Theirs to Keep

By: Maya Banks

 
 
C H A P T E R O N E
 
 
 
SHE CREPT ALONG THE DARK ALLEYWAY, wincing as her scraped, torn feet made contact with the cracked pavement. There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t hurt. She was so tired, she could barely keep herself upright, and hunger had long ago ceased. Now, all she felt was overwhelming emptiness. And fear.
 
There was a gaping hole in her mind. No memory. No past. Only the present. She had no money, no belongings, no place to rest and hide. She only knew that if she stopped, he’d find her.
 
And she didn’t even know who he was, only that a shadowy figure haunted her mind. He’d hurt her. He’d wanted her dead. He’d left her to die in the river, but somehow she’d survived.
 
She stopped outside a building, shivering as a gust of wind blew down the alleyway. She may as well be wearing nothing for all the protection her torn clothing offered.
 
It was cold. So cold. She’d give anything for a warm place to sleep. Somewhere she could feel safe even if only for a few hours.
 
Drawing herself into the shallow alcove where the service entrance to the shop was, she huddled there numb and desolate. She glanced over at one of the windows. It would take nothing to break it. She could easily slide through if she could maneuver it upward. If only she could be warm and sleep for a few hours, she’d have the strength to keep moving. Maybe there would even be food within. She would leave again before daylight, and no one would be the wiser.
 
Desperation made her bold. It made her overlook the consequences of being discovered. She’d convinced herself that no one would know, that she would be able to hide.
 
Before she could change her mind and talk herself out of her foolishness, she got down on her hands and knees and scrounged through the dark alley for something she could use to break the glass.
 
Her hand fumbled over a rock, and she curled her fingers around it before pushing herself to her feet. She rose up on tiptoe, looking for the right spot to break. All she needed was access to the latches.
 
After deciding to break the upper panes, she reared back and smashed the rock against the glass, shattering it on impact. Pain sliced through her fingers, and numbly, she realized she’d cut herself. Warm blood slid over her hand, but she ignored it and smashed the rock against the glass a few feet over.
 
She reached in, fumbling with the latches. After she had them both unlocked, she pushed frantically at the window to raise it enough so she could gain access.
 
Relief was overwhelming when the window easily slid upward. She staggered and planted her palm against the brick wall to steady herself before she bent and stuck her leg through the opening.
 
Lowering herself so that her chest was flush against the sill, she eased her way inside and then shut the window after her. It seemed silly when the upper panes were smashed in to worry over closing the window, but it felt safer. An open window would draw more attention than a broken one, or at least that was the reasoning that filtered through her shattered mind.
 
She made her way through the darkness, unsure of what she’d find. It didn’t matter. Already she was warmer. Finding a place to sleep for a while would be easy.
 
 
 
 
 
“Son of a bitch,” Cade Walker swore as he rolled out of bed. He yanked on his pants, threw on a T-shirt then made a grab for his shoulder harness that held his nine-millimeter handgun.
 
He went to the computer monitor on his desk and punched in the codes to bring up the location of the alarm.
 
His bedroom door opened, letting in a flood of light. His friend and co-owner in his security and surveillance business, Merrick Sullivan, stood there, dressed, his gun holstered at his side.
 
Merrick was one mean-looking son of a bitch in daylight hours. Get him out in the middle of the night in some dark alley, and it was like looking at the grim reaper. But then he beat the shit out of people for a living as a mixed martial arts fighter and was even now training for a fight that would give him the title shot in the heavyweight division.
 
“You calling it in or we going to check it out?” Merrick asked.
 
“Fuck it, we’ll go. Last time the alarm went off there, it turned out to be a damn cat. No sense getting the boys in blue out on a night like this. They’ll be up to their ears in traffic accidents. People don’t know how to damn drive when the roads are wet.”
 
“Then let’s go,” Merrick said shortly. “I’ll call Hank and let him know we’re taking care of it.”
 
