barreling through the entryway faster than the heavy door could move, slamming into the wall at the end of the foyer. Her phone clattered to the ground, cracking against the hard tile and skittering to a stop at the feet of her mother who stood to the side with her hands on her hips.

Mija, where is the fire?”

Semi-conscious of the fact Dale’s pleas for information were still wafting up from the downed cell phone, Bianca ignored her mother’s question and asked one of her own. “I heard screaming. What’s going on?”

No se. Emma is talking to one of her friends on the phone. I told her three times you were going to be home soon and she needed to get off the phone, but…” Her mother placed her hands over her ears to demonstrate her granddaughter’s behavior. Before she could say anything else, another sharp scream filled the air, but this time the screamer bounded into sight.

“Mom!”

Bianca shook her head. “Emma, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

Emma cocked her head. “Mom, don’t be silly. The likelihood of someone your age having a heart attack is pretty slim. Besides, I’m so excited to see you. I have amazing news!”

“What’s going on?”

As one, Bianca, her mother, and Emma looked down at the floor where the question blared from Bianca’s forgotten phone. “Oh crap,” Bianca said as she reached down and scooped up the phone.

“Language!” Emma and her mother said at the same time.

“You two are spending way too much time together. Hold that thought.” She held the phone to her ear. “Dale, are you still there?”

“Is everything okay? I’m in my truck. Should I head that way?”

“Everything is fine, except for the derelicts living at my house. Seriously. Can I call you back in the morning?”

“Absolutely. Go be with your family. I’ll fill you in tomorrow.”

Bianca set the phone on the counter and turned her attention to her daughter. It never failed to surprise her that Emma looked exactly like the father she’d probably never know, and almost nothing like her. Where she was petite, Emma was tall, with long legs and willowy arms. And Emma possessed a natural athletic grace that made Bianca look even more clumsy than she actually was. Bianca embraced their differences, never letting them interfere with the close relationship she and Emma shared. “Tell me, what’s all the screaming about?”

“I’m going to be the lead in the school play. It’s a remake of Romeo and Juliet and I’m, you know, Juliet. Jake Swan is Romeo. He’s a hunk.”

Bianca’s stomach turned at the boy-crazy look on Emma’s face, and she had to resist the urge to shut it down, instead opting for a more subtle approach to gather information about the boy who’d captured her daughter’s attention. “That’s exciting, bug. Tell me about your costar. What’s Jake like?”

Emma settled into a chair at the table. “I don’t know him very well, but he seems super nice. He plays basketball and he’s the eighth grade class president.”

Bianca bit down hard on her tongue to keep from shouting eighth grade! She glanced over at her mother, standing behind Emma, shaking her head. She had no doubt there would be a full round of “see what I went through when you were young” after Emma went to bed. Resisting every protective urge she felt, Bianca pared her response down to a simple. “He sounds nice. Maybe I will get a chance to meet him soon.”

“Sure, Mom. How was your day?”

The sudden switch in subjects restored her faith that Emma wasn’t entirely boy-crazy, and Bianca sighed with relief. “Long, but I’m glad to be home. Did your abuela make us posolé or is my nose just wishing it was so?”

Her mom cleared her throat. “It’s not polite to talk about me like I’m not here.”

Bianca laughed at her mother’s stern tone and faux frown. She knew her mother would cook for her every night if she allowed it, but she tried to keep some form of normalcy with her erratic schedule. Lately, it had been even more unpredictable, and she didn’t know what she would’ve done if her mother didn’t live down the street, ready to fill in at a moment’s notice. “Sorry, Mama. I just didn’t want you to get a big head.”

“Enough already.” She pointed at the table. “Sit down, both of you. Your dinner is getting cold.”

Bianca took two steps toward the kitchen table when her cell phone rang again. She recognized the ring tone right away. She’d programmed it into her phone on her first day at the US Attorney’s office, when her boss, Herschel Gellar, informed her she might be called upon at all hours and he expected her to be available. He’d rarely called her himself and, considering the events of the last week, she was reluctant to hear whatever he had to say.

