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Authors: Anna Zaires

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BOOK: Claim Me
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13

L
ucas

A
t the explosion of gunfire
, I glance at the side mirror and see our guards in the SUVs shooting at the pursuing vehicles. A bullet dings against the side of our car, and I swerve, making the limo a more difficult target. In the back, Nora’s parents scream in panic, and Esguerra jumps off the seat to get to his weapons stash.

Fucking hell.
My hands tighten on the wheel. This shouldn’t be happening. Not while we have civilians with us. Esguerra and I can handle this, but not Rosa and Nora—and certainly not Nora’s parents. If anything were to happen to them… I press harder on the gas pedal, pushing the speedometer past 100 miles per hour.

More gunfire. In the side mirror, I see our men exchanging fire with the pursuers. All the way in the back, one of Sullivan’s cars careens into one of ours, trying to force it off the road, and there’s another burst of gunfire before the pursuers’ SUV skids off the road and flips over.

Another car gains on one of our SUVs, smashing into its side. Behind it are at least a dozen vehicles—a mix of SUVs, vans, and Hummers with grenade launchers mounted on their roofs.

No, not a dozen.

They have as many as fifteen or sixteen cars versus eight of ours.

Motherfucking fuck.
I push the gas pedal again, and the speedometer climbs to 110. We need to go faster, but the armored limo is too heavy. It’s built for protection, not speed.

One of our SUVs in the back flies up, exploding in mid-air. The blast is deafening, but I ignore it, all my attention on the road ahead. I can’t think about the men we just lost or their families.

If we’re to survive, I can’t afford the distraction.

“Lucas.” Rosa sounds panicked. “Lucas, that’s—”

“A police blockade, yes.” I have to raise my voice to be heard over the din of gunfire and explosions. There are four police cars blocking our way, and they’re surrounded by SWAT teams. They’re here for us—which means they must be in Sullivan’s pocket.

In the back, Julian is shouting something at Nora, and in the rearview mirror, I see him dragging out bulletproof vests and a handheld grenade launcher.

“We have to go through them,” I yell, keeping my foot on the gas. We’re seconds away now, rocketing toward the blockade at full speed. I aim the limo at the narrow gap between two police cars. For this, the heavy weight of the armored limo is an advantage.

“Hold on!” I shout at Rosa, and then we’re crashing into the cars, the impact of the collision throwing me forward. I feel the seatbelt cutting into me, hear the SWAT team’s bullets hitting the side and windows of our car, and then we’re through, the limo barreling ahead as two more cars behind us collide and explode.

Sullivan’s cars
, I determine with relief a moment later. From what I can see in the side mirror, our SUVs are still intact. Beside me, Rosa is white with fear but seemingly uninjured.

Before I can catch my breath, I hear a deafening
boom
and see the police cruiser behind us fly up, exploding in the air. It lands on its side, burning, and one of Sullivan’s Hummers slams into it. There’s another explosion, followed by a Sullivan van careering off the road. I grin savagely as I catch sight of Esguerra standing in the middle of the limo, his head and shoulders sticking out of the opening in the roof.

My boss must be using the handheld grenade launcher from our stash.

There’s another explosive
boom
as he fires the next shot, but no enemy vehicle goes belly-up this time. Instead, one of the Hummers swerves, ramming into one of our SUVs, and I see the guards’ car flip over, rolling off the road.

Shit.
My elation dissipates. Esguerra better get his aim straight, or we’re fucked.

As if in response to my thoughts, there’s another boom, followed by a Sullivan van exploding behind us. Two Sullivan SUVs crash into it, but my satisfaction is short-lived as I hear the ding of bullets against the side of our car. Swearing, I yank the wheel and begin zigzagging from side to side.

Unlike the limo, Esguerra’s head is not bulletproof.

“Come on, Esguerra,” I mutter, squeezing the wheel. “Fucking shoot them.”

Boom!
Another Sullivan SUV explodes, taking out the one behind it in the process.

“He’s doing it,” Rosa says in a shaking voice. “They have only six cars left now.”

