Desert Rain

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Conner’s hand gripped in mine, I pull him up the front porch to the cabin. When he thinks I’m not looking, he shifts his shoulder with a grimace. “Sore, is it?” I smirk.

“No.” He glares and I squeeze his hand.

I’d be lying if I said my own tattoo wasn’t a bit sore, but he’s being a pretty big baby about his and teasing him about it is oh so much fun. After swinging the solid-wood door open, we step inside the warm, empty front room.

A redhead pokes their head around the corner from the kitchen. It takes me a second to realize it is Rae. I still can’t get over how much they look alike. “How was it?” she demands.

“It wasn’t too bad, but big baby over here barely got through it.” I beam at Conner, squeezing his warm hand again.

“I only cringed like twice.” His eye-roll is dampened by the lopsided grin he gives me, which always melts my heart.

“I’m unpacking dinner,” Rae tells us with a chuckle. “Come in the kitchen and show me.”

We follow the spunky, redhead into the small kitchen where she’s removing boxes of what smells like Chinese from a million plastic bags. “How many people are we feeding?” Conner gives the food a wide-eyed stare.

“Just you and Jaxson will eat half of this,” Rae states with raised eyebrows, before smirking at me. “Now show us.”

With my back turned to both of them, I lift my shirt over my bare shoulders, keeping my chest covered. The cracked desert floor stretches across most of my lower back with tons of flowers shooting out of it that stretch over the rest of my back and climb up the sides of my neck.

I glance over my shoulder at Rae. “It’s gooey and red, but I love how it turned out.”

“It’s amazing!” she exclaims. “You’ll have to show Jaxson how well it turned out.”

Conner’s silence worries me, until I glance over the other shoulder to find him ogling my back with this hungry look that has my stomach filling with butterflies. With a smile, I tug my shirt back down right when Rae throws a towel at his face.

“Better wipe that drool up, before Cadmar comes in.” She laughs when he tosses the towel back with a glare.

After giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, I move around the counter to grab an eggroll from one of the containers. “Where is he anyway?” I ask Rae, causing her lips to purse.

“I’m not his keeper,” she declares, ripping a box open in a rather aggressive fashion, before releasing a breath. “But I’m pretty sure he’s out back somewhere on a call with someone.”

While her head is down, Conner wags his eyebrows with a mischievous smile. Shaking with silent laughter, I shake my head, then bite the piping-hot eggroll. I won’t push her on the Cadmar issue, mostly because he wouldn’t want me to. Having a pretty decent adult mother figure around has been nice, but even after six months I still don’t know her well enough to tease her about her obvious love for Cadmar.

When we first arrived at the cabin, from what Cadmar told me about what Reiley went through with the night terrors and shutting down, I wasn’t sure what condition we would find her in. But she was okay. Her light hadn’t dimmed, though there were shadows in her eyes that will probably be there for a long while. But she still has her spark. The only person I can thank for that is Rae.

It’s refreshing having a woman around who isn’t trying to kill us all and who is willing to keep an eye on Reiley—a difficult task of it’s own—but Cadmar is still standoffish with her. No matter his reasoning for that, I keep my eyes on her to watch for any fishy behavior. Call me paranoid. I think I have the right after everything we’ve been though.

“All right, we’ll find him,” I tell her around another huge bite. “Where’s the rest?”

“Bryn and Eva are in their room, as usual,” she tells us. Ever since we showed up here, their room has been their safe haven, so we usually only see them for mealtimes. Even with my newfound truce with Bryn, I don’t mind seeing them as little as possible. “Kadence, Reiley, and Jaxson are out back,” she ads.

Conner reaches for my hand when I come back around the counter. I grasp it with an inward smile. I’m not sure if he does it knowingly, but every time I near him, he’s reaching for me, always touching me in some way, even if its just the tips of my fingers. It’s as if he needs to assure himself I’m really there, and I’ll never admit I do the same.

When I wake in the dark, the only thing that reminds me I’m not back in that dark cell, back in that facility, are his arms wrapped around me. And they always are, as if he’s afraid to let go of me in the night or maybe he just knows I need him there when I wake from a rather terrible nightmare. Whichever it is, I’m grateful he’s there.

“Let them all know dinner is here,” she calls after us and I wave my agreement.

Conner leads the way out the back screen door and just like every other time I’ve stepped out here, my breath is taken away. The light of the setting sun shines through the enormous redwoods. The distant lap of the sea against the shore, mixed with the laughter coming from the porch swing, soothes my soul. It’s pure bliss.

