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Candace Irving

JUST BEYOND REACH (PAPERBACK)

JUST BEYOND REACH (PAPERBACK)

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Book 4 in the Mission Undercover Military/Undercover Agent Romantic Suspense Series.

New to the Mission Undercover Series? Start Here

She’s his best friend—but he wants so much more...

Joaquín Cortez has been in love with his fellow special agent from the moment he sealed his hand to her rear to help her over a wall at the academy’s obstacle course. But Tess was engaged at the time, so Joe kept his feelings secret and offered friendship instead...for six long years. When a deadly case at a San Diego hospital forces Joe and Tess to live as husband and wife, the strain affects their relationship. As Joe's "just friends" façade begins to crumble, Tess falls for the new, intensely passionate man left in his place. 

But Joe has another secret. And this one is so horrific, it may keep the woman he loves out of his reach—permanently.

If you like strong, female protagonists mixed with intense romance and page-turning suspense, you'll love this story by Candace Irvin.

What readers are saying:

A DANGEROUS ENGAGEMENT (PAPERBACK) 5 Star Review

"Riveting Story!   Great characters with Tessa and Joe who are both DEA Agents and secretly in love with each other but not willing to share that info with the other. Very good writing that kept me on the edge of my seat as I wondered "will they or won't they", what is Joe's secret and why can't they see that they are perfect for each other? This is great writing and a must read story that will leave you breathless." —R. Mclain, Amazon

A DANGEROUS ENGAGEMENT (PAPERBACK) 5 Star Review

"As usual, Irving writes a riveting story of intrigue and suspense filled with great characters, plot twists, and heart pounding action. She writes such vivid descriptions that you are pulled into the story and feel like you are right there witnessing the action. I love the dynamic between Tessa and Joe.  Their friendship is strong and shows through in everything they do.  Joe is the ultimate protector which can cause problems when working with a kick a$$ female who can take care of herself. Joe is dealing with some major issues from the past regarding the death of his parents. Irving does a great job of dealing with his PTSD and current resistance to allow Tessa to be more than his friend. I'm always captivated by Irving's writing and this book is no exception.—rdrgirl, Amazon

A DANGEROUS ENGAGEMENT (PAPERBACK) 5 Star Review

"I swear if Candace Irvin wrote a telephone book I would still purchase it and stay up all night reading it because she is just that good!—Shiela Schwartz, Amazon

A DANGEROUS ENGAGEMENT (PAPERBACK) 5 Star Review

"Loved this newest addition in the series. Joe and Tessa....so much emotion, both past and present for these two DEA agent best friends. Their journey to accepting and following their feelings to their HEA was full of heart wrenching emotion amongst danger, action, and suspense as they worked to solve a case that turned ominous." —Alibi, Amazon


READ A SAMPLE CHAPTER

Chapter 1

Lorring Memorial Hospital

San Diego, California

For the first time in five years, she'd saved a life rather than taken it, and it felt good—damned good.

Unfortunately, her head did not.

Tess studied the patient chart on the counter in front of her, stifling a groan as she pressed her fingers to her temple. She had one heck of a migraine blossoming beneath, this one a direct result of her latest sleepless night and diet of near-continuous adrenaline. She couldn't remember the last time she'd put in a shift like this.

Not in nursing anyway.

When her contact had told her she'd have to work in Lorring's intensive care unit on this case, she'd almost bowed out. What if she'd forgotten too much? What if her critical care skills were too rusty? What if she screwed up and someone died?

In the end, she'd had to agree. The flu epidemic spreading across San Diego had sealed it. They didn't have anyone else to send in. The agency needed her.

Both agencies.

Tess succumbed to a groan as the ache intensified.

"Need an aspirin, honey?"

Tess managed a smile as the nurse she'd worked side-by-side with during the past night skirted the counter to join her on the opposite side. "Try fifty."

"That bad, huh?"

"It's nothing a trip to the staff lounge and the triptan tablet I've got stashed in my wallet won't cure." Tess scrawled her current, faux signature beneath the shift notation she'd made and closed the patient binder.