“Don’t answer it,” her mother said.

But Bianca was already reaching for the phone. “I have to.” She punched the line to answer. “Cruz here.”

“I heard your hearing went well today.”

“I think so, sir. Judge Casey said he’d take it under advisement.”

“His clerk thinks it’s a slam dunk. I bet you get your opinion in the morning. Speaking of which,” he said in the poorest of segues, “Did you see the article in the paper this morning?”

The article again. “Actually, no. I was busy preparing for the hearing, but I plan to read it tonight.”

“Good. Do that. And I need you to come in early tomorrow.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s important that I talk to you before anyone else is here. Privately.”

Uh-oh. Something was up and it wasn’t good. She and the rest of the disbanded task force had been working off the books for the last two weeks, running around behind Gellar’s back to shore up the case against the Vargas brothers that he seemed to have shuttled to the back burner while he focused on what appeared to be a personal vendetta against a prominent Dallas oilman. Had he figured out his team wasn’t playing by his rules anymore?

All she could think about was that she needed to get off the phone and call her friend and mentor, AUSA Peyton Davis. Peyton was the de facto head of their task force and she also happened to be in a relationship with the daughter of Cyrus Gantry, the focus of Gellar’s prosecution. Gellar’s voice faded in the background as she parsed through the complications of her professional life.

“Are you there, Cruz?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be there. First thing in the morning.” She waited until he clicked off the line before she did the same. When she looked up from the phone, she saw both her mother and daughter staring at her. “What?”

“You don’t have to go now, right?” Emma asked, her voice quiet with disappointment.

“No, bug. I do not.” She held up the phone and made a show of turning down the volume. “And no more interruptions. It’s time for dinner.” She tossed the phone on the counter next to the current edition of the Dallas Morning News. She was dying to read the article now that both Dale and Gellar had mentioned it, but for the next couple of hours, her primary focus was her family because no matter how complicated her career had become, the simple pleasure of a home-cooked meal shared with the people she loved was the most important part of her life. She would let nothing steal these simple pleasures from her.

*

Jade Vargas climbed the steps to the front porch, her boots clomping against the wide planks of wood and echoing in the cool night air. She wasn’t expected until the weekend, and she hoped the key was hidden in the same place it always was since the quiet signaled no one was home to greet her.

She rested her suitcase against the door and pried away the already loose board in the railing. Within seconds, she freed the key and let herself into the ranch house.

“Hello?” she called out as she parked her suitcase in the front entry and made her way back to the kitchen. “Is anyone home?” The hum of the refrigerator cut through the silence, and she let out a huge breath in relief. The delayed flight home after a month of living out of her suitcase had taken its toll, and all she wanted was a stiff drink and her own bed.

She rummaged through the cabinets. Sophia didn’t favor strong spirits, and she had a tendency to push Jade’s prized finds to the rear of the cupboard when she was traveling, but it only took a few moments to locate one of the bottles. Jade pulled down the beautiful bottle of Amor Mio along with one of the handblown shot glasses she’d purchased on one of her trips to Mexico last summer. She’d purchased the bottle for its beauty, thinking even if the tequila inside was shit, at least she’d have a lovely vase, but to her surprise, the extra añejo liquor was delicious. She poured two fingers of the amber liquid into the glass and took a generous sip, enjoying the complex layers of hazelnut, chocolate, and cinnamon. She took another drink, sank into a chair at the kitchen table, and twisted her neck back and forth to shake loose some of the tension brought on by a day of travel.

Her hand rested on a stack of mail and the current edition of the Dallas Morning News. She sorted through the envelopes, mostly bills, before brushing the mail aside to check out the day’s headlines. She’d expected a little light reading before bed, but the glaring headline over the fold grabbed her attention. Local Oilman Facing Life Sentence.

