Into the lair, p.23
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       Into the Lair, p.23

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
 
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  Taking a deep, steadying breath, she squared her shoulders. Ian and Braden had risked everything to save her. They hadn’t betrayed her, hadn’t left her to Esteban. She wouldn’t leave them now.

  She’d survived. She could feel sorry for herself later. Right now she had to overcome the mind-numbing pain ricocheting through her body like a short-circuited electric system and get the hell out of here.

  She thumped the butt of the rifle down on the floor for leverage and shoved herself to her knees. She promptly bent over, vomiting as her stomach curled and squeezed relentlessly.

  The two cats bumped incessantly at her legs, urging her forward. They flanked her protectively, forming a tight circle around her with their bodies. And to think she’d once worried about them killing her. As had they.

  Sucking air through her nose, she gritted her teeth and pushed herself to her feet. She nearly went down in a heap and had to lean heavily on the rifle to keep her footing.

  The cats followed her to the door, pressed tightly against her legs in an effort to keep her upright. Didn’t retain human cognizance, her ass. They knew precisely what they were doing. Maybe they didn’t remember afterward, but it didn’t mean they were mindless killers.

  Her gaze fell on the leather-bound journal lying on the table by the door. Part of her had no desire to know anything about Esteban, but the contents might help Ian and Braden and their teammate Damiano. She might need help every bit as much as they did now that Esteban had probably turned her into a shape-shifting being.

  She curled her hand around the spine and tucked it to her breast. Slowly and painfully she headed across the room to the small corridor that she knew led to the lower level. There was a tunnel leading to the outside. She’d heard Esteban talking. Maybe it was to her. She couldn’t remember. He’d spoken to her often, as though he was trying to win her over, to make her understand.

  She closed her eyes as more tears simmered in her vision. What had he done to her? And why? What was he? Had he experimented on himself only for things to go horribly wrong as they had with Ian and Braden? Was his mad search for her an attempt to correct his mistakes, to find a cure?

  They descended into the cooler, darker tunnel. A sound in the distance sent a wave of adrenaline through her body. Somehow she found the strength to raise the gun as she and the cats moved steadily forward. At the end, two men appeared. As they raised their rifles, she fired off a volley of shots. They went down and she shot again, not taking chances as they drew closer.

  The cats sniffed at the bodies and growled but urged her over them.

  Deeper and deeper, further down until she was certain they were entering the bowels of the earth. The tunnel wound and narrowed, and at several points she had to stop and lean heavily against the wall.

  Tears of rage, of pain and frustration, of fear and of sorrow flooded her eyes, and she angrily brushed them away, furious that now of all times she was breaking.

  And then the tunnel sloped upward. The going went slower as she struggled to put one foot in front of the other. Agony seared her muscles. They contracted and protested, shook like a newborn colt’s legs.

  Sunlight. Just a beam shining and bouncing off the tunnel wall. She extended her hand, touching the slight trail of warmth along the cooler surface.

  It grew brighter, and then she saw the small entrance ahead, a simple trap door in the ceiling, old enough that intermittent splashes of sun leaked through.

  A few feet away, her legs gave out, and she fell headlong onto the floor. She lay there gasping, her eyes closed as pain raced and rebounded through her body like a current with no outlet.

  The jaguar leaned down, his warm tongue lapping gently at her cheek. He nuzzled her jaw, pushing upward. The panther butted her in the middle of her back, nudging her forward, impatient.

  She raised her arm, and the jaguar looped his head underneath, giving her purchase. The panther slid his head underneath her other shoulder and lifted.

  With renewed strength, she rose unsteadily, her weight borne by the two large predators. She reached up to shove at the old wood. When it didn’t budge, she picked up the rifle and extended the butt, ramming against the doorway.

  When that didn’t work, she stepped back several feet, took aim and fired a series of shots. The wood splintered and rained downward. She busted out the remaining pieces with the rifle and squinted as the sun shone in.

  Now for the most difficult part. Getting out. When she started to reach, the jaguar issued a warning growl. She stepped back nervously, but he simply leaped into the opening first. The panther then nudged her forward, obviously wanting her to go next.

  It took her a long time to hoist herself through the opening. Her entire body was bathed in sweat, and she was in so much pain, she nearly passed out. When she finally pulled herself out, she rolled to clear the entrance for Braden, and she simply lay there, her energy spent.

  It wasn’t long before the cats started to nuzzle her again. Gently, probing and inquisitive. Then more firmly when she didn’t respond. They wanted her up and away from danger.

