Into the lair, p.20
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       Into the Lair, p.20

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
 
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  “Yeah, I know,” she said bitterly as she stared at him with hard, glittering eyes. “He’s coming for me. I just don’t plan to be here when he arrives.”

  Panic surged, and for a moment he thought the adrenaline would overpower the sedative. “No,” he slurred. “You can’t go. Dangerous. He’s out there. Stay where safe.”

  He felt himself falling, and then Katie was over him, shoving him until he faced the ceiling. Her face loomed close to his. And then she kissed him. Lingeringly. With regret. Soft. A goodbye. He tried to reach for her, to hold her against him but she pushed aside his hands as if they were nothing.

  Darkness clouded his periphery and still he fought. She didn’t stand a chance on her own. She thought he and Braden had betrayed her.

  “No,” he croaked out.

  ***

  Katie hurried to the dresser to collect her bag. She pulled on Ian’s heavy sweatshirt and snagged a jacket from the floor. After she’d donned the heavier clothes, she chanced one last look back at the two unconscious men.

  The knot grew tighter in her throat. For just a little while, she’d allowed herself to become ensconced in the fantasy of having these two men care about her. Worse, though, she’d allowed herself to care about them. Men and sex were her biggest weaknesses, apparently. The fact that she clearly hadn’t learned her lesson with Paulo told her she was as careless as ever when it came to jumping into a situation.

  But she’d survived, and this time she was getting out on her own terms. She squared her shoulders, collected her bag and grasped one of the assault rifles. Slinging the strap over her shoulder, she walked briskly toward the cabin door.

  She stepped into the cold night. The chill was a slap in the face in a good way. An awakening from her morose thoughts and regrets. Her survival was all that mattered right now. Ian and Braden would be just fine.

  Unless…

  She stared back, indecision wracking her cluttered mind. Had she left them completely vulnerable to Esteban? If he came here looking for her, he’d find two unconscious men.

  For a woman who’d had only herself to consider for so long and no compunction about doing so, it was extremely unsettling to realize that Ian and Braden could die because of her. No matter that they’d callously used her for their own purposes.

  She didn’t want them to die.

  Her fingers tightened around the rifle, and then in the distance, roaring closer, the sound of snowmobiles shattered the still of the night.

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Lights nearly blinded her as two snowmobiles roared up to the cabin. As soon as they stepped clear, she could make out their outline in the pale moonlight. Eli and Tits. And then Eli simply disappeared.

  Tits started for her, his expression fierce. Indecision tormented her for all of two seconds. An eerie sensation wrapped around her body, her neck and her wrists, momentarily paralyzing her.

  And then she remembered that Eli could shift to smoke or mist.

  Her hands shook as she warred with the need to hold onto the rifle while Eli exerted steady pressure on her wrists.

  “Drop it, Katie,” Tits ordered as he trained his gun on her. “Where are Ian and Braden?”

  A shot cracked the night, and Tits staggered then fell to his knees. He squeezed off a series of shots into the trees before he fell face-forward into the snow.

  Esteban was here.

  Fear, cold like the snow, trickled down her spine. She thought of Ian and Braden inside the cabin and knew she couldn’t allow them to be killed.

  “I know you can hear me,” she whispered to Eli. “Don’t shift back. Ian and Braden are unconscious in the bedroom. You have to protect them. I’ll lead Esteban away.”

  “No.”

  She felt more than heard the faint whisper as it trailed over her ear.

  “You know I’m right,” she hissed. “Let me go. You have to cover Ian and Braden. They’re defenseless right now. At least give me a chance to live, Eli. Give us all a chance.”

  The pressure lessened at her wrists, and she didn’t waste any time. She leaped off the porch and threw herself on the still-running snowmobile. She gunned the engine and spun the machine around, sending a spray of snow arcing into the air.

  As she headed around a clump of trees, she saw a group of four snowmobiles headed straight for her. She had always loved a good game of chicken. And it wasn’t like she had anything to lose.

