Demon Lover

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Veteran Border Patrol agent Juliet Maguire was amazed to find herself still alive.  She’d been captured by the most dangerous of border smugglers—the ruthless man they called “Blue Eyed Demon.”  It was he who threw her into a camper, removed her clothes, and offered her one frightening chance—make the other coyotes believe she wanted to be his new lover or die at their hands. She would have to create the illusion of lust to survive,  no matter what the cost to her dignity. As she abondoned herself, her world turned upside down in a way she never could have imagined.

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Chapter 1

JULIET MAGUIRE AWOKE amazed at finding herself still alive. For a moment she couldn’t think why she should be amazed; but then memory returned in a single sickening rush and instead she couldn’t understand why she should be alive.

Coyotes. I’ve been captured by coyotes.

Cold–blooded smugglers, ruthless traders in human contraband, couldn’t possibly have any use for one incredibly clumsy Border Patrol agent. It would have been so easy for them to kill her and dump her body in the desert.

Why didn’t they?

And where am I?

It was dark, but she seemed to be on a bed, in something that moved. She could feel the rough fabric chafing her cheek, hear the low growl of a powerful engine, feel the occasional lurch and sway of rapid motion. The camper—she was in the camper, of course! And they were on a paved road, probably still in the desert, since the road seemed to be arrow straight.

She lay very quietly, holding her breath and listening for sounds of alien breathing. She heard only the drone of the motor and the sound of her own blood pounding in her aching head. She was alone. That fact gave her very little comfort; they had left her alone because there was absolutely nothing she could do to escape. Julie wasted no time struggling with her bonds. They were simple and effective—completely professional.

He knew his business, that one—the tall one. The one who had caught her.

What was it they’d called him? Demonio Garzo. Or had she only conjured the name from her nightmares? Blue–eyed Demon. Julie shivered in the darkness.

How did it happen? I’m a professional, an experienced and well–trained agent. How could I have let it happen?

Partly to keep her mind off her physical and emotional discomforts, and partly because it was almost second nature to recap any incidents encountered on patrol, Julie stared into the shadowy darkness and began a painful and meticulous replay of the whole fiasco.

…From my position behind the rocky knoll I watched the camper crawl across the desert floor, dragging a plume of dust behind it like a deflated parachute. I frowned, shading my eyes against the late–afternoon glare. Something about that camper bothered me.

It wasn’t anything that could be explained. The extra–wide wheelbase and oversize off–road tires, heavy–duty shocks and four–wheel drive could all be the accommodations of a dedicated off–road enthusiast. But there was something—a gut feeling, an instinct. I didn’t question it; after nearly ten years as an agent of the United States Border Patrol I had learned to trust my instincts.

The camper climbed steadily toward me up the narrow dirt road, its engine purring with the throaty growl of power to spare, its gearbox whining in high–pitched overtones. I watched it pass and drop out of sight over the ridge, and then climbed back into my vehicle, reaching for the radio as I snapped my seatbelt into place. I gave my location and stated my intention to pursue a suspect vehicle, then started the motor and pulled slowly out onto the road.

I kept well back. The desert could easily swallow up a vehicle bent on eluding a pursuer. And if the camper was, as I suspected, carrying smuggled illegals from Baja California, it would probably be heading for a rendezvous sometime after dark, either to pass its human cargo on to another, more innocent–looking conveyance for the last leg of the journey to the urban wilds of Los Angeles, or to deposit them in some remote way station to make their own way north. They might even abandon the whole camper–load to die in the desert. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Coyotes. There isn’t an agent in the Border Patrol who doesn’t loathe and fear the unscrupulous smugglers. I consider them the lowest form of life—and the most dangerous. They are usually sky–high on drugs and completely unpredictable. They can turn violent without warning. I considered requesting a backup, but rejected the notion as premature. The camper could turn out to be carrying dirt bikes and beer. Just the same, I reminded myself to use extreme caution.

Just before dark the camper left the road and dipped into a dry wash, where it sat motionless and silent. There were no bustling preparations for camp, and no one emerged from the cab; the camper sat in the gully, out of sight, waiting.

