Into the lair, p.2
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       Into the Lair, p.2

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
 
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  She gritted her teeth then turned her attention to the rope binding her to the mountain of muscle lying next to her. With her free hand, she carefully slid her fingers under the neckline of her T-shirt and into the sports bra to find the tiny pocketknife underneath the curve of her right breast.

  Dumb bastards hadn’t patted her down, but then why would they feel the need to search the poor defenseless little woman?

  She pulled the razor-sharp blade free of the clasp with her teeth then ever so carefully, she lowered it to the length of rope between their wrists.

  As it passed through the twines like butter, she gave herself a mental pat on the back for being prepared and making sure she kept the blade sharp. Gabe would be proud.

  Deep sadness clogged her chest, pulling painfully at her heart. No, she wouldn’t think about him now. Later. When she was safe, she’d mourn. For now she had to make sure they didn’t both end up dead.

  If it weren’t for the fact that she had no idea where the other guy was, she’d bolt out of bed and run. She’d have the element of surprise, and by the time sleeping dude figured out she was free, she’d be two blocks away.

  Instead she inched her way off the bed. Slowly, carefully, moving the tiniest bit with each breath. Every time he stirred she froze. When he flinched, she held her breath. Until finally, she slid the remaining way.

  Not wasting a moment, she hurried across the floor, damning the fact that the bastard had removed her shoes. She didn’t have time to find them.

  She halted in the doorway to the living room when she saw the second man’s too-large body sprawled on her too-small couch. He didn’t appear to be sleeping as deeply as the man in her bed. Getting by him and out the door could be a problem.

  She felt in her pockets and nearly cursed aloud. All her cash was gone. She trembled with rage and curled her fingers into tight fists at her sides. Her bankcard was gone along with her cash.

  Tears of frustration burned her eyes, pissing her off even more as she made her way quietly across the living room floor.

  Her hand was on the knob, and she held her breath as she made her bid for freedom.

  “Tell me you aren’t going to make me chase your ass across town again.”

  She yanked her head toward the couch to see the man leaning up on one elbow, staring balefully at her. Foregoing any attempt at stealth, she threw open the door and bolted into the night.

  The pounding of footsteps behind her told her that she was being pursued. She put her head down and turned on the speed. At the end of the block, she darted across the deserted street and veered away from the direction of the park. They’d expect her to go the familiar route.

  She’d only gone another block when she heard the groan of an engine. As she went to cross another street, the squeal of tires sounded deafeningly close, and she pulled up short just in time for a silver Mercedes to careen in front of her.

  A man jumped from the driver’s seat, and even in the dark, his identity was unmistakable.

  Fear, vicious and stark, pooled in her stomach and swelled outward until nausea overwhelmed her.

  “Katie, my love. Out for a late-night jog? I’ve always thought you were in impeccable shape, but one would think you were running from someone. Surely not me? We have a lot to clear up, you and me.”

  She stared dully at Ricardo de la Cruz. It was only a matter of time before he showed up. His henchmen had sat on her long enough for him to arrive.

  Cocky and arrogant as ever. His perfect white teeth flashed in the glare of the streetlights. His smile was sinister, with the promise of retribution. If only she’d killed him instead of Paulo.

  Bitterness welled in her mouth, hard to swallow.

  She turned to run when a strange sound shattered the night. Her entire body jerked and went stiff as agony fired through every one of her nerves. She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t think. So much pain. She was on fire.

  For a moment, she stood locked in the grip of hell, her body refusing to respond to her commands. As she stared into the darkness, she saw the man who’d chased her from her apartment standing in the shadows a distance away.

  His expression wasn’t one of triumph, however. Concern creased his brow, and he looked angry.

  Then she sagged to the ground, gasps of pain spilling from her mouth. Desperately, she sucked in air, trying to drag more into her lungs. Lungs that felt as though they’d been torched.

  Rough hands hauled her up. Fingers twisted in her hair, yanking her head back. She found herself staring into Ricardo’s handsome face right before his spit hit her on the cheek.

  “You will pay for killing my brother, whore.”

  Chapter Four

  Tyana Berezovsky awkwardly made her way down the hallway to Jonah Pearson’s office. The going was slow, thanks to the crutches and heavy cast encasing her right leg.

  She faltered for a moment when she got to the door but regained her footing and shoved the door open with one crutch.

  Jonah looked up as she entered. “Should you be up and around?”

