Into the lair, p.5
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       Into the Lair, p.5

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
 
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  the truck. I’ll be right behind you. Don’t pull any stupid tricks or I swear to God I’ll leave you for the critters to eat.”

  She tensed beside him but didn’t argue, thank God.

  A hiss shot through the night.

  “Run!”

  Thankfully, she didn’t hesitate. She took off like a jackrabbit, and Braden pounded the ground after her, his hand at her back urging her faster.

  Metal glinted in the moonlight ahead. The SUV came into view, and he grasped her arm and dragged her the remaining way.

  He yanked open the door and tossed her inside. She landed with a thump then rapidly turned over to glare at him.

  “Don’t get out of this truck,” he said. “I don’t care what you hear or see. You don’t leave. You got me?”

  “Yeah, I got it,” she returned softly.

  For a moment, fear lurked in her eyes.

  “What’s out there?” she asked.

  He grimaced. “I’m not entirely sure.”

  He glanced once over his shoulder to make sure Ian hadn’t stalked them back to the truck, and then he turned back to Katie.

  “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

  Without giving her a chance to respond, he shut the door, bathing the interior in darkness once more. The night air blew down his spine, eliciting a shiver.

  He listened closely, tuning in to the sounds around him. There in the distance—the slow, methodical sound of a predator creeping through the underbrush.

  Braden turned and ran in the direction of the noise. He shoved aside branches and bushes then leaped over a fallen log. It was stupid to confront the jaguar, but he wouldn’t leave Ian out here alone.

  He burst into a clearing and came to an abrupt halt when the luminescent eyes of the cat stared back at him.

  Shit.

  They stared at one another, both so still. Then the jaguar raised its head and sniffed in his direction. The ears that had lain flat against his head slowly rose.

  The cat stepped forward, and he hastily backed up. He reached for a gun that wasn’t there, not that he’d use it. Then he nearly laughed. What was he going to do, threaten the cat with it?

  The jaguar stopped, his nostrils flaring. His head bobbed up and down as he inhaled Braden’s scent. Then he started pacing from side to side, his eyes never leaving Braden.

  “Ian, man this sucks. Come on. Shift back. Katie’s probably setting the truck on fire as we speak.”

  At the sound of his voice, the cat hunched down and let out a growl.

  “Shutting up now,” Braden murmured.

  He remained stock-still, not wanting to alarm the jaguar any more than he already had. He couldn’t bring himself to think of the cat as Ian. That wasn’t Ian.

  The jaguar padded forward again, his steps cautious and slow. His ears flicked and twitched, and occasionally he tossed his head in the direction of a distant noise.

  Braden held his breath and hoped he wasn’t about to kiss his ass goodbye.

  When the cat was just a few yards away, he stopped again and settled on his haunches. He simply stared at Braden, his tail lazily flopping around his paws.

  Afraid to say anything that might set him off, Braden just stood there, waiting.

  His chest grew tight. Sorrow squeezed his throat even as anger lit fire to his veins. This was bullshit. It was no way for him and Ian to live—worried that at any given moment they could shift to beast and kill the other, or someone else.

  “Come back, Ian,” Braden whispered. “Goddamn it, shift back.”

  To Braden’s surprise, the cat eased down and gingerly rested his head on his front paws as he stretched out his lithe body. In the next moment, his body gave a shudder, and a garbled sound of pain—half human, half animal—shattered the stillness.

  Braden raced forward, dropping to his knees as Ian’s body contorted and stretched. Fur melted away, replaced by pinkened skin. Sweat popped and beaded on his flesh as the muscles contracted, seized and finally went limp.

  Ian’s mouth stretched into a ghastly grimace, and a more human-sounding cry of pain escaped, carried away on the breeze.

  Ian’s head fell to the ground. Harsh breaths danced in rapid staccato, escaping in a thin puff of smoke against the increasing coldness in the air.

  Braden leaned over his brother, fear like a vise gripping his chest. “Ian. Ian, talk to me, man.”

  “It hurts,” Ian said with a tortured groan. “Goddamn, it hurts.”

