Long Road Home eBook: Page1

Maya Banks (2011)




  Dedication

  To Jess Bimberg for giving me my start with Samhain. I so appreciate everything you did for me and will always be grateful that you wanted to publish that first book, and especially Colters’ Woman. You were such a key factor at the beginning of my career.

  And to Jennifer Miller for always going the extra mile to make my stories awesome. It’s been wonderful to work with you and I’ll miss you and your thorough editorial. I’ve learned so much from you. We’ve had such a great run!

  Finally to all the readers who’ve supported me from the very beginning of my career. You’ve made all of my success possible. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you. Thank you.

  Chapter One

  Norwood, Colorado

  Jules Trehan climbed out of her rented Jeep and looked warily around her. The remote cabin she had been staying in for the last week had afforded her privacy…so far. But she didn’t harbor any illusions that it would last for long. Northstar would find her. It was time to leave.

  She slammed the door and leaned heavily on the cold metal. Around her, the rugged beauty of the mountains gave her a small measure of comfort she’d long been without. Sadness that she would soon move on crept through her, inserting an unrelenting ache in her chest.

  Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply of the pine-scented air. Here in this untamed land, the illusion of freedom was ever present, yet she viewed it as she would a magician’s feat—pleasing, but not real.

  Though she knew she must hurry, she allowed herself one more moment to revel in the stark beauty of the Colorado sky. Regret. So much regret. She closed her eyes and then deliberately hardened her mind, shutting out everything but the task at hand. Survival.

  Spurred to action, she mounted the steps to the cabin that overlooked Miramonte Reservoir and opened the door. She slipped inside, intent on collecting her sparse belongings and hitting the road.

  There wasn’t much to pack. She threw a change of clothes and several packets of dried rations into an overnight bag. All her weapons, with the exception of the pistol she carried, were secured in the back of the Jeep, and the rest of her supplies were tucked away in a locker in Denver. She’d go there next to collect them. Then she’d disappear to some foreign country and start a new life. And if she were really lucky, she could escape the person she had become.

  The sound of tires crunching on gravel drew her attention to the window. She yanked her gun from her back waistband and hurried in the direction of the door. She flattened herself against the wall next to the window, and, with one finger, she pulled the curtains slightly open and peered out. A light-colored sedan pulled to a stop beside her Jeep.

  She gripped the stock of her pistol, and her finger caressed the trigger. Adrenaline pumped furiously through her veins as she waited for the occupants to get out. When they did, she nearly dropped the gun in shock. Pain, and so much longing, throbbed through her veins. How had Mom and Pop found her?

  She jerked away from the window and leaned her head against the wall. It was a trick. It had to be. Look-alikes hired by Northstar.

  Footsteps sounded on the steps, and she slid over to the door, her gun raised. Her breath came in rapid spurts as her throat swelled with unspent sobs.

  A soft knock pierced the quiet. “Jules?” Her mother’s wavering voice drifted through the heavy wooden door.

  God, it sounded just like her mom. Fear gripped her. Had the Trehans been harmed? Had Northstar carried out his threats?

  She cracked the door and shoved her gun out at the older couple. “Who are you? What do you want?”

  “Put that damn thing away,” Marshall Trehan groused. “Is that any way to greet us after three years?”

  She thrust her gun back into her pants and threw open the door. She was in her mother’s arms in an instant.

  “Jules, my God, it’s really you.” Her mother’s arms tightened around her.

  Jules closed her eyes and inhaled the comforting scent of her mom. Still a mixture of vanilla and butter after all these years.

  “Do you have a hug for your old man?”

  She released her mother and went willingly into Pop’s arms. His strong embrace seemed weaker than usual, but he still smelled of Old Spice aftershave. He patted her on the back and kissed the top of her head. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, girl.”

  Reality quickly tempered her euphoria. She drew away and gestured her parents inside. As they walked by, she scanned the outside perimeter, taking in every detail of her surroundings.

  At her side, her phone pulsed and vibrated. Dread stole over her.

  “I’ll be right back in, Pop.”

  “Be quick. You don’t want to keep your mother waiting,” he said gruffly.

  She closed the door behind her and yanked out her phone. “What do you want?” She walked toward her Jeep as she waited for a response.

  “Always to the point. I admire that about you.”

  “Try it sometime,” she bit out.

