Wake a sleeping tiger, p.2
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       Wake A Sleeping Tiger, p.2
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         Part #22 of Breeds series by Lora Leigh

  Those distant, primal warnings of evil were pushed quickly to the back of her mind as the child stumbled forward.

  Oh God, she had to get just a little bit closer. If this wasn’t timed just right, if Chelsea didn’t calculate everything perfectly, then she knew that baby wouldn’t be the only one who died in this lonely desert tonight.

  Night vision glasses allowed her to pick up even the most minute detail in the deepening night. The sight of huge bite marks over the child’s body would live in Chelsea’s nightmares. If she survived. Deep, jaggedly torn flesh still seeped blood, spilling more down the already bloodstained little body.

  Long, tangled black hair fell to the child’s shoulders and covered the side of her heavily bruised and swollen face. She was weak, far too cold and suffering blood loss definitely, possibly hypothermal shock. If she didn’t get that child out of there fast, then she was going to die.

  Come here, baby. I’m right here. Come on, let me take you to your momma . . .

  The plea was soundless, no doubt useless, but still, she urged the child to the edge of the rising tower of rock that hid her presence from the Coyote soldiers.

  She didn’t dare show herself. If they saw her, then she’d never have time to get the baby into the Desert Runner she’d taken out that night on patrol.

  She was in the middle of a nightmare she couldn’t have imagined. Even her deepest, darkest fears didn’t hold anything this horrific.

  Demonic yips and howls filled the night with terrifying sounds. They were merely tormenting the little baby, keeping her little heart beating fast and hard, her blood seeping steadily from her wounds.

  So much evil. The creatures pushing the child through the night were hellish. Only hell could conceive monsters such as the ones trailing after the child.

  Right here, baby. Come on, Louisa, you’re almost safe. Let’s go find Momma . . . She kept her eyes on the child, willing her to come to her, to sense her waiting in the shadows, ready to scoop her up and race her away from this nightmare.

  “Momma, help me.” The night carried the hoarse, dazed little voice clearly to where Chelsea hid. “Momma, help me.” Over and over the ragged plea filled Chelsea’s soul with agony and threatened to pierce the layer of ice covering her emotions.

  If she let the fear free now, then she’d lose her mind, Chelsea knew. There would be no way to function, to think.

  She took her eyes off the child only long enough to check the distance between the enemy and the little girl stumbling through the dark.

  The Coyote soldiers were keeping Louisa in sight. If Chelsea just waited, remained out of their field of vision, then she’d have Louisa and be gone before they could get close enough to stop her. Then it would just be a matter of staying ahead of them until she got to safety.

  She’d glimpsed their Runner, but she knew hers would be lighter, the motor modified to get an edge on the ones being used by the soldiers. The Breed Underground modified their vehicles for speed rather than defense or heavy weapons. Still, the Coyotes’ Runner would be hard to get away from without a good head start.

  It wouldn’t be easy.

  Watching the little girl, Chelsea gritted her teeth and made herself wait. Just a little more.

  That’s it, Louisa. Come this way. I’m right here, baby.

  “Momma. Help me, Momma.” The little voice was so weak, the night so cold, and time was running out.

  Holding the blanket she carried ready, Chelsea kept a wary eye on the Coyotes and waited, still, silent. The body-warming technology of the covering would hopefully keep the little girl warm enough and protect her from further chill as they raced through the cold night; the open design of the Runner would do little to stave off the chill.

  The Coyotes paused, yips and laughter filling the desert as Louisa headed straight for Chelsea, her dazed eyes staring unseeing into Chelsea through the darkness of night.

  She could do this. Louisa was almost in place. Just a little closer.

  The kids’ parents were about thirty minutes away, their desert estate well armed as they waited for word of their daughter. Search efforts were being concentrated in the opposite direction; the report of Coyote soldiers closer to Window Rock had drawn searchers there.

  It was that odd piece of information Chelsea had collected the day before that placed these creatures closer to Pinon and already had her in the area when the report went out. She was turning around and heading toward Window Rock when she’d heard the Coyotes.

  The child stumbled to her knees and Chelsea felt her breath catch. She was so close.

  “Come to me, Louisa,” she whispered, a breath of sound she prayed the Coyotes didn’t catch.

  Louisa made it to her feet, jerky, uncoordinated, but she made it to the edge of the rock.

  Chelsea moved.

  Snapping forward, she wrapped the dark blanket around Louisa’s slight body, lifted her into her arms and ran the ten feet to the Runner she’d left on standby. Before she could jump into the Runner, the night went silent. Totally, completely silent. There was no time to secure the little girl into the opposite seat now.

  No time.

  It had just run out.

  As she latched the restraining harness around both of them, the feel of Louisa shuddering and the sound of her gasping breaths filled Chelsea with dread.