  She yanked her rifle up with her right hand and gripped the wheel with her left. She gave it everything she had.

  The snowmobile lurched forward and flew toward the oncoming lights. When she was impossibly close, she laid down a line of fire and aimed straight for the middle.

  At the last second, the one on the far right spun out and turned end over end into the trees. The second and third split right and left to avoid her, and she skimmed past, kicking up snow in her wake.

  She lowered her head, blinking against the stinging wind and the water forming in the corners of her eyes as ice pelted her face.

  She hit a soft patch of snow and the snowmobile bogged for a moment. She gunned it, fishtailed and finally broke free. A glimpse behind her told her that she had at least three men on her tail.

  She turned in the direction of the village and prayed she’d be able to find her way in the darkness. The headlight bounced off the snow but didn’t give her much lead time to avoid pitfalls.

  Lights reflected off the snow in front of her. They were getting closer, flanking her as they closed in. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the one on her right creep up. She veered sharply in front of him. His machine clipped her back end as she cut him off.

  It yanked her right but she recovered while he careened wildly into the path of one of the other snowmobiles. A loud crash splintered and then an explosion rocked the night. A ball of flame shot upward, bathing the area in an orange glow.

  She jumped a rise, becoming airborne. She hit the ground with a resounding jolt and skidded sideways, bogging down in the snow. She yanked the wheel, gave it some gas and righted herself. As she chanced a look over her shoulder, her spirits sank. How many more were there?

  Four sets of headlights bore down on her. Did they reproduce like bunnies? Every time she took one out, two took its place.

  And then a loud rumble reverberated over her ears. The ground shook, causing the snowmobile to vibrate wildly. She looked behind her again only to see a wall of white envelope the headlights like a suffocating cloud.

  Panic welled, fierce and nauseating.

  Avalanche.

  One of the snowmobiles raced before the steamrolling wave of snow. She was no longer the man’s aim. Survival was. He raced in front of her as they both stayed barely ahead of the rumbling crush.

  She leaned forward and let loose. She surged past the other snowmobile, her lights dancing over the snow like a drunken ballerina. Trees, rocks, bushes bounced up and down, puppets on stiff strings. She rocked over inclines, nearly thrown free of her seat.

  She looked again just in time to see the other snowmobile go under the rolling white death. The machine flipped and then rolled end over end, the man’s body bouncing with it before finally being thrown clear and quickly buried under several feet of snow.

  Her heart sank. She couldn’t outrun it.

  Not wanting to become entangled in the snowmobile, she made a quick decision. Closing her eyes, she dove right, hitting the ground with a bone-jarring crunch. She rolled as both she and the snowmobile were swallowed whole. White descended and all went silent inside her icy tomb.

  ***

  Eli simmered through the air, a thin plume of smoke, and streaked toward where Tits had fallen in the snow. Blood, brilliant red, stained the pristine white on the ground as the snowmobiles bounced by in pursuit of Katie.

  “I know you’re there, you crazy bastard,” Tits grunted out. “Leave me and go after her.”

  When he was certain the snowmobiles had passed, their engines echoing in the distance, he came t
o form beside Tits, his hands already going out to staunch the flow of blood from Tits’ shoulder.

  “Why’d you let her go?” Tits asked in halting stutters.

  “Because she was right,” Eli said grimly. “Ian and Braden are our priorities, and they’re lying in the cabin out cold.”

  “Why’d she go crazy?”

  “Hell if I know. She could have shot us both. She could have left Ian and Braden to die.”

  “But she didn’t.”

  “She didn’t,” Eli agreed.

  Holding his palm to Tits’ bleeding wound, he pushed at the larger man, helping him to his knees. “Come on man, let’s get you into the cabin before you bleed to death.”

  “It’s not bad,” Tits said as he hoisted himself to his feet. “I’ve had worse.”

  Still, he stumbled as they started for the cabin, and Eli dug his shoulder under Tits’ arm to support the larger man.

