Desert Fire

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Fourteen

Payton

We hurry down the sidewalk toward the Chinatown Gate. Maybe if we get in there, it will be crowded enough we can blend. Ha! You’ll never be able to blend, never be able to hide. Panic is the name of the game and I’m the lead player. Or I’m the measly pawn, being pushed around by the real players who know what the hell is actually going on. Maybe even a scared mouse, scurrying around, trying to find a damn safe place to hide, but traps surround me. Whatever I am, I’m not in control and I’m very aware of the fact.

My entire life, everything I did was decided for me by either Scarlet or Cadmar. I never really minded until I got older and started killing people. Having that decision made for me was the absolute worst thing one human being could do to another, but it was what I was training to do, so there was no shock in it. When the time came, I knew what I was supposed to do and I did it, mostly without hesitation. Now, realizing I had no place to hide, no place to go, horrified me to my very core.

When we got off the bus five stops after getting on it, I just started walking, pulling a reluctant Conner behind me. He was pissed when he realized it was Janet who stood outside the bus, unable to understand why I didn’t talk to her, why I hadn’t done the very thing I came to do.

“Didn’t you see the look she just gave me?” I demanded, sounding as panicked as I felt. “It didn’t really seem like she was happy to see me.”

“You have a point there,” he admitted, but his lips became a thin line. “But this is what we came here for. She found us and you ran away.”

I yanked back from him as if he slapped me, because I despised being accused of running, the exact thing I was doing. “She did find us,” I said through grit teeth, mostly pissed at myself for being such an idiot and pissed at the situation. “How did she find us? How does she keep finding me? We’ve used only cash here, so even if she found out we were at her building, how the hell did she find us in the middle of the city?”

“Didn’t you already suspect she could find you?” he demanded, getting in my face, crowding me. “Isn’t that how you convinced Cadmar to let you come, so you could figure out how she was finding you?”

“Yes, but this is actual, physical proof,” I argued, not wanting to face the real reasons why I came, because they were all shot to hell the second I saw that look on her face.

“It was only a theory,” he growled. “It was a way for you to convince Cadmar to let you come.”

I didn’t confirm or deny, but he knew, he knew what I was trying so hard to hide. We sat in silence for the next five stops, him staring off in the distance with his jaw twitching. When we got off, I didn’t know what else to do. I thought about going back to the plane and getting back to Cadmar, but I now know she can find me wherever I go. Maybe I should let her find me and finally confront her.

Conner pulls me to a standstill, making me face him right under the gate. “What are we doing, Payton?” he demands, his hand gripping my arm.

“I don’t know.” I shrug in defeat. “Getting away from her?” The question’s pathetic. I’m so tired of running.

“If you want to get away from her, rather than confronting her, then we should be taking a cab back to the airport. But you already know that, so tell me what you really want to do.”

He knows me too well. “I don’t know what I want to do.” I groan, covering my face with my hands.

“Yes, you do.” He pulls my hands away, giving me a hard look. “I’m here to help you. She can’t hurt you, Payton. You’re strong; you don’t need to be so worried. And if worse comes to worse, I would hit a woman…if I had to.”

He’s trying to make me smile, even now in this crappy moment. “I’m scared, though,” I hate admitting it, but it’s true. I was in such a rush to get here, I had no idea it would be this hard once we were actually here. I am such an idiot.

He pulls me into his arms, resting his chin on my head. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” his voice rumbles through his chest and into me. “Now be the strong woman I know you are and let’s figure this out.”

I pull back to look up at him. “We now know she has a way to find me, there’s no other explanation,” I say and his eyes harden with anger, but he nods his agreement. “If that’s the case, I would really like to know how and figure out what I have to do so she can’t anymore. Since she’s obviously able to so easily, then we should pick the place we want her to find us.”

“Someplace in the open, obviously.” He nods, seeming relieved we’re actually coming up with a plan of some sort. “How about one of the million coffee shops? They’re always crowded. If you don’t like what she has to say, we leave. She can’t hurt you in front of a ton of people. And again, I’ll be there. Okay?”

