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Authors: Christie Anderson

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BOOK: Ambrosia Shore
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I stared at Rayne’s grandmother, dumbfounded. The woman was completely out of her mind. She held the crystal out as if she wanted me to take it from her, so I accepted it quickly and dropped down to the floor, fumbling for my things.

With my arms struggling to hold the mound of clothes, I reached for the brown leather journal and hurried to my feet. But by the time I was upright again, Andella was smiling at me like nothing had happened.

“Are you going on a trip, dear?” she asked.

I had to pause for a second to recover my composure. “Um, yes,” I managed to say. “I have to go, but thanks for letting me stay with you.”

I started past her to the door, but Andella stopped me. “Wait,” she said. “You can’t go like that, child. You’ll lose something.” She hobbled quickly over to the antique armoire in the corner of the room and handed me a small travel bag. “This should work just fine,” she said.

“Are you sure,” I asked. “I might not be able to return it anytime soon.”

Andella patted my arm. “Oh, I won’t be needing it. Keep it as long as you’d like.”

I tried to smile. “Uh, okay. Thank you.” I accepted the bag and shoved my stuff inside. “Well, I have to get going, but thanks for your help.”

Andella smiled and ushered me down the hallway to the front door. “Have a nice trip, dear. Travel safe.”

I had no idea what just happened. I hurried out the door in a daze.

Jax gave me a funny look as I met him in the front yard. “Everything okay?” he asked, glancing over me. “You’re looking a little…discombobulated.”

I shook my head as I walked toward the driveway. “No, I’m fine. I just hope Rayne’s grandmother doesn’t accidentally burn down her house while everyone’s gone. She’s talking like a crazy person.”

Jax laughed. “Don’t you just love the elderly? I find them very entertaining.”

He threw his arm casually around my shoulder and pulled me forward across the yard. As I brushed his arm quickly away from my body, I glanced back one last time at Andella’s house before shaking the strange encounter with the old woman from my mind.

Of course I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I saw Jax’s car parked around the corner. It looked like the fastest car I’d ever seen in my life. It was so sleek and stealthy it was almost futuristic. And I wasn’t anywhere near surprised when I saw the vanity license plate that said UWANTME on the back bumper, either.

“So, where should we go?” I asked after I was in the passenger seat and had checked the security of my seatbelt for the third time.

Jax lifted his eyebrows. “Well, I’m sure you’re just dying to see my famous mansion estate on Academy Row, but that place is always crawling with photographers. And if I remember correctly…you’re supposed to be my little secret right now, am I right?”

 I rolled my eyes. “Not exactly how I would put it, but yes, something without any Jax Bennett fans would probably be best.”

“Well, I do have another place,” Jax said in a serious tone, “but it’s top-secret. If you ever mention it to anyone…I’ll probably have to kill you.”

I glanced over at him, not sure how to answer, but his stern expression quickly turned to a smirk.

I finally laughed when I realized he was joking and said, “Sounds perfect.”

Once we were safely on the road to Banya—if it was possible to describe Jax’s driving as safe—Jax turned to me with lifted brows and said, “So, are you ready to hear my theory about you?”

“I don’t know…are you sure you’re ready for that?” I joked. “What if you guess correctly and the game is over, then what will you do to entertain yourself?”

“Oh, I have plenty of other games up my sleeve,” he said. “This one is just the preliminary round.”

“Okay then, let’s hear it,” I said. I smirked and folded my arms to my chest, trying to play along, but was secretly scared out of my mind that Jax would see right through me, straight to the truth. “So, what’s this theory you have about me?”

“Well, let’s see…” Jax began, voice full of intrigue. “You’ve obviously been attending high school in California long enough to establish friends and an afterschool job; you even have a house, a mother, and a boyfriend that everyone seems to know almost as well as they know you.”

I tried to swallow discreetly, wearing the best poker face I could muster. “And your point is…?” I said, trying to sound aloof.

“The Ambassador is obviously one hundred percent aware of your interactions on Earth,” Jax went on, “including your run-ins with Ash Hastings. And you appear to be an incredibly valuable asset in his eyes. Yet, no one else has ever heard of you or this supposed mother of yours, not even my father. Of course, we’ve all heard of Rayne Stevens nowadays. He’s the Ambassador’s little pet project, but Sadie and Leena James are a complete mystery.”