  Enraged howls filled the night as Chelsea slammed the Runner into gear and the desert vehicle shot forward. The deep tread of the tires bit into dirt, sand and gravel, then all but picked up and flew through the night.

  Thirty minutes.

  Thirty minutes to the Cerves estate, and she was on her own until she got there. The radio had gone out, refusing to work, but there was also a chance the Coyotes’ Runner was equipped with a jammer. And she wasn’t far enough away from them for her radio to work yet.

  The Runner’s back cameras and radar were working great, though. Good enough to see that those bastards were gaining on her.

  She should have never come out alone.

  Under no circumstances.

  She should have called in backup when she first heard the Coyotes’ howls. But her cousin Linc was manning communications and he would have ordered her back.

  She’d already been in the area when she picked up the radio transmissions earlier that night that the Cerveses’ young daughter had been taken from the compound by suspected Council Breeds.

  How the Coyotes managed that, she couldn’t imagine.

  Checking radar and cameras again, she calculated the distance to the compound and saw a glimmer of hope. She was actually closer than she’d thought she’d be. Not much farther.

  Not that she would be exactly safe once she arrived at their compound—if she arrived. The Cerves family had brutal reputations. The Cerves criminal cartel didn’t wait to ask questions. They killed first.

  As she checked the monitor again, her jaw tightened. Shifting gears with fierce, quick movements, she heard power build in the motor as she pushed it for more speed, gritting her teeth and restraining a curse as the first bullet struck the side of the Runner.

  The desert vehicle wasn’t bullet resistant and the Coyotes knew it.

  Fire flashed in the cameras and the sound of automatic gunfire behind her, pelting over the Runner, had her using every trick she knew to push the motor harder, faster.

  Gunfire still erupted behind her, but the pinging had stopped. She estimated she was staying just out of reach of them. But she and little Louisa weren’t home free yet, and she was running straight into an armed force that would already be prepared to shoot at the first sign of a threat. A Runner crashing the gates would definitely be seen as a sign.

  The night sped by as adrenaline pumped fast and hard through her body and the Runner raced through the desert.

  She had to keep both hands on the steering wheel. At the speeds she was pushing the Runner to, she didn’t dare take one off to comfort the baby.

  Louisa was only eight years old, though, and Chelsea knew
that comfort was something the child could have used.

  Eight years old.

  If she survived, would her young mind ever pull free of what had happened tonight?

  Twenty minutes.

  She’d been racing through the night for twenty minutes.

  The temperature gauge on the Runner was edging higher. It wasn’t meant to run this hard, this fast, for this distance.

  She was close, though. Any minute she should see the glow of the lights that lit the estate like a damned airport runway.

  Guards had surrounded it earlier in the day before Louisa’s disappearance. Surely they were still there.

  What if they weren’t?

  What if the estate was deserted?

  As she flew over the next rise, those lights glowed in the distance. Rather than pulling back, the Coyotes were firing again, and another ping to the side of the Runner had Chelsea quickly twisting the wheel, fighting to keep the Coyotes behind her. The chance of a bullet hitting her was slighter there. There was no protection to the side.

  As she drew closer to the estate, she could see men running, automatic weapons in their hands. The gates weren’t opening and there was no time to stop. If she stopped, her side would be exposed as the Coyotes raced past her. She’d be easy to pick off.

  Praying the reinforced metal of the Runner’s front guard held up, she pointed the Runner toward the gates, her teeth locked tight, her eyes narrowing on that point. If she could just make it to those gates and crash through . . .

  As long as the Cerves guards didn’t shoot her first.

  She prayed they glimpsed the Breed Underground insignia she hurried to flip on. The bright red BU on the front guard was all she’d have to alert them that she wasn’t some dumbass just hoping to break through and cause murder and mayhem.

  No, she was bringing the murder and mayhem.

  “Hang on, baby,” she screamed above the sound of the Runner’s motor.

  Louisa’s arms and legs tightened around her, but not by much. Chelsea could feel the dampness of her night suit from the little girl’s blood and the child’s cold flesh.

  “Momma’s waiting for you, baby.”

  She prayed that Samara Cerves—the Blood Queen, she was called—was waiting for the little girl who still whimpered for her, and that the savagery she was reported to have wasn’t something her child knew.

  Chances were slim, though.

  Still, the Cerves compound was the little girl’s only hope. And God help the family if anything happened to Chelsea because her own family wouldn’t play nice.

  Automatic weapons were turned on her as a dozen or more soldiers and security personnel braced to fire on her. Faces brutally hard, determined . . . murderous.

  Her life flashed before her eyes and one image held in her mind.

  “Cullen.” She whispered his name as the gates loomed, coming closer, faster. “I’m sorry . . .”

  Metal hit metal, the Runner reducing speed with a force that had the safety seat and harness reacting with the same speed to hold them in place. The collision rippled around the powerful vehicle, the frame taking the brunt of the force, the seat reacting to the still-strong shock wave that hit the interior.

