Authors: Paige Tyler
Jayson hadn’t even thought about that. “Then we’re both out,” he said. “I don’t know what we’ll do after that, but I can promise you that we’ll do it together.”
Layla smiled. “We stay together,” she said fiercely. “In the DCO or out.”
Then she’d given him a kiss that was well on its way to leading to lots of other distracting activities when Dylan and the others returned. The teens were too excited about the possibility that Victor might know where Anya was being held to notice that he and Layla had barely finished getting dressed before they’d bounded down the stairs.
Jayson stifled a groan as he tried to get the sexy image of a half-naked Layla wiggling into her jeans out of his head. He leaned forward, pretending to look at a detail on Layla’s side of the drawing, hoping the move would hide the bulge in his jeans. While it did that, it also reminded him how tight his left hamstring was. Making love to Layla had been incredible, and having her draped over his chest afterward had been heavenly too, but it had also hurt like a son of a bitch. His back was throbbing, his left leg was numb all the way down to the knee, and his butt felt like one big muscle cramp.
He was finally starting to realize that while the aches and pains were a nuisance, they weren’t anything he couldn’t deal with. That was a serious epiphany in itself, but the bigger one involved the fact that he’d come to the conclusion that Dick’s hybrid serum treatment had been a bust.
When he’d first gotten to Donetsk, he told himself it was the serum that allowed him to run all over the place when the militia soldiers had been chasing him. That his new hybrid abilities had allowed him to make the leap onto the steel pipe and run across it after Powell had tried to kill him. That he never could have swum across that river without the help of a magic cure-all drug.
Hell, for a time, he’d even convinced himself it was the serum that allowed him to be a man worthy of Layla.
Looking back, he realized none of those things had been true. He’d run all over Donetsk because he was being chased by men trying to shoot him and the teens, and he hadn’t been willing to let either of those things happen. He’d made the leap to that pipe out of necessity because not making it would have meant falling to the ground with a loud and painful
. Likewise, he’d swum across the river because the idea of drowning had scared the hell out of him.
And as far as the serum making him good enough for Layla, he knew now that was bullshit. He’d always been good enough for her. He’d just needed to get to a place in his head where he could see and believe that.
If the serum had made any changes to his body, they weren’t monumental. It definitely hadn’t healed all his injuries, and it certainly hadn’t turned him into some kind of lean, mean animal machine. But that was okay. Because he didn’t need a magical hybrid drug to let him do the things he needed to do to feel alive—he just needed Layla.
Jayson turned his attention back to the drawing and was just starting come up with a plan for breaking into Zolnerov’s estate when Dylan and Mikhail jogged down the rubble-filled steps. The two teens reached into the gray sports duffel that Mikhail had been carrying and came out with three boxes of 9x18mm ammo for their pistols, and two boxes of 5.45mm cartridges for his AK-74. Two thirty-round boxes of ammo for an automatic weapon wasn’t much, but then again, if he ended up having to shoot that many rounds, it meant they were in deep shit and were probably screwed anyway. With what he already had, it should be enough.
Mikhail dumped the boxes on the desk to the side of Olek and Layla’s drawing, then pulled out three battered and abused-looking Makarov pistols and placed them on the table too.
“What are those?” Jayson asked as he saw Layla look at the weapons from the corner of her eye.
“Those are Makarov pistols,” Mikhail said.
Jayson arched a brow, wondering if the Russian kid was trying to be a smart-ass or if he were just clueless. “No shit. The question is why do you have them? I sent you out for ammo, not more weapons.”
Dylan was the one who answered. “They pretty much came with the ammo. This might be a big town, but word gets around. People have heard about what we’re trying to do, and when we talked to one of Victor’s friends about needing ammo, he gave us the weapons too.”
“He said he knows one of the missing girls.” Mikhail shrugged. “He just wanted to help.”
Jayson opened his mouth to tell them to ditch the weapons, but Dylan interrupted. “Look, I know you don’t want us getting involved in any shooting, but we may not have a choice. What we’re doing is going to be dangerous, no matter how much you try to protect us.”
Jayson glanced at Layla to see her regarding him with a questioning look. Clearly, she was going to leave this up to him. The ultimate in
go ask your father
, he supposed.
His gut was shouting at him to leave the kids out of this, that they weren’t old enough to risk their lives in a shoot-out, but he didn’t have the right to make that decision for them. Dylan was going to do whatever was necessary to get Anya back, and Olek was going to help. As for Mikhail, he’d been risking his life against these people for a long time now. Jayson couldn’t change the circumstances or the danger the three teens were in. The best he could do was try to manage the situation and reduce the risk to the lowest level possible. But no matter what he did, things could still go wrong. If it did, these kids had to be able to defend themselves.
“Okay,” he said. “You keep the weapons. But you fire them only as a last resort. Understood?”
All three of them nodded in return.
