Page 54

Author: Pepper Winters


I dropped him, and he scuttled back. Hunching into a crouch, he bared the knife still red from slicing me. “You don’t stand a chance against me. I own you. Give up now and die like the traitor you are.”


I snarled, “Never.” Exploding forward, I threw away my weapons, and tackled him to the floor. We rolled and fought, grunting and growling. He struck twice with his blade, sending heat spilling down my side. I didn’t feel the pain. I didn’t acknowledge anything but the objective of killing.


“Pity you don’t have any more family, Fox. We’d make them pay for your disobedience.” He punched my jaw as we rolled. He got the upper hand and slammed my skull against the floor. Whispering in my ear, he said, “You always were a little bitch, Fox. Maybe I should fuck you and remind you of your place.”


His hand slapped my ass, and my mind stretched to breaking point.


I snapped.


I hated this man. Hated. Fucking hated.


Kill. Sever. Bleed. Devour.


In the moment of choice between stealing a life and torturing a soul free from its mortal body, I switched from human to machine. I didn’t want to dispatch him quickly. I wanted to make him pay. Pay for everything he’d done to me, to my loved ones, to countless other victims.


He would fucking pay for his trespasses and then he would burn in hell.


My mind shut down.


And I vanished into ruthless revenge.


I watched her.


From my place in the shadows, I watched the woman I wanted more than anything.


I didn’t mean to stalk her. To follow in secret and witness her private sorrow, but I couldn’t go to her. Time and time again, I tried to move my legs and walk to her, but I didn’t trust myself. I wanted to wipe away her tears, and hold her. I wanted to rock and console her, but although I’d found hope, I hadn’t found a cure.


My jaw gritted as my heart raced. Anger and frustration had replaced the iciness of the conditioning. After I’d finished with my handler and the massacre of three nights ago, I’d showered and dressed and bandaged my wounds. I’d boarded a plane and returned from frost to sunshine and hoped it was over.


Whenever I tried to recall that night, only fragments returned. I couldn’t remember in detail what happened. I remembered walking over body parts and opening the doors wide so local scavengers could clean up my mess. I remembered a red cascade of blood sluice down the drain in the shower. Some of it mine, but most of it from my handler. I remembered the stench of fear coming from a man who’d brutalized me all my life. I remembered his screams, and the blessed relief I felt as the obedience of my past slowly unbound its tight web around me.


My conditioning weakened the moment he died. It was as if the orders in my head melted from blizzard to softly falling snow, granting a reprieve from the agony of ice.


I wanted to rejoice at my newfound freedom, but then I mourned because instead of being completely unhindered, I was only marginally free. The Ghost persona hadn’t fully gone. And I grieved everything I would lose because of it.


I would never be normal. I would never be able to fully relax and sleep harmlessly beside Hazel. I would always have to monitor my thoughts and actions.


I was fucking exhausted, and there was no respite in sight.


Behind my sunglasses, and hiding place by the cafe across the road, I watched as Hazel and Clue disappeared into a second-hand shop. I hated having her out of my sight.


For three nights and two days, I followed her. I slept outside her flat in my car. I had countless conversations with her in my head. I acted out exactly how I would go to her and how I would apologise. But every scenario didn’t end well, and my confidence deserted me.


How could I say sorry for leaving when her daughter died? How could I beg forgiveness for being a man who would never be able to hold her?


So, I stayed in the dark and watched her go through the motions of life. She barely left the apartment and it gave me plenty of time to figure out how to do something—not for Hazel, but for Clara.


I used her love of horses as inspiration for her final resting place and I called the one person who I knew would execute my plan flawlessly all while being there for Zel.


When Clue answered the phone, I almost broke down and asked to talk to her. To murmur condolences and tell her how I felt, but I stayed focused and stuck to the plan. Clue had taken my offer with eager arms and within a day, she’d dragged Zel out of the house to make preparations.


With my heart racing, I charged across the street. Entering the second-hand shop, I made sure Hazel didn’t see me and ducked behind shelving groaning with knick knacks and paraphernalia. A whiff of dust and ancient belongings filled my nose.


Clue and Hazel were at the back of the shop. I moved closer, staying hidden so I could hear what they said.


“How about this one, Zelly?” Clue held up a bright pink, plastic pony with see-through wings.


Hazel smiled softly. “Yes. She always wanted a Pegasus.”


Clue laughed quietly and reached out to hug her. “That’s true.”


They clung to each other.


My heart squeezed with jealousy. I cursed the unfairness—the fucked-up mind I lived with. It should be me holding her and sharing tales of a little girl taken too soon. But I was also grateful that Clue was there for her.


The two women parted, before rummaging around in a bin full of toys. Glittery ponies, bright blue and rainbow ponies—they came out and were placed into a basket.


“You know, I bet she’s watching us right now and laughing.”


Zel looked up, her skin dull with grief. “What do you mean?”


Clue smiled. “Well, she probably has a real Pegasus and unicorn by now. And she’ll be laughing thinking how much we’re missing out on. How silly these plastic things are.” She flicked the tail of one glow in the dark horse.