Nicole shot her a sympathetic grin as she snagged the chart and slotted it into its spot on the shelf behind her. "Go for it, honey. I'll cover for you. You deserve the relief after bringing Mrs. Randall back from the brink. If you hadn't been here when she coded, we'd have lost her for sure. But I'm warning you. When you get back, you're going to have to put out."

Tess blinked. "Put out?"

Nicole nodded, tucking an errant blond curl behind an ear as she rounded the counter. "Information. Don't think I haven't noticed. We've had our hands down the same windpipe tonight and you've yet to tell me your hunk's name, let alone what he looks like."

Hunk? For a moment, Tess simply stared.

The rings, idiot.

She glanced down at the diamond winking up from her left hand, along with the simple gold band tucked beside it. Somehow, amid the slew of meticulous preparations of the last two days, she'd forgotten to attach a name and an image to the stupid things. She was as bad as her mother, forgetting who her current husband was.

It was a good thing Joe wasn't here. He'd have a field day with the slip. As well as a not-so-cryptic allusion to Dr. Freud.

Tess shifted her attention to the steady speculation gleaming in Nicole's hazel eyes, for once blessing the throbbing in her head, or rather the reprieve it provided, as she turned away from the counter. By the time she returned from the lounge, she'd have conjured up enough details to satisfy her fellow nurse's thirst for chatter.

Unfortunately, the floor supervisor cut her escape off at the pass.

Nicole let out a groan as the supervisor waved a slim manila folder between them. "Please tell me that's not what I think it is."

"Can't, but you can relax. Tess gets the honors tonight."

Nicole frowned. "Come on, Janice. Have a heart. No one should have to make the pharmacy run on their first night."

Pharmacy?

Despite the throb in her head, Tess perked up—instantly. "That's okay; I'll take it. The walk might clear my head."

"Lot of good it would do. You'd just be replacing the pain in your head for one in your butt." Nicole sighed as she retrieved the folder containing what was bound to be their ICU shift's narcotic count sheet. "I'll do it."

Tess didn't bother hiding her curiosity as she turned to the supervisor. "I don't get it. What's the big deal?"

"Not what, who." The disgust in Nicole's voice matched the supervisor's expression. "Eddie."

"Eddie?" As in Eduardo Hernández?

The hell with perking up. Every nerve in Tess' body had snapped to attention. This was it. The opening she'd prepped two days, then waited all night for.

Nicole's shudder confirmed it. "Eddie Hernández. He's a pharmacy technician the hospital made the mistake of hiring last June. He's also the reason every female nurse on staff—single or otherwise—goes out of their way to avoid the drug palace, especially when Eddie's planning one of his beach blowouts. Me included. Against my better judgment, I always find myself accepting."

"That irresistible, are they?"

The supervisor snorted. "No, but the host thinks he is."

"Sounds like the man's ego needs lancing." And she had just the needle for the job. Tess snagged the folder from Nicole before either woman could stop her.

"Wait, you don't have to—"

"I do. I might be new, but I pull my weight. If it's my turn, it's my turn." She shot Nicole a reassuring smile as she drew away from the counter, though it didn't seem to soothe the woman's concern. "Besides, after that close call with Mrs. Randall, I'm feeling lucky." Tess turned her back on the lingering confusion in Nicole's gaze, forcing herself to squelch the spurt of guilt that followed as she headed down the corridor to the elevators.

Normally the lies she fed her nursing co-workers didn't bother her.

At least not this much.

Maybe it was Nicole. She'd liked the woman's pixie grin from the moment she'd seen it beaming over an outstretched cup of steaming Earl Grey nine hours earlier. Unfortunately, it didn't matter. She hadn't taken this job or any of the other ones her temporary nursing agency had set her up with over the last five years to win friends.

Not the legitimate kind.

*****

Joe knocked firmly on the door to the hospital room before nudging it open. "Tomás?"

"¡Hola, amigo! Come in, please. And before you ask, I am fine."

Joe chuckled as he pushed the door wide and entered the private room.

From the glower on his fellow DEA agent's face, as well as the tension in Tomás' hands as his friend raked them through his shoulder-length hair, Joe could only assume Tomás had already offered that same fervent assessment to every other agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration these past two days—as well as his new doctor-fiancée.