Could it be? She unfolded the paper and spread it out on the table, quickly scanning the lead. Cyrus Gantry, President and CEO of family-held Gantry Oil, is the target of a multi-jurisdictional investigation led by a task force of federal agents seeking to root out the drug trade in North Texas. Jade gasped at the sight of the familiar name and she took another drink, more than a sip this time, before diving back into the article.

A federal grand jury issued subpoenas over the last few weeks, allowing the FBI to search all of Gantry Oil’s offices in the district. Sources close to the investigation say the search yielded evidence that implicates Gantry in a complex money laundering scheme with known drug lords, Sergio and Arturo Vargas, captains of the local faction of the Zeta Cartel.

At the sight of the familiar names, Jade set the paper down, not entirely sure she wanted to know more. These stories never ended well, but curiosity won out and she kept reading.

The subpoenas were the culmination of the work of a task force organized by US Attorney Herschel Gellar. Gellar put together law enforcement personnel from the FBI, DEA, ATF, and Texas Rangers to work with prosecutors in his office to investigate the activities of the Vargas brothers. One of the AUSAs originally assigned to work on the task force was Maria Escobar, a decorated JAG attorney who came to work for the Northern District of Texas US Attorney’s office following two tours in Afghanistan. Last year, AUSA Escobar was gunned down in front of her house, and the murder, while as yet unsolved, is widely believed to have been committed by members of the Zeta Cartel sending a message to law enforcement about the investigation.

Jade shook her head as her suspicions were confirmed, but she was too far into the article to stop reading now.

Escobar was survived by her wife, DEA Special Agent Dale Nelson, also a member of the task force. Agent Nelson, along with the other members of her team regrouped, and AUSA Peyton Davis, a native Dallasite, transferred home from the Department of Justice to take over Ms. Escobar’s role as the attorney liaison to the law enforcement team. In early October of this year, Nelson and Davis, following up on a lead that one of the Gantry Oil’s trucks had been used to transport undocumented immigrants over the border, were involved in a shootout at a local warehouse owned by Gantry. Agent Nelson was injured, but not deterred. Within a week, subpoenas were issued for all of Gantry’s offices, and forensic accountants began combing through evidence regarding his business transactions.

Sources surmise the pressure on Gantry caused the usually elusive Vargases to surface. Just days following the search of Gantry’s offices, Arturo Vargas was arrested outside of Dallas at the ranch of his estranged sister, Sophia Valencia, where he was holding Sophia and Cyrus Gantry’s daughter Lily at gunpoint while trying to steal Valencia’s prize stallion, Queen’s Ransom, last year’s winner of the All American Futurity. Arturo was shot during his apprehension, and after his condition stabilized, he was transferred to the Federal Detention Center in Seagoville where he is being held pending additional charges. Neither of the women would meet on the record to discuss why Arturo was targeting them.

Jade gulped the tequila this time, no longer caring about layers of complexity in the drink. She’d already known some of what she just read, but seeing the story stripped down to the bare facts brought home how close she’d come to losing Ransom.

Last week, the investigation took a twist when internationally known investigative reporter Lindsey Ryan was kidnapped outside of city hall while she was in town to cover a DEA Drug Take Back event. Ryan was held hostage pending the release of Arturo Vargas. The kidnappers were arrested at a farm near Denton where they were holding Ms. Ryan. They had forced her to make a tape calling on US Attorney Gellar to set Arturo free and drop all charges against both Vargas brothers in exchange for Ryan’s safe release. No one was injured during the raid that freed Ms. Ryan, but sources close to the investigation intimate the kidnappers’ motives were more complex than securing Arturo Vargas’s freedom.

