Into the lair, p.10
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       Into the Lair, p.10

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
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  before it was done.”

  She closed her eyes. “I won’t leave him alone.”

  “He won’t be alone,” Jonah said. “Marcus is going with him.”

  “Where?” Her voice cracked and shattered like glass.

  “I want him to try alternatives to medicine,” Marcus said. “As I said before, I think the key is psychological. His DNA has been altered, and there is no cure for that. I can bandage it, but it won’t fix the problem. I firmly believe…” He glanced around at D’s family. “There is no cure right now. As much as we want there to be one. Damiano is going to have to learn to control his abilities or they’ll kill him. There’s no way to soften that truth.”

  “Where are you taking him?” Tyana demanded hoarsely. “Why can’t I stay with him?”

  “He has to do this alone,” Marcus said. “It’s best if you don’t know where. I want him to take on a regimen of meditation and spiritual honing. Mind over matter. He needs discipline.”

  Tyana’s mouth twisted. “It sounds like a bunch of bullshit”.

  “He’s going, Ty,” Jonah said.

  Panic and grief crashed over her like a wave. “When?”

  Mad Dog’s expression drew into a grimace.“As soon as the chopper gets here”.

  Eli’s grip tightened around her, but she didn’t want comfort. Not when Damiano was going to be alone. Without his family. Without her.

  “Where is he now?” she demanded.

  “He’s resting under guard,” Jonah said.

  “I want to see him. To say goodbye.”

  Jonah nodded. “Of course. As we all do.”

  “Does he know?” she asked.

  “He knows,” Mad Dog said quietly.

  She closed her eyes against the sudden tears. She and D had been together since they were children, never separated for longer than a few days. He needed her now more than ever, and he would be alone. She’d sworn he’d never be without her. And now she was forced to break her promise.

  Gently, Eli helped her to her feet. The agony caused by the tiger’s attack was nothing compared to the pain lashing at her soul. Ignoring the crutches and the hands that reached to help, she dragged her casted leg behind her as she hobbled to the door.

  When she walked inside, she saw D sitting on the couch, his face in his hands. Four of the Falcon secondary stood guard around him.

  Slowly, painfully, she made her way toward him. When she was but a few feet away, he looked up. The anguish in his eyes was her undoing. She dropped heavily to the floor, her hands clutching at him as he reached to hug her.

  “I’m sorry, Ty. I’m so sorry.”

  His voice was muffled in her hair. She hung onto him, her tears seeping into the material of his shirt.

  She pulled slowly away and touched her hand to his cheek. “Don’t be sorry, D. I’m the one who’s sorry. I’ve failed you. I swore to find a cure.”

  He shook his head. “I could have killed you. Marcus is right to take me away.”

  She shook her head harder. But he stilled her motion with a finger to her lips.

  “I have to do this, Ty. For me and for you. I won’t stay where I might hurt you. It’s already happened once before. I could have killed you this time.”

  “I love you,” she whispered.

  He cupped her cheek in a loving gesture, and with his other hand, he stroked her hair. “I love you more.”

  He glanced up at Eli who hovered protectively over Tyana. “Keep her safe for me.”

  Eli nodded. “You know I will.”

  D’s gaze went to Jonah and Mad Dog. He swallowed as though he didn’t know what to say. And then he stood, letting his hand fall from Tyana’s face. Eli helped her to her feet so that she was beside her brother.

  “You take care, little brother,” Mad Dog said gruffly as he enfolded D in his beefy embrace.

  Then it was only D and Jonah, standing face to face. Dark emotion, so uncharacteristic of Jonah, clouded his face. His eyes flashed with pain, and Tyana felt guilty for all the times she’d thrown such nasty accusations at him.

  “You’ll beat this, D,” Jonah said. “You’ll beat it and you’ll come back to us. Your family. We’ll always be here for you.”

  He hugged D tightly, stiffly, his face a mask of sorrow.

  “The chopper is two minutes out.”

  The statement came from behind Jonah, from one of the secondary standing guard. Tyana stifled the urge to scream. She turned into D’s arms and held on tight.

  D stroked her hair in his quiet, generous way. God, it should be her offering him comfort, but as always, he took care of her.

  “Come back to me, D. Swear it.”

