Desert Fire

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Eleven

Payton

After stopping at one of the many coffee shops, which are literally on every corner, I try calling Cadmar again while we walk down the boardwalk with coffee and scones in hand. I know he won’t answer, because, otherwise, he would have called me back already, but I try anyway, growing more and more worried with every ring, gnawing on my bottom lip until it’s basically just meat. Something has to be wrong; I know it deep in my gut.

“Should we go back to the airport and head for the base?” Conner asks, while we continue walking and I stare at my phone.

Should we? I just don’t know. “I don’t think that’s the answer.” I shake my head then take a sip of my coffee to do something other than stare at the phone. “Even if we got there, I have no idea what Cadmar’s planning or where he’s planning to do it, so we would never be able to find them.” I pause, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to look up at him. “Maybe we stay a little longer and go back to Janet’s before we leave, just to be thorough.”

He considers me for a long minute with a hard look before his eyes soften and he nods. “Okay. Well, why don’t we tour the city for a little bit to keep your mind occupied.”

The thought of having fun while something may be happening to Cadmar and my sisters makes my stomach hurt, but I don’t know what else to do. Why not enjoy the day with Conner while I worry? There’s no harm in that, is there?

“Okay,” I agree reluctantly, not knowing if I’ll actually be able to enjoy anything right now.

While we make our way further down the boardwalk, the ocean lapping at the sidewalk where hundreds of boats are anchored, I’m reminded of the one and only actual vacation Cadmar and Scarlet took us on. We were busy growing up while they went on their weekend vacations, leaving us with our tutor, Silva. I always wondered why she never questioned our odd living arrangements, but I now realize she was probably supplied to us by the Elites themselves, or Cadmar and Scarlet paid her a stupid amount of money to stay quiet.

Anyway, I got really jealous about them always going on these vacations, which I’m not sure if they were actual vacations or assignments of their own, but it didn’t matter at the time. The only time we ever got to leave the house to go somewhere cool was for educational purposes. So one day, when I was ten, I’d had enough. I came up with a plan to convince them to take us on a real vacation and I even got all the girls in on it.

After much begging and pleading and bargaining to train extra hard for the time we would take off, we finally persuaded them. Now, as a ten-year-old girl who watched a good amount of TV, I had hopes for a fun vacation in Disneyland or Hawaii or somewhere exciting. But no, we ended up going to Yellowstone. It’s a beautiful place; don’t get me wrong, but not really what I was imagining.

It was in driving distance, so we all piled in the one SUV we owned, which was big enough to fit us all, and got on the road. Even though I was disappointed with our destination, I was still determined to enjoy myself and help my sisters do the same. However, this proved to be impossible.

Once we arrived at the park, Bryn and Eva instantly started whining, soon to be joined by Reiley. Kay, who was just getting into reading beyond entertaining novels, read every piece of literature on Yellowstone she could get her hands on and took it upon herself to give us all the grand, extremely detailed tour. All the while, Cadmar wore a frown while Scarlet snapped commands at all of us, not wanting us to have too much fun. It was miserable and we never braved a vacation like that ever again.

This, with Conner, will be absolutely nothing like that! I will be damned if we don’t enjoy every second of it.

He wraps an arm around me with a smile, which I want to believe is genuine and not only there to make me feel better. “So where do you want to go first?”

“Can we go to the Market? I’ve never been.” “Have you been in Seattle before?”

“I have.” I shrug. “I’ve just never been able to enjoy the city. I’ve been around the world, but never been able to enjoy any of it.”

He nods, understanding in his eyes. I appreciate how he doesn’t prod, how he doesn’t ask what I did the last time I was here. I don’t want the joy of this stolen day dampened by dark memories. He pulls me tighter against his side and directs us toward Pike Place.

The sidewalks and streets are teeming with people. The cool ocean air brings a chill, which forces me to pull a coat from my backpack. The breeze blows my hair in my face, but it’s so beautiful here I can hardly care. Instead of griping, I pull my hair into a ponytail, hoping it looks okay since no mirror is present. I would think with the cold weather, and the fact it’s a weekday, some of the people would be shied away, but they’re everywhere. The Market is crowded, all the shops filled with people. We start out in one of the seafood markets, the scent of fish and shellfish overwhelming me. After looking around for a few minutes, Conner tries to get me to buy some mussels because he wants to see if I like them.

“I am not trying those.” I shake my head, holding in a shriek when he holds one out to me.

“They’re not so bad.” He laughs at my crinkled nose.

“I only like cooked seafood.” I hold a hand

against his chest, keeping the slimy thing a good distance away. “And that’s only on the rare occasion.”

“It’s like swallowing really salty slime.” He smiles crookedly when he puts it back. “What’s not to like?”

“Nuh-uh.” I shake my head some more, but can’t help smiling; he’s so damn cute.

“Chicken,” he mutters, his shoulders shaking with laughter when I lightly punch his arm.

Rolling my eyes, I duck out of the shop, leaving him behind. He laughs even louder, running up behind me to tug on a lock of my hair. His laughter is the sweetest sound I’ve heard in the last week, making me feel like I haven’t heard it in a very long time. With all the shit going on, we haven’t had a moment to relax and have fun; I’m lighter, calmer, finally getting the chance to enjoy our time together. This is probably the worst time to be doing so, but why not have a moment of light in the midst of darkness?

Twining his fingers with mine, he pulls me toward a small photo gallery. We take our time, looking at all the photos while Conner makes snarky comments about some of the silly photos that make no sense. I laugh harder than I have all week, drawing glares from the other patrons, but I simply don’t give a damn.

