MacKenzies were nothing but trouble.
Brant had known that for almost fifteen years—ever since Cade MacKenzie had dragged him to his home in Montana for Thanksgiving one year and shoved him into the freezing cold pond behind their farmhouse. They’d been as close as brothers ever since, and he considered the MacKenzies to be his second family, especially since his sister, Bayleigh, was now married to Cade.
But sometimes families were a pain in the ass, and this was one of those times.
He weaved in and out of the late night Georgetown traffic—the Harley rumbling beneath him—as a cool mist fell and collected in fine droplets on his riding leathers. Every instinct he had was telling him to turn around and go the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have much of a choice when it came to this latest summons. The call from Declan MacKenzie had come early that morning—there was to be a meeting between all team leaders involved in the investigation of the del Fuego drug cartel. All agencies had been working together for the past four years to put an end to the cartel’s reign of terror, and since Brant was the special agent in charge for Homeland Security, he had no choice but to be at the meeting.
He slowed and turned onto M Street, cursing the inaccuracy of the weatherman as a loud crack of thunder rent the air and the soft mist turned into a downpour. Headlights glared off the wet streets and impatient drivers blared their horns as this latest inconvenience kept them from their social obligations. He veered around a florist van to pull into the underground parking garage across the street from O’Malley’s Pub.
With his helmet stuck under his arm, he sprinted across the street and into the warmth and familiarity of the long time hangout used by a mixed bag of federal agents. The smell of beer and the polish they used to wipe down the seats of the bar stools and booths hung heavy in the air. The floors were scarred and the wood paneling on the walls darkened with age. Music thumped steadily from the speakers, but not so loud you couldn’t hear the person next to you. O’Malley’s was a place to talk shop, let off steam, or sweet talk pretty waitresses—though not necessarily in that order.
Brant ran a hand through his hair, dripping water onto the mat on the floor, and wiped his feet.
“Agent Scott,” Jimmy O’Malley said from behind the bar. “Haven’t seen you in here in a while. What’ll it be?”
O’Malley was a former FBI agent and had opened the pub after a bullet shattered his knee and he’d been taken out of the field. He always said he’d rather serve whiskey than start drinking it because he was bored out of his mind sitting behind a desk. Brant couldn’t say he blamed him.
“The usual. And put it on Declan’s tab,” Brant said, causing O’Malley to laugh.
“I’ll have Lily bring it to you. Your friends are upstairs.” O’Malley jerked his thumb at the curved staircase that led up to the private room he sometimes rented out for parties or wakes, and Brant nodded his thanks and moved toward the back of the bar. He acknowledged a few of the familiar faces he passed on his way, and headed up the stairs.
“It’s about damned time, Scott,” Shane MacKenzie said, his concentration never wavering from the game of darts he was playing. “Devlin here already owes me fifty bucks. Can’t play darts for shit.”
Max Devlin was leading the DEA team assigned to the recent tourist murders that had been happening throughout Mexico as the cartels battled over their turf and with the Mexican government’s crackdown on drug trafficking. He’d been Cade’s boss once upon a time, and since Devlin was a former Marine sniper, Brant very seriously doubted it was him that couldn’t play darts for shit. Devlin punched Shane in the arm and called him an inappropriate name and then quickly made a bullseye on his next turn.
Brant stripped off his leather jacket and tossed it across an empty chair, laying his helmet in the seat. The noise from below was muted and the bass from the music vibrated the floor, but the room was private for all intents and purposes.
Declan MacKenzie sat in one of the wooden whiskey barrel chairs, his posture relaxed and his eyes hooded halfway in sleep. Brant knew as well as any of the others in the room that Declan was never fully relaxed, and he could be up with a weapon in his hand before most people could blink.
He’d been crossing paths with Declan for years during different assignments, and he’d sat across from him at the dinner table for MacKenzie family dinners more times than he could count, but he still didn’t know exactly what branch of the government Dec worked for. By the way he seemed to know every damned thing almost as soon as it happened, Brant was guessing CIA. The one thing he did know was that Declan was in charge of this op, whatever it was, and he was calling the shots.
Lily knocked on the door and came in with a tray filled with drinks. Dark haired and dark eyed, she gave Shane a smile that would have any red-blooded male’s blood boiling, and went about passing out the drinks. She was efficient as she set them around the table, and Brant raised a brow as he saw her place a napkin and a beer in front of the fifth seat. As far as he knew, only the DEA, Homeland Security and the assigned Navy SEAL team had active operatives searching for the del Fuego labs. It had been an assignment met with little success over the last few years.
“Ooh, baby,” Shane said, as Lily gave him one last smile and closed the door behind her so they’d have privacy. “I think I’m in love.”
