Midnight came and went with only the quiet buzz of meager traffic along the beach. An occasional horn blew or tires squealed. Two people exited a bar nearby, laughing too loud before piling into an SUV and steering drunkenly onto the road.
In the shadows of a weed-ridden parking lot at the back of the rundown motel, no one noticed them. Avoiding the glow of the full yellow moon, they stood behind the south wall beneath a broken security lamp.
A lamp Dare Macintosh had broken.
Ocean breezes stirred the air and heightened his senses. While scanning the area and repeatedly peering at the black van he'd rented when first arriving in San Diego, Dare waited. His friend, Trace Rivers, embraced his younger sister with choking emotion.
It had been a long two days filled with frantic preparation, little sleep, less food and loads of pumping adrenaline: the conditions in which Dare operated best.
With the job done, and then some, he desperately wanted something to eat and a place to sleep. Even more than that, he wanted to check on the skinny, abused woman still out cold in the backseat of the van.
"Tell me," Trace said, not to Alani, whom he kept crushed close, but to Dare.
After again glancing at the van, Dare nodded. He'd
found Alani and returned her to Trace as he'd sworn to, but neither man knew yet what she had suffered.
"She was in Tijuana, as you said. Locked in a trailer with some other women in an isolated area."
Trace drew a strained breath, and uttered what they both had known: "Human traffickers."
Dare nodded. "Not much in the way of food or drinks. Dirty, airless with the windows screwed shut. They had the women
" He hesitated, knowing how Trace would take it, but he needed to know. "They were leashed, chained to grommets in the floor, with just enough chain to reach a toilet. No sink.""Fuckers."
Overcome with rage, Trace knotted his hand in his sister's hair and squeezed her tighter, protectively.
She didn't complain.
Trace never used coarse language in front of his sister, which meant he was on the ragged edge, barely aware of what he said or did. Dare looked away from them, understanding the lack of control.
He focused on the rented van. "I had to go through several lookouts and a few armed guards to get her out of there."
"Quietly." Trace made it a statement, not a question.
"There wasn't much fuss." Dare always worked in efficient silence; an alarm would have brought more armed guards, possibly too many for him to combat. As much as he wanted to kill them all, he hadn't.
Only those most responsible.
By the time the empty trailer was discovered, Dare was already heading over the border into San Diegowhere Trace waited. Over the years he'd built up alliances
everywhere, and sometimes worked with the coyotes who made a living taking people back and forth over the border.
Thanks to those contacts, even with the extra cargo slumped in his backseat, no one had stopped him as he went through the border checkpoint. The van had been given only a cursory inspection, his weapons ignored, and the excuse of the women being tirednever mind that one was beaten and haggard, only half-dressedhad satisfied all questions.
Both men were damn good at what they did. But Trace couldn't go after his sister himself as he'd wanted, because the men holding her knew what he looked like. Before he'd have even gotten close to Tijuana, Trace would have been spotted by lookouts.
So Dare had goneand come back with more than he'd bargained for.
Making a small sound, Alani tucked her face in closer to her brother's shoulder. The siblings shared blond hair and light brown eyes, but that's where the physical similarities ended. Trace was thirty, of an age with Dare, eight years older than his sister. He stood six foot three and weighed over two hundred poundsall of it muscle.
Next to him, Alani looked tiny and fragile and, presently, wounded. Even since Dare had removed her from the trailer, fresh bruises continued to show on her arms and around her narrow wrists. Because the bastards had planned to sell her, they hadn't harmed her face.
Innocence was a huge commodity, and at twenty-two, having led a sheltered life, Alani gave off a definite vibe of innocence. Blond-haired, blue-eyed women brought the most profit, but he had a feeling that Alani's golden-brown eyes, in contrast to her very fair hair, would have fascinated the sick pricks.
Dare prayed they hadn't raped her, knowing a woman ill-used would bring less, but he left that uncomfortable discussion for Trace.
Hearing a noise like a soft moan, Dare zeroed in on the van with his senses on alert. He'd left the rear door open so he'd hear her if she moved, if she awoke
. But she did no more than readjust.
Three hours had passed since he'd carried her out of that trailer. Worry gnawed at him.