I was sure my palms were beginning to sweat. He was totally going to figure it out. “I’m hearing a lot of words, Jax,” I said, “but none of it sounds like much of a theory to me.”

Jax looked at me with a sly smile. “You want to know my theory? I think…Sadie James is a totally-off-the-books, black-ops
spy
…” His eyes met mine with a penetrating stare, like he was challenging me to prove him wrong.

I couldn’t control it; I burst out into laughter. The idea that anyone would suspect me of being an undercover spy was completely ridiculous—and maybe a little flattering at the same time. “Oh, Jax, thank you,” I said with a chuckle. “I needed that. That was the funniest thing I’ve heard all day.”

Jax examined me from the corner of his eye as he drove. “Wow, you’re good,” he finally said. “Even now, the innocent little Earth-girl act is completely convincing.”

All I could do was shake my head and sigh with amusement, and maybe a little relief. Jax certainly had more information than I wanted him to know, but his theory about me couldn’t have been further from the truth.

After a few minutes of convincing Jax that I really didn’t have anyone in some little black book that I could contact to get a hold of the Ambassador for me, Jax made a few phone calls and found a Scout friend of his to do it for him. All Jax could really tell his friend was that it was urgent the Ambassador get in touch with Jax as soon as possible, but hopefully it would be enough to send my father the message that something was wrong and we needed him here right away.

With the way Jax loved to flaunt his engine’s powerful speed, we were reaching the edge of the city in no time. I tried to remind myself that Jax had no idea that this was my first time in Banya, so I pretended to look bored as I stared out the window, even though I was secretly hoping not to miss a single thing.

The deeper we drove into the heart of the city, the taller the buildings grew, and the more crowded with people the sidewalks became. There were food carts and street vendors and cars lined up and down the roads, business people in suits, taxis stopping for riders, shoppers coming out of stores with shopping bags, dogs on leashes, babies in strollers, joggers running in place at street lights to keep up their pulses. I’d never been anywhere bigger than Los Angeles, but it all seemed like typical big city stuff to me—buildings, cars, and crowds.

Something about it did feel different than I expected, though. I wasn’t sure I could pinpoint exactly what it was. Everything was just so…clean. Or maybe crisp was the word I was looking for. The purple sky was clear with a few rolling clouds, like there wasn’t a puff of pollution anywhere to be seen. The architecture of many of the buildings felt old, yet they looked like they’d only been built a few years ago. And everything just felt so chipper and lively, with trees and shimmery flowers everywhere, like I was driving down the carefully manicured Disney version of a city rather than a truly weathered, lived-in city street. It was refreshing and unnerving all at the same time.

Jax turned the car onto a main road, and I had to hold in a gasp when I read the street sign. We were on Fairbanks Avenue. The name sunk into my thoughts and wouldn’t let go. Fairbanks was my father’s last name, a direct descendant of the city founder William Fairbanks, just like I was supposed to be. Seeing the name on an official city street sign gave me the chills. These people weren’t just some made up bedtime story Rayne was telling me for some laughs—they were real. All of this was real.

A few blocks further up on Fairbanks Avenue, a wide, magnificent building came into view, causing me to peer out the window again. It wasn’t as tall as the skyscrapers, but it was just as impressive. It looked more regal and official than the others, with an endless cascade of stairs leading up to a long line of towering white pillars and rows and rows of lofty arched windows. A massive tower stood at the middle of everything with a huge, decorative clock in the center.  A plaque hung below it with the title COURT OF AMBASSADORS, and an inscription along the bottom that read, “
The noblest motive is the public good – Virgil
.”

I was almost sure this was the building that Rayne had told me about before, where my father worked as the Ambassador, and I also remembered Jax teasing me earlier that day, saying his father could get me into the Court of Ambassadors to visit Rayne while under his custody. As the street light turned, and we drove away, I couldn’t help but stare back at the building with longing eyes, wondering if Rayne was stuck inside those very walls, waiting for me to find a way to win his freedom.

“You really care about him, don’t you,” Jax said.