  “Come on, let me help you up before you freeze,” Braden muttered.

  With Braden’s help, Ian staggered to his feet, his naked skin illuminated by the full moon. A hunting moon. Did it call to the predator inside them both? Was it the reason, along with Katie’s flight, that they battled the beasts so fiercely?

  “Katie,” Ian gasped out. “Did I hurt her?”

  Braden snorted. “My money might be on her in a showdown between her and the jag.”

  “Not funny.”

  A half smile quirked Braden’s lips. “You never think I’m funny.”

  “Clothes. I need clothes.”

  Braden sighed. “Yeah well, between chasing after Katie, running from you and stuffing her into the truck, I didn’t exactly stop and get you an extra pair of underwear, you know?”

  “Go,” Ian bit out.

  Braden shook his head. “I’m not leaving you, so deal with it. It’s dark. Your maidenly modesty will survive intact. You can get into your clothes at the truck.”

  “I’m not too wiped out to kick your ass, little brother,” Ian growled.

  Braden smirked. “You couldn’t fight your way out of a paper bag right now.”

  He promptly doubled over when Ian planted a fist in his gut.

  “Damn but you’re a cranky son of a bitch.”

  “I could have killed you, Braden. Think about that the next time you decide to play babysitter. I told you to get the hell away from me.”

  Braden wrapped an arm around Ian’s shoulders and ignored Ian’s attempt to shake him off. He shoved his brother forward.

  “Yeah, you told me, but when have I ever listened to you?”

  Ian shook his head, but he stumbled and leaned wearily against Braden. They walked back in silence. When the SUV came into view, Braden halted and leaned Ian against a tree.

  “Wait here. I’ll get you some clothes.”

  Chapter Eight

  Eli Chance let himself into the bedroom he shared with Tyana and glanced over to see her propped on the bed, her casted leg elevated on a pillow.

  She looked up, her eyes flickering with both welcome and wariness she still hadn’t shed when it came to him.

  She kept it interesting which was one of the things he liked most about her. He damn sure never had to worry about being bored.

  “Glad to see you found your way back to bed, sugar.”

  She rolled her eyes, but he could see the pain and fatigue etched in her brow.

  Not waiting for an invitation, he stretched out beside her, careful not to bump her cast. Her body settled comfortably into his, and he felt her go soft around him.

  Enjoying the quiet and stillness, he brushed his lips across hers, tasting her mouth with his tongue.

  “Jonah tells me you’re getting tired of me already,” he murmured.

  Her eyes widened and she stared at him in horror. “He said what?”

  He chuckled. “You’re way too easy, sugar.”

  She frowned, but he saw a glimmer of guilt before she looked away.

  “Ah, so you did put him up to getting rid of me.”

  “Hell,” she muttered. “It wasn’t quite like that.”

  He lifted one brow as he trailed a finger down the softness of her cheek. “So how is it? Come on, Tyana. We’ve always been honest with each other. Don’t start holding out on me now.”

  She sighed and slumped back into her pillows in defeat. “I’m just not used to all the hovering, Eli. Don’t take it personally. This whole relationship thing is new t
o me. I don’t handle convalescence very well.”

  He laughed. “That’s an understatement if I ever heard one. Okay, so I’m getting on your nerves.”

  She gazed curiously at him. “You don’t seem offended.”

  “Should I be? I’m assuming you don’t want to get rid of me on a permanent basis.”

  “Don’t be stupid,” she growled.

  He grinned. “I love it when you get cranky.”

  He propped his head in his palm and let his other hand wander down her midriff, enjoying the way she tightened beneath his fingers.

  “So what’s up, Tyana?” he asked softly. “What’s really going on here?”

  There was a flash of vulnerability followed by a quick masking of her features. The tough exterior he was so used to pushed itself outward until not a trace of uncertainty remained.

  And then just as quickly, as though she made the conscious decision to let him see inside, she crumbled, and she closed her eyes.