  They slowly climbed up the steps, and Tits paused for a long moment, catching his breath before they headed for the door.

  Eli maneuvered it open with his free hand and started to haul Tits forward when a loud rumble had them both turning around. The entire porch shook. The sounds of breaking glass came from within as plates fell from the counter and splintered on the floor.

  “What the fuck?” Tits demanded.

  “Oh hell,” Eli muttered.

  He and Tits exchanged looks of horror as the realization hit them both.

  “Avalanche!” Tits yelled.

  “Get in, now!” Eli shoved Tits forward just as the spray of snow hit him in the back. He fell to the floor but kicked at the door with his foot and prayed like hell it would hold.

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  “Getting out of here should be a snap for a man of your means,” Tits said darkly.

  “I never said it wouldn’t be,” Eli returned.

  The two men sat in the dark with only a penlight to illuminate the interior of the cabin. The door had miraculously held. The windows had not. Broken glass littered the living room along with piles of snow and ice.

  It was cold but not unbearably so.

  “I need to check on Ian and Braden. Are you going to be okay?”

  Tits waved the penlight in a dismissive gesture.

  “I’ll make sure they’re all right, and then I’ll see if I can use the satellite uplink to reach Jonah. I’d prefer they got here before any local rescue effort. If I can’t raise him that way, I’ll shift and go out the chimney. I’ll go to the village and get word to them that way.”

  Again Tits waved the light, and Eli got to his feet and made his way to the bedroom.

  There was only one window, and it too was busted out. Snow was steadily dribbling and shifting onto the floor from the strain. Ian and Braden were sprawled on the bed, out like a light. Damn, but he needed them awake and aware.

  “Hey Tits, can you come back here, man, or are you too weak?”

  Eli almost laughed at the snarl that followed. A few seconds later, Tits thumped into the bedroom holding his shoulder with one hand.

  “Thought that would get your ass in here,” Eli said.

  “Hey, fuck you. What the hell do you want, anyway? I was comfortable.”

  “I need you to see if you can wake up the sleeping beauties while I raise Jonah.”

  “I could always stick their faces in the wall of snow at the window,” Tits said with a shrug.

  “Do what you have to do. I’ll get Jonah on the way.”

  “They ain’t going to be happy about what happened to Katie,” Tits said quietly.

  Eli grimaced, knowing full well that surviving the avalanche on a snowmobile was next to impossible. “I’ll let you tell them,” he muttered.

  “Gee thanks. You’re all heart, man.”

  Eli turned away and then dug into his pack for the satellite transmitter and tiny keyboard. No, he didn’t want to be the one to tell Ian and Braden about Katie. She was a lot more to them than just an assignment. He didn’t want to break the news that she was dead.

  ***

  Ian pulled his way sluggishly from the heavy blanket of sleep. Someone was yelling his name and shaking him. His limbs were lead-filled, and none of them were cooperating with his command to move.

  “That’s it, man, open your eyes. Look at me, damn it.”

  “What the hell?” he slurred out then licked his dry, cracked lips.

  A palm slapped sharply at his face, and Ian snarled in irritation.

  “Get mad all you want. I’m not going away.”

  “Tits?”

  Ian opened his eyes to see Tits staring down at him, pain etched in his face and blood smeared over his shoulder and chest.

  Remembrance slammed into him. He bolted upright, Katie’s name on his lips. He stared over to see Braden still unconscious on the bed.

  “Where is she?” he growled.

  Tits glanced warily at him. “Don’t try any of that shifting shit on me, man. I’ll knock your ass out again, and I’ll make sure you sleep for three days straight.”

  “Where. Is. She.”

  “She’s gone,” Tits said softly. “Now help me get your brother awake. We’re up shit creek without a paddle here. I’ll explain the best I can as soon as we figure out how the hell to get out of here.”