  Her hand going automatically to the gun, she dragged herself to her knees but when she tried to stand, she found she simply lacked the strength. So she crawled. Between the two cats. They guarded her carefully, their gazes always seeking. They matched their pace to hers.

  She headed into the lush foliage of the jungle. Shelter. A place to hide and to rest. And finally, she was at her end.

  She crawled underneath a tree into a bed of damp leaves. Water dripped from the canopy overhead, soft and soothing.

  The panther inserted himself between her and the tree so that she leaned into his warm body. She went without hesitation, pressing her back into his fur.

  The jaguar settled himself a few feet away, his head up and staring, his ears perked and alert.

  She just wanted to stop hurting. Just for a little while.

  Chapter Forty-Two

  Ian came awake, the sounds of the jungle humming incessantly in his ears. Awareness of everything else was slow in coming. He moved with marked lethargy, and he moaned softly as blackness swirled.

  He turned his head, his cheek scraping against the damp ground. Oh God. “No,” he whispered when he saw Katie lying several feet away.

  Blood covered her body, bathing her in scarlet red.

  He scrambled for her, grief and confusion clouding his mind. Memories splintered and came back rapid fire. Braden had shifted and killed the men in the laboratory. Katie had looked up at him with pain-filled eyes. He’d allowed the shift to happen.

  He’d done this to her.

  He crawled to her body, ignoring Braden who lay just beyond her, his back against a gnarly tree trunk. With shaking hands, Ian reached for her, his fingers feathering over her pale face.

  Tears clouded his vision as he gathered her in his arms. Ignoring her blood-soaked clothes, he crushed her to his chest and buried his face in her hair.

  She stirred softly, her body trembling against his. His hopes soared. Then he began to shake uncontrollably as he gently put her back down so he could judge the extent of her injuries.

  God, there was so much blood. Had he ravaged her? Had he turned on her and attacked her?

  He pushed at her clothing with impatient hands. He found the wound Marcus had stitched, countless bruises, but no gaping wounds, certainly nothing capable of producing the amount of blood on her clothes.

  “Ian?” Braden asked groggily. “What the hell are you doing?”

  “I must have attacked her,” Ian said in a broken voice. “There’s blood everywhere.”

  Braden pushed himself upward, his brow creased in absolute confusion. “But you didn’t.” He stared down at Katie in horror and then back up at Ian. “Ian…I remember.”

  Ian stared back. “Remember what?”

  Braden opened his mouth but seemed to have great difficulty in forming what he wanted to say. He palmed his forehead and closed his eyes for a moment.

  “I s
hifted on purpose, Ian. And I remember what happened while I was the panther. I remember everything.”

  Ian shook his head, sure he wasn’t hearing right.

  “I remember killing Esteban. And the others. And then you shifted. The blood isn’t hers. It’s Esteban’s. She was in so much pain, and we tried to get her out.”

  “How can you remember that?” Ian asked in disbelief.

  “I don’t know,” Braden whispered.

  Braden pushed himself forward and leaned over Katie. He touched her cheek and then bent down to kiss her temple. “Katie,” he choked out. He stroked her face, his fingers skittering lightly over her skin.

  He glanced back up at Ian. “She’s so clammy. She’s trembling all over. She’s not doing well, Ian. We have to get her out of here. I don’t know what the hell they did to her, but it wasn’t good.”

  Four men burst out of the dense jungle foliage, their guns pointed at Ian, Braden and Katie. Braden dove over Katie, his body shielding her while Ian grabbed for the rifle at her side.

  “Whoa, man, stand down,” Eli barked. “It’s us, Ian.”

  Ian stared up through the red haze crowding his vision to see Eli, Jonah, Mad Dog and Tits standing in a tight semicircle. They lowered their guns.

  “Christ,” Mad Dog grumbled as he dug into his backpack. “It’s getting to be a chore keeping you two in clothes.”

  Ian glanced down, only now noticing that he was nude. Mad Dog tossed a pair of fatigues and a T-shirt at Ian and then to Braden. But Braden focused solely on Katie, anguish etched into his features as he stared down at her.

  “What happened, Ian?” Eli asked softly.

  Jonah and Eli both squatted down beside Katie. Braden ignored them in his distress.

  Ian shook the cobwebs from his head. “I don’t know everything,” he said honestly. He stared up at his brother. “Braden said he shifted on purpose and that he remembers everything that happened while he was the panther.”

  Eli and Jonah jerked their gazes to Braden.

