Into the lair, p.8
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       Into the Lair, p.8

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
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  of his neck in agitation.

  “At least we’ll keep her safe. Hell, when was the last time you think she ate? Did you see how slim she is? She had, what, two hundred dollars on her? Yeah, we need her to draw out Esteban, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to throw her under the bus.”

  Braden stared back at him, brief uncertainty flashing in his eyes before his lips drew together in a fine line. “No, I don’t want to be this way forever. But maybe…maybe we need to be realistic. There might not be a way to fix this, Ian.”

  Chapter Thirteen

  Katie took her time dressing as she pondered just how much to tell Ian and Braden. Of course how much she told them was solely dependent on what they told her. She still wasn’t convinced they weren’t full of shit.

  Logic told her, not that she could be accused of being logical, that whoever they were, they weren’t involved with Ricardo. If so they would have hand-delivered her back into Ricardo’s hands when she’d escaped his house.

  Instead they’d risked their lives to save her.

  She frowned. No one did anything without reason, so what was theirs? What did they want with her? She didn’t buy that they were here simply because Gabe had sent them.

  As much as she’d avoided the details surrounding Gabe’s death, she realized she needed to know. Somehow, as much it pained her, her wellbeing was inexorably tied to Ian and Braden.

  With a quick frown, she shoved her still-damp hair behind her ears and smoothed her hands down her T-shirt. For good measure, she pulled on the zip-up hoodie and left it open in front. It gave her added warmth, and she didn’t feel quite as exposed.

  She squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and opened the bathroom door. As she stepped out, she glanced over to the bed to see Braden still sprawled out, his long legs dangling off the end.

  When he saw her, he rose up on one elbow and glanced at Ian who was standing by the window. Then he patted the space on the bed beside him.

  She ignored the summons and took refuge in the only part of the room where she didn’t feel overwhelmed by their presence. She stopped a foot in front of the door, careful to keep it easily accessible.

  “We’ll just go after you, Katie,” Ian said calmly.

  She fidgeted nervously and refused to meet his gaze. Instead she focused on Braden. “Talk,” she said huskily. “Why did Gabe send you? What happened to him?”

  “I’m not talking to you when you’re standing there looking the world like you’re going to run the minute we say something you don’t like,” Braden said. “We can sit down and discuss this without resorting to violence.”

  She stood unmoving for several seconds before she grudgingly relented and walked over to the bed. She sat on the corner opposite Braden and still a decent distance from Ian. To her utter irritation, they closed in on her, flanking her on both sides.

  “How often was Gabe in contact with you?” Ian asked.

  She pressed her hands into her lap. “I asked you a question first.”

  Braden grunted. “There are some not very nice people who are looking for you.”

  “What was your first clue?” she asked snidely.

  “These people make Ricardo de la Cruz look like a kindergartner,” Ian said

  Fear fluttered in her chest and ran circles around her throat. “Why?” she croaked. “What people?”

  Ian’s face darkened. “The people Gabe sold us out to.”

  Katie shot to her feet.

  “Ian, what the fuck?” Braden’s angry voice rose over the red haze circling Katie’s mind.

  “She wanted the truth. She’s getting it.”

  “You’re a liar,” she spat. “Gabe is intensely loyal. He wouldn’t betray his team.”

  “For you he would,” Ian said calmly. “Sit down, Katie. You wanted to hear everything and I’m telling you.”

  She stood there paralyzed by the utter conviction in Ian’s voice. For you he would. What did it mean?

  She sank back onto the bed.

  “Tell me,” she said hoarsely.

  “Gabe sacrificed himself for us,” Braden said gently. “For Ian and I.”

  She turned to stare at Braden. “But Ian just said he betrayed you.”

  Braden grimaced. “He did. It’s complicated. There were threats…against you. Gabe was trying to protect you. In the end it didn’t matter because they were going after you anyway.”

  “They used me to make Gabe betray you?” she asked in bewilderment. “How did they know anything about me?”

  “We didn’t even know about you,” Ian said. “Why is that, Katie? Why were you such a big secret?”

  A dark flush heated her cheeks. “Because of Ricardo,” she murmured.

  “Ah yes, Ricardo. Why is he after you? Why does he want you so badly? Is it simply a case of obsession and unrequited love?”

  Her temper flared, and like so many times in the past, she let her mouth get ahead of her brain.

