After his sister’s death, Jake is determined to seek revenge against his best-friend-turned-enemy. However, after meeting Clara, who's as convincing as she is unnerving, his plans change completely.
Clara has all but given up on finding her Prince Charming, but the moment Jake walks into the hospital, her future becomes much brighter, despite the world-ravaging virus that's turned everything upside down.
But traveling across the country together proves more difficult than either of them expects, and just when they both think the world couldn't get any worse, it does.
The Ending Beginnings:
I - Carlos
II - Mandy
III - Vanessa
IV - Jake
V - Clara
VI - Jake & Clara
Jake sat on an overstuffed couch in the hospital’s rec room, the stark furniture and barren walls brightened by the muted, flashing television. The President’s address looped on the radio at the nurses’ station behind him, and the more the words sank in, the more his mind reeled. A global pandemic? Start over? Build anew? Was that even possible? Amidst his chaotic mind chatter, Jake wondered what the hell he was going to do next.
Rising from the couch, he took three steps toward one of the barred windows across from him, braced his hands against the wall on either side, and let out a long exhale. He stared out at the crashed Cadillac and the few buildings that were visible through the trees across the road. Despite the fact that the city was enshrouded in midnight, it was so changed. It was desolate, like living in the country, but in a more unnatural way. There was no one catching a late night cab…there was no traffic. Street lamps illuminated the haphazardly parked cars on the snow-covered pavement, and a lone, scraggly terrier trotted down the sidewalk, a leash dragging in the snow behind him. The dog stopped and sniffed around the back of the Cadillac, no doubt searching for the remnants of the chips Kyle had left behind, before trotting out of sight.
Choked sobs came from the cafeteria down the hall, breaking Jake’s concentration. The nurse, Roberta, hadn’t been able to calm Kyle down since the kid realized his father was dead, and it was beginning to grate on Jake’s nerves.
As much as he thought he should care about the situation he was in—the disease, the billions dead, the pandemonium—he couldn’t, not really. The memory of Becca, struggling as she took her final breath, was too fresh in his mind, too raw. She was gone; Gabe took her away from him.
Jake’s hands clenched into fists. He needed to stay focused. He needed to get to Peterson Air Force Base. He needed to find Gabe…to hurt Gabe. Emotions boiling, Jake let his hate and anger fuel him into action. He let out a resolute breath and pushed away from the window.
But as suddenly as Jake turned around, he stopped. Clara, the blonde-haired woman whose blue eyes were too assessing, stood in front of him.
Her head was tilted, her lips pursed, and her gaze flicked over his body. “Are you alright?” she asked, her voice light and curious.
Giving her a curt nod, Jake brushed past her with the intention of heading toward the cafeteria.
Clara reached out to him, her hand lightly clasping his biceps.
Body tensing under her touch, Jake froze, looking down at her pale, delicate hand, then into her penetrating eyes.
“It was nice that you tried to help that man,” she said, and a small smile pulled at her lips.
Jake made a derisive noise. “Yeah, well, apparently it wasn’t enough.”
Her brow furrowed, and she let go of his arm. “You did what you could.”
Nodding, he started to take another step.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
Jake frowned and paused again, wondering why she cared one way or the other. “I never should’ve stopped in the first place.”
“No?” Clara’s soft voice turned sharp, and she walked to the window Jake had been staring out of only moments before.
She was scared, he realized. He should be scared. “You’ll be alright here,” he said, his voice carrying a weak attempt at comfort.
Clara muttered something he couldn’t hear.
He tried again. “You have food…Roberta and the other nurse…”
But Clara seemed unfazed by this words, and she turned to face him. “If it’s so safe here, then why won’t you stay? Why leave three helpless women and a child alone?”
Jake shook his head, uncertain why he felt the need to explain anything to this woman. “There are things I have to deal with.”
After a few impatient steps, Clara was directly in front of him. “Take me with you, please?” Her eyebrows lifted and drew together.
“No,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.” He suddenly needed to get out of the room as soon as possible.
“Please.” Like a blade, the word cut into him, threatening to sever his last shred of decency. “Please,” she whispered.
Unable to resist, Jake turned around.
Clara’s eyes were even more pleading than her voice, they were shimmering, and her chest was heaving. “Please,” she repeated. “You have to take me with you. I can’t stay here. You don’t understand, I’ll die if I stay here…”
No. The word was on the tip of his tongue, but it felt leaden and uncooperative. “I have to go to Peterson, alone,” he reminded himself. “I have to go.”
“What’s in Peterson?” she asked, so close that her presence was distracting him. When he didn’t answer her, she continued, “Is it safe there? We need to leave…to go somewhere safe. Please take me somewhere safe, Jake. I can’t bear to be here—in this place, in this city—any longer.”
Slowly, Jake’s eyes shifted to hers, his mind feeling muddled. Words tried to form, and he tried to shake his head, to refuse her pleas, but he couldn’t. There was something about her…something unsettling that made him want to walk away and never look back. But another part of him wanted to give into her…to take her with him…to leave Colorado Springs and find somewhere safe…
Clara reached out to touch his arm again, and Jake flinched away.
Straightening, she seemed to collect herself in a single, fortifying breath. Then, when her eyes met his, it was like they were piercing into his soul. “Please.”
“I just need to grab a few things from my house,” Jake said, his voice gruff.
As far as Clara could tell, he hadn’t spared her a single glance for over an hour, not since they’d climbed into his Jeep back in Colorado Springs and sped away from the hospital for good. Jake’s intense focus on the road ahead had only increased since leaving the eerily desolate, looted city behind.
“Okay,” Clara said softly. She allowed herself a quick peek at him out of the corner of her eye. One of his elbows was propped on the door as he drove, his head leaned against his upraised hand, just as it had been since he first pulled away from Pine Springs Hospital. “Do you want to rest for a little bit? Maybe stay—”
“No.” Jake sounded exhausted…or irritated…or both. His fingers tightened audibly around the steering wheel.
Clara had been casting discrete glances in his direction since they’d been on the road, struggling to understand why his mood had darkened so much. They’d barely interacted at all, other than breathing the same air; there was nothing she could’ve done to upset him, at least nothing she could think of.
“If you’re sorry about leaving that little boy behind with Roberta, don’t be. She’ll take good care of him.” Clara waited for some sort of reaction from Jake as he guided the Jeep off a frontage road and onto a dirt driveway that disappeared over a slight hill.
Jake raised one shoulder in a minimal shrug. “He’s better off with the nurse than he is with me.”
Blatantly this time, Clara eyed him. “Is it the kid’s dad that’s bothering you—that he died?”
Finally, Jake tore his gaze from the windshield and looked at her. In the darkness, his eyes seemed empty. “No. I’m fine.”
Even with questions burning on her tongue, Clara decided it was best to let the topic go. The last thing she wanted to do was upset her Prince Charming before they’d even had the chance to get to know one another. At the rate they were going, it would be a long time before that happened, Clara thought bitterly.
She wanted to express how grateful she was to him for bringing her along, but he clearly wasn’t in the most receptive mood. Back in the hospital, she’d seen his resolve, seen the way his eyes had burned with determination to do something reckless, and a desperate fear had ignited inside of her. Clara’d all but willed him to take pity on her, to abandon his suicide mission—whatever it was—and take her somewhere safe; she’d wanted to be with him with every fiber of her being.
Although she knew what her own reasons were for wanting to leave with Jake—she was drawn to this alluring, protective man who she would willing spend the rest of her life with—she was clueless as to his reasons for changing his mind and allowing her to tag along. He didn’t seem to care that he’d found her in a psychiatric hospital; in fact, he hadn’t asked her a single question about it. To Clara, the fact that he’d been able to look past that proved there was something real and intense budding between them. They were meant to be together, and she just needed to hold on to that.
She almost smiled. What an interesting story they’d have to share with their children one day…
Clara couldn’t dismiss her curiosity about his past though, especially if his day had been anything like hers, filled with crazy murderers locked behind metal doors and rooms housing cold, dead bodies. If that was the case, it was possible that the man sitting beside her wasn’t the man he’d been yesterday. After all, he’d wanted to go to Peterson Air Force Base so badly that he’d almost refused her plea. It was her obvious fear, she thought. Her fear mixed with their simmering attraction had finally won him over.
Clara smiled inwardly. Her path had crossed with Jake’s for a reason, and now this tall, dark, and handsome stranger was taking her away from the hell she’d woken up in. It was like her own fairy tale was being written, jumping off the page, and becoming her reality, and despite her Prince Charming’s grim mood, her body was humming with giddiness. He’d proved just how noble he was when he tried to save Kyle’s father, even if he and Roberta had failed, and he’d saved her by bringing her with him, despite his initial reservations. No, Jake was the real thing, nothing like Andrew. Jake had proved he was a man of good conscience, that he was valiant, even.
Joanna could have Andrew and his mind games.
Silently, Clara chided herself for letting her thoughts run away from her. She knew it was stupid to believe in fairy tales, especially after how much trouble they’d gotten her into. But the little girl bottled up inside her still hoped, with all her might, that she could still have a shot at her own happy ending.
From the corner of her eye, Clara studied Jake’s profile. Once again, his gaze was fixated intently on what lie beyond the windshield. Strength radiated off of him in nerve-settling waves, making her feel grounded and safe.
Staring out the passenger side window, Clara watched as the tree-lined horizon brightened with the subtle glowing hue of sunrise. After a few more bumps in the road, the Jeep crawled to a stop before a small farm house, just behind what Clara assumed was a snow-blanketed sedan.
Her gaze settled on the car. It looked like it hadn’t been moved in days. Whose was it? When Clara turned to ask Jake, his eyes were no longer empty, but illuminated by the dash lights; they were dark pools of pain.
Clara’s stomach turned sour. She thought he was probably thirty or so, which meant he could have a wife…and children. Why had she not considered the possibility sooner? With a minimal sense of guilt, Clara hoped that maybe his family was dead, just like everyone else seemed to be.
Taking a deep breath, she glanced around at her surroundings while Jake sat, unmoving, beside her. There were pine trees with snow-laden branches littering the land, and she could make out what appeared to be a separate, rundown garage behind the house; it was so old, it looked close to crumbling. No wonder Jake had seemed reticent to come home, Clara thought. The place was depressing. Although the house seemed charming enough, snuggled in among frozen trees and a few inches of snow, the porch light revealed pieces of pale paint curling off the wood siding, giving Clara the impression that Jake’s past wasn’t one of privilege, but one of hardship and struggle.
A small smile curved her lips. It was just one more thing they had in common.
Hot, stinking breaths heaved against the left side of her face, dissolving what few pleasant thoughts she had left. Dogs. Clara didn’t do dogs. Cooper was propped up on the center console, separating her and Jake.
In silence, Jake stared at the house, completely oblivious as the Husky licked the side of her face, making her cringe, his wet nose cold against her skin. Letting out an annoyed breath, she turned away from him and tried to school her revulsion.
“Are you going inside?” Clara asked, her tone harsher than she’d intended. She wasn’t sure why Jake had needed to come back to this place, but she hoped they wouldn’t stay long. The thought of being in a house—a home—he might’ve shared with another woman made her heart seize and her blood burn.
As if her words had stirred Jake into action, he opened his door and climbed out of the Jeep before Clara could even remove her seatbelt. Cooper leapt into the driver seat, his bushy tail swatting her in the face before he, too, jumped out of the Jeep and began sniffing around in the snow.
Reaching for her own door handle, Clara briefly met Jake’s eyes from where he stood at the open door. She stilled. The way he was staring at her—inscrutable emotions shadowing his eyes and tensing his expression—made her feel uncomfortable, almost unwanted. She bristled.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he said. “You should wait out here.”
Clara didn’t know who might be waiting for him inside, but she wasn’t about to give him leeway to change his mind about her. “Do you mind if I come in to pee?” she asked. She cast her eyes downward, hoping to look timid. “I won’t get in your way.”
After a frustratingly long moment, Jake nodded and shut the driver side door.
Opening her own, Clara slid out of the passenger seat. As soon as her feet crunched down into the slushy snow and a frigid wind gusted past, she questioned her decision to leave the warm confines of the Jeep. Shivering, Clara yanked her scarf out of the backseat and wrapped herself up. She would learn nothing about Jake by waiting for him; she needed to go inside.
