chapter 1 - Echoes at Dawn (KGI #5) by Maya Banks

PROLOGUE

GORDON Farnsworth had more money than God. He had connections beyond anyone’s imagining. He’d lived his life on the fringe, steeped in shadows, so immersed in gray that he doubted he had any semblance of a soul remaining.

He had power, wealth and information at his disposal. And none of it meant a damn thing because his daughter was dying and he was powerless to prevent it.

She’d been seen by the top physicians in the world, had the best treatment money could buy, and he’d been told the same thing by every one of them.

There was nothing further to be done. His daughter couldn’t be saved. The best he could do was make her comfortable for the remainder of her time.

Fuck that.

;s He wouldn’t accept that there was nothing he could do. He’d prevented wars and instigated them. He wielded influence with dozens of world leaders. He could make or ruin an entire country on a whim. And he couldn’t save his daughter?

He paced the confines of the dark library where he often brooded with a glass of Macallen whiskey he’d paid over one hundred thousand dollars for. The fire in the hearth had died, leaving only a few glowing embers.

His phone rang and he yanked it to his ear, barking the order before the other party had a chance to say anything.

“Is she legitimate?”

“Indeed it appears she is.”

Farnsworth’s shoulders sagged and he sank onto the couch, perched on the edge, his impatience snarling and nipping at him.

“She’s been able to heal all manner of illnesses and injuries, but it’s at great cost to herself. She’s been pushed beyond her limits but she’s been successful in all cases that have been presented.”

“I don’t give a damn what it does to her,” Farnsworth growled. “Get her here. I’m running out of time.”

There was a lengthy pause and Farnsworth didn’t like pauses. They never meant good news.

“I anticipated your order, sir. When I was told the results of her testing, I knew you’d want her there with all due haste. I gave the order to go in, remove all evidence of her existence, silence those who had any knowledge of her and, of course, to retrieve Grace Peterson and have her taken to you.”

He didn’t like where this was going. His gut knotted and his lips tightened in rage.

“What the hell happened then? Where is she? When can I expect her? Elizabeth doesn’t have much time!”

There was a deep breath. “She escaped, sir.”

Farnsworth exploded to his feet, spit rimming his lips as he puffed out his fury. “Escaped? She escaped? What of this terrible toll? What of her being weak and fragile after so much healing? How does one small woman escape highly trained operatives?”

“There was a miscommunication, sir. Our intel was wrong. The room we thought she was being held in was empty. One of the explosions leveled the quarters she had been moved to, and she escaped in the confusion.”

“Your intel was wrong. Miscommunication. Confusion. What the f**k am I paying for? A bunch of goddamn amateurs?”

“We’re tracking her now. We won’t fail you, sir.”

“Goddamn right you won’t fail,” Farnsworth raged. “I swear to you that if my daughter dies, you and everyone you hold dear will suffer. I’ll extinguish your entire family, and you’ll watch while it happens. And then you’ll die a long painful death. Do you understand me?”

“Y-Yes sir.”

Farnsworth cut the connection and held the phone for a long moment, tempted to hurl it through the window. Only the knowledge that he had to act fast for his daughter’s sake gave him the impetus to place his next call.

He waited as he went through a series of numbers and security codes until finally the connection was established. He didn’t wait, didn’t exchange pleasantries. Grace Peterson had to be found, and she had to be found now.

“I need Titan,” he bit out. “I don’t give a goddamn how much it costs. You get me Titan.”

CHAPTER 1

GRACE Peterson drew the blanket tighter around her and huddled in the dark. She stared blankly at the star-filled sky. The mountain air was cold. Not just chilly, as it had been as dusk had descended, wiping away the comfortable remnants of a sunny afternoon. It was frigid.

A low moan escaped as her muscles tightened and protested not only the cold, but the weakness inflicted upon them by so much death and sickness. Pain had long since lost any meaning to her. What she felt couldn’t really be considered pain. It was worse. She couldn’t feel anything but the desolation of hopelessness and despair. The knowledge that she would probably die from the horrors inflicted upon her. And perhaps she deserved it, for she hadn’t been able to help all who had been thrust upon her.

