Cadmar returns to the room, looking depressed, if that’s even an expression his face can hold. I wonder what they talked about. Probably me and how I need to be fixed. But I can’t be. There’s nothing anyone can do to help me.
Jaxson continues talking about the wonderful plans he has now that he’s free, but I’m having a hard time paying attention. I wish I had plans. I wish I had something solid to hold onto, but there’s nothing. I’m hollowed out, without anything to put back together.
Placing a hand on Jaxson’s knee, I interrupt him. “Can you give me a minute?” I ask. He nods with that crooked smile, but it seems forced this time.
I try to return it, but mine is also half-assed. After getting to my feet, I approach Cadmar, who’s been watching me since the moment he came back in the room. He raises his eyebrows when I cross my arms over my chest. “Where’s Conner?” I ask the simplest question I can conjure up.
“He’s still outside.” He shrugs but doesn’t give me any more. Always was a stubborn asshole. I shouldn’t expect any different, even considering everything that’s happened.
“What did he want to talk about?” I push, knowing it isn’t going to work.
He looks me over, as if appraising whether I’m worthy of the information, then sighs. “I think you need to talk to him about that. It’s not my information to give.”
With that, he walks to a chair in the far corner of the room. I glance at the door, then back at Jaxson, who’s chatting with Kay about the book she’s reading. Bryn and Eva are still sound asleep, as if they didn’t sleep at all in that facility. The afternoon sun greets me when I step outside, reminding me how exhausted I am. This conversation should probably wait until I’ve gotten some rest, but I don’t want to rest. I don’t want to visit the dead.
He’s leaning against the bumper of the SUV right outside our room. His head snaps up, pain-filled gaze locking with mine. So there’s that, and I don’t know what to do with it. Don’t know how to fix it. Blocking it out seems like a good plan… sort of. Not thinking about crappy stuff is always easier.
With his arms crossed over his chest, he remains leaning against the truck when I come closer. He has every right to be closed off; I would be if the tables were turned. But again, I don’t know how to fix it, or if I’m capable of doing so. “Hey,” I say, because it’s the only thing that comes to mind. It’s easy.
“Hey,” he repeats, but keeps his gaze guarded. A sharp pain moves through my chest, making me want to weep. I really should have waited till I got some rest before coming out here.
“So I asked Cadmar what you two talked about,” I tell him, and he raises his eyebrows. “He wouldn’t tell me, of course. He said I needed to talk to you about it.”
Uncrossing his arms, he rubs a hand over his neck while studying his shoes. “I’m going to London,” he blurts, gaze meeting mine again, that pain on full display.
I jerk back as if he slapped me while another sharp sting courses through me. “Wait. What?” Shaking my head in disbelief, I move three steps closer.
The guarded mask is back in place as he studies me, releasing a sigh. “I made a deal with my dad. He helped me get you out and I told him I would meet him in London.” He shrugs as if it’s no big deal.
But it is. It is a big freaking deal. What the hell? I did not see this coming. I never thought about us going separate ways if I ever got out of that hellhole. Does he think I’m too broken? That I can’t recover from the horrors I experienced? I mean, I don’t know if I can, but the thought that he doesn’t believe in me hurts like hell. There must still be some pieces in there, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to put them back together, especially if I have to do it without his help.
He watches me mull this over with a look of apprehension.
“Wait, does this have to do with Jaxson?” I demand when the thought dawns on me. Raising his eyebrows, he gives me a “duh” look, making me want to snarl like a ferocious lioness. “You seriously don’t believe me, do you?”
He pushes off the car, standing toe-to-toe with me. Anger rolls off him in such thick waves I can’t believe I didn’t sense it the second I came out of the room. Glaring down at me, his lip curls. “How can I believe you when your actions speak so much louder than your words?” he demands, his hands fisting at his sides. “I’m more than happy that you’re alive, that you’re in one piece, and that he was there to help you get through whatever went on there. But I can’t sit here and watch you be with him, and you shouldn’t expect as much from me.”
My shoes become interesting while I wonder what the hell everyone sees when I’m with Jaxson. We barely even got to know each other in that place, but he was always observant, always caring about me. That didn’t make me want to be with him in the least bit, but it made that place not so horrible, made it hold a tiny ray of light. I couldn’t even say that I love the guy, because we never became that close, but I definitely care about him, enough to want him to be happy and pursue those dreams of being an artist and free.
When I glance back up at Conner, his features have softened, his hands relaxed at his sides, but within his gaze is pure agony. “I can’t stop you from being with him. I won’t even try.” He shakes his head, making my eyebrows draw together. He obviously got the wrong idea from my silence, yet again. “But like I said, I don’t have to stick around to watch it.”