I steal a glance in the mirror and verify that she’s right. Six enemy vehicles versus five of ours.

We might make it yet.

Suddenly, I see a flash of fire in the mirror. Two of our SUVs fly up in the air, and I realize the Hummers took them out.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Come on, Esguerra.” My knuckles turn white on the steering wheel. “Just fucking do it.”

Boom!
One of the Hummers veers off the road, smoke rising from its hood.

“Señor Esguerra did it!” Rosa’s voice is filled with hysterical glee. “Lucas, he got it!”

I don’t have a chance to reply before one of the enemy cars swerves and crashes into another. Our men must’ve shot the driver.

“Three of them left, Lucas. Only three!” Rosa is all but jumping in her seat, and I realize she’s high on adrenaline. Past a certain point, one stops feeling fear, and it all becomes a game, a rush unlike any other. It’s what makes danger so addictive—for me, at least.

I feel most alive when I’m close to death.

Except that’s not true anymore, I realize with a jolt. The buzz is muted today, dulled by my worry for our civilians and my fury over our men’s deaths. Instead of excitement, there’s only a grim determination to survive.

To live so I can catch Yulia and feel alive in a whole different way.

“Lucas.” Rosa sounds tense all of a sudden. “Lucas, are you seeing that?”

“What?” I say, but then the sound reaches my ears.

It’s the faint but unmistakable roar of chopper blades.

“It’s a police helicopter,” Rosa says, her voice shaking again. “Lucas, why is there a helicopter?”

I floor the gas pedal instead of answering her. There are only two possibilities: either the authorities heard about what’s happening, or it’s more dirty cops. My money’s on the last one, which means we’re beyond fucked. By my calculations, Esguerra only has one shot left in that grenade launcher of his, and there’s no way he can take down that chopper.

“What are we going to do?” Rosa’s panic is evident. “Lucas, what are we—”

“Quiet.” I floor the pedal, focusing on the structure looming ahead of us. We’re almost to the private airport now, and if we can get inside, we stand a chance.

“I’m going for the hangar!” I yell to Esguerra, and take a sharp right turn toward the structure. At the same time, I floor the gas pedal, pushing the limo to its limits. We’re all but rocketing toward the hangar now, but the roar of the helicopter is getting inexorably louder.

Boom!
My ears ring from an explosion, and I swerve instinctively before righting the car and pressing on the gas again. Behind us, one of our SUVs careens into another, and they collide with a squeal of tires before rolling off the road.

“They shot it.” Rosa sounds dazed. “Oh my God, Lucas, the helicopter shot it.”

I shake my head, trying to get rid of the ringing in my ears, but before the noise dies down, there’s another deafening explosion.

The Hummer behind us goes up in flames, leaving two enemy SUVs and the helicopter.

Esguerra came through with one last shot.

Before I can take a breath, a blast rocks the limo. My vision goes dark and my head spins, the ringing in my ears turning into a high-pitched, dizzying whine. Only decades of training enable me to keep my hands on the wheel, and as my vision clears, I register what Rosa is screaming.

“We’re hit, Lucas! We’re hit!”

Fuck, she’s right. There’s smoke rising from the back of the car, and the rear window is shattered.

“Are Esguerra and his family—” I begin hoarsely, but then I see Esguerra pop up in the rearview mirror. He’s covered in blood but clearly alive. Pulling Nora up from the floor, he hands her an AK-47. Behind them, her parents look dazed and bloody, but conscious.

We’re almost to the hangar now, so I take my foot off the gas. I can hear Esguerra giving his wife instructions in the back. He wants her to take her parents and run for the plane as soon as we stop.

“You run with them too, Rosa, you hear me?” I say, not taking my eyes off the road. “You get out, and you run.”

“O-okay.” She sounds like she’s on the verge of hyperventilating.

We plow through the open gates of the hangar, and I slam on the brakes, bringing the limo to a screeching holt.

“Run, Rosa!” I yell, unbuckling my seatbelt, and as she scrambles out of the car, I jump out on my side, grabbing my M16.