Hank Stevens was the owner of the gun store and a client of Cade’s and Merrick’s. Cade ran a successful security consulting business, and Merrick helped out whenever he could. They installed systems and monitored them twenty-four hours a day. Which meant they could literally be called out any hour of the day, any day of the week.
 
The list of clients they provided personalized service to was small. Mostly they consulted, troubleshot and provided advice on a larger scale. But there were a few local businesses that they still felt loyal to. These were people that Cade and Merrick cared about and felt protective of. Hank had been a longtime friend dating back before Merrick began his career as a fighter and before Cade opened his own business. The two men looked out for Hank. Owning a gun shop wasn’t always the safest business to be in, and they didn’t want anything to happen to the older man.
 
It was colder than a witch’s tit when Cade stepped from the front porch and hurried to the Hummer parked on the street. They had a garage, but it took too damn long to open and shut the garage door, and time was often valuable. Parking on the street gave them precious seconds that they weren’t backing out of the driveway. Not to mention the Hummer didn’t fit. Only Cade’s smaller SUV did.
 
Merrick threw open the door to the driver’s side and slid behind the wheel. Cade got in on the passenger side, and not even two seconds later, Merrick roared off down the street, heading toward downtown, where Hank’s shop was located.
 
They made it in record time even with the streets being sloppy and a damn drizzle that made it hard to see. Merrick doused the headlights when they were a block away and pulled to a stop several businesses down.
 
He and Cade both got out and pulled their guns.
 
“According to the alarm monitor, it was the alley window that was compromised,” Cade said in a low voice as the two men hurried down the sidewalk.
 
Merrick ducked down a side street so they could access the alleyway. When they reached the end, Cade flattened himself against the wall and inched his way toward Hank’s store.
 
When he and Merrick were only a few feet away, Cade held up his hand and then put a finger to his lips. He concentrated intensely, straining to hear if any sounds were coming from inside.
 
He eased forward again when he heard nothing, and then he frowned when he saw the shattered glass on the rough, cobblestone street. Glancing up, he saw where the window was busted, but there was no light coming from within. No flashlights. Nothing. It was dark and silent as a ghost.
 
“Probably just some damn kids vandalizing,” Merrick muttered.
 
Cade switched on his flashlight and shone it downward, skimming the immediate area. He stopped the beam on a large shard of the glass and then knelt to pick it up.
 
He held it up to Merrick, shining the light on the blood smeared on the edge. “Looks like our perp didn’t get away unscathed.”
 
“Let’s check it out,” Merrick said. “Dumbass could still be in there for all we know.”
 
Walking into a gun store where a suspect may or may not be inside wasn’t on Cade’s list of favorite things to do, but neither did he want an entire squadron of patrol cars to converge and shoot up Hank’s store.
 
Cade picked up his cell phone and punched the number and then the codes to deactivate the alarm system. Then he dug out the key to the back door and quietly inserted it into the lock.
 
He eased the door open and went in, gun up, flashlight in his other hand. Merrick hurried in after him, and the two flattened themselves against the wall and slid forward down the hall leading to the showroom.
 
When they got to the end, Merrick motioned toward the row of light switches above Cade’s shoulder. Then he held up three fingers to signal on the count of three.
 
Cade switched off his flashlight, stuck it back in his pocket and then reached up with his arm so he could flip all the switches at the same time.
 
He took a deep breath and then counted out to Merrick. “One…two…three!”
 
He pushed his arm up, and suddenly the entire building was awash in light. Merrick gripped his gun and made a wide sweep of the showroom as Cade did the same, looking for any movement.
 
But there was none. Everything was quiet. No sudden sounds. No one startled by the light.
 
“Kids,” Merrick muttered. “Just a bunch of damn kids with nothing better to do on a Saturday night.”
 
Cade was about to agree when his gaze stopped on one of the large cabinets underneath the rifle display along the wall.
 
“Check it out,” he murmured, gesturing toward the smear of blood right by the handle.
 
Merrick frowned and then circled around, separating himself from Cade. He dipped his head to the side to signal Cade to come in from the right while he closed in from the left.