  “I hate this,” she said honestly. “I hate not being able to face you as an equal. I hate being out of action. I hate not being able to help D. I want to go after Esteban so damn bad, and instead I’m stuck here with you babysitting me while Mad Dog and Jonah play the indulgent older brothers. It sucks!”

  Eli knew better than to tease her at this point. He touched her chin with one fingertip to gain her attention. Her green eyes locked with his. He could read the conflict loud and clear. He understood it because he’d feel the same damn way in her position.

  “So Jonah wants me to hook up with Tits and meet Ian and Braden in Austria instead of Paris, at the safe house he’s arranged. As soon as Ian checks in again, I’ll head out.”

  Instead of looking relieved, Tyana grimaced. “You know he did it for me,” she muttered.

  “Sending me on a pussy errand? Yeah, I know he did. He wasn’t any happier about it than I was. But we both love you, so I guess we can both suck it up.”

  She visibly winced. “Christ. Now I feel about an inch tall.”

  Eli took pity on her and leaned in to kiss her. “Quit being so hard on yourself, sugar. I knew when we started that things wouldn’t be easy, and our issues wouldn’t be resolved overnight. We’re both too used to doing things our own way.”

  Tyana kissed him back. Not gently because that just wouldn’t be her. She took possession of his mouth like she owned it. Hell, he loved that. And he did belong to her.

  When she pulled away, her eyes were glazed with passion, kind of foggy. “I’m not being fair. This has been so much more difficult for you, Eli. Having to cede control to Jonah, to someone you don’t fully trust yet. Having to rely on Falcon for the safety and wellbeing of your men. In your position, I know I couldn’t do it. Neither could Jonah. He’s too much of a control freak. And yet we all expect you to make sacrifices because you were dumb enough to fall…to get involved with me,” she finished uncomfortably.

  He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling at her slip. She’d never said she loved him. Nor had she really acknowledged that he loved her. Hell, he couldn’t remember if he’d ever said the words either, mainly because he knew how uncomfortable they’d make her.

  It was enough that she was here with him. They were together. She was having a difficult time adjusting, but never once had she hinted that she didn’t want to make it work.

  He could be a patient man when the end result was worth it. Tyana was.

  “I’ll be gone for a while,” he said casually, ignoring the awkwardness of her rambling. “Why don’t you hang out with D and recover so we can go kick some Esteban ass together?”

  Her eyes flashed and brightened and a broad smile lit her face. Trust her to get all excited over the prospect of a good fight.

  And then she sobered and touched his cheek with her slender fingers. “I want you to come back, Eli. I hope you know that. It’s not that I don’t want you here. It’s just that I hate for you to see me this way. So helpless. I hate seeing me this way.”

  He captured her hand and kissed the tips of her fingers. “I won’t be going immediately, and don’t worry. You’re going to have to do more than whine to Jonah to get rid of me.”

  She growled under her breath. “I didn’t whine to Jonah.”

  He raised his eyebrows and quirked his lip at her. “Oh? That’s not the way he tells it.”

  “Rat bastard,” she muttered.

  “Oh, and Tyana? I assure you, Mad Dog and Jonah will be every bit as watchful as I am. So don’t get any crazy ideas.”

  She actually looked disappointed.

  “Now, you want me to carry you downstairs so you can drink and smoke weed with the other fools?”

  “Carry?” she sputtered. “I’m down but not dead, Chance.”

  Chapter Nine

  Katie shoved her hair out of her eyes as she stared out the window into the darkness. Where the hell had Braden gone, and for that matter where had Ian disappeared to? Was he out looking for her?

  Honest to God, she’d never met two more bizarre men in her life, and lord knew she’d met some doozies.

  She pressed her palms to the glass, but Braden had disappeared. She frowned as she realized she was worried. What should it matter to her if he got his ass killed?

  Then it dawned on her that she was in the truck alone. And she was sitting here harboring ridiculous concerns for a complete stranger when she should be driving as fast and as far away as possible.

  She clambered over the seat, settling behind the wheel. To her dismay, the keys weren’t in the ignition. Of course. Because God forbid anything be easy.