Joe tossed his burden upon the mobile hospital table, next to the tray of untouched eggs and toast.

Tomás raised his brow at the profusion of yellow petals spilling out from the green tissue. "Roses? I did not know you cared."

He grinned. "I do not. These are from Teresa. I promised her I would bring them."

"She is busy then?"

As usual, with no one about to offend, they had slipped into their native tongue. Joe nodded as he dragged the spare chair closer to the head of the bed. Lowering himself into the blue vinyl, he kicked his boots out in front of him as Tomás reached for the steaming mug on his breakfast tray. "She is across town. Teresa began a new undercover assignment this weekend. Lorring Memorial Hospital."

Those dark brows rose again as his friend offered the mug he'd retrieved. "The syringes?"

Joe nodded his thanks as he accepted the mug, then took a sip. Though the coffee was not strong and lacked the touch of chocolate he preferred, it was at least hot.

Tomás frowned. "I thought the locals had taken the case?"

"They had. Nor were they pleased to lose it. But there has been a new development." Joe sipped the brew again, then angled the ankle of his right boot atop his left knee to form a temporary shelf for the mug. He pushed the length of his own hair past his shoulders before attempting to rub the effects of these past two sleepless nights from his brow. The massage succeeded no more than the coffee had.

He took another sip anyway. "You know Agent Daniels?"

"Gray Daniels? FBI?"

"The same. The case concerns his niece. It seems the girl was offered one of the syringes just this week—the needle intact."

Tomás offered a low whistle. "She is but ten, eleven, yes?"

Joe nodded. "Eleven. Once more, the offer was made less than two blocks from her school and mere yards from her home. She did not actually see the syringes, but the MO was the same. The boy claimed the needles were sterile and HIV-free. But this time, he offered pills, too."

"Then we have a suspect?"

"No. The girl did not recognize him, nor does the boy appear to be from her school. He is older. By how much, we do not know. We do have a sketch now, but it is not good. The girl was rattled, scared."

"Then why has Tessa already gone in?"

Why indeed?

Joe studied the black-on-black stitching along the leather throat of his boot, tracing the subdued scrolls up to the hem of his matching jeans as he shrugged.

"Joaquín?"

He frowned. "Because she is stubborn."

Tomás' hearty laugh filled the hospital room. "Stubborn? Tessa? You are discovering this only now?"

Joe scowled into the mug as the laughter died out.

Tomás sighed. "She will be fine. You know this as well as I. Special Agent Rowan can take care of herself."

Joe kept his gaze on the mug. This, he knew. Teresa was good. The best.

But something about this case had not sat right with him from the start. And there was their suspect's personal history. Not to mention the accusations he himself had dredged up regarding the technician. Accusations Teresa refused to take seriously.

At least not seriously enough to suit him.

For that reason alone, he wanted her nowhere near this case, much less one Eduardo Hernández.

"Joaquín…is something wrong?"

He glanced up, his smile of denial already firmly in place. Unfortunately, the man sitting up in the bed across from him wearing that ridiculous hospital gown knew him far too well to be taken in by a simple smile. Especially his.

Perhaps it was the near-twin appearance they shared.

The dark eyes that studied him were very much like his own. As was the length of thick black hair that fell well below his friend's shoulders. The square jaw, prominent cheeks, over-full lashes and straight brows—he was familiar with all these features too, and for good reason. But while his resemblance to this man was uncanny, it was also welcomed. For he had been able to use this very similarity to his advantage whilst undercover these past four years. As had Tomás.

In doing so, they had come to know each other well.

Perhaps too well.

Those dark eyes continued to watch him closely. "You wish to discuss it?"

He did not.

Tomás Vásquez would not understand, much as he might wish to. How could any man who radiated such contentment ever hope to understand? Even through Tomás' very real concern, Joe could see the newfound serenity that flowed steadily beneath. Indeed, he could feel it. What he would give to know it.

But he would not. He could not. Ever.

It was not worth the risk.

Not to himself, but to her.

