Authors: Skye Malone
I swallowed, struggling to find words. He could be lying. Could be, except that if he was, his voice and face would put every con artist in history to shame. And then there was the simple question of who to believe. Zeke, who’d repeatedly risked his life to save me. Or a bunch of people I barely knew and couldn’t stand anyway.
“I don’t either,” I whispered.
For a moment, he was silent. His fingers found my own and his head cocked to the side questioningly, his gaze on our hands.
“This isn’t going to be the part where you tell me you just want to be friends, is it?” he asked carefully.
His eyes rose to meet mine.
A shiver ran through me. “Do you want it to be?” I replied just as carefully, my heart pounding.
He shook his head. “No.”
I hesitated, and then came back toward him.
His hand lifted, taking my cheek, drawing me to him. His lips pressed to mine, warm, soft and as wonderful as I remembered. Gently, his fingers ran through my hair and down to my neck.
My lips parted, inviting the kiss to deepen.
He didn’t hesitate. His tongue slipped between my lips, exploring me even as I explored him. His hands moved down my body, brushing against my breasts and continuing on. My heart raced as his fingers slid beneath my tank top to caress my sides and the small of my back. Tingles quivered through my skin everywhere he touched, like tiny bursts of electricity that felt so amazing it was hard to breathe.
And finally I realized what he’d been doing.
It only took a thought. The shiver of magic left me.
Zeke tensed, his breath catching. His fingers tightened on me and he gave a soft groan.
The magic coming from him intensified.
Time skipped. Stopped. Didn’t matter. I wanted more of him. I wanted everything. My mind flashed to the camper-covered back of the truck. To what we could do there, with more room. With the rough, old blankets on the metal floor and how incredible he would feel. His hands on my skin. His hands everywhere. And not just that.
But it scared me too. I’d never been like this with anyone – I’d scarcely even
a guy before this summer – and as much as I wanted to be with him now, wanted it so much I could scream, I… I didn’t know. This was going so fast and I wasn’t sure…
His magic faded. His lips broke from mine.
I pulled back and looked at him, unable to keep the uncertainty from my expression. Beneath my hands, I felt his heart pounding, but when his gaze searched my face, I could see understanding come into his eyes.
He reached up, brushing back a strand of my hair.
“It’s not just that,” he whispered, the words so much softer than they’d been only moments ago.
I trembled. “I-I’m sorry. I–”
His expression became insistent. “Chloe, no. Don’t be sorry. Please. I don’t want to mess this up, remember? I’m…” A breath left him, the sound almost like a chuckle. “Well, don’t get me wrong. I’m more than willing, and whenever you want to…” He smiled and a quiver ran through me at the look in his eyes. “But if you’re not comfortable with that right now, it’s not worth the risk of ruining this to me. I just want you, Chloe. However you choose to be with me, whatever we do, I just want you.”
Hesitantly, I gave a small nod.
He drew me close, kissing me again.
“So,” he asked when we parted, “how far is it to Kansas?”
I shrugged. “Maybe a thousand miles or so.”
His eyebrow rose and he nodded thoughtfully. “We’re not going to just drive straight there from here on out, are we?”
A smile pulled at his lips again as he looked to me askance.
Incredulity bubbled up. “Y-you’re going to…”
“Well, I’ve never seen Kansas,” he replied with a casual shrug.
“But what about Ina and–”
I cut off, not wanting to ruin everything by bringing up Niall.
His flippant expression faded. “I need to make sure you’re safe too,” he said quietly. “From the Sylphaen and those greliaran things and anything else as well. I know you can take care of yourself – I’m not saying you can’t – but I’d still like to try.
“And besides,” he continued, and I could hear the hurt in his voice. “Niall’s after you. You and Yvaria. Ina’s not a threat to that, and Ren…” He took a breath, shaking his head. “I warned her. And Ren will believe Ina long before he’d ever listen to me.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “But–”
“Chloe,” he interrupted.
I looked back at him.
