Authors: Heather Hildenbrand
Tags: #Young Adult, #Romance
I swing the door shut and hold my breath.
One, two, three—
“Holy shit, you just slammed the door in his face,” Obadiah whispers.
When I get to ten and Titus hasn’t barged in and blackened my eye, I exhale. The device in my pocket weighs nothing. I weigh nothing.
I take Obadiah’s wrist again and lead him to my bed. “I can’t see,” he complains.
“Blink some more,” I tell him. “You’ll adjust.”
“Why can’t we turn the light on?”
I throw back my covers and climb into bed. “Because we have to sleep together for this to work.”
I can hear his unspoken question in the thick silence that follows. Obadiah hovers at the edge of the bed, not following me in, not retreating. “Raven, I …”
“Ssh, come on. Just shut up and lay here with me,” I whisper, giving him no choice when I tug him down to the mattress.
“Bossy,” he mutters.
It makes me almost-smile. I am such a different version of myself with Obadiah. He slides in next to me and I pull the cover above our foreheads. The air is muffled and smells like exotic spices. “What cologne are you wearing?” I ask.
“It was a gift,” he says quietly. “What are you wearing?” he shoots back. “Was there an annual slut convention I wasn’t aware of?”
“Your invitation got lost in the mail.” I can feel his grin in the pressing darkness.
“Speaking of sexy invitations … you ready to explain this?” He gestures to the space around us, or the lack of.
I feel down to the pocket on my robe and draw out the device I took. I hold it up for Obadiah’s inspection, such as it can be. “This.”
“And this is …?”
“Ssh. A scrambler. Or that’s what I’m calling it.” In a hushed and hurried voice, I explain the guard at dinner. Williams. How he’d thought he lost me.
“How did you get this?” he asks.
“I stole it.”
His brow goes up. I don’t have to see it to know. “Does Linc know what you did?”
“Does your boyfriend know everything you do?” I shoot back.
“I don’t … shit, Ven.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I just … I want you to know that I love you.” I wrinkle my nose. Something I find myself doing when the subject matter gets confusing or gray. “Not like that, but like … I don’t care if you like boys, Obadiah.”
Something more than just his breath exhales. “Thanks,” he says, his voice grave and so solemn I know this must be the first conversation he’s ever had about this. And then with laughter, “I don’t care if you like boys, either.”
I giggle. “But we have to make this look real,” I say.
Obadiah snorts. “Please. I’m so real. I’m unforgettable. Although, I still can’t believe you used me as your ruse to steal from Titus.”
“Ssh.” I consider his words. “I can’t believe I stole,” I say.
“We’re a couple of ninjas.”
“I’ll be a ninja when I use it successfully.”
“Does this mean you’re coming to visit tomorrow? They miss you.”
“Yes. Maybe. Hopefully.”
Sometimes, Obadiah’s oppositeness of Ida is a pleasant shock. When I finally told him about Morton and the others, he hadn’t batted an eye. When I’d explained what we were, his only response had been if I knew whether there’d been an Imitation made of Jay Ryan.
“Who the hell is Jay Ryan?” Linc had asked.
“Okay, so I know neither one of you watch television but you have to check out this Beauty and the Beast show on the Throwback 2k Channel. It’s like a time capsule for vintage hotties. Jay Ryan plays a Beast with scars on his face and a penchant for rooftop violence in defense of the weak. He’s total military bodyguard. You’d love him, Crawford. And Ven, he’s so your type. I’m telling you. Get some.”
Linc had stared at him for so long, I’d accidentally giggled out loud. I’d cut it off abruptly when no one else joined in, terrified I’d offend Obadiah. It was the first comment regarding his sexual orientation he’d made aloud and I didn’t want to hurt him with a wrong reaction. What was the right reaction in this case?
But Obadiah only grinned. From there, all mention of Imitations and secret underground lairs and ramshackle warehouses hidden across town were treated as completely normal. Not to mention, Obadiah had been instrumental in relocating and watching over Morton’s army.
I don’t know what I’d do without Obadiah. Then again, in this moment, I’m not sure what to do
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s get this moving along. We have to pretend to …” I wrinkle my nose again.
“Have sex. You can say it.”
“That is such a strange word. When I heard it in Twig City, it was clinical, almost cold. But when you say it, when I think it, it’s different here.” My cheeks burn. It’s a subject that has brought me much teasing these last few weeks, but I can’t bring myself to talk so casually about something that seems so intensely intimate.
Obadiah sighs. “Okay, when I say, you’re going to roll on top of me and moan.”
“How do I moan?”
“You sort of sigh … with your voice.”
“That’s how it sounds?”
