Desert Fire

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Nine

Payton

Conner holds me in his lap on the motel bed while tremors wrack through my body; sweat drips down my back. He sways me back and forth, assuring me everything is okay, but I avoid his hard eyes, which tell a different story. I get his anger, but he can’t be nearly as angry as I am with these awful nightmares. Flashbacks of my earlier assignments haunt me during the day and nightmares of a twitching dead man on top of me plague me through the night; I can’t seem to escape the awfulness.

After what seems like forever, the trembling finally subsides and I get my breathing under control. Shifting me so I’m sitting in front of him, rather than on his lap, he hooks a finger under my chin, forcing me to look at him.

“You okay now?” he whispers, eyes shifting back and forth, studying me.

“Yeah,” I assure him, trying to look away, because I’m so damn ashamed of these nightmares, but he grips my chin.

“Hey,” he snaps with angry eyes. “They’re nothing to be ashamed of…I have them, too. It’s normal to have nightmares about someone dying, especially if you’re the one who killed them. It’s normal.”

I only nod, more shocked by his admission of having them too than anything else. His hand gently running over my bare arm causes goose bumps to rise. Calm now, I have a sudden awareness that we’re sitting on a bed, in a motel room, with no one else here. I only have flimsy pajama shorts and a tank top on, which I didn’t think much of when we went to bed last night, because we got in at two thirty in the morning and were both exhausted. After landing, we took a short cab ride to this cheap motel on the edge of Seattle. We only freshened up a little before passing out within minutes of arriving.

Realization and a burning awareness light his eyes, making me very aware of my morning breath and probably not so great hairdo. Of course, his rumpled curls, which stick up in every direction, make him look even sexier than usual, but I’m certain my bedhead isn’t nearly as attractive. We stare at each other for a long minute, with his hand still running up and down my arm, leaving a trail of flames. His brow creases again before he drops his hand, clearing his throat. I want to protest, but that would be too needy…Right? I wish I had a clue about this relationship stuff.

“You’re phone’s been blinking since we woke up,” he tells me, gesturing to the nightstand where my throwaway does, in fact, have a little red light blinking on it.

“Shit!” I exclaim, scrambling for it.

If Cadmar called or texted and I didn’t answer right away, he’s sure to be pissed enough to demand we come back. Luckily, when I click the screen on, I see it’s only a couple texts from Reiley, or ‘R,’ as Cadmar programmed it, which still has me a little weary. After our awful departure last night, I’m certain she hates me. I’m flooded with relief when I see this isn’t the case.

R: Sorry I was a brat last night. Hope u have fun on ur trip.

And then another, which reads:

R: It isn’t very polite to ignore someone when they apologize…just saying.

I send a quick reply, hoping she won’t be too upset it took me so long, considering it has been almost two hours since she sent the first text.

Me: I didn’t see u texted! U don’t need to apologize for anything, Reiley. U know how much I luv

u. We never say it, but I do. U also know I think ur the strongest of us all, so all the malarkey about u being weak was ridiculous. I’ll keep u updated the entire time, K?

Thinking she’ll reply right away, I stare at the screen for a minute, waiting, but nothing comes.

“Everything okay?” Conner asks, causing my gaze to snap to his.

“Yeah,” I say, clutching the phone, hoping it will vibrate. Is she really mad it took so long, so she isn’t going to reply now?

“Was it Cadmar?” he prompts, when I don’t say anything else.

“No. It was Reiley.” The fact that Cadmar didn’t call or text bothers me, making my stomach fill with unease. I would have thought he would give us a wake- up call or something. Is he mad at me, too?

“He’s probably busy getting his ‘plan’ in order,” Conner says, apparently having read my thoughts.

“You’re probably right.”

I put the phone down, rubbing my hands over my face with a loud groan. My stupid nightmare put me on edge, making me doubt everything, and I hate it.