“This is my choice,” he said. “I
go back. I’ll make Ren understand that the Sylphaen are real even if I have to drag him up to their caves myself. I’m going to fix this so that you can return to the ocean and this…” He twitched his head toward the land around us. “This doesn’t have to be forever for you. I’m not going to lose you, Chloe. I won’t. But before I leave, I need to know you’re someplace safe.” He paused. “Please.”
I hesitated, wanting to protest even if I couldn’t figure out what to say. “Okay…”
Zeke smiled. “Thank you.”
His smile grew. He leaned closer, kissing me.
“A few more miles, eh?” he suggested when he drew back again.
An answering grin tugged at my lip, though I still wasn’t sure I was comfortable with taking him farther from his family.
Even if it was his decision.
Drawing a breath, I nodded and then scooted back to the driver’s seat.
The engine grumbled as I turned the key in the ignition. With a growl of tires on the gravel, I pulled the truck out onto the road and headed for the interstate again.
We made it another fifty miles before the gas tank wanted refilling and presented us with the issue of bruises and shoes.
“I never got that,” Zeke said. “What’s humans’ deal with shoes in public places?”
Studying the front door of the gas station, I shrugged. “Disease, maybe? Not getting sued for injuries?”
He made a considering noise.
My mouth tightened as the sliding door rolled back and a rotund man in a cowboy hat walked out. Behind the register, the cashier watched him go, just as he had every other customer in the past ten minutes. He didn’t look like the nicest person, with the way he scrutinized everyone as though daring them to steal things or break some rule. Meanwhile, the sticker on the pump next to us demanded that we prepay for any gas, leaving us with little choice but to deal with the clerk.
Even if, after so many days of every other person I’d met wanting to kill me, I would’ve done almost anything to avoid someone so obviously confrontational.
I sighed. This was the only gas station I’d seen at this exit. I didn’t know where the next stop would be. And there did appear to be a display of flip-flops just inside the entrance.
It’d have to do.
I glanced to Zeke and then pushed open the truck door. The hinges protested with a rusty squeak, the noise painfully loud in the relative quiet of the morning. Warm summery air swept around us from the empty field across from the gas station, while the trees near the parking lot rustled with the wind.
Leaving the truck by the gas pump, we walked toward the station door.
“Uh, excuse me,” the clerk said the moment the door opened. “You can’t come in here like that.”
I glued a grin to my face and headed for the rotating stand of flip-flops, my heart pounding.
His narrow face tightened behind his large glasses. “I
, you can’t come in here like–”
“Hang on,” I told him.
Grabbing a pair of flip-flops and leaving Zeke to find another, I strode up to the register.
“It was this or track all kinds of mud into your store,” I lied. “You wouldn’t
how messed up we got, trying to push our truck out of a ditch. I hope you don’t mind.”
I gave him the best smile I could, hoping he didn’t comment on the lack of mud on my jeans or the truck outside. Zeke came over, setting his sandals down as well.
The clerk regarded us for a moment. “What happened to you?” he asked, jerking his chin toward the bruises on my neck.
I swallowed, holding onto the smile. “I told you,” I said as though it was obvious. “Car trouble.”
His mouth curled with annoyance. Snagging the flip-flops from the counter, he contented himself with a glare and then rang them up quickly.
“And eighty bucks of gas for pump six, please,” I added, handing him the lone credit card from Earl’s stolen wallet.
He glared again. I held my breath, waiting for him to protest the name on the card. But he was too busy eyeing us, and barely glanced to the thing while his fingers smacked the buttons of the register.
“Thanks,” I told him, scrawling something on the receipt resembling a signature and then taking the card back swiftly.
We slipped into the flip-flops and then retreated from the store as fast as possible.
“Good grief,” Zeke commented.
I made a noise of agreement.
We filled up the gas tank, feeling the eyes of the clerk on us all the while. Not looking back at the store, I climbed into the truck, half-expecting to hear a shout about the stolen card behind me. With a growl of the ancient engine, I started the truck and then pulled away from the station.
A breath left me for what felt like the first time in minutes.
“You okay?” Zeke asked.
I nodded. “Just nervous.”
He reached over, taking my hand. “We’re doing good.”
