Desert Fire

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I follow the woman at a slow pace, trying not to stand out on this crowded sidewalk. Sweat beads on the nape of my neck while the sun beats down on me. The heat makes the rotting trash in the alleys smell more rancid than usual. The shiny building reaching toward the sky is one of many, which all look the same to me. On the streets of New York City, my sisters and Loveland couldn’t seem further away. The looming buildings and humidity, literally dripping from my pores, are reminders of how far from home I am. I shake my head to keep focused on the task at hand, my target in front of me. My gaze remains on the small woman with the dark brown bun on the back of her head. She has to be roasting in her dark-maroon pantsuit.

Behind me, another woman, who looks slightly familiar follows me, her gaze trained on me, never wavering. My stomach knots. More sweat drips down my forehead, so I turn away and rush closer to my target. The corner where I’m supposed to carry out my mission is coming up. I glance behind me once more and the woman is gone. Only a few yards from the turn and a couple feet behind my target, my hands shake while I fish the small plastic tube from my coat. The tube is lighter than a feather, but bears down on my hand like a fifty-pound weight. I tip the small pin inside it to my palm, being careful not to bump any pedestrians or accidentally stick myself. When we pivot at the corner, I reach toward her, grabbing her arm with my left hand. Acting as if I’m bumping into her with the right, I keep a tight grip on the small needle when I stick it in her arm, then pull it back out.

“Ouch,” the woman yells, her sharp gaze snapping to mine. She looks down at my hand still grasping her arm then back to my face, comprehension coloring her eyes.

“What are you—?”

She breaks off, making a choking noise as her eyes bug out. Her eyes, those eyes, and how she knows what’s happening to her has me trembling, knees weakening. Pulling away, I shove around her and run down the crowded sidewalk we turned onto. I pump my legs with fierce determination, ignoring the angry shouts of the people I elbow out of the way. The woman will be dead in a minute, caused by the lethal amount of Belladonna I just injected her with; there’s no way she’ll be able to describe me to anyone, but I’m horrified I stood there so long, letting her study me, her killer.

I run and run until I’m gasping for breath, my feet aching. I detour down an alleyway where all I’m greeted by is more piles of trash. Big surprise. Leaning against the filthy wall of skyscraper, I drag each breath in through my nose then let it out through my mouth. Smothering my face in my hands, I continue breathing deeply, trying to calm myself, but the woman’s face, her knowing gaze, won’t get out of my head.

A shadow moves in my periphery before an imposing frame appears around the corner, making my heart jump up my throat. His face is familiar, but still I back further down the alley, tripping over bags of trash. He holds his hands out while drawing nearer and saying something, but I can’t hear him over my pulse pounding in my ears, accompanied by a loud buzzing. Once he gets to me, he grips my shoulders, leaning down to look in my eyes. His grasp tightens when I fight against his hold.

“Payton,” Cadmar says, his tone firm, calm. The complete opposite of me. “Payton,” he barks this time. “You did good; you did fine. It’s done.”

I whip my head back and forth, not wanting to think about what he’s saying. A woman is dead because of me...why would I think that’s a good thing?

“Payton. Payton,” he keeps saying my name, over and over, shaking me, making my head bobble on my shoulders.

“Payton?” someone else, who sounds nothing like Cadmar, says my name.

Something—a hand?—touches my arm and I jerk away hard enough I almost topple out of my chair. I grip the edge of the table to keep from falling over. A chair? Am I sitting? My surroundings come into focus. The kitchen of Cadmar’s house in Texas, the white table I’m sitting at while playing Monopoly with Conner, Reiley, and Kay. This is not an alley in New York, where I splintered at the seams. But I am. I am splintering. What the hell is wrong with me?

Conner is the one touching my arm with his brow puckered, his lips in a thin line. Is he angry with me? This is the fourth time I’ve had one of these crazy flashbacks since we got here three days ago, but if anyone has the right to be angry, it’s me. I have no idea where they’re coming from, what triggers them, but it seems to happen when my mind wanders.

Like just now, when Reiley was taking her turn and I thought about the woman who followed me in Chile when I was on my hundredth assignment to kill Conner’s dad. The mission I failed miserably. Which led to us fleeing Colorado. She was in this flashback of my first assignment; she’s been in all of them. Was she really there? Or am I projecting? Is she really my mom? I have no clue. I haven’t built up the courage or the strength to ask Cadmar, yet. I wanted a freaking break from all the drama. But that appears to be impossible.