  He pulled away and brushed his lips across her forehead, his words whisper soft. “I’ll always be wherever you are.”

  Chapter Seventeen

  Braden dragged his eyelids open but couldn’t for the life of him get them to stay that way. It felt like bricks were sitting on his eyes, and his head pounded like someone was taking a jackhammer to it.

  He moved his hand, surprised to feel the roughness of carpet under his palm. He blinked and then blinked again as he became aware that he was on the floorboard of the SUV, his nose pressed against a floor mat.

  What the ever-loving fuck?

  His nerves were jittery and jumping around, but not like what happened right before a shift. This was different. And damn, he hurt from head to toe. What had Ian given him? And why was he on the floor?

  He shoved himself upward. He realized several things at once. The truck wasn’t moving. They’d had one hell of a wreck. Ian and Katie were both missing.

  Adrenaline surged, liquid and edgy. The cobwebs cleared from his brain as he leaned forward to examine the damage to the front seat.

  The dash was caved in on the driver’s side. No way Ian could have gotten out by himself. He had to have been trapped. Had Katie managed to get him out? Or were they both dead?

  An icy chill cooled some of the adrenaline rush. He reached for the door only to find it wouldn’t budge. He leaned back and kicked at it, hammering it repeatedly until it gave way.

  He crawled from the interior and nearly fell out onto the ground. Struggling upward, he leaned a hand against the truck as he surveyed the immediate area.

  It looked like a damn war zone.

  There wasn’t much that he hadn’t seen—certainly not much that would shock him—but seeing Ricardo de la Cruz laid out with his neck gaping open, blood spattered in a three-foot radius around him and one of his henchmen on the ground several yard away with half his head blown off was so bizarrely surreal, he wondered if he was dreaming the entire thing.

  A sound to his right shook him from his stupor, and he charged over, half afraid he’d find Ian or Katie in a bad way. He saw another of Ricardo’s goons slithering along the ground leaving a thick blood trail. Dark, almost black. Braden shuddered. Gut shot. Painful, messy way to die.

  Braden kicked the man’s shoulder with the toe of his boot to turn him over. The man stared up at him with frosted-over eyes that told Braden he wasn’t long for this world.

  Braden bent down and gathered his shirt, yanking him a foot off the ground.

  “What the fuck happened?” he growled.

  The man’s lips flapped up and down, but nothing would come out. He was obviously scared shitless.

  “C-cat. Big c-cat,” he sputtered.

  Oh fuck. Ian had freaked out and shifted.

  “The girl. Where is the girl?”

  “Don’t know,” the man gasped. “She escaped…when the cat…when it attacked…Ricardo. She s-shot me…and the others.”

  “Good girl,” Braden murmured.

  He let go of the man and gently returned his shoulders to the ground. His breath caught and stuttered, and for a moment his eyes widened in panic. Then air escaped softly, and he deflated. His head lolled back until his stare was locked sideways, focused on something distant. At least the bastard wasn’t suffering any longer.

p; Braden got up and stalked back to the SUV. He needed to get the fuck out of here before the cops showed up. He had no idea how long it had been since things had gone to shit, but it couldn’t be that long judging by the fresh blood and the guy who’d only just died from his wounds.

  He surveyed the damage to their vehicle with a grimace. It was toast. He glanced over at the SUVs driven by Ricardo’s following. There were two. One with extensive front-end damage. The other had a few bullet holes but was otherwise intact.

  Only taking time to haul out the gear from the back of the truck, he transferred it to the other SUV and climbed behind the wheel. He’d have to stash the vehicle and backtrack to find Ian. And Katie.

  He peeled away and looked for a path into the wooded area. A few minutes later, he dove off the road onto a faint, overgrown trail. He barreled through the woods, tree limbs slapping the windshield.

  Christ, but they didn’t have time for this. The last thing he wanted to do was have to call Eli to come bail their asses out. He remembered with abashed clarity that he’d snidely decided if they couldn’t handle one slip of a woman he and Ian needed to fucking quit.

  Yeah, real smooth.

  He broke into a short clearing as the road widened, and the trees fell away. And he almost ran over the body lying in the pathway. With a vicious curse, he wrenched the wheel sideways and tumbled into the trees. He came to an abrupt halt mere inches from a huge-ass pine. Not exactly what he wanted to pick a fight with.

