Their Cartel Princess: A Dark Reverse Harem Romance Box Set, page 93
The lion slumped onto his belly, using one of his enormous paws to drag what remained of his meal closer.
He paused, again working his tongue against his teeth, and managed to free one of the long, black hairs from his mouth.
Then he twisted a bloodstained leg around on the concrete, biting down where a white bone stuck through the flesh. It crunched, splintering in his mouth, and he adjusted his grip.
Using a paw to hold down the tapered foot with its perfectly painted golden toenails, he went to work finishing his meal while the humans watched.
“Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.”
Downtown Marfa was shiny-slick with rain. A light drizzle still fell, so Kane Price put up the collar of his jacket as he jogged to the convenience store across the road. He’d stayed in town in case the black SUV returned. Although he now knew where Javier Martin lived, without backup from the DEA office in Albuquerque he could do sweet fuck-all about it.
He’d sent a detailed email to his Captain earlier today. Fredericks sometimes took a while to get through his mail if there were working a case, but he’d hoped to have heard something by now.
Kane grabbed a six-pack of energy drinks and went to the counter.
“Russian Bear,” he said, pointing at a half-pint behind the counter. “And a pack of Gunston,” he added. He had half a pack back at the motel, but he already knew he’d be up all night waiting for the Captain to reply. Might as well save himself another trip.
“Ten-thirty-five,” the clerk said, holding out his hand.
Kane gave him his credit card, staring out at the rain-soaked road as he waited.
“You got another?” the clerk asked, handing Kane back his card.
Kane frowned at him. “Why?”
Had the clerk looked down at the name on the card? He hadn’t been paying attention.
Motherfuck. Since when didn’t he pay goddamn attention?
“Declined,” the clerk said, showing him the read out on the card machine. “Should I try again?”
“No,” Kane muttered, opening his wallet. He took out two bills and handed them over to the clerk.
As soon as he had his change, he hurried back across the road to his motel.
He paused in front of his door, and detoured half a block down the road. There, he tossed the credit card into a trash can he passed before turning back.
Closing the motel room’s door with his back, Kane ran a hand through his hair as he tugged on his cigarette.
Out of cash again.
“Sonofabitch,” he muttered, pushing away from the door and dropping his shopping bag on the table. He went over to the window and drew aside the edge of the curtain to peer out.
The road was empty.
He opened his laptop and hit refresh.
No response from the Captain yet. He itched to pull out his cellphone and call the man, but he knew that would just piss him off.
Out of cash.
If he didn’t have a cent to his name, how the hell was he supposed to get anywhere with his investigation? His toys—the tech he used to get the intel he needed—were expensive. And he’d need plenty if the Captain would be a hard ass by ignoring him the whole fucking day.
Snatching his car keys from the table, Kane opened a can, drank a quarter, and topped it up with the vodka.
He started up his Jeep and pulled into the road, setting his wipers to slow as he cruised down the road. As he drove, the neighborhood became seedier. Graffiti popped up on the walls like urban lichen; an indicator that helped him find his way through any urban forest.
A few minutes later, he spotted a bright pink Dry Mac. He could barely make out who huddled under it, but a plume of cigarette smoke beckoned him like the flick of a finger.
He slowed his Jeep. The girl in the Dry Mac crouched beside the wall, her back to it and her head hanging down. It looked like she was busy on her phone. He touched the car horn with the side of his thumb.
The girl’s head jerked up at the sound. She hurriedly stashed her phone away in a pocket, grabbed an over-sized handbag from the sidewalk and tottered toward him in suicidally tall pumps.
He opened the window a crack. “Hey, honey. What are you doing outside here in the rain?”
She must have smelled a trap. Her muddy brown eyes flickered over his face before darting inside the car. He kept the interior immaculate. “My guy’s running a little late.”
“You need a lift?”
Another hesitation. “You a cop?”
“I’d have to tell you if I was, wouldn’t I?”
“Yeah,” she drawled, taking a long pull at her smoke. “But they don’t always do.”
“Come on. You’re getting soaked.” Kane pulled out the hundred-dollar bill he’d folded around five ones. It didn’t matter that it was all the money he had left—it wasn’t like he planned on giving it to her. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
The hooker’s eyes flashed to the wadded-up notes. She scanned both sides of the street and then lifted her chin. “Got to be back here in twenty minutes.”
Perfect — her pimp hadn’t come by to collect his earnings yet. Meant she probably had a kay, if not more, on her. Pretty thing like her, maybe even two kay. That she was working in the rain meant she had regulars to satisfy.
And now him.
“I only need ten,” Kane said to himself as she made her way around the car. Her long legs ate up the distance easily, despite her heels. A gust of wind ripped the hood from her head, sending her shoulder length black hair flying.
“Mmm…” He tapped a finger against the steering wheel as she opened the door. “Make that fifteen.”
A wife’s needs
“Your wife wants to see you.”
