He’s an alpha pilot for K19 Security Solutions.
She’s a grieving sister, determined to get answers.
With ONYX by her side, their dark and blackened pasts may have a brighter future.
A crash and a coma has grounded me. Without flight, I’m a pilot without wings. I refuse to give up, give in. I need to be back in the air with nothing but gravity threatening me. For now, I’m recovering at the beach, biding my time. The last thing I need is a distraction to deter me from my goals—even if she’s a mirror image of the woman who stole and shattered my heart.
Answers, that’s all I’m after. My sister’s gone, and I’m hellbent on uncovering the truth. This guy—so damn sexy and rugged that it’s no wonder my twin fell for him—has the knowledge I want. I’ll stop at nothing to know what happened. Even if it means getting closer than I know I should. It won’t be easy though—ONYX is one cold and hardened stone.
“How was the harvest this year?” I asked my oldest brother, Carlos, more to be polite than because I cared. I’d never had any interest in growing grapes or making wine.
From the time I was a small boy, all I’d wanted to do was become a pilot. I followed a path from the Navy’s ROTC program, into college, active duty, Officer Candidate School, and finally into pilot training. Along with flying F/A-18 Hornets, I cross-trained in intelligence and explosive weaponry diffusion.
That training led me to be recruited to work for K19 Security Solutions, a firm founded by four of the CIA’s best operatives and agents. Hell, they were the world’s best.
It was my job with K19 that took me to South America that fateful day when my life irrevocably changed. I’d come as close to dying as any man ever had when I was shot at point-blank range while flying an aircraft that subsequently crashed.
Sure, everyone said it was a miracle I was alive, but I wasn’t. Not fully. I’d lost two parts of myself the minute the shot was fired.
First, my career as a pilot came to an end. The injuries I suffered would never heal well enough for me to fly again.
Second, the organ responsible for pumping blood throughout my body had turned black as coal when Corazón—the woman whose very code name meant heart—fired the gun, intending to kill me.
In the split second when I realized what was about to happen, my eyes met hers and I said what I thought would be my last words. “I love you, Corazón.”
She’d pulled the trigger anyway.
That was one year ago today, and in that time, I’d spent a month in a coma and four months learning to walk again. Learning to love again was something I’d never be able to do. I didn’t want to.
“Montano? Did you hear me?” Carlos asked.
“What did you say?”
He laughed and reached over to pat my shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. I know you never cared much about the vineyards.”
“Sorry, man. I got lost in thought for a minute.”
He nodded as though he understood. “Can you believe how big all these kids have gotten?”
“I can’t.” I’d spent so little time around my family over the past few years, I couldn’t remember the last time we’d all spent Thanksgiving together.
With five brothers and three sisters, all of whom, besides me, were married with kids, my parents’ place in Paso Robles, while large enough to raise us all, was a madhouse this year. Even though it was normally chilly this close to the Pacific Ocean, today was warm enough that we could be outdoors.
My sister Erlinda walked over to the side yard where my brother and I sat chatting. “Would you like more wine?”
I looked at my half-full glass. “I’m good.”
As she walked away, Carlos cleared his throat and held up his drink. “Ahem.”
“You didn’t almost die. You can get your own,” Erlinda said over her shoulder.
I watched my siblings’ kids as they ran around the large grassy area behind the house. When we were their age, there didn’t seem to be much time for playing. Even on holidays, there was work to do in the vineyards that sat on our parents’ property but were leased by my cousins, the Avilas, for their Los Caballeros Winery.
“Montano?” Mama called my name from the front yard.
“Someone actually expects you to get off your ass?” Carlos muttered, but I knew he was joking. He’d been there, along with my closest friend, Monk, through weeks of agonizing rehab when I was forced to work my body harder than I ever had.
“There’s someone here to see you,” she added.
I rounded the corner of the yard to the front of the house and gripped the porch’s railing when I saw the ghost that stood before me. “Corazón?”
“Corazón? Um, no, my name is Blanca Descanso.”
Simple words. A statement of fact. Yet, I could tell by the look on the woman’s face that she saw the pain speaking them caused me.
“I’m sorry…It hasn’t been easy to find you.”
I took the deepest breath I could, trying to refill my lungs with enough air to speak again. “Who are you?”
“Sofia Descanso was my sister.”
