Being orphaned and almost kidnapped in the space of a week sent Blake Marks into hiding. For months, Blake tries to help the Calvers—a family of vigilante bodyguards—investigate the people behind the hit on Blake’s father, Isaac, but then the safe house is compromised. Just as hired thugs storm the house to grab Blake, Daelan Calver dives into the fight, getting them both out alive.
Hiding isn’t an option anymore, but hit squads, under-the-table deals, and international espionage? Blake has no idea how to handle any of it, not even with Daelan’s family there to play teachers. The one thing Blake knows for sure is that there are only two options: keep up with the Calvers or get out of their way.
But even with the Calvers’ help and the glimmer of a possible future with Daelan giving Blake hope, chances of survival keep shrinking. The man who ordered the hit on Isaac may be dead, but his partner is viciously cold-blooded, and her plans could change the course of history. Blake wants to finish what Isaac started, but it’s looking like someone is going to die before this is over. And that someone might be Blake.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), duty, family, gender expression, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, intersex, politics / power struggle, protection, PTSD, romantic elements, self-confidence, young adult
Etobih-lin, Sea of Japan
Wednesday, July 13 – 0500 India Time Zone
The vicious squall battered the Sea of Japan, roiling the waves and sending high winds screaming across the water. Those waves crashed against the shores of the small, isolated island sitting between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Wind bent trees and displaced rocks on the island’s tall mountains.
Inside the Lyohwa Labs research facility on the northwestern edge of Etobih-lin, none of that could be heard. Especially not on sublevel two.
Lab six was a large, windowless room with a door that couldn’t be opened from the inside. Cameras in the corners were positioned to monitor everything, with no blind spots, but at this early hour of the morning, there didn’t seem to be much to watch. Only one woman—wearing a white, full-body, level A hazmat suit—was at work.
Hands braced on a backlit glass table, she stared through her faceplate at the rack of glass vials in front of her, furrows across her forehead. The vials seemed to glow with the light from the table, and the intensely green liquid was vibrant in the otherwise stark white and stainless steel room. Though her gaze jumped between the vials and the tools laid out in front of her, she ignored the alerts popping up on the wall-mounted screen to her left and the beeps of the various machines, all of them labeled LyoLabs.
“They’ll kill you if this works.” The words were quiet, but the distortion of her breathing apparatus gave them an ominous rasp. “Whatever. At least you won’t be here anymore, right?”
However cavalier the words seemed, her hands shook when she straightened and tried to lift a vial out of the rack with a pair of tongs. She took a deep breath, the sound made mechanical by her respirator. Her hands steadied. After lifting it clear of the rack, she turned and placed it in another on the epoxy resin workspace behind her.
Slowly, carefully, she extracted a small amount of the green liquid with a pipette and placed three drops into the brown mixture simmering in a beaker over a lit Bunsen burner. The color shifted as the bright drops swirled and dissolved into the bubbling liquid. From a vacuum-sealed jar on the table, she measured out 0.03 milligrams of an extremely fine powder. When she added it to the beaker, lines of dark blue spread through the mixture like ink, but when she stirred it with a thin glass rod, the solution cleared.
Another alert buzzed through the computer’s speakers. The tone was lower—a grating sound meant to draw attention—but she didn’t spare the screen more than a cursory glance.
The door behind her opened; the hiss of the airtight seal releasing would’ve made that obvious even if the door’s handle hadn’t clicked as it lowered and announced company.
A leanly muscled, olive-skinned guy wearing a LyoLabs security uniform walked into the room, a Colt handgun in his hand. He kept it pointed at the floor.
“I don’t care how impatient you are,” she said without turning around. “There is no possible way for me to make these machines work any faster. Either shoot me, or let me get back to my work.”
“Who else?” she muttered. “It’s not like you assholes let me have assistants anymore.”
He stopped at the wall display that had been flashing a red alert box. When he saw what was written there in bold black-and-white Korean letters, he cursed. When he crossed the room, his footsteps were heavy and quick. “Adila, we have to go. Now.”