  “Is that true?” Eli asked.

  “Think, Braden,” Jonah said urgently. “This could be important.”

  “They were hurting Katie,” Braden said simply, his voice breaking with emotion. “Ian and I were helpless to save her. Esteban had us shackled and drugged. I knew I had to shift and so I did. Then I killed the man who was trying to hurt Katie. Then Esteban and finally the third man in the room.”

  Eli exchanged glances with Ian, his brow creased in concentration.

  “Did you mean to kill them? What I mean is did you know what you were doing? Did you plan it?”

  “Yes,” Braden said simply. “I went after them. I wanted them dead. Katie fell from the table. There was blood everywhere, on her, on Esteban.”

  He stared up at Ian. “You told her to get out, that I would hurt her. She touched me and then she buried her face in my fur. Then she told you to shift. You refused and said you didn’t want to hurt her. She told you that I wouldn’t let you, that I was protecting her. It was true. When you shifted, I put myself between you and her. I didn’t know what you would do. But you immediately went to help her. We both were just trying to get her out of there. She barely made it down the tunnel.”

  He returned his gaze to her. “She was in so much pain. I don’t know what they did to her, Ian, and it’s killing me.”

  Katie moaned again. She shook, seemingly wracked with a chill, but sweat bathed her body, beading on her forehead. Her face was pale, and her muscles twitched like a junkie in withdrawal.

  Her face contorted, and her lips drew together in a fine line, going white as she battled what seemed to be unbearable pain.

  And then her eyes flew open, and she stared up at Jonah and Eli. Her pupils went wide with fear, and then she turned away, her eyes staring unseeingly into the jungle. Her leg jumped, and the nerves in her arms spasmed uncontrollably.

  Eli’s expression hardened while Jonah’s face softened when he stared down at her shaking body. Jonah reached out and gently touched her face.

  Slowly her eyes moved until she locked gazes with him.

  “What did they do to you, habibti?”

  His voice was strained. Uncharacteristic emotion simmered in his eyes.

  She stared dully back at him. “They took my eggs,” she whispered.

  Jonah’s head came up in shock, and the other men all stared at each other. Had they understood right? Ian’s face tightened in horror as he remembered the scene right before Braden shifted. The spreading of her legs and the metal device the man had put between her legs. Dear God.

  She closed her eyes as tears seeped from the corners, leaving damp trails down her pale face.

  Eli turned to stare up at Mad Dog. There was steel in his eyes. “Give me some time before you blow this place to hell.” Then he turned to the others. “Get Katie to the helicopter. I’ll meet you there.”

  ***

  Jonah carried Katie through the jungle, with Mad Dog taking point and Tits bringing up the rear. Ian and Braden were still weak and shaky from the drugs and the prolonged shift.

  Jonah glanced down as Katie jerked and spasmed in his arms and wondered for the hundredth time what the bastards had done to her. And why? She clutched a worn leather journal to her chest, and murmured a weak protest when he tried to take it from her. So he left it, not wanting to cause her any more distress.

  Her eyes had the vacant, distant look of the women brutalized under his father’s reign of tyranny. She looked…like his mother had the day he’d found her huddled in the bedroom of their palace home.

  He stared stonily ahead even as his grip tightened around Katie’s slight form. He hadn’t been able to save his mother or the many others his father had crushed. In the end, he’d fled, shedding all association with Adharji and his dictator father.

  Funny how things had a way of coming full circle. All things began in Adharji.

  “Slow up, Jonah,” Tits called. “We’re nearing the landing site. Let Ian and Braden go ahead and make sure the area is clear. I’ll hang back and provide cover for you.”

  Jonah slowed his pace and loosened his grip around Katie’s body. “Poor habibti,” he murmured as he stared down at the perspiration glistening on her face. “You’ve had it way too hard for one so young.”

  “She needs a doctor,” Tits said.

  Jonah jerked his head around to see Tits standing at his right shoulder. Then he glanced back at the strain on Katie’s face. “Yes, she does.”

  “She’s really messed with you, dude,” Tits said casually.

  Jonah lifted his head to stare at Tits. After a moment Tits shifted uncomfortably and looked away.

  “I would hope that any woman treated so abominably would mess with any man,” he said tightly.

  Tits nodded. “True enough. I’m just not used to seeing you so…”

  “So what?”

  Tits shook his head. “Nothing, man. Forget I said anything.”

