With everyone telling Dirty Little Secrets…what’s a girl gotta do to stay alive?
When former bounty hunter Marisela Morales learns that her ex-boyfriend, Frankie Vega, is about to jump bail, she accepts the job to lure him back home. She might have lost her license to carry—and with it, her career as a bail enforcement agent—but seducing Frankie into her clutches is what she does best.
Only this time, hooking up with her ex gets her more trouble than she bargained for. Catapulted into a treacherous underworld of arms dealers, assassins and sinister double-crosses, Marisela doesn’t know if she’s descended into hell or finally found herself in kick-ass heaven. With Frankie at her side, she impersonates a hired killer, dodges bombs and bullets…and struggles to figure out if her super-sexy lover is her ticket out of her previously mundane world—or if he’s just setting her up to break her heart.
Note from Julie: This book was previously published in June 2005 by Simon & Schuster under the Pocket Books Downtown Press imprint. This version has been lightly edited to fix previous editing mistakes and has been re-released digitally for your Kindle, Nook or other e-reader device. I’m considering writing another Marisela adventure, if readers react well to this new version. Let me know if you want to see more books by popping me an email!
“I remember when you used to stroke me like that.”
Marisela Morales punctuated her pick-up line by blowing on the back of Francisco Vega’s neck. She watched her breath roll over the inky strands of hair and knew her luck had finally turned around.
Too clipped to be tamed by the strip of leather holding his ponytail, the soft downy blackness at his nape spiked. His fingers, visible as she glanced over his shoulder, drew streaks through the condensation on his beer bottle. Up and down. Slow and straight. Lazy, but precise. He toyed with his cerveza the same way he’d once made love to her, and for a split second, a trickle of moist heat curled intimately between Marisela’s thighs. For the moment, the part of her Frankie used to oh-so-easily manipulate was safe, encased beneath silky panties and skin-tight, hip-hugging jeans.
Tonight, she’d have him—but on her terms. The hunter had found her prey. Now, she just had to bring him in.
“I don’t remember taking time for slow strokes when you and me got busy, niña.”
Marisela sighed, teasing his neck with her hot breath one more time before she slid onto the barstool next to his. She’d been trying to track the man down for nearly a week. Who knew Frankie would turn up at an old haunt? Since they’d parted ways, Club Electric, a white box on the outside, hot joint on the inside, had changed names, hands and clientele a good dozen times. But a few things remained constant—the music, the raw atmosphere—and the availability of men like Frankie, who defined the word caliente.
Like the song said, Hot, hot, hot.
“We were young then,” Marisela admitted with a shrug, loosening the holster strap that cradled the cherished 9mm Taurus Millennium she wore beneath her slick leather jacket. “Now, I’m all grown up.”
Marisela wiggled her crimson fingernails at Theresa, the owner of the club. The way the older woman’s face lit up, Marisela figured she was going to get more than a drink. Damn. Marisela loved Theresa as if she were her aunt, but now wasn’t the time for…
“Oh, Marisela! Mija, how can I thank you for what you did?”
Yep. Exactly the greeting Marisela expected. The sentiment was as loud as it was sincere. So she’d done a nice thing for Theresa. The world didn’t have to know. Good deeds could ruin her reputation.
And a simple thank-you wasn’t enough for Theresa. She stepped up onto the shelf on the other side of the bar and practically launched herself into Marisela’s arms. Rolling her eyes at Frankie, Marisela gave the owner a genuine squeeze. She deserved as much. She was a good listener, kept great secrets and mixed the best Cuba Libre in town.
“De nada, Theresa,” Marisela said, gently disentangling herself. She appreciated the woman’s gratitude, but she had work to do. “Anything for you. Anytime. For you, drinks are on the house from now on, okay? You and…your friend.”
Even as she tried to be the courteous hostess, Theresa’s voice faltered when her eyes met Frankie’s. Marisela’s ex hadn’t been in the neighborhood for years. And in that time, he’d aged. His skin, naturally dark, now sported a rough texture, complete with a scar that traced just below his bottom lip. His jaw seemed sharper and his once perfect nose now shifted slightly to the right—likely the result of an untreated break. Even if he hadn’t matured from a devilish boy to a clearly dangerous man, he likely wouldn’t be recognized by anyone but Marisela and a few others who’d once known him well—the very “others” Marisela had made sure wouldn’t come into Club Electric again, on Theresa’s behalf.
