The stakes have risen, and I don’t think I can pay the price.
Not only am I wanted by every faction, but the Resistance is closer than ever to reaching their goal.
Not. My. Problem. My plans are simple: run and hide.
But when I’m offered a clean slate in exchange of completing one task for the Coalition, I can’t help but fall for the temptation.
What I find, however, is so far from what I expect, it is not even on the list of possibilities.
Don’t miss the explosive conclusion to Melaina’s story! Perfect for fans of K. M. Shea, Lindsay Buroker, Jennifer Estep, Shannon Mayer and many more!
My beast was female.
Why the thought surprised me, I didn’t know. But that she was capable of affection—that was what really gave me a jolt. That, and the way she acquiesced when I nudged her for control.
The transition from my beast to myself was a seamless process. The moment Aurora stirred, I beat against my beast. Apparently, she could read my mind, because the moment she realized Aurora would freak out if she saw her, she dove for the first place she deemed safe for landing: a small clearing between the barn and the pig sty of a small house that sat a hundred yards away. The smell of animals and fresh manure was thick, but not overwhelming. I didn’t have time to ponder my beast’s obedience, or the fact I’d been fully aware of the entire flight and her thought process.
Aurora awoke screaming.
I hugged her tight and rocked and cooed soothing words in her ear, promising that everything would be all right. The horses whinnied, the pigs squealed, the chicken squawked. But no lights in the House came on, and neither did anyone come to check the bloodcurdling scream of a child.
It took a long time for her to calm down, her hiccups choked into my shoulder and her small arms like a vise around my neck. I rubbed her back as I paced, the way I had when she was a colicky baby. My clothes were ripped from the shift, my back was sore, and my ankle felt like someone had replaced the bones with hot coals. My heart was a hollow blob throbbing inside my chest, yet I kept on, humming under my breath.
Only when Aurora fell into exhausted sleep did I look around. I needed to find out where we were, how far from Caiden’s, and call someone to let them know we were alive. I had no idea how much damage the explosion had caused or how many floors it had affected. I hoped Bradley was all right, and that Zach had made it.
I pushed away any thoughts of Remy and Loretta. I didn’t have the luxury of grief, not here and not now. I knocked at the door of the small house, hoping to borrow a phone, but no one came to answer. There was no car on the driveway, no lights inside. So I followed the driveway until I found the road and walked, and walked, and walked, Aurora’s weight both a burden and a comfort.
Voices woke me from a deep slumber. From the way my shadows were quiet, I could tell it was da daylight. I’d accepted a ride to the city by a rugged-looking guy who suggested he knew a place he could take me to. I’d been walking for hours by then and didn’t care if he’d meant to take me to a deserted shack so he could take advantage of a lonely woman and a child. He hadn’t.
Apparently, there were still decent people out there.
I opened my eyes. We were still in the women’s shelter where the guy had dropped us off around dawn. In the light, my clothes weren’t only ripped, they were burned and bloodied. The middle-aged woman at the reception had asked no questions when I told her I needed a place for the night, only handed me a mug filled with a steaming broth and pamphlets on women’s rights, self-defense classes, and a care clinic where I could receive treatment. She probably thought I was a victim of abuse, which I was, in a way.
The room she’d shown us into was small, with nothing but a table beside the bed and a four-by-four window. With the sun shining through, it looked even smaller. The voices came again, and I sat up, Aurora still in my arms. They felt leaden, but I wasn’t about to leave her. My eyes felt swollen from crying I’d done; my cheeks, where my tears had dried, stretched thin.
Before Aurora had fallen asleep in my arms at the barn, my emotions had been locked down tight. I’d refused to process what had happened—all I’d lost. But the receptionist, whose name I’d forgotten ten seconds after she’d told me, had broken me with her considerate kindness. She’d taken one look at my stricken face and decided I could have a room to myself, to process and decide my next steps without being overwhelmed by the others. We’d passed by the rooms where other women and children lodged: some old, some young, all victims.
