The Mercenary’s Kiss
Laredo, Two Years Later
Jeb Carson wanted a night of hard drinking, wild whoring, and a plate full of hot, American food. He didn’t care in what order he got them, just that he did. There were times in a man’s life when his needs overrode all else.
Now was one of those times.
He’d ridden hard through northern Mexico toward the Texas border for days. The anticipation drove him hour after long, dusty hour. He didn’t analyze this need to get back to his homeland. That being in America was where he should be. Now that he was back on her soil, he couldn’t wait to have what he’d always taken for granted.
He swept an assessing glance around him. Laredos streets bustled with commerce and evening activity signs that the place had grown since hed been here last. No one seemed to notice a couple of strangers riding in.
“That belly of yours growls any louder, the whole damn town will know we’re here.”
Jeb glanced at Credence Sherman, the only person he trusted enough to call friend. “Can’t help it. Got a strong hankering for a big, thick steak.”
“Sizzlin’ in its own juices.” Creed grunted. “Me, too.”
They pulled up at a small saloon at the edge of the plaza and dismounted. The interior was cool, dim, and unexpectedly crowded.
Jeb preferred crowds. Easier for a man to go unnoticed.
“What’ll it be, boys? A place at the bar? Or your own table?”
He glanced at the first bona fide American woman he’d seen since he left the country six years earlier. She wore an apron around her waist, and she was older than he was by a decade or so, but she was clean, and her features were pretty enough to warrant looking at twice. Jeb guessed by the way she was looking back, she was available, too.
“A table,” he said, letting his gaze linger. “We’re staying a while.”
“Glad to hear it.” She tossed him a provocative smile and led them toward the last empty table, wedged in a dark corner at the back of the saloon and hidden from view by anyone walking in. By the sway of her hips, she knew what he was thinking.
After seating them, she left with a promise to bring back a couple of stiff whiskeys. Jeb watched her go, his blood warming just looking at those hips.
“Keep your pants fastened, compadre,” Creed said. “She’s practically old enough to be your mother.”
Jeb allowed a small smile. He hadn’t thought of his mother in years, and he stifled the thought of her now. “Doesn’t matter. She’s warm, breathing, and female.”
“You’ve always been able to get any woman you want. Take your time. You’ve got all night.”
“I’m not feeling choosy at the moment. Or patient.”
Creed’s amusement deepened. “Damn, but you’re jaded.”
Jeb hadn’t had a woman since . . . when? Havana. A little Cuban beauty who’d betrayed him the next morning to her Spanish-loyalist lover.
The incident had nearly cost Jeb his life. But with a fair share of determination and guts, he escaped the Spanish soldiers holding him prisoner. Within hours, a riot erupted, and both the woman and her lover were killed.
Jeb felt no remorse from his part in it. She had double-crossed him-and the United States, who sent him there to help her people. She paid the price for her treason.
As if he, too, remembered, Creed fell silent, and Jeb knew what he was thinking.
War was pure hell. And it was good to be back home.
Creed possessed skin as sun-darkened as Jeb’s, his build as tall, as muscular. Fast friends from their days at West Point Military Academy, they’d formed a partnership based on mutual trust, equal skills.
And a shared passion for rebellion against rules.
Jeb had been born with nerves of steel. Few could match his thirst for risk, that ever-present flirtation with danger he found exhilarating. Only Creed was cut from the same cloth. They’d saved each other’s necks more often than Jeb cared to count.
But there, their similarities ended. Creed was headed home to a large, loving family, to his childhood sweetheart he hoped was still waiting for him.
Jeb had no one. At least, no one who cared if he came back or not.
The barmaid returned with their drinks, and without sparing her a glance, Jeb threw back a quick swallow. The whiskey burned the bitterness that flared inside him. A second swallow buried it altogether. He reached inside his coat pocket for a rolled cigarette, then tucked it unlit at the corner of his mouth.
“We’ll head for San Antonio in the morning,” he said and rooted for a match. “I figure you can take the Southern Pacific to Los Angeles. I’ll send word you’re arriving, and–.”
“Come with me, Jeb.”
“No.” His mood souring again, he found the box he was looking for.
“You can find work out there. You–.”
“We’ve had this discussion already, Creed.”
“Then what the hell are you going to do?” “I’ll think of something. I always do, don’t I?”