A shadow eclipsed Neo Martin. Honestly, he’d expected Milo Finn; of all Cora’s lackeys, he seemed to be Numero Uno. But his second guess had been the lanky guy who could have doubled as an underwear model on those days when he wasn’t running to do Cora’s bidding.
Neo sat up, ignoring Lars as he took up his glass. Sylvia sat up too, perhaps sensing that their time sunbathing on the villa’s patio was over. Neo put a hand out to her; Sylvia had made no secret of her feeling for Cora, especially after Cora had murdered his father in cold blood in front of a hundred guests.
Sylvia sank back, a small sneer for Lars.
“Nice to see you too, peaches,” Lars said, pointing a finger at her as he clicked his tongue.
She rolled onto her back on her lounger and threw him a lazy finger.
When Neo rose from his lounger and snagged his signed soccer jersey from the back, Santino appeared at the corner of his eye.
Him he didn’t wave away—if Cora’s entire posse attended this meeting, he’d at least have someone at his back.
Santino had come to him after the wedding, distraught at the news of Javier’s death. He’d been too busy to attend the ceremony, which meant he’d missed the execution. Which was for the best; Santino had been close with Javier.
He followed Lars through the villa, Santino trailing them.
Strange, but he’d thought everything in this place would remind him of his mother, but only a few things triggered thoughts of her: the statue of Santa Muerte — the one she’d been so hell bent on getting rid of, the smell of coffee, sunsets.
Gabriella’d loved sunsets.
During their trip to France, those few times they’d been together before twilight, she’s insisted they sit on a balcony in sight of the sunset. She wouldn’t say a word as she watched the sky’s magnificent performance; margarita in one hand and a long, thin cigarette in the other.
Javier hadn’t known she’d smoked.
Maybe he hadn’t even known she’d been a coke fiend; their marriage had one of convenience.
In the grander scheme of things, his father had most likely understood the importance of something so archaic. The need to create a bond. To force someone’s hand.
Nothing in this godforsaken place reminded him of the waste of skin that was Javier Martin.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Lars said, glancing back at him. “Guess you don’t take after that delightful father of yours.”
Neo gritted his teeth. “Got a lot on my mind.”
They headed toward one of the villa’s conference rooms. Javier rarely had meetings on site, but obviously he’d made sure the villa had three conference rooms included in the plans in case he ever changed his mind.
This room was one of the smaller ones. Inside, several chairs encircled a long rectangle of a table. A larger swivel chair sat at the head of the table, behind which an aquarium filled with vacant-eyed fish swimming idly from one end of the tank to the other.
Cora sat in that chair. The big guy, Milo, stood behind her with his hands gripped in front of him, legs wide and shoulders relaxed.
A guard’s pose.
Santino’s presence was even more welcome now as the atmosphere thickened with anticipation when he stepped inside.
What the hell were they waiting for?
“What?” he asked.
Cora wore a slim-fitting black dress, her color of choice after the wedding. Her hair was loose instead of pulled back from her face. Her lips a touch darker than usual.
Did that mean something?
He could read a player on a soccer field as easily a large-print children’s book, but this? He’d left politics and that crap to his mother. She’d been able to tell from a single glance if a girl was into him or not. Whether someone was straight, gay, bi, or confused past the point of modern terminology. Whether they had money, were pretending to have money, or weren’t bothered either way.
But she wouldn’t be able to tell him anything anymore, thanks to the bitch staring at him with eyes the color of dead fall leaves.
Cora sat forward and put her hands on the table in front of her. The ruby on her marriage finger gleamed at him like a wink from a plague-infested eye.
Why was she still wearing the ring? Was that supposed to mean something too?
“We have to decide the way forward for our cartel.”
One of the new guys—a muscular guy that wore vests to show off his tattoos—pulled back a chair beside Cora.
Her right hand.
Neo snorted, ignoring the chair. “We? We don’t have to decide anything.”
“Of course we do. Our poppies are gone,” Cora said. “Are we going to plant more? How long do they take until they’re ready? Javier mentioned something about dealers. Do they know we have no product? Should we sell something else in the meantime?”
“Something else?” he repeated slowly. He let out a bark of a laugh. “You don’t have a fucking clue about any of this, do you?”
“And you do?” she snapped back.
“More than you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, straightening her shoulders. “We decide on everything together. We make plans together.” She waved a regal hand toward the chair. “Please sit.”
“You’re capo in name, that’s it.” He took a few steps forward, hesitating when this made the giant behind Cora stiffen his shoulders. Neo stabbed a thumb against his own chest. “I’m his son.”
Cora spread her fingers on the table’s surface. Her eyes were unflinching as she studied him from across the room. “Javier announced us both in front of the cartel.”
“You’re forgetting…I’m also your husband,” Neo said, striding forward and falling into the seat beside her. He leaned forward, putting his fingertips on the table and moving them toward her. “You know what that means, don’t you?”
There was the tiniest flicker in her eyes, but that could have meant anything.
