The darkest hour, p.8
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       The Darkest Hour, p.8

         Part #1 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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Page 8


  She shrugged. “You’re a SEAL. You’re not used to going into combat with women. It stands to reason you’d be impressed. I doubt you’re as impressed by Cole, and his job is the same as mine. ”

  She had him there.

  “Okay, busted. You’re right. I’m impressed because you’re a woman. A really small woman. ”

  Donovan snickered in front of them. “Quit while you’re ahead, little brother. She’s kicked people’s asses for saying less than that. ”

  P. J. rolled her eyes at Donovan’s back.

  “Got an ETA, nerd boy?”

  “Ouch,” Donovan said. “You hurt me with your insults. Half mile more. ” He pointed at the slope ahead. “Just over that ridge and we’ll be looking down at the helicopter. ”

  “Then what do you say we walk more and talk less,” she said as she surged ahead.

  And again, summarily dismissed like an errant schoolboy. The woman had a way of making a man feel about an inch tall.

  Donovan and Ethan exchanged amused glances and picked up the pace.

  They were dirty, sweat-drenched, and Ethan had dried blood caked on his neck and shirt, when they topped the rise. Below, the helicopter sat covered in a camouflage net.

  Donovan spoke quietly into his mic, and slowly, the men surrounding the chopper came into view.

  Ethan, Donovan and P. J. hurried down and were met by Dolphin.

  “Give me a report on Cole,” Donovan said briskly.

  “He’s in the chopper. Gave him a shot to ease the pain. Ricochet. Bullet’s still in the leg. We’ll have to stop over in Costa Rica and let Maren look him over and hope we can refuel there. ”

  Donovan nodded and then looked over to where Baker and Renshaw stood, their gazes wary as they stood guard. “You guys okay? Any other injuries?”

  “Just Dolphin,” Renshaw said, jerking a thumb in Dolphin’s direction.

  “What the hell happened to you?” Ethan demanded.

  Dolphin grimaced. “No big deal. I may have busted a few ribs. Got too close to one of the blasts. ”

  “That’ll do it,” P. J. murmured.

  “Sam, Garrett and Steele are coming in with Rachel,” Donovan said as his hand left his ear. “Get the cover off the chopper. It’s time to roll. ”

  The team burst into a flurry of activity. Ethan dove in to help, though his mind screamed at him to go meet the others. He forced himself to contain the excitement building inside.

  Rachel. His wife. He was taking her home.

  “Ethan,” P. J. murmured beside him.

  He turned when she nudged him, and she gestured to a point in the distance. He followed her stare and saw Garrett striding toward the chopper, Rachel in his arms.

  He forgot everything else. Uncaring of how it looked, he broke into a run, ignoring the ache in his head and the soreness of his muscles. All that mattered was that he get to her.

  Garrett stopped and waited for Ethan to come to him. Sam and Steele passed and Sam put a hand on Ethan’s shoulder.

  “Get her and come on,” Sam murmured before he walked on by.

  “Is she okay?” Ethan asked around the catch in his throat.

  “Sam sedated her. It was pretty bad,” Garrett said after a pause.

  Ethan took her from Garrett, marveling at the feel of her in his arms again after so long. This time he absorbed the sensation, where before he’d thrown her over his shoulder so they could move quickly.

  “Come on, let’s get her in the chopper,” Garrett said.

  Ethan cradled her in his arms and walked over to get into the helicopter as they were pulling the net from the tail rotor. He sat as the others took their seats and Donovan climbed into the cockpit.

  Ethan stared down at Rachel’s delicate face and took his first long look at his wife since he’d burst into her hut.

  Her clothes were ratty, the shorts thin and threadbare. Her T-shirt had numerous holes and was matted with dirt. She wore no shoes, and her hair hung limply on her head. But to him, she had never looked more beautiful.

  Emotion overcame him, his throat swelled and tears burned his eyelids. Unable to think, to react, he simply pressed his lips to her forehead and held on to her as tightly as he could.