“Go. Stay. Come. Work. I’m not a goddamn dog!” She slammed her hand down. The stirring rod clenched in her fist shattered when it hit the countertop. Releasing the broken pieces, she turned. “If you want me to figure this out, leave me alone and let me— Who are you?”
Though the gun-wielding newcomer was dressed as a guard, he looked like he might be twenty at the oldest. He seemed too young to be working there, but his dark eyes searched the room with purpose, and he held his Colt like someone with decades of experience shooting it.
“I’m your ticket out of here if you follow me,” he said. “But the offer won’t be worth anything in about four and a half minutes.”
Adila hesitated only a moment. In a burst of motion, she grabbed a flash drive and jammed it into one of the computers, activating a command to back up the data.
“Time is running out,” the guy warned. “Is that info worth our lives?”
“It’s worth a hell of a lot more than that.” Adila dumped the clear liquid from the bubbling beaker into the sink, then filled the beaker with a solution from a large bottle next to the sink, and poured the rest of the bottle’s contents and all of the green-filled vials down the drain. When the computer flashed Backup Complete, she ejected the flash drive and pressed it into her rescuer’s hand.
After executing a command to format the computer and wipe the drive clean, Adila followed the stranger out of the lab, slowly stripping the hazmat suit as she walked, dropping the pieces behind her.
As the suit fell away, the body underneath it became visible—and the scars that body wore. Old, healed burns from pinky finger to elbow up the side of her left arm. A misshapen bump on her nose that might’ve been a badly treated break. Thin lines were almost hidden in the natural creases of her neck, but they were too pale against her tan skin to disappear completely.
“Annyeong, fuckers,” she said as the door shut behind them.
Three Weeks Earlier
Thursday, June 23 – 1515 Romeo Time Zone
Who’s afraid of the Bigger Badder Wolf? Wolfess. Whatever.
The taunting words fell flat even in Blake’s head.
She ground the heels of her hands into her eyes when the words on the tablet began to blur. The way her eyes burned wasn’t just from staring at the computer screen; pretending it was wouldn’t make it true. Her chest ached and her eyes watered. Brain throbbing with exhaustion, she folded her arms on the kitchen table and let her head drop.
No matter how hard Blake pulled bravado around herself like armor plating, she was afraid. She’d been scared of Garret Hadley and Lillian French even before she knew their names, had had nightmares about them when all she knew was that they were the target of her father’s latest—last—investigation. That fear had only gotten worse, grown claws and fangs and a spiked tail, since she gained actual information about the people her father had been tracking down.
The same people who’d had him killed.
But fear hadn’t stopped her mother from becoming one of the best helicopter pilots in the Army, and it hadn’t stopped her father from investigating killers, corporations, and thieves for the FBI.
It sure as hell wouldn’t stop Blake from helping the people trying to take down her father’s murderer.
Garret Hadley was already dead, but Lillian French wasn’t. Back in February, she’d tried to either kill or kidnap Blake—no one was sure which had been the ultimate goal. Still, the incident probably meant that Lillian or someone working for her thought Blake had information. About their goals, about their organization, about where her father might have hidden information, or about something else entirely.
“That’s why I need to read through everything,” Blake had argued earlier in the week. Her two guards and her co-protectee, Bernard, had eyed her with sympathy. Or skepticism. Both expressions had only made her fight harder. “Look, we already know that I don’t remember anything important, but that doesn’t mean I don’t actually know anything! Maybe there’s a detail in those files that will jog a memory, okay? At least let me try.”
They’d given in and loaded her tablet with all—or at least a lot—of the files they had on Garret Hadley, Lillian French, and Redwell. A week later the only change was that her nightmares were full of new faces, vivid details, and so much more blood. She’d read through it all, and she hadn’t slept more than a few hours a night for the last two days.
Going through it again was only making things worse.
She was doing it anyway. Nightmares weren’t anything new. Not after watching the video of her mom’s helicopter being bombed out of the sky six years ago. And definitely not after seeing the pictures of the bloody car wreck that had taken her dad four months ago.