  He bolted from the truck and ran back to where he’d seen Ian—or at least who he thought was Ian. He didn’t think there’d be too many other naked men in the vicinity.

  He wasn’t dead. Braden wouldn’t contemplate that something had gone horribly wrong. Okay, scratch that. Something had indeed gone terribly wrong. The bloodbath he’d left behind was evidence enough. But as long as it was Ricardo’s thugs and not Ian or Katie who’d taken the heat, he could deal.

  He dropped to his knees over Ian’s sprawled body. Ian was facedown in the road, one arm tucked underneath him and the other over his head. His body glistened with sweat, but Braden couldn’t see any blood.

  Hesitantly, he reached for his brother, touching the warm, damp skin of his back. The muscles twitched and quivered under his fingers, and Braden expelled a huge sigh of relief. Ian was alive.

  “Ian. Ian,” he said louder. He shook Ian’s shoulder.

  Ian moaned softly but didn’t move.

  “Come on, man. We don’t have any time to waste, and I can’t carry your ass.”

  Ian’s head turned and he stared at Braden with unfocused eyes. “You’re alive,” he rasped.

  “Funny, that was my reaction when I found you,” Braden said. “What the hell happened? When I came to, the SUV was toast, there were dead bodies everywhere, and you and Katie were gone.”

  Ian shook his head. His brow wrinkled in confusion. “Katie?” he said hoarsely. “Is she okay?” His expression became more intense as he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet.

  Braden reached out to steady Ian, but his brother shook him off.

  “What happened, Braden? Where’s Katie?”

  “Get in the truck,” Braden said firmly. “We’ll talk there. We’ve got to get the hell out of here. Katie has the tracking device on her. We’ll find her.”

  Ian drew up short when he saw the SUV. Before he could form the inevitable question, Braden shoved him into the seat.

  Seconds later, Braden climbed behind the wheel and looked over at Ian. Then he reached into the backseat for one of the duffel bags and dragged it into the front.

  “At the rate you’re running through clothing, we’re both going to be butt-assed naked.”

  Ian cracked a small grin, and Braden relaxed. If Ian could smile then things weren’t too bad.

  As he awkwardly started pulling on his clothing in the confined space of the SUV, Braden started the engine.

  “We don’t have much time so we need to talk fast and piece together what the hell happened back there.”

  Ian pulled a T-shirt over his head and stared at Braden with haunted eyes. “I was driving and talking to Katie and then wham. Out of nowhere we got broadsided. Before I could react we got hit again. I was pinned under the dash.”

  He absently rubbed at his legs as he spoke, and Braden, remembering the crushed front end, could understand why. It was a miracle his legs hadn’t been broken.

  “Some guy, I’m assuming one of Ricardo’s men, yanked Katie out of her door. I tried to get free, and I remember thinking that shifting was my best hope. After that I don’t know.”

  “You killed Ricardo,” Braden said grimly. “He had his throat torn out. No human did that to him.”

  Ian’s jaw tightened. “I can’t say I regret it. Bastard deserved to die. But what about Katie?”

  Braden shook his head. “I don’t know, man. Get the satellite out and see if she shows up. No way she could have gone more than three hundred miles, so she’ll be in our radius. I’d say no more than half an hour has passed since the wreck. One of the guys was still alive when I found him. Took a bullet to the gut.”

  Ian’s gaze sharpened. “But how?”

  “Katie. That’s how. Another guy had his gray matter smeared all over the truck. I’m telling you, some crazy shit went down out there.”

  “So, Ricardo is dead along with at least two other guys. If I killed Ricardo, then that means Katie got to the others. And if that’s the case, where the fuck is she now?”

  Braden gestured toward the bag. “You track, I’ll drive.”

  Ian fumbled with the equipment while Braden drove deeper into the woods searching for an outlet that didn’t lead right back to the road littered with dead bodies.

  Braden glanced over to see Ian’s expression darken and his jaw tighten.

  “What’s eating you, man?”

  Ian gave a quick negative shake of his head as he opened the small unit and powered it up. Then he dragged a hand though his hair and turned to Braden, consternation and loathing in his eyes.

  “I don’t regret taking Ricardo apart, Braden, but what if it had been someone else? What if it had been you? Or Katie.”