“What’s the plan?” Dylan asked. “How are we going to get Anya and the other girls out?”
Jayson readjusted the flashlight until it shone fully on the drawing of Zolnerov’s residence. The main house seemed like a cross between a Tuscan villa and an American ranch with a multifloor structure in the middle and single-floor wings spreading out to either side. If Layla’s drawing was to scale—and Jayson had no reason to think it wasn’t—the place was easily ten thousand square feet. And that wasn’t counting the outlying buildings or the smaller structures set at various places along the perimeter wall that served as guard shacks.
“Dylan, you’ll be out on the road in front of the villa with Mikhail and Olek. When I give the signal, I need the three of you to draw the attention of the militia soldiers in that direction. I’m not sure how you’re going to do that, but I need as many guards heading that way as possible. You just need to keep them occupied for a few minutes. Then I want the three of you to bail.” Jayson pointed at an intersection on the map about a quarter mile from the gate. “Fall back to this road junction here and hide.”
Dylan glanced at Mikhail and Olek. It was obvious that none of them liked the idea of hiding, but after a moment, they nodded.
“I might know some other people who can help us,” Mikhail said. “We’ll be the distraction you need. What are you and Layla going to do once we get the soldiers moving our way?”
“Layla and I will be going in over the perimeter wall in the back of the property,” Jayson said. “We’ll find Anya and the other girls, then get them out over that same wall.”
Mikhail frowned. “That is a very big house. How will you be able to find Anya in time? Even with a distraction, you probably won’t have more than five or ten minutes.”
Jayson didn’t point out that Mikhail was probably being optimistic with how much time they’d have. “That’s Layla’s department. But to find Anya, she’s going to need that scarf you’ve been carrying around, Dylan.”
Dylan looked as confused as the other two teens, but he reached inside his coat and pulled the piece of colorful material out, handing to Layla. “I don’t understand why you need this, but please bring it back. It’s Anya’s favorite. It’s pretty important to me too.”
Layla nodded solemnly. “We will. I promise.”
Jayson looked at the tense and worried faces around the table. “I won’t lie and say this is going to be easy. Or that it’s not dangerous. But I promise, if we all stick together and have faith in each other, we’re going to find Anya and those other girls, and we’re going to get them out alive.”
At his words, everyone at the table stood up a little straighter. Jayson was stunned at the trust and belief in their eyes—Layla’s as much as any of the others. He only hoped he was able to live up to that kind of trust. They might have survived the short raid on the RSA building, but his previous attempt at leading a combat mission had ended in disaster.
“All right, let’s get moving.” He rolled up the map Layla and Olek had made. “It’s going to take us a while to get out there, and I need time to check the place out in person before we go in.”
The teens immediately headed for the stairs, but Layla hung back with him. Jayson clicked off the flashlight, plunging the old library into darkness. Layla could still see of course, and she reached out to take his hand.
“We’re going to do this,” she whispered softly. “Together.”
He squeezed her hand. “Together.”
Dreya had always thought that the apartment she maintained over in Columbia Heights was a tremendous waste of money. Not only did she already have a beautiful place in Foggy Bottom, but Rory had insisted she keep the lease paid up a year in advance—in cash. He’d been of the opinion she needed to have a place to hide out that was completely off the radar and where everything was under a fake name. According to him, cash made all that easier.
She’d humored him because, well…Rory knew a lot more about this business than she did. At the same time, she hated the idea of spending that kind of money on a place she rarely ever slept in. Of course, with so many of her fellow thieves showing up dead all over town, she’d changed her mind on the subject completely. As far as she was concerned now, Rory had been brilliant beyond belief.
The only problem was that she hadn’t kept the place stocked with food. If Rory were there, he would have been pissed. If he were there, she also liked to think he would have been proud to know she was taking his advice. Not that she had much of a choice.
With all the groceries she had in the trunk of the hatchback she’d borrowed from Zipcar, she’d be set for at least a week, maybe more. She’d hide out for a while, eat Cap’n Crunch out of the box while reading a few romance books and let things cool down. By then, hopefully she would figure out a way of getting Thorn’s crap back to him in manner that didn’t equal her ending up dead.
She parked the car along the curb four blocks down and two blocks over from her apartment complex. She didn’t know for sure, but she’d hazard a guess that Zipcar had GPS chips in their cars, and while the apartment was listed under a false name, her Zipcar account wasn’t. She didn’t want anyone tracing the car to her safe house.
She went around to the back of the car and opened the trunk, reaching in to pull out the first half-dozen bags. Crap, it was going to take her at least two trips to get all this food into the apartment. What a pain in the butt.
Fortunately, it wouldn’t be physically strenuous. Yet another fringe benefit of her freaky side. She could have carried all the bags at one time, but a woman her size doing that would have attracted a load of attention. That was something she definitely didn’t want.
