I stop running when my cell door slides open. I don’t know what time it is, maybe early in the morning. They haven’t brought me any breakfast yet, so maybe that’s what my regular hulking caretaker is doing here. I’m pretty sure this is day eight, but I can’t be sure. Running is the only thing keeping me partially sane. If constantly berating myself for my life-altering mistakes counts as sane. There’s no tray of food in his hands. He stays silent while I wipe my face with a towel and get off the treadmill.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I wait for him to say something.
“You’re to have your meals with the others today,” he tells me in a deep voice, his face slack, completely uninterested in my daily affairs.
What does that mean? I want to ask, but am too afraid to open my mouth.
Helquest said I could join the others, but I wasn’t sure that would stand true after I refused to help them. I don’t get the chance to ponder it for too long, since he turns and leaves the cell without another word, obviously expecting me to follow. Hesitating for a second, I consider asking for a change of clothes because I’m drenched in sweat, but I think better of it. They may think I’m getting too comfortable if I start demanding things.
I hurry out the door, catching up to him in the hall of white. He leads me to the cafeteria Helquest showed me the previous day, but now it’s filled with the teens from the rec room. The scent of bacon, sausage, and other delightful breakfast foods meets me. Mmm. My stomach growls, letting me know it is breakfast time; I’ll probably start shaking if I don’t eat something. My pal holds his arm out, gesturing for me to go in with a grim look, and I raise my eyebrows in question.
What the heck am I supposed to do?
“Take a seat. They’ll bring you food” is all he says before turning and making his way back down the hall.
I stare at the crowded tables, the kids chatting and laughing as if they’re enjoying themselves. It appears as I would imagine a school cafeteria to look, which terrifies me. Not only because I’ve never been to school and will probably end up being a loner at my own table, but because these teenagers seem to be at home. They aren’t depressed or acting like they want to get away. None of them bear bruises of struggle, which also keeps me apart, as I’m still sporting the one on the side of my face. I wonder if they’re scared deep inside or if they actually enjoy this.
Finally getting my feet to move, I find an empty table and make a beeline for it. Bryn and Eva are on the other side of the room, but I don’t allow myself to be curious. I don’t need to know how they got here or ask them any questions about Scarlet. I can survive without that information. They do watch me with glares in place, but I pretend I don’t even recognize them. And everyone else watches me, stopping whatever they’re doing while I find my seat, but I try to ignore their gazes.
I get to the table and sit down with a muted sigh, hoping to God everyone will stop looking at me. Slowly, they do, turning back in their seats to chat with their neighbors, probably about me. Whatever. I’m not here to make friends or be the popular girl. I’m not here for anything; I’m going to get out of here the first chance I get.
I risk watching them now. There are at least seventy teens, all fit, some tall, some short and stocky, but they’re all in shape. I continue watching them interact like totally normal teens before noticing the boy, the one who was on the track the previous day, staring at me from a few tables over.
The way he looks at me is unnerving, as if he knows me, but I don’t think too hard on it. A woman brings my food after a few minutes of me sitting, and I thank her, but only get a nod in response. The tray has a plate filled with eggs, a bowl of oatmeal, a bowl of fruit, and a glass of orange juice. My mouth waters, and I dig in without hesitation.
Halfway through my meal, I watch the boy from the corner of my eye as he stands and walks toward my table. For some reason, my pulse quickens and my palms get sweaty. I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m not ready to be chummy with anyone, especially someone who keeps staring at me all creepy-like. By the time he gets to my table, half the cafeteria is looking our way, making me want to curl into a ball.
Up close, he seems much taller than he did the day before, and when I finally get the courage to look at him, his crystal blue eyes pierce me. A thin white scar trails from his scalp, down the side of his face to curve under his chin. It’s so light, I wasn’t able to see it from far away the day before, but I have this unreasonable urge to trail my finger over it and ask him how he got it. Which is completely irrational. I don’t even know this guy.
Without saying anything or asking if the seat is free—which it obviously is, but whatever—he sits across from me and stares. To keep from asking what the hell his problem is, I clamp my mouth shut and look anywhere but at him. Now the entire room is staring at me again, which makes me want to groan. Even Eva is giving me a much harsher glare than before, making me curious as to who the hell this kid is. Does she have a crush on him or something? If so, she can have him. I already have someone who will always be mine, even if I don’t ever see him again. Bryn gestures wildly next to Eva, then glares at me, too, before they get up and make their way toward the exit.