Why didn't she awaken?
"Dare?" His eyes filled with pain, rage and relief, Trace whispered, "Thank you."
Alani gave an audible swallow, and then she, too, said, "Yes, thank you. So much."
Putting a hand on her shoulder, Dare replied without words. He'd known Alani for years, watched her grow up, and felt like a pseudo big brother in many ways. He'd attended her graduation, both from high school and college. He'd been there with Alani and Trace when they buried their parents.
They had become part of his hodgepodge family.
Two days ago human traffickers had snatched Alani outside her hotel while she vacationed near the beach. Tomorrow she would have been sold, and finding her after that might have become impossible.
Right now, what the siblings needed was time alone, and Dare needed to sort things out with his remaining passenger. "I should get going."
Trace followed Dare's attention toward the van, saw the slim, dirty foot that appeared out of the open rear-passenger door, and lifted one eyebrow in an expression of disbelief. "You have a passenger?"
"A small complication, that's all."
Dare shrugged. "There were six women in that small trailer, Trace. Four of them were local and scattered as soon as I got them free." He nodded his head toward the van. "That one was drugged, near starved, grimy." And in many ways, even in the cramped confines of the rusty trailer, she'd been separated from the others, kept alone.
For certain, she wasn't the typical woman kidnapped for the growing sex trade.
Trace grew curious in that quiet way of his. "An American.complication?"
"I think so." From what he'd seen of her grubby face, she didn't look foreign. "She hasn't come to yet, so I haven't been able to talk to her."
Alani turned in her brother's arms, and she, too, looked toward the van. "She fought them whenever she came to. She called them names and almost
egged them on." Alani shivered in remembered fear. "It was so horrible. The men slapped her around for being mouthy, but she didn't stop. She just cursed them more."
Dare frowned. The little idiot might have been killed. "Foolhardy."
"I think she was really
angry." As if she couldn't fathom such boldness, Alani took a breath. "Even when they held her down to force more drugs on her, she didn't cry. She.raged."
"Did she speak English?"
Nodding, Alani said, "She sounded American to me. I mean, no accent or anything."
Considering all that, Dare said aloud, "She wasn't there for the same purpose as the rest of you."
"Probably not. Sometimes four or five of them would come in the trailer, but they'd stand around her and I couldn't see what they did. As far as I could tell, they
never really leered at her like
" She bit her lip, shivered again. "Like they did the rest of us. They never seemed to be sizing her up for anything. They just picked on her."
Trace hugged her again. "It's all right. You're safe now."
She nodded, shored up by the courage her brother had given her, and faced Dare. "She was there when we got there, already looking pretty bad. Once, before the men drugged her, she told me her name was Molly."
Alani shook her head. "We weren't supposed to talk, so I was afraid to ask her anything."
Trace tucked her back in close and asked over her head, "What are you going to do with her now?"
"No idea." Dare thought of her insubstantial weight when she'd been over his shoulder, of that tangled, light brown hair that had concealed much of her bruised face. "Hopefully someone will pay me for bringing her home."
Without releasing her brother, Alani reached out and punched Dare for the callous comment. He grinned, caught her wrist and kissed her knuckles.
She'd been given a terrible fright, and two days had probably felt like a month, but Alani had spirit. She'd get through this, thank God.
But the other one. How long had they had her? And why? Impatient with thoughts of her, Dare said, "I gotta run."
"Hold up a sec." Trace caught his arm, then dug in his jeans pocket and pulled out a fat envelope.
Pissed, Dare took a step back. "What the hell is that?"
"Expenses. And don't curse in front of Alani." Hell, just because he usually hired out didn't mean he'd
charge a frienda brother. He'd have gone after Alani if he'd had to crawl the whole way. "I don't need it."
Solemn, Trace held the envelope out to him. "But I need you to take it."
It hit Dare anew how difficult this was for Trace, not just that his sister had been hurt, but that he hadn't been able to go after her himself.
Dare took the envelope. "Thanks." He leaned in close. "And for future reference, I resolved the issue of you being recognized." There was no one left who knew Trace.
Deep satisfaction glittered in Trace's eyes. He gave a sharp nod. "I should have doubled the amount."