Brushing stray bits of dog hair off her black peacoat with one hand, Clara shut the door with the other and followed after Jake. She found it increasingly difficult to walk in the snow. How long had it been since she’d gone outside? Two weeks? Three? Being locked in the hospital hadn’t afforded her much leisure time to be out and about.
Jake, however, trudged through the snow easily, and his footsteps sounded heavy as he walked up onto the porch and stopped before the front door. He fumbled to fit his key into the lock. He was anxious, Clara realized. Something about this place unnerved him, and the realization made her uneasy, too.
When Jake finally managed to push the door open, Cooper trotted inside. Jake, however, remained at the threshold, staring into the darkness as if it housed all his demons and childhood nightmares. Clara stood behind him, waiting, wondering. After a long, deep breath, Jake took a hesitant step into the house, Clara following tentatively behind.
She knew why she was reluctant to be there, but was wary about why he was. “Is it safe?” she asked as she entered what appeared to be a haphazardly decorated living room washed in predawn light. There was a sharp, acrid scent in the air that she couldn’t place.
Jake flicked on the light switch beside the door, and the overhead light flared to life, but he stood rigid, motionless.
Taking a timid step toward him, Clara peered over Jake’s shoulder and gasped. There was a large blood stain and what appeared to be dried vomit on the hardwood floor across the room, near a hallway. “Oh my God,” she breathed. Her hand flew to her mouth. “What happened?”
Cooper began sniffing around the blood and vomit.
“Leave it, Coop,” Jake ordered, and the dog lifted his eyes to his master’s before whining and retreating down a dark hallway.
Clara could only imagine the horrifying scene that had played out in this room, and she wanted nothing more than to comfort Jake…even if she was relieved to learn whoever else had lived there was apparently dead. “What happened?” she repeated, slowly reaching for Jake’s shoulder.
Jake stepped out of her reach. “The bathroom’s in there,” he said, pointing to a closed door in the mouth of the hallway before following after Cooper. A light flicked on further down the hallway, and Clara could hear Jake rummaging around in what she assumed was probably his bedroom.
Questions mounting and bitterness sprouting from his disregard for her concern, Clara shifted her stare back down to the blood on the floor and tried to let the fact that Jake had completely ignored her roll off her back. He was obviously still coping; she would give him time to come around.
Clara listened to Jake moving around in the room down the hall while she studied the stark living room, devouring every single detail from the scant décor to furniture he’d no doubt bought at a garage sale or a thrift shop. Her gaze landed on a brown leather sectional that rested beneath a picture window, and a small, black purse—its contents sprawling out over the cushions—that was discarded there. Her eyes narrowed.
Forcing herself to look away, Clara peered around at the walls, but there was nothing of interest on them aside from three patches of paint coloring the space between the front door and the large window—one mocha, one taupe, and one that was more of a sage. There weren’t any pictures to scrutinize, nor any artwork or sports memorabilia to indicate his hobbies and interests…or hers. In fact, the room was lacking any sort of feminine touch.
Honing in on a desk situated against one of the walls across from her, Clara walked toward it; its old-fashioned charm and messiness stood out in the bachelor-esque space. Papers were strewn around on the desktop, a couple nursing textbooks were stacked to one side, and highlighters and pencils were scattered among the crumpled papers instead of inside the empty “Got Coffee?” mug that held only a single pen. The desk seemed to be the only part of the house that wasn’t meticulous—other than the blood and vomit she’d bypassed—and the only thing that had much character at all.
Nursing books? Clara looked behind her at the purse on the couch, a Coach knockoff. Jake had definitely had a woman in his life, and based on all of the evidence, Clara guessed the desk was hers.
Just as Clara looked down at the desk to study what was written on the papers—to look for a name or study the style of penmanship—Cooper scampered into the room, his nails clacking on the hardwood, making her jump.
“Stupid mutt,” Clara muttered. He trotted into the kitchen, where a half-filled food bowl awaited him beside a round dining table. Wondering if they could leave the dog behind, Clara watched as Cooper scarfed down his food. She could hear the crunch of dried kibble and the sound of the bowl clanging against the wall with each impatient bite. She wasn’t sure why the dog’s mere presence annoyed her so much, but it did. She rolled her eyes.
Hurrying back up the hallway, Jake entered the living room with two large duffel bags slung over his shoulders. “I need to grab a few more things from the garage.” His eyes darted to Clara’s, and she blushed, wondering if he could tell she’d been snooping. “I’ll be right back,” he said, dropping the bags near the front door. “There’s food in the cupboards.” He strode back into the hallway, opened a door that revealed a closet, and pulled out a canvas bag filled with more bags. “Fill these with food that won’t spoil,” he said, thrusting them at her. “There are more paper bags underneath the sink if you need them.” With that, he headed through the kitchen and out a side door, leaving Clara standing by the closet with the canvas bags balled up in her arms.
She definitely wanted Jake to think she was useful, so she went to work, filling the bags with as much food as possible. After stocking them with granola bars, beef jerky, crackers, an almost empty bag of trail mix, a few plastic cups, bowls and spoons, cans of soup, and several bags of chips, Clara grabbed the few apples and oranges that were sitting in a fruit bowl on the counter, stuck them in one of the bags, and left everything on the kitchen table. With a sigh, she headed into the bathroom since she’d use it as her excuse for following him into the house to begin with.
The moment she flicked on the bathroom light, Clara’s eyes found and lingered on the two toothbrushes in the holder. Closing and locking the bathroom door behind her, she tried not to feel angry or hurt, but it was impossible. She pictured Jake standing in the tight confines of the bathroom, his arm brushing against a woman’s as he stood beside her…washing up before they crawled in bed together for the night.
Unbidden, an image of Joanna flashed through Clara’s mind, and she momentarily saw red. Realizing there was no possible way Joanna could’ve known Jake, that she could’ve been in any part of his life, Clara rolled her eyes at her own ridiculousness and went about her business.
When she was finished, she washed her hands and face, then took a long, scrutinizing look at herself in the mirror. She stared into her shadowed, blue eyes, wondering if she might look like the woman from Jake’s past. She squinted and turned her head to the side, examining her jawline and pointed nose. She wondered what Jake thought of her appearance as she ran her fingers through her long, blonde hair. Was he helping her because she looked like the other woman? Clara realized that must be it. Why else would he keep his distance but be unable to let her go at the same time?
It was all starting to make sense—the conflicted cast to Jake’s eyes, his hesitation. Clara wondered what else might be storming behind his intense gaze and quiet manner.
With a sigh and a promise that, one day soon, she would ask Jake all of her questions, Clara flicked off the bathroom light and opened the door. The living room was silent, meaning Jake was still in the garage. Unable to resist the temptation, Clara took the opportunity to explore the rest of the house.
She took a few quick steps further down the hall and stopped in the doorway to the room Jake had been banging around in earlier. Switching on the light, she noted that the bedroom was in disarray, but after all the drawer-slamming she’d heard, she wasn’t surprised. What did surprise her—and fill her with relief—was the lack of anything feminine in the small space. The dresser drawers were open, but all Clara saw were white t-shirts and a lot of neutral-colored long sleeve shirts. There were no pictures or jewelry boxes resting on top of the dresser, no photos hanging on the walls or decorative pillows on the bed, and the nightstand had only a glass of water and an alarm clock. There was nothing to make Clara think that Jake had shared this room with a woman.
Her heart lightened.
Turning off the light, she backtracked up the hall, stopping in a different doorway. With another flick of a switch, the room was illuminated, and Clara finally began to understand. Jake hadn’t lived with a spouse, but perhaps a roommate or sister. The bedroom was messy but feminine. A Queen bed was situated in one corner, a comforter balled up on top, and textbooks and tissues were scattered on the floor. Framed, scenic photographs, brightly colored painted canvases, and corkboards cluttered with scraps of paper and magazine cut outs decorated the walls around the room.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” Jake said from behind her.
Clara startled. “Is this your sister’s room?” she asked, standing in the center. She hadn’t even realized she’d entered it.
Jake stared at Clara, giving her a quick nod before turning and leaving the room. “Come on,” he said from the hallway. “It’s time to go.”
She could tell he was trying to control his temper. The chill in his voice sounded more like hurt and sadness than anger, and she suddenly felt horrible for snooping—relieved the woman was his sister, but horrible, too.
Hurrying after him, Clara entered the living room.
Jake wasted no time in handing her a few of the food bags and nodding to the open front door. “We’ll put as much as we can in the back of the Jeep, but it’s getting full.”
Clara lugged one of the bags up onto her shoulder. “Can I help you pack anything else?”
Jake shook his head. “I’ve already put as much fuel as I could find in the back.” He scanned the living room and kitchen. “We should have enough food to last until we get to Indiana.”
“What’s in Indiana?” Clara asked, heaving another bag of food onto her other shoulder.
As Jake stared at her, his face softened, just a little. “A safe place, I hope.”
It was still night as Jake drove through the flatlands of the Missouri countryside, Cooper curled up in the back of the Jeep and Clara asleep in the passenger seat. Only the static of the radio interrupted his renegade thoughts now and again.
How had it come to this, making a mad dash for Joe’s with a stranger? He still wasn’t clear on how many days had passed since his sister killed herself. The blood stains on the floor had been the only trace of Becca…the only sign that his worst nightmare had actually been reality. Now he was driving away from Colorado—away from Gabe—and Jake knew he’d never discover the truth. He’d never know why any of it had happened. He wasn’t even sure if Gabe was still alive. He wasn’t even sure if he cared.
Glancing over at Clara, Jake felt lost. Her head rested against the window, and she looked almost angelic in her sleep, but he was still wary. He hated himself for letting her convince him to abandon his vendetta against Gabe, but for some reason, he couldn’t help it. Getting Clara away from Colorado weighed on his mind…consumed him. He had to do it.
Jake took a deep breath. He knew, without a doubt, that Clara was trouble. From the first moment she peered at him with her big, blue eyes back in the hospital, looking both frightened and hopeful, he’d known. He’d found her in a psychiatric ward, for God’s sake. He’d had a plan; he’d been determined. So how had he veered so completely off track? He had his own problems to worry about, and he needed space, not someone else to look after.
Jake’s only solace in abandoning his original plan was that he was honoring his sister’s dying plea by leaving Colorado Springs. At the thought, Jake felt the tiniest spark of hope; he might even get to see Joe.
Shaking his head, Jake scrubbed one hand over his face. Regardless of whether or not he would get to see the old man, Jake definitely shouldn’t have said yes to Clara. He may not have understood why he’d agreed to help her, but he had, and now he needed to figure out what to do with it.
With a loud yawn, Cooper stretched in the backseat and perched his front paws up on the center console. Jake patted the dog’s head absentmindedly, glancing into the rearview mirror to see if there were any other drivers on the road behind him. It had been over an hour since he’d passed another car, and almost an entire day before that. He and Clara had only stopped in a town once, to use the bathroom and syphon more fuel. They’d watched three men run into a department store, closely followed by the sounds of gunshots and shouting, and from then on, he’d stayed away from heavily populated areas. People weren’t just dying of a virus; they were losing their goddamn minds, and much to Clara’s dismay, bathroom stops had become road-side only.
On the radio, the same broadcast looped over the airwaves for the umpteenth time, intermingled with more static and silence, and their dire situation became more and more apparent. Other than Clara and his dog, Jake was completely alone. He could only hope that reclusive Joe was still alive and uninfected. As he considered the alternative, Jake swallowed back the emotion balling up in his throat.
Clara stirred and stretched in the seat beside him. “How long have I been asleep?”
Jake glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “About four hours.”
Raising his head, Cooper licked Clara’s cheek, making her cringe. She clearly didn’t like dogs, and for some reason, the fact that she was trying to hide it made Jake want to smile.
Hesitantly, Clara reached for Jake’s forearm. “Do you want me to drive for a little while? You should probably get some rest…”
Although exhaustion had settled in his bones and had been weighing heavy on his mind for hours, Jake didn’t feel comfortable with that scenario. He wasn’t sure how comfortable he felt with Clara touching him, either. Looking at her, he shook his head. “I’ll be fine.”