True to his nature, Tomás waited out the silence that had settled between them as patiently as he had waited to claim the woman he would soon marry.

Joe finally sighed, passing the empty mug to its rightful owner as he stood. "I should be off. I must be at the agency within the hour—and you, my friend, have a vacation to begin if I am not mistaken."

Tomás held his gaze a moment longer, then nodded. "I do." He leaned forward to set the mug on the breakfast tray, a wide smile spreading across his face as he straightened. "Karin will be here soon to sign my release. Then we pack and leave for Querétaro, then to visit the Mayan temples. I will see you in one week, yes?"

Joe grinned as he extended his hand. "Agreed. You take care of that lady doctor of yours and enjoy yourselves. You both have earned this."

Tomás clasped his hand. "With all that has happened these past two days, I have not had the chance to properly—"

"There is no need."

"There is." His friend's grip tightened, turned almost painful. "Joaquín, I thank you—for everything. For my life and for my heart."

As Joe accepted Tomás' quiet sincerity, his own heart tightened as well. It was enough to have lived through the past week with Tomás and the woman Tomás loved—he did not need to relive the experience now. Nor did he wish it. For the memory brought with it a pain of its own.

He nodded quickly, eager to ease it. And, worse, to run. "It was nothing. You would have done the same, Tomás."

His friend nodded firmly, that dark gaze now as fierce as his grip. "It was everything. But you are right; I would have done the same for you. Should you ever have need, I will. Until then, you do me this favor, yes? You think on what you truly desire from this life. I believe it can be yours—if you but reach for it."

For a moment, Joe would have sworn those steady eyes could see into his soul. But, of course, that was impossible. He had hidden it well.

For even Teresa failed to see it, did she not?

And she had worked alongside him these six years past.

He nodded anyway, pulling his hand away as quickly as he dared before he turned to round the foot of the bed and head for the door. He was tempted to look back as he opened it, but he did not. What would it serve?

Tomás was wrong. As much as he wished it, Joe would never know his own heart's desire.

Especially with her.

*****

Tess popped the tiny triptan tablet into her mouth and followed it with a quick sip from the water fountain. She closed her eyes as she straightened, already anticipating the relief. Twenty minutes, and the throb in her temple would be gone.

Ten, if she was lucky.

Either way, it was time to dance with the devil.

She reached the hospital's main elevator bank and pressed the down arrow. Shifting the manila folder to her left hand, she adjusted the stethoscope looped about her neck with her right, then double-checked her watch.

Not quite 0800.

Perfect.

At this hour on a Sunday morning, the hospital's randy pharmacy tech was bound to be alone—and bored. The pair of stainless-steel doors to her right slid open. Tess entered the empty lift, once again ignoring her fellow agent's heated warnings as she punched the button to the first floor. Joe worried too much. Normally she found the man's congenital machismo amusing, but this time, he'd gone too far. Joe just didn't get it. Not only did she welcome Eddie's weakness, she planned on using it.

Why not?

It wasn't her fault that the technician was corrupt enough to steal oxycodone right out of Lorring Memorial's pharmacy. Nor was it her fault that the tech—via his stooge—had tried to hawk the oxycodone mere yards from an FBI agent's home. To that agent's eleven-year-old niece, no less.

But was that oxy connected to the other pills—and worse—that had begun showing up in and around San Diego's middle schools?

Joe was right about that. They still had no idea, much less hard proof of the latter.

Unfortunately, it didn't matter. Once an FBI agent's preteen niece had become involved, what had initially been a case for the San Diego police had made it onto the regional DEA field office's top ten list. And promptly rocketed to the number one slot on her own list. Eddie Hernández was going down.

If she had to use the pharmacy tech's reputed penchant for preying on miserably married nurses to ruin his day—and his life—so be it.

The elevator lurched to a halt. Tess adjusted her fake wedding rings as the doors opened, making sure the diamond was up front and centered as she entered the deserted, antiseptic corridor. While some men might be deterred by the sight of another's permanent romantic claim, her meticulous research wagered that Eddie would not be one of them. In fact, he'd see the rings as a challenge.

