I whirled back toward him, confused. “The what?”
He didn’t say anything else, just strode to the door and held it open. I caught Liam watching my reaction out of the corner of my eye as he went first, but the only thing I saw as we followed Cole downstairs was his back. He kept two steps ahead of me the entire time and didn’t once turn to make sure I was still there. The unnerved feeling I had expanded into confusion as we moved through the kitchen; I could see my pale face reflected in the stainless steel surfaces as we passed by the sinks, stove, oven, and finally the pantry, until we hit the wall of metal shelves used to store pots, pans, and baking sheets.
The muscles in Cole’s arms flexed as he dragged the shelves away from the wall. The metal protested against the linoleum they’d used to tile the floor, but once the shelves were set aside, I had a clear view of what it had been hiding.
“Really?” I said, exasperated. “Another hidden door?”
Liam finally looked at me, brows lifting. “There are others?”
“It’s not hidden,” Cole said, stepping into the dark hall. He felt along the wall until the lights flickered on, revealing yet another damp, concrete tunnel. “We stopped using the space and just...left it alone. I’m thinking this will be our emergency exit. It’ll be important to make sure the kids know where it is.”
“What was it used for before?” I asked, more to fill the silence than anything. I was walking between them, eyes tracking Cole’s powerful, purposeful strides forward, the way his wide shoulders moved beneath his shirt. My mind was on Liam, though, the way frustration seemed to pour off him, clouding the air around us. He trailed behind me now, and I felt his eyes working over me as clearly as if he’d reached out and tugged my braid. Our shuffling steps and breathing echoed around us, and somehow were amplified by an unpleasant feeling that the two of them were one scathing word away from slamming each other up against the wall and beating one another senseless.
“We used it to run Op simulations, which is one reason it needs to be cleared out—any strike against a camp has to be worked through and choreographed,” Cole explained. “Then it became a kind of storage unit for all the crap we acquired over the years.”
“Fantastic,” Liam muttered. “I don’t suppose there’s anything actually useful in there?”
Cole shrugged. “Guess you’re going to find out, baby brother.”
In response, Liam only grunted.
I reached back, slowing my steps, suddenly unable to escape the thought that it was me he was angriest at—that Liam would feel like I hadn’t stood up for him enough upstairs, that not telling him about Cole’s and my plan had hurt him more deeply than I’d expected. I reached back for his hand, wanting the security of his touch, to comfort him, apologize, to just...be, and be with him next to me. I hadn’t even looked to see that he was okay; he was mentally banged up now, but I hadn’t checked for bruises, bumps, cuts.
And...nothing. My hand hung in the cold air. Nothing. God, he was mad, furious maybe. A painful knot formed in my chest and I pulled my hand back, drawing it closer to my side in a last-ditch effort to protect myself from the raw feeling of rejection.
Liam caught my fingers, but instead of weaving his through mine, he pressed a kiss there and crossed the last two steps between us so we could walk next to each other. He looped an arm over my shoulder and didn’t pull away when I stepped in closer to his side. I ran my hand along his back, up and down, up and down, until I felt the tight muscles there ease. When he looked down at me, his expression had softened enough that I felt the sudden urge to stand on my toes and press a soft, quick kiss to his jaw. So I did. He ducked his head, trying to hide his little, pleased smile. It was the first time I felt myself relax since he came strolling back in through the tunnel.
We’re okay, I thought. This is okay.
In total, it was about a five-minute walk from one door to the other. Stairs waited for us at the other end, and I realized with a start that we were heading back aboveground. The door waiting at the top of the stairs looked to have been hammered out of solid metal, and though the door hadn’t been locked, Cole still had to drive his shoulder into it in order to get it unstuck from its frame. He stumbled in with the force of his momentum.
The smirk on Liam’s face fell away the moment we stepped inside.
It was clear we were standing in one of the nearby warehouses—one of the many identical long, white buildings that seemed a dime a dozen in this part of Lodi. It looked to be roughly the same dimensions as the Ranch, but one level, and decidedly less livable—concrete, metal rafters. Windows lined the top of the wall, coated in dust and darkened by blackout sheets. The lights hanging from the rafters sputtered to life, illuminating the towering mounds of junk piled up around us.
There were no walls or offices, let alone heat or insulation from what I could tell; it was simply an unfinished garage. There were a few actual cars inside—their stripped-down bodies, really, and all of them propped up on lifts. Liam walked toward the nearest one, crouching down to inspect the engine and innards on the floor beneath it. All of the tires and hubcaps seemed to be lining the loading-dock door, which had been secured several times over by metal chains and locks. For the most part, though, it was a bizarre assortment of things: broken bed frames, sleeping bags, bags of screws and nails. I moved to open one of the nearby garbage bags, half afraid of what I’d find inside, but it was only crumpled old clothes they’d probably ripped off from a donation drop-off.