His rough hand lands on my shoulder, squeezing gently, making me peek through my fingers. He’s wearing a sexy smirk and I get caught in his amused eyes, which seem to have turned a darker green. Somehow, even when I’m caught up in worry, those greens always find a way to light my entire body on fire. Jeez, hormones simmer down now.

“We should probably get ready,” he suggests, but flames ignite in his eyes, giving me a totally different suggestion.

Seriously, now is not the time!

“Yeah, you’re right,” I agree reluctantly, sliding off the bed. “I’ll take a fast shower. You should try calling your dad, as we discussed last night.”

“Yeah, sure.” He cringes imperceptibly, the heated moment dying. Bummer, my hormones sigh. “He’s probably freaking out and I still don’t know what to tell him.”

“It will be okay. It’s your call whether you tell him what’s going on, but you’ll feel better if you know he’s safe.”

“I’ll just see how he reacts when I call and go from there.”

“Okay.” I give him what I hope is a gentle, reassuring look. I can’t imagine how hard it was leaving his own dad behind, no matter how terrible of a dad the guy is. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

He nods, picking his phone up while I grab my bag, which I tossed right inside the door last night. Before we found our pilot at the airport, we stuck a change of clothes, our toiletries, my gun, and a small case with the Pentothal in it, in my backpack.

Stepping in the bathroom, which is almost identical to the one in the motel in New Mexico, I look in the mirror, taking in my puffy eyes, messy, tangled hair, mixed with the bruise on my cheek, which is now a gross looking yellow. I’m relieved he didn’t kiss me out there, because, wow.

While getting undressed, I have a hard time ignoring Conner yelling in the other room. Obviously, his dad isn’t taking the random phone call so well, which is awful, but we decided last night he should call him, if only to ease his mind from worrying about his dad.

My shower lasts a little longer than I mean for it too, because the hot water helps rinse away the dregs of my nightmare. Even after Conner’s comfort, the memory of the agent’s dead weight lying on top of me kept playing through my mind. I can’t believe it’s only been a few days since that atrocious day. It feels as if I’ve been haunted by it for years and it will continue haunting me. Once I’m out of the shower, dressed in some light blue, worn jeans and a pink tank top, I scrunch my hair in messy curls and leave the bathroom.

I find Conner sitting on the edge of the bed with his elbows resting on his knees, still on the phone. He grimaces at me and I instantly go to him, wanting to comfort him in any way possible. “I already told you,” he bites out after a long silence, rubbing a hand over his brow. “I can’t tell you everything. I don’t want to go over it again and again. If you don’t want to listen to me, that’s your deal.”

He pauses, his dad’s voice booming through the phone, making me cringe. Conner reaches a hand out to me and I take it willingly, brushing my fingers over his scabbed knuckles while he continues. “I’m not telling you what she has to do with it, because it’s none of your business,” he growls and I squeeze his fingers out of pure appreciation. This amazing guy is risking his relationship with his only living parent just to protect me. I’m such a shitty person for allowing it, but my selfishness always finds a way to overshadow the guilt.

“Fine, Dad,” he sighs after another long silence. “I’m not coming back and I’m not leaving the damn country with you. I can take care of myself. If you need to get ahold of me, you can call this number, but I can’t guarantee I’ll answer.” He squeezes his eyes shut, his face contorting in frustration, or maybe misery. “Yeah, whatever.” He ends the call, dropping the phone in his lap.

“I’m so sorry, Conner.” I grip his hand tighter, gnawing on my bottom lip, feeling like the lowest piece of scum. Here I am, taking comfort from him for the sins I’ve committed and expecting him to come along for the ride, no matter what it costs him. “I hate how I’ve caused this between you and your dad.”

“Don’t,” he bites out, giving me a hard look. “Don’t do that shit. You didn’t cause this and you know it.”

“You left because of me,” I point out, my gaze boring into his. “You chose me over your dad and I feel terrible the choice was even presented.”

Letting go of my hand, he leaps off the bed, staring down at me with furious eyes. “You didn’t force me to come with you.” He jabs a finger at me, the muscle in his jaw twitching. “You just said it yourself, I chose to come with you, and if I were presented with the same choice again, I would still choose to leave.”

