Without incident, we’re at a small hotel on the other side of the city within twenty minutes. The red building looks old and appears to be only three stories tall. I shove a wad of pesos at the driver with shaking hands. He drove so crazy, my hands hurt from clutching the seat. I can usually handle crazy driving, but with everything else going on, my nerves are already frayed.
A thin man with a crooked smile stands behind the check-in desk, watching us as we make our way inside the hotel lobby. He greets us warmly without asking questions when we pay for the room in cash at such a late hour. Handing me a metal key, he tells me the room number. We use the stairs to get to the second floor where our room is. Conner pulls me to a stop at a room with an ice machine and some vending machines.
“We didn’t get a chance to eat,” he points out when I raise my eyebrow in question.
Our arms full with snacks, soda and my luggage, we find our room. It’s nothing grand, but it is very clean, which is a comfort. There are two twin-sized beds on metal frames, a small closet and an even smaller bathroom. An old TV sits on a wood table at the foot of the beds. We drop my case and pack on the floor by the closet, then our snacks on the bed closest to the door.
“I’ll call Cadmar,” I mumble, pulling my phone from my pocket as Conner nods. He sits on the bed and starts opening our snacks. I feel bad because he never did get to eat anything today and now he has to settle for chips and cookies.
“Where are you?” Cadmar answers on the first ring again.
“We’re at a hotel on the other side of the city,” I tell him. “I didn’t see the name when we came in.”
“That’s okay, I’ll find you. I’m only an hour away. I should be there in two after cleaning up the hotel room.”
“Okay.” My voice quivers, my stomach clenching at the thought of the trashed hotel room and the dead body in the closet.
“It’s going to be okay,” he assures me. “You did well. We just need to get you out of this country, and go somewhere safe.”
“Okay,” I say again.
“I’ll see you soon, yes?”
I end the call. Sitting next to Conner on the squeaky bed, I pick up a bag of crackers and a soda. His arm wraps around my shoulders as he continues eating potato chips with his other hand. I lean into him and take small bites of my crackers. He hasn’t said more than a few sentences since we left the crime scene. I want to know what he’s thinking but don’t want to push him. We eat in silence for a while until he sighs after his chips are gone.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
I angle myself so we’re looking at each other. I take his hand, twining our fingers together. “I’m okay.” I nod, trying to sound assuring, which I’m not sure is possible at this point. “Are you?”
He squeezes his eyes shut, rubs his free hand over his face then looks at me again with despair in his eyes. “It was really hard watching that,” he says after a long pause. “You seem so fragile, so small. I almost went crazy when he attacked you. And then you were protecting me,” he growls. “You don’t need to protect me.”
“I was trained for this. Though, I may be small, I am not fragile.”
“I can take care of myself, Payton. And I can say I’ve been trained for that kind of stuff, too.”
“Yes, but not for killing people, Conner.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t. I would have, to protect you.”
“What happened when I went in the bathroom?” I change the subject because I don’t want to argue about me protecting him. He may be a good fighter, but I would never let him get that kind of blood on his hands when I already have so much. He doesn’t need somebody’s death haunting him for the rest of his life.
“It was stupid.” He pulls his hand away and rubs his hands over his face again. “I wasn’t thinking or paying attention. He dropped something when he had a plate in his hand, so I got up to help him. When I stood up from picking it up, he had the gun in his hand. I yelled and he hit me in the head, knocked me out.”
I take his hand again, squeezing it. “It wasn’t your fault,” I insist. “I let him in. I thought he was okay.”
“It wasn’t either of our faults.” He sighs, shaking his head. “We weren’t thinking someone would come to the hotel. Cadmar didn’t even think they would. I’m just so sorry for what you had to do.”
I look away. I don’t want to talk about this part. Yes, I’ve killed ninety-nine people, but never like that. Every single one of my kills was clean, and I never stuck around to see the aftermath. My training kicked in and I did what needed to be done to keep us alive. I’m suddenly not so hungry, the crackers becoming sand in my mouth. I grab my soda, chugging it, but it doesn’t help. The sobbing starts back up as the image of that man twitching on top of me creeps into my mind. I shove off the bed, trying to hold the tears back. Conner looks horrified.
I leave him staring after me as I bolt for the bathroom. Slamming the door, I go straight to the toilet where everything I just ingested comes back up. I rinse my mouth then curl back into my ball on the bathroom floor. The sobbing has stopped, but now I’m hyperventilating. Could I be more of a wreck? I gasp in short breaths, which don’t seem to fill my lungs. What the hell is wrong with me?
“I’m so sorry, Payton,” Conner says through the door. “Can I please come in?”
I don’t answer, but he cracks the door open anyway. He sees me curled up, comes right in and wraps around me again. “I’m so sorry,” he says again, over and over, brushing his hands over my back, my face, my arms, through my hair. I don’t understand why he’s sorry. I should be the one comforting him; this is entirely my fault. I feel so weak, curled in on myself, like somebody should be scolding me for reacting this way. I’ve been trained for these kinds of situations, but I never thought I would be living it. I was naïve to think I would never have to kill someone in such a gruesome way.