War and sabotage. It all ended the same way, with bloodshed and grieving families left behind to pick up the pieces.
Lifting her head, she pressed the button to wake up the tablet screen and read.
It wasn’t long after Lillian French’s arrival that Redwell began cooperating more closely with the technology development teams of various armed forces, working with those divisions to research and then develop new tech, weapons, and systems instead of only manufacturing existing designs. It appears that she was instrumental in several of these early agreements and contracts, and so her progression from lackey to official military liaison for Redwell’s military work was quick and nearly unobstructed.
The chair across from her scraped against the tile floor. “How far in are you?”
“Finished. Second run now.” Blake put the tablet down and rubbed her eyes. “I just got to the part where she joins Redwell.”
“Hmm.” With the tips of his fingers, Bernard shifted his large black coffee mug a quarter turn. “The nightmares will only get worse if you go through this again.”
As much as Blake would’ve liked to deny that, she knew it wouldn’t work. Especially not after she’d just finished thinking the same thing. Plus, it was a small house, and she’d woken up screaming twice this week. “I know, but I can handle nightmares. I’ve had them before.”
“Nightmares of your own past are different. You earned those scars.” There was concern in his dark eyes and in the lines of his face. “This isn’t yours to carry. You don’t need this to dig itself any deeper into your head.”
“You think this isn’t already in my head?” Blake scoffed. Her eyes still burned and the ache in her chest twinged at what she was about to say, but she could ignore it when faced with Bernard’s genuine care and worry. “Garret had my dad killed.”
“And Garret is dead.” Bernard seemed resigned, like he had no expectation that his words would actually be listened to. “You can’t get revenge against a dead man.”
“I can make sure the witch he was working with doesn’t profit off of whatever plans they had,” she said through gritted teeth. “It’s what my dad would do if he were here.”
Barnard nodded at that, a sad smile on his lips. “I’m pretty sure you’re right.”
The lump that rose in Blake’s throat was smaller than it had been four months ago—or even four weeks ago—but it was still enough to trap everything that she wanted to say.
He’d barely known her dad, but one thing Bernard seemed to understand was how dedicated Special Agent Isaac Marks had been to tracking down the bad guys and building a strong enough case against them to lock them in prison for the rest of their lives. He’d been excellent at his job, but he hadn’t been invincible. Garret’s hired thugs had proven that.
“I just don’t know if Isaac would be proud of you for doing this, or be trying to shoot me for letting you get involved. Probably both,” Bernard said with a sigh. Draining the last of his coffee, he got up and put the empty cup in the sink. “Have you seen Scott in the last few minutes?”
Blake shook her head and pulled the tablet closer, touching the button to activate the screen again. “I don’t think I’ve seen him since lunch.”
Three months ago, she never would’ve thought being guarded 24-7 could become so commonplace that she stopped noticing. It helped that Scott and Max, their two bodyguards, were excellent at being unobtrusive. Even when they refused to let Blake and Bernard out of their sight anywhere but in the house. It probably also helped that Blake had spent most of her life around soldiers and paranoid, government official/secret agent types, so these two had become familiar fast.
“I’m going to go find Scott.” Bernard patted her shoulder gently as he passed. “We’re running low on some bathroom things.”
Nodding, Blake bit her lip and kept reading.
Susan Phan was hired by Lillian in 1999, two years after Lillian’s promotion to military liaison. After five years working directly under the military liaison, Susan moved laterally into a position in Redwell’s security. We now believe this switch was made so that Susan could act as an intermediary between Garret and Lillian, coordinating work on their various shadow ops. She was promoted to director of security for Redwell’s corporate office within eighteen months of the initial transfer.
For a few minutes, the only sound was the soft ticking of the clock on the wall and the laughter of the kids a couple houses away. The window in the kitchen was open, the curtains closed. Scott and Max had argued with Blake over that, but she’d won. It wasn’t like the glass was bulletproof. If someone dangerous wanted to get into the house, a closed window wasn’t going to stop them. The fresh air helped clear Blake’s mind, and the noise of life in the neighborhood kept her from feeling like this two-story, three-bedroom cottage was a comfortably appointed prison.
