Into the lair, p.21
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       Into the Lair, p.21

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
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  Eli flashed him a look of sympathy. “Three hours. She couldn’t survive that long.”

  Braden shot up from the bed. “Where’s the locator?”

  Ian looked up, his brow creased.

  “The tracking device,” Braden said impatiently. “I had Marcus put one back in when he stitched her up. It should show up on the locator.”

  “Braden, man, it’s been three hours,” Tits said.

  “I don’t care,” he roared. “Even if she’s dead, I’m not leaving her out there to rot. She deserves better than that. She’s always been left behind. This time she won’t be.”

  Ian stood, his mind numb. He moved jerkily, like an automaton with no clear direction. His gaze scoured the room in search of the locator. He staggered to the two bags by the window and ripped into them. Everything was soggy from the melted snow. God, let the locator still work.

  He yanked it out and hit the power button. Nothing happened.

  “Goddamn it!” He hit the button again.

  “Let me have it,” Braden demanded as he strode over. “I can take it apart and dry it out. It might work again.”

  “Jonah will have another,” Eli said.

  “We don’t have six hours to wait for them to come rescue us,” Ian seethed. “If we can get a bead on her location, you can shift and get out of here.”

  Eli and Tits exchanged uneasy glances which only enraged Ian further. They’d already given her up for dead.

  He tossed the unit up to Braden. Braden snatched one of the lights from the dresser and went back over to the bed.

  While he worked feverishly, Ian paced, his gaze going to the blocked window.

  “Have you tried digging out? Have you shifted and gone above to see what we’re facing here? Have you tried digging down from the outside?”

  Eli put a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “The cabin is covered, Ian. We need more than one man with a shovel. Jonah’s on his way with back-up. We’ll get out, I swear.”

  “Yeah, but will we be in time?”

  Eli shook his head. “You have to know, Ian. The chances of her surviving…they aren’t good.”

  Ian closed his eyes. “Why did you give her up for me?”

  “You know the answer to that,” Eli said patiently. “If you think about it, you’ll know I didn’t have any other choice. I had a wounded man and two more out of commission. There was no way I could stave off all of Esteban’s men alone. Katie led them away. Don’t take away from her sacrifice.”

  “I just don’t understand why she did it.” Ian dropped his head as grief and anger surged over him. “She told me…one of the last things she said was that she wasn’t expendable. That her life mattered. So why then did she suddenly decide she gave a damn about the fact that Braden and I were sitting ducks here?”

  “I can’t answer that,” Eli said quietly. “But I bet you can if you look deep enough. It was probably for the same reason you’re considering digging out of here with your bare hands. She’s more to you than a job, Ian. And I’d say you were more to her than just someone her brother sent to save her ass.”

  Anguish, harsh, so heavy that his knees buckled, hit him. He turned, his hands flying to his face in an attempt to make the reality go away.

  He sagged, and Eli caught him. They both fell and their knees hit the floor with a jolt. Eli caught the back of Ian’s neck as Ian’s forehead hit Eli’s shoulder.

  “I’m sorry, man,” Eli said. “I know how I’d feel if someone told me Tyana was out there. I wouldn’t accept it either. But it wouldn’t change a damn thing.”

  Ian’s breaths roared from his lungs like fire. Each inhalation hurt, hit him with such savagery. He hadn’t kept her safe. He’d failed her just like everyone else in her life. And too late, he realized he wanted to be different. He wanted to be the one she could trust. Love. Rely on.

  “Don’t you fucking give up,” Braden snarled.

  Ian’s head came up, and he saw Braden staring at him, answering grief simmering in his eyes. They glittered with moisture, and his entire mouth twitched. His jaw jumped and spasmed, and Ian realized how hard he was hanging on to his control.

  Slowly, he stood, using Eli for leverage. He walked over to the bed where his brother was piecing together the locator.

  “I won’t give up,” he vowed as he locked gazes with Braden. “I won’t give up until we find her. Even if it’s just to recover her body and bring her home. She deserves that much.”

  Braden nodded and held out his hand. Ian grasped it. A current of power passed between the two men. In that moment, Ian knew that Braden had fallen as hard and fast for Katie as he had. And now neither of them would have a chance to take care of her—to love her—the way they both wanted.