“That’s what you said last night, dickhead,” Devlin said.
“There’s love and then there’s love,” Shane said, waggling his eyebrows. “I think Lily could be the one. And she was real delicate about the way she slipped her number in my pocket.” He held up the piece of paper from his pocket for them to admire.
“Jesus, sometimes I can’t believe I’m related to you,” Declan said. “How old are you again? Fifteen?”
“Jealousy doesn’t become you, brother. Just because you’ve got a sex life that rivals great-aunt Matilda doesn’t mean I’m ready to follow in your footsteps.”
“Am I wrong, or did I miss the part where this was a MacKenzie family brawl instead of a government op?” Brant asked.
“You’ve been in the middle of enough MacKenzie family brawls to recognize when it’s serious,” Declan said. “Or have you forgotten the broken nose? Maybe I need to refresh your memory.”
Brant flipped him off and took the seat next to him. “I knew you did that on purpose, asshole. A slip of the elbow my ass.”
“All’s fair in football. Suck it up, Nancy.”
“Maybe if Cagney and Lacey are done playing darts, we can get this show on the road.” Brant took a long sip of beer and felt some of the tension drain out of his shoulders. It had been too long since he’d just taken an evening to relax. “I’d like to have an entire weekend off at some point in my career.”
“I’ve never had one of those,” Declan said. “I don’t see why you should get one if I can’t.”
“I appreciate that, Dec. You’re nothing but heart.”
“That’s not what the ladies tell him,” Shane broke in with a laugh. “They tell him he’s nothing but—”
“Enough, Shane,” Declan growled. “Take a seat, and lets get this done. Our guest will be here before I’m done with the briefing.”
An uneasy feeling slithered up Brant’s spine, but he pushed it away. His intuition was infamous in the agency, and right now it was screaming red alerts at him. He trusted Declan. Hell, he trusted all the MacKenzies. But something was going on, and he was pretty sure he was going to hate whatever it was. He was an expert at reading people—at body language and the signs a person gives when they’re in an uncomfortable situation. Declan wasn’t giving away anything as usual, but he’d known Shane long enough to see the worry in his eyes and the tension in his shoulders. He hadn’t stopped tapping his ring finger against his leg since Brant had walked into the room.
Declan tossed out sealed manila envelopes to everyone at the table. At Declan’s nod, they each broke the seal and pulled out the papers.
“We’ve received new intelligence that the del Fuego cartel has in fact been taken over by Alexander Ramos and the whole operation moved to Mexico.”
“Shit,” Brant said, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. They all knew of Alexander Ramos. He was currently the leader for the Sinaloa drug cartel, which happened to be the most powerful and deadly cartel in Mexico. “He’s expanding his territory.”
“It looks that way,” Declan said. “He’s setting up the del Fuego cartel in southern Mexico, from the Yucatan to the border of Guatemala. He already controls almost all of the west, and I think we can agree that controlling that much territory isn’t going to go well once the Mexican government finds out and they start cracking down. The rumors are already spreading. The streets will be overflowing with the blood of innocent people.”
“But according to this information, we still don’t have a location for the new labs,” Devlin said, shuffling through the intel quickly. “How are we any better off than we were?”
“We don’t have the exact coordinates,” Shane said. “But we do have information we didn’t have access to before, and the new labs have definitely been set up in Ramos’ territory. My tech wizard was able to ferret out the information while my team was doing surveillance. In fact, I think Ramos took control over what was left of the del Fuego cartel just weeks after Carlos and Miguel del Fuego were killed. We were focusing all our attention on Colombia, but Ramos was keeping things on the down low until he had everything in place. I’m assuming it took time to rebuild the labs in a place no one would find them. The new rash of killings in the Yucatan area suggests the cartel is up and running for business now.”
Miguel and Carlos del Fuego had been the heads of the del Fuego cartel up until their deaths a few years before. Carlos had killed his father in a struggle for power, and Cade MacKenzie had killed Carlos with a shot straight to the heart while protecting Brant’s sister, Bayleigh. It had been sweet justice considering the del Fuego’s had killed Cade’s lover a few years before.
“How’d it come to your attention now?” Brant asked. He didn’t bother to read through the papers in front of him. He was waiting for the axe to fall. He took another sip of beer and kept his gaze steady with Declan’s.
“Intelligence picked up an unusual transmission through satellite. It seems Ramos is a little smarter than your average drug lord. He’s got brains behind the muscle, and that makes him even more dangerous.”
“Spit it out Dec,” Brant said.
“The cartel has set up the underground communication system using Maya as their language of choice.”
Brant was already shaking his head, knowing where Declan was going. His stomach twisted in knots, but Declan didn’t let him get a refusal out before continuing his explanation.
