“We can get down to the garage, take one of the SUVs,” Jaxson tells Cadmar while we stand inside the wall next to the three perfect holes they dug through. How in the world did they do that? Cadmar just informed us that there isn’t enough room in the car, so Jaxson has this great idea.
They debate for a few minutes while I stand with my arms wrapped around myself, wondering what the hell just happened, what the hell I just did. Before I can think on it too long, we follow Jaxson to the elevator that will take us to the underground garage. He must’ve been right about whatever move Helquest made, because we have no more issues with agents. There were barely any of them here tonight.
In the dark garage that’s all too familiar, we find the closest SUV and Jaxson gets it unlocked for us. Before getting in, he pulls me aside. Everyone’s staring at us, Conner looking as if he might attack Jaxson. “Are we just leaving the others?” he asks, his brow furrowing.
“I wanted to get them out, but I don’t know how we could,” I tell him with a shrug, but it feels extremely heartless. Then again, after witnessing the inner monster I just released, maybe I don’t have a heart anymore.
“The device your sister is using, I could access the cells and open all of them. We don’t have to get them all out of here, but they would at least have the chance to get away.” He leans closer to me, searching my gaze. “They don’t deserve to be left behind.”
I agree because they don’t, no matter whether they enjoyed what they did or not. They deserve the same choices as the rest of us. We explain what Jaxson is going to do and don’t receive any argument, which I’m sure is because none of them, besides Bryn and Eva, quite understands what went on in there. Kay hands her tablet over to Jaxson before we pile in.
I don’t realize I’m shaking until I’m in the backseat squeezed between Jaxson and Conner. Jaxson works on the tablet and Conner shifts around as if he isn’t sure whether he should touch me or not. I can’t even focus on how awkward this is, because the only thing on my mind is a woman named Margaret and how she’ll never get to see her family again. This makes me wish he would touch me, would acknowledge me in some way in order to chase the demons away, if only for a short while.
A warm hand rests on my knee and I breathe in a sigh, glancing up to meet Conner’s tortured gaze. “Are you cold?” he asks, and I shake my head.
I’m not cold, not in the sense he’s thinking. But the warmth of his hand reminds me of something sweeter, blocking out the horrible images flying through my brain. His warmth, which I’ve tried so hard to forget over the last two months, makes me want to remember what it was like before everything happened, when I would sneak out on weekends and meet with him just for the rush of it. That seems so long ago, so far away.
That first moment when I saw them, when I ran to him and we kissed, it was everything I needed it to be. But then we got Jaxson and something changed in Conner’s demeanor, as if he thought something was going on between us, which is an enormous joke. And then… and then I attacked Helquest, just as I’ve imagined doing for the last two months, and that horrified look in Conner’s gaze confirmed something.
He sees a monster when he looks at me. Not the girl full of hope and dreams he used to see.
He removes his hand when I look away, and something in my chest aches. I try not to think about it when Cadmar starts the truck and we wait for the metal doors to open. Squeezing my eyes shut, I take a deep breath, praying we’ll get out of the garage quickly. I should be happy to be leaving, to be free from this place. I should be happy that the people I love are safe, but I don’t know if I can ever be happy again. If I can ever find joy again.
After Jaxson announces it’s done, he remains silent the rest of the way to their motel. I just don’t know what to say to him. Sorry that I attacked your uncle? Sorry that we got you out of there? I thought he wanted to leave. I think he still does, but I’m just not sure about anything.
When we get to the run-down motel, everyone piles out of the car. The sun peeks over the horizon like some ray of beautiful glory, celebrating this moment. I stand and stare at it while the others file into the room. All of them except for Cadmar and Conner. Cadmar says something about making sure the GPS is disconnected from the SUV when Conner comes to stand in front of me.
He searches my gaze and I wonder what he finds there, since there’s only sadness in his. Shouldn’t we be happy to see each other? “I’m sorry,” he whispers. Clearing his throat, his eyes shift back and forth. “I’m sorry for whatever you went through in there. Like Cadmar said, nothing can change it. And with that, I can understand if you need something else—” He breaks off, swallowing three times, while dread fills my entire being.
Is he breaking up with me?
You were already broken up, Payton.
“I can understand if you need someone else to help you through this,” he finishes and I jerk back.
“What?” I shake my head. “Are you talking about Jaxson? Because there is nothing going on between us. He was the one who helped me find out they didn’t have Reiley, but there isn’t anything like that going on. The only person I thought of like that there was you, but I tried not to think about you because I didn’t think I would ever see you again,” I ramble on, not sure what I’m really saying. I just need some rest. If I can actually get some dreamless sleep, I might be able to think straight. “I never dreamed I would see you again, especially after the way I left you in Seattle.”
Pain flashes through his eyes before he studies me for a long minute. Man, I am just knocking them out of the ballpark.
“You didn’t see the way you two were when his cell opened.” He shakes his head.
“I was excited we were getting out. We had just been talking about escaping—” I break off, shaking my head some more. “I can’t argue about this right now. This is ridiculous.”
“Hey, Conner,” Cadmar calls out, and I could literally hug him for saving me from whatever the hell this argument is about. “Why don’t you check on everyone while I catch her up on everything that happened.”
Conner stares at him for a long moment, fists clenched at his sides, then nods. He gives me one last look that I just don’t understand before turning for the room. Staring after him with my mouth hanging open can’t be helped. Of all the reunions I ever imagined while locked up in that facility, this was not one of them.
“Don’t be too hard on him,” Cadmar interrupts my thoughts and my gaze snaps to his. When I open my mouth to respond, he holds a hand up. “You went through a lot, I can only imagine what they did to you in there, but he went through a lot, too. He did a lot to get you out and the things he had to do to help me save the girls…. It’s his story to tell. I’m just saying give him some time.”