She’d spent a lot of time the last month of their residence in Rhode Island listening to the neighborhood, and paranoia had made her hypervigilant. By sound alone, she knew the neighbors and their habits. She didn’t always notice the normal sounds anymore, but she paid a hell of a lot of attention when something fell out of sync with the patterns she’d learned. Something like the fast, pounding footsteps getting closer. Their house was the last lot on a dead-end road, and there was nothing but a thick line of trees behind them. Plus, people didn’t go jogging on this street.
She opened her mouth to call for Bernard and Scott.
Someone dove through the open kitchen window.
They flew over the sink and easily cleared the countertop, tucking into a ball as gravity brought them down. Hitting the ground rolling, they were on their feet in a graceful flash.
A second later, Blake was on hers. She lifted her arm from the folds of her long, khaki skirt and aimed her mother’s beautifully customized, antique Smith & Wesson revolver at their chest.
“Make a move for a weapon, and I’ll shoot you,” she warned. “Who are you?”
They turned slowly and lifted their hands about a foot away from their body. Average height, medium build, olive skin, and male, as far as Blake could tell. He had hair like hers—black, cut to about an inch long, and curly—and his face was ambiguously young. Blake wasn’t sure if he was closer to fourteen or twenty-two.
“Uh, hi.” Clearing his throat, he smiled sheepishly. It was a smile that brought out a dimple in his right cheek and made him look a lot younger. “I come in peace?”
“I don’t.” Somehow he seemed nearly harmless; if Blake hadn’t just watched him dive-bomb through a window, she might’ve believed it. “Who are you?”
He held his hands higher, the gesture somewhere between placation and surrender. “It’s okay, Blake.” She blinked but didn’t lower the weapon. “I’m Daelan Calver. My family sent the team who got you out of Baltimore.”
“How do I know you didn’t steal that information or . . . something?” She looked to the side, down the hallway. Where the hell were her supposed bodyguards? And Bernard?
“I guess you don’t. But I also don’t think you’re going to do much damage trying to shoot me with an unloaded gun.”
“Unloaded?” Her dark eyes locked on his, she pulled the hammer back, and moved her finger to the trigger. “Willing to bet?”
“Blake, no!” Bernard burst in, tearing into the room so fast he had to grab the wall to keep himself upright. His eyes were wide as he took in the showdown. “You all right, Daelan?”
“Yep. ’S all good.” He grinned at Blake, his expression relaxing even more when she released the hammer and slowly lowered the weapon.
“This is really Daelan?” Only now did her voice and her hand start to shake. A lot.
“Yes.” Bernard swallowed and nodded slowly before he eased away from the wall and stretched his arms out to her. “Daelan isn’t going to hurt us. I promise.”
When Bernard rested his hand on her shoulder, Blake let out a long, shuddering breath, then nodded once, the gesture sharp. She placed the weapon into the pocket of her skirt.
“It has pockets? That can fit a gun?” Daelan looked delighted. “Where’d you get that? My sister would love that skirt.” His expression dissolved into something serious—one that made her revise his age up a few years again—before Blake could respond. He glanced at Bernard. “Where are your guards?”
“Max is sleeping. I thought Scott was checking the perimeter, but . . .” There was fear in Bernard’s eyes. “He wasn’t out there, was he?”
“If he didn’t shoot at me when I parkoured myself through the window, then, no. We can assume he wasn’t.” He stepped left, reaching for Blake’s tablet. “We need to move. Now.”
“Why didn’t you use the door?” Bernard turned toward the front of the house. “And where are Cassidy and Hugo?”
“Mom didn’t come. Dad and Aaron are tailing someone suspicious we saw lurking nearby, and I saw someone in the woods, watching the front, so the door wasn’t a good option. We need to get moving before—”
Glass shattered. A bullet smacked into the wall.