  “I think it has more to do with the fact that I killed his brother than me refusing his sexual advances, though neither won me any points with him.”

  As soon as the words flew out she clamped her mouth shut in disgust. Bad judgment and rampant stupidity clung to her like stink on shit. After so long of playing it safe, of finally making smart decisions, of keeping horrible secrets and taking charge of her life, she’d risked it all by letting a man rattle her.

  “You killed his brother?” Braden asked in disbelief. “Damn, Ian, I think I’m in love.”

  She bolted off the bed and whirled around, rage choking her, closing off her airway like a giant fist had seized her neck. Tears of pure fury burned her eyes. “You think it’s a joke?”

  The grin disappeared from his face about the time her fist connected with his mouth. His head snapped back, and he had to plant his hand into the mattress to keep from falling.

  She was instantly on guard and yanked around to check Ian’s position. He held up his hands defensively.

  “Don’t look at me. Have at it. The dumbass deserved it.”

  She turned back to Braden to see him rubbing his jaw, a scowl darkening his face.

  “So much for not resorting to violence,” he grumbled. “Don’t have much of a sense of humor, do you.”

  “Braden, stop it,” Ian barked. “You’re upsetting her.”

  Braden’s expression softened. “Sorry. I’ve never been accused of having tact.”

  Katie backed away. She just wanted to be gone. She bumped into Ian, and his arms came around her to steady her. His cheek rested against her hair, and his breath blew lightly over her ear.

  Warm. It was her first thought. He felt warm and solid. She waited for the panic to hit, but all she registered was the ripple of awareness deep in her belly.

  She found herself being turned around in Ian’s arms. He gripped her shoulders loosely and stared intently into her eyes.

  “Level with me, Katie. Why did you kill Ricardo’s brother, and do we need to be worried about the police being on our asses in addition to de la Cruz?”

  She shook her head resolutely and drew her lips into a compressed line.

  “We deserve to know what we’re up against,” he said.

  “You’re not up against anything,” she said quietly. “I am.”

  Ian shook his head. “Afraid not. We became involved when Gabe took a bullet meant for us and with his dying breath made us promise to protect you. Now you may not like it, and I’m sorry for that, but you don’t have a choice in the matter.”

  She swallowed and then swallowed again, determined not to let emotion overrun her control. Gabe was still trying to look out for her even in death.

  “Talk to me,” Ian whispered. “I’m not here to judge you. If he was anything like his bastard brother, I can see why you’d kill him.”

  Her eyes watered and stung. She retreated, the backs of her knees bumping into the bed. Her hands flew to her face to cover the surge of tears as she slowly sank down.

ve made so many mistakes,” she whispered.

  A gentle hand crept over her shoulder, and she realized it was Braden. He’d scooted up beside her and sat mere inches away.

  “We’ve all made mistakes, Katie.”

  “And what if trusting you is yet another mistake?” she asked. “My instincts never lead me right.”

  “And what are your instincts saying about us?” Ian prompted.

  She glanced up to see him towering over her. “Not to trust you.”

  “Well then if you can’t trust your instincts, and they’re telling you not to trust us, then I’d say maybe you need to do just that.”

  “That’s twisted,” she muttered.

  “Yeah, it is,” Braden agreed. “I like it.”

  “Look at us as the lesser of two evils then,” Ian said patiently. “Whether you trust us or not, we need the whole story, Katie. You owe us that much at least.”

  She went back and forth, the panic of her decision buzzing in her head like bees on speed. She swallowed back the edge of fear and took a deep breath.

  “You didn’t know about me—no one knew about me—because Gabe didn’t know about me until I was a teenager. We had different fathers, and our mother wasn’t stellar parent material. She ditched Gabe when he was young. She ditched me when I was ten.

  “I got into trouble when I was sixteen, and the cops tracked Gabe down. I’m still not sure how. He was just about to enter the service, so he didn’t have a whole hell of a lot of time to play big brother or try to straighten my ass out.

  “He took me home, told me I could stay or leave but he wouldn’t be around to drag me back or bail me out of jail.”

  “Sounds like Gabe,” Braden said dryly. “Not a very warm and fuzzy guy.”

  “He was fine,” she said fiercely. “I didn’t need or want warm and fuzzy.”

  “So he joined up. What then?” Ian asked impatiently.

