Into the lair, p.1
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       Into the Lair, p.1

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
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  Dedication

  To Valerie, who I finally got to meet in person.

  Chapter One

  Katie Buchanan stared at the clock with growing dread. A knot of panic—and grief—swelled in her stomach until she feared vomiting.

  He wasn’t going to call.

  Despair rolled over her shoulders, and she slumped forward, dropping her head into her arms. Don’t cry. You can’t cry. You can’t lose it now.

  Her teeth sank into her bottom lip. Gabe was all she had left. Her only family. And now he was gone.

  You don’t know that. Maybe something went wrong on a mission.

  But no, he’d missed both call times, and he’d never missed the second. He once told her that the only reason he would miss his check-in was death. His. And in her heart she knew that. He’d never let her down.

  The cell phone that was clutched tightly in her hand rang, and she lunged upward, grabbing at it to flip it open.

  “Gabe, thank God!” she babbled into the phone as a rush of relief so strong it made her weak stormed through her veins. “I thought you were dead.”

  Heavy silence settled over the line. Her brow furrowed as dread took hold once more. “Gabe?”

  “Katie, this is Ian Thomas.”

  She slammed the phone shut, fear-induced adrenaline sparking and flowing fast through her veins. She scrambled out of her chair and looked wildly around the tiny apartment.

  “Okay, calm down,” she said as she tried to steady her breathing. No one had that number. Gabe had arranged for the high-tech phone, and it had an international number from a remote country at the ends of the earth.

  It started ringing again, and she nearly hyperventilated. And then as quickly as panic had gripped her, an eerie calm descended.

  Gabe was gone. He couldn’t help her now. He hadn’t spent the last several years teaching her independence for her to crumble when he was no longer around to help her pick up the pieces.

  First she had to get the hell out of here.

  She went through the room, throwing her clothes into a backpack. She only packed the necessities. Everything else would have to stay. The phone began ringing again, and she ignored it.

  She pocketed the ATM card for the account Gabe had opened for her. Her first stop would be to drain what cash she could, and then she’d be out of town in less than an hour.

  West. She’d go west. Maybe some isolated mountain town. Montana. Or Colorado. There had to be some place she would be safe.

  She zipped up her backpack, her heart heavy. Gabe had been working on getting her out of the country. A year ago, he’d been prepared to take her to Argentina, but then things had gotten weird. He’d become distant. Worried and anxious.

  Her departure was delayed, and Gabe became more paranoid, more cautious. She moved constantly, once every couple of months, and he’d enacted their call system.

  He drilled into her over and over what to do if he failed to make his monthly call. Oh God. Maybe that was it! Was he testing her? Making sure she followed through with their escape plan?

  A flutter of hope swelled in her throat. It would be just like Gabe to force her through the steps of a plan they’d gone over until it was branded into her mind.

  She snagged the now-silent phone, hauled her backpack over her shoulder, and then, taking one last look at the apartment that had been home for the last two months, she took a deep breath and started for the door.

  Early morning sunlight shone bright, causing her to squint as she hustled down the rickety steps toward the street. As she turned onto the cracked sidewalk, a black SUV pulled to a stop alongside her.

  The passenger door opened, and a large man stepped out. She froze as they stared at each other. Slowly, he removed dark sunglasses, giving her a glimpse of deep green eyes. His expression was indecipherable.

  Power radiated from those broad shoulders. Tall, muscular and intimidating as hell.

  “Katie,” he said in a low voice.

  Anger, fear, panic. They all swamped her, and she didn’t wait around to figure out which would prevail.

  Dropping her backpack, she turned and ran.

  Curses rang out behind her, and then he called out to her. “Katie! Katie, wait!”

  God, they knew who she was. Bile rose in her throat. Gabe wasn’t testing her, and he hadn’t warned her. Which meant he hadn’t been able to.

  She could hear her pursuer behind her, and he was gaining ground. She threw a look over her shoulder and wished she hadn’t. Two men were closing in on her.

  Her chest on fire, she pushed herself harder, faster. Her tennis shoes pounded the pavement. The park loomed ahead of her, a study in lush green grass and playground equipment. The men chasing her wouldn’t want to take her down with a dozen children and their mothers looking on.