They continue watching me, Kay with her hands tugging on her braid, but a smirk plays at the corners of Reiley’s lips, her body shaking slightly. If it was anyone else, her laughter might piss me off, but it’s Reiley. She has no idea what flashbacks are like, what real nightmares are. Even Cadmar regards me from his spot on the other side of the kitchen with his hip leaning against the cream-colored counter by the white dishwasher, but I can’t read his expression. Really, everything is a little blurry, as if they’re all vibrating.

Wait. No.

That’s me. I’m shaking, while dragging sharp pants through my teeth. Fantastic.

“Earth to Payton.” Reiley laughs, not realizing the tension clouding the air.

I glance at Conner’s hand still on my arm then at my hand, which clutches a wad of Monopoly money. I try to shake it off, but, yeah, I’m already shaking. Looking at each of them with fleeting glances in order to avoid focusing on their probing gazes, I clear my throat loudly.

“Is it my turn?” I ask, but my voice cracks. Dammit.

“Duh.” Reiley chuckles some more, folding her foot under her leg. “That’s why we’re all sitting here staring at you.”

Conner’s hand still clutches my arm. I want it gone. I’m trembling enough for him to feel it, which probably freaks him out, but I’m freaked out, so I can’t help him there. Getting some semblance of control over my limbs, I loosen my fingers from the fake money, brush his hand off, and clear my throat again.

“I’m really tired, guys,” I tell them, gazing at the moonlight shining through the back sliding door in the living room beyond the kitchen. “I think I’m gonna get some sleep.”

“But it’s only ten!” Reiley complains.

Ignoring her, I shove away from the table, almost toppling the chair over, my legs quaking beneath me. My stomach rumbles in a not so great way when I stumble past the entryway and down the hall to the bathroom. Vomiting in front of them would be an amazing ending to this night.

Kay’s whispered, “That was the fourth time,” follows me down the hall, but I block out the rest by getting in the small bathroom and closing the door with a soft click. Gripping the beige countertop, I stare at myself in the mirror. Beyond the nasty bruise along my cheek and the wide, terrified eyes, is someone who has no idea where to go next.

I’m finally on the road to figuring out who I am; I have no reason to be lost. But I’ve been on edge, anxious, since the moment we got here. We didn’t have any problems during the drive and we haven’t seen any agents since Conner and I were ambushed in Chile, but we’re all sitting on the precipice, waiting for the next shoe to drop.

I’m not sure if the stress triggered these flashbacks or if it was something else entirely. Killing the agent in Chile changed something deep within me. It was so much more than pricking someone with a poisonous needle and walking away. The way my arm crushed his trachea, how I held on until he stopped breathing, was a whole new level of killing I never wanted to experience, never wanted to know I was capable of. The image of him twitching on top of me haunts my dreams. And flashbacks plague me when I’m awake. I’m a freaking mess.

My breathing is steadier, my legs no longer wobbly, and I’ve got the vomit on lockdown, so I splash cold water on my face then brush my teeth. I hurry across the hall to the bedroom Conner and I have been using. Murmured voices drift down the hall as if they’ve completely forgotten I exist. If only . . .

While pulling my pajama shirt on, the door opens, making me gasp before Conner enters. He shuts the door while I hold a hand to my pounding chest, trying to calm down. I’m falling apart. I usually don’t spook easily, but everything inside me is off, is fragile. He stops right inside the room, watching me with his brow still crumpled, his lips mashed together, which makes no sense to me.

“You okay?” he asks, his rough tone running over my body in a soothing caress.

Mmm, if only the sound of his voice could fix whatever the hell is going on with me. Lowering my hand, I shrug. “Yeah. You just scared me.” It’s not really a lie, because he did, but I don’t want to answer the underlying question.

Coming further into the room, he stops when our toes touch. I imagine myself leaning forward to rest my cheek on his chest, to take comfort in his warm embrace. I glance up instead, studying the dark scruff on his chin along his strong jawline, the dark hair a contrast to the lighter curls on his head. He hasn’t shaved since we left Chile five days ago, so a nice, thick beard is coming in. I want him to crush his mouth to mine, to have it scratch against my face while our tongues tangle together; something we’ve been doing almost every spare minute over the last three days. That is, when Cadmar isn’t forcing us to sit in the living room or Reiley isn’t begging us to play board games.