So I did the same. I had left my vehicle hidden behind a clump of scrub juniper a quarter mile or so away and now I lay on my stomach at the edge of the ravine. I peered down at the pale glint of the camper shell below, my ears straining for the slightest sound. The warm desert wind rustled through sage and juniper and Joshua trees, masking all the other noises of the lively desert nighttime. There was no moon. In the west the pale glow of the distant city washed out the stars, but directly overhead there were enough left shining to provide a ghostly illumination, turning the land into a surrealistic canvas in silver and indigo.

I remembered to pull on the dark cap I use on night patrols to hide my blond hair.

Where was it now? She closed her eyes and moved her head against the bed, feeling only the weight of her short platinum curls. Gone, then.

It would be lying like an inkblot on the white sand, mute evidence for the chopper crew to find. But they would never find her. Who would it be? Rudy Gomez, probably. Rudy and his wife, Marta, were good friends of hers. She had been an attendant at their wedding. What would he think when he found only her cap? Would he feel sorry? What would they say back at the station? Mel, Jack, Gomez and Franconi, Lupe and Paula, Rasmussen…

What an odd thought, after so many years, to think of them all going along exactly as before—only without her. Would they miss her, miss the way they used to tease her in a companionable sort of way, calling her “Cottontop” and “Dandelion,” always going on about her pale hair, that unruly mop of white gold curls that sat atop her long neck and small, supple gymnast’s body like thistledown. The teasing was affectionate and casual, though, a mark of their acceptance. And it hadn’t always been that way. She had had to earn that acceptance. She was—had been—a darned good agent. She had carried her weight and more.

What would they do? What was the procedure? As far as Julie knew, such a thing had never happened before. How long would they search before they gave her up for dead? When an agent was killed in the line of duty two agents always went together to break the news to the next of kin. Next of kin. My parents. When they see two unhappy–looking agents standing on their doorstep they’ll know without being told.

Julie sniffed, awash in bitter regret and self–pity. Poor Dad. He’d encouraged her to go into law enforcement when her enthusiasm for gymnastics had fizzled out. Would he blame himself?

And Mom. She’d really been looking forward to having Julie at home in August. She’d made so many plans, in spite of Julie’s warning that she’d be there to work and would not be getting much time off. Being transferred to the Los Angeles station temporarily during the Pan American Expo­sition had been a break for her, a nice change from desert patrols and midnight raids, and a chance for the first real visit with her family since her last vacation. She’d fought hard for that assignment. And now she was going to miss it. It seemed, somehow, the last straw.

She wallowed in misery for a while, thinking of all the things she was going to miss. Marta’s baby shower, the rest of the baseball pennant race, football season. Colin.

Colin! Will anyone even think to tell Colin? I had a date with him…tonight? What day is it, anyway?

Anyway, her date was for Saturday, as always, unless she was on duty. Colin would be annoyed—he disliked tardiness. He would be quite put out when he realized he’d been stood up. And when he learned why, he’d be sorry.

They’ll all be sorry when I’m gone.

Julie laughed a little in self–mockery. The fantasy of every misunderstood child! She really was being childish, and all of this wallowing in self–pity wasn’t going to get her anywhere. She dragged her mind back to that lonely and fateful vigil.

…I had picked a new sound out of the restless bustle of night noise. An engine. A new vehicle of some sort was approaching from the east, moving slowly without lights, following the silver ribbon of road through the darker scrub. At the edge of the wash the newcomer stopped. For a long slow ten–count it sat, a dark hulk against the stars, and then headlights stabbed once through the night. In that instant I identified the shape as a station wagon—that staid and innocent suburban housewife’s standby, incongru­ous there on that vast and lonely stretch of desert. And then the camper’s lights came briefly to life—once, twice—and the wagon slipped into the dark gully like a whale sounding.

My hand went automatically to the holster at my hip, and then I crept over the side of the ravine, using the noise of the car to cover the sounds of my descent. As always, I felt that peculiar twinge deep in my belly that I hate to admit is fear; there was no way of knowing just what I would encounter down in that dark ravine. All the agents feel it, and most of them are honest enough to admit it. The only antidote is to concentrate on the plan of attack.

I planned to stay out of sight and use my voice, hoping to throw the smugglers into confusion. The illegals might panic, of course, and would probably scatter into the desert, but they could be rounded up later, and the confusion might help to convince the smugglers that there was more than one of me. If only I had some idea how many of them there were.