“Now, Nora!” Esguerra yells behind me, throwing open the passenger door. “Go now!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Rosa running after Nora and her parents, but before I can verify they got to the plane, a Sullivan SUV squeals into the building.

I open fire, and Esguerra joins in.

The SUV’s windshield shatters as it screeches to a stop in front of us and armed men pour out.

“Get back! Behind the limo!” I yell at Esguerra, covering his retreat. Then he covers me as I dive behind the limo myself.

“Ready?” I say, and he nods. Synchronizing our movements, we pop up on each side of the limo and unleash a volley of shots before ducking back.

“Four down,” Esguerra says, reloading his own M16. “I think there’s only one left.”

“Cover me,” I say and crawl around the limo. I can feel the sweat dripping into my eyes as I slither on my stomach while Esguerra fires at the SUV to distract the guy. It takes almost a minute before I see an opening and fire at the shooter.

My bullets hit him in the neck, setting off a geyser of blood.

Breathing hard, I climb to my feet. After the nonstop racket of the battle, the silence feels like I’ve gone deaf.

“Good job,” Esguerra says, coming out from behind the limo. “Now if our remaining men got the—”

“Julian!” On the other side of the hangar, Nora is waving her AK-47 above her head. She looks overjoyed. “Over here! Come, let’s go!”

A huge smile lights up Esguerra’s face as she begins running toward him—and then a blast of searing heat sends me flying.

14

Y
ulia

T
he second “debriefing
” is even more grueling than the first. Obenko and the two agents want me to go over every conversation with Lucas and describe each of our encounters in detail. They want to know how he kept me tied up, at what point he gave me clothes, what kind of meals I cooked, and what his sexual preferences are. I cooperate at first, but after a while, I begin stonewalling them. I can’t bear to have my relationship with my former captor dissected by these men. I don’t want them knowing about my feelings for Lucas or my fantasies about him. Those softer moments between us and the things he promised me—those are mine alone.

What happened during my captivity was wrong and twisted, but it also meant something—to me, at least.

“Yulia,” Obenko says after I evade yet another one of his questions. “This is important. The man with whom you spent two weeks is Esguerra’s second-in-command. From what you’re telling us, it sounds like he, not Esguerra, is the driving force behind them coming after us. It’s crucial that we understand exactly what he wants and how he thinks.”

“I’ve already told you everything I know.” I try not to let my frustration bleed into my voice. “What more do you want from me?”

“How about the truth, Yulia Borisovna?” Mateyenko gives me a penetrating look. “Did Kent send you here? Are you working for him now?”

“What?” My jaw falls open. “Are you serious? I’m the one who warned you. Do you honestly think I would betray my brother’s adoptive family?”

“I don’t know, Yulia Borisovna.” Mateyenko’s expression doesn’t change. “Would you?”

I rise to my feet. “If I were working for him, why would I tell you that he got this information from me? A double agent wouldn’t warn you that she’d cracked—she’d come to you as a hero, not a failure.”

Next to Mateyenko, Sokov crosses his arms. “That would depend on how clever the double agent is, Yulia Borisovna. The best ones always have a story.”

I turn to Obenko. “Is that what you believe as well? That I betrayed you?”

“No, Yulia.” My boss doesn’t blink. “If I did, you’d already be dead. But I do think you’re hiding something. Aren’t you?”

“No.” I hold his gaze. “I’ve told you everything. I don’t know anything else that could help us.”

Obenko’s mouth tightens, but he nods. “All right, then. We’re done for the day.”

W
hen Mateyenko and Sokov leave
, I go back to my room, a tension headache throbbing in my temples. I have no doubt Obenko meant what he said: if he thought I was a double agent, he would’ve killed me.

After surviving Russian prison and Esguerra’s compound, I might die at the hands of my colleagues.

Strangely, the thought doesn’t upset me much. The hollow chill that has settled in my chest numbs everything, even fear. Now that I’m here—now that I’ve done everything I can to ensure my brother’s safety—I can’t work up more than a smidgeon of interest in my own fate. Even the memory of Lucas’s cruelty feels distant and muted, as if it happened years ago instead of days.