Suddenly, near his left ear, a match struck flint. He stilled. Creed’s attention jumped upward to whoever stood in the shadows beside him.
“Allow me, Mr. Carson.”
The sharp scent of sulfur reached his nostrils. An arm appeared. Jeb dared to dip the end of his cigarette into the flame. He drew in deep. Only then, did he look to see who held the match.
A tall, burly-chested man, well into his thirties. He wore a military uniform signifying him as a field officer in the United States Army.
Jeb leaned back in his chair. He narrowed an eye. “Have we met?”
“But you know who I am.”
The officer glanced over his shoulder, as if wary someone was listening. “I’d like to join you, if you don’t mind.”
Jeb’s instincts warned he wouldn’t want any part of why this man sought him out. But before he could refuse, Creed pulled out a chair, and the officer seated himself.
“My name is Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Kingston.” He kept his voice low. “I’m here on direct orders from Mr. Alger.”
Jeb put the cigarette to his lips again. He’d been gone a long time, but he made it a point to keep up with the happenings in Washington. Warning bells clamored in his brain. “Russel A. Alger?”
“Yes, sir. Secretary of War for the United States.”
Jeb exchanged a grim glance with Creed.
“We need your help,” Kingston said.
“I’m not interested.”
The officer’s lips thinned. “You don’t know what I’m asking.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not interested.”
“Mr. Carson.” Desperation threaded through the words, and Jeb recognized the officer’s restraint to keep from showing it. “Perhaps this will convince you of the seriousness of my request.”
Jeb didn’t bother to look at the paper Kingston slid toward him. “How did you find me?”
The officer met his hard gaze squarely. “We’ve made a point of keeping track of you.” His glance touched on Creed before returning to Jeb. “Both of you.”
“I’ve been out of the country for–.”
“-five years and eleven months.”
“Where exactly have I been, Lieutenant Colonel?” he asked softly.
“South America. Madrid. Havana. Manilla. Puerto Rico. Santiago. In that order.”
A slow fury simmered inside him. Suspicions surfaced. “How could you have known I’d be here at this saloon? Tonight?”
The officer’s gaze never wavered. “We have sentries out watching for you at the border towns. We knew you’d arrived in Mexico on–.”
Jeb’s arm snaked out, and he grabbed the man’s shirt hard, yanking him half out of his seat. “My father sent you, didn’t he?”
A sheen of perspiration formed on the officer’s upper lip. For the first time, his gaze wavered. But only for a moment. “I told you. I received my orders to contact you from Mr. Alger.”
“Bullshit.” Disgusted, Jeb shoved him away.
Kingston righted himself in his chair and cleared his throat. “It is, er, possible that General Carson would be aware of”-he drew in a breath, clearly uncomfortable with the information he was about to impart-“of Mr. Alger’s intent.”
Jeb glared at him. “Tell the General he can go to hell.”
“I don’t think I’ll do that, sir.”
“And don’t call me ‘sir’!” Jeb snapped.
He downed the rest of the whiskey in one savage gulp, then raked a harsh glance around the crowded saloon. Where was that damn barmaid? He caught her eye, gestured for another drink. She nodded and winked. Jeb ignored her.
“The document looks legitimate,” Creed said, his low voice penetrating the storm raging inside Jeb. Creed slid the paper closer.
Because Creed wanted him to, Jeb looked at it. He recognized the presidential seal in the letter head, the signature scrawled at the bottom.
“It’s a copy,” Jeb snarled. “Could be forged.”
“Maybe not,” Creed said, but he dragged his gaze to the lieutenant colonel. “And then again, maybe it is.”
Kingston shook his head emphatically. “President McKinley wrote the letter to the Secretary, Mr. Carson, but it’s about you. Mr. Alger has the original. For obvious reasons, of course. He didn’t want to risk the information falling into the wrong hands.”
The barmaid appeared, and the conversation halted. Jeb snatched the bottle of whiskey from her and re-filled his glass himself.
“And whose hands might that be?” he demanded after she left.
Jeb breathed an oath. He didn’t want to know. Or feel.
“There have been reports of revolutionary activities against the government of President Porfirio Diaz,” Kingston said quickly before Jeb could stop him. “The people are angry at his tyranny. The government is getting rich off them. Diaz is taking their land, and they’ve found hope in a young upstart named Emiliano Zapata.”