Sergio Vargas remains at large, and he is now listed among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. Authorities continue to pursue all leads and have opened a hotline and offered a reward for anyone who has information that might lead to his arrest. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on Cyrus Gantry who remains free pending formal charges, but whom Gellar has told his staff will not survive this year without an indictment implicating him not only on charges of money laundering for the Vargases’ operation, but for other crimes as well. No one would speak on the record about what these other crimes might be, but sources close to the investigation tell us Gantry is likely to be charged as part of a conspiracy that may extend far beyond money laundering and could also be connected with the murders committed by the Vargases as part of their criminal enterprise.

Jade let the paper fall back to the table and took a long drink of her tequila. Before she could process the bombshells contained in the article, she heard a door slam and the sharp staccato of heels on the wood floor.

“I was gone no more than an hour and I come home to find you raiding the liquor. You know I don’t like it when you drink spirits.”

Jade raised the glass in a mock toast and smiled at her mother. “If you really objected, you could pour it out when I’m away.”

It was Sophia’s turn to smile. “What? And have you go running off to the nearest bar instead of staying here with me?”

“You know me so well.”

Sophia held out her arms. “Put down that glass and say hello to me.”

Jade pitched the remaining drops of tequila down her throat and slid the glass onto the counter. She stepped into her mother’s arms. The embrace was as awkward as always, but as Sophia pressed her closer and stroked her hair, Jade sensed an undercurrent of nostalgia. Had Sophia truly missed her for more than her help running the ranch? She had been gone for a while, but she’d taken extended trips before without this kind of welcome when she returned. Something had prompted Sophia to offer a rare display of motherly affection.

When Sophia released her, Jade backed away, wondering if her observation was fact-based or tequila-inspired. Didn’t matter either way. She would be here at the ranch for a while and then she’d leave. She never stayed long enough for the discomfort of their differences to get in the way of business. Sophia might be her mother, but their relationship as business partners was their strongest bond. “Is everything well?”

“The horses are fine. How was your trip?” Sophia asked, as if reading Jade’s mind.

“Good. I made a few purchases, and they’ll be delivered in the next couple of weeks.”

Sophia pointed at the small suitcase. “I’m certain you left here with more than one tiny bag. Did you trade your belongings for the new horses?”

Jade laughed, relieved at the mundane topic of conversation. “The airline lost my checked bags. Supposedly, they are somewhere in the Midwest and they swore they would have them to me by tomorrow.” The reminder of the rotten travel day she’d suffered through brought on another wave of exhaustion and Jade yawned. “If you don’t mind, maybe we can talk details tomorrow. It’s been a long day and I’m beat.” She didn’t wait for a response, instead reaching for her suitcase, but Sophia’s hand on her arm stopped her getaway.

“Actually, I need to talk to you about something and I’m afraid it cannot wait.” Sophia pointed at the paper on the table. “Did you read the article?”

Jade braced at the ominous tone in her mother’s voice. She  hadn’t had enough tequila to stomach more unpleasantness, but if she didn’t hear her out now, her sleep would be ruined while she wondered what was so important that it couldn’t wait until dawn. “I did. What is it?”

Sophia strode over to the refrigerator and opened the door. “Would you like something to eat? How long has it been since you’ve had a home-cooked meal? I could make you an omelet.”

Jade gritted her teeth to stave off her building frustration and resisted the urge to point out she rarely had home-cooked meals even when she was home. “I’m not hungry, but I am very tired. Perhaps you can tell me what’s on your mind and then I can get some sleep.”

Sophia shut the refrigerator door and slowly turned to face her. Her expression was an odd mixture of expectation and dread, and she flinched as the words tumbled from her lips. “Lily Gantry was here. She’s been here several times. She knows.”

Jade’s gut clenched and she sagged back against the counter, all thoughts of sleep vanished with the vague, yet ominous revelation. “What does she know?”

Sophia’s gaze darted around the room, but Jade wasn’t about to let her off so easily. Some small part of her knew this day might come, but as time passed, she’d grown to think maybe it never would. Now that it had, she needed to be prepared. “What does she know?”