  She glared and hobbled forward. When she got to his desk, she leaned on one crutch and brought the other one up until she prodded his chest with the rubber tip. Jonah glanced down at the crutch then back up at her with a raised eyebrow.

  “You’ve got to do something about Eli. He’s driving me insane.”

  Jonah shoved the crutch away and smirked at her. “Eli is your problem. Not mine.”

  Tyana sagged into a chair and dropped the crutches with a clatter. “Surely you can find something for him to do?” She frowned at the pleading note in her voice. She sounded desperate.

  Hell, who was she kidding? She was desperate.

  Jonah chuckled. “It was your idea to fall in love with the guy.”

  She closed her eyes. No, it wasn’t her idea. If she’d had a choice, she wouldn’t have waded into all those messy emotions.

  It was one thing to be accountable to herself and to her team. She could deal with that just fine. But now she was accountable to someone else. Someone she was emotionally involved with. In short, it sucked.

  “He’s smothering me,” she grumbled. “I can’t take a piss without him hovering.”

  Jonah put his fingers together at his chin and stared hard at her. “As much as you know I don’t love to play armchair psychologist, may I point out that A. the guy loves you, and B. he damn near lost you. He’s entitled to hover a bit.”

  She closed her eyes and groaned. “Jonah, please. There has to be something you can give him to do just for a couple of days. You’re supposed to be bringing him into Falcon. Isn’t there some bullshit assignment you can throw at him? Have him go make the arrangements for the safe house for Ian and Braden. Something, anything. I just need him out of my hair for a little while or I’m going to pull it all out.”

  He studied her for a long moment. She was begging, and she knew it wasn’t a pretty sight. She never begged for anything. Maybe he sensed her desperation, not that it would take much brilliance to figure out she was at the end of her rope, because he sighed and leveled a resigned eye roll in her direction.

  “I’ll see what I can do, Ty. But damn it, Eli isn’t my problem. He’s yours. I’d thank you to remember that in the future.”

  She grinned. “If I could get up, I’d hug you.”

  He managed a look of horror. “You’ve gotten soft on me. You fell in love, and it turned your brain to mush.”

  “Could we stop going on and on about the L-word?”

  Jonah shrugged. “You’re going to owe me one for this, and don’t think I won’t collect from your invalid ass.”

  She nodded and made a grab for her crutches only to realize she couldn’t reach to the floor from her chair. She shifted and reached again only to come up short.

  “Damn it,” she muttered.

  “Problem?” Jonah asked with ill-suppressed humor.

  She flipped her middle finger at him as she strained with her other hand to snag
her crutch.

  “And you wonder why Eli is hovering,” Jonah said dryly as he walked around the desk. He bent and picked up her crutches and then handed them to her.

  “Thanks,” she mumbled.

  She heaved herself upward, sweat breaking out on her forehead as she bobbled. Her continued weakness bugged the hell out of her. She was ready to be a hundred percent again.

  Jonah caught her arm to steady her and frowned. “Might I suggest you stay off your feet for a while longer? You’re clearly not ready to be up and around so damn much.”

  Tyana sighed. “Now you sound like Eli.”

  “Heaven forbid.”

  She hobbled toward the door, ignoring his sarcasm. Up to now he hadn’t fussed over her much, and he hadn’t cut her any slack. Just the way she liked it.

  “Don’t you get soft on me, Jonah,” she said when she got to the door. She turned to look at him. “I much prefer you being the big asshole.”

  He lifted one brow. “And you expect me to do you a favor?”

  She winced. “Yeah well, forget the asshole part.”

  He smiled again. “Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.”

  Chapter Five

  A sharp slap to her face brought Katie awake. She tried to raise a palm to her stinging cheek, but rough hands gripped her wrists, holding her immobile.

  Ricardo stood in front of her as two men hauled her to her feet. Annoyance ticked his cheek even as satisfaction carved a smile on his sensual lips.

  He was an extraordinarily handsome man, as Paulo had been. Olive, sun-kissed skin, raven hair and startling blue eyes, crystal clear, like a Caribbean sea.

  She wanted to laugh at the idea that she was standing here, waiting to die and remarking on the beauty of the man holding her life in his hands.

  Instead of striking her again, he cupped her cheek in his palm and lightly caressed her skin.

  “Paulo was a fool to think he could ever tame you,” Ricardo murmured. “He was too weak, too trusting. You unmanned him in every way.”