  “I stuck around his apartment. He arranged for the bills to be paid and left just enough money that I could eat, and not enough that I could get into trouble.

  “We spent his leave together when he could get back. He didn’t pressure me or make demands. Just gave me a place to live and a way to survive. When I was twenty, I met Paulo de la Cruz and fell madly in love as only someone that young and stupid does.”

  Braden made a sound that resembled a cross between a snort and a guffaw.

  “You’re not very hard on yourself, are you?” Ian said.

  “I’m aware of my faults.”

  She rolled one shoulder as she prepared for the rest of the sorry tale.

  “I was high on love and lust. Paulo was wealthy and came from a good family. He was everything I’d spent my life dreaming about. Roots. A big family. Security.

  “When he took me to meet his family, Ricardo immediately put the moves on me. He made it clear he thought I was a whore for the taking. When I turned him down, it pissed him off. From then on out, he took every opportunity to convince Paulo that I was unfaithful.

  “Paulo grew increasingly unstable. He got angry and started knocking me around. No matter what I said or did to prove my innocence, it only pissed him off more.

  “And one night I fought back,” she said quietly.

  “So you killed him in self-defense,” Braden said.

  “I meant to kill him. I had a chance to escape after fending him off. I chose not to,” she said with steel in her voice.

  “If you’re looking for reproach, you’re not going to find it here,” Ian said. “Bastard deserved what he got.”

  Katie didn’t respond, but she expelled a sigh of relief. Somehow it felt good not to be judged. Ricardo had judged her a whore and then a murderer.

  “I panicked and called Gabe. He got there a day later and helped me clean up the mess.”

  Braden lifted an eyebrow. “Mess? You make it sound so domestic.”

  “The body,” she said dully. “Gabe helped me get rid of the body.”

  Ian whistled. “Why on earth didn’t you go to the police?”

  Katie trembled and twisted her hands in front of her. “I know how stupid it sounds, but I’m not an idiot. I knew damn well that Ricardo had half the police department in his back pocket. I knew that just from things Paulo had said. I couldn’t risk going to them and having a fifty-fifty chance of picking the wrong cop to confide in. When I told Gabe everything, he agreed the best thing to do was get rid of the evidence and for me to haul ass out of there and start over somewhere else.”

  “So how did Ricardo figure out you killed his brother?” Braden asked.

  Katie sighed. “He doesn’t know for sure. What I mean by that is he didn’t see a body or anything, but he’s not stupid. He knew Paulo was knocking me around, and he also knows Gabe showed up, and I disappeared right after. He caught up to me in Vegas a year ago, and I didn’t deny it. Paulo would never disappear off the face of the earth. He was too tied to Ricardo’s will and completely under his thumb.”

  “So back up to the part where Gabe helped you dispose of the body,” Ian said grimly. “He just took off afterward and left you to fend for yourself?”

  Katie furrowed her brow. “He made sure I was safe, and he taught me how to take care of myself and how to always look over my shoulder. What else was he supposed to do? He couldn’t go AWOL, he damn sure couldn’t quit because his sister murdered someone, and he couldn’t just start hanging out with me either. Together we attracted a hell of a lot more attention than me by myself.”

  “She has a point,” Braden conceded.

  Ian scowled. “I fail to see how Gabe is the good guy here. He left her by herself with a deranged asshole who wanted her blood. He had other options, and he damn sure didn’t use them.” He looked hard at Braden. “If she was your sister would you have left her behind like that?”

  Braden pursed his lips, then glanced at Katie. Finally he shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t.”

  “It doesn’t matter now,” Katie said firmly. She wasn’t about to let them rag on Gabe’s decision. He’d kept her alive, and that’s all she cared about.

  “You’re right, it doesn’t,” Ian said with a nod. “What does matter is that we get the hell out of the country before crazy-ass de la Cruz catches up with us.”

  She cocked her head and stared up at Ian. “Why out of the country, and where are we going?”

  “Can you think of a better place?” he asked calmly. “Or maybe you want to hang around and let Ricardo play target practice with our asses?”

  She shook her head. “But I don’t have a passport. Right now I don’t have much beyond a driver’s license.”

  “We can handle that,” Braden said. “We’ll worry about it when we’ve put an ocean between us and Ricardo.”

