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Authors: Carrie Butler

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CHAPTER 15

It’d been days since my encounter with the drunk and his kid, but the burning in my chest didn’t go away. I hadn’t been able to do rounds all week for fear of fucking up someone else’s childhood, and sleep was a distant memory. Maybe that was why I still lay in bed at the asscrack of dawn on Saturday morning, instead of getting up for yoga.

I rolled over, failing to enjoy the caress of satin sheets against my skin. Something had to be done—about this, about Rena and Wallace’s lack of communication, about the money for Grandma’s move, about ERA’s virus, about the state of my job, and even about my date with Rachel tonight. I had way too much going on. One of those things was bound to fall through.

Before I could consider it any further, my phone rang. I snatched it off the bed stand and scrubbed my eyes. “Go.”

“Cole?” Corynn’s unmistakable accent piped through the line. “We’ve got a problem here. A big problem.”

“What?”

“It’s Aiden,” she whispered into the receiver, her voice crackling. “Rena’s friend. The nerdy kid. He’s here at HQ.”

I sat up. “Whoa, whoa. Stop telling me things on the phone.”

“I walked to the store on my break. It’s a pre-pay.”

“And if you’re in ERA HQ—which I surmise you are, since it’s the weekend—they can still hear your half. Text me.”

“Okay, sorry.”

Click.

I sighed.
Kids these days. So naive.
In the time it took me to enter her contact information, she’d rattled out a 160-character text.

CORYNN:
“Aiden drove up 4 the study, but tipped Gail off that he knows. Claims he wants the FULL treatment.”

I groaned and typed back,
“Where is he?”

CORYNN:
“MRI”

“Shiiiiiiit,” I whined to myself. One more thing. All I needed was one more thing.

CORYNN:
“Sorry. I borrowed your number from the office. Couldn’t ring Wallace about it, esp. after what happened last weekend.”

My brain struggled to grasp any information I’d obtained in regards to last weekend, but came up empty. I frowned.
“What happened last weekend?”

Minutes passed by without a reply. Either they’d karate chopped the girl mid-text, or she was afraid to answer. Finally, my phone chirped.

CORYNN:
“I wanted to feel him out, but the way he was talking, I thought you’d already ratted about our deal. So…yeah, I blabbed.”

I let out a deep breath and kicked my legs over the side of the bed.
“And?”

CORYNN:
“And I guess he’s in. They both are.”

My spine straightened of its own accord, and my thumbs blurred over the keys.
“Both?”

CORYNN:
“Shit. I wasn’t supposed to say anything.”

“Tell me everything you know.”
I tapped my screen a little too forcefully, standing up.
“Leave out one minute detail, and I will flip shit.”

She relayed the story via bursts of information. Apparently, the universe had shifted in my favor—which probably meant it was preparing to kick me in the ass later—but whatever. Rena and Wallace had gotten back together last weekend on the sly. Something about her giving him an injection in the shower. Anyway, now the relationship was under wraps until Faye made her next move, and no one had had the presence of mind to inform me.

If it weren’t something to mark off my to-do list, I’d be pissed. They were lucky we had too many other problems to contend with now—like Aiden Ross overhearing something he shouldn’t have. It was the only explanation for the guy showing up at Faye’s lab, begging for superpowers. He must’ve realized he’d lost Rena to my freak-show brother and snapped.

I rooted around in my dresser and texted with one hand.
“I’m coming up there.”

CORYNN:
“OK. I have things U need 2 see.”

“Fallopian tubes?”

CORYNN:
“What?”

I threw a fistful of clothes on my bed and growled.
“Damn autocorrect! I meant files.”

CORYNN:
“Oh…yes, files.”

“Where should I meet you?”

CORYNN:
“No meet up. Blue stack, Uncleland, 3-4 window, and U make the copies. Know the way?”

Okay, so a blue folder would be waiting in Uncle Henry’s office from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., and I couldn’t take the originals. Was that her version of a coded message? And if so, did she think ERA would ignore the rest of our obviously uncoded conversation upon discovery?

Oh well. The effort was there.
“Afraid not.”

CORYNN:
“Will txt directions L8ER. Break over.”

“OK. Thanks.”

CORYNN:
“NP.”

Well, that little exchange was a headache. Fortunately, it
had
left me with four tidbits of information.

One, Corynn was leaning toward Team Wallacolena.

Two, Aiden had lost his shit and accidentally switched sides.

Three, my brother and fake sister were back together again.

