Read on for the first chapter of my new book Hearts Divine – a whole SIX WEEKS before release!
“You’re just a butterfly dancing in the eye of a hurricane, Miss Miller. Be careful you don’t get those pretty little wings of yours crushed.”
His contempt for me catches in the lilt of his words and forces my eyes from the floor.
What is it about these FBI agents and their thinly veiled threats?
I meet his gaze, perfecting the art of the blank stare all over again. His words shouldn’t carry any weight with me. They’re nothing I haven’t heard a million times before from a million other men in cheap grey suits over the last seven months, yet for some reason I find his lingering more than most. This man won’t back down as easily as the others. His quest for the truth will consume him, and once again I feel the heavy burden of circumstance; the role that he has carved out for me so deftly.
My deepest, darkest secret.
The man I will never ever betray.
“Keep up this charade and things won’t end well for you…”
His warning jerks me back to the interview room. I watch his gaze flicker across my face. He’s searching for a flinch, a nervous tick; the smallest chink in my ultra-composed armor. Eventually his eyes drop back to the open manila file on the table in front of him. There are no chinks to find, and there never will be. My every emotion, my heart and my soul belong to another man. One who is far, far away from here.
He takes a seat across from me, sighing heavily as he crashes down into his chair – a deep masculine rumble that rises up from the depths of his crisp, white shirt. It’s new on today. I can see the telltale crease lines intersecting just below his ribcage. “Did you hear what I just said? Keep up this charade–”
“Oh I heard you. There’s really no need to repeat it.” My voice rings out clear and cool, bouncing off the powder blue walls with the spidery cracks tarnishing the corners; next to the cameras that record every word I say and every muscle I twitch. Still, I’m holding all the cards here, or rather my silence is. I’m their only lead but there’s no way I’m giving up my secret.
“Do you always spurn friendly advice, Miss Miller?”
“I don’t believe that’s a true representation of your words, do you?” I say, raising my eyebrows at him, “and, like I said, I don’t know anything. I don’t remember what happened all those months ago. I don’t know this… Dante Santiago, or whoever it is you insist on associating me with.”
But I’m not fooling him.
Not for a second.
My eyes dart to the closed door behind him as I slide my wrists onto my lap so he can’t see them shaking. My body tends to have a visceral reaction from the mere mention of Dante’s name.
The detective leans over the table to glare at me, trying to psych me out again. I can smell the mint on his breath. I see the jade in his irises, the square jaw and neat haircut. He’s younger than most. Idealistic. He’s determined to make his mark by cracking the uncrackable. In another lifetime, one where this body didn’t irrevocably belong to another, I might have felt the first stirrings of lust.
“What happened to you last August?”
“I was kidnapped.”
“Did you know your abductor?”
“Was he intimate with you?”
“No!” Not at first. “Listen, I’ve worked with your team to create facial composites. I’ve attended the line-ups. I’ve done everything you’ve asked–”
“Except tell us the truth.”
“What do you want from me, detective? To make it up? I don’t know this man!”
“Do you know how many federal laws you’re breaking right now?”
The seconds tick. He glances down at the manila file again. “According to your original statement your abductor chose to return you to the US after a few weeks. Did you even want to be released by him?” The doubt is written all over his face.
“No more than lying to protect a dangerous fugitive. What about his brother, Emilio Santiago? When we recovered his body he’d been shot three times by a gun with your fingerprints all over it. How do you explain that?”
I shot him.
I shot him again and again.
I’d do it all over if I could.
I swallow quickly. “I have no idea. Like I told you, I can’t remember anything about that night.”
“Then what about–”
I hold up my hand to cut him off. “What’s your name again?”
“Detective Peters,” he answers gruffly. “There’s no need to clarify any of your own details, Miss Miller. Rest assured, we know all about you…” He slams the manila file shut with a decisive thwack.
“Oh, I don’t doubt it. You follow me around all day, my phones are tapped, my friends are treated like co-conspirators… There isn’t a fragment of my life that you and your team haven’t pored over and dissected like a pack of rabid dogs.”
A trace of anger is creeping into my voice now. I bite down hard on the inside of my cheek, my eyes stinging from the pain. I used to think that Dante was the master of outward emotional suppression but I’m not so far behind him these days. Not on the inside, though. I still haven’t figured out a way to compartmentalize that side of me. Beneath my veneer I’m a melting pot of conflicted thoughts and feelings with no discernable outlet.
The FBI are forcing me apart from the man who haunts my dreams; the man whose touch I crave; the man who stole me, twisted my emotions and made me his forever.
But there have been consequences. Oh god, so many consequences. These sham interviews that I’m forced to endure every week are just a tiny sliver, a taste of the FBI’s invasion into my life after the events of last year; ever since I was rescued from the container dockside in Miami Beach, bloody and half-naked with thirty dead bodies piled up behind me and no explanation for what the hell had gone down.
For days afterwards I refused to speak. I was too traumatized by what I’d seen.
What I’d done.
PTSD, Acute Stress Disorder, you name it they threw it at me. Looking back, if I could attach a label to myself during those first few weeks then inconsolable is the only one that fits. I never mourned the man I killed but I mourned my decision to stay behind. My grief was so entrenched, so overwhelming. I knew then that my love for him had crashed through some unseen barrier and into the arms of obsession.
My eyelids flutter shut. Another attempt to keep Detective Peters out of my head. I see Dante. That last image of him burns the strongest – his body broken from the bullets but those dark circles still burning just as fiercely for me.
“We can help you, you know.”
Detective Peters’ scowl has softened. Don’t do that. Don’t be nice to me. I’m so much stronger when you’re being a dick. I once told Dante that I hated standing out to anyone. Now look at me. A perpetually hunted ‘Person Of Interest’ until I can convince the FBI otherwise.