When I finally let my gaze meet his, his dark greens bore into mine. He trails his fingers over my cheek, across my jaw, and down my neck, leaving flames in their wake before coming to rest on my shoulder. “You know that isn’t what I meant,” he whispers.

“I know.” I suck in my bottom lip, gnawing on it. “I just . . . I’m not . . . I don’t think I’m ready to talk about it yet . . .” I trail off, wishing I could look away, but his gaze holds mine hostage.

Anger contorts his face again before he’s able to cover it. I still don’t know what that’s about, but I don’t have the mental capacity to find out. Leaning forward, he kisses my forehead, his whiskers scraping against it. A sigh escapes me as I lean into him, my hands going right to his hips while I drink his masculine, clean scent in. His effect on me is crippling but I can’t get enough of it. Ever since those first days in Old Town, when I made a best friend while getting a tattoo, I’ve been crazy about him, but his hold on me becomes more potent with every second we spend together.

His hands dive into my hair, tugging lightly until I’m forced to look at him. His eyes shift back and forth for a long second, his jaw twitching, making me squirm.

“Could you just hold me for a little while?” I ask, hoping like hell he’ll drop it for tonight.

His anger is probably there because he knows something is wrong with me, but I haven’t shared yet. I will. I really want to, but I need to figure things out before I do. He’s been through so much—we’ve been through so much—I just want a little peace in his arms.

After a long pause, he nods with his brow still knit together. “Okay. But we’re talking tomorrow. Period.”

I nod. I can talk tomorrow. Hopefully.

In the queen-sized bed, bundled under the white comforter, he wraps his long arms around me, pulling my back against his front. His breath tickles the back of my neck while he holds me tight. We lay like this for a long time, until his breathing evens out and the weight of his arms pin me to the bed. But my eyes are still wide open and my mind keeps going over every detail of my most recent flashback. The woman’s face haunts me. The need to know who she is, why she’s following me, constantly nagged me.

Unable to lie still any longer, I shift off the bed, moving Conner as little as possible, but his hand wraps around my wrist. Holding in another damn gasp, I look at him. His hair is matted on one side, sticking up in all directions, looking stinking adorable.

His sleep-clouded eyes study me. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I just need a drink,” I assure him.

“Okay,” he mumbles, taking my hand and kissing it softly before rolling away from me.

Sighing in relief, I hurry from the room, heading through the dark house to the kitchen. I keep the lights off when I enter the kitchen, getting a glass out of the cabinet. I fill it with water from the faucet, trying not to make too much noise.

A chair scrapes against the tile behind me, making me spin around, sloshing water on the floor and my feet.

Cadmar sits at the kitchen table, leaning back in the chair with his arms behind his head. I can’t believe I didn’t notice him; he consumes more space than any one person should. The lights might be off, but the moonlight shines through the windows in the living room, illuminating the kitchen and half his body while his other half remains in the shadows. His dark eyes glint and sparkle while he observes me.

“Everything all right?” he inquires, his tone soft but full of malice, not kindness.

I shift my feet in the water, clutching the glass. “Yeah,” I say, forcing my lip to stay out of my mouth. “Just getting some water.”

“You having a hard time sleeping?”

“Yeah,” I say again, shrugging. “Just getting used to sleeping in a new place.” It’s an awful lie. I’ve never had a problem sleeping in unfamiliar places, and the way one of his eyebrows hitches up says he knows as much.

“Maybe you would sleep better if the kid slept on the couch.” His lips become a thin line, but his arms remain behind his head.

I instantly gain my bearings, giving him a good eye roll. He flipped when I suggested Conner and I share a room, because there are only three and I wasn’t going to make him sleep on the couch, nor was I going to cram into the other bed with Kay and Reiley. He’s been arguing his point ever since, but I won’t budge. My eighteenth birthday is only a few weeks away, and I’ll openly admit I wouldn’t have the sleeping arrangements any other way when sleeping under the same roof as Conner. We’re obviously not having all the sex Cadmar probably thinks we are, so it isn’t the big deal he’s making it to be.