Seeing Reiley in such a good state and so in love with these woods, Cadmar suggested we stay a few days longer. After he went back and saw the facility was completely gone—blown to the ground along with the enormous wall—and Helquest was nowhere to be found, a few days turned in to months. Even with the facility gone, the Elite’s database was still intact. Kay and Jaxson worked together for days to make sure all files containing any of us were destroyed, before they scrambled the entire system.

Cadmar hadn’t been able to remove the device from my arm, since it’s attached to my nervous system—something he said he’s never seen before—but he was able to deactivate the GPS on it. He was easily able to remove the girl’s and Jaxson’s. When he asked Jaxson about it, Jaxson told him the one in me was a prototype they tested on me. It had taken several hours to get Conner to calm down after he heard that, so he wouldn’t attack Jaxson just for being the bearer of the terrible news. Having it in there still makes me want to scratch it out, or cut off that part of my arm, but it’s a reminder of what we escaped.

With a deep breath, and a shake of my head, I follow the laughter to the porch swing, dragging Conner with me. The instant she sees us, Reiley bounds from the swing, jostling the whole thing, almost tipping Kay over, to envelope me in a hug. Even though my back screams in protest, I let myself enjoy it, soaking up her joy that so few of us have.

“Let’s see them!” she demands when she pulls back.

Jaxson pushes away from the railing across from the swing and Kay follows him to come greet us.

“Maybe show the girls in their room,” Conner suggests, seeming to put all his effort in to not glaring at Jaxson, but he fails miserably.

Jaxson snorts with an eye-roll and I smack Conner’s arm. “You behave.” I jab a finger at him. “Besides, he’s the one who designed it. He deserves to see how it turned out.”

Even with the odd truce he and Jaxson came to when we arrived back at the motel all those months ago, Conner still has his jealous moments. But we all know they’re completely unwarranted. Everyone, besides Kay herself, can see Jaxson is infatuated with her. Though they spend most of their time together and even swap books to read, Kadence seems oblivious to his feelings for her.

“We’re waiting.” Reiley bounces, the light streaming through the trees making her red hair shine.

Lifting my shirt, I show them my back and hear a collective gasp from the girls. “It’s amazing!” Reiley exclaims when I turn and right my shirt.

“It really is beautiful,” Kadence agrees, giving Jaxson an appreciative smile. “You did a great job.”

“I knew it would look great.” He gives Kay a cocky smile that makes rosy-red bloom over her cheeks.

Only after a few days here at the cabin was the first time he got to see my gravel ghost tattoo. I told him what it had meant, but that I couldn’t quite see the hope very much anymore. When he said he wanted to be an artist right after we escaped, I had no idea that meant he was actually talented. A couple days later, he brought me the amazing drawing of what’s now etched into my back and told me that beautiful things could still be made from the dust. Seeing my sister’s smiles, my Conner look at me with pure love that has endured everything, I can’t argue that he’s wrong.

“Your turn.” Reiley smacks Conner’s arm.

“I wouldn’t want to intimidate anyone.” He gives Jaxson a cold smile, making me growl at him.

“I did design yours, too, you know.” Jaxson rolls his eyes again.

“I’m just playing,” Conner chuckles, finally giving him a genuine smile with a clap on the shoulder. “I really am grateful. It turned out awesome.”

He removes his shirt completely, giving us a good look at his amazing stomach. “Holy Jesus,” Reiley breathes. “Work out much?”

This makes him chuckle, before giving her a wink and turning. Seriously though, his stomach is drool-worthy. And even though I saw it at the shop, the tattoo that covers his back makes my breath hitch. The enormous, pretty creepy looking skeleton, stretches from his neck all the way to the top of his boxers, then pure-white, feathery angel wings move from the skeleton’s back all the way across his muscular shoulders and hang down his sides. The wings appear so realistic I want to run my hands over them to see if they feel as soft as they look.

“Tattoos are hot,” Reiley blurts, making us laugh.

While he replaces his shirt, I let them know dinner is ready and that we’re going to find Cadmar. “You can go back in with them,” I tell Conner when they head inside.

“That’s all right. There’s a class I had an idea for that I wanted to talk to him about,” he tells me, before leading the way off the porch.

After the first couple weeks here, Conner decided he wanted to get back in to fighting. He trained with Cadmar so often, and it didn’t seem like we’d be moving anytime soon, so Cadmar rented a building and opened a martial arts school that has done pretty well so far. Conner even started teaching a beginner class when the demand got high. Aside form him, Jaxson asked Cadmar if he could go out and get art supplies to pursue his dream, and all the girls talked Cadmar into enrolling them in online schooling so they could finish up high school.

