COME FOR THE ADVENTURE...STAY FOR THE ROMANCE!
A weretiger compound outside a remote Lithuanian village, eighty miles from the Polish border
It had to be tonight. Now, while the house was quiet. While the pride leader and his henchmen were out of town, and the human guards they’d left behind were sleeping.
Right now. Before someone came in and discovered what she’d done.
Tabbi closed her eyes and swallowed hard, guilt and fear clogging her throat. Her gaze skittered to the floor then away. Dear God, she could scarcely believe she’d really done it—but the guard had left her no other choice.
She eased off the bed, trying to ignore the complaints of her broken skin and bruised muscles. Weretigers healed rapidly, especially if they shifted into their tiger forms. But there was no time for that now. If she could just stay alive long enough, she’d be okay.
Wincing, she pulled on jeans and a t-shirt and secured her flyaway, waist-length hair in a ponytail. After she’d gathered the few personal items she owned, she removed a loose floorboard and retrieved the neck bags she’d hidden underneath. It had taken her six months of planning and scheming to make the bags and gather the needed supplies—and some critical information—but she and the children couldn’t travel without these minimal necessities.
The guard’s body lay cooling beside the bed. Tabbi had originally planned to overpower him when he locked her away at night, but his ever-rampant lust and cruelty had forced her to kill him. She cringed at the claw marks on his face, and the gaping wound in his neck, but his fate had been decided the moment the pain from his fists caused her to shift. At least this time, she’d escaped being raped.
She knelt and emptied his pockets but pulled out only crumpled money, coins, and rolls of hard candy.
Damn it all, where were the keys? He had them when he came in because he’d locked the door behind him. Struggling to control her mounting panic, she rolled him over and almost passed out from relief when she heard the metal-on-metal jingle. She unhooked the key chain from his belt loop, grabbed the bags, and crept to the door.
In her rush to get out of the room, she fumbled the keys and dropped them. The harsh clatter as they hit the floor echoed through the silent house, nearly stopping her heart.
She held her breath and listened. Nothing. Either she’d gotten lucky and hadn’t woken the guards—or they were lying in wait for her. Get a move on, ordered a little voice in her mind. It’s too late to back out now.
After a few minutes of trial and error, she found the right key, unlocked the door, and peered out into the deserted hallway. She prayed the dead man in her room had been the only one on duty tonight. If so, by the time the other guards discovered their absence, she and the children would be far away from here. If not...she shoved the thought away, locked the door behind her, and slipped into the shadows of the dimly lit corridor.
Tiptoeing down the hall to the third door on the right, she unlocked it and snuck inside. “Wake up, Cat,” she whispered at the first bed. “It’s time to leave.”
The four-year-old Lycan blinked and yawned. “I’s awake, Tabbi. Is we ’scaping now?”
“Yes, but you have to be quiet. We can’t make a sound, or the bad men will catch us.”
“I know. I be good. I no want more hittings.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” Tabbi forced back the bitter tears stinging her eyes and gave Cat a hug. No child should have to live like this. “You’re the best good girl I know. Get your clothes on now, while I wake the others.”
She set the bags on the floor, went to the next bed, and shook the sleeping wereleopard’s shoulder. Echo woke quickly, without complaint or noise. They all knew the score. If the guards caught them, they’d lock them up so tight, there wouldn’t be the slightest chance of escape.
Once the girls were awake and dressing, Tabbi dashed across the hall to get Zane. The fourteen-year-old half-human/half-weretiger opened his eyes with a jolt of fear Tabbi understood all too well. She put a finger to her lips. He nodded, threw back the covers, and climbed out of bed, fully dressed. He even had his sneakers on.
She blinked. “How did you know it would be tonight?” she whispered at a decibel too low for his human roommate to hear.
“Didn’t,” he said, equally quiet. “Been going to bed in my clothes every night. Just in case.”