The station wagon had stopped behind the camper. Two men got out of the passenger side of the camper, shut the door behind them and walked back toward the rear of the vehicle.

Now, replaying the scene in her mind, she could see her mistake as clearly as if it had been circled in red: both men had come from one side of the cab; the driver had stayed behind. And in the darkness and confusion—but that was later, and this was hindsight. Useless recrimination.

The transfer began. Dark bundles of humanity shuffled from one vehicle to the other, the only sounds the creak of the car door, the scuff of gravelly dirt, an occasional hushed murmur in Spanish. One of the smugglers stood with his back to the camper, smoking, while the other hurried the passengers along. The driver of the station wagon leaned against a fender and kicked nervously at the ground.

I chose my moment, waiting until all the passengers had left the camper but had not yet found seats in the station wagon. Then, from my cover in a pile of boulders about twenty yards from the camper, I called out in Spanish, “This is the United States Border Patrol. You are surrounded. Do not attempt to run away. Put your hands on your vehicle where I can see them and remain where you are!”

There was a moment of shocked silence and then a high–pitched but masculine laugh—almost a titter. I couldn’t help but smile; it’s a common reaction from macho Hispanic males confronted with the unpalatable fact that they have been apprehended by a woman. The laughter is an involuntary reaction of sheer disbelief, and is usually followed immediately by anger. That anger can be very dangerous.

The man with the cigarette threw it to the ground and made a movement toward the cab of the camper. Julie rapped out a warning in Spanish and he froze. There was no reaction at all from the other smugglers, and no panic among the illegals, which was unusual but not unheard of, and so welcome that I didn’t question it. I remained safely under cover, repeating my instructions even as I removed my remote com–unit from my belt and flipped the switch that would automatically activate the “officer in need of assistance” signal. The situation was well under control. As long as the smugglers didn’t suspect that I was alone I should be able to hold them until the chopper arrived.

In the stuffy warmth of the camper Julie felt herself grow cold and clammy; beads of icy sweat formed on her upper lip. She closed her eyes against a wave of nausea as she relived that first awful moment when she had known she was not alone in that pile of boulders.

 

…Some primitive sense fired off alarm signals that stopped my breath and prickled the skin on the nape of my neck, but I only had a fraction of a second’s warning—not enough time to react.

Arms came around me from behind; one hand grasped my arm and pulled it back and up, while the other closed around the wrist of the hand that held the com–unit. Brutal pressure robbed that hand of all feeling. I heard the unit clatter to the ground at my feet. I was pulled roughly back and off–balance so that my head and shoulders fell heavily against a hard, unyielding chest, and the pressure on my arm became pain so intense I couldn’t suppress a cry.

It happened so quickly, and in complete silence. I knew better than to struggle; thanks to my gymnastics training I am strong for a woman, but in close combat I am no match for a man, even one more nearly my size. Which this man was not. Besides, there was no telling what sort of junk these smugglers might be on—glue or angel dust could turn them lethal in an instant. I relaxed and hastily assured my captor in Spanish of my complete capitulation.

From the chest behind my head came a short gust of laughter, as full of humor as the sound of a bullet slamming into its chamber. My other arm was bent back and up; both wrists were imprisoned in a single iron grip. I was turned in the circle of one sinewy arm, while the man’s free hand dragged the cap from my head and tipped my face toward the starlight. I heard a faint hiss of indrawn breath that was quickly drowned by my own involuntary gasp.

Even now she could feel her stomach contract at the memory of that face.

It had been dark, of course, and she had been frightened half to death. Probably she had imbued the harsh lines and planes of that face with a hellishness it would not have in daylight. She had not really looked upon Lucifer himself. But surely, surely she couldn’t have imagined those eyes.

Blue fire. What Mexican could have eyes like that?

…As I stared into those shocking eyes, a call came from the direction of the camper, “Ay! Demonio Garzo! Que pasa?”

A reply rumbled out over my head. “I have her; there is only one.”

“Que bueno,” came the response, accompanied by a nasty–sounding laugh.

The man who held me, the man called “Blue–eyed Demon,” hadn’t taken his eyes from my face or relaxed his hold on my arms. I stared back at his impassive face like a rabbit transfixed by a car’s headlights, and a pulse throbbed painfully in my throat. I expected to die now; I prayed it would happen quickly.