Tess released the oversized clip from her hair and tucked it into one of the pockets on her bright blue nursing smock as she turned toward the pharmacy. Hauling half the mass over her shoulders, she used her free hand to arrange the russet waves down her front, deliberately enhancing the view of her top-heavy curves.

Hopefully, the primping would pay off—along with the blond highlights and soft blue contacts she'd added the day before.

The changes were subtle enough that they shouldn't pique the curiosity of anyone she might run into from her last undercover gig at a civilian hospital across town. At the same time, the enhancements should be distinctive enough to appeal to Eddie's reputed fetishes. Especially the rings.

Tess reached the pharmacy. When she didn't spot Eddie or anyone else behind the segmented patient counter, she kept going, rounding the far end to stop at the staff door instead. If she was lucky, the duty pharmacist would be on his break—or dealing with a lengthy situation elsewhere in the hospital. Hoping for the latter, Tess positioned herself squarely in view of the reinforced glass window occupying the upper half of the steel door and stabbed the buzzer beside the mechanical cipher lock.

Moments later, her mark came into view. Alone.

She smiled.

Eddie smiled back—and practically yanked the door open.

So far, so good.

The man shoved his hands through the cropped waves on his head as his smile swelled into a full-blown grin. "Well, well. Good morning to me."

Yep, a sleaze.

Excellent.

Tess allowed her own smile to widen, knowing full well the guy salivating two feet away would misconstrue it. "Hello, I'm new." She held up the narcotic count sheet she'd snatched out of her fellow nurse's hand roughly ten minutes earlier. "My supervisor asked me to drop this off. It's the results of the spot checks."

Eddie didn't even glance at the folder. He was too busy checking out her breasts and equally abundant ass. The man actually angled his head to get a better view of the latter. His gaze strayed to the rings on her left hand as he straightened. He wasn't subtle about that look either. Something new and distinct glinted within that dark, greedy interest as it took yet another scenic tour up to her face—and it wasn't regret.

More like determination.

Her research was so spot on about this jerk, she almost laughed.

"Mrs…?"

"Santos, but my friends call me Tess."

"Tessa." The tech's teeth fairly gleamed as he intentionally pushed right past that social boundary. "I'm Eddie. Eddie Hernández." An oversized hand came up, only to stop inches from hers as the man's phone pinged. "Excuse me."

To her surprise, the tech waved her inside the deserted pharmacy, closing the door behind them before he turned slightly to retrieve his phone from his back pocket.

She took advantage of the distraction, studying the man as closely as he'd studied her while he scowled down at a text bubble on his screen, before typing out what appeared to be a rather lengthy response.

Eddie had six inches on her paltry five foot five. Worse, the technician's oversized shoulders, thick arms and thicker neck were significantly bulkier than his California driver's license photo had let on. Of course, the photo had been snapped three years earlier, on the man's twenty-eighth birthday. Evidently, Eddie had decided to graduate from the Incredible Hulk School of Weight Lifting in the interim.

Wonderful.

Joe was going to be even more pissed than he already was.

Tess sucked in her breath as she banished the thought. She didn't need Joe or his incessant warnings in her head, especially now. If he felt free to ignore their friendship of late, she could damn well ignore his growing paranoia.

The fabric of the tech's white smock might be straining to contain the upper halves of those daunting biceps, but Joe was wrong.

She could take this guy.

Sure, she lacked brawn. But she more than made up for it in experience and other critical, non-beef-related skills.

Not to mention, she was forewarned.

Eddie finally glanced up as yet another text notification pinged. "Sorry. This is blowing up. I need to make a call. Can you wait?"

Tess smiled into the eager hope kicking up the tech's prominent brows. "Sure." She held up her ready excuse for her presence in the first place: the manila folder and the spot check results within. "I haven't relinquished this."

Right on cue, the tech grinned back. "I'll be a minute, maybe two."

Her own smile grew as Eddie headed for the empty pharmacist's office across the lab. As easy as selling a porn magazine to a prisoner.

The case was going to be a slam dunk.

Why else would the tech leave a nurse he'd barely met alone in a lab full of narcotics?