Clara smiled, a sympathetic light he didn’t quite understand filling her eyes. “Are you sure?”
He looked back out at the road, and Clara removed her hand from his arm.
“There’s no more snow,” she said as she peered out the window, her gaze fixed on the SUV stopped in the opposite lane as they drove passed it.
Jake noticed the outline of the dead driver. “Not since we crossed the state line,” he said.
Clara cleared her throat then looked at him. “Do you mind if we pull over somewhere soon so I can go to the bathroom?” she asked, suddenly fidgeting in her seat; he noticed that her ankles were crossed and that she was biting her lip.
Jake fought his amusement. “Sure.” Although Clara’s fluttering lashes and demure smiles were lost upon him, she was entertaining at times, making him feel somewhat better about having her around. He rubbed his face, his mind feeling a bit hazy. He needed to get some air. “I have to refill the gas cans anyway.”
After a few more miles, Jake pulled off Interstate 60 and into a small, historic-looking town—population 11,169, according to the sign. The less people they had the chance of running into, the better, and Jake didn’t know how many more opportunities he would have to scavenge fuel.
The off-ramp spat them out next to a small shopping center at the end of a brick home and bare tree-lined suburbia. With no other cars or people in sight, Jake turned into the plaza entrance nearest a giant, unlit Shell sign and headed for the gas station situated kitty-corner to a small grocery store. Driving between the buildings when possible, Jake tried to stay out of plain sight and hoped the rumbling sound of the Jeep’s engine didn’t attract any unwanted attention.
Once in the alleyway between the grocery store and a fence lined with leafless trees, Jake parked the Jeep. “Wait here. I’m going to check everything out.”
He looked back at Cooper, scratching the dog underneath his chin, but spoke to Clara. “Do your business by the Jeep, but make sure he stays with you and get back inside and lock the doors when you’re finished.” Jake peered out at the parking lot. Without snow covering the ground and tire tracks to analyze, it was difficult to tell if anyone had been around in a while. The few cars in the lot looked like they hadn’t been moved in days; they were dirty with what Jake assumed was recently melted snow, but there was no way to be certain. All the storefronts were dark and looked empty, and they weren’t broken, making Jake feel slightly better.
“Keep the engine running, just in case,” he said, giving Cooper’s ear a quick, gentle tug.
Reaching between the center console and his seat for his handgun, Jake tentatively opened his door and climbed out. He popped the collar of his brown military style jacket to shield his neck from the cold and headed toward the edge of the fence, hoping to catch a clearer glimpse of the gas station beyond. It was quiet except for the sound of the gusting wind, and the air was so cold it burned his ears and the inside of his nose.
Glancing around furtively, Jake headed toward the grocery store. After scanning inside, seeing no movement, and deeming the coast clear, at least as far as he could tell, Jake headed back to the Jeep and grabbed two fuel cans and ten feet of tubing before setting off for the gas station to syphon as much fuel from the reservoirs as possible.
After a few minutes of fumbling with numb fingers, Jake crouched beside the cans as they filled, impatiently waiting. He regretted not grabbing any gloves from his house. But then, he’d been regretting a lot of things…
Whining recaptured his attention, and Jake looked up to find Cooper and Clara standing in front of the Jeep, waiting for him. He shook his head. He’d wanted to leave her behind with Roberta, but for some reason he couldn’t. He’d told her to wait in the Jeep when they were at his house, but she didn’t want to. He told her to wait for him in the Jeep with Cooper, but they both stood there, out in the open, watching him. Jesus Christ, Jake thought. She was going to get him killed.
Cooper whined again, his tail wagging as he fidgeted in place. Jake held out his hand, commanding the Husky to stay put, and when the gas cans were full, he removed the tubing and screwed the lids on tight before heading back to the Jeep.
Clara watched him, her eyes narrowed like she was trying to read the depths of his soul. He’d caught her watching him before, and he didn’t like it; he appreciated not knowing much about her, and her not knowing much about him. Everything would be easier that way, he kept telling himself.
“You should be inside the Jeep,” he grumbled and brushed past her as he headed for the back of the car.
“I know, but…” Clara said, trailing off.
Jake heaved the large gas cans into the back.
“Jake,” Clara whisper-screeched.
He looked up to see two people in white down jackets and gray beanies walking away from the grocery store. One of them was carrying a shotgun at their side, the other, two bags that Jake assumed were filled with groceries.
Jake shut the back of the Jeep slowly, quietly, and pulled the handgun out from his waistband. “Get inside,” he whispered vehemently, and motioned for Cooper to be quiet.
Without hesitation, she moved to do as he said, but a gust of wind slammed the door shut, catching the duo’s attention. They stopped and peered around.
Straightening, Jake clicked off the safety of his gun as two heads turned his way; an older, bearded man and a middle-aged woman stared back at him. The man, who had the shotgun clutched in his right hand, studied Jake, but he made no move to raise his gun. The woman looked frightened as she clutched the two grocery bags in her arms, her gaze skirting between Jake and the man beside her.
“We’re just here to get some fuel,” Jake said, and he relaxed his grip on his pistol. “We don’t want any trouble.”
The older man’s eyes shifted from Jake to Clara in the Jeep, studying them both. He turned to the woman beside him, murmured something, and after squeezing her hand as she reached out and gripped his arm, he looked back at Jake like he was waiting for reassurance.
Unwilling to put his gun away, Jake only nodded.
Glancing at his companion, the old man nodded to her before starting toward Jake, who did the same. They met in the middle, stopping a few feet from one another.
“Where are you from, son?” The man asked, his voice gravelly.
“Colorado, headed to Indiana. We only stopped for fuel.”
The man’s eyes darted to the Jeep once more. “Is that your girl?”
“No,” Jake said easily. “She had nowhere to go…”
The man’s eyes found Jake’s again, and Jake couldn’t help but feel like the man was waiting for Jake’s expression to give something away. But the old man surprised Jake when he said, “You look like you could use some rest, and I’d be interested to learn what the rest of the country looks like right about now.” He pointed over his shoulder. “My wife and I live in that neighborhood over there. You’re welcome to stay the night, to get some sleep and have something warm to eat before you get back on the road.”
Although Jake was apprehensive about the old man’s intentions and skeptical of his immediate trust, the fear in his wife’s eyes confirmed that she was just as leery as Jake was, making him feel a little more at ease. Besides, Jake was just as curious to learn what the couple had to say, and he knew he needed to rest if he and Clara were going to make it to Joe’s in one piece.
“That’s kind of you,” Jake said, accepting the man’s offer with a nod.
The old man mirrored Jake’s gesture and started back toward his wife. Jake watched them for a moment. The man mumbled something as he wrapped his arm around the woman’s shoulders, and soon they were walking briskly back toward the neighborhood, using the sidewalks and tree coverings to help them stay out of view.
Realizing he was shaking from the cold, Jake retreated to the Jeep and filled Clara in on his brief conversation with the man.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” she asked.
Jake shook his head. “But we could use the rest and some real food.”
When Clara’s concern didn’t lessen, he added, “The woman he’s with is just as suspicious of us as we are of them. If she’s scared…that’s a good thing.”
“Why is that a good thing?”
Jake put the Jeep in gear. “Because it means she’s not insane.”
Clara scowled. “What about the man?”
Not taking his eyes off the road as he drove out of the plaza, Jake tried to reassure her the best he could. “He seemed fine. Besides, we still have a long drive ahead of us, and they might know something that we should know, too.”
In a heavy silence, Jake guided the Jeep through the neighborhood, following the man and woman. Cars lined the street, but Jake couldn’t help but notice that only two of the brick homes on the entire block had smoke billowing from their chimneys, one of them apparently belonging to the couple.
As the man and woman entered a two story home, Jake brought the Jeep to a stop at the curb directly in front of the house and turned the engine off. He reached into one of the duffel bags and pulled out a black-handled hunting knife. Handing it to Clara, he said, “In case I read these people wrong.”
She pulled the knife out of its sheath and her eyes widened. It was small but serrated and menacing. Jake had no clue if she could or would use it, but he couldn’t send her inside empty handed. Risking his own life blindly was one thing, but hers… Although he didn’t necessarily want her there, he couldn’t ignore her safety, either.
He was about to offer her an escape plan should something happen, but he hesitated. She’d proven multiple times that she didn’t really listen to him, so he decided not to waste his breath. “Just get out of there if anything goes wrong, okay?”
Clara blinked and shook her head. “But…what about you?”
“I’ll be fine,” he promised. And, recalling the past few days of near-death experiences—specifically, the bullet that should still be in his chest—Jake thought it was probably a promise he would strangely be able to keep. Or maybe it was just that he didn’t really care… “Just make sure you get yourself out of here if things go south.”
Her brow lifted before she nodded and shoved the knife into her coat pocket.
Leaving Cooper in the Jeep, Jake peered up and down the street before he and Clara headed over to the house and up the steps; the front door creaked opened before they could even knock.
The older man poked his head out of the house and surveyed the sidewalks and road. Jake could smell smoke from a fire, and the warmth from inside grazed his face.
“Come on in,” the man said with a welcoming smile.
Noticing the man had come to the door without a weapon of any kind, Jake hesitated. Although Jake knew that he and Clara were harmless enough, the man didn’t know that, and it struck him as a bit odd that the old man wasn’t being more cautious.
Jake’s reluctance must have given him away, because the old man shook his head and pointed to his temple. “Don’t ask me how I know, but I do…you’re a good guy, and we have nothing to fear from you.”
As strange and nonchalant as that sounded, the honesty and kindness in the man’s light brown eyes persuaded Jake to believe him. And the way the man’s gaze narrowed with uncertainty on Clara set Jake even further at ease. It looked like he didn’t trust her completely, either. That, alone, told Jake he could trust the old man.
With a nod, Jake stepped inside the house, Clara following in after him. The scent of cigars mingled with the smell of the fire.
“My name’s Dale,” the old man said. He gestured to a coat rack behind the door, and Jake and Clara removed their jackets and scarves.
Relieved of his outerwear, Jake offered Dale his hand. “I’m Jake.”
“I’m Clara.” She extended her hand to Dale, as well.
Dale eyed her again before smiling and pointing over his shoulder into the living room. “Come on, my wife, Linda, has some chicken soup on the stove, and we just picked up some rolls over at the store.”
The three of them left the entryway and entered a narrow living room. Jake surveyed the home, conscientious of their surroundings. The house was small with a staircase to the right of the entryway leading up to what he assumed were the bedrooms on the second floor. The living room was filled with colonial furniture and accented with floral and lace-trimmed pillows, just what he would expect to find in an older couple’s home, and velour drapes were drawn over every window. If not for the blaze of the fire in the brick hearth in the living room and the candles lit on the dining room table in the next room over, the house would’ve been completely dark.
“I hope neither of you are claustrophobic,” Dale joked, ushering them through the living room and toward the rectangular dining room table. “We try to keep a low profile…keep everything closed up so nobody notices we’re here.”
Jake glanced over at the roaring fire, thinking of the smoke he’d seen rising from the chimney.
“Some days it’s cold enough to chance it,” Dale said in answer.
Linda set a tea kettle and mugs on the table, her eyes still held suspicion, but she ventured a warm smile nonetheless.
“You’ll have to forgive my wife’s reserve,” Dale said as he pulled out a chair for himself and sat down.
Jake stood in the living room, Clara directly beside him. Her hand wrapped around his forearm, and Jake looked down at her, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“You’re the first normal folks we’ve seen in a few days,” Linda offered.
“Dear, this is Jake and Clara. They’re from Colorado.” He met his wife’s worried eyes and gave her a reassuring smile before turning his attention back to Jake. He gestured toward the other chairs at the table “Please, have a seat, and get comfortable.”
Linda retreated to the kitchen and returned with a pot of coffee. “Coffee or tea?” she asked, holding up the coffee pot.
“Or would you care for something a bit stronger?” Dale said with a smirk and pointed to a bottle of Scotch at the far end of the table.
Jake grinned and stepped out of Clara’s hold and toward the table.