“This is not happening right now,” he says to himself. And then to me, “That’s how it sounds tonight. Now, come on.” He shifts, inching closer on his back. I push up on my palms and toes and let him slide in. When he’s underneath me, I lower my torso to his. It’s a strange sort of closeness, like a hug with more body.
“Now breathe out,” he says.
I breathe out.
Linc comes early the next morning. I’ve changed my pajamas, a silk pants set that ends just above my ankle with a button-up shirt to match. It’s not the least bit revealing, but when he steps into my room and shuts the door, I feel exposed enough that my cheeks heat.
Obadiah’s already gone, slipped out somewhere between my wardrobe change and dawn. I wonder if Linc knows he was here. If he notices the scent of spicy cologne in the air, he doesn’t mention it.
Without a word, he begins a thorough search of my room. It’s a routine we’ve fallen into when he visits. Twice he’s removed listening devices from various hiding places among my things. Once we found a camera hidden in the mouth of a small ceramic tiger. For days after, it made me ill to imagine the entire security force watching me change my clothes each day. Linc assured me he found and destroyed the tapes.
This time, his sweep comes up empty. I don’t trust it. Not after Williams.
Linc comes toward me, his mouth open to say who knows what sort of incriminating thing. I hold my finger to my lips to shush him and shake my head. I slip out of bed and over to the stereo. I hit a few buttons and sultry jazz once again leaks from the speakers. Linc’s brow rises but he doesn’t comment on my selection.
When I’ve returned to his side, he leans down and presses his mouth to my ear. “You don’t think it’s empty?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Williams,” I say, my lip curling at the single name.
“What about him?” His voice hardens to sharp edges and I realize he has no idea.
“Where have you been?”
He frowns. Instead of answering he says, “Come here.” He snakes his arm around my waist and pulls me close. I’m tucked in tight against his side as he draws the covers over our head. I inhale the scent of spicy cologne and feel a little guilty.
“What is it?” Linc asks, his voice barely more than a breath.
I draw the device out of the pillowcase I’d stuffed it in earlier. It is nothing more than a shadow of gray with sharp edges in the darkness between us. From some pocket, Linc produces a slender flashlight and clicks it on. The minute he sees the device, his expression twists. He lowers the flashlight to pat his pants pocket. Satisfied, he looks back at me with a different emotion. His eyes widen.
“How in the hell did you …?”
I smile smugly. If Linc didn’t suspect me, I know Titus won’t.
“I’m being proactive,” I say.
His eyes narrow. This is the part I wasn’t looking forward to. “How?” he asks through closed teeth.
I swallow hard and tell him about Obadiah. My lacy outfit. Williams.
Linc swears. “And Titus bought it,” he mutters. “Of course he did. He’s a guy. You were wearing … Shit, Ven.”
And now the punch line. I tell him about Obadiah. His eyes bulge. “Are you serious?” he hisses. “And Titus let him stay?”
“He wants me to be her, Linc. The old Raven probably did stuff like that all the time. It’s probably why you’re allowed in here right now,” I point out.
Linc’s silence is answer enough.
“But … Obadiah?”
“Would you rather I have called someone else? Caine Rafferty would’ve been here in half the time if I’d asked.”
Linc swears. His string of curses is mixed with the word “no” between each one.
The air inside the drawn blanket is stuffy but I don’t dare mention it. Not while he’s still deciding whether to be angry with me. He’s still holding the flashlight. It’s angled away so it won’t hurt our eyes, but it’s enough for me to study the shadowed edges of his jaw. The strong line of his chin.
I reach out and trace a finger from his ear to his bottom lip. He goes still. All of the indecision leaks away. His smile is soft and inviting as he wraps me in his arms and kisses my hair. “I’m sure I’ll be angry about this later,” he whispers.
My lips twitch as the jazz ends. I wait for the next song to start before I answer. “I’m sure you will.”
His skin is so touchable. I hesitate for a second but then I realize if the world expects me to do Raven-like things, I might as well do them for real when the opportunity presents itself.
I slip my hand behind his head, brushing his hairline with my fingertips. My hips wriggle until I’m pressed close against him. If he’s surprised, he doesn’t say. I tighten my grip on his neck and pull his face toward mine. It’s a bold move on my part. No matter how many kisses we share, no matter how convinced I am of Linc’s feeling for me, I rarely make the first move.
But last night, I made all kinds of moves. I feel like a victor, though I’ve gained only inches.
Linc makes a noise of appreciation and deepens the kiss. I hold on and give freely everything he’s willing to take.
All too soon, he pulls away. “While I’d love to spend my entire visit attached at the lips, I think we should talk,” he says. His fingers are still tangled in my hair. His forehead leans lightly against mine.
