Runaway Secret by Regan Black
Available on kindle April 23, 2015 – preorder your copy at Amazon today!
USA TODAY bestselling author Regan Black brings you the Taylor Point Task Force:
Someone on the elite Taylor Point Task Force is living a lie…
Marissa Richland joined the Taylor Point Task Force as a forensic analyst under an assumed name to protect a priceless secret. But when drug smugglers hijack a school bus, her past could lay waste to the one thing in her life she can’t lose.
DEA Special Agent Sean Grady lost the love of his life during an operation to take down a notorious drug lord. All he wants is one more chance to even the score, no matter where the trail leads him…
Only the clever minds and quick-strike response of the Taylor Point Task Force can keep a drug lord bent on vengeance from destroying the peace of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Black has knocked it out of the park with Runaway Secret!” -russte, reviewer
“…great romantic suspense, with strong characters and a timeless storyline.” -Karli, reviewer
“It’s THAT GOOD!” – cjr, reviewer
Taylor Point, South Carolina – Wednesday, 7:40 a.m.
“When will you have another baby, Momma?”
Marissa Richland choked on a sip of hot coffee as she turned toward her six-year-old daughter, meeting that serious, deep blue gaze that made her ache for dreams long gone. Dreams she couldn’t quite keep buried. “That’s a big question on a busy morning, Erin.” Times like these, times with increasing questions that would only become more frequent as Erin grew up, made her wonder how she’d ever survive this journey as a single mother.
“Mrs. Trenham is having a baby over the summer,” Erin said around a mouthful of cereal.
“Chew first,” Marissa reminded her automatically as she finished packing Erin’s lunch.
Obediently, her little girl chewed and swallowed, then finished her orange juice. “I’m not a baby anymore,” she said with a gravity first-graders shouldn’t possess.
“I’m aware of that, Junebug.” She smiled, hiding the pain that haunted her daily from the light of her life.
“Sara says mommies are supposed to have more than one baby.”
Marissa’s heart flipped in her chest as she faced her daughter. At one time, the plan was for three children. They’d even had a short list of names. But plans changed and she was grateful for every day with her precious, if precocious child. From the start, Erin had studied the world through eyes identical to the stunning blue of her father. Along with his ornery grin and boundless curiosity.
“Some mommies get it right the first time,” she replied, smoothing the feathery wisps of silky golden hair escaping Erin’s ponytail. “Just like I did with you.”
“Sara says you won’t have more babies because I don’t have a daddy.”
Marissa bit her tongue. Erin’s friend Sara was full of interesting opinions. “Isn’t her mommy having a baby soon?”
“Yes!” Erin’s shoulders sagged and she thrust out her chin with Broadway-worthy exasperation. “Why can’t we have a baby? I really want a brother.”
Erin sat up straight and nodded. “Yes! ’Cuz then we won’t have to share a room and fight over toys and dress up.”
“I see.” Marissa tried not to laugh. “We’ll talk about it after school. If we don’t get a move-on we’ll both be late.”
Unfortunately the car ride to school didn’t grant Marissa any reprieve. The full bloom of colorful azaleas in the yards had faded in recent days and Erin wouldn’t be distracted by talk of a weekend picnic to see the buttercups and mountain laurel that were peaking now. Repeating her earlier proclamation that she was no longer a baby, Erin declared it was time for her to start riding the bus to and from school.
“You’re not the only one who gets dropped off,” Marissa pointed out as they waited for the car pool lane to advance. She enjoyed this time with her daughter. The years were already speeding by and since Erin’s father couldn’t be part of their lives, Marissa felt as though she should be doubly attentive. It wasn’t logical, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances.
“I want to ride the bus,” Erin insisted as they inched closer to the designated drop off point. “I’m a big kid, even if I don’t have a baby brother.”
Marissa had no response for that first-grader logic. “You only have two more weeks left before summer break. Why don’t we plan on changing to the school bus for the fall?”
“Now, Momma. Please.” She stretched out the word. “I’m almost a second-grader. All the other big kids ride the bus. I can do it.”
Today or in August, Marissa knew she wouldn’t be happy about the change. Better to concede this particular battle with a little dignity. “All right,” she said, stifling the sigh. She pulled out of the car pool lane and found a parking space.
“What are you doing?” Erin asked, eyes wide. “You can’t walk me in.”
“If you want to ride the bus starting today, I have to go into the office to make the change,” Marissa explained.
“Oh. That’s okay.”