And four, my speed made my texting skills vastly superior to all other species’.

I glanced at the clock. If I jumped in the shower right now, I could still drive to Cleveland, grab the file, pick up food, and make it to Wilcox in time for dinner before my coffee date.
Another lengthy commute to enjoy…

As I grabbed my clothes and headed for the bathroom, I contemplated the notion of siphoning gas.

~

Click, click, click, click, click!

I twisted the knob and barged into Wallace’s room that night, cradling a warm, damp bag against my chest. “Yo.”

My brother drew a slow breath before he rolled off of a mostly-clothed Rena. “You couldn’t knock?”

“Waiting makes me sad.” I set the bag on his desk and went back to reset the lock. The pick gun wasn’t necessary, but damn it, it was fun. Of course, this caused Rena to regard me with thinly veiled suspicion. “Don’t worry, Sis. Nobody saw me.”

“What’s that?” she asked, nodding toward the bag as she straightened her shirt.

“Dinner. I figured you’d high-tail it back here after your botched field trip.”

She pushed herself into a sitting position and glared. “It wasn’t totally botched.”

“You could’ve sent me.” I shut the door, pulled Wallace’s desk chair over to the bed, and started passing around Styrofoam boxes. “I’m there all the time.”

She took one and popped the top. “Yeah, but don’t you work on Saturdays?”

“When I feel like it. My boss doesn’t care what I do.”
Anymore.

“Why?” She took a deep breath of stir-fry and rolled her eyes back to moan.

I shrugged and tossed a packet of chopsticks at her head. “Banged her, threatened to tell her husband, blah, blah, blah. I come and go as I please.”

“Eww.”

“How’d you find out about Aiden?” Wallace cut in, ignoring his girlfriend’s stir-fry-induced sex noises as he bent in front of his mini-fridge. “Were you following us?”

“Nah, Corynn texted me from work.”

“Why
you
?”

“Because I’m discreet.” I leaned back in his desk chair and kicked my feet up on the bed beside Sis. “And she’d left breadcrumbs for me to find a couple of files.”

Wallace sat down and shoved my feet off before passing out water bottles. “What kind of files?”

“Henry’s notes.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. “I didn’t have much time, so I took pictures of everything. Let’s see…”

Rena broke her chopsticks apart and started stuffing her face in a way only women can get by with. It was cute.

“Sounds like there could be some negative side effects, depending on how things went,” I said, squinting at the screen. “Egocentricity, over-aggression, irritability…uh, loss of personal insight, changes in sexual behaviors…the inability to judge which behaviors are socially appropriate. And it’s likely to block his pain receptors, so he’ll just keep going and going until he’s finished the task at hand. The sens—”

“Okay.” She cut me off, one symptom away from a spaz attack as she squeezed her chopsticks. “What kind of outcome are they hoping for?”

I slid my thumb across the screen and scanned the images. “Uh, improved motor functions, heightened senses, increased strength and speed…”

“Great.”

‘They’re prepping him for something,” Wallace commented, digging into his General Tso’s. “Him and everyone else they get their hands on. The question is, what would ERA need superhumans for?”

I shook my head. “The abilities are the incentive. They just want everyone to be equal. I heard they’re going to neutralize aggression next, though I don’t see why it matters if humans fight. They have at least four Dynari on their side. Why not just rule with fear?”

Rena’s brow pinched.

“Jackie,” I told her. “You’re guessing where I got four, right? I noticed an entry had changed on their roster. Something about atmospheric conditions. Anyway, she’s in their employ now.”

She flinched. “So, she’s related?”

“Supposedly.” I tapped a few things and turned my phone around for them to see. “I’ve been putting it all into a family tree app.”

Because I’m brilliant.

“Let me get this straight,” Wallace put his container down and leaned forward. “Adelyn is the woman from the journal, right? Our great-great-grandmother. She’s at the top.”

I nodded.

“She had two kids. Edwin and his now-deceased sister, Flo.”

Again, I nodded.

Wallace rubbed his chin. “We know Edwin’s line, but Flo had a family of her own. Her son, Conrad, passed the line on to his daughter Jackie. She’s our turncoat.”

“Right.”

“And I’m guessing she’s near Elise’s age, since they’re in the same generation. Probably early forties.” He’d gone serious mode without me noticing—tensed jaw, dangerous eyes. As far as I was concerned, it was a good thing. “What about the rest of these people?”