Dreya had just turned and was walking down the sidewalk when she felt a strange prickling sensation run up her back. Dropping her bags, she spun around, her claws extending as she prepared to defend herself. Instead of someone charging at her with a butcher knife, a roaring chain saw or even a machine gun, the street was empty. Well, not exactly empty. There were a few cars passing by on the street, and a little farther away, there was a tiny, old lady walking her pug. The pug might have been eyeballing Dreya with an expression of major confusion, but there was definitely nothing around that looked threatening.
She glanced up at the nearby apartment windows and balconies, but there was nothing there either. The skin at the base of her neck was still tingling like mad, though. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong.
Dreya was used to her freaky side telling her things. Like when cars got too close to her motorcycle. Weird crap like that had been happening to her for over a decade now. But this was different. This felt like her head was sitting right in the middle of a sniper’s crosshairs.
She doubted that was the case, but she couldn’t stand out there in the street all day, her groceries lying at her feet like she had lost her marbles. She looked around one more time. She was probably just freaking out because she’d been under so much stress. With her only real friend in the world dead, a multimillion-dollar diamond hidden in her apartment, and Thorn’s goons ready to beat her to a pulp the moment they caught her, how could she not be stressed out?
Dreya collected her bags and hurried down the sidewalk toward her apartment again. The prickling sensation immediately began to fade, but she still ducked down a side street that ran along the back of the nearest apartment complex anyway. Instinct told her to get off the main street and out of sight. With no one watching, she was able to pick up her pace without worrying about someone wondering how she was able to jog while carrying six heavy grocery bags.
She ran for three blocks, staying behind the long line of multifloor apartments, figuring she’d turn left at the next alley, then cross over Fourteenth Street. Then it would just be a short run up the stairs and she’d be in her apartment. Maybe she’d hang out there for a couple hours before she came down for the rest of her stuff.
But as she approached the alley, the feeling of dread she’d been experiencing earlier subsided almost to the point that she wasn’t sure if it had ever been there. Maybe she was just losing her freaky mind.
She turned and was halfway down the alley when she saw the black SUV turned sideways across it. The tingling sensation lit a fire along her back again, even hotter than before.
Dreya dropped her bags, her claws and fangs coming out this time as she focused on the heavily tinted windows of the vehicle blocking her path. There was no way in hell that thing parked there was a coincidence. Someone
been watching her out on the main street earlier. They’d somehow figured out where she was heading and had gotten in front of her.
The seconds ticked by, but no one in the SUV moved. She was about to abandon her groceries altogether and sprint past the vehicle, but the electric tingles along her spine were so painful now she wanted to scream.
She spun around and saw two big men in dark suits wearing sunglasses standing in the middle of the alley behind her, cutting off her escape in that direction. Her first instinct was to turn and run. She knew for a fact that there was no one on the planet who could keep up with her when she really cut loose and ran hard.
Then she saw the weapons both men held. She knew nothing about guns, but the things they were holding didn’t look like any revolver or automatic she’d ever seen. Instead of the typical gun barrel, the front of the weapons were closed off with a bright-green square of plastic. If she didn’t know better, she’d think they were toys. She knew she wasn’t that lucky.
The two men smiled menacingly at her, their eyes hidden behind their dark glasses as they shifted their weapons just enough so that they were pointed straight at her. She might be fast, but something told her she couldn’t outrun whatever was going to come out the end of those guns, though.
Time froze for a moment as she tensed, ready to spring to the side the second it seemed like the two men were about to fire. The grins on their faces broadened, as if they knew exactly what she was going to do and that it wouldn’t help.
Suddenly, a roar so loud filled the air it seemed to shake the walls of the buildings on either side of the alley and vibrate through her chest like thunder. Dreya barely caught movement out of the corner of her eye before a blur slammed into both gunmen. The two guys who’d been about to shoot her were big, but this new guy completely dwarfed them, and when he slammed into them, they both went flying. One hit the far wall of the alley and crumpled to the ground, unmoving. The other hit the ground and rolled, somehow coming up with his weapon pointed in the general direction of her savior.
There was a pop, then a zipping sound. Dreya’s eyes widened as they followed the movement of the multiple electrode wires that sprang from the gun and closed the distance between the man on the ground and his attacker. Two electrodes struck the big bull of a man in the chest, and the air was suddenly alive with the sizzle and ozone stench of electricity.
. Those weapons were some kind of Taser guns.
Dreya expected the big man to fall to the ground and start flopping—like they did in the movies. But the guy just stood there with a pissed-off look on his face as he casually ripped the wires away from his chest. Then he roared again and charged. If Dreya thought he moved fast before, it was nothing compared to how quick he was now.