“Zapata.” Jeb recognized the name of the man who was fast acquiring a reputation as a fierce fighter.
“Yes. But the United States has refused to support him, and to retaliate, Zapata’s men have been robbing Americans on both sides of the border to fund their activities. One man in particular has shown himself to be unusually dangerous. His name is Ramon de la Vega.”
“So?” But the name branded itself into Jeb’s memory.
“We’ve cut off the flow of arms into Mexico, and he and his rebels aren’t happy with us. Last week, they stopped a train just outside of Eagle Pass northwest of here, robbed it and killed a dozen people. The month before, they raided a small village and killed another twenty.”
Jeb’s fingers tightened around the glass. “How do I fit into all this?”
“President McKinley fears a major revolution is forthcoming if Zapata and De la Vega are not stopped.”
“And we feel that, with your expertise–.”
“Find someone else.”
“There’s none other. I mean, you’re highly recommended, sir.”
Jeb snorted. Again, he thought of his father. “I’ll bet.”
“By Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. Among others.”
Jeb had ridden with the man and his troops during an attack on San Juan Hill in Santiago. It’d been a privilege to be part of the initiative with them. But Jeb refused to be swayed by Roosevelt’s influence, even in a matter as serious as this one.
“There are thousands of American forces who can do a hell of a lot more effective job than I can,” he said. “Enlist them instead.”
“Mr. Carson.” Kingston slid another uneasy glance at Creed, as if imploring his help in convincing Jeb to his way of thinking. But Creed merely leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest, keeping the discussion on Jeb’s terms. “Let me be frank here. Your skills as a soldier–.”
“I’m not a soldier in the truest sense of the word, am I, Lieutenant Colonel? My father saw to that years ago.”
“A mercenary, then.”
A cold smile curved Jeb’s lips. For the first time since Kingston arrived, some of the tension eased. “That’s more like it.”
The officer withdrew a thick packet from inside his uniform. “Mr. Alger promises generous payment for your services and has instructed me to give you the first installment.”
Jeb snorted. “And what happens to the rest of the money if I end up dead?”
“We certainly hope that isn’t the case, sir.”
“Let me explain something to you.” He took one last drag on the cigarette, exhaled slowly and crushed the ashes in a small bowl. “I’ve been gone a long time. In fact, Creed and I have been back only a couple of hours. As you know.” His mouth quirked. “I’ve spent nights in muddy trenches, sweated days in mosquito-infested jungles. I’ve been shot at, knifed, beaten to within an inch of my life. I’ve been taken prisoner, and I’ve escaped. All in the name of my country.”
Once, he thought nothing of leaving the United States behind. A foreign country-it didn’t matter which one-offered danger and adventure. An opportunity to slake the hurt and rebellion gnawing inside him.
He’d come full circle. He traveled the world. Saw some things no man should see. Did some things no man should do. He’d evolved into a man who made his own rules and lived by them.
He was a patriot. Pure and simple.
But he’d had enough.
“Find someone else,” Jeb said again and took another swig of whiskey.
“Mr. Carson.” The Lieutenant Colonel appeared crestfallen at the finality in Jeb’s tone. “You’re the best for the job. Your reputation to accomplish where others have failed is-is legendary.”
Jeb smirked. Legendary? Would the great and mighty General William Carson think as much of his son?
“Jeb has plans, Lieutenant Colonel,” Creed said, speaking up for the first time. “Chasing after Mexican revolutionaries doesn’t fit into them.”
“Plans?” The officer frowned. “That’s right.” Jeb grabbed onto the line Creed tossed him. “Heading west first thing in the morning.”
Going to California wouldn’t be a bad idea, after all, he decided. Creed’s family would accept him for the man he was. No questions asked. Something his own father had never been able to do.
“Is there anything I can offer you to make you change your mind?” Kingston asked. “More money, perhaps. I’m sure Mr. Alger would understand.”
“No.” He slid the packet back to the officer, who reluctantly returned it to the pocket inside his uniform. Jeb stood, and Kingston did the same. “Now, if you’ll excuse us. Creed and I plan to celebrate our return to this fine country.” J
eb watched the officer go. He steeled himself against thoughts of revolutionaries. Of war and death.
Of being needed.
Instead, he forced his thoughts ahead to the pleasures that awaited him. Plenty of whiskey. A willing woman. And that thick, juicy steak.
For the first time in a hell of a long time, life was good.