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The darkest hour, p.39
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       The Darkest Hour, p.39

         Part #1 of KGI series by Maya Banks
 
Page 39

 

  For several minutes, she leaned her forehead against the wood and sucked in painful, sharp breaths. Her broken arm sagged against her. It hurt with each movement, and she wanted to scream in pain and frustration.

  Using the dock for support, she edged along the side until finally she was only ankle-deep in water. Each step took a ridiculous amount of will. Animal sounds of pain whispered past her lips. She hadn’t realized it until the sounds grew louder.

  She stopped at the bottom of the incline and looked up, straining to see in the darkness. This wasn’t Sam’s house, and there wasn’t a single light on, inside or outside, to suggest anyone was home.

  As she moved up the incline, her legs buckled and she went to her knees. Nausea rose sharp, swelling hard in her stomach until she gagged and heaved. Struggling to keep what little composure she had left, she planted her fist into the dirt and forced herself back to her feet.

  She went to the back door and pounded with her uninjured hand. After a long wait, silence still abounded. No lights came on.

  Giving up on that avenue, she trudged around the side of the house to the front door. She rang the bell and jiggled the handle. At this point she didn’t care if anyone was home or not. She just needed a phone and a safe place to hide.

  When the lock didn’t budge and no one came to answer, she turned around, her eyes searching the dark. Mailbox. At least it would tell her where she was.

  As fast as she was able, she walked to the end of the short driveway and peered at the side of the mailbox. Her heart accelerated. If the numbers were accurate, these were Sam’s neighbors. His house was a half mile down the road.

  With renewed vigor, she nearly ran down the shoddily paved road. Rocks and pieces of asphalt pierced the soles of her feet, but she ignored the discomfort. Next to the agony shooting down her arm, the rest was negligible.

  When she reached Sam’s mailbox, she nearly fainted on the spot. For a moment she leaned her hand on the metal box and gasped for breath. Tears stung her eyelids, and she closed her eyes as she struggled to find the strength to go on.

  Lights were on in every room, it seemed. Were they home? She hurried to the front door and nearly wept in relief when she found it open.

  “Sam! Garrett!” she yelled as she slammed the door shut.

  Silence greeted her exclamation.

  She went from room to room but found them empty. She had no idea how long it had been since she and Ethan had been forced off the road. Sam and Garrett were probably with him. Or looking for her.

  Fear swamped her as she realized the men who’d hit them had obviously known where she and Ethan were. They’d followed them to Sam’s and waited for them to leave. Which meant they could be back.

  Panic billowing through her like a flash fire, she ran from room to room, turning off every light until the entire house was plunged into darkness.

  A phone. She needed a phone.

  In the kitchen she yanked the cordless phone off the charger and headed for the basement. There were lots of places she could hide that would buy her time if the men trying to kill her did come back.

  When she found the darkest, smallest corner in the tiny closet that housed the hot water heater, she sank to the floor and dialed 911.

  CHAPTER 38

  THEY’D been through all the possible scenarios. Ethan, Sam and Garrett had coordinated with the local and state authorities, and then they’d broken away to fill the cracks. If there was anything at all the police were missing, the Kellys would find it.

  The call came in an hour before dawn. An abandoned SUV with the front end caved in parked off one of the gravel roads off 232.

  They converged on it from all directions, but it was obvious no one had been in it for a good while. The engine was completely cold, the doors open, and footprints led away into the woods.

  Ethan swore and pounded his fist into the side of the truck. Garrett gripped his hand and pulled him away.

  “Save it, man. Rachel needs you. ”

  “It’s time to go hunting,” Sam murmured as he bent and shone his flashlight at the mishmash of footprints. “See this one? It’s smaller than the others. I think she got away from them. They lead into the woods. ”

  “What you got?” Sean asked as he approached after his survey of the area.

  Sam pointed and related his theory. Sean nodded.