She refrained from adding that she’d still need to be home to unlock the house for Erin. Six years might be well past babyhood, but it was far too young to be home alone, even in a town as quiet and safe as Taylor Point. There were neighbors Erin could stay with after school, but Marissa wasn’t ready to give up that much time. Her post on the Taylor Point Task Force allowed her flexible hours that made being a single parent easier. If today was any sign, Erin would be requesting more independence soon enough.
Automatically, Erin took her hand as they walked through the parking lot, but she dropped it the minute they reached the sidewalk. “I can go from here.”
Marissa knelt down and gave her daughter a quick hug at the main door. “Have a good day.”
With a fast kiss, Erin was off, leaving Marissa with teary eyes in the middle of the morning arrival rush. She blinked away the emotions and headed into the school office. If her child choosing the bus over the car made her want to cry, she’d surely have a nervous breakdown long before middle school.
When the unpleasant task was complete, she soothed her battered maternal emotions with a stop at the coffee shop for a decadent white chocolate mocha and a box of doughnuts for the office. Parking in her usual spot behind the police station, she gathered the tall coffee, box of doughnuts, and her purse. She was looking forward to the distraction of work to take her mind off Erin’s sudden demand for independence and siblings.
“What’s wrong?” Officer Leah Perkins, the newest addition to the team asked as she relieved Marissa of the doughnut box.
One of the challenges of being part of a small town task force was that she worked closely with a group of highly observant people. “Nothing’s wrong,” she replied, her voice catching on the lie. She cleared her throat. “It’s a beautiful morning and coffee and pastry are a beautiful combination.”
Leah tipped her blonde head toward the cup Marissa carried and gave an exaggerated inhale. “White chocolate mocha is a sure sign of trouble.”
Marissa shook her head. The younger woman had grown up in the area and was known as an expert tracker. Marissa was starting to believe she was part bloodhound. “Maybe it’s a sure sign I’m celebrating,” she said, settling into her chair and stowing her purse in the bottom drawer of her desk.
Leah rested her palms on the far edge and leaned close, studying Marissa’s face. “Take off the shades.”
Marissa pushed the sunglasses up into her hair, keeping her gaze lowered.
“I knew it. Something’s wrong.”
“Leah,” Marissa said, thoroughly exasperated. “My morning has had enough challenges. It’s nothing serious, I promise.”
“You have the frown.” She wagged a finger at her own eyebrows. “You know I’ll listen.”
“That’s thoughtful, thank you.” Marissa shooed her away. If she talked about it, she’d start welling up again and she’d never in all her years in law enforcement shed a tear in public. Not even when she’d been shot by a ruthless drug lord during a bust in Florida.
Of course, she’d passed out quickly that day and awakened far from home, pregnant and alone. Since then, as a single mom, she rarely felt like she had any time to cry for what might’ve been.
“Hey, doughnuts. All right.” Officer Tim Davidson walked in, making a beeline for the box on the counter near the coffee pot. “Which of you lovely ladies gets my undying gratitude?”
From across the room, Leah rolled her eyes at Marissa. “I needed coffee,” Marissa explained, “and thought the rest of you needed the calories.” Tim was all swagger and bravado, but they both appreciated his investigative skills. He patted his flat belly and gave her a big smile as he settled at his desk.
“How goes it?” he asked Leah. “Did I miss anything?”
Marissa shot him a curious look. Tim usually arrived well before her, but no one managed to beat Leah into the office. Their boss, Vince Gleason, the head of their small task force, gave Marissa a bit of leeway since she drove Erin to school. She made a mental note to let him know that wouldn’t be an issue anymore. She’d do it tomorrow, she decided, after she followed the bus to school.
“Duty calls,” Vince said, coming to the door of his office. “State patrol just made a stop on Highway 11 and they want us to come take a look.” He shifted his attention to Marissa. “Name, plates, and the rest of the early details will be coming your way.”
Tim and Leah left with Vince while Marissa stayed behind. Since her relocation to Taylor Point, Marissa rarely went into the field. She was the only single parent on the team and in a town as small and close as Taylor Point that made a difference. While she appreciated the consideration, her parental status wasn’t the real reason. The DEA team who’d placed her here after the bust fell apart in Florida had made it clear to Vince that Marissa should have as little direct contact with drug smugglers and runners as possible.
There were days when she marveled that Vince had signed off and hired her at all. Her co-workers assumed her limitations had something to do with an injury. They were a small team in a small town, saddled with breaking up current drug trafficking routes through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Her contribution here primarily involved her expertise with computer research and a little forensic accounting. Her years of experience with the DEA, the years that ended abruptly with her supposedly-fatal gunshot wound, were better off forgotten.
