Desert Fire

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After two more pit stops, and without being followed, Cadmar pulls up to a small, rundown motel in Farmington, New Mexico. We may be far enough from the Elites now, but there’s no point in tempting the Fates by using a credit card at a big hotel. Cadmar parks the Jeep by the front lobby, Conner pulling in next to him, having taken over driving at the last stop. Cadmar hurries inside while we wait for him to get a room.

Once he gets the keys, we pull around to the room and unload our bare essentials. The room is like any other motel room, with stained carpet, which smells like a mixture of musk and cigarette smoke, dingy wallpaper, and one questionable green chair. We ignore Reiley’s grumbling about having to stay in a crappy motel while we choose who gets which squeaky bed with the ugly brown comforters. Apparently, her mood hasn’t improved one bit. Again, I want to comfort her, but now I’m caught up in thoughts of when I should talk to Cadmar and what I should say.

Talking to him sooner rather than later is the best plan, so we can leave, get it over with, get my answers, and, hopefully, some help. It may be naïve to think it will benefit us, but I have to keep hope or the pessimism will consume me. Hope has always been my go-to, which is why I got a Gravel Ghost, my symbol of hope, tattooed on my foot. I’ll always have it with me to remind myself to keep hope.

Conner watches me while we get settled in, maybe wondering when I’m going to talk to Cadmar, too, or perhaps he’s waiting for me to crack or something. Who knows? Reiley plops down on one bed with her earbuds in and music blasting while Kay goes to the other with a book in hand. Cadmar stands at the front of the room watching us with a mixture of anger and restlessness. I’m certain he’s pissed we’re on the run again. Does he blame me for this? Maybe even hate me a little? After all, it is my fault.

After a couple minutes of standing there silently, Conner gives me a quick kiss on the cheek then excuses himself to the bathroom, saying he needs a shower. Understandable, since his knuckles still look pretty rough and we’ve been driving for hours. I’m left there, standing close to Cadmar, unsure of what to do with myself. Sitting dormant is the bane of my existence; I wish we had a plan, had something helpful to do. Being on the run is getting old fast and it will never end. We’ll have to keep moving, always being confined to crappy motels…because of me. Which gives me all the more reason to leave them and get my answers.

Cadmar looks at me with hard eyes when the shower turns on in the bathroom. “I need to get some things, including dinner,” he tells me, his gaze shifting around the room between the girls and me. “I want you to keep the door locked and keep an eye on things.”

“Okay. Things might be a little easier if we had phones,” I point out.

“I’ll grab some throwaways.” He grunts before heading for the door.

Glancing at the girls, I confirm they’re caught up in their own thing and decide this is as good a time as any. I need to tell Cadmar what I want to do and, hopefully, get a plan put together. Cadmar’s already out the door, so I rush after him. He spins around the second I open it, giving me a hard glare.

“I said to lock the door, not follow me out here,” he growls, looking around the lot as if someone is going to ambush us.

We’re in danger, no matter where we are. My family is in jeopardy as long as they’re around me. Me being away from them for a while will make them safer. I have to convince Cadmar to let me do this; it’s the only way it can work. I can talk a big talk, saying I’ll do this with or without his consent, but if he doesn’t want me to go, he’ll probably zip tie me in the room.

“I needed to talk to you for a minute,” I tell him, and he raises his eyebrows. “In private,” I add.

Squeezing his eyes shut, he rubs a hand over his face. The sight of him struggling, even slightly, scares the shit out of me. He usually holds it together so well, especially in times of distress. I’m certain it will help if I go on my little mission, so he has two less people to worry about. He’ll be angry about it initially, but, hopefully, when he’s see’s the logic in it, he will give in.

When he finally looks at me, a hint of turmoil flashes through his eyes before his stone mask is firmly in place. This day has worn on him—on all of us—and I’m going to do what I can to make it better. He leans against a post, motioning with a hand for me to speak before crossing his arms over his chest.

I clear my throat before speaking. “Kay told me what the agent said, about them needing to get us girls out alive,” I tell him, deciding on what I think is the best angle to go at this, but he literally snarls, baring his teeth at me. Okay, so maybe not. I hurry on anyway. “I was thinking a lot about how they found us during the drive, because you said Scarlet didn’t know about that house, which I’m assuming means no one did. We also took precautions with tossing our electronic devices and taking the GPS off the Jeep. It should have taken them much longer to find us, so how were they able to so quickly?”

“Point, Payton,” he barks, making me flinch, which I try to hide.

“I was thinking about what we spoke about last night,” I begin, but don’t get any further because he holds a hand up, stopping me.