I search his gaze for a long, silent minute. “You know what hurts the most? That you don’t believe me and you probably never will, even if I told you until I was blue in the face.” That jaw twitches, his hands fisting again. “I care about him, sure, but not like you think, and I apparently can’t make you think differently. It’s just as well. I’m no good, Conner. I never really was any good for you. Whatever you did or had to do to help my sisters, to help me, I can never repay you. I can never take that burden from you, but I am grateful. I just… I don’t think there’s anything left of me to give. You saw part of the monster I’ve become, and you deserve so much more than a raging monster.”
Pain flashes through his gaze again while it shreds through the remainder of my heart. Before he can say anything, I get closer, reaching up on my toes to press my lips to his. Sucking in a sharp breath, he clutches my hips, pulling me closer. My hands delve into that thick hair I’ve been aching to touch. His breath quickens, making me grip harder, molding my body to his.
This isn’t like that fleeting kiss when he found me; it’s so much deeper. That one was out of happiness to see him again, when I believed I never would. Happiness to be free of that awful place. This is full of the heat and love and care I’ve always felt for him, my best friend. I hope he can feel it, feel how much this all hurts me, too.
Forcing myself to break away, I move my hands over his shoulders and press on his chest. We both breathe hard while we try regaining control. I study his beautiful eyes one last time. “I do love you, Conner,” I admit, a tear rolling down my cheek. A choking noise escapes his throat. “This is my fault, and you have every right to blame me. But please don’t hate me for the rest of your life. I don’t think I could live with that.”
I don’t wait for a response, rushing back to the room after scrubbing that one stubborn tear away.
I can do this. I can walk away from him. It hurts worse than anything I’ve ever felt, which is saying something, but it’s for the best.
He doesn’t return to the room, but I didn’t expect him to. I sit back on the floor, Jaxson joining me now that Kay is asleep. We fall back into our conversation with Cadmar’s hard eyes watching us. If he thinks the same thing Conner does, well, that’s his problem. He can be mad at me all he wants. I went through hell; I don’t deserve any of this.
At some point, I doze off, falling asleep on Jaxson’s shoulder as he continues talking in a quiet tone, exactly like I did when he stayed in my quarters that one night. It feels as if I was only asleep for a few minutes when someone shakes me awake. Cadmar’s angry gaze hovers over me when I open my eyes. Sitting up, I realize Jaxson fell asleep at some point and remains that way when Cadmar helps me to my feet. The rest of the girls are asleep on the beds and Conner’s still missing. Without a word, he heads for the door and I follow, wondering what’s going on. He stops at the door, turning to me before he opens it.
“What’s going on?” I whisper. “Is something wrong?”
“He’s leaving. I thought you might want to say good-bye.”
“He’s leaving?” I squeak, anger and pain coursing through me. Cadmar only nods. I cross my arms over my chest, trying to protect what little is left of me, but it’s impossible when the pain is all-consuming. “I… I don’t think he wants me to say good-bye, but thank you for giving me the chance to.”
Face hardening, he crosses his arms, too. “I’m not so sure you have a damn clue what he wants,” he bites out. What the hell? Is he taking Conner’s side in all this? “I think you need to go say good-bye to him.”
“You’re blaming me, aren’t you?” I demand, still trying to keep my voice low. He pulls back as if I slapped him, which I kind of feel like doing. “I know it was completely my fault that I ended up there, and I’m sorry you all put yourselves in danger in order to get me out, but I don’t deserve to be treated this way. Not after everything I’ve been through in the last two months.”
Releasing a heavy breath, his gaze softens. “No, you don’t deserve this.” He shakes his head. “And I don’t blame you. You aren’t to blame for any of this. But… I have been in a similar situation and I don’t think you should let him go. I know you’re hurting and I know what if feels like to be broken, but when you find someone who grounds you, you shouldn’t let them go.”
Whah? Is Cadmar sharing feelings? Like real live feelings? “When have you experienced something like this?” I ask, skeptical.
“That doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is you keeping that boy around.”
A smirk tugs at the corner of my mouth. “I knew you liked him,” I accuse, making his face fall flat. “From the moment you had that conversation with him in Chile, you liked him.”
He clears his throat, reaching for the door. “Anyway, if you want to say good-bye, he’s about to get in a cab.”
My smile disappears at the thought of saying good-bye to my best friend, probably never seeing or hearing from him again, since we’ll both have different identities in the near future… and be on different continents. Cadmar holds the door open for me, waiting for me to make up my mind. The streetlight leaks in, which is odd; I didn’t think I slept so long.