She blessed the man's need for privacy as the office door closed behind him. While she regretted the inability to eavesdrop, the need to see what Eddie had been up to cut deeper. Quickly cruising the perimeter of the room, Tess scanned the work surfaces as she went. The door to the clean room was open. But if Eddie caught her snooping in there, she could kiss any chance of gaining his trust goodbye.

She stuck to the outer counters, and was rewarded as she rounded a partition—and then some.

Tess suppressed a whistle as she moved up to the desk she'd spotted.

Evidently Eddie was hawking more than just the oxy. The haphazard collection of Valium, Demerol and Ritalin mixed in with those Percocet tablets lying out on the desk proved it. And less than an inch from the pills? A vial of morphine.

Damn him.

In the right hands and in the right patient, that morphine and those pills could bring about a desperately needed surcease from pain. But in the wrong ones, the drugs became an addictive poison. How many lives had Eddie already tainted?

How many kids?

One was too many.

Tess pushed the ever-expanding sea of innocent faces from her mind—especially the face that had been so very precious to her—and refocused her attention on the job at hand, swiftly counting the culled stock before she glanced around the partition to the office door.

Still closed.

Balancing the manila folder atop the black gym bag on the counter, she snagged one of the sterile 3 cc tuberculin syringes—hypodermic needle attached. She flipped the plastic wrapping over and noted the nomenclature on the reverse. It was the same brand that'd been turning up in and around several of San Diego's middle schools.

What were the odds those exact syringes were accidentally lying out next to an indiscriminate jumble of Schedule IV narcotics that were clearly not intended to be divvied up and dispersed as outpatient meds, much less sent to a hospital floor?

Not good.

On the other hand, the profit margin was excellent.

If this tidy pile was any indication of Eddie's daily haul, the bastard was netting close to thirty thousand dollars a month.

All on the backs of unsuspecting kids.

Tess returned the syringe to the position she'd found it in, then retrieved her phone. She snapped closeups of the syringe and its nomenclature before moving on to photograph the vial of morphine and mishmash of loose pills.

Returning her phone to her back pocket, she picked up the manila folder and rounded the partition in time to catch the muffled adios, amigo from behind the office door.

She sprinted across the lab and grabbed a copy of Hospital Pharmacy from the burgeoning rack of magazines located far enough away from the office door to prevent suspicion, opening it on top of the manila file.

By the time the door to the pharmacist's office opened, she appeared to be halfway through an article on an experimental ovarian cancer drug.

She needn't have bothered.

Eddie wasn't so much staring at her as through her when she glanced up.

Tess closed the magazine and tucked it beneath the folder. "Is everything okay?"

The tech finally focused. "What?"

Yeah, he was definitely distracted—and she was definitely going to have to take a peek into the man's phone records to find out who'd caused that distraction, if not why.

She nodded to the empty office behind him. "I take it your call involved bad news?"

He shook his head quickly—too quickly. His smarmy smile returned as well as he closed in on her. "Nothing like that. But something has come up. A shame, since I was hoping I could show you around a bit after work, then fill you in on the critical hospital gossip over breakfast. It looks like we'll have to have a late lunch instead."

The hell they would.

For one thing, it was much too soon.

It would be at least two days before the syringes she'd marked at the distributor level made it through the hospital's stock system and into Eddie's thieving hands.

Then again, it wasn't too soon to lay the groundwork for the rest of the sting.

Just in case.

Especially when the opportunity was screaming to be abused even as this asshole was plotting to lure yet more naive eleven-year-olds into swallowing the loose narcotics lying out on that counter behind the partition—and worse.

She shook her head, infusing regret into her gaze as she let it drop to the diamond sparkling up from her left hand. "I appreciate the invitation, but I'm married."

"Meaning your husband doesn't let you socialize with friends?"

The tech's ego nearly surpassed his swollen muscles—as did his cocky grin.

Tess followed up her own smile with a soft chuckle. "Sure he does. But my friends are usually a bit more…" She let her gaze trail wistfully across the tech's burly shoulders. "…feminine."

Eddie damned near preened. "So he's the jealous type?"

An image automatically sprang to mind as she lowered her gaze to the rings on her hand. The wrong image. Then again, maybe it wasn't.