When we’re done in there, we peruse some of the other shops. I especially enjoy the music and bookshops because they make me think of Kay and Reiley. I have to refrain from buying gifts for them, because I’m sure Cadmar would get mad we spent time having fun, rather than doing what we came here to do. We go into a candy shop and I give in to buying some chocolate for Kay and a bag of assorted jellybeans for Reiley. They’re constantly on my mind, the worry my constant companion, but I think happy thoughts, hoping they’ll call me at some point to let me know my concern was futile.

After leaving the Market, Conner takes us back down the boardwalk, leading us to a small café. Even though it’s small, the elegant décor and the amazing scent of food makes it welcoming. We’re immediately led to a corner table and left with menus and the promise our waiter will be with us soon. When the waiter comes, we order our drinks and food, me a turkey sandwich with some fries and him a lobster roll with coleslaw. Blech.

He shakes his head when the waiter leaves to put our order in. Tilting my head, I raise my eyebrows in question. “We’re in one of the greatest seafood capitals of the country and you just ordered a turkey sandwich.” His lips twitch while he fights back laughter.

I roll my eyes, but smile. “I told you I only like it on the rare occasion.”

This should be one of those rare occasions.” He points at the table, his crooked smile in place, making me melt a little. Mmmm, he’s damn sexy. “My lobster roll is going to come out and you’re going to wish you got something with seafood in it.”

“Nope.” I shake my head, mostly trying to dislodge the hold his smile has on me. “I’m certain my turkey sandwich will be just what I wanted.”

Reaching across the table, he grabs my hand after the waiter brings our drinks over. “You know what this is, right?” he asks, his voice rough, serious now.

“What?” I ask, confused by his mood change.

“This is our first real date.” His smile becomes so radiant, making my heart pound in my chest. “I never got to take you on one.”

“Well, I think this trumps all first dates in the history of first dates,” I declare, squeezing his fingers.

It’s true. This has been the absolute best day of my life, which has guilt consuming me all over again. I’m such an awful person for having fun while my family may be in danger. I try shaking my dumpy mood when our food is brought to the table. I’m pretty sure he caught on to my worry, since he keeps trying to get me to try his lobster roll, insisting it’s way better than my sandwich. Finally giving in, I take a bite…and he shoves the small amount that’s left in my face. He shakes with laughter when I growl at him while brushing the flakes of lobster off my lap.

“That was rude.” I glare, but I’m certain it’s not convincing.

“You want to throw some fries at me or something?” he suggest with a chuckle.

Pressing my lips together, I shake my head. “I’ll get even when you least expect it.” I smile wickedly.

He bursts out laughing, causing most of the restaurant’s inhabitants to glance our way while I resist the urge to dump my drink on his head the rest of the time we’re there. He continues chuckling even after we leave the café, because a bunch of lobster I didn’t see fell from my lap when we stood to leave. But I can’t even be a little mad—even though my face smells like lobster and I’m pretty sure I’m as red as a lobster— because I love how much fun we’re having.

From there he leads us to the Ferris wheel, buying us tickets. The line stretches around the outer fence, so I suggest we grab ice cream cones for dessert, even though the ocean air is freezing. He doesn’t see it coming when I smash mine in his face right after taking a few licks. I double over with laughter at the sight of his nose and mouth covered in chocolate ice cream. I go to run away when a wicked smile stretches across his face, but he snatches me around the waist. A shriek escapes me when he spins me around, crushing his lips to mine, effectively smearing the ice cream all over my mouth. I couldn’t care less though, because his tongue swirls with mine, mixing the sweet flavors of our ice cream together, causing my entire body to light on fire.

“Mmmm.” He pulls back, grinning at me. “So sweet.”

“I told you I would get even.” I laugh, trying to cover the blush creeping up my neck while I wipe at his face with a napkin.

He pulls me close while we finish helping each other get cleaned up right before it’s our turn to get on the Ferris wheel. Once we’re on, I decide it was totally worth the wait. The salty air blows, making the seat swing lightly. The city stretches out on one side, the ocean on the other. It’s too beautiful for words. Conner keeps an arm wrapped around me, the heat of his body keeping me warm. We stay silent, simply enjoying the beauty of this moment. Closing my eyes, I tilt my head up, breathing in the fresh air. I keep them closed when his fingers brush over my cheek, down my neck and arm.

“You are so stinking beautiful,” he whispers, his lips brushing my ear, causing a shiver to vibrate through me.

Glancing up at him, I smile from ear to ear, unable to contain the joy coursing through me. I lean closer into him, snuggling against his side. “I wish this day could last forever.” I sigh, knowing, as all good things go in my life, this will have to end at some point.

He doesn’t say anything, only nods his head, which rests against the top of mine. As I guessed, the joy doesn’t last nearly long enough. My heart thuds when I spot her in my periphery while we’re getting off the wheel. She’s fifteen yards away, watching us with a cold, emotionless expression, wearing black slacks, a gray shirt, and a black, thigh-length coat with her dark hair pulled back in a bun. Rather than going to her, confronting her, doing what I freaking came here to do, I grab Conner’s hand and flee, because I’m a giant coward. Pulling us back toward the Market, I allow the crowd to engulf us.

Conner tries stopping me, asking what’s wrong, what I’m doing, but I can’t stop. I won’t. I hurry for a bus, getting us on right when it’s pulling away from the stop. She’s right on the sidewalk where we were just standing, sneering at us. All the happiness, which filled me only minutes ago, is replaced with dread, all because of the look my “mother” just gave me.

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