I finally look at the guy across from me because I’m tired of looking at the people staring at me. Oh, wait. He’s one of them. Except, instead of staring at my face, he’s staring at the angry pink scar on my shoulder. The stab wound from Scarlet is healing okay, the stitches having dissolved while I was in Seattle, but it’s still puckered and very red. I clear my throat, irritated now. His eyes snap to mine, the clear blue seeming to gaze right through me.
“Can I help you?” I demand, raising an eyebrow.
A smirk tugs at his lips, revealing a cute dimple on the scarred side of his face.
What is it about dimples? “Are you going to finish your oatmeal?” He gestures toward my tray. His voice is deep and rough, yet there seems to be a laugh behind it. As if something about me amuses him.
I shake my head, trying to dislodge the hold those crystal blues seem to have on me. They’re not green. I miss Conner’s green eyes. I give him a hard look, pursing my lips. “Yes, actually, I am going to finish it. Is there anything else you need?”
He smiles full-on and man, oh man, that smile could stop hearts. Wow. But hey, I’m semi-immune because I’ve already got a hot boyfriend with a killer smile. Kind of. If it still counts, even though I told him we were done. Does it still count? I shake the thought from my head. I can’t think like that if I’m ever going to get out of here. My focus goes back to the guy, waiting for him to say something.
Shaking his head, he crosses his arms, leaning them on the table. “Go ahead and finish. I’ll wait for you.”
I jerk back. “Is there a reason you’ll be waiting for me?” What the heck is up with this guy? Is he messing with me on purpose, to play some weird prank? Or was he assigned to keep an eye on me when the henchmen aren’t around? The thought has my stomach clenching. “I don’t need a babysitter,” I bite out.
The smile stays in place, never wavering. “I’m not babysitting you. I just thought you might need some help finding the training room, since your bodyguard disappeared.”
“I’m not training,” I blurt out. There’s no way. Nothing they can do to me will make me train. “He only said I’m having my meals with the others. I’m sure he’ll be back right when breakfast is over.”
He tilts his head, considering me with a raised eyebrow before shrugging. “Well, I can still hang out with you until he shows up. Wouldn’t want you sitting here all by yourself.”
“Look.” I glare harder, hoping he’ll get the message. “I’m not here to make friends. In fact, I’m not here for any reason except to get out of this place. And I will do so the first chance I get.”
His eyes go wide and he leans forward on the table.
“You need to watch what you say,” he growls, low enough for only me to hear. “They hear everything. Believe me.”
I lean forward, too, close enough that our faces almost touch. “Guess what?” I smirk without humor. “I don’t give a crap.”
He raises his eyebrow again, looking completely baffled, but hey, I’m pretty baffling sometimes. The smirk comes back slowly and he shakes his head. I really hate amusing people in this place. “Anyway, it can’t hurt anything, me sitting here.”
I guess it can’t. I don’t have to spill my heart out or anything. “Fine.” I sigh. “I guess you can sit wherever you want.”
“I’m Jackson, by the way.” He holds one hand out. I take it hesitantly, watching him closely while he shakes my hand. “With an X,” he adds with his awesome smile.
I chuckle before taking my hand back and returning to my oatmeal, trying to mostly ignore his presence, which is impossible. He’s attractive, sure, but the scar mixed with the constant smiles make him a mystery. We watch each other while I eat my oatmeal, not saying anything for a few minutes. I take another bite, considering him while he smirks at me.
“I’m Payton,” I say around the bite in a really attractive way.
He smiles hugely. “Nice to meet you, Pay—” Breaking off, he looks over my shoulder with wide eyes. I whip around to see the other kids filing out of the cafeteria, which doesn’t seem significant. He shoots up from his seat, giving me a hard look. “Get up, you need to come with me.”
I give him my best “excuse me” look. “I said I’m not training. I’ll stay here and finish my breakfast. I’m sure they’ll come get me soon.”
Shaking his head, he grabs my tray and I begin to protest, but he silences me with a look. “They aren’t here yet, which means they aren’t coming.” He pauses, walking around the table before grabbing my arm with his free hand. The invasion of my personal space makes my heart race. “It also means they expect you in the training room. It would be a bad idea for you to stay here alone.”
