Into the lair, p.4
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       Into the Lair, p.4

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
 
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  “This would probably be a good time for you to shut up, dude,” Braden said out of the corner of his mouth as he surveyed Katie with an amused expression.

  Suddenly Braden’s head snapped back as Katie decked him. All amusement vanished, replaced by astonishment.

  “She hit me!”

  “Let. Me. Out. Now.” Fury glinted in her eyes as she gave her dictate through gritted teeth.

  Ian didn’t know whether to throw back his head and laugh his ass off—and he probably would if he wasn’t sure she’d deck him next—or gag her. He was seriously leaning toward the latter.

  “I hate to break it to you, but you’re stuck with us.” He stared at her in the rearview mirror. “Gabe asked us to come,” he said quietly.

  Raw grief swamped her eyes. “Is he alive?”

  Ian hesitated a moment too long. He watched her fold inward, hunching her body into a ball. She turned her face away, pressed her cheek into the seat and closed her eyes.

  “I’m sorry,” he said, though he doubted she heard him.

  He exchanged uneasy glances with Braden then returned his attention to the road. He listened for the sounds of her weeping, but she didn’t make a single peep.

  Every once in a while he glanced back at her, but she remained huddled against the seat, her expression one of deep pain.

  Something in his chest softened. She was prickly as hell, but then who could blame her? She was right. He and Braden had likely been the cause of her falling into de la Cruz’s hands, and she’d suffered a lot at those hands.

  His jaw tightened as his gaze flickered over the bruises on her face and neck. He’d like to meet up with Ricardo. Severing the asshole’s dick with a rusty knife held a certain appeal.

  At some point she drifted off to sleep. Her body language changed from the tense, defensive don’t fucking touch me stance to a more relaxed posture. Her eyelashes rested on her cheeks, but even in sleep, there was such an expression of sorrow that it formed a knot in his throat.

  “What the hell are we going to do with her?” Braden murmured.

  Ian looked at his brother in surprise. “Nothing’s changed. Esteban is still our priority. We get her the hell out of the country then wait for him to make his move.”

  Braden nodded, but something in his expression bothered Ian. Neither of them could afford to grow soft. Not when so much was riding on them finding a cure.

  Remembering their pilot, he yanked up his cell phone and put in a quick call. Ian didn’t want to be exposed for a prolonged period of time. The more time they spent on the ground, the more likely they were to have run-ins like they had with de la Cruz and company. But at the same time, he didn’t want to risk their pilot landing in an area where they would have to risk their asses to fly out of.

  After he explained the problem, the pilot suggested a rendezvous at a small airstrip outside Chama, New Mexico.

  It was a long-ass drive, and he and Braden were both fighting the effects of the sedative, but they couldn’t afford to stop.

  He glanced one more time back at Katie. Hopefully she’d sleep for a good long while. The sooner they got her on the plane—preferably without any more drama—the better.

  Chapter Seven

  Katie stared dully out the window as the scenery passed in a blur. Dead. Gabe was dead. She’d known it when he hadn’t called, but hearing it confirmed sent a fresh wave of grief splintering through her system.

  Dusk had fallen, and the stars were gradually popping in the sky. She’d listened as the two men murmured between them, but they hadn’t said anything that told her who they were, why Gabe had sent them to her nor had they given her any indication she could trust them. She knew their names only from listening to their conversation, but nothing else. Gabe had never talked about his teammates. Once he’d mentioned someone named Eli, but that was it.

  She assumed they were brothers because of the strong resemblance. Both had black hair and green eyes, though Braden’s were a lighter shade than the deep emerald of Ian’s. They obviously took their military training to heart because they were built like brick houses. Ian was taller than Braden, but Braden was the stockier, more muscular of the two.

  Clearly they were the lesser of two evils. No, she wasn’t entirely sure of their motives or intentions, but she knew what her fate was with Ricardo. That in itself was good enough reason to go along for the ride. Ian had seemed appalled by her bruises, so maybe he wasn’t a complete dickhead.

  She dragged a tired hand through her matted hair. Dried blood was smeared on her fingers, and her arm screamed as she tried to figure out how injured it was. It didn’t feel broken, but it was swollen. Just great.

  Her ribs protested as she gently probed. Breathing was painful but not hindered. All in all, she was damn lucky to escape with only bruises.