“My guess is, ERA hasn’t had time to pay them a visit yet. You know, what with the experiments and shit. They probably just nabbed the most convenient.”

“Starting with Edwin,” Rena chimed in. “Right? They used him to find Corynn.”

“And everyone else.” I crammed my phone back into my pocket. “Don’t forget. Augari are going to be a hot commodity if it comes down to one side out-powering the other. Or
overpowering
the other. Am I right?”

She slumped down.

“But don’t worry about that yet.” I finally popped the top on my box and leaned back again. “We have too many other things to deal with right now.”

“Easy for you to say,” she grumbled.

We ate in silence for a few minutes, and I wondered how they’d react if shit went south with ERA. Could I count on them to have my back in a fight? Sure, they were capable, but did they have the stomach for it?

Rena laid her chopsticks down. “You guys ever think we should just…step back?”

Wallace turned to face her, his gaze snapping to attention as if suddenly pulled from a daydream. “From what?”

“This.” She gestured around us. “The so-called prophecy, us having to organize some kind of counter faction, trying to stay one step ahead of ERA. I mean, when did this become our fight? What’s stopping us from keeping Aiden away from them, doing whatever it takes to get him back to normal, and then just laying low?”

“You wanna puss out?” I felt my brow furrow as I scraped the insides of my container. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for slackin’ off. I just don’t like the thought of hiding.”

“We wouldn’t be hiding,” she insisted. “We’d just be adopting the
laissez-faire
approach. Let them do what they will. No interference from us.”

Neither one of us replied, our twin wavelength in sync for the first time in ages. Somewhere in the background, Wallace’s mini-fridge whirred.

Rena made a face. “It’s just…it’s just that we could stand to lose a lot from fighting them.”

Wallace rubbed her back to comfort her, and she did a weird cat-stretching thing to mask how forceful his touch had been. Their awkward interactions never got old.

“Baby,” he said, bending to meet her eyes. “If you don’t want to deal with this, you don’t have to. Cole and I will figure something out. I know this Aiden thing has been hard on you. The thing with Gabby, too.”

What thing with Gabby?

“That wasn’t what I’d meant. We’re on a team. I want us all safe together.”

He gave her a humorless smile. “Let’s just continue to deal with things one step at a time. If it gets too rough, we’ll pull back and do what we need to. Okay?”

She leaned over and pressed her forehead against his arm. “Okay.”

“And on that happy note.” I stood up, ready to weave some mischief. “I’m out of here. Got a hot date with a leggy redhead. You might know her.”

Wallace scrunched up his features. “What?”

“You know, knockout body, angel eyes…” I grinned and goaded him on. “Goes to church with you…”

Seconds ticked by, and realization melted his expression. Before he could jump up and assault me, Rena grabbed his arm. “Wait!”

“Anyway, I gotta go get ready,” I announced, jerking the door open. “Don’t worry. I’ll have her home by midnight.”

And with that, I blasted full speed down the hallway, never looking back.

CHAPTER 16

Getting ready consisted of splashing on cologne in the Jeep.

Thankfully, I look model-sexy in everything I wear. Not unlike the outdoorsmen who show off camping gear in catalogs. Rugged, handsome—ready to hack off a bear pecker, only to have it confiscated by customs at the border.

That might’ve happened once.

Anyway, Rachel wouldn’t be disappointed by my lack of prep time. I looked great and smelled like spicy musk. Nothing could go wrong with this date.
Nothing.

I jogged into the coffee shop at five ‘til seven. She stood off to the side of the line, wearing a flimsy sundress and a sweater that’d seen better days. Kind of a thrifty look. I dug it.

“Shall we?” I asked her, holding out my arm as I joined the line.

Her face brightened as she took it, pink splashing her cheeks. “Yes. It’s so nice to see you again.”

“You too.”

She peered around my back expectantly. “So, where are Rena and Wallace?”

Shit.

“Dead,” I answered without thinking, berating myself for forgetting the
double
aspect of our arrangement. How did that slip my mind? Detail neglect wasn’t like me at—

Her eyes widened.

“No, no…” I shook my hands back and forth to pacify her. “They’re not dead. Sorry. I just—that was a bad joke.”

“Oh.” She eyed me strangely for a moment before nervous laughter escaped her lips. “I didn’t catch that. I’m sorry.”

A remake of an old swing tune piped through the speakers, struggling to compete with a noisy cappuccino machine.

“Actually, they can’t make it,” I explained. “Rena’s friend is in the hospital.”

