I’ve decided God has a pretty sick sense of humor. I still haven’t moved, even though I probably should have started running the second I saw him. He and Charles continue to stare at me, and I’m pretty sure my feet are glued to the sidewalk. Even though I’m in complete shock, I can’t help the small sputter of thrill, which seeps through me at the sight of Conner. He looks tan and amazing in a tight, gray t-shirt and dark, black jeans. Damn hormones. My mouth opens and closes, like I’m trying to say something or explain myself, but nothing comes out.
“Payton?” Conner asks again, firmer now. I think he’s in as much shock as I am, because my name seems to be the only word he can get out.
“You know this girl, Conner?” Charles looks at Conner with his eyebrows raised, his eyes full of concern.
How do these two even know each other? And what in the world is Conner doing in Chile, of all places? I must look like an idiot, because I still can’t find any words to say. It’s a bit of a shock being ready to kill someone, then seeing the guy I just started dating, who’s been my best friend for the past year. The person who’s been keeping me sane, standing next to the person I was supposed to kill. There it is. There’s a resemblance there. I don’t know how they are, but they have to be related. I can’t believe I didn’t see the connection when I first looked at Charles’ picture and thought he looked familiar.
“Yes, I know her,” Conner says to Charles, but he continues to stare at me with wide, angry eyes. If I could move, I might squirm under his probing gaze. I try to look away, but his eyes are so full of fury, it’s mesmerizing. “Can you give me a minute with her, Dad? I’ll be up to the room in a bit.”
“Conner,” Charles says firmly. He gives him a weird look, as if he’s trying to speak to him without words. Then he gives me an unsure glance and I’m certain I look even crazier now, because I’m still trying to get past the ‘Dad’ part. “We aren’t here to hang out with friends, especially ones from back home. And I would like to know why you grabbed my arm, young lady.” He turns his hard eyes on me. Not Conner’s eyes; he must have gotten them from his mom.
I shake my head. Focus, Payton. You’re in deep shit right now. Not the time to think about Conner’s dreamy eyes. Okay, so at least he has no idea I was following him all day. I can explain it away easily, but I don’t know how to explain why I’m here. Then again, Conner has some explaining to do, as well.
“I thought you were someone else,” I say finally, shaking my head back and forth some more, trying to dislodge the shock. He gives me an incredulous look but, thankfully, doesn’t question me further. “And it’s okay. I need to get going, anyways. I have to get back to my hotel room. My dad’s going to worry about me if I’m not there in the next few minutes.” Understatement of the century. He’ll rip Chile inside out if I don’t get back to the hotel soon.
“Are you kidding me?” Conner’s eyebrows draw together, pain flashing in his eyes. “I see you in a different country, without us even knowing we would be in the same foreign country at the same time, and you don’t want to talk?”
“No, I do,” I say, sounding hopeless. I do want to talk to him—I have so many questions—but I don’t know what to say.
“All right then.” His jaw tightens as his fists clench at his sides. “Why don’t I walk you back to your hotel? What hotel are you staying in?”
“We could talk here,” I reply in the best nonchalant tone I can muster with my hands held out. Thank you, Lord; I finally moved some limbs. There is no way I’m taking him back to my hotel.
“I would rather that, Conner,” Charles interjects with an anxious expression. “You should stay close to the hotel.”
“No,” Conner almost shouts, giving his dad a hard look. “I’m not letting her walk, by herself, back to her hotel in the middle of the night.” He walks to my side and grabs my hand. I’m more than grateful I had the sense to drop the needle, but I hope he doesn’t get close enough to notice the gun on my hip. That would make this night a thousand times worse. “Lead the way. I’ll be back in a bit, Dad.”
I turn on my heel and pull him in the opposite direction of our hotel without glancing back at Charles. My hand is sweaty and I’m pretty sure I’m shaking. I’m doing everything I can to calm myself down, to come up with something to tell him. He tugs on my hand, slowing us down.
“Are you going to talk to me?” He stops walking; pulling me so we’re facing each other.