  “I have to admit, I was skeptical,” Sam said as he slid onto the floor beside Garrett and in front of Ethan.

  Ethan looked up to see sorrow and regret burning brightly in his brother’s eyes.

  “I’m damn glad we got her out. ”

  Ethan nodded. “I owe you one, man. I owe you all. ”

  “Bullshit. You don’t owe us anything. I’m mad as hell we couldn’t have been here sooner,” Garrett growled

  “I don’t understand,” Ethan ground out. “Why? Why her?” He buried his head in her hair. “What did she ever do to deserve any of this?”

  He sucked in several steadying breaths. He felt close to going completely insane with anger, grief and guilt. How could he have not known she was alive? He should have demanded more proof. Instead, he’d blindly accepted the proclamation that his wife wasn’t ever coming back home.

  Sam leaned forward to allow Steele to step over him. “The important thing is you have her back. ”

  Yes. He had her back, and he’d kill any son of a bitch who ever tried to take her from him again.

  “She okay?” Steele asked as he took position on the other side of Sam.

  Ethan noticed the blood on Steele’s arm and the way he grimaced when he sat down. Ethan looked over at Sam, who shook his head. It wasn’t serious, but Steele looked none too happy with the injury.

  Ethan swallowed and answered Steele’s question. “I don’t know yet. I think they have her hooked on drugs. ”

  Anger tightened Steele’s jaw, and his blue eyes flashed. “We should have just dropped a bunch of C-4 and been done with the assholes. ”

  P. J. slid in next to Ethan, while Baker, Renshaw and Dolphin climbed in the back to be near Cole, who was out like a light. Dolphin stretched out and let out a moan. He put his hand over his ribs.

  “Man, I think I’m getting too old for this shit. ”

  Ethan felt some of the tension leave him. He began to shake as reality set in.

  “Want me to take her?” Sam asked.

  Ethan shook his head, tightening his grip on her. She still wasn’t conscious, thank God. The sedative had done its job.

  “Thank you,” Ethan said loud enough for the others to hear.

  “You would have done the same for one of us,” Steele said with a shrug. The action made him wince again, and he held his hand to his shoulder. Ethan could see blood seep between his fingers. “And truth is, when you told me what had happened to Rachel, I was itching to kick some cartel ass. I’m just glad she’s okay. ”

  Was she okay? That was the million-dollar question. She was alive, but who really knew how she was. The bastards had shot her up with drugs for God knows how long. Certainly long enough to get her addicted. She had been in the throes of withdrawal when Sam found her. Ethan didn’t even want to dwell on what else they might have done to her.

  He needed to get her to a doctor fast. But first they had to get the hell out of here. Alive.

  The whir of the blades and the roar of the engine cut off anything else Ethan might have said. Within seconds, Donovan lifted off the ground and skimmed along the trees. In the distance, smoke could be seen floating skyward in a black stream. Ethan’s nostrils flared. He wished they’d done exactly as Steele had said and dropped a load of C-4 and been done with it.

  Ethan leaned back and shifted Rachel so that she was even closer to him. It didn’t matter that they were both dirty, they stunk, and they had more dirt and mud caked on them than a hog. She was his. She was a miracle.

  He closed his eyes and buried his face in her hair. The slow rise and fall of her chest, the slight movement against his body gave him much needed reassurance.

  He kissed her and kept his lips p
ressed to her head. No matter what, this time he wouldn’t make the same mistakes he’d made before. He’d cherish each day with her.

  He only hoped she’d forgive him their past.


  “I think we should have had Sean come with us,” Frank grumbled. “And what were you thinking leaving Rusty alone in our house? We’ll be lucky to have a house when we get back. She probably sent us on a wild-goose chase. How do we know she was telling us the truth?”