“Pour him a glass of Scotch, please, my dear.”
Jake pulled a chair out at the head of the table and sat down, the tension in his body quickly subsiding. “Thank you,” he said, glad to be putting something inside him that would calm the unease he’d been feeling ever since Becca fell ill. He accepted a highball glass from Linda and nodded his thanks.
Slowly, Clara approached the table, pulled out the chair to the left of Jake’s, and sat down.
“What would you like to drink, dear?” Linda raised her eyebrows and smiled warmly.
Clara clasped her hands in front of her. “Uh, tea, please.”
Jake could feel Clara’s ever-present gaze as it settled on him, but he kept his focus on Dale. “Other than the President’s address, there’s been no word on the radio all day,” he said, running his hand over his short hair. “You have any idea how bad things have gotten?”
Dale shook his head and laughed bitterly before holding up his coffee mug. “To sanity,” he said dryly.
Standing beside him, Linda sighed and brought her tea mug up to clank against the rest of theirs before sitting in the chair beside her husband.
With a long contemplative exhale, Dale continued, “There’s been some chatter on the radio waves every once in a while, but I can’t understand much of it.”
“What sort of chatter?” Clara asked.
Jake watched her as she carefully sipped the hot liquid from her mug, but when her eyes shifted to his, he looked away. The last thing he wanted was to encourage any sort of familiarity between them—not until he could get his brain working right and he felt in control of his life again.
Dale poured a bit of Scotch into his coffee. The moment he took a sip, he seemed to relax a little. “It’s difficult to make out. Pretty sure it’s military because a lot of what they’re saying to one another is in code. The most I could get out of it was a small band of survivors at Fort Knox.”
“More survivors,” Jake thought aloud as a sudden, hopeful thought popped into his mind. Kentucky wasn’t too far off course to Indiana, and military personnel would be able to care for Clara. He could leave her with them, then be on his way.
“Yes, it would seem so,” Dale said thoughtfully. “But other than the young man down the street, we’ve seen no other sane people in days. Luckily, we’ve been pretty well left alone in our neck of the woods, but I’m not sure how long that’ll last. People are going to get desperate, especially if winter worsens.”
Linda cleared her throat and stood. She smiled at Clara. “Do you mind helping me dish up supper in the kitchen, Clara?”
Clara’s gazed skipped to Jake’s. He wasn’t sure if she was asking his permission or if she wanted him to protest, but when he nodded, Clara rose from her seat. She followed Linda to the kitchen, glancing back at Jake and Dale before passing through the doorway and out of sight.
“Be careful with that one,” Dale warned quietly. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s not right about her.”
Jake stared into Dale’s warm eyes and nodded. He didn’t need the old man to elaborate; he knew Clara was trouble. Leaning back in his chair, Jake rubbed his hands over his face and let out an exhausted exhale. “The roads have been deserted for a good day or so. I stopped driving into cities and towns as much as possible, because unlike the roads, the cities aren’t deserted, and most of the people who’re left…” He shook his head. “Best to avoid them.”
Dale took another sip of his spiked coffee. “Mark, the man down the street, watched his girlfriend and best friend get shot dead in Branson. Apparently home was the only place he could think to go. He drove like a bat out of hell getting back, ran into my truck when he spun out coming around the corner. He was shaken up pretty bad, and he hasn’t come out of his house since. That poor boy’s going to die in there.”
Jake stared into the kitchen, listening to the sounds of Linda and Clara milling around. “So this virus nearly kills everyone and turns most of the survivors into crazed lunatics…” He shook his head and took a gulp of his Scotch. “I don’t get it.”
“The end of days,” Dale said as he stared into his mug. “I’ve always let my wife go to church and believe whatever she likes. I’ve never said much about it one way or the other. But I have to admit, I’m starting to regret not opening up the good book more than a few times in my life, especially over the past week.” He took another sip from his cup. “It makes me wonder if I shot myself in the foot not going to Sunday mass and reading what I thought was wish-wash filling the pages…it’s like I’m missing out on the bigger picture.”
Jake had no desire to get into a theological debate over the virus and whether or not God had anything to do with it. Finishing his Scotch, he reveled in the wake of warmth the liquor left behind as it coated his insides. He felt a little lighter. “I appreciate you letting us rest here, Dale, I really do. We’ll be gone first thing in the morning.”
Dale poured Jake another glass of Scotch. “It’s nice to have visitors. Who knows if we’ll ever have any again.”
Rotating his glass on the table, Jake thought about tomorrow and the day after that. The idea of spending who knew how long with Clara, facing who knew what together, was bothersome. It wasn’t that she’d done anything to upset him, at least nothing he could put his finger on, he just didn’t want the responsibility of looking after her, and he didn’t like how she made him question his instincts every time she opened her mouth.
“So,” Jake said, breaking the silence. “Do you think heading to Fort Knox is a good idea?”
Dale shrugged. “Sounds that way. But I don’t think we’ll be going there any time soon.” Dale smiled, but it didn’t touch his eyes. “I’m not a big fan of the military. It’s just engrained in me, I guess. I was bitter when they rejected me,” he said, lost in a memory. “They said asthma was one of those make-you-or-break-you deals. I refused to support them for years after that. In fact, I met Linda in a picket line speaking out against the conditions and treatment of soldiers.” He downed the last of his coffee and Scotch concoction. “I was young and stupid for most of my life it seems. There’s nothing like a global outbreak to put things in perspective.”
Unable to stomach sitting there, rehashing all their regrets, Jake stood. “I should go check on my dog,” he said. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Dale nodded, seeming to understand Jake’s withdrawal. “You’re welcome to bring the dog in; it can sleep in the entryway. It’s gonna be a cold one tonight…might even get some snow.”
“Thank you,” Jake said and retrieved his jacket, then headed out the front door. He was grateful Dale was so kind…and trusting. But he also worried for the old man and his wife; that trust might be their downfall.
After letting Cooper out to get some exercise and do his business, Jake led him back into the house. Closing the door, he told the Husky to lie down in the entryway, then removed his jacket once more. When he walked into the living room, Jake noticed that Clara and Linda were sitting down at the table, deep in conversation, Dale watching them blandly.
Jake paused, listening.
“And how long have you known each other?” Linda said with an inquisitive smile.
Clara smiled back before slurping broth from her spoon. “It’s been a while, now.”
“Well, it sounds like you two are perfect for each other, like he’s your own knight and shining armor.”
Absently tearing a piece of bread in half, Clara’s smile broadened. “I know. I don’t know what I would’ve done without him. I was barely recovered from the flu, and he was the first sane person I’d seen…it’s like it was meant to be.”
Clara’s omission of the complete truth and her sudden animation bothered Jake, and he definitely didn’t like the way she’d twisted everything into a damn fairy tale in her head. Continuing forward, he made sure his footsteps were loud and heavy, wanting the conversation to end.
Fort Knox was looking more and more convenient by the minute.
It had been almost an entire day since Clara had left Dale and Linda’s house with Jake, and he’d barely said a single word to her the entire time they’d been on the road. Jake wasn’t a talkative man to begin with, but he’d become even more tightlipped than before. Alternating between reading a magazine and sleeping hadn’t distracted Clara like she’d hoped, and her curiosity and frustration was growing in leaps and bounds.
Eyes skirting over to Jake, she appreciated the golden sheen the sinking sun cast over his contemplative face. “What’s wrong?” she asked, her tone soft and concerned. “You’ve been quiet all day. Did I do something—”
“I’m fine,” he said.
She bristled. He said that simple phrase way too often for her liking. “You don’t seem fine,” she said, this time her tone was terse and impatient. “If you don’t tell me what’s wrong, then I can’t help you…”
Jake looked away from the road to glare at her, catching her off guard. “I said ‘I’m fine’.”
Sharp irritation smoldered inside her as he returned his eyes to the road. “Will you at least tell me where we’re going?” she asked. “Or is it a secret?” If he was going to give her attitude, then she was perfectly capable of dishing it right back at him.
Resting his elbow on the door, Jake rubbed his forehead. “We’re stopping at Fort Knox. Dale said there are survivors there, and I could use a break from driving.”
“Oh.” She wasn’t sure if she was relieved to be stopping or a little let down by the idea. Stopping meant that, once again, she wouldn’t be spending quality time with him—alone.
Clara ran her fingers through her hair and heaved a sigh. She’d had a restless night at Dale and Linda’s with Jake sleeping on the couch downstairs and her futile attempt to sleep in the guest room upstairs. She hadn’t liked not having him close, and she felt like the night of separation had made Jake more irritable and impatient with her. So now, his distance, whatever the cause, was putting a wedge between them. What damage would another night like that cause? She didn’t want to lose him when they were just getting started…before they could explore a future together she knew they were destined to have.
“But…” Clara hedged. “What if they’re not the good kind of survivors?” Innocence dripped from her voice, she made sure of that. She hoped that by playing the demure damsel role he might revert back to her protective Prince Charming. So, she watched Jake’s reaction carefully and held in a victorious smile as a fleeting look of concern shadowed his rich, brown eyes and momentarily relaxed the hard set of his features.
Clearing his throat, Jake changed lanes and took the Fort Knox exit. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
That was it? That was all the reassurance he was going to give her? Her dejection solidified. “Well, as long as you’re sure,” she said with a sneer. She couldn’t help the growing suspicion that there was something else going on, something he didn’t want her to know. Whatever it was, it was pissing her off, and she was determined to figure it out. She needed Jake—she wanted him—and goddammit, they’d come this far together; she was going to have him.
Clara wanted to scream, but she folded her arms over her chest and made a point to turn her attention out her window, away from him.
“It’ll be good for us to get out of the Jeep and stretch our legs,” he said.
She detected a note of apology in his voice, and her mood immediately brightened a little at his effort. “But don’t you want to get to Joe’s? Isn’t Kentucky out of our way? We’re only a day away from Indiana.”
Jake glanced down at the folded map on his lap. “Not too far out of our way,” he said and turned onto a frontage road, his focus back on the journey instead of on her.
Of course it was.
As they drove on in silence, Clara scanned the landscape surrounding them. Whatever area they were passing through was lined with withered fields and barbed wire fences, nothing that was particularly memorable.
“Who do you think will be there?” Clara asked. She spotted what appeared to be a book lying on the pavement, and she straightened in her seat. As they drew nearer, she noticed the gold embossed vines on the cover and wondered if it was a book of fairy tales or—
With barely a thump, the Jeep drove over the book. Clara glowered at Jake only to find that he was completely oblivious. Feeling another beat of annoyance, she returned her gaze out the window.
Steadying her voice, she ventured to start another conversation, “Do you think there will be a lot of people—survivors, I mean?” When Jake didn’t answer her again, she shifted in her seat to look at him again, expectant.
He glanced in the rearview mirror, his eyes jetting to her then back out at the road in front of them. “I don’t know, Clara. Maybe.” He was clearly distracted.
Turning back to the passenger window, Clara rolled her eyes. Never mind, she thought. She’d just wait and see.
The nearer the Jeep drew to the military base, the more thankful Clara was that they were stopping to take a break. She was trying to be agreeable; she was holding her tongue and doing her best to keep her emotions at bay—two things she’d never been very good at—but Jake was being difficult. They could stand to put some space between them; she needed to clear her head, at least for a little while.
From the corner of her eye, Clara noticed Jake yawn and rub the back of his neck. Unsure why she hadn’t thought of it before, she wondered if, like her, he hadn’t slept well. It was certainly possible that he didn’t like the thought of her being so far away from him, either. Maybe he’d been worried about her all night and was moody as a result of it. Yes, that would make perfect sense.
Clara settled in, feeling a bit lighter.
The tension filling the Jeep seemed to dissolve as they pulled through the main gate of the Fort Knox military base, the entrance flanked by two massive tanks. Slowly, they made their way around the base, Clara watching Jake as his gaze flicked ceaselessly around them.
For minutes, they found no sign of survivors. Everything was stark and dead, completely consumed by winter’s brutality. They drove past the gold vault surrounded by the chain-link fence and continued on, soon passing a couple abandoned warehouses. As they rounded a group of office buildings with broken windows, one of which appeared to have caught fire and had soot decorating the side of it, Clara noticed movement a dozen yards ahead.