  “I’ll have my men spread out. ” He looked up at Ethan and eyed him with a steady gaze. “We won’t give up until we find her. ”

  Ethan nodded. “Thank you. ”

  The brothers followed the footprints into the woods. At times they lost the trail, when the way became too rocky to register the imprint of a shoe. Then they’d pick it up several yards later. About a quarter mile from the SUV, they found a tennis shoe lying among the leaves and dirt.

  Adrenaline surged in Ethan’s veins. “It’s Rachel’s,” he said hoarsely. He scraped the dirt from the sides and the sole with shaking hands. It was definitely hers. His mom had bought them on one of her many shopping trips for Rachel.

  “She kept going,” Garrett said.

  Sam directed the flashlight beam along the path where the imprint of one tennis shoe and one bare foot led farther into the woods.

  “Atta girl,” Sam murmured.

  They hurried forward, keeping the flashlights aimed at the ground as they followed the footprints.

  Eventually they came to a stop at a riverbank. The soil was disturbed like someone had fallen, and the incline was eaten away.

  Ethan slid down the embankment to study the area closer to the river’s edge. There were distinct footprints, and closer to the overhang, there was a hollowed-out area that looked very much like someone had huddled there.

  Rachel’s prints ended here, but the larger boot prints circled and overlapped before finally paralleling the shore west.

  His brothers scanned the area beside him with frowns on their faces.

  “What do you make of it, Sam?” Garrett asked.

  Sam stared at Ethan, and it infuriated him that Sam was holding back.

  “Just say it,” Ethan bit out. “We’re wasting time. ”

  “There are two possibilities,” Sam said slowly. “The smaller prints lead here and none lead away. The boot prints arrive here and they leave again in the other direction. Either Rachel lost them here or they caught up to her here and she didn’t leave on her own. ”

  Ethan sucked in his breath. He might be looking at where Rachel had died. He shook his head. Fuck no. He refused to believe that. If Rachel got away the first time, she could do it again. She was smart, and she was a fighter.

  Garrett turned to survey the river.

  “She could have gone into the water. She’s listened in on enough of our powwows to have picked up any number of evasion tactics. Hell, we used to sit around drinking beer and telling combat stories. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that she hit the water and stayed there so she wouldn’t leave tracks. ”

  Excitement curled in Ethan’s stomach. He had to believe that. The alternative didn’t bear thinking about.

  “So we split up,” Sam said. “I’ll go upriver. You two head down. If she headed downriver, she would have hit the lake. I’ll radio Sean and have a search party scour the riverbanks upriver and also search the lake for any sign of her. If she’s out here, we’ll find her. ”

  Their radios crackled, and Sean’s voice bled into the night air.

  “Sam, you read me?”

  Sam picked up his radio. Ethan gripped his, but held back the urge to demand if Sean had news.

  “Yeah, I read you, go ahead,” Sam replied.

  “We just got a 911 call . . . from your house. Woman. Terrified. Babbling about men trying to kill her. Dispatch didn’t get her name before the line went dead, but I’m betting it’s Rachel. I’m on my way over now. ”

  No longer able to keep silent, Ethan keyed the mic and stuck the radio to hi
s mouth.

  “We’re on our way. ”

  Before his brothers could react, Ethan whirled and sprinted back the way they’d come. His brothers followed close behind. They crashed through underbrush like a herd of elephants. Limbs and bushes slapped Ethan in the face, but he batted them aside and kept going.

  When they got back to the wrecked SUV, there was no sign of Sean. Ethan wasn’t waiting around. He jumped into Sam’s truck and cranked the engine. He was already backing down the trail when his brothers jumped into the backseat.

  “Son of a bitch, Ethan, are you trying to kill us?” Garrett yelled.