Aside from the challenges of motherhood, she’d discovered that building a life here with Erin had made their manufactured identity almost more real than the past she’d had to leave behind.
Without Erin, she might have been able to let go and forget the love of her life she’d left behind. Except their daughter bore such a strong resemblance to him it often felt like she’d never be able to move on entirely. Just as the emotions neared the surface, her email inbox chimed with the raw pictures from the scene.
“Thank God for another chance to catch the bad guys,” she said, compiling the details. The tags on the car were most likely bogus, but it was a strange hole in one of the tail lights that caught her attention.
She zoomed in, telling herself it wasn’t a big deal, though she knew better. They’d seen it often enough among drug runners in Florida, a small hole drilled into a red taillight. It made tracking a vehicle easier, enabling chase cars to hang back, especially at night or on crowded interstates. A common practice among criminals during her time in Florida, this was the first time she’d seen it used here. Nerves made her palms damp and she reminded herself that the low-tech solution was hardly proprietary to one cartel.
She made a note, and moved on to the next group of facts to verify or prove false. The driver, Denny Willet, lived in Taylor Point, just a few blocks away from her. Startled, Marissa sat back. Denny had given his real name, as he should considering everyone knew everyone else around here. She didn’t know him well, but she’d seen his wife at the school on several occasions. Their two children were older than Erin.
In a small town there were few real secrets and Taylor Point was no exception. She’d heard no rumors about Willet having criminal associations or financial trouble. Everyone has a first time, she thought. It was her job to find out what factors had sucked him into the risky role of smuggler.
More candid photos of the scene came in, showing a trunk full of dime bags of cocaine. Having expected marijuana, the plastic wrapped bricks of white surprised her. She zoomed in, enlarging the pictures until what seemed to be a black circular smudge turned into a stylized snake.
She gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth to catch the involuntary sound. On reflex she looked around the office, relieved she was alone. There was no mistaking the image or the threat. That snake marked product belonging to Raymond Santiago, a notorious drug lord who headed an illegal empire along the gulf coast of Florida.
The white chocolate mocha curdled in her stomach and a buzzing started in her ears. Any semblance of peace, any hope for maintaining her secrets, abruptly ended. She reached for her purse, her brain automatically calculating the minutes before she could be away from here with Erin. Assuming the school office was empty it would be less than fifteen, maybe ten.
She should go. Get up, walk out, leave Taylor Point and everything they’d built behind her. The instinct to run was so strong her hands shook.
She forced herself to breathe, to be rational. She looked back at the stamped bricks and reminded herself no one here knew about her past and no one from her past knew she was here. Marissa Richland, single mother of Erin, and officially the research expert on the anti-drug task force was her present reality.
In Taylor Point most of their task force action revolved around local contraband, encompassing a variety of crimes from marijuana growers to illegal distilleries. The local roads weren’t exclusive routes anymore as patrols buckled down on major thoroughfares. Vince briefed them regularly about the inevitability of bigger drug operations moving product through these mountains.
Drawing in another shaky breath, Marissa calmed herself. She’d believed she was ready for situations like this, yet her paranoia held her in an icy grip. A trunk full of cocaine on Highway 11 did not make this about her. It was too soon to panic. The push and pull of advancements and strategies between the drug smugglers and law enforcement was simple. Finding Raymond Santiago’s notorious stamp on those drugs didn’t mean he’d found her – the DEA special agent who’d killed his son seven years ago. Everyone involved with that bust believed she was dead.
Technically, she was. Legally, professionally, even emotionally, that agent – that woman – could never be resurrected. From the moment Erin had entered the world, Marissa’s options had dwindled and her priorities had been reduced to one laser-focused point: protect her child. Erin was everything. The only thing.
In the early years, Marissa had hoped her heart would heal from the necessary deception. Now, she knew better. Necessary didn’t get easier, but every day, watching her daughter grow and thrive, she knew the sacrifices were worth it.
Unfortunately, Santiago’s stamp on those drugs meant Vince would have to send this information up the line to the DEA. A burst of images and memories of her old team, her old life, flooded her.
A little voice in her head told her to stop stalling and get away while she had the chance. She couldn’t afford to be discovered by anyone.
No. She wouldn’t yield to fear and leave her team in the lurch. Santiago had been captured and in custody – if primarily house arrest – all this time. His stamp struck fear in his competitors and adversaries alike. It was essentially a label, not an omen.