I glanced back inside the car, distracted. “What was that?”

“Rayne,” Jax said. “You really care about him…” It was strange to hear Jax speak that way, like he was actually sensitive to someone else’s feelings.

“Yeah,” I nodded thoughtfully. “I do. I care about him a lot.”

“You know you have nothing to worry about, right? When the Ambassador returns, I’m sure he’ll take care of Rayne’s situation immediately.”

I think for the first time ever I smiled at Jax and actually meant it. “Thanks,” I said.

But then Jax grinned back at me like his old self as he said, “And in the meantime…I’d be happy to make sure you’re well taken care of…if you know what I mean.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s a nice offer, but I think I’m good.”

Jax shrugged. “I’m here if you change your mind.” Then he turned the car off the road next to the large park we’d been driving along and rolled into a secluded alleyway behind a row of small shops.

When we were completely hidden behind the row of buildings, Jax pulled the car up into the corner of a dead-end and stopped right over a large metal rectangle. I looked at him, confused, but before I could say a single word Jax reached under his seat, pulled out what looked like a remote control, and pressed the button.

The next thing I knew, the entire block of solid metal below us was moving downward, lowering us and the car completely underground into some kind of secret parking garage. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure that Jax was joking when he said he was taking me somewhere top-secret.

 

 

9. UNDERCOVER
 

 

 

Jax parked his sleek car in the corner of the underground structure and shut off the engine. Just a few feet away, I could see what looked like an elevator door along the wall.

“What is this place?” I asked.

Jax turned in his seat to face me. “I’m not joking about this, Sadie. I don’t bring people here. You have to swear on the Sacred Pool of Banya that you won’t ever tell a soul about this place. I’m only bringing you here because you need to keep a low profile.”

I swallowed. “I swear. I won’t tell anyone.”

Jax smiled and lifted his brow. “Follow me then.”

I slid out from the luxurious seat, shut the door behind me, and made my way over to the elevator where Jax was waiting.

Just before he pressed the button to open the door, Jax paused. “And when I say not a soul…that includes Rayne as well. Agreed?”

My shoulders tightened. What exactly was this place, and why was Jax so intent on hiding it? “Of course,” I said. “Agreed.”

“Good,” Jax said as he pressed the elevator button. “Because I have a reputation to uphold.”

I couldn’t help but eye Jax a little as we entered the elevator. Reputation? What did he mean by that?

We went up only a few floors before the elevator door slid open, leading us directly into a wide open, industrial-looking apartment with two-story ceilings, a sleek concrete floor and brick walls full of age and character. The room itself felt big and cold, but there were comfy, down-to-earth furnishings and a big fireplace on the far wall that pushed the cold out to the edges, filling the place with a lonely sort of warmth.

“So, this is it,” Jax said, tossing his keys on a small side table, “my secret lair.”

I was a little bit speechless as I wandered in. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but for some reason, this wasn’t it. There were hardly any dividing walls in the entire space. I walked slowly past the entryway to the living area, separated only by a brick column, and found myself drawn to a painting that hung above the brick fireplace.

The colors in the painting were soft and serene, swirling together to create the form of a woman lounging on a porch as she gazed out over a secluded lake. As I stared up at the calming work of art I felt Jax walk up behind me.

“That’s my mother,” he said quietly. “When I was young she used to take me to the lake house while my father went away on business. It’s one of my favorites…reminds me of a simpler time I guess.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Who painted it?”

Jax shrugged as if he couldn’t care less. “I don’t know; it’s not important.” Then he threw his arm around my shoulder and steered me out of the room. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour.”

After a walk through the modern kitchen area and a stroll around the corner to a nook with a library full of books, we headed up the L-shaped flight of metal stairs. The bedroom was large and open like the rest of the rooms, and the bathroom was probably the best room in the house. There was a huge free standing shower made entirely of glass, and at the far side of the room stood a bath tub built right into the floor like a small pool.

The place was nice, but after the tour, we ended up right back in the living room where we had started. It looked like a regular old apartment to me; well, aside from some of the high-end stuff Jax had added in. But I didn’t see anything top-secret about the place. Then again, I’d once been to a house in Laguna Beach that appeared completely normal to the untrained eye, when in reality it concealed an underground prison cell and a bunker full of Voss Hasting’s weapons.