Eddie reached out, tipping her chin with one of those thick paws of his. "Well? Is he?"

Tess shoved Joe's heated, disapproving frown from her mind's eye, even as she decided to borrow the rest of the man. "He used to be."

"Used to be?"

She allowed a soft, lonely sigh to escape into the air between them. "I'm afraid Joaquín and I haven't seen much of each other lately. At least, not as much as I'd like. Not since he and his buddy bought into their nightclub. Let's just say the strain on our cash flow has…carried over into our marriage."

Not only did Eddie refuse to remove his fingers from her chin, he damned near salivated as they tightened.

Yup—her instincts were right on target. She couldn't be sure which had excited the tech more. The implication that she was a lonely wife or—

"Your husband's Hispanic?"

—that.

After all, her faux surname could've been Italian or Portuguese. Though on this mission, Santos definitely wasn't.

Eddie's gaze had dropped to her overly abundant chest, and he was not memorizing her name tag. Obviously, the creep assumed a Hispanic husband meant that she held a preference for Hispanic men.

True enough.

She just didn't prefer this Hispanic man.

Fortunately for her case, her current mark proved oblivious to the mental qualifier as he tossed all subtlety aside and lowered that oversized hand, managing to stroke the inner curves of both her breasts as he twined an errant lock of her hair around his fingers.

She managed not to flinch. Barely.

Absentee husband or not, it was time to say something.

Tess nudged a faint smile to her lips. "I should probably warn you, my husband once sliced off a man's fingers for doing precisely what you're doing."

The tale was mostly true.

Unfortunately, Eddie wasn't fazed. "Just his fingers?"

She pushed harder on her smile—and the truth. "Well, I was forced to ask him to stop before he and his blade got any…lower."

This time Eddie took the hint, letting the russet curl unravel as she stepped back. "So tell me, Tessa. Where's this club of your husband's?"

She didn't bother hiding her suspicion. "Why?"

"Maybe I've been there."

She mirrored Eddie's shrug as she turned to the magazine rack to slip the copy of Hospital Pharmacy home. "Unless you party south of the border, I doubt it."

"Tijuana?"

She turned back, covering her surprise at his own. That was the strongest response she'd gotten from the tech yet.

Why?

"Yes…his club's in Tijuana. Is there something wrong with that?"

Something flickered in the tech's gaze. Flickered, hell—it was flaring.

Interest?

She could only pray it was. Either way, the seed had been planted. It was time to back off and let it germinate.

She held out the manila folder with the sheaf of papers inside. "It was nice meeting you, but I've got to get back to work. Janice told me to tell you that if you have any questions about the earlier miscount, to call her directly." The moment Eddie retrieved the folder, Tess headed for the pharmacy's outer door.

"Tessa."

Her reluctance wasn't feigned as she turned back.

It really was too soon for this. Anything more on her part now—especially eagerness—would only jeopardize her cover. Not to mention her case.

She waited for Eddie to speak, but he didn't.

He closed in on her instead. He was mere inches away by the time he halted, staring directly down into her eyes.

She'd swear the tech was gauging her. Not her body this time, but what lay inside. Namely, her mind…and her morals.

Why?

There was no way he'd let her in on his operation this soon. Not given the array of narcotics she'd found lying out on that desk.

She finally prompted him. "Yes?"

"Your husband…is he an American citizen?"

Tess blinked. How the hell was she supposed to play this one? And where the devil was he going with it?

She opted for swinging up onto the proverbial fence. "He's naturalized. Why?"

She could have sworn Eddie was relieved to learn that her mythical husband was in the States legally. She'd also swear the tech's mind was now churning a million miles a minute. She wouldn't have known it from the lazy shrug that followed, though.

"You were right about that call I had to make earlier. Everything is not okay. Something's come up that I need to take care of. A family matter."

A family matter?

She didn't bother hiding her confusion or her suspicion. She hadn't even begun to plant the idea that her husband was dirty yet.

Though, really, it wasn't a stretch.