“Okay.” I nod. “Okay. I can do this.” I keep nodding until he grasps my cheeks, gazing into my eyes.

We can do this.” “Yeah.”

When we’re about to leave, my phone finally vibrates in my pocket and I hurry to pull it out, seeing it’s a text from Reiley. Relief coursing through me, I stop to read it and Conner halts next to me to read over my shoulder.

R: You will never believe the craziness that is this day!

“What does that mean?” Conner asks over my shoulder, sounding as concerned as I feel.

I only shake my head with a shrug, because I have no idea, but my stomach is in my throat. I’ve been trying to get ahold of them all day and Reiley only now responds with something like that? But her text means Cadmar should answer his phone finally. “I’m going to call Cadmar,” I tell Conner before hurrying to dial him without responding to Reiley.

On the fourth ring, I’m afraid he isn’t going to answer; he usually answers on the first ring. I sigh when he answers with his usual, “Yeah?” But it sounds strained, making my stomach clench some more.

“Cadmar, what the hell is going on?” I demand in frustration.

“Have you met with Janet yet? Is that why you called?” he completely ignores my question, making me want to growl.

“I called the first time because she wasn’t at the apartment,” I tell him, even though he didn’t answer my question. “We hung around since you weren’t answering and she ended up finding us in the middle of Downtown. I umm…I lost her…but we came up with a plan for me to confront her.”

“So our suspicion was correct,” he states before sighing. “Whatever your plan is, I want you back at the base tonight rather than tomorrow, got it?”

“Cadmar, you need to tell me what’s going on. You didn’t answer any of my calls, which is totally unlike you, Reiley texts me to tell me I won’t believe what happened today, and now you’re demanding I cut this short; what happened?”

He’s silent for a moment, making me think he won’t answer, but he sighs again. “We had a run-in with Scarlet, but I…handled it.” He doesn’t say anymore, which drives me insane.

“What? Where? What did she do?” I ask through gritted teeth, panic creeping up my throat while Conner gives me a worried look. “You need to give me more details than that.”

“No, you need to stay focused,” he contradicts, making me grip the phone in order to keep myself from throwing it. “Finish your task and get back to the base. We will fill you in there.”

What did Scarlet do to the girls? Is it so terrible I can’t handle it right now? We should have killed her when we had the chance. I want to keep demanding, want to keep arguing, but he’s right; I need to get this done and I won’t be able to if I’m worried about the girls. I’m already worried. But it isn’t as if I can hurry to them, and it would be pointless if he actually did handle it, which I’m certain he did. You’ll see them tonight; you can make sure they’re okay then, I reassure myself.

“Fine,” I sigh in total defeat.

“Good,” he grunts. “I’ll make sure the pilot is ready for you at eight. Be there.”

“Okay,” is all I get out before the line goes dead.

Jeez, he can be so frustrating, especially when he’s in a mood.

“What happened?” Conner asks with a creased brow when I put my phone back in my pocket.

“They ran into Scarlet, but he didn’t give me any

details,” I tell him, the worry leaking into my voice.

His jaw tightens, eyes flashing with anger, but he quickly covers it. Gripping my arms, he pulls me close enough to smell his amazing scent, which covers the aroma of Chinese food coming from the closest restaurant. I breathe him in, letting it calm me.

“They’ll be okay,” he tells me with understanding in his eyes. “Remember, they’re with Cadmar; he wouldn’t let anything happen to them.”

“You’re right.” I nod, trying to let that put my mind at ease…but it doesn’t. “Let’s get this over with,” I say with a new wave of determination.

“You sure?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.

I nod again and he sighs, which only slightly frustrates me. I’m sure he would still rather this didn’t work out, that we wouldn’t have to meet Janet, but there’s no stopping it now. He twines his fingers with mine before we head down the street.

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