She had to realize not only did an arranged marriage hold weight in Mexico, but that husbands always had more power than their wives. In fact, she should have been all subservient and shit to him. That Javier had made her capo didn’t change her gender. It didn’t change her rights. As long as they remained married, her vote hardly counted at all.
Movement made Neo turn his head; Santino leaned against the closest wall, a toothpick dangling from his mouth like he was an extra in a western movie.
“Which is why you’re going to Mexico to annul our marriage.” Cora sat forward, which made the two men in Neo’s sights tense even more. She dropped her voice. “Neither of us wanted this, Neo.”
He’d had a lot of time to think things through the past few days. He’d even spoken to Javier’s lawyer about it — for the brief few moments he’d been able to get a hold of him on the phone. The jerk was ghosting him, and he figured it was because he was scrambling to make sense of Javier’s finances before presenting it to Neo.
But his conclusion about their arranged marriage had been the polar opposite of Cora’s.
“You’re wrong.” He leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms over his chest. “Our marriage is the only thing Javier ever got right in his miserable life.”
Cora’s eyes went wide. For a moment, she looked like the frightened little girl she was. Not yet twenty-one and dressing up in her mother’s clothes so she could pretend to be a woman.
Resolution filled those eyes, filming her irises with golden frost.
“Your father was a despicable human being!” she spat, thumping the table with a small fist. “He should have died in his mother’s womb! He should have—”
Milo stepped forward, laying a hand on Cora’s shoulder. She immediately shrugged him off, but then sat back and dragged her flattened hands over the table with her. She took a visible breath that pressed her breasts hard into her dress’s bust.
“Javier deserved to die,” she said in a low monotone. “If I could have made him suffer more, I would have.”
Holy shit, she was one cold-hearted bitch.
“I have a feeling that’s probably the only thing we’ll ever agree on,” Neo said calmly.
Cora perked up at that but, almost immediately, her eyes narrowed and her mouth thinned. “Why?”
Heat grew inside Neo’s chest. He clenched his hands in fists, digging them into his armpits so he wouldn’t slam them into the wall.
When he spoke, his voice wavered like a candle flame in a draft.
“Because he fed my mother to his fucking pet, that’s why.”
Saying the words out loud churned a bitter anger inside him. The anger itself wasn’t unexpected; its extent was.
He’d loved his mother, but he never could have thought her death would affect him so much. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t ever expected her to die.
Cora’s face went blank. She blinked, long and slow, and then turned slightly toward the gray-eyed man with the tattoos.
“Bailey…” she murmured, holding out a hand to him.
Neo glanced across and then did a double-take.
Bailey had gone white.
“What?” Neo asked, turning back to Cora. But her attention was on Bailey, not him. “What?” his voice was too loud in this confined space.
A hand touched his shoulder just as Bailey stormed from the conference room. Lars didn’t even stop him—he took two hurried steps back and lifted his hands as if in surrender when Bailey strode past.
Santino whispered, “He worked for your father at—”
But the door slammed, cutting him off.
“At?” Neo demanded, spinning to face Santino.
“Bailey was a spy,” Cora said calmly, drawing Neo’s attention back to her. “He worked for Javier.” She paused, lifted her chin, and added, “And Gabriella.”
Neo’s heart pounded. Not from the announcement, but from what he’d recognized on Bailey’s face.
He felt it too.
Why the hell was Bailey working for Cora now?
“Your mother. Do you have proof?” Milo asked. His rough voice made Neo look up.
He gave the man a mute nod, swallowed hard, and said, “They made me watch.”
At this, Santino slunk back against the wall. He tried his best not to glance at the man, but he couldn’t stop himself.
Santino looked at the floor, refusing eye contact with Neo.
He couldn’t blame Santino; the man had been following Javier’s direct order. And perhaps it was better he had been the one holding the back of Neo’s neck while Eddy hacked off his mother’s head. She’d been alive but gagged. It had barely muffled her scream. A scream that still echoed in his ears after Eddy had tossed her head into the lion’s enclosure.
That was all there’d been time for him to watch; Neo had a wedding to get to. And Santino had made sure he’d gotten into his tuxedo before heading back to the lion enclosure.
As soon as Neo had emptied his stomach, he’d stumbled downstairs, into the park, and onto the altar. Like a dream, everything afterwards happened to someone else.
Until Javier had fallen to his knees, and he’d seen blood staining his tuxedo.
He had Cora to thank for that.
Just as he had Cora to thank for his mother’s gruesome execution.
Neo rose to his feet in a rush. “I’ll always be grateful to you for killing him,” he said, his fingertips on the table again. “But you could go on your knees and suck my dick every day for the next ten years and you’ll never make up for what happened to my mother.”
Milo surged forward, but Cora lifted a hand almost absently. The beast of a man froze, but the intensity in his eyes only sharpened.
“I won’t even try,” Cora said. She pointed at the chair, for all the world like he was a fucking dog and expected him to sit. “Now, let’s discuss—”
“Fuck you!” Neo spun around, throwing the chair out of his way when his leg caught against its edge.