I shook my head forcefully. “No, Ben. I won’t. I can’t… I-I can’t leave you.”

Perhaps it was just my stubbornness and wishful thinking, but I simply could not bring myself to believe that there was no other way. All my life I’d been forced to be resourceful, find ways to do things that I previously thought impossible—part of this was my mother’s influence. That was one reason I resented my father so much whenever he said he couldn’t give up his addiction. Anyone could do anything. It just took determination, perseverance… and occasionally a bit of luck.

I looked resolutely into Benjamin Novak’s piercing green eyes. The eyes of a man I was beginning to believe I couldn’t live without.

“I’m staying with you, Ben, whether you like it or not. I swear, we’re going to find a way to get you out of this mess.”

Chapter 15: Ben

River didn’t know how much her words meant to me. As I’d told her, I really had no idea if there would be a way to free myself—and what the price of that freedom might be. Nuriya had indicated to the contrary, but River’s strength at a time when I’d felt hopeless, her determination in standing by my side, even though I didn’t feel I’d done anything to deserve such loyalty… it left me speechless.

This girl left her family for me.

The idea was still inconceivable, and I realized that I found her loyalty to me frightening—the hold I seemed to have over her. I couldn’t help but feel that it would only cause her pain in the end. Because I was a runaway train. I had no idea what wreck was waiting for me right around the next corner, and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was drag River along with me.

But at least right now, it seemed that she was set in her determination to stay with me. All I could do was make sure that her stay was as painless as it could be and do all within my power to make sure she stayed safe.

Sliding my hand up her arm, I raised her sleeve to see the black tattoo still etched into her skin. I wasn’t sure who and how many of us those jinn had branded, but whoever bore the tattoo was supposed to have had it removed the moment they left the boundary—along with any other bond the jinn had formed with them in the hour they’d been trapped in The Oasis.

Since River had let go of her mother to stay behind the barrier with me, hers still remained. The first thing that I wanted to do now was remove the ugly mark—remove the burning that came with it, and the disquietingly close connection she had with the jinn. Although she wished to stay with me here, I wanted to make her as free as she could possibly be within the confines of the jinn’s rule.

I eyed River’s beautiful, innocent face once again, and although it made me ache inside, I put my focus back on the entrance to The Oasis.

“Okay,” I said, clearing my throat. “If you’re sure you’re staying, let’s go back down now.”

Reaching one arm beneath her knees and planting the other firmly around her waist, I picked her up, holding her close against me. I felt more protective of her than ever before. This girl now felt more precious to me than my own life, and if anything happened to her, I would never be able to forgive myself.

As we walked away from the edge of the boundary, across the sand back toward the trap door that led down to the atrium, I pressed my lips against her forehead and kissed her. Once. Twice. Thrice. Soft, slow, gentle kisses. As if I wanted to reassure her that I wouldn’t let her down, even though I had no such reassurance myself. Her cheek pressed against my chest, her arms wrapping around my neck. Her eyes closed tightly.

I wasn’t sure what was going through her mind in that moment, as I led her away from freedom and back toward imprisonment, but the intense expression that took over her face as she gripped me harder made it feel like she never wanted to let go of me. She hadn’t even asked me where I was going to take her now. What we were going to do next. The way she clung to me… it was as though she was just experiencing relief to be with me. No matter what pit I was about to carry her into.

Leaving the desert and climbing back down the staircase toward the uppermost level, I moved to the edge of the glass wall and peered around to see if any vampires or half-bloods had woken up since we’d been down there. Specifically, I was looking out for my cousin Jeramiah.

So far I could only make out two people—a man and a woman—sitting on a bench in the rose garden. As the woman turned her head, I realized that she was Marilyn. They were both sipping from cups of steaming liquid and talking in soft tones. I guessed that this was her boyfriend of the week. A fellow half-blood, it seemed.

I was glad that there still weren’t many people about. Although Nuriya had accepted River and me back like long-lost children, I doubted anyone else here would be pleased about our return, especially after the way we had left. Bumping into Lloyd in particular would be an uncomfortable experience.

Taking the elevator down to the ground floor, I took a deliberately wide path around where Marilyn and the man were sitting, but she must’ve sensed my footsteps, because she stood up and spotted River and me.

Her eyes widened as she stared at me. “Hey, Joseph!” she called. I winced at how loud her voice was. “You’re back.”

I found it odd that Nuriya and the jinn knew and addressed me by my real name, while the others here still apparently thought of me as Joseph. Perhaps the jinn didn’t see it as relevant information to reveal to them, but the thought that Jeramiah was living just meters above this knowledge was unnerving. Sooner or later I couldn’t help but feel he’d discover my true identity.

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