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"Yes, Joss, for the last time, I'll be there."
Not that he wanted to be. Conlan kicked back in his chair and propped his feet on the scarred top of his desk. "I said I'd come, and I will. Heck, I even put on a clean shirt."
He pinched the bridge of his nose and grimaced as he cradled the phone against his ear. Although Joss was his closest friend, she was married to Rafferty O'Day, his boss. All three of them knew that the only reason Conlan had a job at all was because Rafferty didn't like to refuse his wife anything.
Conlan owed Joss big-time and would do anything in the world for her, including having dinner with her vampire husband and his relatives. That didn't mean he looked forward to it. He'd rather stay in his quarters out at the edge of the estate with a bottle of scotch and a good book. Knowing Rafferty wasn't any happier about the evening ahead was the sole bright spot in the whole affair. With that happy thought, Conlan listened impatiently as Joss described the menu and pretended he actually cared.
If he didn't know better, he would've thought Joss was actually nervous. Hell, he'd seen her face down stone-cold killers without blinking an eye, but something about this dinner party definitely had her spooked. Probably something to do with Rafferty's distant relatives, who'd arrived right before dawn, given they were wealthy purebred vampires while Joss's veins held the mixed blood of chancellors.
Her human half only made her stronger, but they wouldn't see it that way. As a chancellor, Joss had all the power of a vampire and came equipped with fangs. But just like Conlan himself, she didn't need blood to live and could move about freely in sunlight.
The bottom line was that if Joss needed to babble, the least Conlan could do was hear her out. In desperate need of some fresh air, Conlan dropped his feet back down to the ground and headed for the door while she continued to ramble on.
As soon as he stepped out onto the covered porch, he froze. What the hell was that? He lowered the phone and closed his eyes, listening hard. Therehe heard it again.
Shots fired. Lots of them, all coming from outside the electrified fence that encircled the entire estate. They weren't expecting any new arrivals today, but that didn't mean much. Rafferty maintained an open-door policy when it came to anyone who deserved a fresh start in life.
Besides, if trouble was headed this way, Conlan needed to put a halt to it before it got as far as the gate. His primary duty was to protect those whom Rafferty had already claimed as clan.
"Joss, I hear gunfire. I've gotta go."
He disconnected the call before she could do more than sputter. Back in the office, he grabbed his rifle, a box of ammunition and three extra clips for his side-arm. Meanwhile, he radioed his assistant, who was out patrolling the fence.
"Finn, get your butt back here and call for reinforcements. We've got a firefight going on. Sounds like it's coming from outside the gate, maybe half a mile down the valley. I'm heading out to investigate." He stopped to listen again. "One more thing. When you catch up, don't do Rafferty any favors by shooting my ass. I'll aim for being on the east side, but no guarantees."
On his way out the door, he hit the button to open the gate and programmed it to close behind him. The gunfire might be a distraction to draw him out, and he wasn't about to leave the estate vulnerable to invasion.
As he took off down the road, still barking orders to his men over an open channel, he realized he'd found one hell of an alibi for skipping out on Joss's dinner party. With luck, eventually she'd forgive him.
Conlan paused to catch his breath and listen as another volley of gunfire rang out. Just ahead, the road wound through a narrow valley between rocky hillsides that were covered in scrub bushes and trees. The dirt road was the only way through it, making it the perfect spot to stage an ambush. From the sound of things, several shooters were scattered along the ridges, with only intermittent return fire coming from the valley floor. He couldn't help wondering who posed the most dangerthe men on the high ground or the poor bastard pinned down on the road?
Only one way to find out. Conlan slowed down to consider the best approach. If he charged straight ahead, he might as well paint a target on his chest. The shots were only sporadic now, the shooters probably hoping to keep their mark stationary until the guy ran out of ammunition.
Which meant Conlan needed to haul ass before it was too late. Circling around the base of the first hill, he scanned the area for any signs of the shooters. He spotted the first one sprawled on the ground on the ridge above. Dressed in camouflage, the guy would've been almost invisible if he hadn't happened to move just as Conlan looked in his direction.
One shot could take him out, but Conlan wouldn't risk killing the wrong man. Instead, he started up the hillside, moving slowly to avoid drawing attention to himself. He got within ten yards before his target realized he was no longer alone.
Conlan kept the shooter's head firmly centered in his crosshairs. "Drop your weapon."
The guy didn't hesitate. Rolling onto his back, he came up firing. Conlan dived to the side and got off three shots in rapid succession. The guy's body jerked and twitched as each of the bullets found its mark. So much for a stealthy approach.
Ignoring the corpse, Conlan inched forward to the crest of the hill. Judging from the quality of the guy's equipment, he'd been a mercenary, and a well-paid one at that. Somebody with big bucks had financed this attack. Conlan picked up the man's gun and waved it in the air briefly, doing his best to stay out of sight. With luck, the rest of the mercs would think it was their buddy signaling that all was well.
Before they figured out differently, he grabbed the dead man's com device and moved farther south using the ridge for cover. A short distance away, he settled in behind a cluster of boulders and used the scope on his rifle to reconnoiter.
It wasn't hard to choose sides, not when half a dozen heavily armed men had their guns aimed at the lone woman and two children huddled underneath the transport on the road below. Son of a bitch, this is about to get ugly.
Conlan ducked down to check on the ETA of his men. "Finn, where the hell are you?"
Thanks to the way the hills screwed with reception, his assistant's voice kept breaking up. Conlan made out what sounded like five minutes, but he couldn't be sure. It didn't matter. The shooters had gotten impatient and cut loose with another barrage of heavy fire.
A voice rang out from somewhere across the valley. "Hey, lady, do the smart thing and lay down your weapon and surrender. Our patience is wearing thin.
You wouldn't want something to happen to those cute little girls."
