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It is Christmas Eve, and Diana Kenyon Rios is spending her first holiday without her husband, Val, who was tragically murdered six months prior. But as she prepares to receive family and friends, she learns the shocking truth that Val may be alive.
She sees the strange man in her dreams, and she feels her husband in his presence. This man is not Val—but he knows Val is alive. In the early morning hours of Christmas morning, he takes Diana away, to a small village in Sinaloa, Mexico, where Diana is reunited with a gravely injured Val Rios. The fight to save him results in another separation, and this time Diana is determined to find her husband, while trying to come to grips with the anger, loss, confusion and betrayal she feels when she learns that Val faked his death.
Val Rios is on a dangerous mission, and he won’t stop until he gets the job done. Diana is determined not to let him out of her sight again, and he must push her away to keep her safe, no matter how much it hurts.
From the beaches of Zapallar, Chile and Los Angeles, California, to the remote islands off the Sea of Cortez and Nicaragua, Diana and Val race to find each other and reconcile the hurt and betrayal they both played a part in. Will they ultimately learn the reason for it all?
Eight Months Ago, Los Angeles, California
“Manolo Marquez is in the wind, Val.”
Burton Hale was a man out of his element, and Valerio Rios knew it. The new CIA director was coming in to a mess, and he couldn’t see half of what was still coming. “We think he’s running with his old crowd, and we think his next move will be offing his former jefe, Dominio Beltran, so he can take over. That can’t happen.”
“Why not?” Val asked.
Hale stood. “We need Beltran.”
“In what way?”
“That’s classified—for now.”
“And you think that’ll do it, huh? Get me right on board?” Val sat without being invited. Let the little man feel dominant for a minute. “Dominio Beltran is not someone the United States government wants to get in bed with, believe me. Besides, I got out of the reward and rescue business—a request from my wife.”
“You won’t be rescuing Beltran, or anyone else, Val,” Hale said. “You’ll be killing Manolo Marquez.”
Val laughed. “So, now I am an asset, too?”
“Most definitely. You’ve always been one of our best when we needed you.”
“And a piece of shit when you don’t. No, thank you.”
“Val, you’re the only one who can do this.” Jack Stanton moved into the room from the corner he’d been hovering in since the meeting began. Val didn’t understand half of what Stanton was involved in, and this moment was no exception.
“I know that.” Val stood. “So does Marquez. My wife says I’m a lover, not a fighter, and she tends to frown upon killing, since she saves lives for a living. I love my wife, gentlemen, and I’d like to stay married to her for as long as she’ll have me. So with respect, I will say thank you, but no.”
“Diana will understand, believe me,” Jack Stanton said.
“Oh, sure she will, Jack. And I assume that is why you’re here—to speak for your daughter by proxy.”
“When have I ever been able to speak for Diana? I’m here to assure you that if you do this for us, she will be taken care of until the mission is completed.”
Val sat back down and shook his head. “I take care of her just fine. And this isn’t going to work. Marquez will see me coming. Sending me is the right move, of course—and it’s one he thought of long before you people did.”
“He’s had contact with Mrs. Rios,” Burton Hale said.
Val glared at Jack Stanton, waiting for him to intervene. Of course Diana had contact with Marquez, through the work she did for Stanton and his organization, The Stanton Group. Val knew all too well what Diana’s involvement had been.
“I’m a doctor, Val…”
He holds up his hand. “No. We discussed this…”
“No, you discussed this!”
“And you agreed. I expressed my point of view about this man, and about this particular case, and I told you I did not want you involved, did I not?”
“You did, but…”
“And you promised me you would let this one go, let someone else deal with him, and his ilk…is that not correct, jovencita? Did you, or did you not promise me you would pawn him off on someone else, so that I would not have to worry that one day we’d smell him again in our lives? Did you make me a promise and fail to keep it?”
“I did not promise. You ordered and then ridiculously assumed I’d obey!”
“Yes. Yes, I did.”
“You were so adamant that I not get involved…”
“Yes, I was adamant, and for good reason.”
“What did you expect, Val?”
He moves past her a few feet to a large bush dusted with snow. He snaps off a branch and turns to her. “Your obedience when it is for your own good is what I expect, without question.” He pulls the small leaves off the green, smooth bough with gloved hands, thick as her middle finger on the end he held in his hand, and half the thickness at the other.
“I am not a child, and I am not one of your lackeys, either. I am my own woman, and will not simply obey on your say-so!”
“Let’s see about that.”
He moves toward her. Diana shakes her head and backs away.
“Take your pants down.”
“No.” She shakes her head. “No. No way.”
“I said take your pants down. Now.”
“Is that a threat, Burt?” Val hissed.
“No. An observation. If Marquez knows we’re sending you after him, as you correctly stated, he’ll come after your wife in a heartbeat to keep you off him.”
“And perhaps that’s the best reason for me to say no—again.”
“And how will Marquez know you’ve declined?”
“Because you will make sure he knows,” Val said. “Are you fucking serious?”
“Look, Val, we don’t want to make this difficult.” Burton Hale sneered, letting Val know he cared little. “Marquez has killed too many, and he’s made an enemy out of you too many times to count. You should be jumping at the chance to take him out, with the U.S. government’s blessing.”