Yet, sitting here in the light of the day, my situation hadn’t changed. My grief hadn’t lessened. I didn’t know whether Zach had survived the gunshot wound, if Alexander had survived whatever had made him unconscious, or whether Bradley had been ambushed. My frame trembled, and I gritted my teeth and shifted my train of thought. I knew Remy and Loretta had been killed. I knew I needed to get Aurora to a safe place in the event Zach hadn’t made it, or let him know his daughter was safe, if he’d survived. That was my first concern, and for that, I needed to call Edge. He’d have the answers I needed—about Bradley, Zach, even Alexander. He’d know what else was going on behind the scenes.
Once I had that part figured out, I was going after my brother—and Echon Jeffery. I had no time to waste. I knew what Echon Jeffery would do to my brother; what Doctor Leo wanted. I knew I had to move and find the farmhouse because I didn’t know how long Doctor Leo would wait before giving Aiden the augmenting serum. Maybe he wouldn’t. Aiden’s Pyrokinesis was stronger than his shadow walking affinity. Maybe the latter would be overlooked . . . except I knew it wouldn’t. Doctor Leo was thorough. I needed to whisk Aiden away before the Resistance destroyed his future.
I stood just as a knock came, Aurora cradled in my arms.
“Yes?” My voice came out husky from all the crying I’d done the previous night.
“It’s me, Maggie,” the woman from the reception said. “May I come in?”
I edged away, not that there was anywhere else to go. The window was simply too small, even if we weren’t on the second floor. “Yes.”
Maggie opened the door slowly, as if she knew my fight-or-flight response would be flaring. She probably did. She had likely seen her share of feral women to last several lifetimes.
“There you are,” she gave me a sympathetic smile. “I brought you some clothes I thought might fit you before I leave for the day.” She placed a bundle of folded clothes at the foot of the bed. “Can I bring you something to eat? We normally encourage new arrivals to eat in the cafeteria, but if you’d like to be alone for today, I can bring you something.”
“We have a counselor too. Her name is Betty. I’d like to set you up for an appointment with her at noon. Would you mind?”
“Do I have to?” I asked. Not that I planned to be here at noon, but I suspected if I said no, she would try to convince me.
“We can schedule it for tomorrow, or the day after, but Betty is a wonderful person. You don’t have to tell her anything, just listen to what she has to say.”
I nodded. “Can I have that breakfast here?” I asked.
Aurora stirred in my arms, then began crying softly. I held her tighter, kissing her forehead and shushing her. Maggie’s eyes softened with sympathy. Whatever she suspected had happened to me, she’d seen this behavior before.
I waited for her footsteps to fade, then sat on the bed and rocked Aurora. It only took a few seconds for her to go quiet, but her eyes were open.
“Hey, pumpkin,” I said with a smile so corroded it should have cracked and fallen.
She didn’t reply, nor smile. I took it as better than terror-filled screams, though I wondered if it was.
“We’re going to go wash up and change, then have some breakfast. Are you hungry?”
When she only stared in response, I stood, then limped out of the bedroom and to the end of the hall, where Maggi had showed me the bathroom last night. I’d never wished for the support of my cane as much as I did then.
Aurora acted like a robot. She peed, washed, changed, and ate the cupcake and glass of milk we found on a tray atop the unmade bed when we returned. She did everything I instructed her to do, but she didn’t speak, nor smile, nor acknowledge me. I didn’t know how to help her. Once I slipped the flip-flops Maggie had provided onto Aurora’s feet, I picked her up again and shuffled down the stairs to the reception area. The woman behind the desk looked up at my approach. She seemed to be in her thirties, her smile perfunctory and lacking sincerity.
“Hi. Is there a library here I can use?” I asked. Without a phone or money, my only option was to send Edge an email.
“Of course,” she said. “Head that way. Third door to your right.”
“Thank you,” I said and turned. One step was all I took. The door to the street opened, and in walked Bradley and Beatrice Maximus.
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