Don’t go there, Payton,” he grits out, keeping his hand up, his eyes sharp with anger. “This day has already been shit. I won’t deal with anymore.”

“But if we can get it figured out, we should do so now, not later,” I argue, trying to keep my voice even, my temper under control.

He gets the upper hand if I let my emotions take over, if I show how much I want this. I have to go about it in a logical way if I have any hope of convincing him. His eyes become thin slits, but he doesn’t say anything, so I continue, hoping he’ll let me get it all out.

“I’ve been thinking about Janet. If she was able to follow me on any assignments, she must have a way of finding me. If that’s true, then maybe we should find her and get some answers.” I get this all out in a rush, so he didn’t get the chance to interrupt me.

“Absolutely not.” He shakes his head, but the mask is back, so I can’t tell what he’s feeling. “I have other plans for us; we don’t have the time to chase Janet around based on an assumption. I can deal with them finding us for now, if they find us again, and I’ll deal with her once things are settled.”

I hold my tongue for a moment because I want to snap back. I want to fight and argue, but it won’t get me anywhere. Calm down, Payton; you’ve got this. I take a deep breath while he watches me closely. “Based on the assumption she’s able to find me, if I went to find her and get answers, it would lead them or her away from you. It would give you time to get whatever it is you need to get done, done. Even if she isn’t the one leading them to us, I still think it is somehow connected to me. So no matter what, it would keep you all safe until we have some answers.”

He stays silent for a long minute, both of us watching each other as if we’re playing a high-stakes poker game and we’re waiting for the other to give something away. His face remains blank and I try to do the same with mine, but I’m not sure it’s working.

“You don’t know Janet like I do,” he finally speaks, his tone strained. “She’s most likely not following you to have a nice chat and catch up.” He pauses, giving me a pointed look, telling me he sees right through my plan. “I know you want answers, I believe that, but I also know you have an agenda here. She isn’t a nice person, Payton. If you think I’m cold and calculating, she’s a million times more so than I am and she very rarely tells the truth. Even if I let you do this and if you’re able to find her, you probably won’t get any straight answers from her.”

A tiny spark of hope ignites in my chest because the way he says all this sounds as if he’s about to give in. But I keep my face composed, so he doesn’t see the hope and snuff it out. “I could use the Pentothal, Cadmar,” I tell him. “As long as I can get close to her, which I’m sure won’t be hard if I find her, I can get some in her and get real answers. She may know how I do things after watching me, but I’m positive she’ll underestimate me, because most do. I can do this, Cadmar, and it would make things easier for all of us in the end.”

He remains quiet again, considering me as if he might actually say yes, and I basically stop breathing. I want him to let me do this so badly; although, it’s probably idiotic of me. I do want my answers, but the small girl inside me really wants to meet her biological mother. He keeps his arms crossed, his face hard while mulling it over until finally running a hand over his face with a heavy sigh. Standing up straight, he comes toward me until he’s only a few inches away, staring down at me.

“I’ll give you thirty-six hours,” he says, sounding extremely reluctant, and I hold in a sigh of relief or excitement or anxiety…who knows what the heck I’m feeling? All I can say is every nerve inside me goes haywire. It takes a lot of concentration to pay attention when he goes on.

“I’ll set up a flight to Seattle for tomorrow morning. You’ll find her, get your damn answers, and then fly back to the base where we’ll meet up.” He pauses and I open my mouth to ask why the base? I would think it would be one of the most dangerous places for us to be, but he continues before I can interrupt. “And you’re taking Kadence with you. This is too close to home for you; I can’t rely on you to keep your emotions out of it. We’ve all seen what happens when your emotions get in the way.”

Ouch. That was uncalled for, but I don’t say as much. He’s letting me go! I want to throw my arms around him and give him a bear hug, but I restrain myself. That would be a deal-breaker for sure. The only thing is I have to convince him to let Conner go with me, instead of Kay.

“I already planned on taking Conner with me,” I explain, keeping my game face on. “He’s opposed to me going, so you can rely on him to keep me thinking logically. Also, you won’t have to worry about keeping him safe and you can keep Kay with you to help with Reiley, because you know she’s going to throw a tantrum when she finds out she doesn’t get to go with me. It will be especially huge because she was left out of the fight this morning.”

He gives me a pained look. I can’t imagine how hard it is for him to agree to this. He always wants to protect me, but just like all my assignments, I have to do this on my own.

“I can’t believe I’m letting you do this.” He sighs, his shoulders slumping. “You realize how much danger you’ll be in and that I can’t help you, right?”