Tabbi shook her head. Zane never failed to surprise her. He picked up his pillow, revealing a small cache of clothes, one thin spiral notebook, a squashed candy bar, and a battered paperback book—all he had to show for the eleven years he’d spent in this hellhole. Tabbi’s heart ached for him. Someday, she swore silently, she’d make sure he had car magazines, a baseball and glove, and all the other things teenage boys dreamed about. Maybe then, his nightmares would fade.
Her own collection of personal gear was little better than Zane’s, even though she’d been here over twice as long. But then, she hadn’t cared about possessions since she’d arrived at the compound at the age of twelve and Zakhar had sold her to a pervert for an hour—the first time. From that moment, all she’d dreamed about was revenge.
Stripping the case off his pillow, Zane scooped up his treasures and stuffed them inside it. Then together, they snuck into the hall. Tabbi felt like a traitor for leaving the others—whether they were Weres or humans—but she couldn’t take them all with her. So she was taking the most vulnerable three, the ones who needed escape as badly as she did. Someday soon she’d come back for the others and shut this place down for good.
After she’d relocked the door, she and Zane crossed to the girls’ room. Once inside, she gave a neck bag to each of them and slipped the fourth over her own head. She heard a soft giggle and glanced down. Echo was helping Cat fasten her sneakers and had managed to coax a laugh out of the young werewolf, despite the fear and adrenalin clogging the air.
At twenty-eight, Echo would be coming into her first heat in less than two years. Yet in spite of the abuse heaped on her since childhood, she’d remained remarkably sweet and shy. Tabbi refused to let the girl go through what she had when she’d turned thirty.
No. She couldn’t afford to let those memories in. Not now. She had to be strong. The others were counting on her to get them out of this living hell. Locking her pain, fear, and anger back in its cage in a far, dark corner of her mind, she concentrated on what came next.
“Now, we go downstairs to Zakhar’s office. I think the guards are asleep, but just in case they aren’t, try not to make any noise.”
Zane put a hand on her arm. “There’s always at least one on duty, sometimes two.”
“I think tonight there was only the one, and he’s no longer a problem.”
He studied her battered face a moment then nodded, a grim smile flickering at the corners of his mouth. “Good.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it good, but it was necessary.”
She picked up Cat and led the way out the door. Relocking it, she headed downstairs to the main floor. At the door of Zakhar’s office, she tried the guard’s keys. None of them fit.
God, no! They had to get in. Everything depended on it. Fighting renewed panic, she tried each key again, slowly, though every second felt like an hour. They were completely exposed out here with no way to prevent their recapture. Her heart racing, she wiped the sweat out of her eyes and struggled to force a key into the keyhole with fingers that refused to stop shaking.
“Let me.” Zane pulled a straightened paperclip from his pocket and went to work on the lock. Forty-five seconds later, the door clicked open.
“Where did you learn to do that?” she whispered as she shut and locked it behind them.
“I’ve been practicing on our door upstairs. In case you didn’t come through, I was going to see what I could do.” When she stared at him, he shrugged. “What?”
She put Cat down and pulled Zane into a hug. “You’re a genius. I’m so very proud of you.”
He blushed and ducked his head, but not before she’d caught a glimpse of his ear-to-ear grin.
Looking around at her three charges, she wondered how the hell she’d get them from Lithuania to France and over the channel into England. She had to admit she had only a vague plan. There were just too many unknowns. Still, whatever happened to them out on the road could hardly be worse than what was happening to them in here.
Thank God, they all spoke fluent English and would likely be taken as tourists, at least in Western Europe. Except for Cat, of course, who had trouble pronouncing some of the words. Still, the little girl’s butchered language would probably be misinterpreted as a toddler’s natural progression.
Zane touched Tabbi’s shoulder. “Now what?”
“Now, we rob the safe.”
“There’s a key in the desk.”
“How do you know that?”
She shook her head. “You don’t want to know.”
No way would she admit how Zakhar had used her.
