“How tragedy has made our love stronger,” I read the words out loud because then maybe they would make sense. “Why did they… I mean…”
Adrian put a hand over mine, covering the screen and then easing my phone from me.
“Don’t read anymore; it’s fucked up clickbait shit, and your parents are…” he stopped and let out a snort of anger, and I couldn’t face that anger. I knew my parents well and was more than aware that I was their child version of arm candy—trotted out for occasions when it helped that they had a kid.
Like the time mom—Felicia—was launching a new line of clothes for kids, or at least was putting her name to the line. I’d been put to work wearing some of the tacky stuff at the weird age of thirteen when I was sensitive to what my peers thought. I didn’t want to wear neon purple clothes, but I did because, stupidly, I equated doing things for my mom as a way of getting her to love me.
My therapist pointed that out on my first ever visit when I came out of the hospital post-Army, and when she did, it seemed as if my entire life clicked into place.
“What else did they say in the article?”
“Nothing worth reading,” Adrian put my phone in my bag. It was a good move because I didn’t want to read the crap my parents were saying.
One visit to the hospital to see me, with an added camera crew, was about the only contact I had, so fuck them and the horse they rode in on.
“So, what next?” I attempted to fasten my backpack, but for some reason, the shakes were terrible today, and it took me forever to get it done up. To his credit, Adrian didn’t jump in to help, and I felt a ridiculous amount of pride that I’d managed to not only get the damn thing closed but also scooped it up on my back, and it sat just the right way.
“Eddie has arranged for someone to meet us at the ranch, which means we need to get over the fence here, and onto the property.”
“A new adventure,” I summarized and didn’t let one ounce of worry color my words. “We could say hi to Satan.” I was joking, but I’d connected with the horse, and maybe ten minutes with him would help right now.
“We don’t have time to stop.”
“Okay,” I agreed immediately. Adrian was running this covert departure, and I was in his hands.
We didn’t see anyone as we left the back way through the art room, and it was only when we were outside, and I looked back, that I saw Daniel in the kitchen watching us leave. He nodded when he saw me turn, and I returned the gesture, a dark misery swamping me at what being JC Baker had done to the place that should be safety, peace, and hope.
“I wish I hadn’t delivered danger to this place.”
“It wasn’t all on you,” Adrian reassured, but that didn’t make me feel better.
“Yeah, but I should do something to say sorry. Maybe, a donation,” I realized that wouldn’t fix everything, but what was the point in having a trust fund if I couldn’t do good with it? Maybe I’ll change my name, become a hermit, and give it all away.
“Huh?” Adrian asked, and I realized maybe I’d said some of that aloud.
“Nothing. Ignore me.”
We walked up and away from the Center and clambered over the fence. I needed help, but I did okay, and all too soon, we were lost in the trees and heading for the ranch. We didn’t have to walk for long, and I followed in Adrian’s footfalls until the trees thinned and barns came into view. A dark SUV was waiting there in the dimly lit courtyard, with three men standing by it. I recognized Eddie, of course, but the other men, one tall, broad blond, dressed in black from head to toe, the other shorter with a hood covering his hair, were the new guys. There was an air of danger around the blonde, who exuded complete confidence as he extended his hand.
“Nik Valentinov. Sanctuary,” he said as we shook. “And this is Morgan. We’re your ride.”
“Adrian,” Nick and Adrian shook hands, and I got the distinct impression Adrian was sizing up the other man.
“Everything okay?” Morgan asked me as we exchanged handshakes, and I wondered what he was really asking.
“It’s all good,” I lied.
He nodded. “We’ve got you now.” I think he was trying to reassure me, but I was still getting into a strange car and heading to who the hell knows where. If not for Adrian, I wouldn’t be getting in at all.
“We have a long drive ahead of us,” Nik said as he opened the trunk for us to stow our bags—a space already holding a couple of unmarked boxes.
“Where are we heading?” Adrian crossed his arms over his chest.
“We’ll brief you in the car,” Nik said as he bro-hugged Eddie.
“Owe you one, Nik,” Eddie said.
“Nah, this makes us even.” Then he turned to us. “Ready to go?