“Yes,” I confirm, but excitement definitely wins out against any fear, which confirms my insanity.

“Okay. I’ll get everything set up while I’m out. You’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning. I want this done, yeah?” He raises an eyebrow, appraising me.

I bob my head up and down, forcing myself to not bounce with joy. I can handle this. “Thank you, Cadmar.” I let my appreciation slip and mentally smack myself in the face when his eyes become slits again.

“Get rid of the gratitude before I get back or I’ll change my mind.”

He pivots for the Jeep, leaving me to soak in my giddiness, which I need to get under control before he gets back. But I can’t help smiling to myself after he peels out of the lot. I bask in my accomplishment before going back to the room. I did the impossible, convincing Cadmar to let me do something which is both extremely dangerous and reckless. Shaking my limbs out and stretching my neck, I try to get rid of some of the excitement, but it’s ultimately impossible, so I give up and go back to the room.

Conner comes out of the bathroom right when I step inside. The smell of soap hits me while I take in his wet, dirty-blond curls and clean-shaven face, which has me wearing a frowny face; his sexy scruff was growing on me. I’m openly gaping at him, which is okay because he’s my boyfriend, right? Who wouldn’t gawk at their super-hot boyfriend? A smirk plays at his lips while he watches me ogle him, but it falls and his eyebrows shoot up when he realizes I’m coming in from outside.

“What were you doing?” he asks.

I almost don’t want to answer, strictly because I don’t want another fight. I would much rather make out; his lips look so soft with all the facial hair missing. Buuuut I can’t keep this from him, especially since we’re supposed to leave in the morning. Glancing over his shoulder, I make sure the girls are still preoccupied. Reiley is still messing with her iPod with her earbuds in, the faint sound of whatever screaming band she’s listening to streaming from them. Kay is still reading, but she glances at me as if to say she noticed me following Cadmar outside. Whether she’ll ask about it is unknown; she’s never been the curious type like Reiley.

I turn my gaze back to Conner, fidgeting with my nails. “I talked to Cadmar about what we discussed,” I whisper.

“And?” he prompts, sounding slightly amused as if he’s surprised I confronted Cadmar, which angers me a bit.

And…we’re flying to Seattle tomorrow morning,” I put it out there, trying to keep my smugness at bay, but the amusement is wiped from his eyes, exactly as I wanted. Then I instantly feel a pang of guilt from the panic in his eyes, because I’m putting his life in danger, yet again. I am the worst girlfriend in the world.

“He’s okay with you going?” he asks. It appears he’s trying to get rid of the panic, but it’s still in the depths of those beautiful greens.

“Look, Conner,” I sigh, but keep my voice low so we’re not overheard. “I know you don’t want me to do this and I have the feeling you don’t really want to go with me. I’m asking you to put your life in danger…again…and it isn’t right. So please don’t feel like you’re stuck with me or like you have to go with me. Kay could go with me if you don’t want to.”

“Really, Payton?”

“Yes, really.” I place my hand on his arm, trying to be gentle, rather than angry. I’ve already put him in so much danger; I shouldn’t expect him to jump into more with me. “You know how sorry I am you’ve been dragged into this because of my selfishness and irresponsibility. I don’t want us to be in this relationship because you feel like you’re stuck with me. Please, if you feel like this is an obligation…well…don’t.”

He wraps his long fingers around my arms, pulling me closer to gaze down at me with his brow furrowed. “If I felt like this was an obligation, I would have left already,” he angry whispers. “I don’t do things I’m obligated to do. Do I want you to do this? No. Do I want to go with you? Of course I do. I have to be sure you’re safe.”

He grips my arms tighter, leaning forward as if he’s about to kiss me, but Reiley appears behind him with her pierced eyebrow hitched up. “What are you two whispering about over here?” she demands, sounding cranky as ever.

Conner gives me a pointed look before dropping his hands to his sides and turning his gaze to her. I’m not sure if the look was him telling me I need to tell them what we’re doing or what. I should, I know I should. I have to before we leave; I just don’t want to. It’s going to be a mess, I’m sure of it. Reiley will be devastated she can’t go with us.

She continues staring, waiting for an answer, and now Kay looks at us with curious eyes. I don’t know what to say to them, but I have to say something. Oh, boy, this will be fun. I glance at Conner once more, but he avoids my gaze with his lips in a thin line. We were having a moment there, but he’s pissed again. I can’t keep up with the mood swings.

Looking back at Reiley, I gesture toward the bed. “If you’d sit down for a minute, I need to talk to both of you,” I tell them all formal-like.