He pulls me to my feet, but I yank my arm from his hand with a snarl. “They will not control me. I may be kept in a cell, but they can’t make me train. They can’t make me teach you.” Shaking my head, I clench my fists at my sides. They can’t. I won’t let them control me with fear.
His Adam’s apple bobs up and down while he studies me. “Look, I don’t know you, but you seem like a nice girl.” He pauses, his hands fisting at his sides, too, as if he’s trying to keep himself from grabbing my arm again. Smart move. “You shouldn’t give them a reason to come down on you, because they will, and you won’t survive it. You have to trust me.” His eyes shift back and forth, a seriousness in them I can’t ignore.
I finally nod, and his entire frame sags in relief. “I’ll come with you, but we need to be clear. I. Am. Not. Training.” I bite out each word.
His jaw tightens, but he dips his chin once before leading the way from the cafeteria, following behind the remaining teens, who give us uninterested glances. My babysitter is nowhere in sight, even though I keep my eyes out for him while trailing after Jaxson down the white hall. He only said I was supposed to have meals with everyone; he didn’t say anything about training. This must be Helquest’s way of slyly making me do what he wants me to do.
What if they put Jaxson up to this? Told him to trick me into going to the training?
He doesn’t know me; there was no reason for him to come over to my table. To bring me with him. He could be working with them and not have a care in the world about what happens to me. That makes more sense than him helping me for no reason.
I stop walking, staring at his retreating form before looking around at only the white hallway, pondering what can be done. I’m sure I could find my way back to my cell and just sit outside of it until someone lets me in. It’s not as if I would be trying to run away, only trying to avoid their training that I want no freaking part of.
It only takes him a few moments to notice I’ve stopped. He faces me, holding his hands out in question. The hall is empty except for the two of us, the others having rounded the corner ahead. We’re totally alone. I consider running. I’m sure I could outrun him, but what would I do once I got to my cell? Could I even find my cell from here?
He only watches me while I think this through, but after a few moments, he walks toward me. “You coming?” he asks, continuing to move closer, too close to my personal bubble.
I could totally bolt, but I want to know why he’s helping me. If he’s doing it for them or if he’s just a nice guy. “Did they put you up to this?” I throw out there.
He jerks back as if I slapped him, his brow crumpling. Okay, so maybe he’s just being nice, or he’s a really good actor; I don’t know which, but I’m hoping it’s the nice guy thing. It would be really great if one person I met didn’t have an agenda. He gives the ceiling a long look before meeting my gaze and shakes his head. “You’re going to make us late” is all he says before turning on his heel and starting back down the hall.
What the hell? I look up at the ceiling, too, but see nothing. Are there really cameras everywhere? Like hidden in the walls or something? Jeez, I’m an idiot. If I’m convinced there are cameras in my cell, why wouldn’t they have them around the rest of the compound? I don’t know what the right thing to do here is. I can go with him and see what this training is all about. That doesn’t mean I have to participate. I can observe… hopefully.
I follow him again with hopes that this will all turn out okay. Things can’t get much worse. I’m already stuck here, and it would be nice to have someone to confide in, to talk to. At the fork at the end of the hall, we turn to the right and walk a few more yards until we reach a large opening, which leads into a huge room. Everyone looks at us, including the two agents at the front of the room, when we enter.
Jaxson keeps his head down, leading me to the back corner of the room, then turns to watch whatever is going on at the front. Everyone stands. It isn’t a classroom filled with desks but an enormous room filled with teens, two agents, and a bunch of tables covered in guns. Great, my favorite.
Thirty-six tables, two people to a table. Jaxson has us standing behind one in the very back corner. My arms are around my middle, my eyes closed, breathing deep to keep my nerves in check.
My eyes snap open when a warm hand touches my arm. I gaze into Jaxson’s tormented eyes. “It’s gonna be okay,” he whispers, rubbing my arm lightly before dropping his hand and turning his attention back up front.
Does he know how much I hate this? Does he hate it as much as I do? It’s a nice thought, but there’s no way to know.