“Sure, I’ll talk to you,” I squeak, trying to avoid his piercing gaze like a freaking coward. Someone pushes around us and yells something in Spanish, but I don’t quite catch it. “So, isn’t the weather really nice here?”
“Seriously, Payton?” he says in a flat tone, his jaw twitching. “You know what I’m asking. Are you going to be truthful right now?”
“You’re asking if I’m going to be truthful right now.” I demand, yanking my hand from his.
“I guess we both have explaining to do.” Grabbing my hand again, he continues walking.
We walk through the crowded street in silence. I don’t know where we’re going, but we need somewhere private to talk. He slows a little when we reach a plaza area with stone sculptures scattered around it, which I just don’t have the mental capacity to focus on. He pulls me over to one of the tall, dark sculptures, lets go of my hand and leans against it. He crosses his arms and we stare at each other for a few, dreadfully-long seconds.
“What are you doing here, Payton?” he asks in a grim tone. I hold his gaze, even though I hate when he looks at me like he can see right through me.
“What are you doing here, Conner?” I counter, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Don’t act like a child,” he scolds, making me feel like a child. “I will explain, in detail, why I’m here. I want to know what you are doing here. I saw you grab my dad’s arm, like you knew him or something.” He pauses and shakes his head. “I need to know the truth.”
“I said I thought he was someone else.”
“And I could tell you were lying.”
“I can’t just give you all the details of my life.” Smothering my face in my hands, I groan loudly, feeling as if everything is breaking inside me. This is ruined. No matter which direction I go—whether I tell him the truth or continue to lie—there will be no recovering from this. I drop my hands, giving him a pained look. “You wouldn’t understand anything about why I do the things I do.”
“Try me,” he says in a condescending tone. He’s wearing a smirk, which looks more like he’s baring his teeth at me.
I’m silent for a minute, leaning further toward telling the truth. There’s so much he could do with the information, especially since his dad is one of the scientists we’re planning to kill. I want to tell him, and I feel like I need to, even if it does ruin our friendship. I know the repercussions could be disastrous, but I want him to know everything about me.
“You’re going to hate me,” I say in a small voice, wrapping my arms tighter around my middle. Maybe if I hold on tight enough, I won’t fall into a million little pieces.
“I might,” he agrees. “But I would rather hate you, knowing the truth, than hate you because you wouldn’t tell me the truth.”
“I’m an assassin,” I blurt after a long pause. I had to get it out. It was a giant bubble rising in my throat; it was bound to come out one way or another.
His mouth opens and closes over and over before he shakes his head. “You’re an assassin?” he repeats, incredulous. “As in, you go around and kill people for money?”
“I don’t exactly get paid.” I shrug. I must still be in shock; there’s no other way I would be telling him this. “I’m here on an assignment. My hundredth assignment, to be exact.”
“You’re. Not. Kidding.” He says each word as a sentence, his eyes all wide, looking like he might pass out.
He uncrosses his arms and hunches over, resting his hands on his knees, a lot like he did when I told him Christen wasn’t my real name. He’s breathing in deeply, holding his breath for a second then slowly releasing it. I don’t know what to do. Should I just run away while he’s distracted? I shouldn’t have said anything or I should have lied, but I felt like I had to tell him. I want to touch him, to comfort him, but I’m sure that would freak him out even more. I should leave him; there’s no way anything I say could bring him any comfort. I back away slowly.
“Don’t go.” He snaps back upright and holds a hand out toward me. “Just give me a minute, please.” Leaning back against the sculpture again, he tries to steady his breathing. He presses his palms to his eyes then stares at me with them still bugging out. “You’re only seventeen, Payton,” he finally chokes out. “How in the world are you an assassin?”
“I’ve been training my whole life.” I shrug, as if it’s no big deal…but it is. It’s the worst. “I was adopted by two assassins and they took it upon themselves to train me to be one, as well. But we don’t just kill people to make money. We’re told the people we’re killing need to be killed. We’re told they’re being killed in order to save lives. We aren’t cold-blooded killers; at least that’s what they tell us…” I trail off at the end, not believing the words coming from my mouth.