Instinctively I reach for my necklace and the detective’s gaze dips to watch as I run my fingers along the delicate silver chain and pendant.
“Interesting choice of jewellery,” he murmurs and I blush. I can’t help it. It’s like he knows that the three sixes spelt out in diamonds are connected to the man he’s hell-bent on capturing. “Tell me, do you like dancing with the devil, Miss Miller?”
“I don’t dance with anyone, Detective Peters. I don’t frequent nightclubs of any kind anymore. But you knew that already.”
The truth is I daren’t. Dante’s close friend and ally, the new number one distributor of narcotics in Florida, Rick Sanders, owns most of the clubs here in Miami Beach. I can’t risk the implication if we were to run into each other, not with the Feds watching me this closely. Besides, I made a promise to keep my distance until things blew over. It’s the deal Rick and I made the night he rescued Dante and removed the body of my murdered bodyguard from my apartment before the authorities found it and complicated my situation even further.
As for Dante, there have been no phone calls, no contact; just the delivery of this necklace, the memory of his touch and a promise that he’ll return for me one day.
I can’t go to him, my passport has been confiscated, and there’s no way in hell he can come to me. Thanks to his double-crossing brother his carefully concealed identity has been blown to shit. Dante Santiago is the Most Wanted man in America. The moment his foot touches US soil he’ll be arrested and incarcerated for the rest of his life.
My fingertips repeat the trail across the hollow of my neck. The impact of my actions has been devastating and I try not to dwell on it too much. I chose to stay behind to salvage a relationship with my father, to explain what led the daughter of a leading DEA special agent to give her heart to the deadliest cartel boss in the world. The same man who was instrumental in the death of his son and her brother. The same man he’s sworn to bring to justice. It burns to admit it but all my pleading has been in vain. He still won’t answer my calls.
I wonder if he’s being hounded the same as me? Have my choices shattered his and mom’s life as much as my own? I’ve put him in an impossible position and my guilt slices at my insides like a blunt knife.
I wish Dante had forced me to leave with him. I wish he’d held his gun to my head, dragged me into that water and taken all my freewill away from me again. He’s more than capable of it. Instead he chose to accept my decision, in part to make amends for his hand in my brother’s death. Now I’m left with nothing. No family, no Dante…
“Ok, we’re done here.”
Detective Peters rises to his feet, his chair pitching backwards with a sharp screech. I can sense his frustration. He’s not done with me, not by a long shot, but today’s ordeal is over. Thank god. I’m due at a work event in two hours and I’ve barely any time to make it home and change before my driver is scheduled to pick me up.
I reach down for my bag and laptop. The detective’s footsteps falter. He turns back to face me, his hand still reaching for the door handle, like he’s torn between continuing my interrogation and getting the hell out of there before his anger gets the better of him.
“Humor me with one last thing, Miss Miller. Purely to satisfy my own curiosity.”
“Why did you quit your job?”
“I didn’t. In fact, I’m due to attend an industry awards ceremony tonight–”
“Because you’re nominated for your recent investigative reporting. Yes, yes, we know all that already.” Of course you do. “I’m talking about before… when you first returned to the US.”
“You mean after I was released from captivity,” I correct him tersely.
“If you say so.”
“I needed time to heal after what happened, to make sense of everything.”
“I imagine you did.” That cadence of mockery has returned, irritating me all over again. “Or perhaps it was too much of a conflict of interest?”
That’s exactly what it was but I’ll never give him the satisfaction of confirming it.
Following my brother’s death five years ago I’d been on a quest to bring Dante Santiago to justice. Then I met the man himself and everything I thought I knew, every moral and principal I thought I valued, came crashing down around me. Black and white is too easy for him. He’s a beautiful, terrible shade of grey who sets fire to my every emotion, awakening the woman I’d suppressed for too long.
Detective Peters frowns. “I don’t get it. You’re a smart young woman. Anyone can see that. Santiago has done untold damage to your family, to others like you. He kills without guilt, without question… Not content with poisoning this country with his narcotics, he’s now killing innocent Americans for pleasure. Did you hear that? He calls himself a mercenary these days but it’s just another name for murder. He’s a sickness in this world and one that needs to be–”
“I don’t know anything about Dante Santiago!” I cry, severing the last threads of my self-control.
But it’s the biggest lie of all.
I may be ignorant to the very worst of his savagery, to the tortured history that has driven the heartless criminal to such extremes, but I know exactly how his body feels as it sinks slowly into mine – stretching, conquering, completing. I know every hard angle, every dark trail of hair; every smooth, olive-hued plain as he moulds himself to me like second skin. I pretend to know the truth in his violence. I revel in the heat of his touch.
Gathering my stuff together, I rise to my feet, swinging my bag onto my shoulder as I manoeuvre my way around the desk. I might be stuck in a living hell here in Miami without him. I may be merely existing in some sort of aberrant purgatory that keeps me bereft and wanting, exposed and deprived, but I need to hold fast that my faith will be vindicated; that one day the goodness that I’ve sensed in him will unravel the bad.
“Goodbye, Miss Miller. Feel free to call if you happen to remember anything, no matter how small or insignificant.”
“Goodbye Detective Peters.”
I brush past him and out into the cramped hallway, waving away his outstretched business card with a tight smile. The cloying musk of his aftershave blitzes my senses and I try not to gag.
“It’s not too late for you, you know. We can make all of this go away.”
“I said, goodbye, Detective Peters,” I say firmly.
Downstairs, I exit the elevator and return my pass to reception. Moments later the sharp, confident clack of my heels accompanies me out of the building. But the only sound I hear are the detective’s last words to me.
The ones now ringing like alarm bells in my head.
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