  She closed her eyes briefly and sucked in her breath. When she opened them again, Braden was staring back at her.

  “You okay?” he asked in a tone that suggested he actually gave a damn.

  “I’m fine,” she mumbled.

  He turned to Ian as though she hadn’t spoken. “We need to stop. She’s a mess, and we need to make sure her injuries aren’t severe.”

  She aimed a glare at the back of his head. Funny how he hadn’t appeared very concerned with the severity of her injuries when he’d tossed her over his shoulder and bounced her to hell and back.

  On the other hand, if they didn’t stop, she couldn’t very well escape. Granted she’d like to be a little further away from Ricardo and company before she bolted, but she’d take whatever opportunity was presented.

  Gabe sent us.

  Why?

  Did she want to know? And did it matter now that he was dead? She was on her own. Not that she hadn’t been for the last few years, but there had been comfort in knowing that Gabe was a phone call away, that if she really needed him, he would come.

  Trust no one. Ever.

  Gabe’s words came back to her. Words to live by.

  She glanced toward Ian and Braden again as they went back and forth as to whether they were going to stop. She wasn’t a gut person when it came to forming opinions. Obviously she had the sense of a moron when it came to men. No, there wasn’t some nifty little feeling steering her emotions. She dealt in concrete evidence, and nothing had shown her that these men were anything but dangerous.

  A pitiful little moan worked its way past her lips. She was careful to make sure her gaze was focused out the window, so they wouldn’t suspect she was paying them any attention. She even managed an appropriate wince as she moved her arm, not that she had to work too hard, because damn, it really did hurt.

  She heard Ian sigh, and a few seconds later, he turned off the road. The headlights bounced over the wooded area as they came to a stop on the makeshift path.

  “I don’t want to stop anywhere close to a town,” Ian said gruffly. “We’re only a couple hours from de la Cruz’s place, and I’ll feel better when we’re a lot further. We’ll get you cleaned up and checked out, and we’ll worry about finding better accommodations later.”

  Said like she was a child in need of coddling after a bad fall. She blew out an exasperated breath and plotted her move. She studied the area. Lots of trees and brush. As best as she could tell, they’d already bypassed Nucla and Naturita and were probably approaching Norwood.

  Their size was to their advantage, though she’d already proven she was faster when she had a good lead. But they weren’t injured, and she was.

  Gabe sent us.

  She closed her eyes. Yes, she wanted to know why, but at the same time, she couldn’t discount what Gabe had drilled into her head. Trust no one.

  It had been proven to her over and over that trust was not something to be given lightly, if at all. She couldn’t even trust herself or her judgment, so how the hell was she supposed to hand her wellbeing over to complete strangers? Strangers who had drugged her, tied her and tackled her.

  No thanks.

 
The SUV ground to an abrupt halt, jarring her uncomfortably. Before she could react, Ian got out and yanked open her door. As soon as he touched her, she shrank away.

  His stare grew menacing, but it was clear he wasn’t angry at her. No, he was focused on her battered appearance with a frown that would scare the hell out of the boogeyman.

  His touch grew gentle as he slid his hand up her arm. Then he simply reached in and picked her up off the seat. He carried her around back where Braden had popped the door.

  “I’m afraid this will have to do,” Ian said as he lowered her to sit just above the bumper.

  Her legs dangled over the edge of the truck, and he urged her to lie back. Panic set in as she processed the vulnerability of her position. Her hands flailed, but she found them restrained by his firm grip.

  “Look at me, Katie,” Ian said in a quiet, firm tone.

  She stopped for a moment, unwittingly lured by the strength in his voice. For just a moment, she felt safe. It had been so long since she’d gotten even a fleeting taste of what it felt like to live without fear that she grabbed on to the feeling and absorbed it hungrily.

  His eyes bore into hers. “I won’t hurt you, at least not intentionally. We haven’t gotten off to the best of starts, but I’m not a bastard who beats up women.”

  Her mouth went dry as his fingers slowly pulled at her shirt.

  “Shine the flashlight over here, Braden,” he said.

  Ian scowled when the beam of light hit the splotches of discolored flesh on her abdomen. In an effort not to make her uncomfortable, he tried to keep as much of her breasts covered as he could.