  “It wasn’t,” Braden said simply. And really, what else could he say? He didn’t have the answers, and he wasn’t going to spout some bullshit about how Ian would never hurt him, because shit, what the jag did was completely independent of Ian.

  Ian sighed.

  “Are you hurt from the crash?” Braden asked.

  Ian shook his head. “Sore, but I don’t know if it’s from the wreck or the shift. You?”

  “Yeah, I’m good. Head hurts like a bitch but then I’ve had a headache since the day I laid eyes on Katie Buchanan.”

  “I hope to hell I got to Ricardo before he hurt her,” Ian said softly.

  “You got a bead on her yet?”

  Ian glanced back down at the handheld unit then frowned. “Yeah. Close.” He looked up and out the window. “Maybe a mile. She’s not moving.”

  Braden cursed. “Steer me. Where am I going?”

  “We need to head due east.”

  Braden slammed on the brakes and surveyed the landscape. No way they were going to make it in the truck. Hell. With a sigh he opened the door and got out.

  He grabbed two rifles and tossed one over the hood at Ian. Ian was moving slow, but if turtles had guns no one would bitch about their speed.

  They took off into the woods, moving in the direction of the tracking device. According to Ian, she hadn’t budged since he’d locked on to her location, which couldn’t be good given her propensity for running like a scalded cat.

  Two hundred yards in, Ian pulled up sharply and turned in a circle, his gaze raking over the area.

  “Here,” he said. “It says she’s here.”

  Braden shook his head. “She ditched the device, man. We’re flying blind now.”

  “Maybe not,” Ian muttered as he squatted down and touched his finger to a leaf. He pulled it back up an
d held it out to Braden.

  Blood. Fresh blood. Shit.

  Ian stood, shoved the locator in his pocket and hauled his gun up. Head down, he followed the blood trail further into the woods. Braden took off after him, his gut tight as he noticed just how much blood was spattered on the ground.

  Chapter Eighteen

  The longer it took to follow Katie’s blood trail, or what he assumed was her blood, the edgier Ian got. From what Braden said, the road, even as out of the way as it was, was littered with dead bodies, which meant getting to the airport in Chama was going to be a bitch. As soon as the cops closed in, going anywhere would be damn near impossible.

  Was Katie all right or would they find her dead? And worse, who had caused the injuries that bled so heavily? Dread closed in, suffocating and hot despite the chill in the air. She knew what he was now. Getting her to go anywhere with him and Braden was going to be impossible.

  “There, Ian.” Braden pointed to an area on the ground a few feet in front of where they stood.

  Ian followed the direction of Braden’s hand and saw a larger amount of blood, and ahead the ground and dirt looked like something had been dragged over it.

  “She went down here.” Braden looked up, following the line into a heavy growth area.

  Ian burst past him, his focus on the brush that was slightly disturbed. Someone or something had gone in there. He tossed his gun at Braden and crawled on hands and knees into the thick tangle.

  Brambles slapped him in the face and caught at his clothing, but the blood was heavier here. She’d been here and had been moving much slower.

  He parted a particularly thick tangle and stopped cold. A small, bare foot lay in the dirt. He followed it up to a jeans-covered leg. The denim was dirty, tattered and covered in blood.

  With angry slashing motions, he shoved aside the branches until he stared down at Katie’s pale face. She lay on her side, an assault rifle tucked close to her chest, the other hand cupping her blood-smeared abdomen.

  He fumbled at her neck, tilting her until he could press his fingers into her supple flesh. Her pulse beat reassuringly, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

  “I’ve got her,” he called back.

  “Then let’s get the hell out of here,” Braden bit out.

  Ian picked up the gun and gently pried it from her grip. She never stirred which worried him. She’d run hard, and that combined with the blood loss couldn’t be good.

  After calling back a quick warning, he tossed the gun at Braden and then returned his attention to Katie. Rolling her carefully so he could get a look at her injuries, he pushed aside her torn shirt to see a four-inch gash starting at her side and snaking just underneath her breast.

  Son of a bitch had cut her.

  The blood had slowed to a trickle, but when he hoisted her into his arms, it seeped faster. Backtracking the way he’d come was a bitch when he couldn’t use
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