She froze as if the next tile in line were a landmine. “Is that another…?”

“No, no joke this time. He’s really in the hospital.”

“That’s terrible.”

I nodded. “Some kind of head…thing. He’ll live, though. Almost good as new.”

Again, she regarded me with suspicion. But at least this time she tried to mask it with a smile. “Well, I’m glad to hear he’s expected to make a recovery. Is there anything we can do?”

“Live our lives.” I gave her a sage nod. “He’d want us to.”

“I thought you said he was fine.”

“He…is?”

The people in front of us moved up in line.

“Anyway,” I went on, ushering her forward. “The Rena and Wallace thing isn’t a problem, is it? I mean, you still want to hang out, don’t you?”

Rachel smiled. “Sure. Why not?”

Not the most enthusiastic answer, but I’d accept it.

We finally made it to the front and ordered our drinks before sliding to the end of the counter.

“So, you go to Wilcox, right?” I asked, snatching a stir stick to chew on.

She nodded and crossed her arms. “Yes, I’m working on a degree in early childhood education. Do you like kids?”

“Totally,” I lied. “They’re all so loud and…small.”

“Well, that’s one way to look at it.” She laughed, and the barista yelled our names like we weren’t standing two feet away.

I grabbed both cups, resisted the urge to curse at the heat, and scanned the seating area. Sitting with my back to the wall was preferable, but I’d probably kill the teens groping each other in the corner. That left two stools along a counter, which would put my back to the door, and a table by the window.

Normally, I have time to consider things—to mull them over in the lengthy seconds it takes others to process their own thoughts—but before I knew it, Rachel was headed for an open table. “Here’s one!”

“Fantastic.”

She shrugged out of her sweater as we settled in. Freckles dotted the smooth, ivory skin of her shoulder, inviting any reason for the slightest touch. My hand twitched under the table.

“And you finished your realty program early? Wallace mentioned you got a job right after graduation. He said you’re really smart.”

“He said that?”

“I believe his adverb was
freakishly
.” She smiled and took a sip of bland, value grade coffee. “But it constituted a compliment, nonetheless.”

“I’m sure.” I stretched my legs out and brushed against hers, eliciting the faintest blush. “And to answer your question, yes, I finished early. Classes bore me to tears, so I ventured off to get a job in the field. Slightly less boring, and
they
pay
me
to be there. Good tradeoff.”

Her amused gaze took me in over the rim of her cup. “I like the way you see things.”

It was my turn to smile as I leaned across the table. “And I like the things I see.”

~

Our casual flirt session turned into a conversation that stretched the better part of an hour. Hell, if it weren’t for the punk ass kid who kept sweeping the aisle beside our table, we probably would’ve stayed longer.

Rachel slipped her sweater back on as we made for the exit, and I appraised her body from behind. Everything about the girl swayed—her hips, the flimsy material of her dress, even her hair. I wanted to look away, I
knew
I had to, but being on my best behavior had worn on my willpower.

As she picked up speed to catch the door, her arms joined the rhythm. A breeze teased the edge of her skirt, and I resisted the urge to join in.

“—art ways.”

I snapped to attention, meeting her gaze as she spun around. “Huh?”

“I
said,
” she emphasized with a grin, “I guess this is where we part ways.”

“Oh.”

This early? I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the sky beyond a streetlight. Dark, murky blue, lighter near the horizon. Did she have a curfew or something?

“Thank you for such a wonderful time.” Her eyes were practically aglow in this lighting. “I really enjoyed myself.”

“Well, don’t say goodbye yet.” I slid an arm around her shoulders and steered her toward the parking lot. “I’ll walk you to your car.”

She froze.

I took another step and backtracked. “What’s wrong?”

“Wrong?” She half-cringed, forcing a smile. “Nothing. It’s just…I didn’t drive here tonight. I walked.”

“How far?” I straightened to scan the street. It didn’t seem like we were all that close to a residential area, but that didn’t mean anything. I was from Columbus, not Wilcox.

“It’s not that bad,” she assured me. “I walk to school and church and wor—”

“I’ll drive you home.” I tugged my keys free and unlocked the Jeep with a flash of its headlights. “It’s too dark for a chick—er, woman—to be walking anywhere alone. Especially with it being this cold.”

Her eyes softened. “No, I appreciate that, but it’s fine. I wore a sweater.”

“That thing’s so thin I can almost see through it.” I pinched at her sleeve and made a face. “No dice. I’m taking you home.”