Her escape had been a fluke. An explosion had decimated the cell where she’d been held. She’d managed to get out before the men charged with her care had been able to respond. Or maybe they had perished. She couldn’t bring herself to feel any regret. They’d shown her no regard. She’d been treated like an inanimate object. Some magic wand they waved at a wound or an illness and expected her to make it all disappear.

She hated them for that. Hated them for their callousness. For using others as they’d used her. Pawns. Objects to provide them with information. They weren’t even people. Just numbers.

Another shiver rattled her teeth and settled deep into her bones. She simply couldn’t imagine ever being warm again. She curled her feet farther into the blanket and tucked the ends securely under her chin.

She was severely weakened by all she’d been forced to endure. For all she’d been made to heal. Even now she didn’t know where she’d found the strength or the will to make her escape when the opportunity had presented itself.

But now she’d run out of strength. She had nothing else left. No reserves. And her resolve was faltering just as everything else had done.

Closing her eyes, she tried to find some solace. Some measure of peace.

She missed her sister, Shea. Ached for the comfort of her touch. The brush of her mind and the image of her smile. She hadn’t ever really understood and hadn’t ever taken Shea’s decision for them to separate seriously. Until the day she’d been captured, and she realized that if they’d been together, they would have both been taken.

Shea had always been determined to keep Grace safe, but now, Grace was equally determined to keep Shea as far away from her as possible. Grace was hunted. She knew her pursuers were probably in these mountains already. They could be a short distance away.

And so she’d slammed the door shut on her sister, and the void hurt every bit as much as the bombardment of sickness and pain she’d absorbed. Not having Shea there was the worst sort of loneliness. She’d severed the telepathic link between her and her sister, and her worst fear was that it was permanent. She’d never get it back.

In a way, she supposed it would be a blessing. If she lost her abilities, she could have a normal life. But so

would she lose the ability to make a difference in someone else’s life.

She closed her eyes, exhausted by the weight of responsibility, sorrow and regret. She hated that she wasn’t stronger, that she’d crumbled under so much stress. But the ailments had been thrown at her, one after another. Broken bones, horrible bloody wounds, tumors, diseases, and the list went on and on. The most horrific experiment she’d undergone was when it had been demanded of her to reach inside the mind of a woman with a mental illness and heal her.

For three long d

She was hungry, but the thought of food made her stomach twist into knots. She drank water from nearby streams frequently, because she knew she had to do something to keep her strength up. And no matter that she bore the knowledge that she would likely die, she couldn’t bring herself to simply give up. Not yet.

Quietly, she turned over, rearranging the blanket in the fruitless hope she’d somehow find greater warmth. Eventually she’d have to reach out to her sister, but if she did so now, Shea would see the horrific shape Grace was in. Shea would come. She’d put herself in grave danger. Grace would never be able to live with herself if Shea was sacrificed because in a moment of weakness Grace gave in and tried to reestablish the link with her sister.

Silent tears slid down Grace’s cheeks, briefly warming her skin until the chilly air turned them to ice. She angrily scrubbed them away and hunched lower, furious with herself for allowing despair to control her.

She was stronger than this, and she’d be strong again. She just needed time to recover from her ordeal. Maybe she’d never be the same as she had been, but she wasn’t going to give in. If she died, she’d die running. She’d die standing up and fighting. She refused to die in some laboratory where rats were treated with less disdain.

A distant sound froze her to the bone. She went so still that even her breath sounded like a roar in the night. She pushed the blanket over her mouth, trying to quell the noise, and she stared into the trees, trying desperately to see through the thick curtain of night.

Someone was coming.

THEY crawled through the mountains under the cover of dark. Rio knew they were close. They’d been closing in on Grace for days now, but somehow she’d managed to elude them just when he was sure they’d come upon her.