  Sam leaned up over the front seat, and Ethan heard the click of a gun clip. “Calm your ass down and get us there in one piece. We won’t do Rachel any good if we’re wrapped around another goddamn tree. ”

  “How the hell did she get back to your house?” Ethan demanded as he careened back onto the highway. “We found her footprints on the riverbank. They ended there. ”

  “I’d say our girl got smart and headed downriver to the lake,” Garrett said with a note of pride.

  Ethan gripped the steering wheel and ignored the pounding in his head. Sean had slapped a haphazard bandage over his brow to stop the bleeding, and it currently felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to his skull.

  They made the drive in ten minutes, and probably set a new land speed record in the process. Ethan turned into the driveway damn near on two wheels and skidded to a halt, throwing gravel in all directions.

  Sam opened his door and stumbled out. “Shit. House is completely dark. When we left after Sean called about your accident, we were in a hurry and damn near every light in the house was on. ”

  Garrett slapped a Glock in against Ethan’s stomach and gripped a second one in his hand as they hurried toward the front door.

  “We do this smart,” Sam warned. “No one goes in like a dumbass and gets himself shot. For all we know this is one big trap and those assholes are lying in wait. They might have even forced Rachel to make the call if they caught up to her and she didn’t go into the water like we thought. ”

  “Cut the chitchat and let’s go,” Ethan seethed. “I get it. We go in and clear the house. ”

  “I’ll go around back,” Garrett said. “Wait fifteen seconds and we’ll go in together. Stay low and quiet until we know what the fuck we’re dealing with. ”

  Sam held a finger to his lips then gestured for Ethan to move in as Garrett disappeared around the side of the house.

  After what seemed like an interminable wait, Sam held up three fingers then reduced to two and finally one. Ethan reached for the knob and quietly turned it before easing the door open.

  He went in, gun up, his eyes scanning the dark interior. Sam slipped in beside him and went to the left, leaving the right to Ethan.

  Methodically they worked their way through the upper level. After the last bedroom had been searched, they met in the living room and crept toward the basement.

  Ethan’s pulse was about to thump out of his skin. He could feel every heartbeat. Each breath sounded like an explosion in the quiet room.

  What the fuck?

  He looked up at his brothers, who were positioned at two other points in the basement.

  Nothing. No Rachel. No one.

  A light sound came from the far corner. Light, almost like a small animal brushing against something.

  The men tensed. Sam held up a finger to his lips and raised his gun with the other. He made a swinging motion for Ethan and Garrett to converge with him.

  They crept, guns up, toward the noise. Ethan was closest to the light switch. He waited for Garrett to motion beside him and then he flipped the switch on.

  Light flooded the room. To Ethan’s shock, Rachel was huddled in the corner, behind the hot water heater, wet, barefoot and bedraggled. She threw up her arm to shield herself from the sudden light even as she scooted farther into the corner.

  Relief staggered Ethan. His knees gave out and he damn near hit the floor. He shoved the pistol into his waistband and bolted toward her. Garrett beat him there and dropped to his knees in front of her.

  “Rachel,” Ethan called hoarsely.

  He stopped behind Garrett and stared in utter shock. Oh God, he couldn’t take much more of this. How much longer would he live in fear of losing her?

  “Ethan?” she called weakly. “He’s here? I thought . . . I wasn’t sure how badly he was hurt in the wreck. ”

  “He’s here, sweet pea,” Garrett soothed.

  He moved to the side so Ethan could crowd in beside him. Ethan stared, too overwhelmed to say anything. He knew if he tried, he’d just break down and cry like a baby.

  She glanced nervously up at him and then her gaze skittered sideways. He swallowed. The caution was there. She was remembering what had happened before the accident. Before she’d been terrorized. His throat ached so damn bad.

  “Are you okay?” Garrett asked. As if realizing he was shouting, he lowered his voice. “What the hell happened, sweet pea?”

  She shifted, and a gasp of pain escaped in a loud rush. She tried to lift the arm that was clutched against her chest, and it was then that Ethan saw how swollen and misshapen it was.

 
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