“Get down!” Daelan ducked and rolled, dropping the tablet in favor of a gun as he came up in the protection of the wall dividing the dining room from the living room.
Blake pressed against the cabinets on the other side of the room, revolver back in her hand and eyes wide. The thin material of her skirt and loose white crop tank top was far from Kevlar. Bernard had fallen to the tile floor, hands covering his head like this was a tornado drill.
“Bernard! Grab that tablet!” Daelan ordered. “Both of you get low and crawl here! Fast.”
She bunched up her skirt and scampered across the kitchen floor as quickly as she could manage. Bernard grabbed the tablet and moved right behind her.
“Why the hell didn’t I take a comm?” Daelan muttered as he pulled out an old Nokia and pushed a single button to call someone. “Under fire. Multiple enemies. Civilians intact. Situation dire. Sweep the forest.”
He hung up and stuffed the phone back in his pocket. They all flinched when something clattered into the kitchen. It looked like a matte-green metal canister with a lever stuck to the top.
It couldn’t be . . .
Daelan’s breath gusted out of his chest, the sound pained, and his eyes locked on the device. “Consarn it all to hell!” He sprinted across the kitchen, scooping up the projectile and chucking it out the window. Momentum dropped him back to the floor. “Stay down!”
Screams from outside. Light flashed through the window. So bright. Like lightning had struck the yard. And the explosion was loud. So loud. Her ears rang, a constant high-pitched noise overlaying everything else. Noise and light, but no fire. Flash-bang.
Daelan rolled to his feet, a wild-eyed look on his face. The gun he pulled out of his pocket was small, a subcompact, but he held it expertly as he edged toward the window. Blake aimed her gun through the living room at the front door.
Where was Max? There was no way anyone could sleep through this noise. If he hadn’t come running, there wasn’t much of a chance he was conscious. Or . . . No. Blake’s mind shied away from the only other possibility. The only likely possibility.
Daelan fired two rounds. “There are more coming. If you know how to use that thing, Blake, you better get ready to pull the trigger.”
Swallowing, Blake nodded. She hoped Daelan saw the motion, because speaking wasn’t an option right now. Fear had closed her throat; each breath was a struggle. Her ears still rang, but thankfully that was beginning to recede.
Thirty seconds of undisturbed silence. Daelan was at the window, waiting and watching. Blake’s hands trembled. She kept the weapon pointed at the door anyway. Perfect aim wasn’t a requirement. She just had to stall whoever came into the house long enough for Daelan to take care of them.
When Bernard shifted next to her, discomfort and fear on his face, Daelan made a noise to catch their attention, then lifted his hand, palm flat and fingertips pointed toward the ceiling. A simple sign for “Whatever you’re doing, stop.” Bernard froze, and the tremor in Blake’s hands subsided.
Daelan strode to the door on the opposite side of the kitchen, peering out to the back porch. Blake turned to the front door.
The kitchen shared an open plan with the dining room, but the wall Blake was using as cover separated that space from the main living area. A long mirror in a rustic frame hung along one wall, and curtained windows took up most of the other two. It was only because of the mirror that Blake noticed the shadow moving past the opposite windows.
Daelan looked her way instantly. She pointed toward the motion. Nodding, he walked silently in her direction, but didn’t veer off toward the living room. Instead, he eased into the short hallway leading to the master suite.
Holding his finger to his lips, he motioned for them to head for the stairs opposite their hiding place. She was breathing too quickly, and her pulse rushed even faster. As soon as she stood enough to take a step, all of that adrenaline racing through her body sharpened her focus. She grabbed Bernard’s arm and raced toward the stairs. And almost tripped on her skirt. Swallowing a curse, she rucked it out of the way and picked up the pace.
Should she go to the second story? No. That would put them too far away from Daelan. What if someone trying to get in the house climbed up on the eave and through a window upstairs? Scott and Max had warned her that— No. Staying within sight of Daelan was better.