I saw a brief flash of white teeth—a smile or a grimace? I heard him whisper, “Buenas noches, Guerita.”

Good night, little fair one.

And then an arrow of pain shot from my chin back through my head, and the starry sky imploded inside my skull.

But she wasn’t dead!

There wasn’t even much soreness in her jaw where he’d struck her.

He. Who is he?

Julie had been left with a vivid impression of a tall, lean body, much taller than most Mexicans, and as hard and strong as saddle leather. And of course, there had been those eyes.

One thing she knew for certain—he was no ordinary coyote. Most of them were nothing more than petty hoodlums and drug addicts who would sell their own mothers for the price of a bottle of tequila or their next fix. Most often they were recruited from the streets by big–time smuggling rings to run the risks and take the rap, and almost without exception they were clumsy, illiterate and vicious. If she had had the misfortune to fall into the hands of one of them, she would not be waking up with just a headache and a bruise on her chin.

El Demonio Garzo was not clumsy; he had moved like a cat in the night. He could not possibly have known her position until she shouted, which meant that he had been both quick and decisive. His methods of subduing her had been efficient and impossible to defend against, but had employed only the necessary minimum of force. So he wasn’t vicious either. In fact… His voice had seemed curiously regretful when he’d said—what was it? Good night, little fair one. Guerita—what an odd word to choose. Why not the more common and much less complimentary gringa?

Ah well… Julie stirred futilely, trying to ease her cramped position and restore circulation to her bound hands and feet. So this demon was a pro. Why should that surprise her? She’d guessed from the first that this was a class operation, well equipped and well organized, the men disciplined and well trained. And whatever their motive for keeping her alive, she would find it out soon enough.

There being absolutely nothing else for her to do in the meantime, Julie retreated gratefully back into the oblivion of sleep.

* * *

There were voices close by, speaking Spanish, and not quietly. Julie lay with her eyes closed, listening. As fluent as she was in the language, it was not second nature to her, and it was a few minutes before she began to understand. And then her stomach turned and her body went cold, and she opened her eyes wide and stared up at the ceiling of the camper only a few feet above her head.

The camper had stopped. Outside it must have been broad daylight, but inside it was hot, stuffy and gray, like being under a dirty blanket. And just below the small window in the sleeping loft where she lay bound hand and foot, the smugglers were discussing her.

She was thirsty; her tongue felt like an old wool sock, and tasted like it, too. She had lost feeling in her extremities; she was very hungry and in critical need of a bathroom; but none of those physical discomforts concerned her right now. All her attention was focused on the rough voices and guttural laughter coming through the tiny window, and what she heard sent waves of nausea through her that eclipsed everything else. She’d picked up a pretty fair vocabulary of gutter Spanish over the years in the course of her job, but nothing to compare with this.

They had apparently been arguing about her fate. Two of them—Mexicans, by their accents—had been in favor of killing her back in the ravine and were against taking her any farther. The third—and for the life of her Julie could not place his accent—was explaining in incredibly crude but graphic terms exactly why he hadn’t killed her and what he intended to do with her in the immediate future. His companions were finding his descriptions highly entertaining, adding colorful suggestions of their own from time to time.

There wasn’t much of human depravity that Julie hadn’t at one time or another encountered in her job. She’d faced death a dozen times over and couldn’t remember ever feeling this stomach–burning, throat–tightening fear. For the first time in her life she could understand how women in an earlier age might have felt about “a fate worse than death.”

But she didn’t want to die. Nothing—no violation or degrada­tion of her body, no matter how disgusting or frightening or painful—was worse than dying. She must remember that. She wanted to live.

Taking several slow, steady breaths to quiet the pounding of her heart, she forced herself to listen to the voices with the ears of a law enforcement officer, not a woman. Now she could pick out names—the two Mexicans were Pepe and Geraldo, and the other was apparently called Chain, although Julie was certain she had heard him called by a much more fanciful name last night. And she had been right about one thing, at least. He was not Mexican.

