Eva paced the room, arms folded over her chest, hands grasped around her biceps. Her head snapped to the door every few moments. She paused when the knob turned and Grayson stepped in.
He motioned to an empty chair. “Please, have a seat.” A half amused smile tugged at the corner of his lips.
“I’d rather stand,” Eva grunted.
“If you desire. Seems to me that we have a few matters to clear up.” Grayson folded his hands on the table as he sat.
“Don’t think so. You have your man back. We want to go.”
Grayson flashed his teeth at Eva. “It’s not quite that simple.”
“How is it not?”
“As I said earlier, you know where our camp is and I have to ensure these people’s safety.”
“All due respect,” Claire leaned forward, “we’re not the threat. The roamers are. From what we’ve seen, you’re equipped to handle them.”
“Roamers?” he turned his amused grin toward Claire.
“Monsters outside ready to devour any moving flesh with blood coursing through its veins. I’m sure you’ve seen one or two,” Eva snapped.
“We call them what they are,” he laughed. “Zombies.”
“Congratulations,” Eva applauded, “you’ve learned how to recognize reality.”
He pulled his lips tight and bounced his clasped hands on the table. “You haven’t moved past seeing the worst.”
“Yet I’m not the one holding three people hostage.”
Claire and Devin exchanged glances in the tense silence.
“Excuse me,” Devin raised his hand, “Claire is correct. We’re not a threat. We’d like to return to our own people before nightfall.”
“Kevin has told me a different story.”
“How?” Claire dropped her jaw. “We saved him from a terrible end. He told us himself he would have never made it back here alone.”
“His life was threatened repeatedly. He was held at gunpoint.” Grayson turned in the chair to look directly at Eva, who leaned into the corner and stared out a window.
“Bite me. He had a gun pointed at my man,” she snapped, not returning his gaze. “If he had told us we’d be held against our will by a scumbag like you, I would have left him to the roamers.”
“Eva, please,” Claire hushed. “Sir, she doesn’t mean it. She’s protecting us. I’m sure you can sympathize. We’re all looking out for the same thing. To survive this.”
“I wish I could believe you.” Grayson frowned.
“You can,” Devin said and placed a hand on Claire’s shoulder.
“We have many resources here. Invaluable resources. Energy to last us quite some time. Food. Weapons and ammo. I don’t want an attack threatening to overthrow the balance here.”
“Hah!” Eva tossed her head back and faced Grayson. “Please.”
“Something to say?” He leaned back in his chair and placed his hands behind his head.
“You can keep all that to yourself. I promise you the second we walk out the door is the last time you ever see us. More importantly, the last time I ever see you.”
“So much hostility.” Grayson stared at the ceiling. “Makes it difficult to believe.”
Eva scoffed and turned back to the window.
“How do I know you didn’t kidnap Kevin, force him to reveal my location, and tell me an elaborate story?”
“Easy.” Eva scowled. “I thought you were dead, and I’d like to continue living under the illusion that you are.”
“That hurts, Eva.” He shook his head and propped his feet on the table. “Cuts deep.”
Eva rolled her eyes. “Get out of your fantasy and let us go.”
“I can’t do that until I’m sure that my resources are safe.”
“They are.” Claire nodded like a freshly flicked bobble head. “We have our own resources.”
“Claire,” Eva warned with her brows raised near her hairline.
“Do you?” Grayson dropped his feet and spun his chair to face Claire.
Eva stormed to the table and smashed her palms flat. “None of your business.”
“I need to be sure.”
“Take our word.”
Eva and Grayson locked in a stare-off. Claire and Devin fidgeted and exchanged worried glances.
“Okay, I think we all need to calm down a bit.” Devin stood and held his hands up.
Grayson stood and rubbed a hand over his chin, grooming his facial hair into place. Eva made a guttural noise and glared at the back of Grayson’s head.
“Well, uh,” Claire stuttered and swallowed. “I don’t know what I’m talking about. I just follow orders.”
“Nah,” Grayson wagged a finger, “I can tell you’re a smart girl. Kevin told me how you convinced this one to bring him back. I peg you for a leader.”
Claire pressed her lips together and wrung her hands.
“I have another concern,” he spoke in a calm, calculating tone and tapped a finger to his lips. “How do I know you won’t storm back here when you run out of space?”
Eva shook her head when Devin started to answer.
“Oh? Do I sense I have right to be concerned?” Grayson shot a mocking smile at Eva.
“Hardly.” She curled her lip. “I’d build a whole new camp by myself rather than ever asking for your help.”
“So vicious,” he clicked his tongue and folded his hands behind his back.
“Rid yourself of having to be victim to it.” Eva gave a sweet smile, which turned into a hard glare an instant later. “Let. Us. Go.”
Grayson paced a few steps each direction, tapped his lip, and gave the ground a thoughtful look. “How large is your group?”
“None of your concern.” Eva folded her arms over her chest.
“Please, we’re not going to try to overtake you,” Claire said.
“But you could?” Grayson held a palm outward.
Eva growled and tossed her head back. “Has your ego gotten thicker? We want nothing to do with you nor your establishment.”