“I can… I can do that.” I look around the mostly empty lot, wondering what they all went through while I was there. “What did happen, Cadmar? Where’s Reiley? How did you know I was there?”
A sad smirk plays across his lips. “It may be five in the morning, but I’m sure neither of us will be finding sleep anytime soon. We could go grab some food for everyone. Want to go out for burgers?”
I make a face, shaking my head fervently. “Literally anything else will do.”
He doesn’t question me, as if he understands how easily things can be ruined for a person. After poking his head in the room to let the others know we’re getting breakfast, he takes me to the closest Waffle House. While I nibble on waffles and sip coffee, he watches me closely and tells me of all their awful incidents. I thought I went through hell over the last two months; I never thought of them going through such horrors. My chest hurts, my stomach turning with every word he utters.
Kadence survived getting shot, the database got blown up, the girls thought he was dead, they both survived being tortured by those horrible agents. He tells me of Reiley’s real mom and that they’re staying together in a cabin of his in Northern California. He wants to take us all there in the morning, get us away from this hole of a motel. A quiet cabin actually sounds better than anything right now, and the chance to get to see Reiley, to get that horrible image of her being tortured out of my head, will make it that much sweeter.
Then he tells me that the entire time, Conner was right outside that ridiculous wall, trying to find a way to get me out. After I dumped him on that curb, he followed me to Janet’s and watched them haul me away. Then he rushed to California to figure out how to get me back. He did horrible things to help get the girls from the castle before going back to work on the acid solution that allowed them to tunnel through the impenetrable wall. He even went so far as to set up some fights in this atrocious city in order to keep his project funded. I can’t even fathom his dedication to me, and can never, ever repay him for everything he’s done.
Cadmar doesn’t ask what I went through, doesn’t ask what I gave to those monsters, doesn’t say a word about the life I added to my tally board, but I know he wonders. I love my dad, love him so much for everything he went through to free all of us from that horrible life, but I don’t know if I could ever share with him, share with anyone, everything that went on there.
I do give him what little information I know about Jaxson, since everyone seemed to think he was one of them after being able to open the cells and get into the SUV. Hell, I thought he was one of them, too, so I can’t blame them for the snap judgment. Omitting the fact that he’s Helquest’s nephew doesn’t seem like too big a deal. No one needs to know that information unless he wants to share it.
When it’s all out, he silently stares at the scar on my wrist for a long time, making me want to cover it or hide it. It’s there though, and I have to live with it. “We’ll need to get that out.” He points at it with his fork, meeting my gaze. I want to disagree, but there’s a good chance they could use it to find us all. “Along with the one Janet has on you, just to be safe.”
With a jerk of my head, I cringe from that awful memory. “That was the first thing they did when I got there. They removed it and put their own in.”
He nods, his lips becoming a thin line.
“What happened to her?” I can’t help asking.
His gaze hardens, jaw tightening, before he looks across the diner to avoid my gaze. My chest squeezes, knowing what’s coming. But there’s really no reason for me to feel remorse… is there? “She was found dead in her apartment by the doorman only a couple days after you were there.”
We fall silent while finishing our breakfast, trying to move past yet another death. The death of my biological mother. So many people lost their lives in the last two months, I don’t see how we can ever move past any of it, but I have to try. I have to try finding some light in this life.
When we return to the motel with breakfast, Bryn and Eva are passed out on one of the beds, Kadence and Jaxson are sitting on the other staring at her laptop, deep in conversation, and Conner is asleep on the floor with his arms behind his head. I can’t help looking at Kay with much more respect. Everything she did and went through to help our family deserves a freaking reward. And watching her warm up to Jaxson so easily soothes what’s left of my heart.
While Jaxson and Kay eat and Cadmar relaxes in a chair, I find a spot to sit against the wall and stare at Conner while he sleeps—which is probably creepy, but it can’t be helped. I never thought I would lay eyes on this amazing man again. Never thought I would get to run my fingers through his thick curls, or stare into those deep green eyes. He did so much for me, never once giving up on getting me out of that place. I want to love him. Every piece of me does love him, but it doesn’t seem like enough. My love could never be enough for this man. He deserves so much more than me, than the hollow shell I am now.
Jaxson plops down next to me with his container of waffles, pulling my gaze from Conner. “These are pretty damn good,” he says around a mouthful. “I don’t remember the last time I had waffles.”
“They were pretty good,” I agree, shifting my legs around to stare at my knees. “I wanted to apologize for what I did. I don’t know where that came from, what overtook me, but I’m sorry for doing that to your uncle.”
He snorts, causing my gaze to snap to him. “You don’t need to apologize. I’ve imagined doing much worse to him over the years. I just never had the balls to go through with it. You’ve got some balls.” He gives me that mischievous smirk I didn’t realize I’d missed over the last couple weeks.
My turn to snort. “I can’t say I hadn’t imagined doing much, much worse things to that horrible man.” I scrunch my eyes shut, attempting to shake the awful thoughts from my mind. His warm hand grips my knee, making my eyes shoot open to meet his hard gaze.
“We’ll get through it all,” he breathes, squeezing my leg. “It’ll take time to heal from the shit that went on, but we can get through it.”
Tears clog my throat, so I nod before swallowing three times. “So now that you’re free, what do you want to do with your life?” I change the subject, glancing at Conner, who I wish could be my future.
And of course, his eyes are open, but they’re thin slits, staring at Jaxson’s hand on my leg. Which Jaxson must have noticed, as he removes it before plowing into a detailed story about how he always wanted to be an artist. But I can’t stop staring at Conner, even when he shakes his head, shoots to his feet, and makes his way to Cadmar. After some whispering, they leave the room together, another fissure slashing through my chest.