She could hear the soft clink of metal on metal, the hiss of a pop–top can opening, the rasp of a match and the scuff of boots in gravel, but no other sounds. They had stopped in a lonely place—the desert of Baja California, certainly—and were relaxing with cold cans of Mexican beer—cerveza—and cigarettes. So they hadn’t reached their destination yet; they would be going on soon, and when they did—what of her? How long would they let her lie here without water?

Now! The one called Chain was announcing that, as he had driven all night, it was his intention to take a rest—in the back of the camper. This was met with loud guffaws and a few more crude suggestions as to how he might pass the time. Sounds of masculine camaraderie and departure preparations followed. Cans clanked onto the ground, feet shuffled, car doors opened and shut. Footsteps crunched away toward the rear of the camper. The door opened, letting in a shaft of brilliant light and a tantalizing tidbit of fresh air, and the body of the camper quivered almost imperceptibly under the weight of a heavy body.

Up in her loft Julie braced herself, lifted her head and gazed unflinchingly into the face of the blue–eyed demon.

Except that in the daylight he looked less like a demon and more like what he was—a low–life criminal. A smuggler of illegal aliens. A coyote. A quarter inch of dark stubble and a sinister–looking moustache obscured most of his face, and his hair hung in dark, sweat–damp waves on his forehead and collar. The blue eyes that had seemed so electrifying in the starlight now burned with fatigue.

He stood just inside the door, stripping her with his eyes. She felt amazingly calm—suspended, perhaps, in a state of unreality. When she opened her mouth to say something—she didn’t know what—it was a shock to hear his voice instead; it gave an even more nightmarish cast to what he said.

Without changing his expression or shifting his cool, possessive gaze, he gave her a clear, precise command of such stark vulgarity it literally took her breath away.

Even as she gasped in shocked reaction she heard a shout of approval and chortles of laughter from below her window. The smuggler pulled the door shut behind him and casually locked it. The camper’s engine fired, and the cabin rocked as the cumbersome vehicle pulled carefully onto the road. And up in the sleeping loft Julie struggled against mindless terror.

The smuggler moved toward her, ducking his head to avoid the low ceiling. She licked her dry lips and said in harsh, breathless Spanish, “Please…it won’t be necessary to use force. I won’t fight you. I don’t have anything worth dying for.”

A brief spark of amusement flared in the bloodshot eyes. “But why should I want to kill you, Guerita?” he replied in a gravelly purr. “You will be so much more entertaining alive.”

And in that same harshly sensual voice he described what he expected of her. When his hand came toward her suddenly, Julie gave an involuntary cry and closed her eyes, but to her amazement she found that she had braced her whole body against a touch that never came. Instead she felt the heat of his body and a stirring of breath redolent of beer and tobacco, heard a faint grunt of exertion and the drag and click of the window behind her head being pulled shut. And then, incredibly, she knew that she was once again alone in the loft.

She opened her eyes and stared dazedly at the ceiling for a moment, then lifted her head and hitched herself closer to the edge of the bed. Peering over the side she saw that her reprieve was only temporary. The smuggler was dragging his sweat–stained tee shirt up over his head; his back was burned to a dusky walnut, and the silky ripple and pull of sharply defined muscle was marred by several small, irregular scars.

She must have made a sound, because he jerked his head to look at her as he tossed the shirt aside. For a brief moment his eyes burned her, and then he reached into a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of tequila and turned his back on her, dismissing her.

Julie watched, unable to take her eyes off of him as he took a swallow, tilted his head back and swished the fiery liquid in his mouth, then spat into the tiny stainless–steel sink. For a long time he stood with his head bowed and his eyes closed, and then he straightened, slapped the cap back onto the bottle and returned it to the cupboard.

He seemed almost to have forgotten she was there. Next he poured a meager sinkful of water from a plastic five–gallon container on the counter and began to wash; she watched avidly as he took handfuls of the precious water and splashed his face, his head, his neck and torso. Droplets sparkled like tiny diamonds in his hair and ran in rivulets into the waistband of his trousers. Julie licked her lips and tried to swallow, but her throat felt like sandpaper. At that moment she could have licked the water right off of his skin. She would have been glad to trade her “virtue” for a drink; she realized with a little chill that she might have to do just that.

The smuggler turned back to her, his chest glistening with moisture as he toweled his face and hair. From the folds of the towel his eyes regarded her thoughtfully, as if he was trying to decide just what to do with her.

