The Darkest Hour, Page 7Maya Banks
Sam smiled. “He’s not dead, Rachel. It would take a hell of a lot more than that to kill that ornery bastard. It was just a graze. He bled like a stuck pig, but he’s fine. I swear it. ”
Her gaze flew to Garrett for confirmation, hope beating relentlessly against her chest. Garrett gave a short nod.
“Is he okay now?” she asked in a shaky voice. “Where is he?”
“I’ll take you to him,” Sam said. “But we have to hurry. ”
Fear leapt into her throat, and she began to shake. “Don’t let them take me back. Please. ”
Garrett’s face darkened, and she shivered at the raw violence on his face. From behind Sam, the other man stepped out. For a moment, his cool eyes bore into her and then he crouched down beside her. He didn’t press into her space. He just squatted there staring intently at her.
“You don’t know me, Rachel,” he said in an even voice. “You have no reason to believe me. But there’s one thing I can guarantee you. I won’t allow those bastards to take you back. I’m going to get you and Ethan back home where you belong. Do you understand?”
There was rock-hard assurance in his voice. An unwavering confidence that, despite her fear and anxiety, calmed her.
Slowly she nodded. Steele nodded back and then rose, putting several feet of distance between them.
“This might hurt,” Garrett said. He reached down and tucked one arm underneath her knees. His other arm slid along her back, and he carefully picked her up, trying not to jostle her hurt shoulder.
She snuck a cautious look at Sam, studying him from the safety of Garrett’s hold. He didn’t look like Ethan. Garrett did, and maybe that’s why she remembered him. While Ethan and Garrett were big, black-haired men with hard bodies and hard faces, Sam was leaner but no less muscled. His hair was light brown, but his jaw was square and had a determined set that unnerved her. His eyes were a cold blue. A lot like Steele’s. Impenetrable ice.
As if sensing her perusal, he glanced up. Like magic, those hard eyes softened and became warm. He offered her a tentative smile.
“I don’t remember you,” she said softly. “I’m sorry. ”
He reached out and tucked a strand of hair over her ear. “That’s all right, sweetheart. You will. What’s important is that we get you back to Ethan and then home, where we can all fuss over you and get you well. ”
Garrett started out, jostling her slightly as he navigated the tangled jungle floor. Sam moved swiftly ahead, his gun up as he scouted the area in quick, methodical sweeps. Steele brought up the rear.
“Who is ‘all’?” she asked Garrett in a low voice.
“Shhh, not now,” Garrett said, though his voice was even and unscolding. “I promise to tell you all about it when we’re out of hot water. ”
She tucked her head underneath his chin and rested her cheek against his broad chest. And then as she settled, need, harsh and relentless, hit her. She began to shake. She was simultaneously hot then cold. Sweat broke out over her skin, and she shivered in continuous spasms.
Garrett’s arms tightened around her until pain shot down her arm. She gasped, and he immediately loosened his grip.
“Medicine,” she gasped. “Please, I have to have it. I’m going to die. ”
“You’re not going to die,” Garrett whispered against her hair. “I’m not going to let you. I know it hurts, honey, but you have to fight it. Don’t let them win. Think about Ethan. You’ll be back with him soon. ”
She closed her eyes as a thousand insects crawled over her body. Over her skin, burrowing underneath her clothing. It was all she could do not to scream and throw herself down to swipe at them, to scrub them from her flesh.
“Goddamn it, Sam, do you have a sedative in your bag?” Garrett said.
He stopped walking and shifted her in his arms. A few seconds later, she felt a sharp stick in her arm. She yanked her head up in surprise and stared wordlessly at Garrett.
“It’s okay, baby girl,” he said in a thick voice. “Close your eyes. It’ll get better, I promise. ”
His face blurred in her vision. “Ethan,” she whispered. “You promised. ”
“When you wake up, he’ll be here,” Sam said beside her. “Relax and don’t fight it. ”
For a moment, she continued to fight, too immersed in the wave after wave of pain and vicious hunger to simply let go. The world faded around her and her eyes fluttered, but she hung on tenaciously.
A warm hand stroked her cheek and then her hair. With a yearning sigh, she leaned into the touch, drawn to the comfort it offered. Lethargy flooded her body, and she went limp.
MARLENE was up early as was her habit. Too many years of herding kids where they needed to be and then off early to her own job as a schoolteacher. Frank wasn’t any different. He’d run the only hardware store in their small town for the last thirty years, and he opened up at seven A. M. six days a week, rain or shine.
She peeked in on Rusty, half-expecting to find her already gone, but what she found was a sound-asleep little girl, the covers pulled up to her nose. Marlene’s expression softened as she watched from the door. Whatever the girl’s situation, it wasn’t a happy one.
Quietly, she backed out of the bedroom and eased the door shut behind her. Then she headed downstairs to get a start on breakfast. She put the biscuits in the oven then started the bacon to frying and set the grits on to boil. One by one she cracked eggs and dropped them into a bowl.
It was strange not to have at least one of her boys sticking his head in on a Sunday morning. They were perpetually hungry, and Sundays were big breakfast days at the Kellys’. These days they stayed gone more than they were at home. Nathan and Joe were deployed overseas, and Sam, Garrett and Donovan always seemed to be off on some classified mission for KGI.
Ethan was the only one routinely at home. Until now. She sighed as she beat the eggs a little too vigorously. Ethan led such a quiet life after Rachel’s death. He withdrew from his family. The only time Frank saw him was when he showed up at the hardware store to help out, but even then he was reserved.
And now suddenly he was off on some mission with Sam? Something wasn’t right with that picture. “And don’t think I won’t find out what,” she muttered.