“She knows everything. Except…”

“Except what?” Jade was certain she knew the detail her mother had left out, but she had to hear her say it to make it real.

“Except she doesn’t know about you. She doesn’t know she has a sister.”

Chapter Two

It was almost dawn when Jade strode through the tall double doors of the climate-controlled stallion barn that supported her standard of living. After her mother’s bombshell the night before, she craved the sweet smell of hay and the soft whinnies from the horses as she walked by their stables. The peace of this place never failed to soothe her, especially when she returned from a long trip away. She loved every one of these proud, beautiful animals, not for the trappings they’d afforded her, but for their gentle, unconditional affection. Jade walked through the wide hall, stopping at every stall to greet each one. These horses were her family, more so than the woman who’d given birth to her, the father she’d never know, or the half sister she didn’t want or need.

Family. The concept was bittersweet. She’d known Lily Gantry was her half sister since before they’d moved to Valencia Acres. She’d started figuring it out when she’d seen Lily’s father, Cyrus, at the much smaller ranch they used to own down in the valley. She’d been a teenager then. Her mother had introduced Cyrus as a family friend, but by his fourth visit, she knew differently. The casual way he interacted with her mother, who had a tendency to hold most people at arm’s length, the lavish gifts he gave her were signs there was more to their relationship. When she spotted his car in the driveway before dawn, and then saw him sneaking out wearing the same clothes he’d had on the night before, her suspicions were confirmed.

One day she’d gone through his wallet while he was doing God knows what in her mother’s room, and she’d seen a picture of his daughter, Lily, sitting astride a gorgeous mount. Something about the picture was deeply familiar, and she spent days trying to figure it out. When she came across the same picture in her mother’s bureau, the mystery was solved. Lily and Sophia looked so much alike except for the one or two features Lily shared with Cyrus. She hadn’t known if she should be more shocked by the fact her mother was sleeping with a married man or that Sophia had chosen to keep her daughters apart, allowing them to grow up as strangers occupying separate worlds.

Jade shook away the thoughts and returned her attention to her horse family. She took her time, greeting each horse in turn, but seeking out one in particular. When she finally reached the largest stall, she waited by the gate, quietly watching her favorite stallion, Queen’s Ransom. She didn’t wait long before he lifted his nose, sniffed the air, and stepped to her, nickering his pleasure at her return. Ransom had won the All American Futurity the year before, and now he was the most valuable asset of Valencia Acres, commanding substantial stud fees.

“Did you miss me?” Jade asked, nuzzling her face against his. “I bet Sophia’s spoiling you rotten. When’s the last time you went on a hard ride?”

Ransom answered by thumping a hoof against the ground and rubbing his massive midsection against the gate. His eager response sparked an idea, and Jade acted quickly before she could change her mind or consider the consequences. She told Ransom she’d be right back and strode to the tack room where she selected a bridle, blanket, and saddle before making her way back to the stall. When she returned, Ransom danced at the sight of her, confirming her hasty decision. She gave him a thorough brushing and then led him past the other stalls and out of the barn. Outside, in the cool, dark air of morning, she tacked him up and climbed into the saddle. Once astride Ransom, she finally felt like she was home. With only a passing thought to what her mother would think of her taking their most valuable possession for a trail ride, she pressed the heels of her boots into Ransom’s side and they rode toward the rising sun.

*

Bianca swiped her card to open the private entrance to the US Attorney’s suite of offices and eased down the hall, hoping she’d beaten her boss into the office. She’d need a full cup of coffee and a few moments to gather her thoughts before she faced whatever surprise he had in store. She fired up her computer. While it came to life, she gulped the lukewarm coffee she’d brought from home and mentally retraced the newspaper article she’d read that morning as well as her own recollection about the events of the last month, looking for any clues as to what Gellar might be on to.