“Wait, so…is that it?” I asked. “This is just an apartment? What’s so top-secret about that?” But just when the words came out of my mouth, I caught a glimpse of an odd-looking door partially hidden from my view behind a large cabinet in the far corner of the space.

I started walking towards it. “What’s in there?” I asked.

“Nothing. It’s just a closet,” Jax said as he ran ahead of me and threw his back against the door.

I shook my head. “Seriously?”

“Sorry. If you’re going to stay here, this room is off limits. That’s my only rule.”

“Jax,” I said plainly, “you know the minute you turn your back for even a second this is the first place I’m going to run, so you might as well just show it to me now.”

His eyes squinted as one side of his mouth curled up into a smirk. “That sounds like fun. When do we start?”

“Jax, please?” I said, realizing he probably would find that game just a little too entertaining. “I promise I won’t tell a soul. You can trust me.”

Jax brought his face close to lean in on me. “You tell me your secret…then I’ll tell you mine.”

I looked down at my shoes. “Jax, I can’t—”

“That’s what I thought,” he said. He swung one leg over the other casually as he leaned back further against the door. “You know…I’m in pretty good shape. I bet I could stand here all night if I had to.”

“You can’t stand there all night,” I protested.

“Why not? Are you planning to use one of your super spy moves on me to force me out of the way?”

I looked away then back again. “Um, maybe…”

“Well, then let’s see it, love. Show me what you’ve got.”

I crossed my arms to my chest, not wanting to give in, knowing I had absolutely no moves whatsoever. I backed a few steps away from the door.

“If you stand there all night you’ll be miserable,” I finally said. “So why don’t we just call it a truce?” I held out my hand to offer a handshake. Jax paused to read my face, and then stepped away from the door to take my hand. As soon as I saw a clear path to the door, I darted forward in a final attempt to sneak past him.

In one quick movement, Jax had his arms around me, blocking my path. “Nice try,” he said.

His arms lingered around me just a little too long, and the air froze in my lungs at his touch. It felt foreign…and wrong. The only arms I wanted wrapped around my body were Rayne’s.

I shoved Jax away. “Fine; you win,” I said, sulking back a few steps. “I don’t have any spy moves or anything, okay? I promise I won’t try to sneak into your secret room or whatever it is. Let’s just worry about getting a hold of the Ambassador so we can help Rayne.”

I started to turn around, but Jax jumped forward, reaching for my wrist. “Sadie, wait,” he said. “I was just teasing you. Look, there’s nothing top-secret behind that door. I’ve just never shown this room to anyone before. It’s sort of…special to me.”

My gaze softened. “What do you mean?”

“I mean there are some things about me that nobody else knows—private things.”

“What kinds of things?” I asked.

Jax looked down and ran his hand through the peaks of his lofty white hair. “Sadie, I live my life in the spotlight ninety-nine percent of the time. And the truth is…it gets a little exhausting, even for me. That room is my only sanctuary from it all—my escape. It’s where I go to strip away the shiny clothes and the autographs and the whole playboy act…and just be me. The real me that no one else knows.”

Suddenly, it all seemed to make sense; Jax seemed to make sense.

I looked at him thoughtfully. “Jax, I realize that you don’t know me very well, and now that I know what this is all about, I completely understand why you don’t want to show me. But just so you know, if you ever did decide to let me in, I would never betray your trust.”

He examined my face. “You know…I think I actually believe you.”

“I mean it,” I said. “I won’t go in unless you ask me to.”

For probably the first time, Jax looked at a loss for words. He scratched his side awkwardly, glancing away as he finally mumbled, “Uh, right. Thank you…for that.”

I started back toward the living area, ready to let the whole secret-room-thing go. “So, what do you have to do around here?” I called back.

Jax followed me around the corner. “Actually,” he said, with a new burst of energy. “Maybe we
should
go in.”

I stopped. “But, you just said…”

He shrugged. “I know what I said. But maybe…maybe I
want
to show it to you now.”

“Jax, no. It’s okay. You don’t need to feel obligated. I understand why it’s private.”