“I can’t grasp this. You’re saying your parents adopted you, just to turn you in to an assassin?”
“Basically, yeah.” I nod. I don’t get why I’m still going. Maybe I’ve just held it in for so long, and it’s a relief to finally tell someone.
“Payton, this is awful.” He shakes his head back and forth then rubs at his eyes again. “You’ve had your entire life stripped away from you, and you’ve had the idea put in your head that what you do is a good thing. When is killing people ever okay?”
“It’s not,” I snap, gnawing on my bottom lip for a second. “I’m not stupid, Conner. I had this exact argument with my dad today. I know what we do isn’t right like they say it is. I know we have no right to kill people, just because we’ve been told the people are ‘bad.’ I know all of this, but I have no choice in the matter. I do what I’ve been trained to do, and I do everything I can to keep myself from becoming a cold, heartless murderer.”
“You don’t get it.” He shakes his head again. “If what you’re telling me is true, they took your life away from you. You’ve never been able to be a kid. It’s no wonder you seem so mature for your age.” He begins pacing back and forth then stops abruptly, giving me a hard look. “And you’re wrong. You do have a choice; you just haven’t realized it yet. We all have the ability to make our own choices. We just have to use our willpower to make the choices which seem to be the hardest ones.”
Deep down, I know what he’s saying is true. There comes a point in one’s life when you have to start making your own choices. No matter what kind of life you were born or adopted in to, you have to start making your own choices when you have the ability to. Maybe that’s what I’m doing; I’m finally making my own choices. I don’t want to live this life any more. I always thought I had no other choice. I’m aware there may be terrible consequences for what I want to choose, but I could never forgive myself if I didn’t try to change my own life. So my first choice is going to be telling him the truth about why I’m here.
“Your dad was my target,” I tell him, looking directly into his eyes.
A few different emotions cross over his face before he responds. Definite anger, hurt, betrayal, and then one I’m not expecting; understanding. “That’s what you were doing before I came out of the lobby.” He says it as a fact, rather than a question. “If I hadn’t stopped you, my dad would be dead right now?”
I can only nod, because my mouth won’t open. Tears build up, one spilling over when I blink. I feel terrible. Like the worst person on the planet. Conner’s dad would be dead right now, if I hadn’t been interrupted. Even worse, I was also prepared to take Conner out before I knew it was him. I’ve never known anything intimate about any of my targets before, but now, this one is personal.
He steps toward me and I try to move away from him, a little afraid he’s going to try to attack me or something. He has every right to. Instead, he grabs my hands, pulling me closer and wiping away the tear still wet on my cheek. What am I supposed to make of that? I just told him I was going to kill his dad, and he’s being gentle and caring toward me? I can’t process this.
“It’s okay,” he whispers, his hand lingering on my cheek. “I know you’re expecting anger…which I am…but I can understand. I know what my dad is. I wouldn’t say he deserves to die, but from what you’ve told me, I get it.”
“How can you be this way toward me? I just told you I was about to kill your dad and somehow, you’re okay with that? Don’t you want to turn me in or something?”
“I wouldn’t say I’m okay with it.” He shakes his head. “And no, I’m not going to turn you in, because that would be a disaster for both of us. But I can understand it. My dad is responsible for a lot of dead people, Payton. He probably should be rotting in prison, but he doesn’t see it that way. Just like your parents probably don’t see it that way, either. I let him drag me around with him, teaching me everything he’s doing, because that’s always been a part of my life. It’s what he expects of me.” He pauses, looking like he’s deep in thought. He grabs both my hands again and somehow, in this disastrous moment, I’m calm. Imagine that. “You know, maybe it’s time for both of us to start making our own decisions.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. We have the chance to change things for ourselves. Don’t you think we should take it?”
“I can’t just up and leave, Conner.” Of course, I would love to take off and never look back—I’ve said it before—but that’s not realistic.