A wicked smile stretched across his face. “Maybe I want something to do with yours.”
“Excuse me,” Eva laughed. “Absolutely not.”
“We’d be stronger combining forces.”
“Take some time to think about it.” He took a step backward and reached for the doorknob.
“Do not lock us in here,” Eva seethed. “You have no right to hold us.”
“I have matters I must attend to. I’ll be back for your answer.”
“Grayson, no!” Eva dashed across the room and yanked on the door, but he overpowered her and it latched behind him. “Damn it!” Her fists pounded against the solid wood.
Claire clung to Devin’s arm. She watched Eva with a dropped jaw and a knitted brow.
“That conniving bastard,” Eva blew out a breath. “He is not going to join our camp. I’ll slit his throat in his sleep and toss his body to the roamers.”
“What are we going to do?” Devin asked and rubbed Claire’s arm before she could speak.
“I don’t know.” Eva shook her head. “He’s the most insufferable and stubborn person I’ve had the displeasure of knowing.”
“How do you know him?” Claire asked, taking a small, slow step toward Eva.
Eva covered her face with her hands and groaned into them. “We,” she licked her lips, squared her shoulders, and met Claire’s gaze, “we used to date.”
“You dated that ass hat?” Devin gave a harsh laugh. “Explains a lot.”
“Have something say to me?” Eva narrowed her eyes.
“Guys, stop it.” Claire slammed a hand onto the table. “We’re all frustrated, and we cannot take it out on each other.”
“Right,” Devin mumbled as an apology. “I only meant you can do better.”
“Fine.” Eva crossed her hands and returned to the window. She bit her bottom lip and tilted her head to the side. “Why don’t we jump?”
“Are you crazy?” Claire sighed.
“We’re three floors up. We can use the ledge to scoot above the decorative marble and scale down the statues.”
“You’re the only experienced climber, Eva. We don’t have CIA field training under our belts.”
“It’s not like it’s difficult,” Eva rushed her words as she craned her neck to examine the structure. “Help me figure out how to open this window.”
“It doesn’t open.” Devin inspected it beside her.
“We’ll break it.”
“How? By throwing a chair at it?” Claire scoffed.
“We both know that doesn’t work. We’ll shoot it.” Her hand closed over her holster, and she growled at the missing weapon. “Do either of you have a spare?”
The couple shook their heads. Devin ran his palm across his neck. “Should we try throwing a chair?”
Claire shot him a silencing glare, hugged her stomach, and paced with deliberate steps around the table. Eva tapped on the glass, shifted her angle to gauge the thickness, and slammed the side of her fist against it.
She stormed to the table, grasped the back of a chair, and with a mighty turn and swing flung it at the window. It rattled the glass and then fell to the ground, one of the arms broken.
“Excellent try,” Devin clapped.
“Eva,” Claire sighed and tucked a leg under her as she sunk onto the tabletop. “Maybe we should consider his offer.”
“No way,” Eva snarled.
“He’s not going to let us go,” Claire argued. “Even if he does, it’ll be a ruse and he’ll most likely send someone to tail us.”
“We’ll lose them.”
“Going the opposite direction.”
“Endangering all of us.” Devin stood behind Claire and put his hands on the table on either side of her.
“Not unnecessarily,” Eva offered with an open hand.
“Can you deny that he’s going to find our camp either way?” Claire leaned forward.
Eva glared, folded her hands behind her neck, and groaned while tossing her head back. “No.”
“Why don’t we return to camp on our own terms?”
“We couldn’t warn the others.” Eva watched Claire out of the corner of her eye. “We’d show up as one huge convoy and expect Kayla to let us all in.”
“Kayla will do anything you tell her to.” Devin curled out his bottom lip. “Any of us would.”
“You’re with Claire on this?”
“It’s the only logical plan, and frankly, the only option I see us having.” There are three of us. If he gets what he wants and in our gates, you can take care of him while Claire and I call a quick huddle and warn the rest of his behavior.”
Eva massaged her temples, rolled her shoulders, and then straightened her spine. “You’d emphasis the danger of these people, and how they all need to stay away?”
“Of course,” Claire muttered and rolled her eyes. “Why don’t we compromise with Grayson before we agree. Make a separate schedule from all of our activities to ensure the least exposure possible between our groups.”
“Not a bad idea since we’re backed into a corner.” Eva steepled her fingers against her lips. “First, we’ll reject his idea and ask to be released. If that fails, we will enter negotiations. Sound like a plan?”
“The best we’ve got,” Claire agreed.
The door opened and Grayson slinked back into the room. His eyes scanned over the broken chair, then Eva, and a wicked grin flashed over his teeth. “How’d your escape attempt go?”
“I do hope that wasn’t your favorite chair,” Eva returned the tone and expression.
“I know better than to leave my nice things in your presence when you’re upset.”
“What do you know? You can teach an old, stupid dog new tricks after all.”
“Eva,” Claire hissed. “Don’t upset him.”
“Your friend has a point.” Grayson settled into a chair and kicked his feet onto the table. “The man who holds your fate in his hands is one to keep happy, is he not?”