  She turned onto the jogging trail and poured on the speed. To anyone else, she’d look like she was out for a run. She was dressed the part in athletic shorts, T-shirt and tennis shoes.

  Her phone and ATM card, all she needed, were in her pocket, and she reached down to make sure the phone didn’t fall out. When she got to the other side of the park, she chanced another glimpse behind her and nearly fainted with relief. They weren’t there.

  Not that she could count on them to be gone for long. They’d find her again. She’d been a fool to ever think Ricardo would forgive the fact that she’d killed his brother.

  Chapter Two

  “Piece of cake, huh?” Braden Thomas snorted derisively as he and his brother Ian drove down yet another street paralleling the park. “This was supposed to be a simple extraction. We show up, she falls gratefully into our arms and we haul ass out of the country.”

  Ian ground his teeth as he contemplated the pleasure he’d take in shoving Braden out of the moving vehicle.

  “It’s your damn fault,” Ian growled. “You had to barrel out of the truck and scare her shitless. What the hell was she supposed to think?”

  Braden snorted. “Yeah, like you did any better on the phone? She hung up before you finished telling her your name.”

  “Spooky flake,” Ian muttered. “I’m not convinced she’s worth all this trouble. We’re risking a lot to fulfill a promise to a guy who betrayed us.”

  Even as the thought crossed his mind, a wave of grief consumed him. Gabe was gone. Yeah, he’d betrayed his team, and that was hard to swallow. They’d been through a lot together. But until he knew the full truth behind Gabe’s defection, he couldn’t bring himself to condemn a man he’d called friend for so many years.

  “Yeah, but if we have her, sooner or later, Esteban will come calling. We’ll kill two birds with one stone.”

  Ian nodded. Braden had a point. They’d talked it over with Eli and with Falcon, and it was decided that Katie was too good an angle not to exploit. Worst case scenario, they were stuck babysitting for a few weeks. Best case scenario, they nailed Esteban and could then send Katie Buchanan on her way.

  Where the hell was she? She’d taken off like a scalded cat, and she was damn fast. He had to give her that. He would have caught her, but in the midst of the chase, he’d felt the prickle up his spine, a sign he was fast associating with the need to shift.

  His heart had damn near pounded out of his chest, and vivid images of a cat stalking its prey had come to mind. He’d been just a few seconds from transforming to jaguar. He would have hunted her and probably killed her.

  A resigned sigh escaped him, and Braden cast a sidelong glance at him.

  “You okay, man?”

  Ian grunted in return. He didn’t want to admit to Braden how close he’d come to losing control. They both battled the beast on a daily basis.

  “Something happened back there, Ian.”

  Ian raised an
eyebrow and stared over at his brother in question.

  Braden’s face twisted into a scowl. “When I was running after her…it was as if I was the cat and she was the prey, only I didn’t have an urge to hurt her. Just the opposite. I can’t explain it,” he finished lamely.

  Ian frowned. It was similar to the way he’d felt, not that he was about to admit that to Braden. But he wasn’t so sure that he wouldn’t have hurt her. “Maybe you need another injection. We should go back to her apartment and see if she shows.”

  He glanced down at the bag Katie had dropped. They’d go back to her apartment and wait inside. He could give Braden an injection and hope to hell he held out until he could take one himself later. While they waited, he’d poke around and see what he could discover about Gabe’s little sister. And figure out her next move.

  ***

  Katie stood at the ATM and jammed the cash into her pocket. Stupid daily limits pissed her off. She’d need to make several more withdrawals before she’d have enough money to fund her getaway. In the meantime, she had no choice but to get the hell out of town, no matter how dire her finances.

  The evening air chilled her sweat-dampened skin, and she shivered. She’d been stupid to drop her pack, but then escaping the two men would have been more difficult carrying it. Warmer clothes would have to wait until she’d cleared town.

  She took off down the street, weighing her options. The bus station was too obvious. Airport even more so. Hitchhiking, though something she’d done in the past, gave her too much exposure, not to mention it was dangerous as hell.

  A resigned sigh escaped her. Walking it was. She was in shape, thanks to rigorous workouts and training sessions. But fitness didn’t help with the cold. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t walked all damn day already.