Furious that they'd threaten children, Conlan answered for her. He picked out the closest target and squeezed the trigger twice. The first bullet slammed into the merc's shoulder and the second hit him in the side, spinning him around before he crumpled to the ground. Good. One more down, at least five more to go, although he wasn't normally the type to keep score. After squeezing off another volley, Conlan crested the top of the ridge and took off slip-sliding down the hillside.
The enemy's return fire showered him with leaves and branches as he dived behind a pair of trees. At least he was drawing the fire toward himself and away from the kids, not that he much liked being a target. In fact, it pissed him off, big-time. One way or another, the bastards would pay.
He got off a lucky shot when another of the enemy made the mistake of standing up to get a bead on Con-lan's hiding spot. A splotch of red blossomed on the guy's upper leg and his scream of fury and pain echoed through the valley. Three down. Conlan fired another two rounds and improved the odds even more.
The com unit he'd captured crackled to life. "Retreat! Grab the wounded! Retreat!"
Hoping like hell it wasn't a ruse to draw him out, Conlan ran for the valley floor, still raking the hilltops with bursts of fire as he ran.
"Don't shoot! I'm coming in!" he yelled as he came up even with transport, still hoping to capture one of the mercs before they made their escape.
The woman shrieked out a warning as a helicopter rose up over the hill to the west, coming straight for them. Machine-gun fire kicked up twin lines of dust straight toward Conlan and the transport. He ducked behind the vehicle and emptied his rifle as the helicopter passed overhead, taking grim satisfaction when the gunner dived back inside to avoid getting hit. Finally, the helicopter banked sharply away and disappeared over the hills to the south.
He hoped like hell they wouldn't be back anytime soon. As the din of the rotors faded, Conlan picked up the sound of transports coming his way from the direction of the estate. Good, reinforcements were but seconds away. Meanwhile, he headed back to deal with the woman and her two kids. There was only one reason they'd be out here in the middle of nowhere: she was hoping Rafferty would offer them refuge.
Maybe he would, but the vampire wouldn't much appreciate her showing up on his doorstep with a pack of armed killers hot on her trail. That wasn't how this was supposed to work. The woman might not know it, but she was about to get an earful.
He cautiously approached the transport. "Lady, lay down your gun and hold up your hands."
No answer, just the sound of two children whimpering in fear. A sick feeling settled in his stomach. Had the mercs hit their target after all?
"Kids, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm here to help."
He kept his weapon ready as he rounded the front of the transport. As soon as he did, he bit back the urge to curse. The two kids, both girls, remained huddled under the transport, their faces ghostly pale. Fine, he'd deal with them in a minute. Priority one had to be the woman sprawled facedown in the dust in a spreading pool of blood.
He propped his rifle against the transport and pulled out his phone, punching in Seamus Fitzhugh's number.
"Doc, I'm going to be heading toward you with a gunshot victim and two traumatized kids. Not sure how serious the wound is yet, but judging by the blood pool, it's bad. Thought you'd want a heads-up."
He disconnected the call and knelt in the dirt next to the woman, who'd taken a hit in her upper right shoulder. She was still breathing, although she wouldn't be for long if he didn't stop the bleeding. Lacking anything else to use, he unbuttoned his shirt and wadded it up to use as a makeshift bandage on the exit wound.
"Lady, this is going to hurt like hell."
Moving as carefully as he could, he sacrificed his T-shirt next, lifting her up far enough to work the thick pad of soft cotton underneath her to put pressure on the entry wound. It would have to do until Finn arrived.
Having done what he could, he turned his attention back to the children. "Girls, those transports pulling up are the good guys. Why don't you come on out now? I need to know this lady's name so I can notify the doctor who's waiting to patch her up. It will be a big help if he can access her medical records."
They stared at him for several seconds before the older girl nodded and started inching her way out from under the transport.
Her smaller companion followed close behind and whispered, "She's our aunt Kat."
The older sister gasped. "Maggie, we're not supposed to call her that!"
"I'm sorry, Rose. I forgot."
Rose looked at Conlan, biting her lower lip. Finally, she said, "She's our aunt, but her name's not Kat. It's Moira."
Conlan didn't call them on the lie, but the truth was undeniable. After getting a good look at the two girls, he knew in his gut that the woman sprawled there in the bloody dust had eyes the same unusual shade of turquoise as her two nieces.
In fact, there were a lot of things he knew about the woman, like she had dimples when she smiled and a straight face when she lied. Her full name was Kather-ine Karr, and three years ago she'd stolen Conlan's life.
Finn climbed out his emergency transport and came at a dead run. Conlan managed to tear his attention away from Kat's unconscious body long enough to make sure the young chancellor had the first-aid kit in hand. The rest of his men fanned out around them, efficiently securing the perimeter. All those hours of training were paying off.
Back to the matter at hand. They had to get Kat to the infirmaryand fastalthough patching her up might not actually be doing her much of a favor. Not with an execution order hanging over her head. Once the Coalition found out where she was, they'd send one of their investigating chancellors to take her into custody.
The trial would be swift and the sentence would be carried out even more swiftly. It hurt knowing that, which surprised him. He would've sworn her betrayal three years ago had ripped any sense of compassion out of his heart by the roots.
But for now, they had to get moving. Whoever Kat had pissed off this time had already spent a lot of money and manpower to track her down. He figured their primary mission had been to capture her. They'd been satisfied with trying to capture her right up until Conlan had interfered.
Out here on the wrong side of Rafferty's property lines, they were all vulnerable to another attack. As soon as Finn said Kat could be transported, they'd head back inside the estate proper. Anyone with a lick of sense would have second thoughts before attacking a high-ranking vampire's home turf, especially Rafferty's. There weren't many with the guts or stupidity to cross him.