“I don’t think that’s the problem.” I sip at my water, but keep my gaze on him.

He sighs in defeat, crossing his arms over his chest. He needs to get over his aversion of me making big girl decisions since I’ve been doing so for the last week. Some of them may have backfired, coming with enormous consequences, but that’s life.

“Then what is the problem, Payton?” He tilts his head. When I open my mouth to answer, he holds a hand up. “Before you give me another lie, remember I can tell when you’re lying. I want the truth. What’s happening?”

I stare at him for a long minute then take another drink. The cool water soothes my suddenly dry throat while I run through what I should tell him, whether I should ask for the answers I so crave, before setting my glass on the counter.

“I’ve been having flashbacks of my first assignments.” I sigh, looking down at my bare feet, pretending I’m interested in my tattoo, because I can’t stand to see any trace of disappointment in his eyes.

He doesn’t say anything for a long time, but I don’t look up to check whether he’s going to. “Payton,” he barks, making my gaze snap up to meet his. His look of concern takes me off guard. Or is that irritation? I can’t be sure. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

My mouth pops open while I blink rapidly. “I don’t want to have them, though,” I say, but it’s barely audible.

“Nobody wants to have them. So that’s what happened when you spaced out?” he asks and I nod. “How often?”

“That was the fourth one.” My voice quivers, even with my efforts to keep it from doing so, which pisses me off.

“Tell me about it,” he requests. His tone is soft once more, but it’s almost comforting this time, which is out of character for him.

I hesitate, sloshing my feet around in the cold water while considering again what I should tell him. He obviously wants me to confide in him, as I imagine a real dad would want his daughter to, but we’ve never done this before; I’m not sure how to go about it now.

“It was my first assignment,” I whisper. His jaw tightens, dark brows drawing together again, as if the memory has the same potency for him as it does me. He gestures with a hand to go on. “Someone was following me. It was the same woman who was in Chile.” I pause while he shifts in his seat, clearing his throat loudly, but remains silent. I have to ask him. I have to know. “Is she really my mom?”

His gaze jerks to the back sliding door, staying there long enough, I’m certain he won’t answer, but he glances back at me, his epic frown having returned. “Yes,” he says through grit teeth.

I use the counter for support when my legs wobble beneath me. I already knew, but hearing it out loud, having him confirm it, changes everything.

“And you need to know how sorry I am Scarlet threw it out there at the worst moment possible. I knew you would figure it out, but it still wasn’t fair.”

“But you adopted me from an orphanage,” I argue, ignoring his apology. Scarlet’s a spiteful bitch. It isn’t his fault. “How do you know her? And for that matter, who is she?”

He gives me a pained look before rubbing a hand over his face. “Her name is Janet Darrow. I used to work with her.” His entire body becomes rigid, the muscle working in his jaw as if talking about her is physically taxing. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that answer.

He continues in a soft tone. “That was before Scarlet and I broke off from our old agency and started working for the Elites. We’d been working together for a few years when Janet told Scarlet she was pregnant.” He pauses, looking away for another second, his hands fisting on his knees. “She was scared,” he continues, still looking off in the distance. “Not because she was afraid of being a mom. She wanted to continue working, but she was afraid of what the agency would do if they found out she was pregnant. She was afraid they would terminate her. She disappeared for a year. We had no idea where she went, but when she came back, she wasn’t pregnant and she didn’t bring a baby up again.”

When he pauses again, I hold in a sigh of relief. I need a minute to breathe, to gather my thoughts. My fingers grip the counter so hard my nails bend. My real mom was ashamed of having a baby, which is how I ended up an orphan. She didn’t want anything to do with me, so why is she looking for me now? To catch up over a cup of hot chocolate? Not likely.

“Scarlet and I were married by then,” he finally goes on. “We came up with our plan when we first found out your mom was pregnant. When she came back and never mentioned you, we went looking. It didn’t take long to find you, and once we did, the whole process went very quickly.” He says this all in a calculating tone, completely emotionless. It stings like a bitch.

“So, there we were.” His tone is bitter now and he has no idea how much it hurts. “We had a clear plan. We had our first daughter and we were leaving the agency to start working for the Elites. Three years later, we were living in the castle with five girls. We became parents and trained you all to be killers.” He’s wearing this harsh smile; regret radiates off him, pouring into me.