The drawers of his solid mahogany desk were locked tight. The guard’s keys were no use to her here, nor had she expected them to be. Crawling under the desk, she retrieved a key from its hook on the underside. A key she’d seen there on the night—no! She refused to darken her mind by thinking about what a sick bastard Zakhar was.
She got to her feet, unlocked the middle drawer, and felt around inside for the special key she’d seen the pride leader toss in it that night before he’d started on her. Her fingers brushed it, curled around the ornate handle, and pulled it free. The shaft was thin, nearly four inches long, and had small slots along its length that held microchips embedded with special codes. It looked much like the key to Zakhar’s Maserati, though it was longer and thinner.
Swinging a painting away from the wall to reveal the safe, she inserted the key into a barely visible slot near the bottom edge. Zakhar thought he was so clever, sticking a fake dial on the safe. After one spin, any safecracker worthy of the title would know the dial was bogus and start checking around for a digital key. It might’ve worked on her, though, if Zakhar hadn’t gotten careless—which shouldn’t really have surprised her, given he thought all women were brain-dead.
Ignoring any miscellaneous documents, she took all the cash and gemstones from the safe—money she and the others had generated by suffering at the hands of countless men—and stuffed it into her bag. Just as she tossed the key back in the drawer, someone rattled the doorknob. They all froze. Hardly daring to breathe, Tabbi signaled for quiet, but it wasn’t necessary. No one made a sound.
“Oleg?” barked a harsh voice. The doorknob rattled a second time. “Is that you in there? You damn fool, if you’re messing with the females again, there’ll be hell to pay.”
A scratching sound was followed by a muttered curse. Tabbi’s heart pounded in her ears so loudly she was surprised the man didn’t hear it.
“Hell, there isn’t a key on this damn ring that’ll fit this.” He pounded on the door. “If I have to, I’ll get the master pass key after I finish my rounds, so you’d better be out of there and doing your job when I get back.”
His footsteps tramped away down the hall and upstairs. If he went into her room—Oh, God, they were running out of time.
“We have to go,” she whispered. “Look around for a hidden button somewhere on the wall by the bookcase. I know Zakhar has an escape route of some kind. I once saw him enter through a hidden panel in that wall. There has to be a latch on this side, too.”
While they searched, Tabbi booted up Zakhar’s computer and tapped in a series of keystrokes that would trigger a virus she’d planted weeks ago—one she created with what she’d learned when Zakhar hired a geek to teach her to hack into banks and steal money for him electronically.
“What are you doing?” Zane whispered.
She glanced over her shoulder and checked that Cat and Echo were absorbed in hunting for the button. Zane needed to know this, though, in case anything happened to her.
“I’m activating a virus that will destroy the system and hopefully buy us some time—among other things. If something goes wrong and I don’t make it, there’s information you’ll need in my bag. Promise me you’ll take care of the others.”
He hugged her and nodded.
She patted his shoulder. “Don’t watch me. Look for the button that will get us out of here.”
It was Echo who found it, hidden behind a book in the bookcase. She touched Tabbi’s arm to get her attention, pushed the button, and grinned as the door slid open.
With a tight smile, Tabbi shut down the computer. Within ninety seconds after the next person booted it up, the pride would get a very unpleasant surprise. Satisfied, she headed for the secret door. Beyond the threshold, a flight of stairs descended into black nothingness.
“I think this comes out at the silo, although I’m not sure. But wherever it goes, it’s our only way out.”
The pitch-black tunnel made even Were eyes useless, and she hadn’t thought to steal a flashlight. Too late now.
She took one of Cat’s hands, told Echo to take Cat’s other one, and Zane to grab a hold of Echo’s. With her free hand on the wall as a guide, she led them through the tunnel. The corridor seemed to go on forever. Cat grew tired and began to whimper. Tabbi hauled the child into her arms and guided Echo’s hand to the waistband of her jeans.