  It amazed him that such a slender, slight woman would have so much in the boob department, and he couldn’t help that his gaze kept returning to the lush mounds. If he moved his finger at all, it would brush the soft underswell.

  With gentle hands, he probed her ribs. She winced in a few spots, but it didn’t feel like she had broken anything. Satisfied that at worst she’d suffered painful bruising, he tugged down her shirt then turned his attention to her arm.

  The area above her elbow and the elbow itself was swollen. He could tell it hurt when he moved it, but she remained motionless and stoic.

  “This could use some ice,” he said as he carefully lowered her arm back to her side.

  She averted her gaze. “I’ll be fine. It’s not broken.”

  Braden reached out and ran his fingers lightly over her bruised cheek. His expression was bland, but Ian could see how tightly his jaw was drawn.

  “What does Ricardo de la Cruz want with you, Katie?” Braden asked.

  Her blue eyes became ice crystals. She visibly retreated behind a mask of indifference. It was a lot like watching a brick wall go up.

  Ian pulled a T-shirt from one of the bags then opened a bottle of water. He poured it over one corner of the shirt and set to work wiping the dried blood from the cut on her hand.

  She had small hands, dainty almost, and as soon as he made that observation he wanted to laugh. She was about as far from dainty as a woman could get.

  When he was through cleaning the wound, he let his hands trail down her leg until he got to her foot. It was dirty, and there was a large cut on the bottom. It had to hurt like hell.

  He felt her tremble when he began wiping at it, and he glanced back up at her to see that she’d relaxed her guard somewhat. Pain glittered in her eyes, and he was gripped by an odd, fierce rage for what she’d endured.

  How the hell did he know she wasn’t some drug-running floozie in league with de la Cruz? For all he knew, he and Braden had walked into the middle of a lover’s quarrel. Still, no matter what her sins were, no woman deserved to be a man’s punching bag.

  He swabbed the T-shirt over her small feet, and he was fascinated by the incongruity of her pink toenails. They looked decidedly feminine on a woman who was as prickly as a hedgehog.

  “Get me something to bandage her hand and foot with,” he said to Braden.

  Braden dug around in a first-aid kit, pulled out a roll of gauze and thrust it at Ian. Ian eyed Braden’s hand resting on Katie’s other knee. It was a possessive grip, and he moved his thumb in a soothing up-and-down motion over her skin.

  Ian rolled his shoulder then began winding the gauze around the instep of her foot. When he was satisfied with the result, he taped it and cut the end.

  He reached again for her hand that was now resting on her taut abdomen. For a brief moment, her fingers curled trustingly around his, but then she flexed them, the tips flying off the back of his hand as if she’d realized what she was doing.

  A few seconds later, he had her hand wrapped, and he tossed the gauze into the truck.

  Braden slid an arm underneath her and eased her forward. She regarded him with wary eyes as she gingerly sat up. Her gaze flickered to Ian, and for a moment he saw fear—of him—shadowed in her face. Before he could offer any reassurance, the vulnerability was gone, replaced by a look of annoyance.

  It was fascinating to watch her, because she was like an open book. Every thought, every emotion played out in her eyes. You only had to watch closely enough to see the changes.

  Somehow he didn’t think she’d appreciate his analysis, or that she was so easily read.

  “We should get on the road,” Ian said.

  He started to help her up, but she shrugged off his hand.

  “I can make it,” she said as she slid from the back of the SUV.

  She hung back as he and Braden started for their seats. He saw her hesitate as she rounded the corner of the truck, and before he could blink, she bolted.

  “Well goddamn,” Braden swore. “Not again.”

  Ian let out a frustrated growl as he and Braden both ran after her. His nostrils flared, and her scent carried to him on the wind. Lightning fast images cascaded through his mind.

  Predator and prey.

  God.

  His breaths came faster as he closed the gap between him and the fleeing woman.

  He wanted her.

  She was his.

  A low snarl tore from his mouth.

  And suddenly Braden slammed into him, knocking him to the ground.

  “Hold it back, Ian.” Braden’s voice came hoarse and urgent close to his ear.

  “Go after her,” Ian managed to say. “Don’t let me hurt her, Braden. Swear it.”

  “Forget her. She still has the tracking device. Come back to the truck with me so I can give you an injection.”

  “Too…late,” he rasped. “Get away from me. Now.”