  A snarl of frustration ripped past her lips. She placed her hands on the wheel and rested her forehead against the horn.

  She was starving, she hurt like hell, and she’d give her eyeteeth for a bed and a good night’s sleep.

  Whiney ass. Just be glad you’re alive and not in bed with Ricardo right now.

  That sobered her quickly.

  The door swung open, startling her. She let out a yelp and threw up her arms in defense. Braden stood outside, a smirk on his face.

  “You don’t think I was stupid enough to leave the keys, now do you?”

  She scowled even as relief hit her so hard she went weak. She wasn’t glad to see him. Not at all. And she wasn’t worried about where Ian was or that he’d been eaten by whatever the hell was out there.

  “You don’t look happy to see me,” he said dryly. “Is that the thanks I get for saving your pretty ass again?”

  She started to hit him until she figured out he was yanking her chain. Royally. She took a deep breath and smiled sweetly at him.

  “I’ll be happy to take this pretty ass elsewhere. Just get the hell out of my way.”

  He leaned in, his body pressing hard to hers. She shoved at him, but he was intent on reaching beyond her to the other seat.

  “Get off, damn it,” she gasped out as he squeezed the air from her lungs. “Big oaf.”

  He snatched a duffel bag then slowly eased away from her, a cocky grin on his face.

  “I wouldn’t get out if I were you. Your delicate sensibilities might be offended.”

  Then he was gone, shutting the door behind him. What the hell? What sensibilities? Then she glanced in the rearview mirror to see a naked Ian thrusting a leg into a pair of jeans.

  Naked? What the ever-loving fuck is he doing naked?

  She continued to stare until she realized she was still staring, and then she jerked her gaze away, looking at the windshield, the seat, her hands…anything but back at the naked man.

  What is he doing naked?

  And why was she sitting here like a docile moron?

  She peeked up at the mirror and to her relief saw that Ian was dressed and talking to Braden. Braden gestured toward the truck and her and then both men started toward the front.

  Shit.

  Ian reached her door first and yanked it open. He took one look at her and a feral light entered his eyes. A shiver skated down her
spine and sent an odd tingling into her womb. She honestly didn’t know whether to be terrified or intrigued by the dangerous fire in his gaze.

  He sucked in air through his nose, his nostrils flaring and quivering. His fists curled and clenched and then he rubbed his open palms up and down his pants legs.

  Braden jerked him backward, and the truck shook as Braden thrust Ian against the hood.

  “Goddamn it, Ian, what the hell is wrong with you?” Braden demanded.

  “It’s her,” Ian said hoarsely.

  Braden snapped his gaze to her and scowled. Then he quickly turned his attention back to his brother. “You’re getting an injection and then you’re going night-night. Are we clear?”

  Katie watched in open-mouthed fascination as Braden strode to the back of the truck and then returned a moment later with a syringe. She winced when, without preamble, he stuck the needle in Ian’s arm. There was so much wrong with this scene she didn’t even know where to start. And she’d thought things were weird with Ricardo.

  Braden left Ian leaning against the truck as he headed to the backseat to open the door. Katie’s gaze was drawn to Ian as he stared up at the sky, his face a brooding mold.

  “Slide over,” Braden ordered.

  She blinked and yanked her concentration from Ian to stare at Braden.

  “Ian’s going in back. You get over in the passenger seat. No arguments.”

  She immediately bristled but forced air through her nose and stifled the protest dancing on her lips. Part of survival was knowing when the hell to keep your mouth shut. This was one of those times.

  She moved into the passenger seat as Braden went back to Ian. A few seconds later, Braden herded him into the backseat and shoved him into a lying position.

  As she glanced casually over her shoulder, she saw Ian staring at her, those eyes flashing despite the lethargy from whatever Braden had injected him with.

  Determined not to back down, she boldly met his gaze. For a long moment, they just stared at one another until discomfort skittered over her skin. When Braden opened the driver’s door, it gave her an excuse to look away.

  He slid in beside her and started the engine. His hands curled around the steering wheel, but he made no move to put the truck into drive.

 
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