  She nodded shortly then stared between the two brothers. “Now it’s your turn. Who are these people supposedly after me? You said Gabe sold you out but in the next breath, you say he took a bullet for you. So which is it? Is he a hero or a traitor?”

  Chapter Fourteen

  Braden grimaced. “He’s both.”

  Katie stared up at him, pain and confusion brimming in her eyes. After hearing what she’d endured at the hands of the de la Cruz brothers, he had no desire to cause her more distress.

  “He betrayed you for me? I’m to blame for his death?”

  Ian cursed and backed away from the bed, his fists clenched tight at his sides. “You’re not to blame for the choices Gabe made, Katie. Gabe was a big boy. He didn’t have to do things the way he did. He could have come to us or to Eli. We’ve been out of the service for a while now. There was no reason to keep you a secret any longer.”

  She blinked in shock. “What? He wasn’t enlisted anymore?”

  Braden blew out his breath. Gabe was causing way more trouble dead than he’d ever caused alive. It was too bad he wasn’t around because Braden would be tempted to kick his ass for the way he’d taken care of Katie.

  Hell, she’d been little more than a kid. Completely
alone save a few visits when Gabe was on leave. The rest of the time she was left to fend for herself. Instead of doing the right thing when she was forced to kill a man in self-defense, Gabe only ensured that she’d spend the rest of her life running after he covered up the deed. Damn fool. He could have asked his team for help. They would have gladly given it.

  And here she was, grateful for whatever morsels Gabe had doled out. Yeah, maybe he’d taught her to survive in a tough world, but he damn well should have been protecting her from predators like de la Cruz.

  “No, he wasn’t enlisted any longer. None of us are, Katie. It’s why he damn sure should have come clean about you. We could have helped. We certainly could have gotten you the hell out of the country where you’d be safe.”

  She twisted her hands in her lap and stared down at her fingers. “He talked about taking me to Argentina. But that was a while ago. Right after that he got weird. More distant and…paranoid. It went beyond the stuff with Ricardo.”

  Braden exchanged glances with Ian. It was obvious that Gabe hadn’t told her shit about what had gone on during their mission to Adharji or the consequences. Which meant she didn’t know of her brother’s ability to become invisible or of Braden’s and Ian’s unstable shifts to big cats.

  Ian cleared his throat and shook his head in warning at Braden.

  A peculiar expression crossed Katie’s face followed by the slow downturn of her mouth. “If he wasn’t enlisted, why didn’t he come home? What have you been doing all this time? Or was this recent? Why did he keep so much from me?”

  If she only knew just how much he’d kept from her.

  Braden threw Ian another desperate look. Ian ran a hand over his head then settled on Katie’s other side.

  “Look, Katie. I don’t know why Gabe did half the shit he did,” Ian said. “I can only tell you what I do know. He sold us out because there were threats against you. But in the end, he stepped in front of a bullet meant for us.”

  “And he asked you to find me?”

  “He wanted us to make sure you were safe,” Braden said gently.

  She leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. She rubbed tiredly then dragged her fingers through her still-damp hair. “Okay, so you swoop in and save me from the bad guys. What then? You say we’re leaving the country. That’s all well and good but I’ve got to come back sometime. What about these people you say are after me?”

  Braden slid a hand over her shoulder comfortingly. An alarming prickle skirted up his spine and squeezed his nape. He snatched his hand away and cupped the back of his neck.

  Ian shot him a sharp look, and Braden looked away, closing his eyes wearily.

  “One thing at a time, Katie,” Ian said as he stepped closer. Was it an attempt to get between Braden and Katie? The man appreciated the idea that Ian was ready to step in. The beast growled deep within.

  Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

  He sucked in deep breaths through his nose, his nostrils flaring with the effort.

  “We’ll eliminate the threats as they present themselves,” Ian said calmly. “You won’t be alone anymore.”

  Braden lost Ian’s voice as a dull roar began in his ears. He jerked up from the bed like a puppet and staggered toward the door, his only purpose to escape. Instead, from the void, he heard Ian’s harsh command for Katie to get out and stay out. Before he could protest, Ian tackled him.

  They went down in a tangle on the floor, Ian’s heavy body sprawled over his. He struggled weakly, and then a cool blast of aerosol hit him in the face. Seconds later, the jab of a needle made him flinch. His body went lax and fatigue swarmed over him with the speed of a bullet.

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