He adjusted his pack, slipped on the infrared goggles and scanned the area ahead, looking for anything giving off a heat signal.

There were several smaller forms. Animals. Even a larger shape that must have been an elk or a deer. Nothing that resembled a human, though.

He’d given orders for strict radio silence. They weren’t the only ones who sought Grace. But he was determined to get to her first. His gut told him they needed to catch up to her before dawn. The hairs on his nape rose and apprehension slipped down his spine. It wasn’t that he feared confrontation. In truth, he’d savor killing the bastards who’d made Grace and Shea’s life hell over the last year.

It was the knowledge that she was in danger and that he and his men needed to end this game of cat and mouse.

Beside him, Terrence, his right hand, melted into the dark just a few feet away. Rio continued a path farther up the mountain. There were any number of nooks and crannies a small woman could hide in, and so he carefully scanned the area, looking for any heat source.

Where are you, Grace? I know you’re here. I can feel you.

And it was true. There was a distinct prickle, the same awareness he’d experienced the first time he’d seen her on the surveillance footage. The last time anyone had seen her before she’d disappeared.

Het G="1em">2019;d known beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would be the one to go after her and bring her back to her sister. Safe and alive.

Since that time, he’d tracked her movements with uncanny accuracy. He and his men hadn’t left a stone unturned in their search for her. They’d gone back to the house where she’d last been seen and had broadened their search from there.

It had taken weeks, but now they were following a lead into the mountains of Colorado, and Rio was sure they were close. His gut was screaming, and he never ignored his gut. It had kept him alive more times than he could count.

He paused when he heard a noise in the distance. He turned, scanning the area, and then he saw the infrared images of men he knew weren’t his moving stealthily through the trees.

Damn it.

He curled his hand into a fist. Where the hell was Grace? He didn’t have time to play hide and seek with the men who were after her. He needed to grab her and get the hell out.

He pulled his rifle from over his shoulder and silently moved in the direction of the heat signature. Ideally he didn’t want to shoot up the whole damn mountain and leave bodies lying everywhere. He’d rather find Grace and make a stealthy exit, but the savage part of him relished spilling a little blood.

A cry in the night froze him momentarily. He lifted his head to capture the faint echo as it died in the distance. It was a feminine cry, one that sent chills chasing down his spine. There was a hell of a lot of anguish, pain and fear in that one small sound.

Grace.

He began to run, closing in on the source of the noise. He ripped the goggles from his head, needing to see his surroundings better. A hundred yards ahead, Terrence fell in beside him and they charged the remaining distance, guns up and ready.

They slowed when they reached the edge of a drop-off that overlooked a small valley below. The moon shone down, reflecting off the smooth rock floor, and Rio’s gut clenched as he saw Grace Peterson backed to a steep edge that plummeted hundreds of feet into a riverbed.

He sensed the grim determination in her that she wouldn’t be captured again. He knew without doubt that she’d jump before ever going back. Her fear and desolation were like a tangible scent in the air. It tightened every one of his muscles, gripped his heart and squeezed relentlessly.

He had to get to her before the idiots forced her over with their stupidity.

Dropping down onto his belly, he pulled his gun up and put the crosshairs on the man closest to Grace. The stupid f**k had his hand held out in a placating manner, but in his other hand was a gun and it was pointed directly at Grace. His entire posture screamed menace.

Rio squeezed a shot off. The man dropped like a stone, and suddenly his comrades hit the ground and turned in the direction of the gunfire.

“Hell,” Terrence muttered as he got into position. “Thought we weren’t engaging?”

“Cover me. I’m going in,” Rio bit out.

Before Terrence could protest, Rio scrambled over the edge and rapidly worked his way down until he reached bottom. Above him, Terrence squeezed off round after round, the sounds echoing harshly in the night.

They had a limited amount of time before someone came to investigate all the gunfire. He turned and immediately searched for Grace again. To his horror, he found her just as the edge gave way under her feet and she plummeted over the side.

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