  Though heading west held certain appeal, she’d be better off going east, to some large city she could disappear in. Small towns made her too noticeable.

  Some place warm. Florida sounded heavenly. But it left her too boxed in. Not enough escape options. Atlanta maybe? Anything beat the cold of Missouri.

  St. Louis had seemed like a good idea when she’d arrived. How had they found her? She’d been so careful. Or so she’d thought.

  She picked up her pace. A cab could take her out of the city. It would cripple her monetarily, but it would be worth it. She could pick up some light camping equipment and parallel the interstate south to Cape Girardeau. It would take her several days, but it would give her time to hit ATMs and build her cash flow. From Cape, she could buy a cheap vehicle and drive wherever she wanted to go.

  Bolstered by her plan, she crossed a busy intersection and started looking for an available cab. Clutching her arms with her hands, she rubbed up and down to infuse much-needed warmth.

  Note to self: Don’t relax your guard. Ever.

  It was appropriate that at the moment she administered the reprimand, a man stepped in front of her, his hands flying out to grip her shoulders.

  She lashed out with her foot and kicked him squarely in the balls. A harsh curse split her ears as he doubled over. She didn’t waste any time. Turning around, she launched into a full run.

  Only to collide with a heavily muscled wall of male flesh. Steel bands wrapped around her none too gently. She reacted violently, kicking and flailing, but he didn’t loosen his hold.

  Her eyes met his and she found fire. Angry determination glittered in his green eyes. Bracing herself, she reared back and rammed her head into his nose. Pain exploded through her skull, and her vision blurred.

  To her dismay, he didn’t budge. If anything he crushed her tighter against him, and she whimpered in pain.

  “I’ve had about all I can take from you,” he bit out.

  She struggled harder as she fought the dizzying effects of her head-butt. She managed to wiggle enough to bring her knee up between his legs.

  Fingers dug into her knee, squeezing until she yelped.

  “You give me no choice, sweetheart,” he said grimly.

  Before she had time to try and figure out that cryptic remark, she felt a prick against her shoulder. She went rigid in his arms, and fear hissed through her veins. Oh God, no. He’d drugged her.

  His face swam in her vision, and she went slack against him. And then she heard another voice, close to her ear.

  “We won’t hurt you, Katie. We’re here to help you.”

  Her eyelids fluttered, and no matter how she fought the drug, it was too much. Everything went dark.

  Chapter Three

  Ian frowned as he stared down at Katie Buchanan. She lay on the seat, her body curled into a defensive posture even in sleep. Strain lined her forehead, and a frown tugged her lips downward. He reached down to touch the short blond wisps that lay raggedly on her neck. Then before giving it any thought, his finger traveled over her jaw to her lips where he smoothed the downward curve.

  Her hair was an interesting assortment of lengths, like she cut it herself with no regard for appearance. The strands stuck out, each going a different direction, but on her it fit. She didn’t strike him as the sleek, always-styled type at all.

  Hearing Braden behind him, he yanked his hand away and frowned in annoyance. His head ached like a mother, his eyes were crossing with fatigue, and yet he was standing here like a nimrod entertaining himself with her hairdo.

  Grumbling to himself about psycho females, he gathered her limp body in his arms and hauled her out of the SUV. Braden walked ahead and opened the door to her apartment. They hadn’t wanted to risk getting a hotel room, and her apartment was unassuming.

  Katie was an enigma. Cautious. Extremely so. Spooky as a bat, and she kept a very low profile. Looking around her apartment earlier, he’d discovered that she lived a very barebones existence. Odd for a woman. Did she know she was a target? Had Gabe warned her?

  He shouldered his way into her small living room and gently laid her on the couch. Then he stepped away as Braden leaned in to check her pulse and peel back her eyelids.

  “She’s going to have one hell of a bruise on her forehead,” Braden said as he straightened.

  “She damn near broke my nose. You’ll forgive me if I’m not terribly sympathetic,” Ian said darkly.

  “At least you aren’t walking funny and singing soprano,” Braden grumbled.