“Hold onto it,” she said and kept walking.
Finally, they came to another staircase. At the top, they hit a blank wall. Tabbi gave Cat to Echo and ran both hands over the wall until she touched a button. When she pushed it, a door slid open. They piled out into a room filled with thirty-kilo bags of grain. Zane cursed as he tripped over one and landed in a heap on the floor.
“English,” Tabbi ordered. “It’s vital you speak only in English from here on out, especially when you swear.”
“Where is we?” Cat asked.
“We’re in the silo, kitten.” Zane scooted over to the window and peered out. “Something’s happening over at the house. People are running around outside. I can see the light from their flashlights.”
Tabbi joined him at the window. “I’d say they’ve discovered the guard’s dead and the four of us are missing. If they’re searching the yard, either they don’t know about the tunnel, or don’t realize we used it.”
She glanced at Echo, who leaned against the wall, holding Cat. “You did put the book back after you pushed the button, didn’t you?”
“Of course. What do we do now?”
Zane snorted. “We get out of here, that’s what. I know Zakhar keeps some cars and stuff in the garage here. I was looking out my window once and saw him drive in. I just didn’t know where he went from here.”
Tabbi nodded. “I saw him, too. More than once.”
“I bet the scumbag kept the cars out here in case of a raid, so he could get away and leave everyone else to get caught.” He started for the door then hesitated. “They’ll hear us drive off. You think we can outrun them?”
She ruffled the boy’s hair. “They’re not going to hear us. We’ll push the car to the road before we start it. It’s only a half a mile from here, but it’s nearly three quarters of a mile from the house.”
“Won’t we need the keys?” Echo asked.
“If Zakhar kept cars here so he could make a fast getaway, the keys are probably in them. Or at least somewhere nearby.” Tabbi took Cat and headed for the garage.
“And if they aren’t,” she added, winking at Zane, “I bet I know someone who can hotwire one.”
The estate of Drake Gatos, near Radlett, England
Drake glared at his computer monitor. Quicken is not responding. “What the bloody hell does that mean? It’s a goddamn software program, for Christ’s sake. I don’t need it to talk to me. I just need it to work.”
Gray sauntered into the study. “What are you bitching about now?”
Drake beckoned him over and waved a hand at the screen. “Look at this shit.”
“You and that computer. I swear, you two are worse than an old married couple. Maybe I should recycle both of you and get new models.”
“That’s a hell of a way for a second-in-command to speak to his pride leader.”
“I didn’t realize I was talking to my pride leader. I thought I was talking to my friend. What the hell’s eating you lately? You’ve been a pain in the ass ever since we got back from rescuing Chase in Scotland.” Gray cocked his head and studied him. “You’re not upset she chose Roman instead of you, are you?”
“No.” He shoved away from his desk and paced. “Chase wasn’t for me, Gray. As much as I would’ve liked a chance with her, fate picked her for Roman.”
“Then what is it?”
“I’m...not worried, exactly. More unsettled.”
Drake sighed. “About the man we let escape in Scotland.”
“Jesus, boss. You still got your panties in a twist over that? What is it with you? It’s like you’ve gone hyper territorial all of a sudden.” Gray threw up his hands. “What’s the big effing deal? Of the four guys from that pride who came after Chase, Roman took out Zakhar, and we got two of his men. So what if one lone weretiger got away? The guy’s hotfooting it back to Lithuania with his tail between his legs.” He snorted. “Literally. He’s not coming back to hassle us.”
Drake shot him a glare, his canines lengthening momentarily. “And you know this, how?”
“Logical thinking.” Gray held up one hand and ticked off points on his fingers. “Chase has been claimed by Roman. Hell, she even married him in a human-type ceremony. On top of that, she wrote an ironclad will leaving her money to Roman, or to her old partner if something happens to both of them. There’s no way anyone from her father’s old pride can get to the thirteen-mil in her trust fund. Therefore, with both Chase and her money out of reach, we don’t have anything her old pride wants.”