“Ramos is a Mayan descendent and has managed to bribe enough native speakers to work for him. Unfortunately for us, there are only a handful of people outside of the natives who are knowledgeable in the language. They’re a closed culture, and they wouldn’t want our interference. And Ramos is probably paying them handsomely or threatening their families to gain their cooperation, so we can’t try to work our way in through them. They’re loyal to him.”
“No way in hell,” Brant said, shaking his head again. “You’re out of your fucking mind.” He saw Devlin pass Shane a twenty dollar bill out of the corner of his eye, but he ignored them.
“Told you,” Shane said, taking the money and putting it in his wallet.
“You can’t seriously be talking about bringing your sister into this mess,” Brant said.
“She’s been in this mess for years,” Declan said. “She wants to help us destroy the cartel once and for all, and she has the resources we need to do it. She’s an expert in the field. She speaks the language, and she can read the hieroglyphs. She’d be invaluable on a mission like this.”
“No. Absolutely not. She’s your sister for fuck’s sake. Has she pissed you off so much lately that you feel the need to take her into cartel territory and leave her to a horrible death? She has no field training, and it’ll endanger the entire team. Who’s supposed to protect her?”
“From my understanding,” Shane said, the perpetual grin he kept on his face in place as usual. “You did a fine job protecting her the last time. Surely you can manage it again. Besides, we drew straws before you got here and you lost.”
Brant narrowed his eyes at Shane, wondering exactly what he knew about the time he’d spent with Darcy four years ago, and then he immediately dismissed the thought. If her brothers knew what had really happened between them, his body would’ve disappeared a long time ago.
He’d both cursed himself and congratulated himself on walking away from Darcy all those years ago. The further he’d driven from Surrender, Montana, the more he’d wanted to turn around and go back to her. She was his weakness. And in his line of work, there could be no weaknesses. Not unless you had a death wish.
A day hadn’t gone by where he hadn’t thought of her, and he’d kept track of her from a distance—making sure she was truly safe after her run-in with del Fuego’s men. He’d done thorough background checks on the men she’d dated and he’d made sure doors had opened in her career. He had the power to do those things, and he used it without apology because he’d come to realize shortly after their one night together that no one was more important than she was, even if he couldn’t be the man in her life.
Brant scooted back his chair and stood abruptly, planning to get his coat and walk out the door before the craziness of this conversation could go any further. The need to get away as soon as possible was getting stronger with every passing second. Being around Darcy again would be a mistake—he knew it as sure as he was standing there.
“We’re going to take her into cartel territory,” Declan said, the friend gone and the commander taking his place. “And she’s going to do her job by deciphering whatever needs to be deciphered so we can find the location of the labs and keep hundreds, maybe thousands, of people from getting killed. She’s an expert on the Maya. There’s no one more perfect for the job. She’s already familiar with the cartel, and she was the one who helped us realize how they’ve been communicating all these years.”
Brant’s hands fisted at his sides, and the lack of control brought his anger to the surface. Anger over the way he’d had to leave Darcy. Anger at himself for not being the kind of man who could ever have a normal life. And anger at Declan for pushing the matter when he knew damned good and well nothing good could come of it.
“This is a mistake,” he rasped, his throat dry at the prospect of what his future held.
“Is there something you’re not telling me about the real reason you don’t want to do this?” Declan asked, narrowing his eyes and coming to his feet to look Brant eye to eye. “You clearly have a problem with Darcy. You haven’t been to a family get-together since Cade and Bayleigh’s wedding, and you left as soon as the ceremony was over even though you were the best man.”
“I had food poisoning,” Brant gritted out. “And I’m with all of you all the damned time. I’m surrounded by so many MacKenzies I can’t piss without one of you handing me my dick. What the hell is your point with all this?”
“Nothing. You’re just being more unreasonable about this than usual. Darcy’s an intelligent woman, and you’ve known how to handle her since she was sixteen years old. She’s always listened to you more than the rest of us. I’d think finally shutting down the del Fuego cartel would be your top priority.”
“No one knows about priorities better than me,” Brant said.
Declan nodded somberly. Not many people knew the details about Brant’s first wife. Declan was one of them.
“Which is why Darcy is going in with you. She’s the only team you need on this op. Shane and the rest of SEAL Team-6 will be your backup, and the DEA already has agents in deep cover down in the area. We trust her safety with you. I can count on one hand the number of people I’d say that about, and four of them are her relatives.”
“Great,” Brant said. The urge to put his fist right into Declan’s face overcame him, and he could tell by his friend’s raised brow that he was daring him to try. “Just great.”
“What’s the matter, Brant?” A silky voice called from the door—a siren’s call that had his blood pumping and his cock hardening in an instant. “Afraid I’ll be too much for you to handle?”