Author: Peony Black

Chapter 17

"Self-righteous little brat," Soren muttered, as soon as the sound of the departing engine thundered in the silence of the empty beach.  

Gunn turned to him with murder in his eyes.    

"What the hell just happened?"  

"Me," Soren said, with a shrug that was meant to signal defeat. "Something I should've handled better. It doesn't have anything to do with anything. It's between me and her." 

"I thought we were done playing games." Speaking pulled at the muscles in his face and jawline, and Gunn realized how tight he'd been clenching his teeth. Anger that had been simmering all along, under the exhaustion of the morning run and the constant effort of finding his footing on the ever-shifting sands he'd been walking across since the day he'd first laid eye on that goddamn army car, filled him. "I'm asking you for the last time: What. The hell. Was that?" 

 A layer of confusion fogged over Soren's already grim face.   

"Paranoid much, Cerna? What part of 'private' don't you understand? She's not the first woman to storm out of an argument."   

"Stormed out? Stella Brighton, the ice queen? Who doesn't take a breath that hasn't been planned two weeks in advance?"   

She would never storm out of an argument. Withdraw, maybe, with measured, proud steps, like an offended queen or a prowling cat.  He watched closely as Soren's expression shifted from shock to borderline desperate. "Wait. Soren, are you trying to play me here, or have you just been played?"  


"Hey! Hey," he snapped, grabbing hold of Soren's arm to stop him just as he gave to storm through the door. "It's too late. She's gone. No way you beat her into town. And if you go now, all covered in bruises and with no idea what you might be stepping into, it might do more bad than good. Think."  

"You're right." Soren shook his arm free and seemed to struggle to get a full breath. Then he glared at him. "So, you stood there doing nothing because you thought this was some conspiracy against you? Bloody motherfucking idiot!" 

"Watch it!" Gunn's nostrils flared. Soren snapped his head back and forth, exasperated.  

"Not you, Cerna. Me, all right? Me. It's all on me this time around. You're just being … you." 

The explanation somehow stirred the whirlwind of anger inside him. This whole thing was bloody hopeless. He did not need all the complications - and for what? If by some miracle he made it out of Highwater, what then? There was no possible future he could think of that didn’t involve a body bag.  

Fuck, why do I even care?  

But he did. It was crazy, absurd, but the thought of Stella Brighton walking all alone in the lair of the beast that was the Taskforce weighed heavily on him. Maybe it was all the training, the military code of belief that had been drilled into him, pressing him to prove himself in every single fight, even this disaster of an assignment he'd been strong-armed into. Or maybe some lingering trace of humanity. Or Stella Brighton, simply being her. 

"I assume she lied earlier; about food and that realtor thing."  

"No, she'll get food. And the realtor may be true," Soren said, and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "It was something we'd talked about, part of our cover. She told Marcus when we first arrived that she was looking to liquidate the General estate. That means the house, and, you know - " 

"Me," Gunn cut him off, annoyed with the other's hesitation, since that elephant had been in the room all along. "I get it. And what did you two argue about?"  

"That really was personal, Cerna. An old story going back ten years. She reacted just like she would back then, and I bought it." He sounded honest and underlined his words with a worried frown that somehow managed to irritate Gunn further. "I guess I forgot she's all grown up." 

Yeah, no contest. He could hardly imagine Stella Brighton going ten years back but he had no trouble imagining all the right ways in which she'd grown up  – yet another topic he wasn't comfortable on dwelling.  He glared at Soren.

"She did not argue with me."   

"You know how she gets," Soren said, with a shrug, and a look of surprise hidden in the depth of his black eyes.   

No, how does she get, Gunn wanted to retort, but the man was right, he already knew. She'd drawn him into this mess but fact remained she did not trust him; not even now, when it was down to either her side or Roland. It was stupid of him to expect that she might, when she'd chosen to leave even Soren in the dark. But it still stung – and surely more than it should.  

So, maybe she hadn't lied; just chosen to leave some things out. Like why she wanted so much to go into town all alone, even at the risk at having the two of them at each other's throats.    

"What else did she say, Soren?"  

"She was worried about the commission that wasn't moving forward. And the mission. That it's taking too long. And that Roland might be on to us." The man's dark eyes flared. "She might do something to speed things up. Sell this place, maybe, for whatever she can get, probably nothing at all. Then we'd have to move out of here; there'd be no reason to stay. If we move, it might draw command out."  

"You cannot sell real estate in one day," Gunn pointed out. "Consider the technicalities." 

"Fuck my life then." Soren collapsed into the grey chair and sighed, shaking his head. Then he suddenly leaned forward, a focused, urgent expression on his face. "There's something else she might be able to do in town. Pass me the touchscreen." 

Gunn reached for the touchscreen that laid forgotten on top of the counter but shook his head in denial. If Stella Brighton sought to communicate with the outer world it made far more sense for her to carry it along than leave it behind. "She knows connections in town aren't safe."  

"That's what I'm afraid of." Soren studied the device, inputting commands on the onscreen keyboard. He tapped on a few apps, dragged some others around and after what must have been the longest half-hour in Gunn’s life, he finally lifted his head to stare into nothing. His face was frozen, empty of blood.  

"Beats me how but she accessed your wall from town," he announced. "We're royally fucked here, Cerna. She just blew our cover."   



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