“I could. They watch me pretty carefully, but they also consider me only a servant.”
“They’ll punish you if the cubs you’re looking after go missing.”
“They will.” Maria drew a breath and took on a resigned expression. “But they won’t kill me. I’d be ready to go after the second drop.”
“And you want—what? Maybe ten grand a cub?”
Ten grand. If Bradley was willing to pay her that much to lure cubs away, how much more must his clients be paying to receive them? She felt sick.
“I think that will work.” Now to have him let her and Pablo out of the house so Ellison could continue with his plan. She rose. “Adios, Mr. Bradley. I’d better have Pablo drive me back, before the Shifters punish me for staying away too long. It’s my one day off a month.”
“You can go, certainly.” Bradley’s mouth turned up at the corners. “But I’ll have Mr. Marquez stay a while as my guest. You give me the first cubs tomorrow, and I’ll let him go home then.”
Maria contrived to look worried, then she gave him a nervous smile. “He won’t like that. But all right. I’ll do it. I can . . .”
Shouts cut off her words. The bodyguards came alert and hurried out the door, and Bradley’s half smile vanished.
The cold he’d exhibited before was nothing to the iceberg he became. All humanity left his eyes, and he came off the desk, walked back to the wet bar, and calmly took out a pistol.
Maria’s heart stopped, certain he was about to shoot her dead.
“Get under the desk,” he said in clipped tones, then walked past her out of the room.
Maria heard the unmistakable snarl of a wolf, then the roar of a bear and the uncanny, breathy growl of a tiger. Then shots firing, the chug, chug, chug of a semiautomatic.
Her heart pounded in fear. But the animal snarls only escalated, and one of the bodyguards cried out. Maria raced out of the room.
Below the balcony, two wolves fought to tear a gun out of one bodyguard’s hands. Ronan rose to his full Kodiak bear height, bringing his paw down on a second bodyguard. He didn’t even have to use his claws.
The man collapsed, and then a puddle of blood spread out from under him. Ronan blinked his bear eyes at him in surprise, then at Pablo, who stepped out from the living room, a large gun in his hand.
A giant Bengal tiger was flowing up the stairs. One of the bodyguards at the top, face paling, shot him. Once, twice.Tiger came on. The man stepped back. “Mother fu—”
Then Tiger was on him. The weapon flew wide. The remaining bodyguard brought his gun around to shoot Tiger again, but Maria sprang into him from behind.
She wasn’t big enough to take the man down, but he at least misfired. The bullets sprayed into the ceiling, bits of plaster and dust raining down on them.
Tiger opened his mouth, his teeth gigantic, spittle running down them, as he turned to the remaining bodyguard. The light in his yellow eyes wasn’t sane.
“Tiger!” Maria yelled. “No!”
Tiger jerked his head up, caught by her voice, but the rage didn’t leave his eyes. He snarled once again, but Ellison was there, leaping into him, knocking him away from the man.
Tiger roared in fury, but Ellison growled, and Tiger finally loped away back down the stairs.
Ellison turned to the bodyguard. Ellison’s wolf was huge, his hair up along his neck, his ears flat with his red-eyed snarling. The bodyguard dropped his weapon and fell to his knees.
“Please. I got a wife. I got kids,” the man said. “I just work here because it pays good.”
Ellison stopped his charge an inch from the guy’s face, jaws snapping in irritation. Maria reached down and picked up the gun. It was heavy, and she didn’t know how to hold it. The danger locked in the firm piece of metal scared her, but she figured it was better she had it than the bodyguard.
“Go home,” she said to him. “Hurry. Where’s Bradley?”
A second wolf and Ronan came up the stairs, the staircase creaking under the Kodiak’s weight. Bradley was nowhere in sight.
“He hasn’t come past me,” Pablo called from below.
“He has a panic room,” the bodyguard said, still on his knees. “Through that door and at the end of the hall.” He pointed. “Sealed tight. He holes up there when things get bad.”
“Thank you,” Maria said. “Go now.”
The bodyguard hauled himself to his feet. His face was gray, eyes filled with fear. “Thanks. Thanks.” He stuttered the words then turned to go past Ellison, Broderick, and finally Ronan.
Ronan couldn’t resist giving a little growl and swatting at him. The former bodyguard hurtled down the stairs, ran past Pablo, who only watched him without interest, and sprinted out of the house.
Maria opened the door the bodyguard had indicated, then felt teeth on her wrist. Ellison had his mouth, ever so gently on her arm, looking at her with admonishment. Stay here, he was saying. Maria sighed and stepped back to let the Shifters go through first.
The hall ended in another innocuous door, but it hung partway open, revealing a steel door behind it. The second door had no handle, only a keypad.
Maria reasoned that a man like Bradley would have been too cautious to use the same code for his panic room as his front door. But the combined might of two Shifter wolves and a Kodiak bear was soon breaking the seal on the door. Tiger stood back, growling under his breath, tail swishing the slightest bit over the hall carpet.