“I never say no to free booze,” Marisela answered. “Gracias, Theresa.”
Theresa blew Marisela a kiss, patted her cheek, then moved aside to work on her drink. To most people, a Cuba Libre was just rum and coke with lime. To Marisela, it was a taste of heaven.
“What did you do for her?” Frankie asked, his voice even, as if he wasn’t really curious.
Marisela knew better. She slid her arms on the bar, arching her back, working out the kinks in her spine while giving Frankie an unhampered view of her breasts. She didn’t want him to waste his curiosity on what she’d done for Theresa; she wanted to pique his interest another way.
“Last week, las Reiñas chose this bar as their new hang-out. Not quite the clientele Theresa has in mind. Gangs aren’t exactly good for business. I politely asked them to pick someplace else.”
“Politely?” Frankie asked, his dark eyebrows bowed over his hypnotic eyes. “Last I remember, las Reiñas didn’t respond well to polite.”
Marisela shrugged. She’d earned a great deal of respect from her former gang by choosing to bleed out. Every fighting skill she’d ever learned, every survival instinct she’d ever experienced, had gotten her out alive. Barely.
“They’ve learned some manners while you’ve been gone. Lots of things have changed. Like,” she said, snagging his beer around the neck and taking a sip, “I don’t settle for fast and furious no more.”
Frankie didn’t move a muscle. “Is that so?”
She smoothed her tongue over her teeth, then licked the lip of his bottle, careful not to smudge her ruby red lipstick. He snagged his drink back and chugged, his gaze locked on her mouth. Frankie always had a thing for her lips. Marisela thought they resembled something between Julia Roberts and a grouper, but Frankie considered her thick, pouty flesh mighty fine. A detail she intended to use to her advantage, now that she’d found the man.
Theresa delivered her rum and coke, tall and icy with a wedge of lime. After another wary glance at Frankie, she left them alone.
“So you come here a lot?” he asked.
“Where else am I gonna go? This is West Tampa, not Miami. We’ve got one club and this is it.”
“There’s always Ybor City.”
“If you don’t mind drunks who can’t dance and ridiculous cover charges. This is still the neighborhood hot spot. You’d know that if you came around more.”
“I’ve been busy,” he answered, draining the rest of his beer.
She sipped her spiked cola. “And how was prison?”
He chuckled, slid his beer bottle away. “Big party,” he quipped. “I got out two years ago.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard.”
He snorted. He likely knew as well as she did that the precise location and activities of all the neighborhood kids—young, old and in between—were reported, catalogued and reported again from the shiny vinyl chairs of Viola’s Beauty Parlor, two blocks south of Columbus Drive. Their mothers both had standing appointments every weekend. And thanks to her mother’s devotion to the Saturday morning religion of gossip and speculation, Marisela knew precisely what Frankie had been up to over the last decade as if she’d been there herself. Gang. Prison. Dock work in Miami. Nothing too complicated.
Then a week ago, he’d shown up in Tampa uninvited and unexpected. After less than an hour in town, he’d been arrested for possession. Thanks to his parents, he’d made bail—and then he’d promptly disappeared.
Which was why she was here.
“So what have you been up to, Marisela?”
Her turn to snort. “Nothing too exciting. I did nails for a while. Worked at Wal-Mart. Graduated to Saks. Did some phone work and filing for Alberto Garcia, on the side. Now, I’m looking again.”
She conveniently left out the parts his mother couldn’t possibly have told him. Hardly anyone knew that her work for Alberto went beyond answering calls and shoveling papers. The owner of AAA-Able Bail Bonds had helped her out when her gang activity landed her in juvie. Instead of processing the teen and sending her on her way, he’d promise her a job. A real job. One where she’d put her fighting skills and gun experience to good use. She’d run little errands for him and trained her ass off until she turned twenty-one. Then, he’d put her in enforcement. For seven years, she’d tracked down bail-jumping bozos all across the state.