  She had to bite her tongue to keep from retorting. Let him bait her. She wasn’t going to give him a reason to hit her again.

  His fingers trailed down her skin and hooked into the neckline of her tank top. He slid his palm inside, cupping her breast. Every muscle in her body tensed. She couldn’t control the shudder of revulsion, and it angered him.

  “I, on the other hand, am more than capable of bringing you to heel,” he said silkily.

  Bile rose in her throat. He didn’t mean to kill her at all. Merely make her wish for death.

  “Take her upstairs and make her bathe.” He withdrew his hand and stepped back. Then to her he said, “I’ve taken the liberty of laying out some clothes for you. I expect you to clean yourself up and change. You look a mess.”

  She pressed her lips together and looked away. It was a mistake.

  His palm cracked against her exposed cheek, knocking her back into the men who held her arms.

  “Don’t you ever look away from me, whore.”

  Slowly, she turned to stare him in the eye, doing nothing to disguise her hatred.

  “Yes, you’d like to kill me wouldn’t you?” he said in a deceptively soft tone. “Just like you killed Paulo. I will make you beg, Katie. You will beg me to kill you before I’m finished.”

  He waved his hand. “Take her away.”

  The two men dragged Katie toward the stairs. She scrambled to get her feet under her, but they walked too fast. They hauled her up to the bathroom and shoved her inside.

  “Do as the boss says,” one of them ordered. “Your clothes are on the counter.”

  They retreated, closing the door behind them.

  Katie took quick stock of the bathroom. There wasn’t a single window. Most of the rooms in the house didn’t have any. The first time she’d seen Ricardo’s compound, she’d remarked to Paulo how it reminded her of some clichéd drug dealer’s fortress. Paulo hadn’t been amused, but then she hadn’t realized until later how on-target her assessment had been.

  Her hopes plummeted at the thought of how difficult escape would be. Even if she did manage to gain freedom from the house, she would have to deal with the surrounding terrain. Ricardo would have no compunction about ordering his men to bathe her if she refused to do it herself. With that in mind, she turned on the shower and stripped out of her shorts and shirt.

  Her body ached from the Taser Ricardo had used to prevent her from fleeing. She checked her appearance in the mirror and winced at the bruises on her face, neck and arms.

  She turned away and climbed into the shower.

  What the hell was she going to do? She washed rapidly, knowing Ricardo could very well show up in the bathroom. He thrived on being unpredictable, on keeping people off balance.

  The little weasel had wanted her from the moment Paulo had brought her home and introduced her as his girlfriend. He’d played into Paulo’s insecurities and convinced his younger brother that Katie was having an affair with him.

  If only she could have killed Ricardo instead. If only. It was a regret she’d carry to her grave. And if she ever got the chance to rectify her mistake, she’d take it without a moment’s hesitation.

  As she rinsed the last of the soap from her hair, she ran her hand over the back of her neck, sliding the wet strands away from her skin. Her fingers glanced over something at her nape, and she frowned.

  She backtracked and ran her finger over the slight protrusion again. It felt like a splinter. Gripping it with her fingernails, she tugged, and after a slight twinge, it came free.

  She pulled her hand around so she could look at the tiny object. What the hell was it? It was metal, needlelike but not very long.

  Opening the door to the shower, she stepped out, the sliver still in her palm. She laid it on the counter then reached for a towel to dry off.

  After she hastily pulled on the jeans and shirt—the bastard hadn’t included any underwear, his way of humiliating her, no doubt—she turned her attention back to the thing she’d taken out of her neck.

  There was no way she’d gotten it by accident, which meant someone had inserted it on purpose. Was it a tracking device? And why put one in now, after she’d been captured? Unless Ricardo was afraid she’d escape again…

  Carefully, she inserted the device back into the hollow of her neck. She didn’t want Ricardo to know she’d found it. If she did manage to escape—and she had every intention of doing so—the tracking device could buy her valuable time if she sent him looking in the wrong direction.

  First she had to regain her strength then she’d bide her time until she found a way to escape. Whatever she had to endure from Ricardo in the meantime was a price she’d have to pay.

  ***

  “I knew this was a bad idea,” Braden grumbled. “This has been one pain in the ass after another.” He glanced up at Ian who wore a similar look of irritation. “Is Tits sure Esteban hasn’t made a move on Katie yet?”