When Bernard would’ve continued past the landing between the floors, she grabbed his arm and pulled him to a stop, shaking her head. He looked confused, but then his gaze shifted to Daelan, and he nodded, crouching in the corner of the small space. She pressed her back against the wall, aiming her gun down the steps. From here she could see up to the second story, but she could also see Daelan. She could watch his back if anyone tried to sneak up behind him.
He glided silently down the hall, stopping just outside the bedroom, his head cocked like he was listening. Then he settled. His shoulders dropped. The arm holding his gun relaxed. His chest expanded enough that the breath was visible from more than ten feet away.
What is he doing?
Daelan dropped to his knees in the open doorway of the master bedroom. He aimed.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
Four shots. One scream. Two solid thuds, like deadweight hitting a wood floor.
There were bodies in that room now. No longer people, just masses of meat and bone and blood.
Bile rose in her throat. Bad people, she tried to remind herself. They had been coming for her and Bernard. To capture them or to kill them.
Daelan stood and reholstered his gun as he moved down the hall toward Blake and Bernard. There was no sign of what he’d just done in his eyes. Nothing on his face. As he approached, Blake was absolutely positive this wasn’t the first time he’d fired a gun and ended a life. She should be grateful that he’d been here to do what she might not have been able to, but . . . it wasn’t that simple.
“What do you need to get?” he asked. “It can’t be more than we can carry out of here in the next five—” His head snapped to the right and his hand went to the single-strap backpack he had slung across his back. He wasn’t reaching for the easy-access weapon. It had to be out of bullets. Someone was coming.
Daelan ran toward the stairs, ducking so low he was almost bent in half.
A man in jeans and a Kevlar vest burst into the hallway behind him. His face, even at a distance, was familiar. Tan skin, sharp nose, deep-set dark eyes, long face. This was one of the two men who’d tried to kidnap—maybe kill—Blake in February. And now he was barreling toward Daelan with murderous determination on his face.
Daelan dropped to his knees and spun in one motion, a different, larger gun in his hand. He followed up her shot with two more. Hers had struck the thigh. His first bullet ripped into the guy’s throat. The second dug itself into the wall when he slumped to the floor. There were several more gunshots from outside.
Oh God. Her hands shook. Her skin chilled. I shot someone.
Daelan stood up, the motion full of a surety Blake couldn’t hope to match right now. His gun loosely gripped, he crossed to the man and used the toe of his boot to nudge the body spilling red onto the pale-wood floor. When the guy didn’t react, Daelan nodded and pulled a phone out of his backpack, a different one than he’d used to report in before. He swiped at the screen for a few seconds before putting the phone away and slipping the gun into the holster peeking out of his pocket.
“So.” Daelan looked at Blake, his expression so carefully neutral that she didn’t have a hope of reading it. “What say we pack up and get the hell out of here before the next guys roll up with a rocket launcher?”
Blake closed her eyes and tried not to cry.
Everything blurred after she gave in to the tears. Only a few moments stood out in highly detailed relief.
Daelan peeling Blake’s too-tight grip off the revolver, his skin warm and dry against her cool, clammy hand, and his murmured words meaningless but soothing. He smelled like sulfur. Like gunpowder and burned-out matches.
Being introduced to Hugo Calver and Aaron Tanvers, Hugo’s stolid stance and Aaron’s empathetic smile almost reassuring.
Dazedly helping Bernard grab clothes and gear for them both while the others hurriedly packed the most important tech and possessions in the house.
Getting shuffled into an SUV and racing out of Providence.
A bottle of orange juice being pushed into her hand, the condensation further chilling her skin, and Daelan softly but insistently urging her to drink it instead of stare at it.
More than an hour in the backseat of the SUV with Daelan and Bernard, squished between the two but looking at neither, their warmth just enough to keep her from shivering.
Switching cars and splitting up, Bernard and Hugo, Daelan’s father, getting into a dull-gold sedan while Daelan guided Blake into the backseat of a different SUV with Aaron driving.