But Alberto had been careful not to send her into her own neighborhood to pick up strays. Called it a conflict of interest. So her secret life was safe. A good thing, too, since Frankie might not be so anxious to relive a little heat from their past if he knew she still carried a gun.
Illegally, but that was a fact she continued to ignore. She’d lost her license to carry and immediately thereafter, her position with AAA-Able. But she hadn’t given up her piece. What the cops didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them, but ditching her weapon could get her killed.
“So, you’re short on cash,” Frankie said with a nod, his lips slightly pursed, hinting that maybe he knew more than she’d hoped.
“Chasing deadbeats doesn’t appeal anymore?”
Damn. Frankie might have been away for a while, but he obviously still had contacts. Still, she wiggled her newly polished nails, the index fingers tipped with tiny fake diamonds and hoped to play down his knowledge of her enforcement activities. “Too hard on the manicure.”
He chuckled and downed the last of his beer. “Were you good?”
She sipped her Cuba Libre, enjoying the burst of the sweet carbonation against the smooth tang of the rum. “I’m good at lots of things.”
Man, Frankie had some incredible eyes. Technically, they were hazel, but the flecks of green glittered as deep and vivid as fine oriental jade. Offset by his swarthy skin, his irises simmered with hot intentions—every one of which Marisela could have guessed in great detail.
“Wanna dance?” she asked, flicking a glance at the dance floor. At Club Electric, the music pulsed as hard and bright as the neon lights. Salsa queen Celia Cruz covered Gloria Gaynor’s infamous “I Will Survive” in Spanish, singing, “Yo Viviré” in her distinctive soulful voice. The minute Marisela allowed herself to acknowledge the sounds, the rhythm seeped into her veins. Her shoulders and hips rocked and her feet itched to hit the dance floor and work off some of the fiery vibe slashing between her and Frankie.
“No,” he answered.
She didn’t hide her disappointment, pushing her lips into a thick pout. “Why not?”
“Not in the mood.”
She leaned forward, her lips inches from his ear as the crowd around them whooped and sang a chorus with Celia. “I can always put you in the mood, Frankie.” She shimmied her shoulders ever so slightly. “Like no other woman ever could.”
“We were young, Marisela. Didn’t take much to put either of us in the mood.”
She laughed, punched him in the shoulder then downed a few more gulps of her drink. A flush of warm heat surrounded her skin and she didn’t know if the reaction stemmed from their proximity to the masses on the dance floor or from being so close, and yet so far, from her first love.
Back in high school, she and Frankie had melted more than one dance floor—not to mention the damage they’d done to various back seats. He’d loved her wild ways, her innate curiosity. She’d wanted to explore the world, find her place outside the tight community she loved, but still resented. To date, she hadn’t gone anywhere too exotic, but her ambitions hadn’t died, even if they were harder to pursue with bills hitting the mailbox like baseball-sized hail.
Even after he’d chosen his gang over her, he’d kept her secrets. He’d never popped off to his hombres about her sexual appetites. The worst thing he’d ever done was break her teenage heart.
Now she was about to screw him in the worst possible way. Or maybe, the best way? Didn’t matter. Bottom line—she was going to royally piss him off, although for a good cause.
A very, noble cause. The noblest. Marisela may have skirted the law from time to time—well, she’d actually flashed and mooned the law on one or two occasions—but give her a benevolent purpose and she could be downright patriotic. And ruthless. Not that she needed a good reason to spend a little quality time with sexy, dangerous, Frankie Vega. But lucky for her, she had a good reason all the same. He was about to jump bail and she was going to stop him.
She finished her drink, slipped her fingers into her jacket pocket, threw a ten onto the bar and nodded toward the door.
“If you don’t want to dance, let’s go.”
She twisted off the barstool, but Frankie moved only to tilt his head toward hers so she’d hear him over the music and the crowd.
“How do you know I’m not waiting for someone?”
Surrendering to her instincts, Marisela drew one of her long fingernails over Frankie’s angular jawline. The rough rasp of his stubble ignited the nerves on her fingertips, sparking jolts of electric need in the tips of her breasts. “I don’t. But you just got a better offer.”