I don’t say anything, because I don’t know what to say and my silence seems to frustrate him. Getting down on his knees between my legs, he runs his hands over my cheeks, them ending up tangled in my hair, forcing me to look right at him. “I wouldn’t choose differently, do you understand me?”

I nod with desperate eyes. Desperate? Cut it out, hormones! We’ve already established this isn’t the time. But his eyes shift from mine to my lip caught between my teeth and back again, causing all kinds of tingles to erupt in my stomach. The air seems to shift and heat when he raises an eyebrow with a sexy smirk; going from serious to playful and hot in only a second. How can I resist that look? Releasing my lip, I give him a small smile, an invitation. This part of our relationship has become a lot more familiar over the last couple days, but it seems totally different with us being alone.

But seriously, the look he’s giving me is irresistible. Leaning forward, he tugs me toward him by my hair while staring at my lips. “Gimme,” he grunts, right before our lips make contact and he sucks the bottom one into his mouth, nipping it lightly.

A groan escapes me, which seems to egg him on. Our lips mesh together, causing this combustion of passion, a frenzy of teeth clashing, lips burning, hands grabbing. Holy hell, it’s exhilarating! While in the heat of the moment, I get super brave, moving my hands from his broad shoulders to the hem of my shirt. But he stops, his long fingers wrapping around my wrists, resting his forehead in the crook of my neck. Gasping for breath, I wonder what’s going through his head. Did I do something wrong? Did I totally get the wrong message from that extremely intense make out session?

After taking several deep breaths, his gaze finally meets mine, his hands still gripping my wrists as if he’s holding on for dear life. A whimper almost escapes me at the strained look in his eyes.

“I don’t think this is why we came here,” he says, sounding as if he’s in agonizing pain.

Nooooooo! My hormones scream.

Putting my hands over my face, I groan. I really don’t want to see reason right now, maybe not ever. He pulls my hands down, giving me a hard look filled with longing.

“You have to believe this is basically the hardest decision I’ve ever made. But this isn’t what we came here to do, and I don’t want to…use up what little time we have.”

Pulling back, he sits on his knees and I sit here feeling slightly burned and put out.

“Yayfor impeccable self-control,” I grumble.

Oh, God! Did I just say that?

Chuckling, he shakes his head. Yup, I said it. “Not so much self-control as it was the thought of Cadmar somehow finding out why we didn’t do what we came here to do.” He brushes a hand over my cheek. “I’m rather fond of my limbs.”

I refuse to laugh at his joke and seriously consider snapping at his fingers, which continue stroking my cheek. Apparently, my hormonal side is rather feisty. Would you chill out!

“I’m going to get ready, love,” he tells me, giving me a quick kiss on the nose. Alert the priest; he may fall out of his chair!

Wait, did he just say ‘love’?

Bounding off the bed, he heads to the bathroom before I can say anything about the love thing. When the door closes, I remain in my dumbfounded state. Does that mean he loves me? Or did it just slip out? Is it super lame to ask? Groaning internally, I force myself to focus on other things. I snatch my phone from the nightstand, expecting a missed call from Cadmar, or at least a reply from Reiley, but neither is there.

Worried now, I try calling Cadmar, clicking the ‘C’ and holding it to my ear. I grip the phone tighter with every unanswered ring. There isn’t a voicemail, so it just rings and rings and rings until I finally hang up. My stomach knots up while I stare at the screen, begging it to light up. What’s going on? Did something happen? Surely, they would have called if anything happened, if they had any trouble. Wouldn’t they? But what if they got caught or they’re hurt; they may not be

able to call or text.

That’s how Conner finds me when he steps from the bathroom, bringing the scent of hotel soap with him. He gives me an apprehensive look, his eyebrows disappearing under his sexy, wet curls. “Are you still mad at me?” he asks, tilting his head.

Mad? How can I be mad when you’re in those drool-worthy jeans, which hang perfectly on your hips and that tight-fitting shirt, accentuating your amazing arms? Mmmm.