“And yet I am not. I’ve been the benefactor of your blessings more than once, so forgive me if I don’t trust your motives, or believe your promises.”
“Yes, Marquez will see me coming, and yes, he will come after my wife. I don’t give a shit about this man, or what you people need.” Val sat back and rested his ankle on his knee. “Although, I do owe you a debt of thanks; had it not been for The Company’s ineptness, I’d have brought Diana home after rescuing her last year, never to see her again. Instead, I took her away to keep her safe, and I fell in love with a most extraordinary woman. Thanks to you, I met and married the love of my life.”
“You’re welcome,” Hale said, “although that didn’t happen on my watch.”
“No matter. I’ll pass on your kind offer to kill someone I have no feeling for one way or the other.” Val stood. “Diana is making Camarones Pil Pil tonight and I won’t be late for that.”
“You might care when I show you proof that Marquez was responsible for Dale Ashby’s death.”
Val narrowed his eyes at Burton Hale. Dale Ashby was a DEA agent who had been gunned down in Mexico City several years ago by someone associated with the Juarez Cartel. He had been a friend and mentor to Val, and his death was the single reason why Val gave up a career in law and created VRS Security.
“I see I have your attention. Call Diana and have her keep the pil pil warm. We have a plan, and we think you’ll agree it’s a good one.”
Christmas Eve, Zapallar, Chile
The lemon, lone and green on a tree filled with blossoms on the day she arrived in Zapallar, was now yellow. The lemon, by itself, wasn’t the issue. It was all about the timing. Time was fleeting, and it was sacred. It waited for no man, it flew, it worked wonders, and it was money. It was on your hands and on your side. It was of the essence, and it was the great healer. It smelled like hope.
Her guests were gone. She had managed, just that, and no more. The men with their guns had swarmed around her; her family, the people she trusted—her brothers, her father, Jack Stanton, Bas and Genoveva—tried to manage her. But the man at the edge of the driveway…he knew. What he knew, she did not know. When everyone huddled around her, he disappeared. But he’d be back. He always came back.
Yes, she managed.
The hired help had cleaned away the party and gone home to their families. They had gifts to wrap, trees to trim, little ones to settle for the night in anticipation of a visit from Viejito Pascuero—Santa Claus—at midnight. Diana sat in front of the television with the sound off, watching news, as if on a loop, of the death of Manolo Marquez, as if he were the president himself.
Basil Santori stood in front of her in a pair of thin lounging pants, as if he’d gotten out of bed in a hurry, as if he knew she’d be awake, and it wasn’t what he wanted. “It’s been a long day. Go to bed.”
A photo of Marquez appeared on the screen, post-surgery. Pre-surgery, his face had been a mess, a routine face-lift to iron out a wrinkle here, extra flesh there. An infection had set in, threatening to destroy the left side of his face. He had not been a looker to begin with, Diana noted. Gerard Depardieu, three shades darker and a foot shorter. He had been afraid; she remembered that, too—afraid of imperfection, afraid of looking like a monster, afraid of death.
In the photo, colored and modified, he looked good. His hair was full and thick, a sly smile that was almost sexy splitting his face in half. She’d done good work.
“This is a lot, I know,” Bas continued. “Don’t let the suits frighten you.”
She held up a finger, as a warning, her eyes still on the TV. “Do not manage me, Bas.”
A video appeared on the screen, grainy. It was Marquez, the caption under the video indicating it was taken at Juan Santamaria airport in San Jose, Costa Rica. The video showed him descending an escalator, and it replayed again and again, making him look like a cartoon bandit who can’t quite make it to the bottom before he is whisked to the top again. Marquez wore light clothing—a short-sleeved shirt and light pants. Not a standout, certainly. He carried nothing in his hands, no suitcase, no attaché, no backpack. A red circle appeared in the video over Marquez’s head—a blur, a fuzzy spot at the edge of the frame; just a red circle around something non-descript.
“I am not managing you, Diana. I’m trying to help you. Go to bed, please. You’ve got to be exhausted.”
She was. Near tears, she was so done in. Black-suited men with guns did not show up at a house in the hills above a sleepy coastal town like Zapallar without a reason. Her family did not show up a day early to hover around her, just ahead of the CIA, without a reason.
She turned the volume up on the TV.
“…authorities want to know who this man is…”
“Go to bed.”
“…believe he was the last to see Manolo Marquez alive…”
“It’s two in the morning.”
“…wanted for questioning…”
“Do not manage me, Bas!” she snapped as she snatched the remote up just out of his reach. And as the image within the red circle got bigger, Diana saw the unmistakable outline of her husband’s body, a body she knew like the back of her hand, like her ABCs and her five times-tables. The shape of his hips, the length of his arms, the way he stood, the line of his jaw; the size of his hands.
The date of the video was October 30, less than two months ago.
He’s still alive, isn’t he?
She turned the TV off, tossed the remote on the table, and stood.
“Things aren’t how they seem,” Bas said, reaching for her.
The slap echoed in the quiet room; it stunned them both. Basil Santori did not touch his cheek, nor rub it, nor react at all; he simply let her pass. And when he was sure she was in her room for the night, he locked the doors, turned out the lights, and went up to bed.