Kay puts her book down immediately and sits Indian-style, whereas Reiley shifts her eyes between Conner and me, before finally slumping on the edge of the bed. They both watch me expectantly, waiting for me to speak. Conner just stands next to me with his arms crossed and his jaw clenched. This might be easier if he touched me, held my hand, or showed support in some way, but he won’t, because he doesn’t agree with my decision. Jeez, this sucks.

“Sooo, Conner and I are leaving for Seattle tomorrow morning,” I rush out in the ’ripping a Band- Aid off’ fashion.

“What?” Reiley shrieks, hopping off the bed. I cringe, taking a step back.

Kay stands slowly, preparing for the approaching disaster. “Reiley,” she addresses her in a calm tone, reaching a hand out to touch her shoulder, before looking at me. “Let her explain before you blow up.”

“Don’t you dare,” Reiley snarls at her, shaking her hand off with a fierce glare. Kay shrugs, giving me a sympathetic look when Reiley turns pleading eyes on me. “I can go with you! Whatever you’re doing, please take me with you.”

Her begging could break anyone, but I can’t let it do so to me, no matter how much I would love to take her. I will not put her life in danger, too. The angry bruises on her face help me stand firm. My decisions have already done too much damage. I glance at Conner again, who still has his arms crossed, eyes trained on the floor while he shifts his feet around. Poor guy, caught in the middle of a bunch of fighting sisters. He could stand outside if it’s really that bad, but I don’t suggest as much. Gazing back at Reiley and Kadence, I try to convey how sorry I am.

“Cadmar has agreed to let me find my biological mother,” I tell them, and their eyes bug out, but I hurry on to avoid interruption. “She may have information to explain how the Elites were able to find us so quickly. I’m going to confront her and, hopefully, get some answers.” I turn my gaze to Reiley. Her face crumbles, making my insides ache before I even continue. “You can’t go with us, Reiley. This is going to be extremely dangerous. I can’t risk you getting hurt. I can’t.”

I shake my head fervently when her eyes harden and her bottom lip trembles. She hates crying, probably more than any of us; I despise being the one who caused it. Making her stay behind, leaving her out of another fight has a twinge of guilt coursing through me, but I’m also relieved. We would all do whatever it takes to keep her safe.

“But you would put him in danger?” she screeches, flinging a hand toward Conner, who stiffens next to me. This sucks. So totally sucks. She’s pissed I’m leaving her behind; he’s pissed I’m willing to put him in danger. I can’t win. “I’m trained for this kind of stuff; he’s not! You all think I’m weak, but you’re wrong.

Her entire body trembles while Kay’s gaze shifts between us while she twists her braid around, and Conner stays rigid, silent. I want to wrap Reiley in a giant hug, assure her it has nothing to do with her being weak, but she won’t hear me. She won’t see reason, not when she’s this upset.

“I’m sorry, Reiley, you have to know that,” I plead with her, but she only shakes her head before bursting into tears and storming for the bathroom.

My stomach cramps up, helplessness crushing me while we stare after her, none of us knowing what to do. Cadmar comes through the door, looking at Reiley with wide eyes right before she slams the bathroom door. This could not get worse.

“I’m guessing you told them?” Cadmar asks, coming further in the room, holding a pizza box and some grocery bags.

Rubbing my hands over my face, I nod with a groan. A hand squeezes my shoulder and I glance up at Conner. “It’ll be okay,” he assures, concern in his eyes, which confuses the heck out of me. I thought he was mad? I have the sudden urge to kiss him again, which is totally irrational, but, you know, hormones.

“It will be,” Kay finally speaks up, too, but she looks upset about something. She glances at Cadmar with her arms crossed over her chest while he sets everything down on the TV stand. “Is it absolutely necessary to do this right now? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to wait until everything has calmed down?” she asks, glancing between Cadmar and me.

Cadmar stays silent while rummaging through the bags. I’m afraid he’s going to make me answer, until he looks at us, handing us already unpackaged cell phones. “If it’s happening at all, it’s happening now,” he tells Kay, but gives me a pointed look, which makes my stomach knot even more for some reason. “By now, I mean right now,” he tells me, making my eyes pop out of their sockets. “The pilot I found needs to leave tonight.”

“Tonight?” I demand, panicking slightly. This is happening. Dear Lord, it’s terrifying. Conner’s hand finds mine and he gives it a reassuring squeeze, which instantly comforts me.

“You want to get this done, don’t you?” Cadmar asks and I find the courage to nod. “Then you’re leaving tonight. I programmed all the addresses you’ll need in your cell, along with the numbers of all our phones. You two need to get your stuff and get going.”