  Marlene’s mouth tightened as they turned off the rural county road onto a dirt path that was barely wide enough for the truck. “It’s important that I show her trust. ”

  Frank snorted. “Trust? You just met the girl last night. Trust is earned, Marlene. You need to get your head out of the clouds. ”

  She sighed as they came to a stop in front of a dilapidated trailer overgrown with weeds and grass that hadn’t been cut in years.

  “You should have at least let me bring the shotgun. Does it look to you like these folks want company?”

  “Frank, stop. Look at this place. Rusty doesn’t belong here. Is it any wonder she ran away?”

  Her heart ached for the hurt and distrust in the young girl’s eyes. Eyes that were way older than the rest of her.

  “Let’s get this over with,” Frank grumbled. “And I want you to stay behind me until I know it’s safe, okay?”

  Marlene nodded and they both got out of the truck. Before she could close her door, a man stepped from the screen door that only hung by one hinge.

  “Whatever you’re selling, we don’t want any,” he called in a belligerent tone. At least now Marlene knew where Rusty got it.

  She stepped away from the truck and called back. “We’re here to talk to you about Rusty. ”

  “What’s that fool done this time? I don’t have any money to bail her out of trouble, so you might as well go on now. She’s on her own. ”

  “That much is evident,” Marlene said under her breath.

  Frank stepped in front of her and held his hand back for her to remain still. And quiet.

  “Are you her father?” Frank asked.

  “Don’t see that it’s any of your business. ”

  “Well we need to speak to whoever her guardian is. ”

  The man stared for a long time, and then he shoved his hands into his tattered jeans and thrust out his chest. “She ain’t any kin to me. She and her mama were living here with me, but her mama done took off again. No telling when or if she’ll be back. Girl’s following in her footsteps. Been gone for a week. ”

  Marlene closed her eyes against sudden tears. A week. A week on her own with no food, scared out of her mind and no place to go back to. Rusty hadn’t lied about that.

  She reached for Frank’s hand and squeezed urgently. He caught her fingers and gave a tug in return.

  “So you aren’t her legal guardian. ”

  “Hell no. That would be her no-good mama. I’ve washed my hands of both of them. Good riddance, I say. ”

  “Thank you,” Frank said. He turned and gestured for Marlene to get back in the truck.

  “Who’d you say you were again?” the man called. “And what’s happened to Rusty?”

  Frank walked back around to his side and paused at his door to look at the man. “I didn’t say. Thank you for your time. ”

  He got in and started the engine. They were two miles from the trailer before he said a word. And then he only spoke to swear a blue streak.

  “Man ought to be shot,” Frank growled.

  Marlene battled to keep the smile from her lips. She knew Frank well. He may have put up a good front, his bark was always worse than his bite, but deep down, he had a heart as soft, if not softer than, her own.

  “So I guess you won’t mind if she stays. ”

  “She’ll need some decent clothes. Maybe you could take her shopping over in Clarksville. Can’t have her running around in Rachel’s castoffs forever. ”

  Marlene reached over and tucked her hand into his.

  RUSTY was sitting on the same bar stool she’d been perched on when Marlene and Frank left an hour earlier. Her posture was tense, her expression ill at ease. She glanced up when they walked in, but ducked her head, refusing to meet their gaze.

  Marlene wanted desperately to hug her. The child probably hadn’t had too many of those, but she wasn’t sure Rusty would tolerate it. Her body language screamed back off, don’t touch.

  Instead she walked around the bar and set her purse down on the counter. Frank hovered in the background as if he wanted to say something, but then he blew out his breath and walked away, leaving the two women alone.

  As if she couldn’t take the silence any longer, Rusty clenched her fists and looked up at Marlene, her eyes screaming defiance. She wore her best I don’t give a shit snarl.

  “Well, did you talk to Carl?”

  Marlene nodded. “We did. ”

  Rusty shrugged. “Then I guess he told you that Sheila ran off and that he doesn’t give a damn about me. ”

  “First rule. Watch your mouth. I don’t take that kind of language from my boys, and I won’t tolerate it from you. ”