I try not to let it hurt too much, because I know he doesn’t regret us, but maybe he regrets the rest of it; being with Scarlet and training us to be assassins. He studies me again, his eyes shifting back and forth, no longer looking bitter, but his lips still tug down at the corners. Getting up from his chair, he comes to stand in front of me.

“Payton.” He rests his hands on my shoulders. I want to pull away from him, but I’m paralyzed. This big, hulking man is showing affection, something that’s unheard of. “You have to understand, everything we did then means nothing to me now. The reasons we adopted you mean nothing. We did train you to be killers and there’s nothing I can do to change that, but if it’s not the life you want, you don’t have to have it.”

My mouth hangs open for a moment until I force it shut. Is he giving me permission to leave this all behind? “I don’t understand,” I say slowly. “I can’t live a normal life anymore anyway. I’ve destroyed everything. Now we all have to stay in hiding because of me.”

“It was bound to be ruined at some point.” He shrugs, making my mind spin even more. “There was no way we could rely on teenage girls to stick to everything we taught them, only because it was what we taught them. Our plan was so very flawed; I see that now. When we first adopted you, I fell in love with you, the little baby girl I had to be a father to. I fell in love with all of you; how could I not? But you, you shattered something within me, you shattered the icy shell I constantly surrounded myself with. That’s why I tried to train you to be so tough, because if anything ever hurt you, I would have gone crazy.” Pausing, he glares at my bandaged shoulder. “I guess you can say I did go crazy.”

The memory of how wild he looked, trying to hurt Scarlet after she flung a dagger at me, somehow reassures me. Funny how the awful scar on my shoulder, caused by Scarlet’s dagger will be a constant reminder that he doesn’t regret us. He may regret not having the free life he had before all of us, but he fell in love with his daughters and in love with being a dad. The magnitude of what he took on, what changes he’s made for us is overwhelming.

“Do you know why she’s following me?” I ask, needing to move on, desperate for more answers. “I can’t say.” He gives my shoulders a light squeeze before moving back to lean against the opposite counter.

Our touching moment is over. A sharp pain twinges in my chest at the loss, but I brush it off. I should be grateful for what little I got. “All I know right now is where she lives. I don’t even know if she’s still working for the same agency. When I got to her in Santiago, she ran and I was too worried about you to go after her.”

“Well, I would like to know why.” I lift my chin, crossing my arms over my chest. “And I would like to know how she tracked me down.”

“That’s something we can discuss another time.” He gives me a pointed look, obviously not wanting to examine this further. “You need to get more sleep.”

“Okay.” I can let this absorb before we get into the how’s and why’s. But there’s one other thing I need to know before I can let this rest, one thing I’ve never questioned, never asked about. It needs to be asked about now. “Before I go to bed, I want to talk about the Elites,” I blurt when he turns for his room.

His gaze snaps to mine, eyes thin slits. So it’s a touchy subject, especially with everything going on, but it can’t be avoided any longer. “Not right now,” he growls.

“I’ve never asked, not once. I have the right to know about the people I’ve been killing for over almost three years now.” I jab a finger at him, a fist planted on my hip.

“There isn’t a lot to tell, Payton,” he concedes. “You know they’re a shadow corporation; we don’t have much information beyond that. I thought we were working for the good guys, the ones trying to make the world a safer place to live, but like every other government or corporate entity, they have an agenda. What that agenda is, I am not sure yet. I have been doing some research and digging around as much as I could since things went to shit, but I haven’t found out as much as I would like.”

“There has to be more than that.”

“There isn’t . . . not yet.” He crosses his arms, his gaze shifting over my shoulder, closing off again. “Get to bed. We will discuss more later.”

With that, he heads for his room. It’s surprising he gave me the amount of information he did, but I itch for more. Still, I can let this all simmer, maybe do some research of my own or see what Kay knows on the topic of the Elites. She’s our bottomless Encyclopedia. When his door clicks shut, I wipe my water mess up then go to my room.

When I crawl in the bed, Conner rolls over, pulling me back against his body. The warmth of his arms, of him surrounding me, seeps into my skin and has me unwinding. He kisses my hair then runs a hand through it and my mind finally shuts up long enough for sleep to find me.

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