“Talk,” I agree, forcing myself to concentrate. I reluctantly slide my hand off his neck. I’ll never focus if I’m touching him this way. I scoot my hips a few inches away.
“I want to know where this sudden klepto streak came from. Did something else happen?” he asks.
Finally, I remember what it was that spurred my call to action tonight in the first place. My victory dims. “When I came home last night, Titus was in the parlor with someone.”
“A man.” I shake my head harder than necessary, an awkward move with the pillow in the way. I am careful to keep my voice low as I explain. “I don’t know him. I told you I heard him once before but I never saw his face. He’s not afraid of Titus and he sounds powerful.”
“‘Powerful’ includes half the city, Ven.”
“I know. But this one’s different. He knows about me, Twig City…
. He kept bringing up identity thieves and how whatever he and Titus are planning will stop the thefts.”
Linc nods. “It’s a bigger issue lately, although it started about eighteen months ago. At first, it was sporadic and seemingly random, but now it’s more and more often and they believe it’s all connected to one group.”
“What kind of group?”
“No one knows. Rebels. Outlaws. Vigilantes wanting to balance the power of uptown with the poverty of downtown. Although Congress and Homeland Security are calling them common thugs and criminals so it depends on who you ask, I guess.”
“Well, it’s bad enough to have Titus and the other man worried.”
“The voters, the wealthy ones, are having a fit about it. There is a growing group that wants to do something that sets them apart. Or, more specifically, sets the poor apart. Segregate the city. They think if they keep the undesirables out of their territory, it will make it harder for the thieves to gain access.”
“Set them apart how?”
“That’s the big question. It’s a whole debate within Congress right now. First, they said thumbprints or even palm scans were what we needed. Your level of access to certain places in the city would vary depending on your income and social standing. But there’s also talk of that not being enough. They want a way to see proof, to walk up to someone and identify the person as safe or not.” He snorts on the last part.
I bite my lip, merging this information with what I heard. “The man said they needed the next batch to be loyal, no deviating, so they can put it all in place to stop it once and for all.”
“Did you hear anything else that might be able to identify him?”
“He said he’s running a campaign of some sort.”
Linc sighs. “Everyone in this world is running a campaign of some sort.”
We’re both quiet for a moment. I mull over the impossible task of identifying one politician in a sea of them. “I overheard them talking about Daniel and Melanie not giving Titus the information he wanted about his missing Imitations,” I say quietly.
“That’s not a surprise. We both know they didn’t talk.”
“I know, but apparently they aren’t the only ones he’s questioning.”
“Who else is there?”
“Raven. He has her locked in Twig City. I think he’s … torturing her. He knows she betrayed him.”
“Dammit,” he mutters.
I think of Melanie. My eyes well and it makes me angry. I blink them back, refusing to dignify the tears with a swipe of my hand. “The stranger called her Raven number six.”
Silence. The jazz plays on. Then, “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean. He just called her that. He said, ‘how’s Raven number six?’ and Titus answered him like that’s her name. She’s number six, Linc. I don’t know what to think about that.” I lick my suddenly dry lips. “How many of me are there?”
He moves to hug me but I stop him. “I can’t. I just need to know.” I shove my chin out a little. “I need to be proactive. So I stole a scrambler.”
“A scrambler?” he repeats.
“It scrambles me. So I can get to them. It’s step one.”
“And what’s step two?”
I don’t think he expects me to have an answer, but I do. It’s all I’d thought about as my feet had padded over the soft carpet on my clandestine mission earlier. It’s all I think about now as I tell him, “He can’t kill anyone else I promise to protect.”
He sighs. It’s not the response I was hoping for. “I’m sorry, Ven. I know what happened with Melanie upsets you.”
The tears are back. I’m not sure I can keep them away this time. “Why didn’t she just tell him what he asked?” I whisper.
“You know why. She promised him.”
It takes me a moment to realize the ‘him’ he means. “Daniel. She was keeping quiet for him.”
Linc nods. “I think so.”
“We promised too.” The thickness in my throat is too much. A tear escapes and tracks down my cheek.
“I know we did. I …” I hear the frustration creep in. I recognize it because it sounds just like it did the last time. He’s afraid. I let him talk. “Shit, Ven, I told you back when you made that promise how impossible it was. There was no way to get to her without exposing us. Without exposing you. I can’t … I won’t endanger you for anyone.”
“I know that. It wasn’t your promise to honor. It was mine.”
“Your promises are my promises.”
“Still, you were right. I wasn’t being proactive. I was sitting around waiting for you to take care of it. I won’t do that anymore.”
“That’s why you stole the remote?”
I wait for his lecture.
Instead, after a long silence, he whispers, “You did good, angel.”
I raise my eyes to his. They are shiny orbs of black in the darkness. “Yeah?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says.