  Ian looked around the darkened cabin in confusion. There was light from a flashlight standing upright on the nightstand, and another smaller light sat on the dresser. It was just enough that he could make out Tits and the area immediately surrounding him, but beyond that, there was nothing.

  He saw the glass lying in a puddle of water on the floor, and then he saw the bulge of snow against the shattered window.

  “What the ever-loving fuck?”

  “Avalanche,” Tits said grimly. “We’re snowed in until Falcon gets here to pull our asses out. Eli’s on the horn with them now.”

  Tits turned his attention to Braden, shaking him like a rag doll as he shouted at him to wake up. Ian shook the cobwebs from his own head and put the pieces back together in his mind. Katie had drugged them. She thought… She’d obviously overheard some of their conversation with Tits and Eli. It was the only explanation for why she thought they were using her to get to Esteban, or at least why she’d assumed the worst.

  Hell.

  “Does Esteban have Katie?” Ian asked hoarsely.

  Tits shot him a grim look. Braden stirred and muttered as Tits continued to harass him.

  Frustrated, Ian reached over and hauled Braden up by his shirt collar. He shook him then slapped him repeatedly on the cheek with his open palm. Braden’s eyes shot open belligerently, and he shoved at Ian.

  “What the fuck is your problem, man?”

  “Wake up. We’ve got problems,” Ian said brusquely.

  Braden rubbed his eyes wearily and shook his head a few times. Then he bolted to awareness, grabbing Ian by the collar.

  “Katie. Where is she?”

  “Tits is just about to tell us.” He glanced over at Tits, not liking the uneasy look on the other man’s face.

  “What the hell happened to you, Tits?” Braden demanded as he took in the blood all over his shirt.

  “Took a bullet from Esteban’s men,” Tits said shortly.

  “Katie?” Braden asked hesitantly.

  Tits looked up in relief when Eli strode into the room. “You get Jonah?”

  “Yeah, they’re on the move. ETA six hours. An extrication team will reach us first. No idea on the Falcon secondary who were with us on the mountain. Jonah’s afraid they were all buried by the avalanche.”

  “Katie?” Ian asked again. He was beginning to sound like a damn parrot.

  Eli shot Tits a scowl. “You haven’t told them yet?”

  “I was getting to it,” Tits mumbled.

  “Why don’t you tell us since Tits is having a hard time with the English language all of a sudden,” Braden said, his voice hard.

  Eli ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair and shot the br
others a look of sympathy. “We don’t think she made it.”

  A fist slammed into Ian’s gut, knocking the breath right out of him. Braden didn’t look any better. He paled, and his fingers curled into tight balls.

  “What do you mean she didn’t make it?” Braden asked in a deadly quiet voice.

  “When we rode up, she was on the porch with an assault rifle and her bag. She was about to bolt,” Eli began. “I shifted so I could gain position on her. Then Tits took a bullet. They obviously had staked out the cabin. Katie told me to let her go so she could lead Esteban away from you and Braden. She said you were unconscious and helpless. She asked for a chance to live. For all of you to live.”

  “And you let her go?” Ian shouted.

  “I had three men down,” Eli said calmly. “She was right.”

  “What happened?” Braden snarled.

  “She took off on the snowmobile, and Esteban’s men took off after her. Several minutes later as I was getting Tits into the cabin, we got hit by the avalanche. She couldn’t have been far enough away to have avoided it,” he finished quietly.

  “Mother of God,” Ian said hoarsely.

  No. She couldn’t be dead.

  “What are you so worked up about, man? She screwed you over. Drugged your asses and was all set to ditch you.”

  “Because she thought we’d fucked her over first,” Ian bit out. “She had to have overheard our conversation outside the other day and misunderstood.”

  “What was to misunderstand?” Eli asked. “You were using her. Or did I miss something here?”

  “We were protecting her.” Grief was thick in Braden’s voice. “We would have never let Esteban get to her. That wasn’t the plan. That was never the plan.”

  “How long?” Ian demanded. “How long since the avalanche? How long has she been out there in the cold?”

 
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