Focus, Payton!

I shake my head, hoping to God no drool actually came out. “No, I’m not mad. Cadmar and Reiley haven’t answered. I’m worried.” I shrug, trying for nonchalance in order to keep my real emotions at bay.

He comes over, bending down so we’re on the same level, with his hands resting on my crossed legs. “They’re fine, Payton,” he assures. “Cadmar said they had something to do and, who knows, they could be driving somewhere where they don’t have service. Besides, this is Cadmar we’re talking about; he wouldn’t let anything happen to them.”

“You’re right.” I nod, but can’t help giving my phone one last wistful glance. They really could be driving through a dead zone, but I don’t feel assured.

“You love them, don’t you?”

My eyes snap to his in shock. “Of course, I do,” I tell him. That shouldn’t be a surprise, should it?

“Sometimes you act like you don’t know anything about love,” he explains, reaching up to grab a strand of my hair, twirling it around his finger. “It’s just a beautiful thing to watch someone love, who doesn’t think they have it in them.”

My heart pounds in my chest, but I have no idea why. This is such an odd thing to talk about; emotions are such complicated things and I’ve never actually discussed them with anyone before. But I do love my family; I would do anything for them. Obviously. “It isn’t a big deal.” I shrug after a long pause of him examining that strand of hair.

His hard gaze jolts to mine. “It is a big deal,” he insists. “I know you would do anything for them, because you love them.”

Jeez, he’s like a mind reader. “When did you become an expert on love?” I challenge, wanting to cross my arms, wanting to close up and not talk about this. Like ever.

Smirking, he shakes his head. “I’m not an expert, but there is one thing I learned from my mom.” His smile becomes sad, which makes my heart ache. With how awe-inspiring this guy is, I bet she was amazing; I wish I could have met her. “She taught me that love is a choice. It isn’t some feeling that comes and goes or constantly has you surrounded by butterflies filled with joy. It’s a choice you have to make. Every. Single. Day. It’s not an easy one, because the ones you choose to love can hurt you or use you or even break you, but you still make it, because it’s yours to make.”

Pausing for a long second, he grips my legs and I hold my breath.

“You need to know I choose to love you, Payton, because I simply can’t imagine not doing so. Is it an easy choice? Hell no! But I will never regret it.”

His admission, his words settle inside me, starting a slow burn in my heart, which courses through my entire body. They have me tumbling into this amazing world, which I never want to escape. A world filled with joy, hope, and love, but it isn’t always beautiful and I’m totally okay with that. But I can’t imagine how such an amazing guy chose to love someone like me. Someone who has done unthinkable things, who doesn’t deserve love in any form really.

“You can say that, even knowing who I am, what I’ve done?” My voice cracks, but I can’t care right now.

Gripping my legs harder, he looks deep into my eyes. “I’ve told you before; the things you’ve done don’t define who you are. You are the caring, sweet, passionate girl, who loves her family so much; you are willing to put yourself in danger to keep them safe.”

We stay silent, watching each other for what seems like an eternity. I can’t find the right words to tell him how unbelievably lucky I am to have him in my life. I know he’s waiting for me to say something back, but words simply won’t come.

Clearing his throat, his eyes shift back and forth, studying me. “What about you?” he asks, sounding beyond vulnerable.

I shouldn’t, because it’s mean, but I make him wait a few, very long seconds before answering. He’s just so stinking cute with his brow crinkled, his breath hitched in anticipation. Taking a deep breath, I place my hands over his. “Do I choose to love you?” I ask and he nods. “How could I not, Conner?”

Sighing in relief, he reaches up, caressing my face. “It doesn’t have to be hard, talking about emotions,” he tells me, and for some weird reason, I want to laugh, because he’s absolutely right. He’s always right. “I felt like a freaking pansy asking you that, but I needed you to realize you were capable of it and I…needed to know.”

“Well, now you know. I love you, Conner,” I say with conviction, smiling now.