“Montano, introduce your friend to everyone,” said my mother, who I was sure had been hovering close enough to hear the few words the woman and I had spoken to one another. When she put her arm through mine, I was grateful for the strength that flowed from her into me.
“This is Blanca.”
“I am Esmeralda. Welcome to our home, Blanca.”
“Thank you, Esmeralda,” said the woman whose voice sounded so much like her sister’s that every word she spoke felt like a knife in my heart.
“Call me Mama, everyone does.” My mother released my arm and motioned to the woman to follow her. “Come, we’re just about to sit down for dinner.”
“Oh, I couldn’t. I don’t want to intrude.”
“You already have,” my mother responded but with a wink to soften what Blanca could’ve taken as rude.
She looked at me, perhaps hoping I’d intervene with my mother on her behalf, but I said nothing.
I walked beside them and studied her without bothering to hide I was. She looked so much like Corazón, I wondered if they were twins. Not Corazón—Sofia. While I’d referred to her as my heart, the woman hadn’t ever truly been.
Should I tell Blanca that in the weeks and months her sister and I had spent together, she never once mentioned a sibling? She said it hadn’t been easy to find me. How long had she been looking? More perplexing, who told her how to do so?
She looked at the table where my siblings were setting platters of food. “I forgot,” she mumbled. Her brow furrowed and her eyes met mine.
“What did you forget?”
She raised one hand to her cheek. “That it’s Thanksgiving. I haven’t celebrated the holiday in so long.”
“Your family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving?” asked my eavesdropping mother.
“Um…There isn’t anyone left.”
I took another step closer when her cheeks turned red and it appeared she might cry. “Come with me.”
I took her hand and led her away from the prying eyes of my relatives. I knew her mother had passed away when Sofia was a teenager, but I had no idea her father had also died.
“I’m sorry to hear about your dad,” I said without releasing my grasp. “When did it happen?”
“A month ago.” She looked down at our hands, and I let go. “It’s why I came back.”
“I’ve been living overseas.”
The expression was outdated and only used by a certain segment of the population. “Military?”
“My father was.”
I nodded, remembering then that he had been in the Army.
“I left home when I was eighteen.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “My family and I were…estranged.”
“Montano, come and eat,” my sister Erlinda hollered, waving at me.
“They won’t start without us.”
“I really should go.”
“Where you gonna go?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I know you don’t have another Thanksgiving dinner to attend since you forgot today was a holiday, sis.”
“Just a thing I do. Come on.” I took the same hand I held before. When we got to the long tables set up on the back lawn, there were only two open seats. I motioned for Blanca to precede me and helped with her chair.
“Thank you,” she said, her eyes meeting mine again.
“Montano, do you want to say grace?” asked my mother.
I laughed at the look of annoyance on my oldest brother’s face, the man seated at the head of the table. “Go ahead, Carlos.”
He cleared his throat and motioned for us all to hold hands. “Lord, bless this gathering of our family, a circle of strength and love.
“We are fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. With every marriage and every birth, the circle grows. Every joy shared adds more love. Every crisis faced together makes the circle stronger.
“Look down on us, Lord, and surround us all with your divine guidance and love. We thank you for the many blessings and great abundance in our lives. As we gather to celebrate this Thanksgiving, we are particularly thankful for the presence of our brother Montano and his friend Blanca. Amen.”
“Thank you,” I mouthed to him.
“It all smells so good,” she said as the dishes came around. “Not hungry?” she asked, looking at my near-empty plate.
I leaned back and patted my stomach. “Too many jalapeño poppers.”
“That’s why they were all gone,” said my sister Jada, who sat on the other side of me. When she elbowed me, I let out a cry that made her turn ghostly white.
I nudged her in return. “I’m just joshing with you, sis.”
When she tried to swat me, I leaned back too far and bumped into Blanca. “She made me do it,” I said, turning to apologize. Before I could speak, though, her beauty took my breath away.
Sure, she looked like Sofia, but there was more. Only now did I realize the shallowness of the eyes I’d peered into so often. In contrast, Blanca’s possessed a warmth that made me want to swim in their deep, dark richness.
“What?” she asked, reaching up to tuck a piece of hair behind her ear.
I leaned closer. “Your eyes…are beautiful.”
Her gaze remained on mine as she passed the bowl of chorizo stuffing. “I’m sorry. I know I remind you of her.” She shook her head. “I shouldn’t have come.”