To put her mind at ease, she did a quick search for Santiago’s current status. Records showed he’d been transported to a courthouse in Florida yesterday. Satisfied, she resumed her work, processing the information her team sent in, starting with Willet.
Based on the operating patterns she remembered from the past, someone from Santiago’s cartel had started exploiting locals. First time offenders were disposable as the smugglers learned new routes and police habits. Willet might be the first one they’d caught, but he wouldn’t be the only new recruit. If Marissa knew anything, it was how to research and unravel the details criminals liked to hide.
All she had to do was pull herself together and focus.
Fort Myers, Florida – Noon
“Sir?” Special Agent Sean Grady looked up from his computer into the dour face of his supervisor, Collin Matthews.
Matthews waved him over. “My office.”
Sean crossed the bullpen, entering the office and closing the door behind him. The Florida sunshine pouring through the windows didn’t alleviate the wary feeling prickling at the back of Sean’s neck. Matthews had no flair for the dramatic. He was smart, clear spoken, and levelheaded in both the office and the field.
“Have a seat,” Matthews began, sinking into the chair behind his desk.
Reluctantly, Sean took the chair closest to the window. Sitting meant this wouldn’t be quick and that meant he probably wouldn’t leave the office in a good mood. He could tell his boss was about to drop a bomb on what passed for normal in Sean’s life.
“Santiago is in the wind.”
“No way.” His stomach clenched. It couldn’t be possible. For seven years he’d had nightmares about this very scenario. This wasn’t happening. Matthews’ grim expression quickly defeated Sean’s wishful thinking. Sitting forward, he braced his elbows on his knees, working out the possible next steps. Despite the sunshine pouring over his shoulder, he felt nothing but the cold, bitter reality. “When? Hell, how did he do it?”
Since the original bust, his team and the agency as a whole had done everything in their power to limit Santiago’s reach from behind his wall of attorneys with only marginal success. After years of delay the bastard was finally scheduled to face a jury and answer for killing two special agents, including Sean’s fiancée, Lisa Brockwell. What should have felt like a moral victory turned into a heavy ball of lead in his gut. “How?” he repeated, meeting Matthews’ somber gaze. “And what are we doing about it?”
One way or another Santiago would pay for Lisa’s death.
Matthews’ chair squeaked as the bigger man shifted. “I’ve been walking through the schedule. He arrived at the courthouse an hour ahead of the scheduled jury selection. His attorneys booked a conference room and the courtroom was closed to the press, so it’s hard to know exactly when he disappeared.”
“Have they searched the courthouse for his body? The man had plenty of enemies.” Sean would happily send flowers and a thank you note if someone had killed Santiago.
“Nothing so convenient. Would’ve saved the taxpayers some money though,” Matthews admitted.
“We should’ve been there.” Sean jerked to his feet, his hands fisted at his sides. “With Santiago more eyes are always better. I should’ve been there.” He scrubbed at his face and stalked toward the window.
“Absolutely not.” Matthews aimed a finger at him. “This is a perfect example of why you couldn’t be there. You never could’ve stayed out of his face.”
True, behaving would’ve been a challenge. “I’ve never let you down.”
“I know that,” Matthews said quickly. “Just as I know neither of us has fully recovered from the high price we paid the day we brought the bastard down.”
“This team does good work,” Sean reminded himself as well as his supervisor.
“Excellent work,” Matthews agreed. “That doesn’t mean we should blow our reputation in a public courtroom over scum like Santiago.”
Sean bit back the rant. He needed to act on this. ‘Scum’ wasn’t a strong enough word for the greedy, deadly criminal Santiago had proven to be while dressed in tailored suits and sending his children to exclusive private schools.
“Water under the bridge,” Sean used what had been one of Lisa’s favorite sayings. They couldn’t change yesterday, but they could take action now. “Where do you think he is?”
Matthews sighed. “I just got the footage from the surveillance cameras in and around the courthouse. It’s up to us to try and identify his exit.”
“The courthouse security doesn’t know?” Sean asked incredulously.
Matthews shook his head, his mouth set in a hard line.
“How is that possible? You think someone inside helped him.”
“Someone well-connected has to be in on this. His lawyers claim Santiago was cooperating with the process.”
“Naturally,” Sean grumbled. “Because he’s so eager to do a stretch in prison.” He pulled a chair around the desk and settled next to Matthews to search the video footage for a man who knew better than most how to avoid capture.
Santiago had been running drug operations on this side of the Gulf for decades. At fifty-five, he remained fit and, until a few years ago, relatively out of reach of authorities. If not for Lisa finding a shift in Santiago’s routine, they might never have dropped a net on him. Sean had been prepped by prosecutors for his day on the stand next week. He’d been looking forward to it, to facing off against the bastard who’d stolen his future wife along with every good thing from his life.