"No." Dare's smile wasn't friendly. "That was all my pleasure."
With no further discussion of money, Trace and Alani said their goodbyes and left the lot in Trace's silver Jag. They'd stay in an upscale hotel for the night and fly home tomorrow. Until then, Trace would keep his sister under very close guard.
Dare stood there, watching them until the purr of the engine faded and their taillights could no longer be seen. Moon shadows surrounded him. Night creatures gave a gentle call.
The peaceful ambiance didn't deceive him.
Hands on his hips, he looked again toward the van.
The hospital, with all those questions and a lack of answers?
A hotel room? That would be his preference, but not with a woman on the brink of death.If
she was on the brink of death. Drugs could be a real complication, giving false symptoms and concealing a true state of health. It was possible that if she'd just come to, she'd be okay.
But maybe not.
Dare needed her to drink, to eat. And it wouldn't hurt to get the bugs out of her hair.
Before he even realized it, he strode that way, anxious to look in on her again.
One hand on the top of the open door, the other on the side of the car, Dare leaned inand found her awake. Enormous, bruised eyes dominated her face.
Before he could register that she'd come around, he got a very dirty foot to the face. Hard.
He jerked back. "Son of a"
The attack took him by surprise, and even with her meager strength, a heel to the nose hurt like hell. But he didn't want to compound things by overreacting. She'd recovered with a vengeance and most probably a lot of confusion. Though blood trickled from his nose, Dare wasn't disabled in any way.
With no help for it, he leaned into the backseat and, after a very brief struggle, pinned her down with her arms over her head, her legs caught under his.
Those large, slightly unfocused eyes glared at him. They were dark brown, like rich chocolate, and at the moment filled with a wealth of fear and rage.
She didn't scream, thank God, just breathed hard and fast and strained against him.
"You're safe now," Dare told her while trying to control her in a way that wouldn't allow her to hurt herself. "You're in San Diego, not Mexico."
She blinked fast, giving away her nervousness.
Dare sought the right words to reassure her. "I was there to retrieve a friend, one of the girls trapped in the trailer with you. And there you were, too, so
" Lacking a sound business argument for his decision, Dare rolled one shoulder. "So I took you."
She stilled a little, wary, uncertain. Hopeful.
"Your options now are the hospital, hotel or police. Take your pick."
Seconds ticked by. A drop of blood from his nose landed on her chest to mingle with dark bruises, numerous scratches and dirt. She didn't flinch, and short of releasing her, there wasn't much Dare could do about his bleeding nose.
Lifting her head, she looked beyond him, but it was dark, too dark to see and recognize the dubious safety of an American parking lot.
Then, just as suddenly as she'd attacked, she went limp, her head falling back, her muscles weak. Either from her recent exertion or continued terror, Dare felt a fine trembling in her slim body.
Voice quaking, she whispered, "Hotel, please."
But appreciated. "Wise choice." He waited for theatrics, for that scream that didn't come. Cautious, Dare eyed her. "I can let you go without more violence?"
She gave one jerky nod.
Slowly, he sat up and levered himself out of the van. She didn't move. She didn't look capable of moving.
Stripping off his shirt, he used it to clean the blood from his busted nose.
What to do now? If he went to the front desk to register them, would she try to skip out on him? Dare could see that she wasn't yet herself, didn't have much left of strength or composure. If panic sent her running, she wouldn't get far, and could end up right back in trouble again.
But he couldn't very well traipse her into the motel with him.
For one thing.she reeked.
Not that he held that against her. Thanks to the conditions he'd found her in, personal cleanliness would have been impossible. But to add to that, the space they'd provided her hadn't been much better than a dump. He'd seen rat holes near the moldy mattress they'd supplied her, as well as a variety of bugs crawling around.
For another, she wore only a long T-shirt that didn't quite reach her very dirty, scuffed knees, with another oversized man's button-up shirt over it. The clothes dwarfed her small body, looking absurd. Mud and more caked her bare feet. Her brown hair looked like it had been through a blender.
While he tried to sort out his next move, she slowly sat upright, holding tightly to the back of the seat for balance. She swallowed convulsively. "Do you have anything to drink?"