After holding his gaze for a long minute, I shake my head. I’m a huge coward; I know this and now Cadmar does, too. He sighs again, giving me a tight nod before leaving the room. Standing with my arms wrapped around my middle, I stare at the door, loathing myself. Finally, I clench my eyes shut, turning toward the room.
When I open my eyes, I gasp at the sight of Jaxson standing in front of me. Shaking my head, I try to put a half-hearted smile in place. “Sorry if we woke you.”
That’s when I notice his hardened gaze, his expression bleak. “Why aren’t you going to stop him?” he asks, anger dripping into his voice. The only other time I’ve ever seen him angry was when I was being tortured. So, what? Now he’s on Conner’s side, too?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I shake my head, deciding to play dumb.
Coming closer, he grips my shoulders, holding my gaze. “I know how you feel about him. You told me about him at the very beginning.” Softening his grip, he runs his hands up and down my arms. “I talk about my plans, where I’m going next, what I want to do with my life. I would love if it always included you, but I don’t want the shadow of another guy tagging along. And I know you don’t even feel that way about me, not the way I feel about you, because it’s always been him.”
My mind draws a blank. I don’t want to hurt anyone else—I’ve already done so much damage—but it seems inevitable at this point. Reaching up, I place a hand on his cheek and his eyes soften, becoming a deep blue. “I care about you so much. I don’t want you to go. I don’t want us to have to go separate ways.”
A smile tugs at his lips when he places a hand over the one I have on his cheek. “I don’t want to go either. I might stick around for a while, but I think it’s really stupid of you to give up what you have with Conner. You won’t find that in anyone else. And I can promise I’ll be on my best behavior if we have to be in the same vicinity for a long period of time.” He’s smiling full-on now, making my heart ache a little.
“You grounded me, Jaxson, when I needed it the most. I’ll never forget that. Ever.”
“You shouldn’t feed my ego this way.” He chuckles, trying to make this crappy situation light. “Now stop being an idiot and go catch him before he leaves.” Tears well up in my eyes as I laugh, nodding exuberantly. “That’s a good girl.” He pats my cheek before I turn for the door.
I swing it open, charging right into Cadmar’s hard chest. Bouncing right off with an oomph, he catches me by the arms. Once I’m steady, he holds a set of keys out to me and I give him a questioning look. “Wouldn’t it have been so much easier if you had come out with me?” he asks with an irritated look. “But you never did like doing things the easy way.”
“He’s gone already?” Panic consumes me. Did I really lose my chance?
“I tried stalling him because I know you, but he was in a hurry to get out of here.” He jingles the keys in front of my face. “He’ll have a delay at the airport, so you should be able to catch him,” he says, wearing a mischievous grin.
“What did you do?” I demand, grabbing the keys from him. He only shakes his head and I roll my eyes. “I’ll be back,” I tell him. And Jaxson. And I guess the girls, too, who are all now awake, sitting up in their beds watching us.
“Be sure to hurry. We’re leaving for the cabin as soon as you get back,” Cadmar adds, handing me a cell phone before I bolt out the door.
I’m in the huge SUV within seconds. Behind the wheel, I speed out of the parking lot, hoping I’ll be able to catch Conner. The airport is complete chaos, and I want to smack myself for not asking Cadmar where the heck I’m supposed to go. Right then, my phone buzzes and I smirk at the text from Cadmar.
C: Gate 17.
I don’t send anything back because I might crash or something, but I do smile at how much I love my dad. He couldn’t be more amazing. I find a parking spot way in the back of the lot and run for the entrance. Once inside, I do a quick scan, determining what direction I need to go. Trying to look inconspicuous running through an airport is next to impossible. Lots of people look, most of them with concern, as if I’m some terrorist or something.
I have to go through security. Twice. At least it doesn’t take long, since I only have the keys and cell phone. I think I might find Conner there, but he isn’t anywhere to be seen. I can’t help but see how clichéd this is. A girl, running through the airport, trying to stop the love of her life from leaving her. In this moment, I’m totally okay with being the cliché.
When I get to the gate, people are already in a long line, boarding the plane. Panic shoots through me for a second, but eases up when a huge guy shifts in the line, curly blond hair coming into sight. Then a huge security guard makes his way straight for Conner. Oh dear Lord, what did Cadmar do? I rush forward when the security guard taps on Conner’s shoulder, telling him to follow him. Everyone gives him a wide berth as if he’s some criminal. He looks so glum, so hopeless, but the idea of being carted off by security doesn’t seem to faze him. I did this to him. I caused this pain. I’m such an idiot.