“Okay,” I croak, scared out of my mind, but excited at the same time.

My emotions run wild, which makes me uncomfortable. Cadmar said it earlier; nothing good comes when I think with my emotions. Conner squeezes my hand again before going to grab our stuff without a word. Dread fills me again for even thinking of involving him in this, but my selfishness has taken over. I need him there with me. To keep me thinking rationally, but also to just be with me during this huge step I’m taking.

“I’ll help you get loaded up.” Cadmar grabs a bag from Conner and heads out the door, Conner following him.

I’m left with Kay and the sound of Reiley’s sobs, and I just don’t know what to say. Biting my bottom lip, I glance at the bathroom door before looking back at Kay.

“She’ll be okay,” she comforts me with those sympathetic eyes. Reaching forward, she squeezes my arm for a short second before letting go; the most physical affection she’s ever shown me. “I’ll make sure she’s safe. You do what you need to and don’t get yourself hurt in any way.” She gives me a knowing look as if she can see right through me to the heart of my reasons for wanting to do this.

“Thank you, Kay. You really are the best of us.” “No, I’m not. But I understand more than most.”

We stand there uneasily while I consider giving her a hug, but, yeah, that would be awkward. She clears her throat after an uncomfortable silence.

“You should go. Cadmar doesn’t seem to be in a patient mood tonight,” she tells me, glancing at the door.

“Yeah, you’re right.”

With that, I head for the door, trying my hardest to ignore Reiley’s sobbing. I wish I could say goodbye to her, but it will be okay; we’ll be back in basically a day. When I get outside, Cadmar and Conner are standing at the trunk of Conner’s car talking; it sounds as if Cadmar’s giving Conner directions somewhere. When they see me approaching, they both look at me with hard eyes.

“You all set?” Cadmar asks me. “Yeah.” I am…I think. I hope.

“Good,” is all he says before turning a glare on Conner, who raises his eyebrows, not looking even a little intimidated. “I’m counting on you to take care of my girl. If she is hurt in the slightest way when you return, I will make you watch while I rip every one of your limbs of.”

I gasp, but Conner chuckles darkly. “Wow. That’s horrifying and not in the least bit comforting.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be,” Cadmar clips out before turning to me, closing the distance between us. When he gets to me, multiple emotions cloud his eyes while they shift back and forth. “I’m begging you to be smart, use your head, don’t get yourself hurt….please.” He puts his hands on my shoulders and pulls me closer, planting a kiss on my forehead, which shocks me to the core. Then he pulls back, those emotions still shown in his dark gaze. “You know I never stoop to begging, so take it seriously.”

The love, fear, and anxiety flooding my heart pour out, as if a dam broke inside me. I want to do this, need to, but I’m scared as shit. The overload of feelings makes my eyes well up and I try to hide my face from him, but he tilts my chin up. “Don’t cry,” he demands with a growl. I know how much he hates crying, but I can’t hold in the few tears that fall. “You’re so strong. I’m counting on your strength to keep both of you safe.” He pauses, glancing at Conner who’s still leaning against the car watching us with his arms crossed over his chest. “He’s a good kid; he cares about you. I wouldn’t let him go with you if I didn’t trust him to take care of you.”

I throw my arms around his waist, because this cantankerous man couldn’t be a better dad if he tried. I want to spill those three words, but I keep myself from saying them; I don’t want to make this moment any harder. I’m being silly; everything is going to be fine, but I don’t want there to be even the slightest bit of doubt in his heart that I’m trying to replace him with the mother I’ve never known. That is not what this is about. This hug doesn’t seem as awkward as most of ours do. He holds me tight for a long minute before patting my back and pulling away.

“You need to go,” he tells me, awkwardly brushing a tear from my cheek. He drops his hand and gets serious again, looking at his watch. “Your returning flight is in thirty-six hours. I expect you to be on it. No. Matter. What. Understood?”

I can only nod; no words want to come out. With that, he turns on his heel and goes in the room, and I go to Conner. He opens the passenger door for me then gets in the driver’s seat and starts the engine. Before pulling out of the parking spot, he looks at me for a long minute with questioning eyes.

“Ready?” he asks.

The weight of the question bears down on me. Am I ready to take this journey? To meet the woman who abandoned me? Whom I know nothing about? I think I am. It may not be worth the risk, worth the danger I’m putting us in, but I am ready. I need answers.

“Yeah,” I answer with conviction.

Putting the car in drive, he pulls away from the motel.

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