“Thanks for joining us.” The lady agent on the right looks directly at Jaxson and me with a hard glare before turning her gaze on the rest of the room. “Today we’re going over the differences in caliber, the different impacts, results you’ll get, etcetera.” She looks at the burly agent next to her, gesturing for him to speak.
He goes over how each caliber pierces a body and what it does upon entry. Whether it tears through the back, leaving a gaping hole or a clean hole, or if it’s so small that it goes in but doesn’t come out. Nausea rolls through me and my hands shake, sweat beading from every pore. The desire to clasp my hands over my ears and yell as loudly as possible so I don’t have to listen is overwhelming, but my arms remain wrapped around my middle, gripping tightly.
Only a few minutes into the lecture, they instruct everyone to take a look at the tables and choose a gun. Everyone moves, looking over the choices. Even Jaxson glances over our table, picking a gun within seconds. The blood drains from my face and I close my eyes again. I said I wouldn’t train with them. I meant it.
“Payton, right?” a woman’s voice sounds at my side.
I crack my eyes open to the sight of the female agent standing right next to me, her lips mashed into a thin line. She’s the first lady agent I’ve met thus far, and her stocky build—slightly pudgy around the middle—isn’t that impressive. All eyes are on me again, including Jaxson’s. I guess I should get used to everyone staring. It’s no big deal.
I only nod in response.
“Is there a problem?” she goes on, and I shake my head, tightening my jaw. There are so many problems here, but I won’t be the one to voice them. Her eyes become thin slits and her lips get even thinner. “Then why don’t you choose a gun? You can be the first to demonstrate in the shooting range, since you’re new here.”
I glare now, making sure Jaxson gets the brunt of it. I didn’t have to come in here; this stupid kid forced me to. I could be in my cell running right now, rather than sweating over having to use a gun. He shakes his head imperceptibly, probably understanding what I’m about to say. There’s no stopping it. “No,” I bite out. Instead of looking angrier, the agent smirks.
Tilting her head, her eyebrows shoot up under her eighties bangs. “No?”
“Did I stutter?” I growl, fisting my hands at my sides. Everyone in the room stares with wide eyes, maybe out of excitement, I can’t be sure, but all the blood has drained from Jaxson’s face.
The agent smiles full-on now, her face lighting up with delight. I expect her to say something, but she stays silent, her eyes shifting right over my shoulder. Before I can look behind me, a large hand wraps around the back of my neck, thick fingers digging in. Blood pounds through my veins, every muscle screaming for me to do something, to defend myself. But I don’t even gasp. I grit my teeth when the hand clutches tighter.
This was bound to happen at some point. Jaxson warned me something would happen; even Helquest said things would be easier if I complied. Deep down, I knew a time would come when they asked me to do something and I would refuse. I just didn’t realize it would come so quickly. Apparently, it only took me refusing to shoot a gun, which I’m okay with because there’s no way I’m going to touch another gun. Ever.
The hand grips my neck even tighter, pulling me back so I’m forced to look up into the other agent’s snarling face. “Let’s go, princess.” He smiles, and I clench my teeth to keep my snide remark locked tightly behind my lips. “Time to teach you your place here.”
Shoving me to the exit, everyone watches, Jaxson with sad, knowing eyes. I even catch Bryn and Eva on the way out, smirking as if this is the best day of their lives. Ugh, I still hate them and still need to know why they’re here. Keeping his hand wrapped around my neck, he leads me down the empty hall, and I hate it. Not because I’m scared of what’s to come—well, I am a little, but mostly because I feel like a scorned child. The shakes settle in when he passes the area I know to be my cell and keeps going. I don’t want to be afraid. I want to be strong, but I’m only a wee little human.
When he gets to an insignificant part of the hall, he goes through the process of opening a door and then pushes me inside. My blood turns to ice. The room he leads me into looks so much like the one I woke up in the first day. He takes me over to the bed-type platform in the middle of the room and lets go of my neck before gesturing for me to lie down. I can’t hold in the snort, causing his furious gaze to snap to mine.
I raise my eyebrows. “You actually expect me to willingly get on there?”
His face falls flat, devoid of emotion when he shrugs. “It would be easiest. I’m not really in to manhandling little girls.”