  Automatic gunfire ruptured the night as the gates were pushed open, and the Runner came to a stop several feet inside the interior of the compound.

  Chelsea was confident the child hadn’t sustained further injuries, though for some reason, her own arm was burning like hell.

  “Wait! Wait!” she screamed, fighting the hard hands that reached in, tore at the harness and tried to jerk her from the seat. “Louisa. I have Louisa.”

  She scrambled to release the restraint, trying to be gentle, to hold the child securely as she whimpered, crying for her momma.

  “I have her,” she cried out, suddenly staring down the barrel of a gun, eyes wide, the certainty of death filling her mind. “I have Louisa.”

  Hands shaking, she let the blanket fall back, her eyes lifting to the cold, stark blue gaze of the Blood Queen herself. In those crystal-hard eyes Chelsea saw a mother’s torment and a killer’s need for blood.

  “Momma.” Weak, fear and terror worn, the little girl was suddenly trying to struggle against Chelsea, ragged nails dragging against the shoulder of Chelsea’s black top.

  Frantic, hysterical desperation filled the child now; those wide, dazed eyes flickering with horror would forever be seared into Chelsea’s memories.

  The gun barrel jerked back and the woman was reaching for the girl, screaming for the doctor, and in Samara Cerves’s face Chelsea saw such misery, such pale, terror-filled pain, that she had no doubt little Louisa was safe now.

  The question was, was Chelsea safe?

  “Move.” She was hauled out of the Runner with a suddenness she found shocking.

  The hands that jerked her from the vehicle were rough and bruising as she was dropped to her feet, then dragged through the courtyard toward the side of the mansion. Stumbling, she had only a moment to glimpse the chaotic activity of soldiers and security personnel rushing behind the woman known as the Blood Queen and the blood-soaked body she cradled in her arms.

  “Where are you taking me?” Desperation sliced through her as they disappeared around the side of the house.

  She couldn’t die here.

  Struggling against the powerful grip, she tried to dig her heels into the dirt and loose stones beneath her feet, only to risk falling and being dragged along the ground.

  Furious cries were falling from her lips, the need to escape frantic when he suddenly stopped, all but throwing her against the side of the house, his hand pressing over her mouth and his face only inches from hers.

  Green eyes flecked with amber rioting through the irises. Rage burned in his gaze, in his expression, along with steely, uncontrolled demand.

  Cullen?

  Shock blazed through her mind, froze all her senses.

  “Shut the fuck up and follow me. Now.” Turning, he had her wrist again, dragging her behind him once more, uncaring of the fact that her knees were suddenly jelly.

  What was Cullen doing here? Covert Law Enforcement didn’t have an op with the cartel. If they did, she would have known. Wouldn’t she have? It had just been three days since her resignation, not months or years.

  And since when did Cullen do ops himself? He was usually in command or logistics only. As commander of the Agency, he oversaw the assignments; he didn’t take them himself.

  In the four years she’d been with the Covert Law Enforcement Agency, she’d never known him to go undercover himself.

  “Get in.” She was lifted and all but tossed into the passenger seat of another Runner before Cullen went over the hood of the desert vehicle and slid into the driver’s seat with an ease that amazed her.

  As he jerked the vehicle into gear, the Runner raced for the back wall that surrounded the estate. No one tried to stop them. As they neared the gates the heavy metal barriers opened smoothly, giving Cullen just enough room as he shot past them.

  She didn’t dare look at him. She could feel the fury rolling off him in waves, see it in the hard grip he had on the gear shift as he accelerated through the night.

  The Runner was in lights-off, full covert mode, a model only the Bureau of Breed Affairs possessed. It was a little heavier than the one Chelsea had crashed into the estate with, but the motor was far more powerful and it was equipped with defensive features the others didn’t have. They’d have no problem if the Coyote soldiers happened to see them.

  She was going to have a problem once Cullen stopped this Runner, though, and she knew it. She could feel it.

  Decelerating the Runner, Cullen eased the desert vehicle along the back entrance of his property, then into the dark silence of the garage. Activating standby mode again, he let his hands grip the steering wheel, his hold so tight even the tips of his fingers ached.

  “What the bloody, insane fuck were you doing out there?” The words ripped from his mouth, a
harsh, guttural growl filling them. “You were not scheduled out there. You weren’t even supposed to be out tonight.”

  He snapped his mouth shut, his teeth clenched hard, jaw locked. The memory of that fucking gun the Blood Queen had in Chelsea’s face, her finger on the trigger, still had his blood boiling.

  There wouldn’t have been a chance in hell for him to jerk that murderous bitch away from Chelsea before she pulled the trigger. As fast as he’d been moving, as desperate as he’d been, he wouldn’t have made it in time.