Since the time Peyton Davis had returned to town to take the reins of the Zeta Cartel task force, events had occurred at a breathtaking pace. At first, Bianca had been reluctant to accept Peyton’s leadership. Bianca had had a close professional relationship with Peyton’s predecessor, Maria, and considered her a mentor, which had made it difficult to accept anyone taking her place. But it didn’t take long for Bianca to realize Peyton was a tough, no-nonsense lawyer who was more interested in justice than politics, which had quickly earned Bianca’s respect. Even when it turned out Peyton had fallen in love with the daughter of Cyrus Gantry, a well known local oilman accused of conspiring with the Vargas brothers, Bianca still trusted Peyton’s judgment over that of her boss who seemed singularly focused on Gantry as if to settle some unspoken vendetta.

Gellar’s obsession had recently turned into questionable behavior, and two weeks ago, he’d disbanded the task force and made several dubious decisions that placed all of their hard work in jeopardy. Unwilling to accept Gellar’s decisions, Peyton and Dale had taken the reins and urged the group to operate underground. Now she and the others were leading double lives, working regular dockets and caseloads while using every spare moment to find Arturo’s fugitive brother, Sergio, and shut down the illegal activities of the Cartel. Just last week, investigative reporter Lindsey Ryan had agreed to join their team, and they were ready to take their underground investigation to the next level.

Had Gellar caught on? Was that the reason for this secret, early morning meeting? Bianca pulled out her phone and sent a quick text to Peyton. Early meeting with the boss at his request. Any ideas?

She tapped her fingers on her desk while she waited for a reply. She didn’t wait long.

No idea, but you got this. Call me after.

Bianca took a deep breath and replayed the events of the last week, certain they carried a clue as to what Gellar wanted. Lindsey had been in town to do a piece on the DEA for Spotlight America, a prime-time TV news show. Lindsey had been paired with Dale, who’d spent the entire week showing Lindsey around during the day and working on the task force in whatever free moments she could grab. Despite Dale’s best efforts, Lindsey had figured out something else was up and discovered that Dale, Peyton, Bianca, and a few others were holding meetings at Peyton’s ranch. Before she could confront them about it, Lindsey had been taken hostage and held until the kidnappers’ demand to drop the investigation into the Vargases was met. After Lindsey was rescued, they’d figured out she’d actually been taken by the Barrio Aztecas, sworn enemies of the Zetas and Sergio and Arturo Vargas. Unable to figure out the kidnappers’ true motive, the task force made a pledge to double their efforts and scrutinize everyone outside of their tight-knit circle, including Gellar. They planned to ask Lindsey to use her investigative skills to help them root out the truth.

A sharp knock on her door rousted Bianca from her reflections. Herschel Gellar stood in her doorway, and she rose to greet him. “Good morning, Mr. Gellar. I didn’t realize you were here.”

His eyes swept the room. “I just arrived. Thanks for coming in early. Come to my office?” He turned and walked away before she could answer, but it had been more of a command than a question. Bianca grabbed a notebook and followed him down the hall.

His office was opulent, furnished with an expensive, expansive desk, a comfortable sofa, and large leather club chairs. The walls were lined with photos of him glad-handing many notables from politicians to celebrities and gilded certificates lauding him for his service to his country. She wasn’t impressed. In the three years she’d worked for the office, she’d found him to be a fickle, sometimes oppressive personality, prone to temper and personal bias. If the work were less challenging or rewarding, she would’ve sought a position elsewhere long before. Shortly after she joined the office, Maria had convinced her to stay after one particularly challenging exchange with Gellar, and then Maria had become her mentor. When Maria died, Bianca had stayed out of allegiance, dedicated to finishing the work they’d started, which included avenging Maria’s death. Dedication was the reason she was still working with the task force, despite the risk it posed to all of their careers if they were caught conducting an unauthorized investigation.

“Have a seat, Bianca.” He waved her toward one of the chairs directly across from his desk. “We’ve got some things to discuss.” He crossed his hands and stared intently into her eyes. “Things best dealt with face-to-face.”