When I’m back in my room, I lie down and pull the blanket around me, but I can’t get warm.

Only one thing could chase away this cold.

15

L
ucas

R
at-tat-tat
!

The sharp crackle of gunfire cuts through the darkness, bringing me back to my senses. My brain feels like it’s swimming in a thick, viscous fog.

Groaning, I roll over onto my stomach, almost puking from the agony in my skull. Where’s Jackson? What happened? We were out on patrol and then…
Fuck!

Ignoring the throbbing in my head, I begin crawling on the sand, away from the gunfire. My whole body hurts, the sand particles pelting my eyes and filling my lungs. I feel like I’m made of sand, my skin ready to dissolve and blow away in the harsh, stinging wind.

More gunfire, then a pained cry.

Fear squeezes my chest. “Jackson?”

“I’m hit.” Jackson’s voice is filled with shock. “Oh, fuck, Kent, they got me.”

“Hang on.” I crawl back toward the gunfire, dragging my useless rifle. I ran out of ammo five minutes after we were ambushed, but I don’t want to leave the weapon for the hostiles. “I called it in. They’re coming for us.”

Jackson coughs, but the sound turns into a gurgle. “Too late, Kent. It’s too fucking late. Get back.”

“Shut up.” I crawl faster, the dim light of the moon illuminating a small mound next to our overturned Humvee. Jackson’s voice is coming from that direction, so I know it must be him. “Just hang on.”

“They’re not… They’re not coming, Kent.” Jackson is wheezing now. The bullet must’ve hit his lungs. “Roberts… He wanted this. He ordered this.”

“What are you talking about?” I finally reach him, but when I touch him, all I feel is wet meat and fractured bone. I yank my hand away. “Fuck, Jackson, your leg—”

“You have to”—Jackson sucks in a gurgling breath—“go. They’ll blow this place if they come. Roberts, he… I caught him. I was going to expose him. This isn’t Taliban. Roberts knew”—he coughs wetly—“knew we’d be here. This is his doing.”

“Stop. We’re going to get through this.” I can’t think about what Jackson is saying, can’t process the implications of his words. Our commanding officer couldn’t have betrayed us like that. It’s impossible. “Just hang on, buddy.”

“Too late.” Jackson gurgle-wheezes as I reach for him again. “Roberts…” He chokes, and I feel hot liquid coating my hands as I press them over his stomach.

“Jackson, stay with me.” My heart beats in a sick, erratic rhythm. Not Jackson. This can’t be happening to Jackson. I increase the pressure on his wound, trying to stop the bleeding. “Come on, buddy, just stay with me. Help will be here soon.”

“Run,” Jackson mumbles inaudibly. “He’ll kill…” He shudders, and I feel the moment it happens. His body goes limp, and the stench of evacuated bowels fills the air.

“Jackson!” Keeping my hand on his stomach, I reach for his neck, but there’s no pulse.

It’s over. My best friend is dead.

Rat-tat-tat!

The gunfire is back, and so is the syrupy fog in my brain. It’s also hot—far hotter than it should be at night in the desert. The heat is consuming me, eating away at me like—

Fucking hell, I’m burning!

Throwing myself to the side, I roll, not stopping until the burning heat recedes. My ribs scream in pain and my head spins, but the flames licking at my skin are gone.

Panting, I open my eyes and stare at the tall ceiling above me.

Ceiling, not night sky.

My brain synapses finally connect and begin firing.

Afghanistan was eight years ago.

I’m in Chicago, not Afghanistan, and whatever took me down has nothing to do with my old commander.

Rat-tat-tat!

I turn my head to see a small figure running on the other side of the hangar. Four men in SWAT gear are running after her. As I watch in disbelief, Esguerra’s wife turns and fires her AK-47 at the pursuers before darting behind one of the planes.