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Braden stared at the array of waterlogged parts to the receiver with a tenuous grip on his fury. He wanted to hurl them against the wall and then he wanted to hit someone. Several times the beast inside had risen, snarling to be set free. The edgy, sharp sensation prickled along his skin, raising his hairs. The signal of an impending shift. He’d never fought so hard in his life to remain calm, to ward off the panther. Never before had he been successful.

  Too much was riding on his ability to remain human. Katie was depending on him.

  For the umpteenth time, he carefully wiped down each individual wire, each piece and then put it all back together in an effort to make it come to life.

  When he finished, he hit the power button and held his breath.


  With a snarl of fury, he hurled it across the room, and it shattered on impact. He thrust himself up from the bed, crossed to the wall and punched it for all he was worth.

  The wall caved and dust from the sheetrock slid down and skittered onto the floor.

  “Hey, lighten up,” Eli said as he put his hand on Braden’s shoulder.

  Braden held up his hand, a clear warning for Eli to back off. He did.

  “Don’t tell me to lighten up. Would you lighten up if it was Tyana out there? Cold. Alone.”

  “No, man, I wouldn’t,” Eli said quietly.

  “How’s Tits?” Braden asked as he turned around. He sucked in his breaths, trying to soothe the fury that singed his veins and thundered in his ears.

  “A little weak, but we stopped the blood. Looks like a flesh wound. He’ll bitch and moan, but he’ll be fine.”

  “I can’t stand it, Eli. I can’t stand to stay here any longer. I’ve got to get out of here.”

  “It won’t be much longer,” Eli soothed. “Jonah and Mad Dog and the rest of the Falcon secondary are getting here as fast as they can. The extrication team he already had on the ground should be here anytime.”

  Braden stared across the room to where Ian sat slumped in a chair, his head down, palm covering is forehead. What a fucking mess.

  “I’ll go out and have a look around again,” Eli said. “It should be getting light soon.”

  Braden nodded, and Eli faded from view. Only a slight shadow streaking across the room signaled his departure. Ian looked up at Braden.

  “We lost her, man.”

  Braden swallowed and willed himself to remain calm, not to let the anger—and the grief—tear out of his chest. He was pissed. If only they’d been upfront with Katie from the beginning or even later on, after they’d arrived in Austria. Hell, even after they’d started sleeping with her.

  They’d had countless chances, but they’d been arrogant, too confident in their ability to control the situation. And neither had realized what they stood to lose until it was too damn late.

  Braden turned away from his brother, no longer able to stand the pain in Ian’s eyes. They mirrored his own agony too much.

  A few minutes later, Eli strode back into the bedroom, his expression tight. “There are rescue crews further down the mountain. Nothing up here yet, but then we’re pretty far out of the way. Chances are no one knew anyone was in this cabin.”

  “Have they recovered any
survivors?” Ian asked, hope edging into his voice.

  “Just bodies,” Eli said grimly. “Esteban’s men and a few of the Falcon secondary. No sign of Katie. There’s a team of men heading in our direction. Most likely Falcon, but we can’t be too careful. Stay on your toes and have your guns at the ready.”

  The men walked back into the living room where Tits was propped up against the wall, his gun leaned against his uninjured shoulder. He stared at them with slitted eyes, monitoring their progress across the floor.

  “How you holding up?” Eli asked.

  “I’m good. Ready to go. No wimpy ass bullet’s gonna take me down.”

  “We got a team moving in,” Eli said as he squatted beside Tits.

  Tits nodded and grasped the stock of his rifle, sliding the barrel down his body and then tilting it forward. “Well, let’s do it, then.”

  Eli grasped his good arm, and Ian leaned in to help pull Tits to a standing position. Tits stared at Ian eye to eye, his expression serious.

  “I’m sorry about Katie.”

  Ian swallowed and nodded shortly.

  Thirty minutes later, they heard the sounds of equipment hitting the roof. Then light shone in the broken window on the left. A hand appeared as it scooped out snow, widening the beam of light.

  “Guess it’s time to greet our guests,” Eli muttered as he strode to the window.

  Ian moved in behind Eli and pointed his rifle toward the opening. Eli disappeared in a thin vapor trail and filtered up through the window. Braden joined Ian with Tits close behind.