She sat down but stayed on the edge of the seat, unwilling and unable to relax until she knew the impetus for this secret meeting. She rubbed her hands and braced for questions about whether she was the source referenced in the article. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, that’s a good question. The truth is, it depends.” He leaned back in his chair, feigning relaxation, but Bianca wasn’t fooled. She would stay on alert until she was certain he wasn’t toying with her. “I seem to recall that you and Maria Escobar were pretty tight.”

It wasn’t a question, but she knew he expected some kind of response. Thrown because she hadn’t expected him to mention Maria, she took a beat to gather her thoughts. Tight wasn’t the word she’d use to describe her relationship with the now deceased AUSA who’d been married to Dale Nelson, but she needed to say something. “Maria was very helpful when I was starting out. Federal criminal practice is different from what I was used to at the DA’s office.”

She came to this meeting expecting to have to dissemble, but everything she’d said so far was the truth. After graduating from Georgetown Law School and a judicial clerkship, Bianca had worked as a civil litigator. Her only criminal law experience consisted of a six-month stint in Fort Worth at the DA’s office as a lawyer on loan. The call of the criminal courts had been exciting enough to lure her from the otherwise lucrative practice of big law to pursue a position with the US Attorney’s Office, but nothing she’d learned had prepared her for the unending stream of cases exposing the vast criminal network in the Dallas Fort Worth area. Being part of the task force had given her the support she needed to navigate through her new career, and she’d come to rely on the strength in numbers that came with being part of the team. But here she was, facing Gellar on her own, wondering why he was asking about a dead prosecutor. She elected to get right to the point. “Do you mind if I ask why you brought up Maria?”

He grunted and leaned back in his chair. “Do I mind? No, I don’t mind. I guess I want to know why one of my prosecutors was killed and no one seems interested in putting away the man who was responsible for her death.”

His face grew increasingly red as he spoke, and his tone was harsh. Bianca could do little more than stare. Of all the things he could’ve hauled her in to discuss at the crack of dawn, she’d never expected Maria’s death to be one of them. The general consensus of everyone in the office and the DEA was that Maria had been gunned down by several of the Vargases’ lieutenants, but they’d never caught the gunmen. Gellar’s reference to a single man didn’t jibe with the facts. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I know who you mean.”

“Cyrus Gantry, of course.” Gellar punctuated his declaration with a slap of his open palm on the desk. “It’s clear to me he arranged for Maria’s death to divert attention from his illegal dealings with the Vargases. She was getting too close to the truth and he took her out.”

A surge of anxiety-producing heat coursed through Bianca’s body, and she scrambled for air. Gellar’s obsession with taking down Gantry was already bordering on self-serving, but nothing the task force had uncovered implicated Gantry in Maria’s death. Of course, they’d never had any reason to consider he might be involved, but her gut told her Gellar’s focus on Gantry was suspect. She cast about for something to say, acutely conscious she needed to tread carefully. “You’re absolutely right. I don’t think anyone has directly pursued that angle. What would you like me to do?”

She’d apparently said the right thing because his eyes gleamed with satisfaction. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a slim folder that he pushed toward her. “That is a draft of an amended indictment which I plan to share with the grand jury in two weeks. I would like you to meet with the case agent, Tanner Cohen, and go over every detail in there and prepare a summary of the evidence for the grand jurors. Line up the witnesses—I have a list in there. Make sure everyone is on board. Whatever else you’re working on can wait. Do you understand?”

She nodded in agreement, but it was a lie. How could she be expected to understand when she didn’t know what he had in mind? She desperately wanted to open the folder and glance at the indictment, but his stern expression made it clear he wanted unconditional acceptance. The sooner she could get out of here, the better off she’d be. She took a risk and stood. “I’d better get started.”

He waved a hand in her direction. “Yes. Keep me updated. I expect a report by the end of the week.” He looked back down at his desk and thumbed through some papers. She took the abrupt switch of his attention as a signal to leave, but before she reached the door, he called out. “Oh, and, Bianca?”