Shit.
I have to help Nora. Groaning, I roll over onto my side. There’s burning rubble all around me, and the limo is on fire. In the hangar wall behind the limo is a gaping hole through which I can see the police chopper. It’s sitting on the grass outside, its blades no longer turning.

Sullivan’s henchmen must’ve taken out the guards in our last SUV before coming for us.

As I struggle to my feet, I see Esguerra leap toward the burning limo. He survived, I realize with relief. Fighting a wave of dizziness, I take a step toward the car, ignoring the agonizing pain in my ribs.

Before I can get there, Esguerra jumps out of the limo, holding two machine guns, and sprints after Nora’s pursuers. I’m about to go help him when I spot movement near the helicopter.

Two men are climbing out, clearly intent on getting away.

I react even before I consciously realize who they are. Lifting my weapon, I pepper them with bullets, purposefully aiming my shots away from critical organs. When I stop, the hangar is silent again, and I look back to see Esguerra embracing Nora, both of them seemingly unhurt.

A vicious smile curves my lips as I turn and make my way to the two men I injured.

It’s time for the Sullivans to get their due.


I
s
that who I think it is?” Esguerra asks hoarsely, nodding toward the older man, and my smile widens.

“Yes. Patrick Sullivan himself, along with his favorite—and last remaining—son Sean.”

I shot Patrick through the leg and his son through the arm, and both men are rolling on the ground, blubbering in agony. Their pain helps soothe some of my raging fury. For what they did to Rosa and Nora, and for the guards who died today, these men will pay.

“I’m guessing they came in the chopper to observe the action and swoop in at the right time,” I say, holding my aching ribs. “Except the right time never came. They must’ve learned who you were and called in all the cops who owed them favors.”

“The men we killed were cops?” Nora asks, visibly trembling. She must be coming down from an adrenaline high. “The ones in the Hummers and the SUVs, too?”

“Judging by their gear, many of them were.” Esguerra wraps a supportive arm around her waist. “Some were probably dirty, but others just blindly following orders from their higher-ups. I have no doubt they were told we were highly dangerous criminals. Maybe even terrorists.”

“Oh.” Nora leans against her husband, her face suddenly turning gray.

“Fuck,” Esguerra mutters, picking her up. Holding her against his chest, he says, “I’m going to take her to the plane.”

To my surprise, Nora shakes her head. “No, I’m fine. Please let me down.” She pushes at him with such determination that Esguerra complies, carefully setting her on her feet.

Keeping one arm around her back, he gives her a concerned look. “What is it, baby?”

Nora gestures toward our captives. “What are you going to do with them? Are you going to kill them?”

“Yes,” Esguerra answers with no hesitation. “I will.”

Nora doesn’t say anything, and I remember my promise to her friend. “I think Rosa should be here for this,” I say. “She’ll want to see justice served.”

Esguerra looks at his wife, and she nods.

“Bring her here,” Esguerra says, and despite the grimness of the situation, I feel a twinge of amusement as I walk back to the plane.

Esguerra’s delicate little wife has acclimated to our world quite well.

When I get to the plane, Rosa steps out to meet me, her face pale. “Lucas, are they—”

“Yes, come.” Carefully taking her arm, I lead her out of the hangar. As we step outside, I see that Patrick Sullivan has passed out on the ground, but his son is still conscious and pleading for his life.

I glance at Rosa, and I’m pleased to see that her cheeks have regained some color. Approaching Sean Sullivan, she stares down at him for a couple of seconds before looking up at me and Esguerra.

“May I?” she asks, holding out her hand, and I smile coldly as I hand her my rifle. Rosa’s hands are steady as she aims at her attacker.

“Do it,” Esguerra says, and she pulls the trigger. Sean Sullivan’s face explodes, blood and bits of brain matter flying everywhere, but Rosa doesn’t flinch or look away.

Before the sound of her shot fades, Esguerra steps toward unconscious Patrick Sullivan and releases a round of bullets into the older man’s chest.

“We’re done here,” Esguerra says, turning away from the dead body, and the four of us return to the plane.

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