Squinting, she could just make out a man in fatigues—a soldier, she assumed—standing beside a Hummer in front of an auto mechanic shop. He was smoking a cigarette, his left foot propped up on the back tire of the massive vehicle. When he noticed the Jeep coming up the road, the man’s easy expression faltered, and he stiffened, immediately picking up a rifle that had been leaning against the Hummer’s fender.
Jake slowed the Jeep, and Clara’s heart drummed wildly in her chest at the sight of the giant gun in the man’s hands.
The soldier eyed them for a moment, his cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, then waved them onward.
Jake nodded cordially at the soldier as he approached and stopped the Jeep at the mouth of a small parking lot. Clara rolled down her window as he walked over to them.
“Well, look what we got here,” the solider said, his voice gruff. “Survivors.” He must’ve noticed Clara staring at the rifle in his hand because he said, “Just for precaution, darlin’” and he nodded down at it and gave her a playful wink—there was something about the way his eyes latched onto her that made her skin prick with annoyance…and a muted sort of fear.
“We heard there were survivors on base,” Jake said, offering a reason for their unexpected arrival. “We thought we’d check it out.”
“Did ya now?” The soldier chuckled and shook his head. “Well, alrighty then.” His eyebrows rose, and he winked at Clara, again. “You’ll want to head north toward the barracks. My commanding officer’s there. He’s the one you need to talk to.”
“Thanks,” Jake said, and Clara wondered if he had noticed the way the soldier was looking at her.
As they pulled away, Clara couldn’t help but turn around. The soldier stood on the side of the road with the gun draped across his shoulders and a grin that lingered too long on his face. She was grateful when the Jeep rounded a bend and he disappeared from sight.
“I don’t like him,” she muttered, earning a questioning look from Jake. She turned around again, grateful that no one was following behind them.
Hearing movement beside her, Clara looked over at Jake. He pulled a handgun from between the center console and his seat and slid it into the back of his pants, pulling his thermal shirt over it.
“What’s that for?” she asked, dread washing over her.
“Just in case,” he said calmly, and he pointed over his shoulder into the backseat. “Grab the two knives and shotgun in the duffel next to Cooper and shove them underneath my seat.”
Clara whined and grunted as she climbed into the back, trading places momentarily with Cooper. “Why are we hiding them? Won’t they find them under the seat, anyway?”
“If they search the Jeep, they will, but it’s better to stash them out of sight than to leave them out in the open, inviting them to search us. We don’t want them to get the wrong idea.” He snapped his fingers. “In the back, Coop.”
When Clara was finished, she crawled back into the front seat and smoothed her rumpled sweatshirt, trying to look as un-mussed as possible. “If you don’t trust them, why are we going in?”
Jake glanced into the rearview mirror. “I don’t trust anyone; that doesn’t mean anything.”
A few heartbeats later, the barracks came into view. Two more soldiers were standing outside the building, apparently waiting for them.
“He must’ve radioed them,” Clara thought aloud.
A moderately attractive, older man with salt and pepper hair stood on the curb, a welcoming grin on his face, a handgun holster around his waist, and his hands resting easily on his hips. He was dressed in fatigues, as was the younger, well-built soldier standing beside him. The younger man had a blond buzz cut, which Clara randomly thought she might like to run her fingers through, but then she noticed the rifle at his side and her thoughts turned less agreeable.
The fact that everyone was armed was troublesome, but then, the world had ended for the most part, and the soldiers were probably as skeptical about strangers as she and Jake were.
Bringing the Jeep to a stop, Jake said, “Let me do the talking.” The older soldier started around the car toward the driver side window. His minion stayed on the curb, his face twisted into a scowl.
As Jake rolled down his window to speak to the approaching soldier, Clara continued to stare at the intense, glowering man. He was big and strong and had a scar over his right eyebrow, and even though he glared at them, his gaze didn’t waver, his eyebrows didn’t twitch…he hadn’t seemed to even notice Clara at all, not like the first soldier they’d talked to. She grew equal parts thwarted and intrigued.
Unbidden, her fingers moved to the door panel, and she cranked the window down slowly. Look at me, she thought. Look at me and see me.
His gaze darted to her—to her lips—and then narrowed on her eyes. Some emotion roiled in their dark depths before he looked away again, refocusing on Jake.
Uncertain if it was just luck or the fact that she’d distracted him by rolling down the window, Clara felt triumphant and had to hold back a smile.
“The name’s Jones, Captain Jones, and that grunt over there is my right hand, Bennington. And you’ve already met Taylor, down the road.”
Jake nodded to Bennington through the windshield, then held out his right hand to Jones. “Jake Vaughn,” he offered.
Jones accepted Jake’s handshake through the window frame and looked at Clara. “And who’s this?”
“This is Clara,” Jake said, looking over at her, completely missing Jones’s toothy grin. “We met in Colorado…she needed a place to go.”
That’s his explanation? Clara held her breath a moment while she counted to three, waiting for her mounting fury to subside. To distract herself, she soaked up Jones’s attention as it hung on her a moment longer than it probably should have. She was suddenly desperate to make Jake jealous.
Jones smiled at Jake. “You’re a good man, taking in a woman in need. I like you already.” He patted Jake on the shoulder. “What brings you two to Fort Knox?”
“We got word that there were survivors here,” Jake said.
“I see.” Jones eyed them both a moment, and Clara wondered what exactly he was thinking as his lips quirked up on one side.
“We haven’t seen many people since we left Missouri,” Jake explained. “We thought you all might have a little insight into what the hell’s going on.”
“Missouri,” Jones scoffed. “Now that’s as barren a place as any.” He was joking and smiling with Jake, but there was something too big about his smile, something off about the tension around his eyes. “We don’t know much of what’s going on, at least, not outside of our little paradise.”
Clara tried not to let her disgust register on her face as she scanned her surroundings. It was far from a paradise.
“Anyway,”—Jones’s palm hit the window frame with a loud clap—“you folks should come in all the same.” His gaze shifted from Jake to Clara again, studying her face. “We could probably learn a thing or two from one another…”
Although Clara felt a prick of unease in the back of her mind as Jones’s eyes lingered on her for a heartbeat too long, she also felt a thrilling sort of challenge. She wasn’t about to let some man frighten her off, especially not when she had Jake to protect her. Besides, she thought, it would be good for him to have a bit of competition. Maybe he’d stop taking her for granted and own up to his feelings…maybe he’d even express them a little.
Standing beside Jake, Clara stared up at the barracks; they were outdated and boxy and gray, looking more like a prison than a command post. Definitely not her idea of a paradise, but she was happy to be out of the Jeep and the only woman standing amongst three strapping men whose attention—mostly—was focused on her.
Although Jake had seemed reticent to park and go inside—probably because he didn’t like the way Jones had been looking at her, though Jake would never admit it—Clara had implored him to take a break and go inside; she insisted he needed to—for their safety—and it hadn’t taken long before he’d given in, leaving her to feel triumphant…again.
“This way,” Jones said as he motioned them toward the entrance. When Clara’s eyes met Jones’s, he sent her a quick wink before turning to head inside.
Without thinking, she reached out and laced her fingers through Jake’s. His hand flexed in hers, but he didn’t pull away, and the nagging uncertainty she’d been feeling around him all day instantly dissolved. She felt validated, hopeful even, knowing that her dedication to their relationship, her determination, was starting to pay off. Jake would be putty in the palm of her hand by the end of the day.
Together, they followed Jones through a large glass door that Bennington was holding open for them. They entered what appeared to be a rec room. A large, brick fireplace was inset in the far wall, couches and recliners were scattered around the open space, and a pool table was situated in the far left corner, alongside an air hockey and foosball table.
“This is the common room,” Jones said before he quickly headed through the space toward a set of open metal doors. The soles of his shoes squeaked on the polished cement flooring. “Originally, this building was used for civilian barracks, but we decided to convert it into our makeshift command post since there’s just a few of us left. We make do just fine here.”
Clara thought the light, almost melodic tone of Jones’s voice was odd, given that a little over a week ago the base had been teeming with people, but now, it was more or less empty.
“How many of you are left?” Jake asked as he and Clara entered a vacuous cafeteria behind Jones and Bennington.
Jones stopped and looked back at them, his eyes boring into Clara’s before they rested on Jake. “There are six of us,” he said, his voice suddenly flat.
Briefly, Clara’s gaze met Bennington’s before she shifted his attention away from her, leaving Clara to wonder how long he’d been staring at her. She tried to ignore her annoying mind chatter, telling her she should be fearful of this place—of these men—but she mostly felt compelled to learn more about them, to see what would unfold between Jake and the soldiers whose gazes lingered on her longer than they probably should.
“The kitchen’s back there,” Jones continued, “and there are bathrooms over there…”
Clara let Jones’s time-worn voice fade into the background as unwanted memories of her time at Pine Springs Hospital crept into her mind. This cafeteria was well lit with natural, dying sunlight that shone through the large, naked windows. But with its polished floors and white walls, it resembled the hospital’s cafeteria too much, the only notable difference being the unbarred windows. That particular fate—the one where she was a prisoner trapped within a world of clinical crazies and cut off from life, from men—made her skin crawl more than any of the leering eyes she felt on her.
“Come on,” Jones said, his voice suddenly booming. “I’m assuming you’d like some rest. I’ll show you to your sleeping quarters where you can put your things.” He turned and headed back out the open metal doors. “Our accommodations are nothing fancy, of course, but then, we’re simple men.”
“I’m not sure we’ll need to stay the night,” Jake said as he followed Bennington and Jones back out into the common room. Clara jogged to catch up, and when she reached Jake, she interlaced her fingers with his once more.
“You won’t stay, huh?” Jones said. It didn’t sound like a real question, more of a “we’ll see about that” sort of comment. Clara’s eyebrows rose.
“We need to get back on the road, soon,” Jake explained.
Clara stopped in her tracks. “I think we should stay,” she said, her eyes imploring him to give in. “You need rest, we both need rest.”
Jake frowned at her.
“You need to take a break, Jake. You said yourself we needed to stretch our legs a bit.” She let her words sink in, her eyes locked on his. “We should stay here.”
Jaw clenching, Jake said, “We’ll see,” on a heavy exhale.
Which means yes, Clara knew. She allowed herself a satisfied smile this time, but when her stare met Jones’s, Clara had a feeling her smile wasn’t as bright as his was intrigued.
Jake cleared his throat, drawing Clara and Jones’s attention back to the moment.
Clara was pleased to see the hard set of Jake’s jaw.
Jones and Bennington continued onward, Clara and Jake following behind them toward a dark and uninviting hallway with offshooting corridors.
Noticing a pair of beat up doors near the mouth of the hallway, Clara froze, leaving the others to continue forward without her. Something malevolent lurked in the rooms beyond, she could feel it prickling the backs of her arms and neck.
A rough hand gripped her upper arm. “That’s just some old storage rooms,” Jones said, his blue eyes boring into hers. “There’s no need for you to go poking around in there.” His eyes flicked to her mouth, and he licked his lips.
Clara smiled, wondering what she might get away with if she’d met this man in another life. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said deliberately and glanced down at his fingers. “Let go of my arm, please.”
Jones’s thumb brushed over her arm as he considered something, then he released her. “My apologies,” he said, inclining his head.
Clearing his throat, he strode over to join Bennington and Jake as Bennington opened a dormitory door down the hall. “This will be your room,” Jones said. “Should you decide to stay, of course.” Jake opened his mouth to say something, but Jones spoke over him. “Now, let’s have a drink, shall we?”
Clara listened to their retreating footsteps as she lingered in the shadows a moment longer, wondering what was really in the storage rooms that were clearly off limits.
“Clara?” Jake called from the common room. She thought she could hear a hint of concern in his voice.
This place was good for them, she thought happily. If nothing else, it kept Jake on his toes. “I’m coming!” she chirped, offering one final glance at the closed and presumably locked doors that housed some deep, dark secret.