She'd already admitted that "Joaquín" was in over his head with a Tijuana nightclub, so much so that their marriage was floundering. In any country, that level of financial desperation—plus club—tended to suggest that a club owner might be willing to look the other way on any number of illegal activities, including the distribution of narcotics. But what would her mythical husband's citizenship have to do with that?

Unless—

Oh, hell.

Eddie was looking for someone to move drugs across the border. Why else was he thrilled over the confirmation that Joaquín could drift between Mexico and the United States without raising the suspicions of immigration officers in either country? Add on those lengthy texts and that tense call the tech had just made, and she was beginning to suspect that a scheduled shipment was seriously at risk because the regular driver had been forced to bail on a coming run.

Too bad. While she wasn't opposed to expanding her investigation, she'd need time to alert the necessary players. To get them, and their covers, slotted into place.

Until then, it was best to play stupid—and out of the tech's greedy reach.

At least for now.

"I don't understand, Eddie. What does your family matter have to do with my husband?"

"Nothing. Unless you think Joaquín would agree to help me out. I need a favor."

She actually laughed. "Don't take this the wrong way, but why would my husband want do to anything to help you? He doesn't even know you."

He smiled. "The favor is actually for my uncle. Those texts and my call were with him. A friend of his needs a lift north from Tijuana later tonight. My uncle asked me to drive down to bring him across the border, but I have to work. So, you see? I'm in a bit of a bind. Your husband's club is in TJ, right? My uncle would pay well for the extra stops on his way home. Money that might ease the current strain on your finances…and marriage."

Damn. She'd set herself up for that last part.

But a border run tonight?

The tech was risking a hell of a lot on a desperate club owner's values. Not to mention that whatever this was about had nothing to do with ferrying a friend for his "uncle". Eddie had addressed his caller as amigo just before he'd hung up. The tech had to be running drugs across the border, as well as stealing them from the pharmacy.

Still, to be willing to pull in a stranger on the fly? Just how much money was tied up in that shipment tonight?

Given the tension that had taken hold of Eddie's hulking shoulders as he waited for her answer, quite a bit.

Unfortunately, she still couldn't afford to look too eager. Not with those pills, those syringes and that morphine definitely headed for more middle schoolers' hands.

Eddie's border runs would just have to wait their turn.

She finally shook her head—firmly. "I don't think he'd be interested."

"But you can't be sure, can you? Because you haven't asked." Eddie smiled. "Why don't I ask him myself?"

The man was pressing.

Hard.

Tess held that murky stare for several moments longer, not bothering to temper her frown, much less hide it altogether. She caught the faint line between those dark brows, as well as the ones pinching in about his mouth. The tech was desperate.

Well, she wasn't.

Not yet, anyway.

Erring on the side of caution, she allowed her frown to deepen. She'd set this up too carefully to blow it now. "I'm afraid your phoning wouldn't be a good idea either. Joaquín's not fond of strangers calling him. Especially—"

"He can call." Eddie's hand came up to forestall further argument as he fished a black leather wallet from the pocket of his trousers. He withdrew a business card and held it out.

His name, a local phone number.

That was it.

He nudged the card closer. "Just give it to him, okay? Ask Joaquín to call me. If he's not interested—" The tech's shrug wasn't nonchalant as he'd clearly intended it to be. "—maybe he knows someone who is."

Tess considered the card for several moments before accepting it. "Fine. But don't blame me if he doesn't call." She didn't wait for an answer, just tucked the card into the pocket of her nursing smock as she headed for the pharmacy door.

She didn't pull the card out until she was alone in the elevator. And then all the card served to do was cause her budding migraine to flare within her right temple.

What the hell had just happened?

Things weren't supposed to have moved this quickly. Let alone in this direction. Eddie had latched onto her fake husband harder than he'd latched onto her.

Damn it. This was supposed to be a straightforward pharmacy case, albeit one that involved middle schoolers. Not a single fact she'd uncovered during her research on the tech had pointed to border traffic.

Until now.

In an instant, she'd gone from juicy bait to empty hook.

Well, she'd just have to spear on another appetizing chunk for the tech. This one in the form of a ready-made Hispanic husband.

But first, she'd have to get one.

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