  “That shit makes me nervous,” Tits muttered. “What if I inhaled the man?”

  Braden shook with laughter despite the raw grief carved on his face.

  A few seconds later, the hole got bigger, and a hand thrust a small receiver through the opening. Ian lunged for it, his hands shaking as he powered it up.

  “We’ll get you out shortly,” one of the men hollered down.

  Ian ignored him, turning away as he punched in the code for Katie’s tracking device.

  “Come on, come on,” he murmured impatiently as he waited for the map to load.

  The graphic flashed on the screen and the lines spread out, signaling the layout of the area. A hundred-mile radius. He frowned and keyed the code in again.

  “What the fuck?” Braden demanded as he looked over Ian’s shoulder.

  “That’s impossible.” Ian keyed it in for the third time. “Something’s wrong.”

  “What is it?” Tits asked as he too came over to look.

  “She’s not showing up,” Braden said.

  “Maybe all the snow interfered,” Tits offered cautiously.

  Ian shook his head. “That thing would work on the bottom of the ocean.”

  “Could it have fallen off?” Braden asked.

  “It would still show up on the receiver,” Ian said. “Marcus sewed it into her damn stitches. It didn’t just fall out. The only explanation…”

  He turned to Braden, afraid to hope, afraid to let Braden see his hope.

  “What?” Braden demanded.

  “The only explanation is that she’s beyond the search radius,” he said slowly.

  Light sparked in Braden’s eyes. “Widen it.”

  Ian rapidly keyed in the coordinates for the world map and held his breath. And then a small dot on the display screen started to blink.

  Excitement exploded in his chest. Relief so profound he felt lightheaded. He yanked his gaze to Braden to see the same excitement burgeoning in his eyes.

  “Where is she?” Braden asked hoarsely.

  Ian frowned as he crosschecked the latitude and longitude. Then he looked back up at Braden and Tits.

  “If my coordinates are correct, she’s somewhere over the Atlantic.”

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  It really pissed Katie off that she had to be grateful to this creepy jerk for saving her life. She stared over at the worm who’d introduced himself as the notorious Esteban and curled her lips in disgust.

  At least she’d stopped shaking. Finally. And the interior of the plane was nice and toasty. Which was good because she was convinced her skin had turned permanently blue.

  Still, she hitched the blanket higher around her chin, more of a protective measure than one of true discomfort over the temperature.

  Esteban’s stare raked over her, and he locked gazes with her. She stared boldly back, refusing to let him cow her. She’d faced down enough bastards to recognize that he wasn’t anything special in the sleaze department. Just a typical man full of himself and assured of his own importance.

  He smiled, flashing crooked teeth. “You don’t look very happy that I pulled you from the snow, Katie. I could have left you there, you know.”

  “I’m glad you pulled me out. I just wish you’d left me alone once you did,” she snapped. “Where the hell are you taking me, and why do you want me so badly? I can’t possibly have anything you want.”

  “Oh, but you do,” he said softly. “You have something I want very much. You are, in fact, key to my success. Perhaps the key.”

  She furrowed her brow in genuine confusion. He was utterly serious, and for a moment, he even seemed sane. Which was scary in its own way. She didn’t want to relate to this creep or even see him as half a human being.

  “You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not feeling too charitably toward you. You gassed my brother and his team. You made them what they are, and you’re responsible for my brother’s death. That makes you a son of a bitch, and I’d just as soon see you rot in hell than ever be the key to your anything.”

  “I regretted Gabe’s death very much,” Esteban said tightly. “It was senseless. He was vitally important to my program. He chose his path, and he chose to sacrifice himself for two failed prototypes.”

  “Prototypes? What the hell? They were men. Men you fucked over and made into unpredictable wild animals.”

  Esteban rubbed his face tiredly. “I don’t expect you to understand. You’re not a scientist.”

  “And you are?” she scoffed. “From what I heard, you own a pharmaceutical company, and you like to play God in your spare time. How the hell does that make you a scientist?”

  She leaned forward. “Why do you want me? What part could I possibly play in all of this, and how could I be of any importance to your program?”

  “You’re Gabe’s sister,” he said evenly. “That makes you extremely important. You share the same genetic material. He was one of my successes while the Thomas brothers were dismal failures. How do you explain the stability of one man and the instability of another when they were introduced to the same set of conditions?”