The shooter’s eyes widened as he tried to get out of the way, but it was too late. The big man grabbed him off the ground and tossed him across the alley, slamming him into the same wall his partner had just bounced off. The man in the dark suit and sunglasses who’d likely been planning to torture and kill her flopped boneless to the ground. Dreya was pretty sure he wasn’t ever getting up. That was okay with her.
The huge man turned and looked at Dreya with eyes that were glowing the brightest green she’d ever seen. Gaze locked on her, he took a step in her direction.
That was enough for her. She knew he’d just saved her life, but she was scared and he was freaking terrifying. She turned and took off running, her feet barely hitting the hood of the black SUV blocking the alley as she hurtled over the top of it.
Dreya knew it was stupid to go back to her apartment instead of the safe house, but she had to get a few things, including her emergency stash of cash and Thorn’s diamond. Then she was getting the hell out of town.
* * *
The thunder of artillery fire rumbled in the distance, accompanied by dim flashes of light that filtered through the low cloud cover like fireworks on a rainy Fourth of July. Layla had only been in Donetsk a few days, but already the thump and crack of exploding artillery and rocket shells was becoming like background noise for her.
Background noise or not, the ominous rumbling sound combined with the misting rain that had started a short time ago seemed to cast a subduing blanket over all of them, most especially the three teens. Dylan and his friends had grown quieter the closer they’d gotten to Zolnerov’s estate as the weight of what they were about to do began to bear down on them. Now that they were there outside the huge house, the three teens silently regarded the dwelling with somber expressions. Layla couldn’t miss the anxiety that sped up their heart rates and made them as tense as bow strings. She wanted to tell them that everything was going to be okay, and that everyone was going to make it out of this okay. But she knew she couldn’t because there was a good chance she’d be wrong.
“I didn’t think the place would be so big,” Dylan said softly.
Even though it was dark, the teens hung back in the trees as if they were worried that one of the many guards roaming the property would see them.
“Dylan’s right. How are you two ever going to find Anya in that place?” Mikhail asked. “It’s huge. And creepy.”
The Russian kid was right. In the darkness, the brick home that she and Jayson had first seen in Victor’s photo now looked more like something out of a Dracula movie. Layla couldn’t begin to imagine how many rooms there were. There had to be forty at least, and that wasn’t counting the equally large outbuildings. Some of those looked big enough by themselves to hide a hundred kidnapped girls. If she and Jayson had been planning to search this whole place room by room, Dylan and his friends would have been right to worry. Thankfully, they didn’t have to do that. They just had to follow her nose.
“Don’t worry about that,” Jayson said to the Russian teen. “The three of you need to be focused on pulling off the distraction we talked about. You do that, and Layla and I will find Anya.”
Mikhail took a deep breath and nodded, like he was absorbing some of Jayson’s confidence. Layla could easily believe that was possible. Jayson was in his element out here, leading their small team into danger. There’d been no hesitation or doubt in anything he’d said or done during the drive out here in the truck Victor had loaned them, or after they’d parked and moved the rest of the way in on foot. Even though she was the only one who could see in the dark, it was Jayson who had confidently led them through the last mile of woodland as they approached Zolnerov’s estate. He’d moved through the forest as if he could see as well as she could, and the teens had followed his lead.
Layla imagined this was what Jayson had been like back in the army, when he was doing things that were insanely dangerous and important. She understood now more than ever why it had been so devastating when his injuries had taken all of it away from him.
The change she’d seen in him over the past few days was dramatic. It wasn’t that he was a different person or anything, but there was a calm fire in his eyes that hadn’t been there when he’d been sitting behind a desk at the DCO or even standing on the weapons range. That was because Jayson’s life finally had a purpose again. Layla knew she was a big part of that purpose, but being in the field and doing the work he loved was critical, too.
Which was why Layla had spent almost as much time on the way out here worrying about their future in the DCO as she had wondering how they could possibly make it through this rescue mission alive and unhurt.
Would Dick and everyone else at the DCO really let them stay together as partners? Once Dick realized he wasn’t going to get what he wanted out of Jayson anymore, the deputy director would probably break them up just for the fun of it. Heck, once everyone figured out that Jayson hadn’t picked up any obvious hybrid abilities, she wasn’t sure anyone at the DCO would let him go back into the field with or without her for a partner. She loved Jayson more than she could put into words and the thought of him losing something so important to him—again—was more than she was willing to accept.
She was still thinking about that when a curious voice suddenly jarred her out of her scheming thoughts.
“How do you even shoot this gun?”
Layla turned her head to see Olek staring down at the Makarov in his hand, a confused look on his face. It was hard to believe that one simple question could carry so much weight, but with those few words, Olek reminded her once again how young these three guys were, and how much she and Jayson were asking of them.
Layla was about to tell Jayson this was never going to work and that they needed to come up with a new plan, but before she could open her mouth, Jayson stepped forward and gently took the battered Russian pistol out of the kid’s hand. Then he dropped to one knee and motioned for them to join him.