Something melted her expression. Shame, maybe. Hurt? I actually found myself wishing I had Wallace’s stupid empath powers.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, before turning on her heel and walking away.

Huh?

My brain replayed our last interaction three times before she made it halfway down the lot. Did she have a thing against chivalry? Maybe she just didn’t trust herself to be alone in the car with me. Maybe she’d talked to Rena and found out about the kidna—

I darted in front of her without finishing the thought. “What is it?”

She flinched, on the verge of tears. “What?”

“Your reason.” I locked the Jeep with a beep and shoved my keys back down in my pocket. “Why you don’t want to get in the car with me. I mean, it’s fine. Really, it is. I just want to know for future reference. Did I do something? Did you hear something?”

“No, no.” She shook her head. “It’s not that, it’s just…”

I held my breath. If Rena had blabbed, she was going on my shit list. High up. Below ERA and above Steve No-dick.

Maybe.

Okay, that was a lie. She’d already earned my loyalty, and that meant something. Plus, Wallace would kick my skull in when I was sleeping. I’d just have to ask her a few questions first, make sure she didn’t—

“I didn’t want my mom’s boyfriend to see your car pull in.” She looked down at her scuffed flats and kicked a rock. “He’d have…questions.”

“Oh.”

Weird.
I hadn’t considered parental interference as a threat since high school, but it made sense. Rachel was a commuter, and Wilcox rentals were all but nonexistent. Her folks had to live nearby.

“Let me walk you home, then.” I gestured ahead of us. “I’ll make myself scarce once I know you’re safe, I promise.”

Uncertainty weighed her features as she studied me, searching for something. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t have offered if I weren’t.”
Believe me. I’m an asshole.

Her fragile lips lifted in a slow curve, and she nodded. “All right.”

“Good.”

We walked in silence a few minutes, before the ease of our previous conversation returned. Whatever had jarred Rachel in the parking lot slowly disappeared as we traipsed past boutiques, a library, and some miniscule park. Eventually, the college town’s influence faded into an urban neighborhood, where strip malls occupied every prime piece of real estate.

She stole glances at me every now and then as we talked, almost as if to gauge my reaction. Like I cared where she lived. There were rough spots everywhere—even in ritzy areas. I knew that firsthand.

But whatever. I slipped my arm around her shoulders and gave a quick squeeze. If she wanted to save this discussion for later, there was no need to press the issue. Why? Because contrary to what others may think—
namely, Rena and Wall
ace—I am a patient man.

Who wouldn’t be, after watching their life unfold in slow motion for twenty-three years?

Sure, I wanted the next two to five weeks of our time together to involve mind-blowing ecstasy, but I liked this part of the game. It was dangerous. One wrong move could blow the whole thing—it’s like handling explosives, without the weird smell it leaves on your hands.

“It’s this street,” she muttered, ducking her head as we veered to the right.

Not the cheeriest area I’d ever visited, but I’d seen worse. “I like it.”

That earned me a smile…disbelieving as it was. “You don’t have to say that.”

“I’m not my brother, Rach.”

She tilted her chin back, lines creasing her brow. “What?”

“I’m not nice enough to lie to you. There’s no need to second-guess what I tell you.”

She ducked out from my arm and turned to face me. “Are you kidding me?”

“No?” I blinked.

“Cole,” she said seriously, stretching to press a quick kiss against my cheek. “You’re a far kinder man than you give yourself credit for.”

My face burned.

“Thank you, again.” She took a step back and gave me that dreamy, innocent smile of hers. “I did have fun.”

“Me too,” I mumbled, resisting the urge to trace my fingertips over my cheek. Whatever lady spell she’d cast had crossed the wires in my brain. I couldn’t think straight.

She bounced on her toes, and then peered over her shoulder. “Well, goodnight!”

And with that, she bolted down the sidewalk to a little brown house with a broken fence. A quick look back told me she hoped I wasn’t there watching, but it didn’t slow her strides. After a quick fumble with the lock, she was inside. Gone. Just like that.

Huh.

I’d had my share of hook-ups before, even walked away with a few souvenirs—like rope burns from that circus performer—but never before had a chick made me
blush.
Especially not with something as chaste as a kiss on the cheek. Maybe I was sick. Maybe ERA had infected me with some Dynari-specific version of malaria.

Either way, I had a feeling I was screwed—and not in the manner I preferred.

BOOK: Honesty (Mark of Nexus)
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