  She stared at him in shock. She opened her mouth to speak, but she honestly couldn’t formulate a single word.

  “You’re getting the picture,” he said with a small smile. “If Gabe was a success then chances are you will be too. And any children you have.”

  Nausea welled in her stomach. “You’re not changing me into some wild animal,” she whispered. “And I won’t be a breeding machine.”

  He shrugged. “There’s nothing to say you’ll turn out to be a wild animal. Gabe could become invisible. Part of what makes this so interesting is learning what your gift will be. If you’ll share the same traits as Gabe did or if all we’ll be guaranteed is your stability, your ability to control your shifts and retain human cognizance in shifted form. It will be a fascinating experiment. Your eggs will be harvested for breeding purposes, so you don’t have to worry about losing your figure to a pregnancy.”

  She was too horrified to protest, too dumbstruck to do anything but stare at him in absolute disbelief. Was he joking? He said it so flippantly, like he was doing her a grand favor by sparing her a pregnancy. And who the hell did he plan on fathering those babies?

  A shudder rolled over her shoulders, and bile rose in her throat. She’d never been more disgusted in her life, and Ricardo de la Cruz was plenty heave-worthy.

  “I’m not
planning to hurt you, Katie,” he said in a cajoling voice. “You’re far too important to me. I plan to take very good care of you.”

  “Why?” she whispered. “Why on earth do you want people who can shift? Why would you force that on anyone?”

  “It’s merely a starting point,” he said idly. “If I can alter human DNA and make a man a hybrid between human and beast, what else can I create?”

  “You want to be God?”

  “No, I wouldn’t want his job,” he said seriously. “It’s not my place to judge, to make life or death decisions. Who gets to live, who gets to die. I’d rather offer humans choices.”

  “Oh, dear heaven,” she groaned. “I take it you don’t believe in the whole theory of free will? You believe in predestination? And if that’s the case, don’t you think God would have to be pretty stupid to preordain someone who could change all his rules?”

  She hugged her knees to her chest, ignoring the pain in her ribs and the raw wound that had partially reopened in her fall from the snowmobile.

  Esteban smiled ruefully. “You intrigue me, Katie. I hadn’t expected you to be so difficult. I think you’ll make a fascinating addition to my experiment.”

  “And what will you do once you’ve turned me into a trick pony?” she asked softly. “Are you just going to let me go? Let me go back to my life?”

  His lips pressed together in an expression of regret, and then he shook his head. “I’m sorry to say that your life as you know it is over. The sooner you accept it, the better off you’ll be.”

  She eyed him coldly, allowing the full force of her hatred and disdain to bleed into her expression. “You’ve made some ambitious plans,” she said in a mock congratulatory tone. “But you forgot to factor in one little variable. Make that two.”

  Esteban’s eyebrow went up. “Oh? And what’s that?”

  “Ian and Braden Thomas,” she said evenly.

  “You think they give a damn about you?”

  She smiled tightly. “I don’t have any illusions where they’re concerned, but I know how much they hate you. They’re not going to give up hunting you.”

  For a moment annoyance flickered across his face, and then he shrugged nonchalantly. “If they do, they’ll die.”

  “But I thought you didn’t make life or death decisions?” she taunted.

  “If they go after me, they choose death, I don’t choose it for them,” he said in a chilling voice. “Their deaths will be a consequence of their choices.”

  She stared at him calmly, confidence radiating. “And maybe your death will be the consequence of your choices.”

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  “The last time we went into a compound like this, I lost a man,” Eli said grimly as he looked at the gathered men. “I don’t want that to happen this time.”

  Jonah stood to the side, his arms crossed over his AK-47. He looked almost bored. Except for his eyes. They flickered alertly over the assembled group as if he were measuring each one.

  Mad Dog and Tits flanked Ian and Braden, and Tits slapped at another bug, real or imagined, Ian wasn’t sure.

  “Goddamn it,” Tits muttered. “The entire jungle is determined to have me for dinner.”

  “It’s the fresh blood,” Mad Dog drawled. “If you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. They grow ’em big here in South America.”

  “Hey, fuck you,” Tits said. But he pressed a hand to his wound as if to
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