“Why did you?” I asked, still close enough that I could speak without my boisterous family overhearing.
Blanca rested her fork on her plate. “I just…” She looked around and gave a small shake of her head.
I took the bowl with my left hand and patted hers with my right. “We’ll talk later.”
My mother and sisters had really outdone themselves. Besides turkey and stuffing, they’d prepared pork tamales, sweet potato black-bean enchiladas, roasted zucchini, and mashed potatoes. For dessert, there were pumpkin empañadas, pumpkin pie tamales, and my mother’s signature Mexican hot chocolate cookies.
When Blanca said my family should open a restaurant, I was plagued by conversations I’d had with her sister on the subject. More than continuing her career as a pilot, Sofia had wanted to be a chef.
Blanca leaned in my direction, perhaps picking up on my darkened mood. “I hope I didn’t say the wrong thing. It’s just that the food is all so delicious.”
I shook my head as much to get her sister out of it as to reassure Blanca. “It isn’t that.”
“Okay. Well, I’m sorry.”
She scooted her chair away from the table. “I should be going.”
“Going? You aren’t staying to help clean up?”
She gasped. “You must think I’m so rude. Of course I’ll help.”
I tried to keep a straight face, but her look of horror made me laugh out loud. “I’m just joshing you, sis.”
“Sis,” she said again, but not as a question this time.
“He does that to everyone,” said Jada. “Be glad he didn’t call you bro or dude. That’s what he usually calls me.”
“Where are you staying?” I asked.
“Not far from here. In a guesthouse at Los Caballeros Winery.”
“My cousins own Los Cab.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I guess there was a chance I might’ve been your sister-in-law.”
“No,” I said both too quickly and emphatically.
Her cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I keep saying the wrong thing.”
“It isn’t you,” I said, turning my head to look in the opposite direction. “Some things sit too close to the surface.”
“That, I understand.”
“Feel like taking a walk?”
“Um…sure. As long as your mother won’t think I’m ungrateful.”
“I was just joking earlier. No way my mama would let a guest help clean up. Come on.” I pushed my chair back like she had.
“Earlier, you asked why I came,” she said once we were a good distance from my family.
“Looking for answers, I suppose. Sofia wasn’t just my sister. I’m sure you guessed she was my twin. I know it sounds crazy, but even though we hadn’t spoken in years, I knew when she died.”
I nodded, doing my best to keep the nightmarish events of that day from replaying in my head.
“I know it must be hard for you too. Did you…I mean…were you…”
I could prompt her, help her formulate the question that might be hard for her to ask, but coming up with an answer would be even more difficult for me.
“My father said he thought you and Sofia might marry someday.”
I looked out over the rolling hills covered with the grapes my family tended. “I can’t say whether we would have or not.” In my line of work, “can’t say” meant something different than Blanca would likely assume.
“That was my father’s line when there was something he didn’t want to—or couldn’t—talk about.” She smirked and I chuckled.
“You got me there.” When we reached a crest in the vineyards, I pointed to a bench and we took a seat. My legs were stiff from inactivity, made more evident by the short walk uphill.
“It’s so beautiful here,” she murmured, looking out at the view that stretched all the way to the ocean.
“Growing up here, I didn’t appreciate it.”
“No? Do you now?”
“I guess I do.” I glanced in her direction. “How long will you be in town?” I asked rather than prompting her again to tell me why she was here. While she hadn’t elaborated, saying she was looking for answers was enough. The information she sought about her sister’s death would never be forthcoming, even to her family; it was classified.
“I haven’t made up my mind.”
There were countless things I would say under a different circumstance—one where the beautiful woman seated beside me wasn’t the identical twin of my would-be murderer. I might suggest reasons why she should stick around, some of which would include offering to keep her bed warm when the chill of the ocean breezes sent the nighttime temperatures plummeting. That I didn’t, only served as proof of how much the woman’s sister had shredded me. I was Latin, for God’s sake. I’d been successfully seducing the opposite sex since I reached puberty.
When I rested my arm on the back of the bench, I felt pulled to touch Blanca’s bare shoulder, itching to trail my fingertips up the side of her neck. Instead, I gripped the old wood hard enough that I felt the sting of splinters in my palm. Pain. It was a constant reminder of how much my life had changed. Not just my life—me.