As Clara hurried into the common room, a slender, red-haired woman walked in through the main doors from outside. And Clara was pretty sure her heart skipped a beat. Where had she come from? Clara wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
Jones pulled the red head into his arms, causing her to shriek and drop the folded towels she’d been carrying on the floor.
Clara watched the woman’s timid gaze shift between Jones and the towels. “I’m sorry,” she said so quietly that Clara could barely hear her. “I didn’t—”
“Not to worry, my dear.” Jones’s arm tightened around the woman’s shoulders, and he pulled her closer to him, his nail beds turning white as his fingertips dug into her upper arm. “I want you to meet our guests.” He turned his attention to Jake. “This, here, is my girl, Summer.” His eyes glinted with warning. “Summer,” Jones continued, “these are our guests, Jake and Clara.”
Summer was no great beauty, but she was pretty enough, and Clara liked that Jones was marking his territory. After all, she didn’t want Jake getting any ideas.
“Aren’t you going to welcome our guests?” Jones asked the trembling woman in his arms.
Summer cringed, then smiled, her hazel eyes skirting over Jake and Clara quickly before settling on the polished cement floor. “Yes, of course,” she said, clearing her throat. “It’s nice to meet you both.”
Jake’s gaze loitered on Summer longer than Clara liked, and she felt her fingernails digging into her palms as she clenched her fists. Automatically, she reached out and took Jake’s hand again.
Summer’s eyes lifted briefly from the floor up to Clara and then to Jake.
As Clara glowered at Summer, conveying warning and her ownership of the rugged man beside her, she felt less threatened. At first glance, Summer was pretty, but she was also meek, which was more than annoying; it was pathetic. Plus, Summer’s nose was too small for her face, and the dark circles under her eyes made her appear tired and sickly. In fact, Clara thought the woman resembled a faded, wet blanket, and she suddenly felt much better. Even if Jake had felt any interest in her, it would dissolve quickly enough.
Jones closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of Summer’s hair, taking no great pains to hide his enchantment with her. “Actually, why don’t we skip that drink and call it a night,” he drawled, his eyes opening and a hungry gaze fixed on Summer’s mouth. “We’ll have the ladies cook us a big breakfast tomorrow and then we can decide what happens next. I’m sure you could use some rest.” Jones looked at Jake, who only nodded in reply, and without another word, the older man led Summer out of the room and down the hall toward the mysterious storage area. With a final glare in Jake and Clara’s direction, Bennington disappeared out the front door, leaving them to themselves.
“We should go before—”
“I told you I want to stay,” Clara said over him.
He glowered at her. “Why the hell—”
She took his hand in hers. “You need a driving break, and I want a good night’s sleep.” With him…in bed beside her, she didn’t say.
Jake studied her a moment, his brown eyes more luminous, more alive and wanting than she’d ever seen them as they flicked from her lips back up to her eyes.
Jake shook his head, his face scrunched as if he were in pain.
“See, you do need rest…I want to say, Jake,” she repeated, willing him to agree. She hoped that once again he’d see the same emotion in her that had influenced him to change his mind back at the hospital.
With another shake of his head and a despondent sigh, Jake conceded. “I don’t know why the hell I’m agreeing to this,” he muttered. “Go into your room,” he told her.
Our room, Clara wanted to correct, but she was too excited by this tone.
“Lock the door behind you, and don’t open it for anyone but me.”
“Wait, what?” Clara’s excitement vanquished, and she frantically searched Jake’s insistent gaze for answers. “Why? What are you going to do?”
Jake scanned the common room. “I’m going to figure out what the hell’s going on around here.” He looked at her. “And tomorrow, I’m leaving with or without you.”
Jake had done it again. He’d given in to Clara’s pleas and made a slew of stupid-ass decisions. What the hell was it about her that had him so mixed up all the time? And why the hell had an image of them, lying in bed together, flitted into his mind?
Jake ran a hand over his head. Dropping her off at Fort Knox had seemed like a good idea; in fact, it had sounded like an increasingly great idea the longer he was around her, feeling muddled and anxious. But from the moment he first noticed the soldiers’ ogling looks, Jake had been unable to shake a sense of irrefutable dread. Now, he was in an unfamiliar place with armed soldiers—possibly six of them—and the woman, Summer, who’d clearly been mistreated, probably abused in more ways than he’d ever know. None of which was anything he was qualified to deal with. But he also couldn’t do nothing.
After a night without an ounce of sleep, Jake sat at one of the cafeteria tables, waiting for Clara to get dressed and join him. By the time he and Cooper had returned from their reconnaissance of the base, the sun was already on the rise, and Jake was too anxious to sleep. He was going to leave today. He just needed to figure out if he was going alone. He needed to be strategic in getting Summer out of there, so not to get them all killed. Six soldiers against a single, untrained, and mostly unarmed man didn’t make for a promising outcome. Unless… Realizing he’d only seen three men, Jake wondered if Jones had been bluffing, or perhaps stretching the truth.
Jake scrubbed his hands over his face. Regardless, his weapons had been confiscated from the Jeep, so all he had left was his pistol.
Elbows on the table, he rested his head in his hands and exhaled deeply.
“Look who decided to come back,” Clara said curtly.
Jake looked up at her as she strode into the cafeteria, her gaze pinning him in place.
With a huff, she sat across the table from him and crossed her arms over her chest. “Where were you last night? I was expecting you to at least check on me, or—”
“We’re leaving,” Jake said quietly so not to be overheard. “And we’re taking Summer with us. I—”
“Jake!” Clara stood, anger burning in her bright blue eyes.
He glared at her, keeping his tone flat and deliberate. “I’m not leaving her here to be raped and beaten more than she already has been.”
Clara shook her head, and her nostrils flared a little. “It’s not your job to protect her,” she nearly snarled. “You’re supposed to protect me.”
Jake’s patience was beyond thinning. “You’re—”
“There you are,” Jones said.
Jake’s attention snapped to the cafeteria doors as Jones walked through, stretching audibly. Summer was shuffling lazily behind him, almost stumbling, like she was drunk.
In spite of the fact that Jake had never murdered anyone, he had to resist the temptation to pull out his pistol and shoot Jones right then and there for the apparent liberties he had taken with the dazed woman who had to grab onto him so not to fall over.
Chuckling as he righted Summer, Jones glanced between Jake and Clara. “Lover’s spat?”
Clara smoothed her expression. “I think we just need some breakfast.” Jake didn’t miss the glare she fixed on him, it was all but screaming.
“Yes. Breakfast…” Jones turned to Summer, about to say something when approaching footsteps echoed from the common room. “Oh, there’s my boy,” Jones said as Bennington strode in, his gaze immediately fixing on Jake.
Jake wasn’t sure why Bennington was glaring daggers in his direction, but it only increased his resolve to get away from the base as soon as possible.
Jones slapped his friend on the shoulder and nudged Summer. “Why don’t you go rouse your lovely Miss Tanya and Taylor’s little chickpea so the women can whip us up some breakfast?” he said, then he turned to Clara. “You don’t mind helping, do you?”
Jake struggled to keep any telling emotions from altering his placid expression.
“I have some questions for Jake in the meantime.” Like clockwork, another false smile broadened Jones’s lips.
A smoker’s cough emanated from the other room. “I hope you’re not starting the party without us,” a lazy voice said from the doorway. Jake glanced over to find another sorry excuse for a man, Taylor, standing at the cafeteria entrance, a rifle in his hand and a tall woman with disheveled, dirty-blonde hair leaning against the door frame beside him. She had a smear of what looked like blood on her arm.
At least three women, Jake thought. His body tensed, anger roiling inside him so violently that he had to clench his hands to keep them from shaking.
“Perfect timing,” Jones said. He was all smiles and hospitality as he pointed his chin at his comrade. His focus shifted to the woman standing in the doorway. “Stacey, would you be a darlin’ and whip us up something to eat? Our guests are hungry.”
“When we’re finished,” Taylor said, a sadistic grin encompassing his face. “I was just taking a cigarette break.” He smacked Stacey on the ass before grabbing her hand and yanking her behind him as he strode away from the cafeteria.
As soon as they were gone, Jones turned his attention back to Clara and Jake, his face a mask of patience, but the tightness of his smile made Jake think that Jones was fighting to stay in control of his temper.
Surprisingly, Jones shrugged. “Young love, what can do you do?” He turned to Summer, still wobbling beside him. “Make breakfast,” he ordered, all false kindness gone. As if he’d realized his façade was cracking, he leaned over and kissed her cheek, though she didn’t seem to register it at all. Jones glared over at Bennington. “Don’t you have a job you’re supposed to be doing?”
Bennington’s eyes narrowed infinitesimally before he turned and headed out a separate pair of doors that lead to what looked like a quad outside.
Jake stiffened. He could feel Clara’s eyes boring into him, but he didn’t care. His attention was on the soldiers, sizing them and trying to formulate a plan.
With a huff, Clara approach Summer and pointed toward the kitchen. “I’ll help you,” she bit out.
“Perfect,” Jones said, and once again he was focused on Jake. “Let’s take a walk while we wait.”
With a steadying breath, Jake followed Jones through the same glass double doors that Bennington had exited. Jake wondered if this wasn’t the perfect opportunity to shift the odds a bit more in his favor; he could take out Jones, leaving only Taylor and Bennington to deal with…assuming he was right in thinking it was the three soldiers and the three women that made up the six members of the group that Jones had referred to.
Jake’s gun was still at the small of his back if he needed it, easing his mind a little as he followed Jones.
Cooper rose from his curled position in a patch of sunlight and followed after them. As the duo and dog stepped out into a quad behind the barracks, the morning sun was nearly blinding.
“So, Bennington’s sort of a night owl,” Jones said. Jake could tell by the man’s tone that he was fishing. “Says he saw you out and about last night…late…”
Jake tried to remain unfazed as his dread thickened. He’d been so careful…
Feigning indifference, he focused on the red graffiti tagged on the brick and wood-slatted buildings that flanked either side of the quad. “Did he,” Jake said; it wasn’t a question. “Guess I couldn’t sleep.”
Jones stiffened as Cooper scampered past them, then let out a steadying breath. Jake couldn’t help but wonder if Jones was afraid of dogs.
After another deep breath, Jones placed his hands on his hips and said, “I figured as much…told him you and that tart of yours probably had a little tiff.”
They walked between two buildings and headed toward a patch of woods that fanned out around the northern perimeter of the base. The farther away they walked from the barracks, the better his chances were of killing Jones without the others immediately catching on.
Jones chuckled. “She sure does seem like a firecracker.”
“You could say that,” Jake said dryly.
“I always liked blondes,” Jones said wistfully, then shrugged. “But Summer’s a good girl.”
“Yeah, it seems like you’ve got yourself a nice set up here,” Jake said, awaiting Jones’s reaction.
“That we do.” They walked deeper into the woods, the pines thickening around them. “Especially now that it’s just me and the boys running things.” Unexpectedly, Jones halted. “Which is why you and I should clear up a few things.”
Jake glanced around, his voice bored. “And what’s that?” He took a few steps away from Jones, keeping his distance from the other man, ready to pull the cool metal gun from his waistband if Jones made even the slightest wrong move. Part of him wanted Jones to try something…to give Jake an excuse to get rid of such a worthless piece of shit.
“We’ve got a certain way of doing things around here, a pecking order if you will. Now, I told the men I thought it would be fine to check you folks out and see if we all might be a good fit—you sort of remind me of myself when I was a lad. But”—Jones shook his heads—“I can’t have you snooping around and causing problems for us.” Jones’s easy, light tone didn’t make his meaning any less threatening.
“It’s what you don’t say that worries me, son.” Jones crossed his arms over his chest again and eyed Jake carefully. “Do I have to worry about you, Jake?”
Jake shook his head. “Clara and I will be leaving after breakfast. You won’t have to worry about us at all.”
“Really?” Jones didn’t seem surprised. “Well, I think you should stay…or that she should stay.”
Jake let out a single, humorless laugh. “I bet you do. But she’s coming with me.”
Jones’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. Vaughn. I really am…” Jones turned and walked away, his hands shoved in his pockets, and he began to whistle.