My lips morph into a snarl at the words “little girl.” I am no little girl, and if this guy thinks going up against me is going to be a cakewalk, then he’s got another thing coming. Training with Cadmar on a regular basis prepared me to go up against a man of his size. The probability of me actually winning is slim, but I have to fight. I would much rather be beaten than be pumped full of chemicals or sedatives.
I won’t go down easy. Period.
Seeming to catch onto my thoughts, a grin spreads over his lips and his hands fist at his sides. Okay, so this is happening. He moves in a circle around me but I follow him, keeping him in front of me. “You know, they think you’re this amazing girl, so talented.” He chuckles darkly, looking me up and down. “I would love to prove them wrong.”
I tune out his banter; I won’t let it get to me. If I’m going to survive this, I need to concentrate. As he circles me, I study his body, getting intimate with the details. He’s at least a foot taller than me, thick muscle rippling under his cotton T-shirt. I can do this. He picks up his pace, readying for his attack while I take a deep breath, preparing myself.
Cadmar was right. It isn’t a separate part of me, a different person; the killer is right here, and I will do whatever I have to in order to defend myself. To survive.
Moving quickly, he swings at me, and I dodge easily, ducking under his swinging arm. It was an obvious move. When I go under his arm, I elbow him in the ribs, making him grunt out a breath, but otherwise, it barely fazes him. Reaching around, he grabs my ponytail, yanking me back and making me yell out. When he has me in front of him, he goes to put me in a chokehold, but I quickly swing my head back, ignoring my screaming scalp as I head-butt him in the mouth. I was hoping for his nose, but I’m not tall enough.
This hurts me probably the same as it does him, but it makes him let go of my hair. Exactly what I was hoping for. I spin around in time to spot the blood trickling from the corner of his mouth before he wipes it away with his arm. When he charges me again, I dodge to the side while kicking out at his ankle, sending him to the ground. The moment he’s on his knees, I quickly wrap around him, getting him in a chokehold. But he’s too strong, way too strong for me. There’s no way I’m going to win this fight. Even if I do, I don’t know what the hell I’d do next.
Grabbing my arms, he starts prying them away from his neck. I can’t hold on. At least I keep my legs wrapped around him; he can’t move them while he’s struggling with my arms. He seems to realize this while we’re both grunting, breathing hard, sweat dripping everywhere. His next move takes me off guard as he falls backward, slamming on top of me, smashing me into the hard floor.
The wind is knocked out of me, and every bone in my body screams. I lose my grip on him, coughing hard while he flips over, pinning me with his body before wrapping a hand around my throat. Gasping, I claw at his wrist and try to kick him, but my legs are pinned beneath him.
He pulls himself to his knees, straddling my torso with his hand still in place, squeezing my trachea. As my eyes roll back in my head, I watch him get ready to backhand me and brace myself for the sweet release of being knocked out. At least then there won’t be any more pain.
“Agent Sharp,” someone’s voice booms through the room, but it sounds echo-y, off.
The hand around my neck disappears, along with the weight from my torso, when the agent shoots to his feet facing Helquest, who stands in the doorway. With my airway free, I suck in air too quickly, making myself cough, which kills my burning throat. I slowly sit up, holding a hand to my throat while Helquest watches me with disappointment in his eyes.
Did he really think I would comply so easily?
He turns the same look on the agent.
“Sir, she provoked me,” the agent begins. I want to snort, but my throat hurts too much. “She refused to participate, and then she attacked—”
He stops abruptly when Helquest holds two fingers up. “I’m aware of everything that happened. I expect better from you, Sharp.” He eyes the blood on the agent’s mouth with disdain. Then his gaze falls back on me, holding that hint of amusement I despise. “I told you things would be easier if you complied.” He turns to leave the room, then glances back at the agent. “Restrain her.”
When Helquest exits, I give the agent a panicked look, and he sneers in return. There’s no way I can fight back. My body’s too weak, my bones sore. He moves quickly, getting behind me and picking me up from the floor. He bends one of my arms up behind my back, making it impossible to move. Then a woman enters the room holding a syringe.
“No,” I croak, shaking my head when she approaches. “No.” I try to yell louder, squirming as much as possible, but the agent pulls on my arm, almost popping it out of its socket.
All I can do is watch when she sticks me in the arm, emptying the syringe. My body instantly goes slack against the agent, but at least he doesn’t let me fall to the ground before everything goes black.