When on the run, timing is everything.
Coincidences are more reliable than a rising sun.
And a heart can bear a thousand more nails than a coffin.
Ben’s family murdered my parents and so I took my revenge. I changed the course of our futures with one flick of a matchstick, sealing my family’s fate, forever.
Now I run to protect those I love. As the Cortez cartel lurks over my shoulder I hide so that my daughter doesn’t have to. Trusting strangers is never a choice until I have no choice.
Barely alive, I placed my life in the hands of a handsome and mysterious bounty hunter named Xavier Black.
He gave me everything and asked for nothing.
He helped me live again and now he’s forced to run with me.
We can each choose to stop the hunt, but if one of us makes the wrong choice that lethal nail won’t be driven into our hearts but straight into our coffins.
Warning: Contains subject matter that may be considered sensitive to some readers. Intended for mature audience only.
★★★★★ "I wasn't prepared for the varying emotions I experienced reading this story. My heart broke for Anna and everything she's experienced. With this book being the intro to the series, I can only imagine how much more thrilling the next book will, because with the twists in this book, I felt like I was on a roller coaster!" ~ My Book Filled Life, Reviewer
★★★★★ "Guys what a read. I couldn't put it down. Raw, full of suspense, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, breathtaking. These are just a few words that come to mind when looking back at this novel. Such a detailed read with so much depth you can't help but to be drawn to every page turned. It's mind blowing. And it left me wanting more. For those of you who love a suspense filled story, with twists that you never see coming, then this is for you." ~ Review by Gayle from Bloggers From Down Under
The smell of burnt flesh lingered in the air. I closed my eyes, remembering the flame’s heat on my skin when the fire stopped me in my tracks. I had focused on the blaze that was consuming my family home, wanting nothing more than a giant bucket to tilt from the heavens, but it didn’t. Each time I took a step forward, the flames’ heat would force me to take two steps back. The inferno simply wouldn’t let me move any closer. I couldn’t get to my parents in time.
I was helpless.
I opened my eyes and lifted my head to look up at the cross above me. My knees dug into the wooden bench as my weight shifted. A single tear escaped from the corner of my eye at the memory of their screams. It had been four years since their death, but it still felt like it had happened yesterday.
The sound of a low hum, almost a buzz with an occasional hiccup, drew my attention to the small window, and I pushed one of the colored glass panes to the side. The approaching blue car sounded like it was about to give up on life.
I waited as the stranger pulled up to the front door and the swirling dust settled. I shifted my attention to the left of the front entrance, where a man wearing a suit was stepping out of a beat-up Dodge.
Who wears a full suit in August in Arizona?
My initial instinct to laugh was doused by a strange feeling in my stomach. I wouldn’t call it the fluttering of butterflies, more like a stampede of raging bulls headed straight for me. My stomach twisted into a giant knot at my sudden realization that this stranger stepping out of the car had to be part of my life; because if he wasn’t, then I’d rather stand still as the bulls ran over me.
I held my breath, watching him approach with confidence. I knew he couldn’t see me yet because it was too bright outside and too dark in my family’s chapel, and his sight wouldn’t have had time to adjust yet. I took the opportunity to assess the power that he carried on his feet. It made me want to run away from him, yet at the same time be closer. He held a mysterious tension in his jaw as he stopped and looked up, shading his eyes with his hand.
He’s reading the quote I chose for my parents: “Learn from yesterday, Live for today, and Hope for tomorrow.”
He gave an exuberant smile, and I gasped. I’ve never seen such a set of perfect teeth. Mine were close to being nice, because I’d seen Mr. Garcia pull out a molar with a wrench once, and I’d never missed a day of my hygiene routine since that incident.
A dry gust of wind blew through the side window, gently grazing the back of my neck. An unexpected chill passed through my body, and just as fast, it was gone. Feeling the sweat stream between my breasts, I fanned myself. The stranger stepped over the threshold and removed his sunglasses. I felt my mouth open in awe at the brightness of his eyes. The green color was a rare sight in these parts of the country, as unique as mine. They drew my attention like a pair of emerald stones. Owning gemstones in Pace was dangerous.
“Hi,” he said with surprise. “I didn’t think I’d run into anyone out here.”
It took me a moment to remember where I was.
“Hi,” I replied. We stood there for much longer than appropriate, two strangers from two different worlds, in a small chapel in Arizona, assessing one another. A new sensation passed through me: a need to make sure that this wasn’t the first and last time we saw each other. The pull toward him forced me to take a step forward.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
He looked around, as if confused.
“I’m not sure. I’m on my way to Los Angeles.”
Yeah, I should have known. No one ever came to Pace on purpose, not unless they had an ulterior motive.
“Oh, you took the wrong turn off 10. It’s two hours back that way.” I pointed in the direction he’d come from.