Those boys always thought they could pull one over on her, but not a one had ever managed to hide anything for long.
She looked up when she heard a sound at the stairs. Rusty stood there in Rachel’s jeans and T-shirt, her hair in disarray and a guarded expression on her face.
“Well good morning,” Marlene said cheerfully. “You hungry?”
Still eyeing Marlene cautiously, Rusty edged her way over to the bar. “I could eat. ”
“Well good. Frank’ll be down shortly and we’ll have a nice meal. ”
Rusty perched on the edge of a bar stool and watched as Marlene poured the eggs into a skillet. She turned the bacon and turned the heat down on the grits to let them simmer.
“I don’t like eggs. ”
“I hate to hear that since that’s what I’m cooking. I expect you’ll eat them or go hungry. ”
“Don’t you want to know when I’m leaving?” Rusty said in a belligerent tone.
“Since I haven’t asked you to leave, no. ”
Rusty frowned and fidgeted on the stool. “So you don’t care if I stay?”
“I’m concerned that there are people worried about you. Seems to me you ought to let your folks know where you are at least. ”
Rusty’s eyes iced over and her entire body stiffened. “I don’t have any folks. None that give a damn anyway. ”
Marlene had figured as much, but she didn’t want to take this girl in if she had a family worried about her somewhere.
Just then Frank ambled down the stairs and into the kitchen. He stopped to drop a kiss on Marlene’s cheek before he turned to the bar. He eyed Rusty warily but took a seat without comment
. Rusty didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for him either.
They squared off like two cagey animals, each watching the other for any unexpected moves.
“So are you saying you want to stay?” Marlene asked casually.
Rusty scowled. “I didn’t say that. ”
Marlene turned as she picked up the skillet and shoveled the eggs onto a plate. “Frank, will you get the biscuits please?”
She arranged the bacon next to the eggs and then scooped the grits into a large bowl. After everything was set on the bar, she took a seat across from Frank and Rusty and gestured for them to dig in.
“Will you be going after breakfast then?” Marlene asked as she buttered a biscuit.
Rusty’s lip curled derisively. “You want me to go, don’t you?”
“If I wanted you to go, I’d say so. I’m not one to mince words. ”
“Got that right,” Frank muttered.
She shot him a quelling look. Something that resembled a smile skirted Rusty’s mouth.
“I’d like for you to stay if that’s what you want,” Marlene said to Rusty. “But if you accept my offer, you’re going to have to be honest with me. About everything. And there are rules. ”
Frank snorted and Marlene glared at him again.
“Don’t get her started on the rules,” Frank said with a resigned sigh. “Just nod your head and say yes ma’am. ”
Marlene leveled a stare at Rusty. “Does that sound like something you can live with?”
Rusty squirmed under Marlene’s scrutiny. She picked at her food and toyed with a piece of bacon with her fork. “What if you change your mind?”
Marlene willed herself not to react to the fear and insecurity in the child’s voice. And she was a child. A child trying very hard to be an adult, but a baby nonetheless.
“I won’t change my mind, Rusty. As long as you abide by my rules and respect my house, then we’ll get along just fine. ”
For a long moment Rusty stared at Marlene as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Then she glanced sideways at Frank.
“Then I’ll stay. For now,” she added hastily.
THANKS to losing his goddamn earpiece, Ethan was paired with Donovan as they searched the heavy undergrowth. Ahead, Donovan stopped and held a hand to his ear.
“Say again, Sam, you’re breaking up. ”
Donovan turned to Ethan as he listened intently.
“Roger that. We’re on our way. ”
Donovan fiddled with his GPS unit, stared down intently and then looked up as if determining the direction to go.
“What the hell did he say?” Ethan demanded.
“They found Rachel. Garrett’s carrying her back. They’ll meet us at the chopper. ”
P. J. broke through a snarl of leaves, her rifle seemingly too big for her small frame.
“Let’s make tracks,” she said. “Chopper is two and a half miles over that ridge. Going to be a bitch on our current trajectory. ”
“You got an easier way?” Donovan asked.
Ethan strode ahead, not waiting for them to hash out the best route.
“Wait up, man,” Donovan called. “Since I’m the one with the GPS, you might want to let me take the lead. Otherwise you’re going to end up in Venezuela. ”
“Then go already,” Ethan snarled. “We’ve had enough delays already. ”
They stalked through the jungle in silence, eyes and ears alert to any noise or movement. Though they’d crippled the small village with their surprise attack, they were still outnumbered, and when the enemy had time to regroup, they’d be on KGI’s asses.
Ethan wanted to be the hell out of Colombia with his wife well before that happened.
All the breath left his chest, leaving him deflated. His pace slowed as the events of the day caught up to him. He hadn’t even been able to revel in the discovery of Rachel—alive—before all hell had broken loose. Even now she was with his brothers, and he was dependent on them to get her safely to the helicopter. Not that he didn’t trust them. He trusted them with his life—and Rachel’s. But he ached to be the one with her, offering her reassurance.
He picked up his step when Donovan gained distance on him. He couldn’t afford to mentally wander off like that. It could get him and his teammates killed.
He glanced over at P. J. She’d kept up with no problem, and she looked unruffled by the fight.
“Thanks for the cover,” he said.
She looked startled by the thank-you. Her ponytail swung as she glanced sideways at him. “No problem. It’s my job. ”
“It’s a job you’re good at,” he said sincerely.
“For a woman you mean. ”
“I didn’t say that. ”
He looked over to see a smile nudging the corners of her mouth.
“You’re doing that on purpose to make me feel like a slime bucket,” he accused.