Through it all, she spoke and breathed and slept a little, but none of it felt real. Most of her mind was back in Providence.
When she closed her eyes, she heard the blast of the flash-bang and the pops of the gunshots, felt the recoil of her revolver and the thudding terror of the attack.
And she saw the bloody body.
There had been so much blood. Some of that blood had been spilled because of her bullet.
The man who had died was the same one who had tried to kidnap her once already, though. He might’ve been one of the people involved in her father’s car accident.
Both of those facts should have made her feel better. She’d thought they would, had wished for the deaths of everyone who had a hand in the plan to kill her dad. But now one of them was dead, and whatever family he had in the world would be left to mourn him. If they ever knew what had happened today at all.
Around her, and now because of her, there had been too much bloodshed and loss in her sixteen years of life. She didn’t want to think about it, couldn’t face it, so she let herself sink into the recesses of her mind. The chill over her skin helped her become numb.
For a while, it helped her forget.
Thursday, June 23 – 2314 Romeo Time Zone
Apparently, wherever they were going was far enough that they had to stop on the way there.
After simple—but surprisingly effective—disguises were in place on everyone, Daelan and Hugo checked them into a motel outside Oneonta, New York, while Blake stayed in the car with Aaron. Once they had room keys, Blake followed them into the motel, trying to ignore the blur that reading glasses made of the world, the itch of the long black wig Daelan had helped pin on in the car, and the too-tight fit of the SUNY Oneonta sweatshirt Aaron had bought at a gas station just outside of town.
Room assignments happened seamlessly: Daelan and Hugo ushered Blake into one while Aaron and Bernard claimed the second. Hugo, who looked very much like Daelan, only with lighter eyes and hair cut down until it was like a shadow over his head, sat on the bed closest to the door with a laptop open on his thighs, and a cell phone held between his shoulder and his ear. It wasn’t much of a conversation; he wasn’t saying a word.
Without the noise of the engine and the murmur of Daelan and Aaron’s quiet conversation as a distraction, Blake didn’t know what to do. Sleep would mean nightmares, but what else was there? Sitting on the bed and staring at the beige wall didn’t sound appealing either.
“You doing all right?” Daelan gently asked as he handed over a hastily packed backpack of clothes.
Nod. Smile. Pretend everything is fine. It wasn’t clear if Daelan believed it. Which was okay; Blake didn’t quite believe it either.
“Go ahead and shower now if you want. We’ll eat and then, hopefully, you can get some sleep.” His lips parted like he was considering saying something else, but he shook his head. “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”
It was as good a plan as any, and as a bonus, someone else had come up with it. Blake nodded again—because words wouldn’t come—took the backpack, and retreated into the bathroom. A shower wouldn’t fix anything, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t help.
Blake began to feel a little less shaky and a lot more human after vigorously scrubbing the day off skin, hair, and teeth. Digging through the backpack, Blake tried to find something that felt right. The flowy skirt had been nice this morning, but when the world started to implode, there had definitely been an internal longing for jeans and sneakers instead of sandals and an overflow of cotton.
It wasn’t just the clothes, though. “She” no longer felt right. Blake needed to become someone else, to adjust internal and external expectations, and “he” felt better. Stronger. Which was stupid and played straight into the gender expectations Blake had spent years shedding like costumes—or trying to—but the world was made up of or, not and. People treated Blake differently based on what they assumed was between his legs. He fought that binary most of the time, but some days . . . Whatever. Sometimes it couldn’t be helped.
Running a hand over the options, Blake gripped a baggy pair of men’s jeans and a medium-gray shirt that would hang loose on his toned frame. In the skirt and the crop tank top he’d been wearing before, his small breasts and the curve of his waist were highlighted. Outfits like this accentuated his height and the breadth of his shoulders. His short hair—much easier to manage than the shoulder-length cut he’d had last year—easily blended in either direction. Sports bra and boxers went underneath it all.
Although none of the clothes would be any better at stopping bullets than the skirt had been, he still felt better dressed in the solid layers. It was