“No one holds my fate in his hands,” Eva glowered.
“Fiesty,” he laughed and wiggled his brows. “I like it.”
“Let us go, Grayson. You keep to your camp, we keep to ours.”
“Eva, Eva, Eva,” he shook his head with each word and dropped his feet to the ground. “I cannot do that. I told my people that we would be merging to form an environment of greater safety and protection. You don’t expect me to disappoint them, do you?”
“Shouldn’t make promises you might not keep. Maybe you can’t learn new tricks,” Eva scoffed.
“I will keep this promise,” Grayson said with a hard stare. “I’m done being the nice guy.”
“You were never the nice guy.”
Grayson knocked his chair over as he stood and stormed across the room. He stopped inches from Eva’s face. Claire jerked to leap across the table, but Devin caught her arms and held her back.
“Here’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
“If it involves you invading my camp, I’m leaving it,” Eva spat. She watched Grayson’s pupils dilate and his skin tint red.
“Either you take us in, or…” Within a second, he reached behind him and trained a gun on Claire. She gasped and fell back against Devin’s chest.
“Are you mad?” Eva shrieked.
“Or I shoot her, ask you again, then shoot him. If you still refuse, I kill you.”
“This is insane.” Eva moved in front of the muzzle. Her eyes flashed a warning to her captor. “You will not harm my team.”
“You expect me to bring your whole group to my home because you threaten our lives? I would rather die than risk endangering them.”
“Eva, no! Don’t do this,” Claire cried.
Grayson toyed with the trigger and stared down the barrel at Eva. “Is that your answer?”
“Shoot me, Gray. Get it over with.”
“Eva!” Claire’s voice shook. Tears ran down her cheek. She squirmed and threw all her weight away from Devin, but he gripped her arms tighter and pulled her back.
“I will shoot you. I’ll find your camp. I’ll take it by force.”
“Good luck,” Eva grinned. “I’ve trained them well. They’d pick you off one by one before you put a toe inside.”
A long moment passed, Grayson studied Eva’s expression, his gray eyes narrowed into slits and his lips parted. He tilted the weapon toward the ceiling and lowered it. “I fear I might be in over my head.”
Claire’s shuddered breath echoed in the silence.
“You’ll let us go?” Eva asked, her eyes locked on Grayson, instead of comforting Claire.
“I’m sorry, but I promised my people a merge.”
“Again, you shouldn’t have.”
“Have you ever promised your people something you couldn’t fulfill?”
“Unless you don’t come back today.”
“Pardon me?” Eva pulled her lips tight.
“Did you not tell your group to keep a watch for you? That you would return?”
Eva shrugged without concern.
“What would they do without you there?”
“What do you think their chance of survival would be?” Grayson turned, sat in a chair, and laid the gun on his thigh.
A small, amused smile donned his hardened features. “Clever. Clever answer, Eva.”
“You won’t get information out of me. I’ll protect them every bit as much as you protect your own.”
“What about you?” Grayson asked Devin while motioning to Claire. “Where does your loyalty lie? With your group or her?”
“I’m loyal to them both,” Devin said and raised his chin.
Grayson trained the gun on Claire. “Where’s your camp?”
Devin tried to shield Claire, but Grayson clicked his tongue. “Ah, ah, ah. I will kill her.”
Devin’s forehead wrinkled, his hands balled into fists, and he sent a silent plea to Eva.
“Stop this,” Eva hissed. She pressed her eyes tight, then glared.
The corners of Grayson’s eyes creased. “Make a decision, and make it the right one.”
Eva’s lip curled, her fingers rolled into her palm, and her arm twitched. Claire’s whimper destroyed her urge to punch Grayson. “We’ll merge.”
“Now you’re being reasonable.” Grayson lowered the gun.
“But not without boundaries.”
“I have a strict way I run my camp. We have schedules, jobs, and consequences. You and your group will not be above that.”
Grayson contemplated her words for a few seconds, then nodded. “Understandable.”
“You will bring your own food and weapons, and we will not share our resources with you.”
“When we run out?”
“You’re capable of replenishment.” Eva waved an open hand around the room.
Another flash of teeth followed a nod. “I’ll see if I can change your mind on that later.”
“Will not happen,” Eva shot a sardonic smile back at him. “You will have assigned areas to reside in, and you will not cross boundaries without explicit permission. There are sensitive areas in my camp that require training and safety protocol. If that is disobeyed, there will be immediate release.”
“The gates are opened, the person is shown out.”
“I have a camp to run and the safety of all to consider. I expect to survive this disaster and chaos drops my chances.”
“Always have to have your way, huh, Eva?” Grayson chuckled and stood.
“If I always had my way, we’d be back by now without tagalongs.”
He held out his hand. “You have a deal.”
“My camp, my rules? One hundred percent?”
“One hundred percent.” Grayson nodded.
Eva took his hand in hers. “I want to be out of here within the next half hour. Anyone not ready will be left behind.”
“You will be happy to find that they should all be packed, vehicles running, ready for a trip.”
“Splendid,” Eva growled. “After you.”