Jax grinned and pulled on my hand. “I’ve always secretly wished I had someone I could bring here—someone who wasn’t just using me to get something in return, you know?”

My eyes fell to the floor. I wasn’t the right person for Jax to open his private life to. The only reason why I called him in the first place was because Rayne told me Jax could help me find my father. I was only there because I needed something from him. I was just as bad as everybody else.

I pulled back. “Jax, you should save this for someone special; like a girlfriend or something.”

He stopped and looked away. “There isn’t anyone special, Sadie. Almost every person I meet knows exactly who I am and knows exactly what they want from me…money, fame, connections…I’ve learned how to tell which ones are actually interested in more than what I can offer them, and those people are pretty hard to come by.” Jax turned back toward me. “But you…well, I could tell right from the start that you didn’t care about any of those things. In fact, you’ve made it pretty clear that you don’t want anything from me at all.”

I never thought in a million years that I would feel bad for a guy like Jax Bennett, but here I was, feeling completely sorry for him.

“Jax, I’m sorry if I’ve been a little rude to you in the past, but you have to admit, you didn’t really give me a choice. The way you talk to me…most of the time I feel like you’re trying to undress me with your eyes or something. What was I supposed to think?”

Jax pressed his lips together. “Um, yeah…I guess I probably owe you an apology. I’m just used to putting on a show, you know what I mean? I’m not even sure who I really am anymore. The people want the act, so that’s what I give them.”

“Actually, I think I know how you feel,” I said. “Let’s just say, I know what it’s like to have to hide who I really am. And for a long time I thought I knew who that was, but now that girl just seems like a blur…like a memory.”

Jax’s violet eyes seemed to glow even brighter. “So, let me make it up to you then,” he said. “Consider it a peace offering.” He pulled me forward to the door that was off limits only a few minutes earlier. “But I have to warn you,” he said. “Now that we’ve talked this thing up into some big deal, there’s a good chance you’re going to feel disappointed.”

“Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out,” I said. I placed my hand on the doorknob and pushed the door open.

A flood of natural light hit my eyes when we entered the room. I looked up to find streams of sunlight glaring down through a ceiling made almost entirely of window panels. My breath caught in my chest as I walked to the center of the room and took in the throng of colors surrounding me. Almost every inch of the towering walls were covered in floor to ceiling paintings and sketches. Easels and art supplies and all kinds of paintbrushes were scattered around every corner of the room.

“You’re…an artist,” I breathed.

Jax moved up beside me. “So, what do you think? Am I terrible at it?”

I took in the array of artwork all around me. Some were big and bold with movement and colors, others soft and thoughtful with whimsical lines like sketches of inner thoughts. It was a room full of magical places, of intensity and emotions, people experiencing the world through Jax’s past and imagination.

I shook my head. “No, not even close. These are seriously incredible.” Then I thought of the painting I saw earlier over the fireplace. “And the one of your mother,” I said. “Is that one yours too?”

“Yeah. That was actually one of my firsts. Sorry I didn’t tell you before.”

“No, I understand,” I said.

I walked up closer along the walls and looked at a few of the pieces more closely. “Wow, you’re really talented. You’ve never shown these to
anyone
before?”

“No,” Jax said. “They’re better this way. This way, no one can turn them into a spectacle; like Banya did to me.”

I looked at Jax with sad eyes. “You’re not a spectacle, Jax. You’re just…very successful, and people are drawn to that. They want to know what it’s like to live in your shoes.”

Jax dropped himself into a chair a few feet away. “You don’t have to pretend to be nice to me just because I showed you a few paintings.”

I looked at him. “That’s not what I meant.”

Jax jumped up from the chair and shrugged. “That’s okay. I think we’ve had enough girl-talk for one day, don’t you?”

Jax threw his arm around my shoulder and ushered me toward the door, as if the trip to the secret room had never happened in the first place. “I think I’m getting hungry,” Jax went on. “Should we go out and grab a bite? There’s this little food stand down in the market at the park that sells the best meat skewers you’ve ever tasted in your life.”

I decided maybe Jax could only handle being serious in small doses, at least for now. So, I let the room full of paintings disappear behind us. “Sure,” I said. “I could eat.”

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