“What’s to stop one of them from trying to kill Roman so he can mate Chase when she’s widowed?”
“You’re joking, right? Didn’t you see the way he took out Zakhar? I knew Roman was half Vampire, but—Jesus.” Gray shuddered. “He drained every drop of blood from that cat’s body. Shit, I nearly pissed myself, and I like Roman.”
“Can you blame him?”
“Hell, no! The son of a bitch had his woman. I’d have killed the bastard, too, though I might’ve used a less dramatic method. But I can only imagine how shitting terrified the guy who escaped is. When he gets back and tells the rest of the pride, they’ll think twice before coming to England, looking for trouble. Believe me.”
Drake rubbed his hands over his face and sighed. His weretiger pride now included not only Chase, an American human/weretiger half-breed, but also her new mate, Roman, a half-Lycan Vampire. And damn it, I haven’t had a moment’s peace since she stepped off the frigging plane in England. Life as a weretiger pride leader was hard enough without all these added complications.
Still, Gray did have a valid point. With Chase officially mated, there was no reason for Zakhar’s pride to come looking for trouble. And as quickly as his men had abandoned him during the fight, it was unlikely they’d try to avenge him.
“I certainly hope you’re right.” He glanced over to see Gray grinning at the computer screen. “What now?”
Gray patted the monitor. “As much as I’ve enjoyed this little chat, I think your break time’s over. Quicken’s responding again, so I’ll leave you to your paperwork.”
“Thanks a lot, shithead.” Drake managed to stifle his grin, though his lips still twitched. “You’d better be right about Zakhar’s pride.”
“Trust me. Since we put the fear of God in them, they’ll behave themselves.”
“You hope,” Drake muttered as he went back to his bookkeeping. Now if he could only put the fear of God in this stupid computer.
Poland, approaching the Polish/German Border
The last rays of the sun were fading as Tabbi slowed Zakhar’s black, S-Class Mercedes and pulled off the paved road onto a small dirt lane. She had no idea where the new road led, but it looked promising. As she drove, she searched both sides of the narrow dirt strip, looking for—there. That little copse of trees and underbrush should do just fine.
She came almost to a stop, turned the wheel, and eased the car into the underbrush, edging it forward until the brake lights reflected on the leaves of the vine-like foliage closing in behind her. Exhausted, she cut the engine, dropped the keys on the floor, and rested her head on the seat back, giving into a yawn that caught her unawares.
It had been a long four days.
They’d crossed into Poland at Trakiszki. At first, Tabbi was hesitant to drive the car across the border, afraid that without passports or identification they’d be arrested. Then Zane had come up with a brilliant idea. He and Echo stripped, shifted, and raced by the border guards as a tiger and leopard. The guards deserted their posts and ran after them, trying to round up what they apparently thought were escaping zoo animals.
Once the crossing was clear of guards, Tabbi drove the car through.
After leading the locals on a merry chase, Zane and Echo pranced up to where she waited on the shoulder of the road, twenty miles from the border. They’d been more than a little pleased with themselves—and rightly so.
That had been the easy part. The hard part had been avoiding the main highways and finding her way across Poland on the small back roads, such as there were. The maneuvering had added an extra two days to their trip.
She rubbed her churning stomach, trying to shake off the stress of the journey. Terrified they’d be stopped, arrested, and taken back to Lithuania and Zakhar, she hadn’t relaxed since the night she’d killed the guard. By now, the other guards must have notified the authorities. In the age of modern computers, the alert would’ve gone out to every nation in Europe. So she was bound to be stopped at the German border.
Lithuania wasn’t part of the EU, so with Lithuanian plates on the car, she wouldn’t just be waved through.
They’d been lucky so far, but it couldn’t last. If only she could get to a computer, she could hack into Interpol and cancel any alerts or warrants. But she had no idea where to find an accessible terminal without heading for a major city and exposing the four of them to more danger. She’d have to find another way.