Admitting it is much easier than I ever thought it would be and it’s empowering, knowing he loves me back. After smiling his breathtaking smile, he leans forward, softly brushing his lips over mine. He lingers for a moment, our lips just a breath away from each other, before leaning back.

“We should get going,” he says and I want to protest, want to complain, but yeah, we need to be responsible and stuff.

“Yeah.” I nod when he stands up straight, holding a hand out to me. “I wish today could just be a happy, fun day,” I grumble while he helps me up.

Chuckling, he shakes his head. “Yeah, me too,” he says, his bitter tone reminding me of what we’re about to face.

After checking out of the motel, we take a cab across the city to Downtown Seattle. The ocean in the distance, the clatter of traffic and trolleys teaming the streets, the buildings stacked on top of each other, all of it makes me wish we were here for any other reason. It’s familiar, but in a distant way, since the last time I was here was also not such a great time. The gray sky shouldn’t be a bad omen, but nearing the address Cadmar gave me, I only anticipate gloom ahead of us, especially with the way Conner’s hand grips mine tighter with every mile.

Only twenty minutes later, we’re parked in front of a newer apartment building in the middle of downtown. Conner pays the driver before we head up to the large, gray building, neither of us saying anything. My entire body thrums with anxiety when we step inside a small lobby, walking across the beige marble floor toward the front desk. The paunchy security guard with a strap-on Taser gives us a questioning look, as if he knows we don’t belong here.

We don’t belong here.

What the hell are we doing then?

As if sensing my hesitation, Conner places a hand on the nape of my neck, nudging me forward. I give the guard the apartment number, telling him we’re looking for Janet Darrow. He tells us she’s on the fifth floor after giving us a weird look.

Was it a weird look, or am I just projecting?

My chest tightens, my head aching from every different way this could play out running through my mind over and over. My only reassurances are Conner by my side, the gun on my hip, and the Pentothal laced with a neurotoxin in my jacket pocket. If this doesn’t go well, I will get us out of here safely.

Conner holds my hand while we take the elevator to the fifth floor, but he stays quiet the entire time. It’s understandable, since there isn’t much one could say in a situation such as this, but this silence isn’t a comfortable one. I tug on the hem of my shirt with my free hand, wondering if what I’m wearing matters at a time like this. What does one wear to meet their biological mother? Is there a dress code?

The doors open to a cream colored hallway, effectively bringing my clothing worries to a halt. Dark brown sconces are artfully placed next to each white apartment door. My breaths come in quicker and quicker with every step we take toward her apartment located at the very end of the hall. Once in front of the door, I stand with my hand raised, ready to knock. And I keep standing there.

Conner places a hand on the small of my back after I stand there for an entire minute without knocking. “We could go get some coffee first...if you’re not ready,” he whispers in my ear, as if he’s afraid someone might hear him.

I shake my head after a long pause. I can’t turn back. Not now. “No. I want to get this over with.”

“Okay.” He nods, rubbing his hand back and forth over my back, letting me know he’s here.

I know for a fact I couldn’t do this without him. The weight of this moment bears down on me with the worry of what might happen. I finally knock and the three little raps reverberate through me. Whatever happens here could change the entire course of my life.

But...absolutely nothing happens.

I knock and knock, forcing myself not to pound on the door or try kicking it down. I knock so long, there’s no way anyone in the apartment wouldn’t hear me, but no one answers. My heart sinks. And sinks. This really was for nothing. This entire trip was an enormous waste of time. I want to weep or yell, yet, a small part of me is relieved. I tried. That’s what matters. Right?

“Okay.” I look up at him, trying to plaster on a believable smile. “Let’s go enjoy the city.”

“You’re okay?” he asks, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear.

God, this guy is amazing!

I nod, not wanting to rant about how frustrated I am or cry on his shoulder. “You still want that coffee?”

“Yeah.” He gives me a reassuring smile, but it isn’t quite reassuring, because I know he’s relieved.

I’m simply irritated and let down.

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