“I’m not suggesting we just pack our things and run off into the sunset.” He grips my hands tighter, holding my gaze. “I know there are things you probably have to deal with, and I have my dad. But we should still take advantage of this, of finally knowing the truth about each other, and we should do something with it. When we get back to Colorado, we could meet up there, make a plan to get away from these shitty lives. I know it sounds crazy, but we have to try, don’t we?”
I try to process this. I can imagine it; going home, getting to tell Reiley what happened, getting to say goodbye to her or even talk her in to coming with me and taking off. We’ve changed our identity a million times; what’s one more? And this time, it would be permanent. We would have to hide, for God knows how long, but we’re experts in that area.
I’m so caught up in my thoughts I don’t hear the deep roar of a motorcycle closing in on us. And I don’t notice the sudden absence of sound or the shadowy, furious man stalking toward us. The only warning I get is the terrified look on Conner’s face, right before someone grabs my pony-tail. A shock of pain courses from my scalp though my spine as my hair is pulled and my feet leave the ground.
“What the hell are—” Conner’s yell is broken off as he’s shoved against the sculpture and held there by an enormous hand wrapped around his throat.
Cadmar stands there, holding me in the air by my ponytail with one hand and Conner against the sculpture with the other. I never realized before how terrifying he could be. It makes me feel like he’s gone easy on me every time we’ve trained together. He’s still wearing a dark suit, breathing hard and I can all but feel the heat of his fury rolling off him. How could I have been so careless?
“What is this, Payton?” Cadmar spits through his teeth, angling me so we’re eye-to-eye.
I try to pull on his arm, to take some of the pressure off my scalp. I swear all my hair is about to be pulled out, and it’s all I can concentrate on. That and the choking sounds Conner is making in his struggle for air.
“Cadmar, please!” I exclaim. I’m not sure what I’m pleading for: him to let go of my hair or to let Conner live. Both would be great.
I drop to the ground when he finally releases my hair. I look up into the murderous rage in his eyes. I don’t know what to do now. My head aches and my knees hurt from my fall, but all I can focus on is Conner’s eyes rolling back in his head. Conner isn’t a small guy and neither is Cadmar, but the effortless way Cadmar is keeping him pinned to the sculpture, even with Conner’s struggling, frightens me. I jump to my feet and try to push Cadmar away from him, but he’s standing as solid as the sculpture.
“Cadmar, please let him go!” I yell around a sob. Pounding on his chest, I continue sobbing. I should be kicking his ass, but it seems so impossible with how scary he is right now.
“You want me to let him go?” he snarls, his hand tightening around Conner’s throat. “What the hell are you doing with your target’s son, Payton?”
That felt like a smack to the face. Of course he knows. He probably knows more about Charles than I do. I should have read the whole file. I shouldn’t have been so weak to think I didn’t need to know the little details about my target. If I had read the whole file, I wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with. I shake my head; I don’t know how to answer him without giving everything away.
“You don’t want to answer?” He finally loosens his grip on Conner, but he’s already passed out. He falls to the ground with a sick-sounding thud. “You know I’ll find out what I need to know. It would be better if you just told me so I don’t have to torture your friend.”
He looks so dangerous, I want to squirm away from him and hide in a freaking hole. “You can’t torture him,” I shout, standing my ground instead. “I’ll tell you everything. Please, just let him go.”
“You think I would let him go, even if you did tell me everything?” He smirks, but it looks horrifying on his angry face. “I didn’t realize how weak you’ve become. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know it was this bad.” He looks away from me, staring off into the distance. Is this disappointment? He looks back at me, his eyes piercing mine. “No, we’ll take him back with us. From what I saw here, you must have told him something, which would compromise all of us, and I can’t risk that. I would kill him here, but this will be a good lesson for you.” He pauses, tilts his head and glares at me. “By the way he seemed so cozy with you, I’m certain you didn’t complete your assignment. Am I right?”
I suck in a breath and nod. Tears run down my face, and I’m sure I’m going to throw up. This is such a mess; I don’t see any possible way I could fix it. He doesn’t say anything else, only shakes his head. Before I can react, he backhands me across the face so hard I fly into the sculpture, my head cracking against it. I fall on top of Conner’s unconscious body, right before I black out.