She doubted Zane’s ploy would work to get them across into Germany. The Germans were far too organized and well trained. She raked her fingers through her hair in frustration and conceded to defeat. As much as she hated the idea, it was time to abandon the car.
Zane was asleep in the passenger seat beside her. Echo and Cat were conked out in the back. She wished she could join them in slumber, but night was fast approaching and they needed to hurry.
She shook Zane’s shoulder then did the same to the girls. “Wake up, guys. It’s time to go.”
“Where are we?” he asked.
“About thirty kilometers from the German border.”
“We can’t take the car across, can we?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, man,” he grumbled. “I’m really going to miss these wheels.”
“I’s hungy, Tabbi,” Cat said with a yawn. “I want Frosted Flakes.”
“Sorry, sweetheart, you’ll have to make do with sandwiches and fruit,” she said, handing out the food she’d purchased in the last village they’d passed through.
“Can I have Frosted Flakes next day?”
“I don’t know, baby. I don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow. But you can have them once we get where we’re going. I promise.”
She popped the trunk and climbed out of the car. Once she’d removed the neck bags and closed the trunk lid, she walked to the little dirt road to make sure the car couldn’t be seen. Satisfied, she went back for the others.
“We need to get across the border, but because I’m pretty sure the car’s been reported stolen, we can’t drive. Before we leave, let’s use the rags I bought and wipe down the car—inside and out. No fingerprints, no DNA.”
Zane stared at her. “So we’re just going to walk across the border?”
“Yes, but I don’t think we should do it as humans.”
“You want us to shift?” Echo asked in wonder. “What if we’re seen in animal form?”
“We’ll try to avoid that. But if it happens, it’s better for the humans to see four animals crossing the border than four people. They won’t try to arrest the animals.”
Zane snorted. “No, they’ll just think we’re after their livestock and shoot us.”
“I doubt that. Most likely, they’ll figure we’ve escaped from some zoo, so they’ll try to catch us. Once we’re over the border, we can shift back and continue our journey as humans.”
“But we be necked,” Cat pointed out.
Tabbi smiled. “No, sweetie. We won’t be naked. We’ll put our clothes in these bags and put the bags around our necks so we can carry them as animals. Here, take off your clothes and shift, and I’ll show you.”
When Cat had shifted to her wolf form, Tabbi put her clothes in the bag and draped it around the child’s neck, adjusting it for a comfortable fit. Then she scratched her behind her ears and kissed her muzzle.
“Just like that. See?”
Cat nodded her furry, gray head.
Zane watched as Echo shifted into a sleek leopard beside him. “We’d move a lot faster if we stayed in our animal forms,” he said. “It’ll be a long walk to France as humans.”
“I know. I’ve considered that, along with the fact the authorities probably have our human descriptions.” She rubbed at the tension in the back of her neck and sighed. “I was thinking we might steal another car, but that could be dangerous in Germany. The German police are very sophisticated, and I doubt we’d get very far.”
Zane shifted into a tiger. Tabbi draped his bag over his neck then did the same for Echo. “We’ll go as far as we can as animals, but we’ll have to travel at night and sleep during the day. Keep close together, and whatever you do, don’t lose your bags.”
She’d just taken off her clothes when Zane suddenly turned back into a human.
“What is it?” she asked.
“What happens if one of us gets caught?”
“If one of you gets caught, whether as a human or an animal, stay calm and wait for me to rescue you.” Tabbi looked each one in the eye. “I will come for you. Understand?”
They all nodded.
“You’re not going back,” she told them. “I don’t care what I have to do or who I have to kill, I promise you, none of you are going back to that hell.”
As she stuffed her clothes in her bag and hung it around her neck, she said a silent prayer of thanks that none of them had noticed she hadn’t included herself in that statement. Because she was going back, and when she did, she’d avenge them all.