It occurred to Julie there was something puzzling about his behavior. If it had not been for the language she had heard him use, she would have thought that her presence discomfited him in some way. She felt her courage come stealing back.

“I’m very thirsty,” she croaked, and wondered again at the odd look that crossed his face. Surely not guilt? “If you don’t have enough water to spare, I wouldn’t object to some of that tequila. Also,” she went on, emboldened by that strange expression, “is it really necessary to tie up both my hands and my feet? You’re much bigger than I am, and this vehicle is moving. I’m not crazy.”

He grunted and gave his head a little shake, but went on toweling himself dry. Julie watched him tensely, wondering whether that was a refusal or merely an acknowledgment of her request. His belly, she noticed uneasily, was scarred even more noticeably than his back—one irregular weal that slashed diagonally across the washboard muscles between ribs and navel. She wondered what activity could have produced such an injury. An accident? War? Or merely the hazards of his profession?

“Please,” she croaked, trying again. “May I please have a drink of water?” Her voice cracked, and she hated herself for begging. For God’s sake, was he mute? Stupid? Drunk? But she had heard him speak—much too clearly, in fact—and had seen the gleam of intelligence in those blue eyes. Whatever he was, he was certainly no great talker.

But even as she formed the thought, he was throwing the towel aside and reaching into his pocket, taking out a very ordinary–looking pocket knife and stepping forward to saw at the heavy tape that bound her ankles together. Julie, following his movements with mixed apprehension and hope, noticed for the first time that her feet were bare. For some reason she didn’t have time to analyze, that fact jolted her.

The smuggler reached behind her for her hands, throwing her roughly onto her face as he pulled them closer to him, and a moment later she felt the tension in them give. Still without saying a word, he stepped back, folded the knife and tucked it into his pocket, then turned to take a paper cup from a cupboard over the sink.

Julie rolled over slowly and sat up. The tape hadn’t severely impeded the circulation in her hands and feet, but lying for so long in such a cramped position had put them to sleep. She shifted her legs to allow her feet to dangle over the side of the loft, rocking slowly back and forth with the waves of pain that swept her with the return of feeling. She was staring down at the chunks of wood that her hands had become, when the smuggler wordlessly thrust a cup of water under her nose.

Julie glanced fearfully at his scowling face and lifted one hand, trying desperately to make the fingers work, but the whole arm felt hot and cold, hollow and tingly, and its motor function seemed to have been disconnected from her brain. She let it drop heavily into her lap and stared miserably at the lovely cool water. She could actually smell it.

“I can’t do it,” she said in English, her tongue rasping across her lower lip.

She heard a faint noise of exasperation, and then a hand closed on the back of her neck, steadying her head as the cup was raised to her lips. Julie knew she ought to be repelled by his nearness and his touch, but as she closed her eyes and drank she was conscious only of profound relief.

“Gracias,” she murmured, and opened her eyes to find the smuggler’s dark face only inches away from her own. In spite of the water she had just drunk, her mouth went dry. How could she have forgotten, even for a moment!

“Uh… look,” she began, lapsing into English again. She rubbed her hands together, trying to work out the numbness, and started again in slow, deliberate Spanish. “I know what you want from me. I heard what you told the others. I told you, I won’t fight. You don’t have to hurt me. I definitely don’t want to die, so…” Her voice trailed off, and she took a deep breath and blurted, “But please—can I just use the bathroom?”

Again there was that flash of something in his eyes that she couldn’t identify. He stood back to allow her room to jump down from the loft and waved her toward the lavatory with a bow that was a parody of courtliness.

How strange it felt to be on her feet again! Julie longed to indulge in a few limbering and stretching exercises, but the man’s eyes, heavy lidded and insolent, followed her every move, and she had to be content with shaking her feet, bending her knees and rubbing the small of her back. Still, it was good to be able to move at all.

The trip to the lavatory left her feeling better equipped to deal with her captor. She had been thinking. It had occurred to her that this smuggler was not as vicious as he wanted his partners to think he was. Perhaps, if she pretended to be a compliant hostage, even this hardened pro could be outwitted. There was just a chance that, if she bided her time, she might be able to catch him off guard and escape. Maybe. At worst she would buy herself time. And time had suddenly become very precious to her.