Making myself continue breathing, I nodded again. I hated that we’d had to use the credit card, despite the fact I knew there wasn’t nearly enough cash in Earl’s wallet to get us home. I could only hope that, if we saved the cash for later, we’d stand a chance of keeping him from tracking us all the way back to Reidsburg.
Flicking the turn signal, I waited for a car to pass and then pulled onto the onramp. Traffic on the interstate was picking up as the clock on the dash ticked toward midmorning, but as far from big cities as we were, there was still plenty of space for us to merge back onto the highway.
My breath caught and I tensed, sitting up straighter as a semi in front of us moved to the left lane, affording me a view of the cars ahead.
Including the maroon SUV with five huge guys inside.
Zeke glanced from me to the road. “No way,” he said, shaking his head incredulously.
Heart pounding, I swept my gaze over the vehicle. The Washington license plate was familiar. I couldn’t remember the exact numbers – it’d been dark and I’d changed my eyes back to mostly human when the vehicle came around the turn – but they still looked like they might be the same. And those gorilla-sized guys, I remembered that.
How the hell could they be here?
I slowed down and changed lanes swiftly to get behind the semi again. With a quick glance to the rearview mirror, I pressed the brake and let the truck’s speed drop till cars started swerving around us. Ignoring the angry glares, I scanned the side of the road, praying for an exit.
“How’d they know to follow us here?” Zeke asked.
Wracking my brain, I didn’t answer. Minutes crept by until another exit sign finally appeared and, with a quick glance to confirm the maroon SUV hadn’t taken the off-ramp as well, I veered across the lanes and sent the truck racing from the highway. At the stop sign at the end of the ramp, I paused, watching the SUV continue down the interstate.
Swallowing hard and trying to stay calm, I took a right. A small town surrounded us, and every passerby who glanced our way made me tense all over again. After an eternity, we reached a gravel road several miles beyond the city limit. I turned the truck down the path, continued for a few moments, and then finally pulled it off onto the grassy shoulder.
Immediately, my gaze went to the rearview mirror.
No one was following us.
My hands shook when I lowered them from the steering wheel. How had they known? We could have driven anywhere. For that matter, we were dehaian. If they knew what we were – and everything Earl had said made it seem like they did – they’d never think we’d be able to drive this far inland.
It might be unrelated. They might just be on vacation or something.
Nothing in me could be made to believe that.
I twisted in the seat, not satisfied with the view the mirrors were giving me. They had to have learned our plans somehow. In the hours since we left Earl’s, they must have–
“Earl,” I said.
I looked to Zeke, horror moving through me. “We told him. We–”
Letting out a breath, I attempted to slow down. “The greliarans. They can hear like crazy. When I woke up at his house, Earl could tell my breathing had changed from down the hall. And when we were in the living room, before he drugged us–”
Zeke swore. “I said Kansas. When he was in the kitchen, I said Kansas.”
He exhaled, grimacing like he was doing a lot more swearing inside his head. And then he paused. “Those middle states are fairly big, though, right? So they won’t have any idea beyond that of where we’re heading.”
“Yeah, but if they’re going there, they must have some kind of a plan.”
“Maybe. But do a lot of interstates run there?”
I thought for a moment. “No. Not from the east, anyway. There’s really just the one, and then a bunch of smaller roads.”
“So maybe they’re thinking to catch up with us now, or else wait for us where the highway enters Kansas. They probably figure we don’t know they’re after us, so we’d take the most direct route.”
“Yeah.” Another thought occurred to me. “But…”
“The credit card. Earl could track it. If he’s watching his account, he’ll know where we’ve been. And with this gas guzzler…” I shook my head. “There’s a decent amount of cash in that wallet, but definitely not enough to get back on it alone.”
Zeke hesitated. “Okay,” he allowed. “Then what about this? We leave the main road, but we loop back to it once. Just to use the card, get gas, and make them think we’re still on the highway. That’ll give us a bit more distance toward your home. Then we leave the interstate for good and use the cash for as long as we can.”
I stared at him.
“Dad made us study strategy and tactics growing up,” he explained, a touch chagrined.