“Two hours? What if I keep going that way?” He pointed toward my town. “Some guys at a gas station told me it’s a shortcut.”
“They were probably trying to pull a fast one on you.”
I shrugged. “Because there’s not much in the way of entertainment around here. And guys like you” – I looked him over, noting the shining Rolex underneath his cuff – “well, you’re entertaining. Plus, you look like you have money. One way or another, if you continue that way,” – I pointed toward my town, a mile or so, south of the chapel – “someone will rip you off.”
“Well, I got an asshole before.” He took a step closer to me, and the atmosphere shifted. It became hotter, though I didn’t think that was even possible, and my mouth dried. “Even a bastard. But not entertaining.”
It was as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. The thugs who’d sent him off course were probably already in touch with their buddies in town. Mr. Visitor would stay at our local bug-infested motel and would wake up without a wallet or clothes. And since Pace was the only settlement on this road, our guests didn’t have much choice.
His left brow lifted in a way I hadn’t seen any man’s lift before. He was amused. “What are you doing in the middle of nowhere all by yourself?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t the one who was lost.
“It’s not nowhere. I used to live here,” I replied.
“In a chapel?”
“It used to be a house. My parents’ house. They farmed these lands.” I pointed out the window, where the fields once filled with crops now bloomed with wild sunflowers in their memory.
“And they had it converted into a chapel?”
“You don’t sound as smart as you look. Where are you coming from?”
“East coast. First I’m entertaining, and now I’m stupid. You’re one confusing lady.”
He leaned his head to the side, and I felt my nerves pick up. I’d never seen anyone like him. Clean cut, perfectly trimmed nails, and no stubble on his jaw. “Your glasses and that shirt… you’re wearing a suit in the middle of a desert.”
My voice trembled, and the sweat that had been collecting underneath my dress began dripping down my thighs. “The only time people wear suits around here is for weddings and funerals.”
“I am on my way to a wedding. Or at least, I was on my way before I got lost. I’m low on fuel. Is there a gas station around here?”
I chuckled. “No. But Mr. Garcia has a supply of gas containers. You could buy some from him, but you’ll need to wait. The Assumption Fiesta’s this weekend, and the road is closed.”
His forehead creased into funny lines, which added that extra layer of maturity to his look. He appeared older than me, with years of life experiences.
He coughed once and then again. I quickly moved to the bench and grabbed a bottle of water I’d brought with me. “Here – it’s the dust. It’s not so bad once you’re used to it. There’s going to be plenty of it this weekend.”
He reached for the offered water, and our fingers touched at the exchange. A shock of electrifying pleasure coursed through me, and I almost jumped back.
“Thank you. What’s your name?”
“Anna. It’s short for Joanna.”
“I’m Xavier. Would you mind showing me to town, Anna?”
“No, but I urge you against staying at the motel.”
“Is there a different place I could stay?”
“Um… the parish? Father Francis is quite hospitable, and he wouldn’t hurt you. There’s an extra room, and I really don’t mind.”
“You live at the parish?”
He looked at me funny, appeared to want to say something and opened his mouth, but then he closed it, thinking over whatever was going on in his mind. I didn’t know where else I could suggest, though, unless I asked around town. There wasn’t much in Pace – one main road that curved through town, with the Cortez family ruling at one end and everyone else trying to live in peace at the other.
“Do you make a habit of living in holy places?” He looked around the chapel.
“My family owned this piece of land. When the house burned down, I buried my parents here.”
He looked down at his feet, then shifted uncomfortably to the left and back to the right, as if fearing that someone would grab his foot from beyond the grave. I did believe in life after death, but I was pretty sure that my parents weren’t the type to play ghost.
After my parents died, the official report concluded that the stove had been left on; but what else was I supposed to expect, when the report was written by Mateo Cortez? With that family name, you owned everything in Pace, including every single last soul. They stole, cheated, and vandalized. There were a few good men left in Pace who stood up to them, but each time they did, they risked their lives. Faith had kept us strong thus far, but I’d found myself wondering more often these days how long Faith would keep us alive. I had no proof of the murder, but I knew it was them. They wanted my parents’ land, and now they were after me.
“Your parents are buried here?”
“They’re in a crypt beneath this chapel.”
He loosened the tie from around his neck, which made him look even sexier than before. “If you’re trying to freak me out, it’s working.”
I laughed. A sun’s ray moved over his face, drawing my attention back to his eyes. They were gorgeous and captivating. A pang of guilt swept through me as I remembered that someone I loved deeply was waiting for me back in town. He was the only reason I still lived in Pace. I saw his gaze lower from my face down to my neck, then to my shoulder as he whispered, “Don’t move.”