He took the driver’s seat, Morgan hovered until we were in the back, belted and settled, climbed into shotgun, and then handed back bottles of water and a carrier bag of snacks. Despite the whole running in the night thing, just seeing the Cheetos in there made me smile—it had been a long time since Adrian and I had shared the cheesy orange goodness.
I shakily reached for Adrian’s hand, which he immediately took, and realized that as long as we were together, I would go blindly to the ends of the earth. We drove in silence for an hour, heading north, and then Nik pulled off on the side of the road, and finally, Morgan half turned in his seat and smiled at us. Was this where they announced they were the bad guys, so we were both going to die now? I gripped Adrian’s hand tighter.
Morgan cleared his throat. “I’ll need any phones you have.”
I passed over my phone, but Adrian seemed reluctant to hand over his. Morgan didn’t push, but he held out a metal box inlaid with what looked like high-tech bubble wrap and wires.
“Cain made this, not that you know Cain, but he’s a tech wizard, okay? You can set your own code, and the lockbox stops anyone tracking your whereabouts—the box can, of course, be opened in emergencies with the code you set.”
Finally, Adrian placed his phone in the box and set a code. My birthday–1112.
“Now, if you could also step outside, we need to check for anything else.”
“Like what?” I asked suspiciously, but Morgan was already out of the car, holding a wand, like the kind they had at airports, only a lot flashier and with extra lights. Maybe they were for effect, but the fact that each light turned green as he ran it over me gave me a feeling of comfort. Adrian was next, and his only red light was that he was armed. Nik gestured for the gun, and Adrian passed it over after a pause. Nik checked the gun and then handed it back without messing with it—yet another moment of reassurance.
Finally, we were okay to get into the SUV and headed out again. This time Morgan didn’t even face front, peering back at us through the headrest.
“We’re heading for the safe house direct; if you want to get some sleep, we’ll be driving through as much as we can, and it will be a long one.”
“And what’s there in this safe house?” Adrian asked. “Communications, more ammunition, gates, guards, I need to know that JC will be safe.”
Morgan glanced over at Nik. “There’s nothing safer right now. Get some sleep.”
I wasn’t going to be able to sleep, and I didn’t expect Adrian would either, given he was in alert mode.
I’m not going to sleep.
I woke up to the brightness of a new day, and Adrian was still holding my hand.
“We’re here,” he said.
I glanced out of the tinted windows at nothing but trees and bushes and no sign of Nik, who then appeared from the undergrowth, holstering his weapon and nodding at Morgan. I followed Adrian as we all clambered out of the SUV and stretched out our traveling kinks. Nik silently led us down a small path in the trees to what had to be the oldest shack I’d ever seen. It was nothing but the front elevation of a ramshackle log cabin with holes. I had to believe this would be a safe space for Adrian and me, but it wasn’t starting well.
“I’ll get the boxes and bags in,” Nik advised, and Morgan nodded, a brief squeeze of their hands, and I could see there was more to their relationship than just work colleagues.
“I know it doesn’t look like much from the outside,” Morgan murmured. “First time I was in one of these, I freaked the hell out.” He shoved open the broken door, but all it exposed was another wooden door, then behind that, metal and glass. We stepped inside, and for a second, Adrian and I stopped in our tracks. The inside of the broken cabin was stunning, a box of sorts, with glass parts in the roof letting light flood in, a kitchen, seating area, and doors that I assumed were bedrooms and bathrooms. Nik dumped the first boxes and our bags and gestured at the wall, and I watched as Morgan opened a cover I hadn’t spotted at first.
“Can you please set a code that means something to you,” Morgan asked, and it was Adrian who stepped forward, unhesitating in using my birthday again and making sure Morgan, Nik, and I saw him do it.
The keypad asked for it to be repeated verbally, which Adrian did, then me, Morgan, and finally Nik.
A big red message appeared, ‘proceed,’ and Nik reached over and pressed the button.
The noise was deafening, shutters covered the roof, windows, a metal door covered the original, and low lighting filled the space.
“Lockdown,” Morgan explained. “Never gets old.”
Nik turned to Adrian and me, smiling at our stunned expressions.
“Welcome to Sanctuary Twenty-Nine.”