“Wait,” I yell across the room, hoping they’ll hear me over the noise of the airport, but they don’t appear to. I run faster, yelling again.
The security guard’s head snaps in my direction, a smile moving over his face. Jeez, Cadmar has the weirdest connections. He says something to Conner, pointing in my direction. His gaze collides with mine, making me stop dead in my tracks. The hard look he gives me makes me second-guess my decision.
What if he really does think I’m too broken? That he deserves way better than me?
I’m suddenly self-conscious, realizing I didn’t even look in a mirror before I took off to come here. I still have on worn jeans and a dingy T-shirt, and I’m sure I have bedhead—or shoulder-head, I guess. Gosh, this was a huge mistake. But I’m going through with it because I’m not a quitter.
He keeps staring, even when the security guard slaps him on the back before disappearing into the crowd. My nerves are a wreck while I walk slowly toward him. He doesn’t move an inch.
When I’m only a foot away from him, I chew on my bottom lip, not knowing what to say. I settle for “Hi,” realizing it’s a repeat of last night. Shit. He doesn’t say it back, only continues staring at me with an emotionless expression, so I decide to try getting something else out. “So… I… um… I…,” I stutter, hating myself.
“What, Payton?” he snaps, making me jerk back. But he doesn’t stop there. “What in God’s name do you need? You need some closure before I go? Something to make you feel better about tossing me to the curb? Hmm?” His hands fist at his sides, his gaze a burning fury. “You won’t be getting anything of the sort from me.”
Wow, I wasn’t expecting this reaction, but I can handle it. I think. “No, that’s not what I want.” I shake my head and he tilts his, raising his eyebrows with a condescending look. “I want you.” I put it out there quickly; it’s easiest to get the hard part over first, right?
His brow crumples, his gaze hardening again, but he doesn’t say anything. Rubbing my hands together, I try for a calming breath—which is totally impossible but whatever. “Jaxson…. He’s not you, and I don’t want him to replace you. I care about him, but I love you. I need you to believe that.”
I pause, taking in his stiff demeanor, watching the muscle twitch in his jaw. I lick my lips, continuing on while nervous energy thrums through me. “I’m broken. I’m not the best girlfriend material. It won’t be easy being with me, not ever, but I can’t live with the idea of not having you in my life. Of you not being by my side. I know we have so much to learn, about each other, about real life, but I don’t want to do that without you.”
He stays silent, still watching me with those cold eyes, the muscle twitching in his jaw. I don’t know what to do, whether I should say something else or just walk away. I might be able to now that I got it all out.
His eyes soften as he slowly reaches out to brush a hand over my cheek, taking a tear with it.
Huh, didn’t realize I was crying.
His hand lingers on my cheek while he looks deep into my eyes. “You’re not broken, Payton,” he says just above a whisper, moving closer. “You were hurt and it shouldn’t have happened, but you aren’t broken. It may take time, and a lot of work, but I want to move past the hurt. If that’s really what you want?”
He looks so unsure that it makes me even more sure, which doesn’t make sense, but yeah. I can only nod, with much enthusiasm, because my throat is clogged up with tears. “Yeah?” he asks again, now holding both my cheeks in his hands. I nod again, laughing a little while tears run down my cheeks. A smile stretches across his face, lighting up his eyes before he leans in, kissing me hard while running his hands over my arms. The tidal wave of his love is that downpour I needed, that cleansing desert rain. His love washes away the dark.
I push back reluctantly and he gives me a questioning look. “And, um, I love you,” I tell him, and he beams.
“I freaking love you, too,” he breathes before crushing our mouths together again.
We pull apart after a few minutes of steamy kissing, which is amazing, but we’re in an airport; there’s another time and place. We start the long walk out of the airport, moving through throngs of people with our hands clasped. I am never letting go. I give him an apprehensive look when we’re halfway through the busy airport and he raises his eyebrows.
“Your dad is going to hate me even more now,” I point out, hating myself for coming between them… again.
He smiles, which I don’t get. “It’ll be okay.” He looks in front of us. “I’m pretty sure he expected me to go back on this promise.”
Now I raise my eyebrows, but he doesn’t explain. And I can’t wipe the ridiculous smile off my face because I’m so in love with this guy. Smiling has never felt so good. I glance at him again. “So, how clichéd are we, having our grand reunion in an airport?”
He chuckles, squeezing my hand. God, I will never get tired of that sound.
The nightmares will still be there when my eyes close at night, but he’ll be there to soothe them away. The people I never thought I would see again are back in my life, and we get to embark on a new adventure together. Once I’m able to see Reiley again, able to make sure her light wasn’t put out, I’ll be about the happiest I can be right now.