Zel looked down at the yellow pony in her hands. “I like to think of her like that—surrounded by things she loves.” She sniffed, giving a watery smile. “I know I’ve had time to prepare for her passing. I know the doctors told me what to expect and what stages of grief I would go through, but nothing fully prepares you for it.”


Clue stopped rummaging and gave Zel her full attention.


“I keep thinking she’s just around the corner. I’ll see the tip of her hair disappearing around a building, or hear her voice on the breeze.” Zel’s eyes welled up and my heart shattered. “I keep hoping she’ll come bounding home from school, or trail bubble bath all over the floor.” She rubbed the centre of her chest as her voice turned thready with sadness. “I miss her so fucking much it hurts. It hurts in my head, my eyes, my back, my soul. It doesn’t matter that I know she’s in a better place. It doesn’t make it any easier knowing she’s no longer in pain.”


Her eyes met Clue’s, lost and in pain. “I don’t—don’t know how to go on.” She hiccupped as a torrent of tears flowed down her cheeks. “It’s so damn hard. So unfair to be the one left behind.”


Clue scooted closer and gathered her into a huge hug. “Aww, Zel. It’s okay.” She stroked her hair, rocking just like Zel had done when Clara died. Clue began to cry silently. Even though she cried, she never stopped being strong for her friend. “You need to give yourself permission.”


“Permission?” Zel pulled back, smashing at the tears on her cheeks.


Clue nodded. “The reason why you’re hurting is because you’re clinging to the past. You’re not ready to face a future without her. And that’s okay. It’s okay to miss her, Zelly. You’ll miss her every damn day, but you can’t forget to live either.”


She shook her head. “Clara wouldn’t want you killing yourself with grief and I don’t want it either. We both knew this was coming. You just need to find acceptance and rejoice in her life, rather than drown yourself wishing for a different outcome.”


Zel blinked, sucking in a cleansing breath. “How are you coping? You’re so strong. You’re letting me lean on you so much.”


Clue pulled away, rubbing Zel’s arms. “I have Ben when it gets too much. He’s been amazing. And even though there’ll always be a hole in my heart where Clara used to be, I can’t begrudge or scream at life for taking her. She taught me so much—she taught you so much. Hell, she even taught that asshole from Obsidian so much. Something as amazing as Clara doesn’t last long. You have to come to terms with it; otherwise you’ll never be happy again.”


Zel sniffed and anger filled her eyes, muting out the sorrow. “I can’t believe he left. He left me crying over my dead daughter and couldn’t even bring himself to stay.” Zel balled her hands, clutching the yellow horse. “Clara may have died that day, but he proved to me I can’t rely on anyone. I survived on my own and I was stupid to let him in. He made me hope. He made me rely on him. He made her death so much harder because I thought I would be able to share it with him. Find comfort together. But he was a spineless coward.”


Clue bit her lip. “Don’t judge until you know the full story, Zelly. He might have a good reason.”


Zel laughed coldly. “Of course he has a good reason. He can’t touch. And I can’t blame him. But it doesn’t mean I can forgive him. I’m done with it all. I need to say goodbye to Clara, then find a fresh start.”


I couldn’t listen anymore. I backed away feeling as if my veins were open and spewing blood. She’d flayed me open, leaving my beating heart unprotected.


She would never be able to forgive me.


“You’re not a bad man. I love you, so you can’t be a bad man.”


I earned the love of an eight-year-old, yet I couldn’t earn the love of a woman I would fucking die for.


No matter what I did, it would never be enough to repair the past and give her what she ultimately needed: a man who could hold her and fight battles on her behalf. I was a fighter. An assassin and mercenary. I could be so many things for her. I just had to figure out how to be the rest.


“Stop fighting with my mummy. I don’t want you to.”


I swore on Clara’s life I would find a way to be everything Zel needed. Every touch would still be torturous. Embraces almost a mythical dream. But it was possible, because I wouldn’t stop until I made her mine forever.


I’d done everything I could to ‘fix’ myself, but I refused to face reality. The brainwashing was too deep inside me. Too imbedded in my psyche to ever let me go. However, the intensity had faded just enough. I had more power. Power over myself. Power over my thoughts. It was a beginning.


I will find a way.


I would fucking love Hazel and share her future and be there for her always.


Fox died the night of the Russian massacre.


Roan had been reborn.


Zel wanted a fresh start.


And I knew exactly what to do to make her wish come true.


Chapter 19


I thought I had space in my heart to love two people. To share my life with another. I thought I could love another child to ultimately replace the one I lost.


I thought Roan would change—that Clara would show him a way to be human. I thought even though a tragedy had happened, I would be able to cope.


I thought so many, many things, and they all turned out to be bullshit.


Turned out my heart wasn’t a living, beating thing. It was made of concrete and lead and rock, destined to never love another or ever beat fully again.


Part of me died that day.


I wished I had died that day.


But I couldn’t.


So I kept going.


Alone.


The funeral was held on a large piece of land just outside of Sydney. I didn’t know whose property it was. All I knew was horses existed everywhere. Paints, palominos, thoroughbreds, and Arabians. Their long noses and velvet soft ears squeezed my heart until I couldn’t breathe. Clara would’ve loved it here. She would’ve hugged every horse, slept in the open fields, and begged never to leave.

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