  “Enjoying your visit with the Trehans?”

  She froze. “Are you behind this?”

  “I would think you’d appreciate it.”

  She remained silent, her mind working quickly. Northstar did nothing that didn’t benefit him.

  “Why?” she asked.

  “It’s simple, Magalie. I want you back.”

  “My name is Jules,” she ground out.

  “What you call yourself is inconsequential. I want to bring you back in. I know where you are. Your pitiful attempts at hiding are no credit to your training. I let you have a little vacation. It’s time to get back to work.”

  “No.”

  “What?”

  “I said no.”

  “I really hoped you wouldn’t say that,” he said in a regretful tone. “It’s a shame the Trehans traveled all this way for nothing.”

  She dropped the phone and started for the cabin in a full sprint. “Mom, Pop!” she screamed.

  She was almost to the porch when the entire world exploded around her. A ball of fire flashed in her vision as a violent force propelled her backwards, her body arcing in the air.

  She slammed viciously to the ground, wood and debris raining down on her like a hailstorm. Pain racked her entire body, and her vision blurred, the sky swirling above her.

  Tears slipped down her cheeks. “Mom, Pop,” she croaked out.

  Then everything went black.

  Chapter Two

  Montrose, Colorado

  Manuel Ramirez stepped off the plane, slinging his carry-on over his shoulder. He walked briskly past the security checkpoints, noting the lines of people waiting to pass through. Tourist season was in full swing. His partner had arranged for a car, and hopefully he would breeze right through and be on his way. To see Jules.

  For three years he’d looked for her. Utilizing every connection and department resource in his power, he’d left no stone unturned in his urgency to discover why she had disappeared. But even his position with the CIA hadn’t helped him in his quest.

  Then, as suddenly as she had fallen off the face of the earth she’d reappeared. He’d dropped everything and flown to Colorado, praying that it wasn’t yet another dead end in a long line of disappointments.

  He collected the necessary paperwork from the car rental counter and headed outside, anxious to begin the drive to Norwood.

  His chest tightened as he imagined seeing Jules for the first time in three years. Was she okay? Had she been hurt? Thousands of questions burned a trail through his head.

  Through countless missions in the last few years, his number one thought had been of her. If she was hungry, hurting, alone, scared. Trips home had become more difficult as he had to face the Trehans each time with no answers to their questions. Watchi
ng them slowly sink further into despair and into the belief that their adopted daughter was dead had been more than he could bear.

  How would she react to seeing him? If she was in Norwood, why hadn’t she called him? Why the silence? Why had she never called him?

  He shook his head as he climbed into the car. So many questions and no real answers. Not yet anyway.

  As he started the engine, his cell phone rang. He answered, knowing it was Tony. “Talk to me.”

  A long period of silence followed. “Manuel.”

  “What is it?”

  “I don’t know how to say this, man.” Tony’s voice was heavy with sadness, and Manuel’s pulse immediately began to race. “It’s the Trehans.”

  “Mom and Pop?” Manuel relaxed. “Did they call? You didn’t tell them about Jules, did you? I don’t want to get their hopes up if this turns out to be a dead end.”

  “Manuel, they were there.”

  His brow wrinkled in confusion. “Where?”

  Tony sighed. “They went to Jules’s cabin in Norwood. I don’t know how they found out she was there. Maybe she called them.”

  “No, they would’ve let me know.” But they hadn’t let him know they were going, had they? Why? He blew out his breath. “How’d they find out where she was?”

  “Manuel, there’s more.”

  Dread gripped him as he waited for Tony to continue.

  “There was an explosion. The entire cabin blew up. The Trehans were inside.”

  “What?” It couldn’t be true. There had to be some mistake. Then another thought hit him. “Jules?” he demanded, barely able to croak out her name. “What about Jules?”

  “She’s alive.”

  Relief poured over him, making him lightheaded and dizzy. She was all he had left now. He couldn’t lose her.

  “She’s in the hospital in Grand Junction. She was airlifted from Norwood.”

  “How bad is it?”

  “I don’t know, man. She’s alive. That’s all I know. You need to get to Grand Junction fast. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m working on this end to try and figure it out. Your girl has some nasty enemies, and she isn’t safe. Sanderson and I are working on a transfer as soon as she’s stable.”

  “Thanks, Tony,” he whispered. “Tell the boss man I appreciate his help.”