Time slowed when he took that step toward me. I took a sharp inhale and closed my eyes. His breath was on my left cheek, the feel of his heat slammed into mine, as I waited for him to do something to me… anything.
But nothing happened. When I opened my eyes, I saw a scorpion dangling by its tail between Xavier’s fingers, right in front of my face.
“That’s a bark scorpion,” I said.
He looked at me in surprise. “It was on your shoulder. You could die from one sting.” Xavier held the creature with pride.
“Not necessarily. It depends where it stings you. Near the neck could be dangerous, though, so thank you.”
Clearly unhappy with my lack of enthusiasm, he flung it out the window.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“Why are you upset? I said thank you.”
“I think it’s my pride. I just got shot down by a beautiful woman when I tried to save her life.”
“Were you expecting me to jump gratefully into your arms?”
“Something like that.”
The thought made me feel special, and I laughed. “You’re something else, Xavier. Come on. If we stay here any longer, the sun’s going to heat this place up like an oven,” I said.
He followed me outside. It wasn’t any cooler out here either, but that’s what you got in the middle of August. Xavier held the passenger door open for me, and a new stampede of bulls charged through my stomach. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d ridden in a car.
I rolled down the window as we drove into town. Xavier parked beside the motel, and I shifted uncomfortably.
“Is this not good?” he asked.
“No, it’s fine, but you don’t want to stay here. Just drive a bit further.” I looked over to the line of dried bushes that marked the boundaries set in our town, the same ones the Cortez family was still afraid to cross. Apparently, they thought they’d be cursed — at least, those were the rumors floating around town.
“I thought you were kidding about the parish,” he said.
“Well, I wasn’t.”
Just before I had a chance to explain to Xavier that the parish was the safest place, because despite their mafia status, the Cortez family was very religious, I saw Benjamin Cortez push at the front door. He must have heard the car approaching and was now walking toward us.
We should have parked by the church, I thought.
Before I realized what was happening, Xavier opened the passenger door for me and I had no choice but to step outside.
“Whatever you do, don’t trust him.” I gestured with my head toward Ben and leaned in to Xavier with a whisper. “He’s one of those guys who’d rip you off. And whatever you do, don’t follow him into that motel.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Ben approached with his casual smirk, and an urge to hurl filled my mouth. “Hi, I’m Benjamin Cortez. Welcome to Pace.”
I crossed my arms over my chest, doing my best to ignore him.
“Hey, Anna. Are you going to the bull run tomorrow?”
When I ignored him, he let out a puff of pride and turned back to Xavier, who extended his hand.
“I’m Xavier. If it weren’t for Anna here, I would have gotten lost.”
I doubted that. It was a little difficult to get lost when there was only one road. Unfortunately, Ben had accepted Xavier’s handshake, and my stomach twisted into another knot. This one didn’t feel as good as the previous one.
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m also Anna’s boyfriend.”
“He’s lying. He’s not my boyfriend,” I said.
“Oh, come on, chiquita. We’ve known each other since grade school.”
“That does not make us a couple, and nothing ever will.” I lifted my head higher.
Ben ignored me and turned back to Xavier. “You’ve come at the perfect time, amigo. Tomorrow’s our Assumption Fiesta. Where are you staying?”
“At the parish,” I butted in.
“Well, that’s not fun. Stay at the Bistro.” Ben pointed to the door behind him. “The motel’s just been renovated. It’s a family business.”
I wanted to double roll my eyes, but when I’d done that in the past, Ben had a fit, and it had ended up with my parent’s house being burned down. I knew it was him. He was the first one on the scene, stepping out from behind the bushes. I smelled fuel on his clothes, and that smirk on his face was a dead giveaway. Ben Cortez was ruthless, just like his father. Alejandro Cortez had reportedly accused his wife of cheating and tied her to a pole in the middle of the desert. The vultures picked her body to the bone, and I just prayed that she hadn’t been alive when they started. Was I afraid of the Cortez family? Of course I was. Everyone was, and if they weren’t, then they should have been. The smartest thing I could do was run away from Pace and never come back, but that meant leaving those I loved behind.
“The motel hasn’t been renovated in decades. It’s disgusting.”
Ben threw me a warning look, and I felt my insides shrink. I suddenly wished John were here.
“Come on, Xavier. At least check it out.”
“I don’t think there’s any harm in that. Are you coming along, Anna?” he asked, offering me his arm. I didn’t want to accept it. I’d promised myself I’d never step into that brothel again. But I didn’t want to leave Xavier in Ben’s care. I didn’t want him to be a victim.
“Of course she is. And if she’s not, I’ll have to look for her later and explain how to properly treat the guests in our town.”
My jaw hurt from clenching. The last time I’d walked into that bar was when my parent’s house went up in flames.