  Ian shrugged. “Word is Esteban offered a reward for her—alive—yesterday. These assholes nabbed Katie two days ago. You do the math.”

  “Fuck.”

  “He’s reportedly no longer interested in Eli—alive, anyway. I’m guessing that us teaming up with Falcon has deterred Esteban. After the last ass-kicking he received at our hands, I doubt he wants to pick any more fights. He’s focusing all his resources on finding Katie, which has to make us the biggest dumbasses alive for sticking our necks into this one. It’ll make us targets all over again.”

  Braden shook his head and put the binoculars back to his eyes. He focused on the sprawling mansion nestled in the small valley below. He and Ian were stationed in the densely wooded area just above the house, keeping close watch on the goings-on. They were still getting a signal from the tracking device Ian had planted on Katie, but there had been little to no movement in the last twenty-four hours.

  Ian wanted to wait, watch, learn the lay of the land. Braden? He just wanted
to get it the fuck over with, go in, put down some serious lead, hogtie Katie before she could cause any more trouble and then get the hell out of the country.

  He lowered the binoculars and looked up again at Ian. “Are we going to stare at the damn house for another day or are we going to get our heads out of our asses and make a move?”

  Ian’s lips tightened. “I’m not getting my ass shot over her. It’s bad enough we’ve had to chase her across the damn country after spending weeks looking for her, but now apparently she’s pissed off some jacked-up coke dealer with an ego the size of Canada.” He shook his head in disgust.

  “Yeah, it would seem Esteban is the least of her worries,” Braden muttered.

  He put down the binoculars and rose from his knee. As he stretched and worked the kinks out, he glanced back at the house.

  “So what’s the plan, big brother? We going in or not?”

  Ian heaved a disgruntled sigh. “Yeah. We’ve fucked off enough time already. We’ll move in just before dusk. We’re going to have to be quick and not too picky about piling up the bodies. We grab Katie and get the hell out then book it to the Delta. Our pilot is on standby there.”

  Braden shrugged. The bodies didn’t bother him. Scum-sucking drug dealers did, however. What he really wanted to know was what connection Gabe’s little sister had to Ricardo de la Cruz. She was still alive which told Braden that de la Cruz wanted her that way.

  She was pretty enough in a psycho, hellcat sort of way, that is if you liked your women with claws. He preferred them slightly more biddable.

  “Let’s do a weapons check and then…” Ian stared at Braden as his voice trailed off.

  “Then?” Braden prompted.

  “We should probably take a low dose of the sedative,” Ian said quietly. “We can’t afford a shift.”

  How ridiculous that Braden hadn’t even considered it. No matter how long he dealt with the limitations of living his life as half man and half panther, it still managed to creep up on him. Stupid.

  “Where are we flying to?” Braden asked as he watched Ian take out the syringes and the small vial of medication.

  “Paris,” Ian said in a tight voice. “Falcon has a safe house there.”

  Braden nodded. He knew Ian was uncomfortable relying on Falcon. Braden wasn’t entirely down with it himself. They’d spent too many years as their own team, Covert Hostage Recovery. Eli had led the team, no doubt there, but everyone knew their job and they did it, no babysitting required.

  Now, suddenly they were faced with new people, new personalities to learn and a new leadership. Jonah had Braden’s respect, but he didn’t have Braden’s complete trust. Yet.

  Ian checked his watch. “We’ll wait two more hours then take the sedative. The doses are light enough not to impair our judgment, so we should be fine.”

  Still, Braden would feel more comfortable if they had back-up. Even Falcon. Against ordinary civilians, he and Ian were more than capable of taking down the entire house, but these weren’t ordinary people. They were drug dealers. Armed to the teeth and not bashful about shooting first and asking questions later.

  “So I guess falling asleep just before go time probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” Braden joked, knowing it would annoy Ian.

  Ian scowled. “Very funny.” Then his scowl deepened. “I sure hope to hell she’s worth all this aggravation. She better damn well serve Esteban up on a platter or I’m going to be pissed.”

  Braden shrugged. “We owe it to Gabe to make sure she’s safe.”

  Ian’s eyes hardened. “We owe him nothing.”

  “You wouldn’t have betrayed the team for me?” Braden asked. “Because I would have for you. No question.”

  Ian looked surprised, and then he grew pensive. Instead of responding, he glanced away, busying himself with the two syringes. He packed them into one of
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