Sensing that he was running out of time, Jake reached behind him, his fingers clamped around the hilt of the pistol, ready to draw and shoot, when he heard a rumbling voice floating on the air around him. The hair on the back of Jake’s neck rose.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Bennington said, his voice rumbling from somewhere within the trees. Jake couldn’t see him.
And before Jake knew what was happening, he felt a searing pain in his back and fire in his chest as a knife blade sank deep. He tried to move, tried to turn, tried to fight.
Bennington yanked the knife free and drove it home again, the blade lodging in the base of Jake’s spine. He fell to his knees, and pain and darkness washed over him.
Jake started awake. At first, all he could feel were the jagged rocks littering the ground beneath him, but feeling slowly returned to his stiff body. His bones felt frozen through and through. As he stirred, a smarting pain shot up his spine, and he winced. He struggled to remember where he was, why he was in pain, and what he was doing on the cold, hard ground. He blinked, too groggy to remember what had happened.
Distant howling roused him from confusion, and he peered out into the winter-ravaged forest surrounding him. As he scanned the gray, pre-dawn light that enshrouded the forest, his blurred memories sharpened, coming into focus.
The forest was familiar. Jake was lying in the same woods he’d been walking in…with Jones hours, maybe even days, ago.
He tried to move again, but a familiar yip and a bark resounded through the crisp air and Jake froze. His confusion gave way to understanding and then…rage. He was lying in the very place he’d been standing the moment Bennington had suddenly appeared, vicious and intent. He was lying exactly where he’d fallen after the bastard had stabbed him. The fleeting thought of how the soldier seemed to have appeared out of nowhere was unsettling.
Climbing to his feet, Jake faltered and lurched forward, cursing as he fell back onto the ground and another jolt of pain shot through his back. He reached his arm behind him, his fingers finding the hilt of the knife still protruding from his lower back.
“Bennington!” he bellowed. “You son of a bitch!” Twisting his arm further back, Jake groaned as he wrapped his fingers around the knife’s handle. Awkwardly, he struggled to pull the blade from the base of his spine as he let out a roar, his anger masking the searing pain.
The wound burned and ached, but only for a few seconds. Chest heaving, Jake tried to process what was happening to him as he brought the combat knife around, eyeing the bloody blade. How had he survived? He remembered the bullet wound. How had he survived, again? He squeezed the knife’s cool, metal handle and took a deep, fortifying breath.
Forcing himself to stand, Jake used the nearest tree for leverage and climbed to his feet. His body creaked and protested as his joints worked for the first time in…he didn’t even know how long. Irate, he threw the combat knife and it hit the ground with a muffled thud a few yards away. He instantly regretted his decision. He would need a weapon, something to protect himself with when he ran into Bennington and the others again.
Jake heard howling again and realized he needed to find Cooper before the lunatics back at base did something horrible to him. Or maybe they already had.
Taking an uneasy step toward the knife, Jake felt something hard beneath his right boot. He glanced down, spotting a metal object partially covered with withered leaves. It was a pistol—his pistol. Jerkily, he bent down and picked the gun up, the movement less excruciating than it was a few moments before.
Resolved to find Cooper, Jake checked the ammo. Satisfied the clip was still full, he held the pistol at his side and strode toward the distant barking.
“Cooper!” he called, hoping his ears weren’t deceiving him.
Like he’d only been patrolling the woods nearby, Cooper came bounding through the trees, barking excitedly as his tail whipped back and forth.
Jake squatted to rumple the dog’s scruff, the Husky licking his face and hands ecstatically. In the violet dawn, Jake noticed blood crusted on Cooper’s white muzzle.
“What’d he do to you, Coop?” Jake murmured as he searched the dog’s body for wounds. He could find none, only patches of dried blood Jake assumed belonged to someone else.
With a quick jerk, Cooper pulled away from him, whining and panting and wagging his tail as he took a few anxious steps back in the direction he’d come from. The dog gazed back at his master, clearly wanting him to follow.
“I’m comin’.” The handgun still at this side, Jake followed Cooper deeper into the trees.
With another burst of energy, Cooper trotted up to a sprawling hickory tree, barking and jumping at the base as if a toy had gotten stuck up in its outreaching limbs. But Jake’s eyes lingered on the blood staining the forest floor. After taking in the red-stained ground cover, he glanced up into the tree. Someone was up there.
In the first golden rays of sunlight, Jake noticed the outline of a person bracing himself between the trunk and a gnarled branch.
It was Bennington. He wasn’t dead, but he might as well have been. His face was mauled, barely recognizable, and his throat hissed with each shallow breath. Glancing back at the copious amounts of blood covering the ground, Jake wondered if the soldier had any blood left to lose; it was only a matter of time before he took his final breath.
Standing on hind legs with front paws braced against the tree, Cooper yipped again, trying ineffectually to get to the dying man.
“Cooper,” Jake grumbled. “Sit.”
The dog looked back at him, almost pleading, but sat down obediently with his head cocked to the side.
At the sound of Jake’s voice, Bennington’s eyes opened to slits. “You were…dead. I—I…killed…you.” he choked out, each word more of a struggle than the last.
Ignoring him, Jake glanced down at Cooper. “You did this?”
The Husky yipped, and out of the corner of his eye, Jake saw Bennington wince.
“Why’d you try to kill me?” Jake asked coolly as he looked back up at the soldier. “Why’d you stab me in the back like a coward?”
Bennington tried to speak, but all that came out was an incomprehensible gurgle.
“Never mind,” Jake said, knowing Bennington was the least of his problems. Jones and Taylor were more than likely holed-up in the barracks or still searching for Bennington since he’d clearly never made it back to the barracks, and Jake still had Clara and the three other women to worry about.
A sudden burst of panic gripped him. What had the men done to the women—to Clara—since he’d been gone?
When Jake’s eyes shifted back to Bennington, the man’s head had lolled to the side and his arms were no longer wrapped around his middle, instead hanging at his sides. Dead or just unconscious, Jake didn’t care. He was too exhausted and Bennington clearly wasn’t a threat…not anymore.
Although his pain had dissipated, Jake’s limbs were heavy and his muscles ached. And despite his intentions to head back to the barracks, his body wanted to rest a bit longer.
Feet dragging, he searched for a hidden place to sit down for a minute, a place Jones or Taylor wouldn’t stumble upon him. A bed of fallen pine needles and withered leaves collected beneath the low hanging branches of an evergreen seemed as good a place as any, and Jake lowered himself to the ground and situated himself against the base of the tree. Cooper, clearly equally exhausted, curled up beside him, his tail thumping casually.
Jake let out a deep breath and scrubbed his face. “Don’t wander off, Coop, and stay quiet,” he said. The dog’s ears angled back as he tail thumped a bit faster. “We’re just resting for a minute…” But in the midst of rallying himself to get up and head back to the barracks, the world around him faded to darkness, and Jake fell asleep.
Two days. It had been two days—well, forty-seven hours—since Clara had seen Jake or Cooper, or even Bennington, for that matter, and Clara was freaking out. Unable to sleep, she sat at the cafeteria table, the last place she’d seen Jake before she’d stormed away from him.
Jones had told her that Jake had left her behind, but she knew he wouldn’t have done that. Not after all they’d been through. He’d said he wanted to get her out of there, hadn’t he?
His Jeep was gone; she’d gone to check the instant Jones told her that he’d taken off. But, Jake was coming back, he had to. This was all part of his plan. He’d wanted to take all the women away; he wouldn’t leave them all instead.
She’d been snippy and moody with him, though. Of course, she’d thought he deserved it at the time, but when it came to Jake, Clara knew she was irrational sometimes; she couldn’t help it. But she also needed to remember that he’d been through a lot with his sister dying…he’d been doing all the driving…all the planning. He’d clearly been exhausted, and Clara regretted not giving him more space and less attitude. What if he had left her behind?
Clara squeezed her eyes shut and ran her fingers through her hair in an attempt to clear her head. Once again she’d let her emotions get her into trouble at her heart’s expense. She’d probably pissed Jake off, or even scared him away. She wanted to believe that their connection was enough to keep them together, regardless of the tension that often simmered between them. But all of that was hardly comforting when he was nowhere to be found.
“Are you alright?” Tanya asked. When Bennington didn’t come back, Tanya had come out of his room…and she hadn’t gone back in since. She let her mousey-brown hair hang in her face as she sat down beside Clara.
Clara’s regret and concern for Jake turned to annoyance. Tanya and the others were pathetic. She’d been without Jake for two days, and none of the other men had touched her. They’d wanted to, she could see it in Taylor’s eyes, in Jones’s, but they hadn’t put a finger on her.
Clara waved Tanya’s question away, focusing on the fading bruise that highlighted the woman’s right eye. “You shouldn’t let them hit you.”
Tanya cleared her throat. “Are you worried about your friend…Jake?”
Clara glared at her, irritation turning to resentment. “We’re more than friends,” she bit out. “And yes, I’m worried about him. He wouldn’t have just left me here.” She realized the truth in her words the moment she uttered them. She straightened. “Something must’ve happened to him.”
Tanya glanced to the doorway as if to make sure no one was watching them. “If he fought back, they would’ve killed him.” Tanya swallowed thickly. “That’s what they do…they probably killed him anyway.”
Clara rose, the metal feet of her chair screeching against the polished floor. “He’s not dead,” she seethed. “He protects me.” When she realized her head was shaking, she took deep breaths to calm herself down. “He can’t be dead.”
Tanya only looked at her, sympathy filling her eyes. “I hope you’re right,” she said quietly. “I really hope you’re right.”
As Clara felt the need to hit someone, her vision became splotchy and her fists clenched. “Shut up!” she shouted, banging her fist on the tabletop. “You don’t know what he’s capable of. He tried to save a boy and his father…he rescued me. He wouldn’t leave me behind. He would never leave me behind.”
“Leaving you is different than dy—”
“Don’t say it,” Clara warned. Tanya looked like a drowned rat, wearing clothes that were too large for her emaciated frame. “He’s not as pathetic as you are,” Clara said. “He can defend himself.”
Smoothing her sweatshirt, Clara sat back down and scooted her chair closer to the table. “I’m sorry,” she whispered as she tried to reel in her emotions. “It’s just…you don’t understand. You don’t know Jake. We’re meant to be together, and Jones or Taylor or Bennington won’t change that—not after all we’ve been through.”
A wistful sigh escaped Tanya. “I used to have someone I felt that way about.”
Clara eyed her. She had a hard time picturing Tanya in any state other than a despondent heap of patheticness. “Why do you let them touch you?” she asked without thinking.
Tanya blanched and pulled her sleeves down over her bruised hands.
Clara felt disgusted. “Don’t you even put up a fight?”
“I used to.” Tanya stared blankly at the tabletop. “But it’s pointless now.”
“They’ll never touch me,” Clara spat. “Jake would kill them. I would kill them.”
“Then you’re not as smart as I thought you were,” Tanya said.
It was Clara who blanched this time. “Excuse me?”
“You’re no different from any of us.”
Eyes narrowed, Clara said, “They will not touch me.”
“And how can you be so sure?”
“I just…know.” Clara felt her brow furrow. She wasn’t exactly sure how she knew, but she did.
“Really? And if they did decide to do something, do you think it would be easy to overpower a crazed man? Three crazed men?” Tanya rose from her chair. “You’re stupid if you think you’re stronger than them. Don’t you dare judge me!”
Clara felt the color drain from her face, and remorse filled her. Regardless of how much she believed the men wouldn’t touch her, she knew it would be difficult to stop them if they tried. “You’re right,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said that. I know I haven’t—”
“No,” Tanya said bitterly, “you haven’t.” She sat back down. “Can we please talk about something else. My sister’s”—she swallowed—“indisposed at the moment, and Stacey’s with Taylor. I don’t want to go back to his bedroom…to wait.”
Clara eyed her. She was reluctant to ask, but couldn’t help herself. “Wait for what?”
“For Bennington to come back,” she said.
A long, depressing silence hung between them for a few breaths, then a few more. “I won’t let them touch you anymore,” Clara swore. “We’ll figure something out.”
Tanya shrugged. “If I’m lucky, your Jake killed Bennington, and that’s one less problem we have to deal with.”