  Braden’s face contorted and rippled in Ian’s vision. The change began to ricochet over his body. Painful.

  Bones popped, muscles spasmed and reshaped. He closed his eyes and panted as he fought the shift with everything he had. It was a battle he knew he wouldn’t win.

  Braden sped after Katie’s retreating figure. Stupid twit had no idea what she’d started. He’d be lucky if Ian didn’t eat them both for dinner.

  Adrenaline-laced fury rocketed through his veins as he focused on the chase.

  Don’t shift. Don’t shift. Don’t shift.

  The chant swam fluidly through his brain as if by saying it, willing it, he could escape his brother’s fate.

  He was gaining on her. He sucked in air through flared nostrils as her scent grew stronger.

  Mine. Mine. Mine.

  He shook off the hum of arousal as it surged, hot and steady through his groin.

  This had to end now.

  As he topped the next rise, he dove for her. He slammed into her back, knocking her to the ground. Her body absorbed the shock of both their landings, and her cry of pain echoed in his ears.

  He rolled, wrapping his arms protectively around her even while he wanted nothing more than to shake some sense into her. She rammed her knee in the direction of his balls, and his hand shot downward, halting her inches from his groin.

  He squeezed her knee until her leg went limp. She sagged against him, but he wasn’t in the least bi
t fooled by her sudden capitulation. He locked his other arm around her body and held her flush against him, so that absolutely no space existed between them.

  “I can’t breathe,” she gasped.

  “And right now I don’t give a damn,” he snarled. “I’ve about had it with you, lady.”

  She squirmed against him, and he tightened his grip until she could no longer move.

  In one quick movement, he flipped her over, threw one leg over hers and wrapped both his arms around her, trapping her arms against her sides. Her ass was pressing hard into his groin, and that wasn’t the only thing hard. Goddamn it. What a time for a freaking erection.

  She felt it too, and for a moment she went completely still. He felt her quick intake of air and then she exploded into action, kicking and writhing.

  “For the love of God, chill the fuck out,” he barked. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

  “Let. Me. Go.”

  “Not on your life.”

  She went limp against him.

  “Now we can do this one of two ways,” he said through gritted teeth. “You can give in and walk back with me to the truck, or I can hogtie your ass, carry you back and stuff you into the cargo space.”

  She stiffened again. “Fuck you.”

  “No, fuck you, sister. I’m usually a good-natured guy, but I swear you’re doing your best to piss me off. Now what’s it going to be? If I don’t get an answer in three seconds, I’m choosing option B. God knows it’ll be a lot easier on me if you’re trussed up like a turkey.”

  “Fine,” she muttered.

  “What’s that? I didn’t hear you.”

  “I’ll go back with you,” she spit.

  He almost grinned. Sounded like a pissed-off kitten. Then he frowned. He had no idea where Ian was which meant the trip back to the truck was going to be interesting. The sooner he could get her locked in, though, the safer she’d be. For that matter, he wasn’t crazy about skulking around in the dark with a jaguar on the loose.

  He loosened his grip and cautiously got to his feet. She lay there in the darkness, her breaths shallow and pained. He refused to feel any guilt over it.

  Pale moonlight streamed through the treetops, softly illuminating her skin. The forest was quiet except for the short gasps of her breath as her shoulders heaved up and down.

  She rolled to her back, and a shadow fell over her face. He moved so he could see her and then extended his hand down to help her up. For a long moment, she stared at him as if not believing he was acting so civilized. Hell, he wasn’t an ax murderer.

  When he shrugged his shoulders and started to lean down to pick her up, she quickly thrust her hand toward his. He curled his fingers around her wrist and pulled so she stood in front of him.

  He cupped her chin and tilted it upward until the moonlight better illuminated her face. “You’re a mess.”

  Her lips thinned, and she jerked away from his grip. “You’re not looking so hot yourself. And you smell like a goat.”

  A light chuckle escaped him, and it seemed to irritate her even more. He cupped her uninjured elbow and herded her back toward the truck.

  Though he made an effort to relax and not give away his concern over where Ian was, his gaze shot left to right as they walked back. Halfway there, he heard a low growl emanate from about thirty yards to his right.

  Fuck.

  “Listen up, sister. When I tell you to run, you haul your pretty ass back to
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