I don’t know how long we sit there, but at some point he picks me up and takes me back into the room. He moves our snacks out of the way then sits on the bed with me on his lap. While rubbing my back, he talks quietly, comforting me. He talks about his life, telling me things about himself I never knew.
He tells me about his dad, how they haven’t gotten along since they lost his mom when he was ten. He doesn’t say how she died, but I can’t bring myself to ask. She loved to paint and cook, and he thinks she would be disappointed in his dad for becoming a criminal. There’s so much love in his voice when he talks about her; I can tell he’s still sad about losing her. I can’t believe I didn’t know all of this about him, but it makes me understand why he is the way he is. It makes me like him even more. He tells me some about his friends and how his friend Mark has pushed him and believed in him more than anyone else with his fighting.
When I’ve finally calmed down enough to talk, I tell him more about me and the kind of life I’ve lived. I tell him about growing up in the castle, about our tutor and how much I actually enjoy our lessons. He smiles when I talk about Reiley, telling him her real name and about how close she and I are. I try to go quickly over how controlling Scarlet is and how horrible she can be, because I can’t handle that conversation right now. I adjust to sitting between his legs with my head resting against his chest as I tell him about the day after I got my tattoo.
He stops me in the middle of telling him about how much Cadmar and Scarlet freaked out when they saw it. Talking about all of this is easier because I’m not facing him, but now I’m afraid I said something wrong, because he’s gripping my arms.
“That last night in Old Town,” his voice rumbles against me and I go back to that night which changed everything for us. “When you said that was your first kiss…” He trails off and I’m mortified to feel blood rushing up my neck and over my cheeks. Did he really piece that together through everything I told him? I chew on my bottom lip, waiting for him to say something else, because I’m not going to say anything. “You didn’t just mean your first kiss with me?”
I try to move out from between his legs, but he grips my arms tighter. The only response I can give is shaking my head. I’m horrified and I can’t believe he actually remembers me saying that. I feel like I willingly had the word ‘virgin’ tattooed on my forehead. In the whole spectrum of everything, this shouldn’t be a big deal, but I am still a girl and I do still have hormones and such.
“Payton.” He sounds frustrated. He pulls me around in his arms so we’re facing each other again. His green eyes are wide with surprise and something else I can’t read. It’s probably him wondering why he’s spent so much time with a crazy, loner girl. “That was your first kiss…ever?”
I gnaw on my lip, look down at my nails and nod slightly. Again, all of the blood in my freaking body rushes to my cheeks. I don’t know how I can be so unsure here. I kill people for a living, but talking about kissing makes me want to hide in a hole. I’m sure he’s as mortified as I am. With the way he kisses, I’m certain I wasn’t his first and he’s probably done a lot more than that, if not everything. I mean, he is nineteen and a guy. My stomach lurches, sending bile up my throat. I really don’t want to think about him being with other girls. So, obviously, that’s all I can think about now. Dear God, brain, shut up!
He hooks a finger under my chin, pulling it up to make me look at him. “Payton,” he says, firm now. “It’s not something to be ashamed of. I’m just surprised, because you’re almost eighteen. And, well…you’re you. You’re smart and beautiful and caring. I can’t believe no other guy has at least tried to kiss you.” He trails his fingers over my uninjured cheek, leaving a trail of flames in their wake.
“I told you.” I shrug. “We really don’t get out much. Besides assignments—which are not vacations in the least—we were always in the house. And when we were younger, Scarlet or Cadmar were always with us when we went out of the house, so we didn’t have social lives at all. I know that makes me a freak—”
“Stop.” He interrupts me with two fingers over my lips. “You are not a freak, Payton. If anything, you’re more adventurous and way cooler than most teenage girls.” He pauses and I can’t help the smile creeping over my lips. “I haven’t been able to even stomach hanging out with other girls since I met you, because they’re all so generic. You’re not. My buddies gave me the hardest time for not dating anyone, but I didn’t want to. Like I said before, I couldn’t get you out of my head.”
I balk at his admission and it makes me feel all tingly inside. “You haven’t dated anyone since we met?” I ask, disbelieving.
He shakes his head with a smirk and something ignites inside me. I suddenly don’t care about any of the other girls he’s been with or done other things with. I don’t care about any of it, because when he cares this much about me, how can any of that matter?
“I’m really happy you’re here with me,” I tell him in a small voice. This has been the worst day of my life, but he’s making it so much brighter, simply by being here.
He kisses my forehead then leans his against it. “I’m happy I’m here, too,” he breathes. He turns me back around so I’m leaning back against his chest again and starts trailing his fingers lightly over my arms. “You should try to rest.”
He kisses my hair, making everything inside me feel warm and calm. His fingers continue running over my arms until I fall asleep curled up on his lap.