Clara liked the pleasure that thought provoked. “When Jake gets back”—Clara eyed Tanya—“and he will come back, he’ll take care of Jones and Taylor, I promise you that. He’s probably somewhere coming up with a plan right now…he said so himself before—well, before he disappeared.”
“You think so?” The hopeful lilt of Tanya’s voice was nearly heartbreaking.
Clara nodded. “I do.” She wrapped her arm around the slender woman’s shoulders.
Tanya flinched at the gesture, but when Clara showed no sign of intending to hurt her, Tanya’s eyes filled with tears, and she started to cry.
Clara held Tanya more tightly against her. “I really do,” she said. Fairy tales always had a way of working themselves out. She just needed to remember that. “We’ll make them pay for what they’ve done to you,” she whispered. “It always works out that way…”
The next day, Clara found herself once again sitting at a cafeteria table with Tanya. They’d been up all night, exchanging stories about what had happened over the past couple weeks. Tanya, slowly but surely, filling Clara in on life at the base.
At first, when people started dying, there’d been order and safety. The ranking officers quarantined the sick and made sure everyone was taken care of…protected against those who started going mad.
“My husband didn’t last long…he was one of the first to go, in fact. I was destroyed, utterly lost to sadness…until one day, Summer brought me out of it. She told me how lucky we were to have one another…” Tanya stared out the glass double doors into the baleful afternoon. “But by the time I snapped out of my depression, things had gotten so much worse. The officer in charge had died, and Jones had taken it upon himself to make some changes. He was suddenly in charge, but I’d never seen him until he started ordering the remaining few people around. He brought in Taylor and Bennington the next day, they were stationed on a different area of the base, at least that’s what I was told.”
Clara sighed heavily and strummed her fingers on the tabletop. “You probably shouldn’t be telling me this,” she said absently, sort of bored in fact. “He’ll probably punish you.”
When Tanya said nothing, Clara looked at her.
Tanya shrugged, an action that had become her answer to everything. “I’m not sure I care anymore. What could be worse than this?”
Clara felt herself getting frustrated with the diminutive woman once more. “Death,” she said. “Death would be worse. Don’t you want revenge? Don’t you want them to pay for what they’ve done? If you’re dead, they win. Can’t you see that?”
Tanya shrugged again. “I’m not sure revenge is all that important when you’re already dead inside.”
Clara rolled her eyes. “Right.”
Hearing heavy footsteps in the common room, Clara and Tanya turned toward the cafeteria entrance. Taylor walked in, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and Clara cringed. His eyelids were lust-heavy, and his face rosy from exertion. Smiling, he winked at Clara and Tanya before striding over to an industrial-sized coffee pot plugged into a generator.
Upon finding the coffee pot empty, he shoved it back into its holder and turned to them, glaring at Tanya. “With Bennington out, the least you could do is make some fucking coffee,” he said, taking two intimidating steps toward them. “Is that expecting too much? Every time I walk in here, the two of you are sitting there, not doing a damn fucking thing.”
Flinching, Tanya rose and scampered into the kitchen, Taylor eyeing her as she left. Clara could hear Tanya fumbling around noisily in the other room, the clanging and banging around only heightening Clara’s already unsettled nerves.
“You,” Taylor said, drawing Clara’s gaze up to meet his. His heated stare raked over her, almost palpable, before his filmy eyes settled on her lips.
“Where’s Jake?” she blurted, ignoring her bubbling panic.
Taylor blew out a puff of smoke and made a pouty face. “Don’t you worry about him, love.” His usual, sadistic grin spread his lips. “You know, everything’s changed since you got here.” He sounded amused, rather than accusatory, making Clara instantly bristle. He took a step closer, closing the distance between them. “Suddenly Jones wants you left alone—a woman he’d normally take into his room and bend over his dresser.”
Rage boiled in Clara’s blood. “None of you will ever touch me, so get the idea out of your head,” she demanded.
“You’ve got a big mouth.” He put his cigarette out on the table top, and his eyes locked on hers.
“And you’ve got stinky breath. What’s your point?”
His smile faltered. “Too big a mouth for your own good,” he growled.
Clara raised one eyebrow in defiance, trying to ignore Taylor’s sweat-sheened skin and his glassy eyes that were zeroed in on her.
Before she could finish swallowing, his fingers wrapped around her throat. “You don’t want to know what I’ll do to you.” His voice was throaty and eager, and his grip tightened.
Clara fought back panic, fought the urge to gasp for air. A distant part of herself told her to stand her ground. “Let. Go.” She struggled to say the words, glaring into his wild, green eyes.
“Taylor,” Jones said as he marched into the cafeteria, scanning the room. “Let her go. We’ve got company.”
Clara gasped for breath the moment he dropped his hand, and she clutched her throat.
Tanya strode out of the kitchen with all the fixings to make more coffee. “You,” Jones said, pointing to her. “Get to your room. Now.” He turned to Clara, considering her for a moment before simply walking past her toward the hallway. “It’s a group this time.”
Taylor groaned. “Shit.” He glared at Clara one last time, then followed after Jones. “We should just kill them before they get a chance to—”
“Not yet,” Jones interrupted. “We’re out numbered…and they’re military.”
Taylor grumbled something as he passed through the doorway, leaving Clara and Tanya standing alone in the cafeteria once more.
“Come on,” Clara said, her breathing still a little unsteady as she motioned Tanya toward her. “It sounds like they’ll be preoccupied for a while. I need a minute to think, to figure out how to get this new group to help us without getting killed by Taylor or Jones in the process.”
Tanya accepted Clara’s outreached hand. As they walked into the common room, a slew of people shuffled in from outside. A tall, dark-skinned man with a handsome face and a kind smile nodded to Clara and Tanya, followed closely by a man in a Red Sox baseball cap, who stumbled through the threshold like he was drunk.
Great. Clara rolled her eyes and moved to push past them with Tanya in tow when she froze, dead in her tracks. A woman stood before her…long, jet-black hair and jewel-like, blue-green eyes.
Red. Red and black splotches floated around Clara’s vision, and her heartbeat thudded in her ears. A hot flash of rage flared through her, and her jaw ached as she clenched her teeth to stifle the scream welling in her throat.
Clara jumped at the sensation of cold fingertips against the back of her hand.
“Are you okay?” the woman repeated.
Clara blinked, hoping it was a nightmare she would wake up from, that she was still sitting in the Jeep with Jake—her Prince Charming, who had saved her life. But it wasn’t a nightmare. Her Prince Charming was gone, and a woman whose eyes were unnaturally bright stared back at her. Joanna was haunting her. Clara almost couldn’t breathe. “Joanna.”
The woman shook her head, her brow furrowed. “My name’s Zoe.”
Jake woke to Cooper’s tongue lapping at his cheek and dog breath assaulting his nostrils. “Jesus, Coop.” He nudged the dog aside. “We need to brush your teeth.”
The dog whimpered.
“What is it?” Jake grumbled climbing to his feet. He felt rested—a hundred times better—and he wondered how long he’d been asleep for this time. Gray clouds filled the sky once more, covering the sun, and a cold breeze rushed him from behind. It carried a scream.
Jake stiffened, and Cooper took a few anxious steps forward.
“Easy,” Jake murmured, and the Husky glanced back at him, waiting for a command. But hearing another scream, the pair were sprinting toward the cry for help.
“Go to hell!” a shrill voice spat as Jake and Cooper lurched to a stop at the edge of the clearing. He didn’t recognize the raven-haired woman struggling to free herself from Taylor’s grasp. “No!” she sobbed, fighting against him.
Jake’s body heated with rage, and his stomach churned with disgust. “Let go of her, Taylor,” he ordered.
Taylor’s hold loosened, and he glared back at Jake as the woman scrambled out of his grasp.
Jake returned the bastard’s glare, wanting to shoot him between the eyes and be done with it.
“What the hell are you doing here, Vaughn?” Taylor said, a smirk stretching across his face.
Jake ignored him and focused on the woman cowering beside a tree, her chest heaving and her chin trembling as she wiped the tears from her dirt-streaked face. She was scared, but there was a fierce determination in her eyes.
“I thought you were dead,” Taylor prompted, but Jake continued to ignore him.
He vaguely registered nodding to Cooper, before the Husky ran over to the woman. All Jake could do was stare at her—at her teal eyes.
It wasn’t possible. What Becca had said couldn’t have been…a prediction?
Taylor chortled, and Jake forced himself to refocus on the soldier leering at the woman on the ground.
“You’re a piece of shit, Taylor,” Jake said and raised his pistol, aiming it at Taylor’s chest.
“Whatcha gonna do with that gun, Jake?” Taylor sounded more amused than concerned.
No matter how crazy he was, Jake knew Taylor wasn’t stupid. He could see his finger’s twitching nervously at his side, itching to grab his own gun.
“I don’t think you have it in ya to kill someone, Jake.” He took a step forward.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Jake countered and risked another glance in the woman’s direction.
“I should’ve known we couldn’t get rid of you that easy.” Taylor spat on the ground in front of him, his tone hardening. “You’ve been causing problems since you got here.”
In the blink of an eye, Taylor’s gun was drawn and the woman was screaming. Jake pulled the trigger without hesitation, putting a bullet in Taylor’s chest.
Taylor dropped to the ground.
Taking a step forward, Jake studied the dead man. Two dead. One to go.
And as if Jones had been the last in a line-up, ready for his execution, he strode through the trees, slow and confident. “Well, well. I thought you were dead,” he said conversationally.
Jake’s eyes shifted between Jones and the black-haired woman, his mind half spinning. “I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.” He couldn’t help but assess her wounds. “She’ll die because of you, Jake. The woman with the long black hair and teal eyes…You’ll save her, but she’ll die because of you.” Jake shook his head, refusing to believe there was any truth in his sister’s final words.
“What did you do to my man?” Jones asked, kneeling down beside Taylor’s body. He placed his fingers on the dead man’s throat. “You son of a bitch,” he bit out. “You killed him.” He shot up to his feet. “Did you kill Bennington, too?”
“That’s what I tend to do when people are trying to kill me,” Jake answered dryly.
Jones’s mouth twisted into an ugly sneer. “It’s like you’re trying to piss me off.” He reached for his gun, but Jake was quicker. He pulled the trigger, and Jones fell.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jake noticed the woman start to run away, but for some reason, when she looked back at him, she hesitated. Keep running, Jake wanted to yell, but a loud crack startled him as Jones pulled the trigger of his gun.
A bullet hit Jake in the shoulder, and he dropped to his knees in sudden agony. “Shit,” he rasped. He wasn’t sure he could die all over again.
Jones cursed in pain of his own, immediately followed by yelling and snarling and barking as Cooper attacked him.
Unaffected by Jones’s cries and pleas, Jake rallied himself to stand, to ignore the woman watching him. After a few long moments, he was on his feet, trying—and failing—not to jostle his injured shoulder. “Cooper,” he finally called, feeling a little woozy and unsteady on his feet.
Cooper relented, but as Jake struggled to control his breathing, Jones’s movements caught his attention.
Jones was reaching for a pistol lying on the ground just out of reach.
With shaking muscles, Jake took aim and shot Jones once, and then again, ensuring he was really dead before nearly collapsing against a tree.
Sobbing and face red and swollen, the woman limped over to Jake. “Oh my God,” she rasped, her hands hovering over his body as she examined him for more wounds.
Jake felt lost in the intensity of her eyes, shimmering pools of emotions he struggled to look away from. “She’ll die because of you, Jake. The woman with the long black hair and teal eyes…You’ll save her, but she’ll die because of you.”
There was no way his sister could’ve predicted the future, that Becca could possibly have known he would meet this woman. There was no way she could’ve known that he would have to save her. It was a coincidence.
The woman fussed over him, taking off her long sleeve shirt and using it to put pressure on the bloody hole in his shoulder. “What can I do?” she implored, her eyes meeting his.
Unable to process what was happening, Jake straightened. “Nothing,” he bit out and pushed her away. There was nothing she could do, unless she could bring back his dead sister to ask her what the hell was going on.
Jake wasn’t certain of much anymore, but he was certain of one thing—this woman would not die because of him.