  “There’s one other thing, Manny,” Tony said, slipping to the nickname only Jules used.

  Manuel waited as he heard Tony shuffling through papers, the crackling coming over the receiver. He heard someone else in the background. Sanderson?

  Tony’s voice came back over the phone. “There was a veritable arsenal in Jules’s Jeep. High-tech stuff. Not the run-of-the-mill self-defense for the average citizen. Most of it’s Russian. Sanderson thinks your girl is in quite a bit of trouble.”

  Manuel closed his eyes and shook his head in an effort to dispel the overwhelming confusion. Guns? Jules? What the fuck? “I’ll call you when I get to Grand Junction.” He tossed the phone onto the seat and tried to steady himself. His hands shook, and he curled his fingers into fists.

  Jules was alive, a fact that gave him unending joy. But the people who’d been such an important factor in his life were dead. He’d entered their lives when he was ten years old. An angry, sullen little boy whose mother had flitted in and out of his world when it suited her mood. He’d crept over to their house when things at his own home had gotten unbearable. They’d represented the only semblance of normalcy he’d had in his young life.

  And now they were gone. Raw pain twisted in his chest. His hands clenched the steering wheel, and he gritted his teeth in anger. Whoever had done this to Jules—to his family—was going to pay.

  Chapter Three

  Grand Junction, Colorado

  Jules became aware of horrific pain, and her first thought was that she couldn’t possibly be dead and feel so much hurt. She pried her eyes open and winced when white, hot light poured into her vision. Her eyes slammed shut once more.

  She lay still, trying to take stock of her situation. The smell told her she was in a hospital. That nauseating, sterile odor could only come from a medical setting. Her head pounded, and her chest was on fire.

  Her nose felt dry and raw. Then she realized it was because oxygen blew a steady stream into her nostrils. She attempted to open her eyes again, squinting against the inevitable onslaught of light.

  A blurred figure stood at the foot of her bed. She blinked a few times, wincing at the pain that shot through her head with the slight movement.

  As the figure came into focus, her heart constricted, robbing her of precious breath. Manny. Even with his back to her, she recognized him instantly. She swallowed hard, trying desperately to rid herself of the knot in her throat.

  He was big. Much bigger than she remembered. His well-muscled arms strained at the sleeves of the polo shirt he wore. Dark slacks molded solid thighs. He towered over the bed, filling the room with his indomitable presence. And suddenly she was afraid.

  She closed her eyes again, not wanting to alert him to the fact she was awake. He would hate her for what she’d done.

  Mom and Pop. God. She choked as the knot grew larger in her throat. She took several deep gulps of air in through her nose, praying the oxygen did its job.

  Full-scale panic threatened to overcome her. She’d killed her parents. People Manny loved dearly. She’d sworn that she’d never allow them to come to harm. It was why she had stayed away for three long years. And now her worst fears had been realized. All because she’d called Northstar’s bluff. And lost.

  If Manny found out, he would despise her. The Trehans were everything to him. How could she live with herself after what she’d done? How could she have hurt everyone she ever loved?

  Pain flashed through her head, and nausea rolled in her stomach. The explosion registered in her mind over and over. She opened her eyes in an attempt to make it all go away.

  A ragged moan tore from her lips before she could call it back.

  Manny jerked around, concern etched in every facet of his face. “Jules!” He rushed to her side, his hand reaching out to touch her cheek. “Are you in pain?”

  She squeezed her eyes shut, weakened by the joy that flooded through her at the sound of his voice.

  His rough thumb smoothed gently over her cheek. “Should I call the nurse?”

  Her eyes fluttered open again. “No,” she croaked. She swallowed and tried to speak. For a long moment, she stared into his familiar green eyes. Love and concern, two things she was unworthy of, reflected in their depths.

  He left her side and poured water from the pitcher by the sink into a plastic cup. Returning, he held the cup to her lips. She sipped gratefully at the cool liquid, a soothing balm to her raw throat.

  When she was finished, he set the cup aside and pulled a chair up to the bed. He settled down and curled his warm hand around her limp one. Heat spread comfortingly up her arm.

  He picked up her hand and kissed it. “Thank God you’re alive.”

  She choked as a sob mounted. She breathed frantically, willing her iron control not to desert her. It was too much. Her lips slipped open, and a raw sound of agony burst from her chest.