He was waiting for her, standing with his elbow propped on the loft, his hand dangling over the edge of the mattress. In the other hand he held a can of beer. His eyes followed her as she approached him, trembling with apprehension.

She took a breath and asked bluntly, “What are you going to do with me?”

His eyebrows rose, and he took a deep swallow of beer. “That’s a damn good question,” he muttered indistinctly, but unmistakably in English.

American. Of course. She should have known. But he was very fluent in Spanish, and that accent was good—quite unidentifiable. He must have an excellent ear. And it wasn’t that unusual to find American mercenaries involved in international smuggling. Illegal aliens were probably only the least evil this gang dealt in.

She lifted her chin a little and stared at him, waiting. He was gazing intently at the front of her blouse, at her breasts—or her badge—but he seemed more preoccupied than lustful.

“Got to get rid of that uniform,” he muttered thickly.

A hiss of indrawn breath gave away her fear; she cut it off by clamping resolutely down on her lower lip with her teeth. Please God, don’t let me scream when he touches me. But he made no move at all, just went on staring at her chest. Finally, with trembling fingers, Julie reached for the top button.

He stood quietly watching her over the beer can, only his eyes moving as they followed her fingers down the front of her shirt. She pulled it open and tugged it from the waistband of her trousers, noticing as she did that her belt with all her paraphernalia had disappeared along with her shoes. She let her shirt drop onto the camper’s dusty linoleum floor, then shut her eyes, quickly unhooked her bra and dropped it on top of the shirt.

She couldn’t bring herself to look at him—blue–eyed demon!—but she was determined not to cower. She was an agent of the United States government. And she knew her body was nothing to be ashamed of—firm and well condi­tioned, breasts high and full. But she also knew that as she stripped away her clothes she stripped away the protective plumage that made her an officer of the law rather than a woman. Her shoes, her belt, her gun—all gone. And now her shirt with its badge and insignia—her identity as Agent Maguire of the Border Patrol—lay in a meaningless pile at her feet. She was just plain Julie now—a woman, on the small side, helpless against a bigger, stronger male.

A sudden movement jerked her eyes to his face. He had lowered the beer can; she saw his Adam’s apple move convulsively as he swallowed. His eyes rested almost lazily on her breasts.

It’s so hot. Julie was half–suffocating, and she felt as though her skin was burning where his eyes touched it. Blue fire. Last night she’d thought of that, even in the middle of the nightmare. Now, as she stared defiantly at that dark, dangerous face, at the wide shoulders and powerful arms glistening with sweat, at the hairy, masculine chest and ragged scar, a pounding began under her ribs, and cold, quivering weakness spread from the pit of her stomach down into her legs.

Just butterflies, she said to herself, trying to maintain a hold on her self–control. God, I’m scared. Who wouldn’t be? But after all, it’s only sex. It’s not important. Staying alive is.

The smuggler spoke, breaking an interminable silence. “Look,” he said in a gravelly voice, “can we dispense with this? I mean—” he gave a crooked smile and gestured toward her with the beer can “—if it’s really what you want, I’ll do my best to oblige. Just don’t expect too much. I’m pretty tired.”

As Julie stared at him without comprehension he gave a brief, dry snort of laughter and rubbed at his eyes with the dangling hand. “In fact, I’m damn tired. I’ve got to get some sleep…deal with you later…”  He thrust the half–empty can of cerveza into Julie’s nerveless hand and levered himself into the loft. He unlaced his shoes and let them drop, one at a time, to the floor. “Don’t think I need to tie you up again, do you?”

Julie shook her head dumbly.

“This camper is doing…oh, I’d say about thirty. At that speed you might be able to jump out and survive without serious injury, but then you’d be stuck in the middle of the desert without shoes or water.” He swung his legs around and lay back, his head sinking into the shadows. Almost immediately he sat forward again, his eyes burning holes into her before narrowing with wry amusement. “Of course, you could always find a way to dispatch me in my sleep—if you prefer my friends’ company to mine. Pepe and Geraldo would probably even be happy to give you a hand if you asked them. Especially if you were dressed like that.”

There was a low chuckle and a mumbled “Buenas noches, Guerita.” In a very few minutes Julie heard only deep, even breathing, and then, to her complete disbelief, a gentle snore.