  He knew, had known for years, that her work with the Breed Underground would get her killed. He’d argued with her cousin Linc over it, fought her grandfather over it, and none of it had mattered.

  “It’s my choice if I decide to go out at any given time,” she reminded him, that cool, distant tone she sometimes got scraping over his nerves like nails on a chalkboard. “I need to call a ride . . .”

  “I’m your fucking ride.” Vaulting from the low vehicle, he stomped around the back of the Runner, just making the opposite side as Chelsea jumped to the ground and stared around warily.

  “I lost my glasses,” she said tonelessly, reaching up to touch her face. “I don’t remember when they came off.”

  “Probably when that fucking bullet hit your arm,” he snapped. “You have a flesh wound at your shoulder. Come on and I’ll check it out.”

  He gripped her opposite arm, pulling her after him to the kitchen door. The biometrics on the door had it unlocking at his touch, swinging wide easily.

  “What were you doing there?” Her voice was low and thready as he pushed her into a kitchen chair before moving to the cabinet over the refrigerator and retrieving the medical kit he kept there.

  “The Agency wasn’t involved with ops on the cartel.” She stared up at him, her dark eyes fathomless, her face pale.

  “The op wasn’t listed on the books.” He slapped the kit to the table. “Take off your shirt. Let me see your arm.”

  He didn’t wait for her to take it off herself. Gripping the hem of the snug shirt, he lifted it, teeth grinding, and eased it off her.

  The exercise bra she wore covered her more than adequately but still had his mouth drying at the sight of the rounded tops of soft, tan-dark flesh, her breasts rising and falling with each breath she took.

  She took the shirt from him and held it on her lap, remaining silent as he checked the slice across her arm before cleaning it. After smearing antibiotic salve over the shallow wound, Cullen bandaged it, then gave his head a clearing shake.

  “Sit still. I’ll get you one of my shirts to wear. You’re probably hurting by now.”

  He could sense the pain she was actually ignoring. The damned woman was so stubborn she should have been born a Breed.

  Stepping into the connecting washroom, he pulled one of the short-sleeved shirts from a hanger and returned to her, helping her into it.

  “I can button it,” she assured him, pushing his hands away and doing just that as she looked around. “Don’t you ever turn any lights on?”

  “Why? I can see perfectly well in the dark.” His voice was harsher than he meant it to be as he stared down at her.

  The braid in her hair was coming undone, heavy strands falling from it to frame her tense features and emphasize her dark eyes. Fragile and so damned pretty, she made him ache like a teenager. She didn’t look strong enough, durable enough to accomplish what he knew she’d accomplished that night. The physical endurance it would have taken to race through the desert at the speed he knew she’d pushed that Runner to was something men he knew didn’t have.

  “If you’re my ride, then take me home.” She rose to her feet, looking around the dark kitchen without expression before meeting his gaze.

  He saw something flicker in her eyes then, something feminine and hungry, and just as quickly it was gone.

  “Chelsea . . .” he began warningly.

  “If you hear anything about Louisa, could you let me know as well?” The concern in her voice assured him that if he didn’t, she’d stick her damned nose into it herself.

  He nodded abruptly, frowning down at her. “How did you find her?” he asked, wondering how she’d done what three teams of Breed Enforcers hadn’t been able to do.

  “Right place, right time.” She looked like a little waif in his too-big shirt, her hair tangling around her face and those big eyes. “I heard the radio transmission of the abduction but wasn’t in the area searchers had been sent to.” She gave another of those little sighs. “I heard their hunting yips, followed the sounds, and when I saw they were hunting the kid I got in as close as possible in the direction they were pushing her, managed to snag her and race to the compound. End of story.”

  End of story his ass.

  “Now, I’d really like to go home, Cullen . . .”

  “You can stay here tonight,” he informed her briskly. “I want to be certain you weren’t recognized and that Samara doesn’t send any of her men to collect you. She’s even more insane than normal when it comes to her kid. She could come after you, consider you easier prey than those Coyotes.”

  She shook her head. “She won’t come after me.”

  “You don’t know that,” he bit out, his fingers curling into fists to keep from touching her, from jerking her against him, and aching to still the fires that burned in him for her.

  “I won’t have to worry unless Louisa dies.” Somber knowledge filled her expression as she lifted her gaze to him then, her lips trembling just a second before she stilled them. “It’ll take a miracle to keep her alive. It was bad.” She swallowed against the ragged pain in her voice. “I’ll make sure Linc sends you my report when I turn it in.”

  Hearing the sound of a vehicle slowing in front of the house, its headlights piercing the front window, Cullen turned back to her slowly, glaring at her furiously.

  “That should be my ride,” she said on an inhale, as a scent of relief reached his senses. “I activated the alert when we arrived.” She plucked at the shirt. “Thanks for something to wear. I’ll make sure you get it back.”

  She turned and started for the door.

 
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