  Mad Dog shouted an all clear, and Jonah strode forward into the clearing where the helicopter would land shortly. On cue, the whop whop of an approaching chopper sounded from low over the horizon.

  “Give me your shirt,” Jonah said to Mad Dog.

  Mad Dog dropped his pack and shrugged out of his mesh button-up. He thrust it toward Jonah, and Jonah nodded his head down at Katie. Mad Dog carefully arranged it over her shivering body while Ian and Braden hovered close by.

  Ian and Braden both wore expressions of men who’d been tortured a dozen times over. Jonah studied them, in awe over the fact that two men could both so obviously love the same woman. They made it seem so natural. Even Mad Dog and Tits hadn’t blinked an eye over it. Everyone just accepted it and went on.

  Love was an interesting, multifaceted thing.

  Jonah turned and shielded Katie’s body as the helicopter dipped and lowered several yards away. Mad Dog threw open the door and motioned for Tits, Ian and Braden to get in. Jonah walked slower, taking care not to jostle Katie. When
he got close, Ian leaned over, his arms outstretched. Jonah relinquished her to the other man and turned to wait for Eli.

  He simmered impatiently, checking his watch at five-minute intervals. He didn’t like having his team exposed, sitting ducks. He was getting antsy and impatient with each passing minute. After ten minutes, Eli strode from the jungle, a silver cylinder in his hand.

  He hurried past Jonah and climbed into the waiting chopper. Jonah climbed in after him, and they lifted off.

  Eli knelt on the floor in front of Ian. He picked up Katie’s hand and placed the canister against her palm. Then he gently pressed her fingers until she gripped it.

  “You’ve left nothing of yours here, Katie,” Eli said in a low voice. “Do you understand?”

  Tears filled her eyes once more. “Thank you,” she whispered.

  Mad Dog pulled out a transmitter and yanked the antenna up.

  “Take us low over the compound,” Mad Dog yelled toward the pilot. Then he glanced back at the others. “Let’s blow this joint, shall we?”

  As they zoomed over, explosions rocked the air. The compound disappeared from sight as orange balls of flames shot skyward. Smoke billowed and clogged the air. For a long time, Jonah stared out the window as they got further away.

  Esteban was dead and with him any secrets he harbored. D’s condition was a very uncertain thing. There was no miracle cure for him. No quick fix.

  There was only Braden’s sudden ability to shift at will and retain the panther’s memories to give them any hope for the future. But was it a one-time aberration spawned by desperation? Or was it possible that the man might gain control over the beast?

  Chapter Forty-Three

  Katie slowly closed the journal and lowered it to her lap, her fingers trembling as she fiddled with the worn edges. She raised her head to stare out the window at the ocean spreading out as far as the eye could see.

  The window was cracked so she could hear the waves rolling in. The sound soothed her and eased some of the hypersensitivity she still experienced from the chemical Esteban had exposed her to.

  She stared back down at the journal and then closed her eyes against the fear that tightened her chest. With a sigh, she uncurled her legs and pulled herself out of the plush armchair that Ian and Braden had positioned by the window. The others would want to know what the journal contained. They would need to know.

  Fatigue weighed heavily on her. She’d worn herself out gauging her every mood, analyzing each twinge, each shift in temperament. She lived in fear that at any moment, with no provocation, she could turn into a wild creature. Not knowing what she might change into was killing her.

  Marcus knew what had happened to her. The others still did not. It was time to tell them everything.

  She headed down the stairs of the south wing. The island estate was huge, with stairs from all the wings converging into a central foyer. Most of the time, however, the members of Falcon and CHR gathered in the game room. They weren’t opposed to a little imbibing and some pot smoking, and pool was always a hot commodity.

  She paused inside the doorway, suddenly unsure of herself, of her place in this crew of mercenaries. They were tougher than her, more ruthless. She admired that, wished she embodied more of their traits.

  She wished she wasn’t so terrified.

  Tyana and Eli stood at one corner of the pool table watching as Jonah leaned over to take his shot. Tyana leaned on one crutch while Eli supported her by wrapping his arm around her waist. Mad Dog stood back, cue in hand, and made a jeering noise when Jonah’s shot went wide. Ian and Braden leaned against the bar. Braden’s hands were shoved into his pockets, and he nodded at something Ian said.

  Then he looked up and saw her. He straightened immediately, concern flashing on his face. Did she look as fragile as she felt?

  He shoved off of the bar and crossed the room. He came to a stop just in front of her and reached for her hands.

  “Hey,” he said softly. “You okay?”

 
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