  Ian grimaced and felt a sympathy twinge in the region of his groin. He’d seen how hard she’d kicked Braden in the balls. He’d be lucky if he ever fathered children after that.

  “So what now?” Braden asked as he slumped down in one of armchairs.

  Ian lowered himself into a chair as well and eyed his brother. “We get some damn sleep, and tomorrow we get the hell out of the country.”

  “You call Eli yet?”

  Ian frowned. “And when would I have had time to do that when we’ve been chasing the hellcat down all day?”

  “And where are we taking her exactly?”

  “You’re full of questions today, little brother.”

  Braden grinned. “Am I annoying you?”

  Ian scowled.

  “Then my duty is done.”

  “For someone who just got their balls relocated you sure are a cheerful son of a bitch.”

  Braden shrugged. “Maybe I’m looking forward to being done with this. Makes me edgy being back in the good ole U.S. of A. I somehow doubt Uncle Sam will roll out the welcome mat, you know?”

  Ian’s lips tightened. “Yeah, well fuck ’em. We’ll be out of here tomorrow.”

  “Going where?” Braden asked again.

  Ian sighed. “Eli’s supposed to be working on it. Evidently Falcon has a few safe houses across Europe. I liked Argentina, but that’s fucked now that Esteban knows where it is.”

  “Isn’t the point of this exercise to lure Esteban?” Braden asked.

  Ian nodded. “Yeah, but he’s not supposed to know he’s being lured. Going to Argentina would be tipping our hand, not to mention making us look like complete nimrods.”

  Braden
grew quiet for a moment. “Tell me something, Ian. Do you think this whole merger with Falcon is a good idea? I mean I know why Eli is there. Tyana’s fingers are wrapped tight around his nuts, and he’s content to be led around like a lapdog.”

  Ian’s gaze narrowed. This was the first time he’d heard Braden express doubts about joining ranks with Falcon Mercenary Group. Their former team leader, Eli Chance, had fallen head over ass for Tyana Berezovsky, a member of Falcon, and with the way their hostage recovery team had gone to shit when they all turned into a bunch of unstable shifters, it made sense to team up with the merc group.

  Eli wasn’t unstable, though. Resentment bubbled up before Ian could control it. He and Braden hadn’t been as lucky as Eli and Gabe. While the two other men had full control over their newfound abilities, Ian and Braden struggled with their instability on a daily basis.

  Braden was watching him closely, and Ian tried to school his features. “Are you having doubts?” he asked Braden.

  Braden looked thoughtful for a long moment. “Honestly? I don’t know. Too much has changed in too short a time. I don’t think Falcon will fuck us, if that’s what you’re asking. I just wonder how we fit into the picture. I don’t like the idea of being some fucking charity case and having their doctor shoved at us at regular intervals.”

  “Yeah, I hear you,” Ian muttered.

  “Are we going to end up like Damiano?” Braden asked softly.

  Ian swore under his breath. Damiano was a member of Falcon, and like Ian and Braden, a victim of the chemical agent that had changed them all into shifters. He was even more unstable than Ian and Braden, and if D’s future was their own, it wasn’t pretty.

  Damn Esteban Morales. Damn him to hell. Ian glanced over at Katie again, and his resolve hardened. If she was their key to nailing Esteban’s ass, then he’d have no compunction about using her in any way necessary to achieve their means.

  “Let’s get some sleep,” Ian said, ignoring Braden’s question. “You can take the couch. I’ll take Miss Psycho into the bedroom and make sure she isn’t going anywhere for the night.”

  ***

  Katie came awake with a start. Her eyes flew open, and despite the fogginess surrounding her mind, she felt alert. Fear could do that to you. Adrenaline coursed through her veins as she took stock of her situation.

  She tried to move and then froze, feeling rope around one wrist. The next thing she registered was the large body of a man next to her. The third thing she realized was that she was in her own bed in her apartment.

  As far as what-the-fuck moments went, this was a big one.

  Her eyes rapidly adjusted to the darkness, and she looked down again to see that she was tied to the man’s wrist. He was sound asleep, his soft, even breathing filling the room.

  Then she frowned. There had been two of them. She remembered that much. Which meant that somewhere close, there was another one. As if one wasn’t enough to deal with.

 
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