They all seemed to know what they wanted to do with their lives, at least for the time being. But when he asked me if I wanted to enroll at the local community college to start on my biochemistry degree, I almost threw up at the thought, for which he quickly apologized. That had once been my dream, and now, now the thought of doing any form of science makes my blood run cold. Since I couldn’t figure out what the heck I wanted out of life, I decided I would use what I’ve been given. I now teach women’s self-defense classes at the martial arts school and I’m okay with that for now. I’m happy helping others while I rebuild myself.

We head into the forest beyond the backyard. “Wanna make-out in the forest?” Conner smirks, pulling us to a stop.

I return the smile and reach up on my toes to give him a peck on the cheek. “I’d hate for you to hurt yourself,” I tease, earning a belly laugh from him, before he leans in for a quick kiss. “Besides, I’d hate for Cadmar to find us that way…again.”

“Oh it’s only happened a few times.” He chuckles, leading me deeper into the woods.

It doesn’t take more than a couple minutes to find Cadmar crashing around like a pissed-off bear, growling at whoever is on the phone. Since he doesn’t notice us, I pull Conner to a stop to listen like a nosey teenager.

“For the millionth time, Scarlet, it’s only been six months,” he growls, and the name, that name lights my skin on fire. I give Conner an angry questioning look and he shrugs as Cadmar goes on. “I’m not going to call every freaking day. I said I would keep you posted, but a call once a month is more than enough. And no, I said I wouldn’t tell you where we are because you don’t need to know. I’ll call next month. I need to go, we’re about to have dinner.” He pauses. “Yeah, sure.”

He hangs up and I stomp forward, letting go of Conner’s hand. “Who was that?” I demand when he spins around with a wide-eyed gaze.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says, as if he can’t sense the fury, the rage radiating from me. “Let’s go eat.”

I don’t budge. Can’t move. I want to attack him, to rip him apart for betraying us. For still working with that wench. But Conner’s hand finds mine again, tethering me there, to that control I can’t always find on my own anymore. “I’ll repeat. Who. The Hell. Was that?”

“You heard then,” he states, his shoulders sagging when he looses a heavy breath. But this only makes it worse. With my jaw clenched tight, I take a step forward, but Conner grips my hand to the point of grinding my knuckles together. Cadmar glances at Conner. “And you didn’t tell her.”

My furious gaze whips to Conner, who holds mine with this softness in his eyes. Am I missing something? “It wasn’t my secret to tell,” is all he says, making my heart crack. I want so bad to be angry with him for keeping something from me, but he’s right. This is probably something I need to hear from the horse’s mouth. Or in this case, the bear’s.

He explains the whole hideous part of the story he left out before. To think Scarlet basically saved him is unbelievable, but here he stands, we stand. Still, I won’t give that woman any credit. His eyes plead with mine. “I did what I had to. You have to understand that.”

The want to judge him, to scold him, is so prominent. But I can’t. I can’t judge him. He made the difficult choices he had to make in order to survive. “It’s time for dinner,” I tell him, crossing my arms over my chest. “We can figure this out later.”

“I will. I’ll find a way around it. Around her.” He pauses, rubbing a hand over his face. “I promise I won’t let this affect you girls. I’ll keep you safe.”

“I know you will.” I give him a weak smile. I do know. He would do anything for us. He already did everything to save us.

He heads for the cabin in front of us and when I go to follow, Conner squeezes my hand, pulling me to face him. I meet his gaze, finding calm in those green eyes. With a kiss to my forehead, he lingers there, taking a deep breath, before pulling back.

“You handled that well,” he tells me, and I know it’s no joke. I didn’t let the raging monster take control. Yay me. “I’ve told you a million times now, you were never broken, just in need of some healing.”

I can’t help beaming at him. “I have a pretty amazing man helping me with that. I can’t thank you enough.”

With a tug on my long ponytail, he gives me a steamy kiss that leaves us both breathing heavily. “That’s what we do for the people we love,” he says only an inch away from my lips. “I will love you through everything, Payton.”

“I love you, Conner,” I tell him with a full heart that I never thought I could piece back together. “Now let’s go eat. That eggroll did nothing to stave off my hunger after that six hour tattoo session.”

“Ha. Let’s go feed you then.”

We make our way back through the towering trees, the sun setting behind us. For the first time in months, that hope sparks in my chest. We’re making something of ourselves here. We will figure out the Scarlet crap, and we will continue thriving here. There is finally a peaceful place for us. A place we can heal, where that downpour can come to wash away the awfulness, and we can watch beautiful things be made from the dust. I won’t allow anything to rob us of that.

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