They scanned surveillance angles for over an hour and came up empty. “He didn’t just vaporize,” Sean said, though it was starting to feel that way. He swore, pushing to his feet to pace the width of the office. They’d reviewed every damn cab coming and going from the courthouse and the license plates on every car. Other than the car Santiago had arrived in, they hadn’t found anything connected to the drug lord. In fact, that car hadn’t left the parking garage until the end of the day.
“Let me go down to the courthouse,” Sean suggested, desperate to find a lead. “Just to take a walk around,” he added at his boss’s skeptical expression. “I won’t talk to anyone.”
“No.” Matthews didn’t look at him. “Grab fresh coffee for both of us. And your laptop. I’ll start checking with regional airports.”
With a frown, Sean did as requested as his boss picked up his phone. When he returned to the office several minutes later, he had to cool his heels while Matthews finished up a call.
Matthews gave him a thumb’s up sign. “We’ll be on our way within the hour,” he said as he dropped the handset back on the cradle and sat back, a tight smile on his face. “I have a lead.” His hands went to the keyboard.
“And?” Sean pressed when Matthews didn’t explain.
“First, I forwarded you an email that just came in. Drugs with Santiago’s stamp turned up in South Carolina this morning. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to be more precise.”
“That’s a bit far from his current territory.”
“Agreed.” Matthews was shutting down his desktop computer. “Second, however he escaped from the courthouse, I think he’s at least eighteen hours ahead of us. According to the helpful concierge at Page Field, a local pilot picked up a last minute charter yesterday afternoon,” Matthews explained. “Grab your bag and let’s run it down.”
Sean’s vision hazed red at the edges. “If he hopped a charter, he’s in Mexico and out of reach by now.” There had to be a way to get him back stateside to answer for some, if not all, of his crimes.
“I don’t think so.” Matthews pointed to the phone. “The concierge said the pilot filed a flight plan for Asheville, North Carolina.”
Sean nodded, but he wasn’t holding his breath that the flight plan was legit. Santiago was as sneaky and slippery as the snake emblem he used to mark his supply. Sean wanted him behind bars – preferably on death row – for murdering Lisa.
“Snap out of it,” Matthews barked. “Let’s get to the airport for a positive ID and work the case from there.”
An hour later, with Santiago’s head shot in hand, they had confirmation that the drug lord had been at the small airfield the day before. Assuming it wasn’t some bogus setup, Santiago had in fact fled to Asheville. Sean’s throat went dry. He and Lisa had once talked about honeymooning in that area. The pilot hadn’t yet returned to Florida, but the concierge made a call and confirmed that the plane was still at the small airfield in North Carolina.
“Did he buy the damned Biltmore estate?” Sean grumbled. It wasn’t like Santiago to take a personal interest in details like new routes or mules.
While Matthews worked out details so they could follow the drug lord, Sean made calls to the businesses and security offices at the destination, hoping to get a lead on who Santiago had met when he’d landed. Once they were in the air, Matthews and Sean reviewed the evidence trickling in from the local task force in Taylor Point, South Carolina.
“This is a seriously small town,” Sean said, looking at the demographics.
“You and I know that can work to our advantage. We need all the help we can get to patrol all those backroads and anyone new in town will stand out.”
Sean shrugged in tacit agreement. The illegal drug trade was booming and notoriously brutal lords like Santiago, with their God-complexes and endless funds, could make nearly anyone cooperate with criminal agenda. “What if this is a wild goose chase?” Sean asked. “Santiago could have us looking one way while he slips back to Mexico.”
Matthews bounced his fist against the armrest of his seat. “He could’ve done that months, hell years, ago. Either his lawyers know something we don’t about his trial, or he has a new agenda.”
Over the past years, Santiago’s legal team had used every possible loophole to delay proceedings and keep their client out of jail. Sean didn’t believe the lawyers had run across any new details in Santiago’s favor, but something had clearly changed for Santiago to bolt now.
Despite his best efforts, the case and evidence flashed through Sean’s mind again. Lisa’s lifeless body had been hauled away before he’d been able to say goodbye. It still haunted him that he had nothing of her but the engagement ring the DEA returned to him before she’d been cremated according to her wishes. There was no gravesite to visit, nowhere to leave flowers in remembrance. Since that terrible day, he’d worked his ass off to break Santiago and end his poisonous operation.
He wasn’t about to stop now.