“Yes?”

“I picked you for this assignment because I have high hopes for you. I trust you’re not going to disappoint me.”

She turned to face him, but his focus was back on the papers in front of him. Good thing because she wasn’t sure she could lie with both her eyes and her mouth. “I don’t plan on it.”

Back in her office, she opened the file, quickly skimmed over the contents, and gasped as she read the text of the draft indictment. Instinctively, she picked up her phone to text Peyton, but hesitated with her thumbs hovering over the screen. Gellar was paranoid, and she had no idea where his paranoia might lead. Better she have an in-person conversation with Peyton than one that could be traced and misinterpreted. Dale needed to be in on this as well since she’d made catching Maria’s killers part of her life’s work. Bianca reached for her desk phone and risked making a call since that would be easier to explain away than a text. Peyton answered on the second ring.

“We need to meet,” Bianca said.

“Tonight, my place?”

“Sooner, and Dale should be there.”

“Actually, she and I are both headed out to Sophia’s. Should I swing by and pick you up?”

She didn’t have any settings on the docket and could easily duck out. Meeting at Sophia’s ranch was the perfect solution, but she couldn’t risk someone seeing her leave with Dale and Peyton since they were all supposed to be working on different cases. She had a different idea. “I’ll meet you there.”

Chapter Three

Jade took her time on the ride back to the ranch house. She wasn’t anxious to hash over her business plans with her mother, but she knew they would need to discuss the recent purchases she’d made and plan for the arrival of the new horses. In a few weeks, it would be time to renew marketing efforts to ramp up for the next breeding season, and based on the observations from her ride, there was a lot of work to do before spring. The outer edges of the property were leased out to local farmers who rotated various crops throughout the year, but the parcels she and Sophia retained needed attention: fences in disrepair, trees in need of thinning, bridle paths cleared. Sophia wasn’t minding the property in the manner she’d come to expect, and Jade wondered what had distracted her.

She heard hoofbeats and saw Sophia galloping toward her on Descaro, a chestnut mare. There was no denying her mother was a striking woman, and age had only increased her beauty. What mystified Jade was why her mother would settle for a lifetime affair with a married man, especially when the rest of her family loathed that man, and she was accomplished and attractive enough to have anyone she desired.

She’d asked outright in the past, but Sophia’s answers had always been thin and veiled. She never mentioned love, but what other ties could she and Cyrus have? They hailed from completely different worlds—Cyrus from privilege and Sophia from finger-clawing labor and desperation. Lily, the daughter that had been born from their affair, hadn’t known either of them were her birth parents, so staying together for the sake of the child hadn’t been the motivation.

Until now. Lily Gantry had discovered Cyrus and Sophia were her birth parents just a few weeks ago. Jade wondered if Lily’s discovery would change things for either of their families. Did her uncles know about Lily? She’d be willing to bet they would not be happy to learn a Gantry had Vargas blood running through her veins. Before she could contemplate the issue further, Sophia’s mount thundered to a stop beside her. Ransom and Descaro nickered at each other, and Jade pulled Ransom back, squaring her shoulders for the scolding she was about to receive.

“I wish I’d known you were going for a ride.”

Jade leaned down and ran a hand along Ransom’s jaw. “So you could tell me not to ride him?”

“He’s your horse. You can do what you want.”

Jade shook her head at Sophia’s disapproving tone. Ransom was hers, purchased with her own money, but he belonged to the ranch, and right now, he was their primary breadwinner. If she had a proper sense of family, maybe Jade would defer to her mother’s wishes more, but years of forced independence couldn’t be overcome with a few touching moments of familial solidarity. Still, she reacted defensively. “He is my horse, but I’m happy to have him here where he is happy and can make us both a good living. Perhaps you could trust me to take care of him in the same way you trust me to run this business.”


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