Burn for Me Page 27

“If you keep wiggling, things might get uncomfortable,” he said into my ear, his voice like a caress. “I’m doing my best, but thinking about baseball only takes you so far.”

I froze.

We lay still and quiet.

“What is that smell?” he asked.

“It’s my jeans. A bag of food court trash broke when I climbed through the Dumpster.”

A minute passed. Another.

“So,” he said. “You come here often?”

“Rogan, please stop talking.”

He chuckled again. “The air isn’t stale. We’re getting oxygen.”

He was right—the air wasn’t stale. At least we wouldn’t suffocate. Unfortunately that left all the other problems, like being buried alive and being wedged against him.

“Can you turn so you’re not pressed against me?”

“I could,” he said, his voice amused. “But then you would have to lie on top of me.”

My brain said, “NO.” My body went, “Wheee!”

I gave up and lay still.

And waited.


With tons of debris on top of us.

If something gave, we’d be crushed. I strained, listening for the slightest noise of things shifting overhead.


With our bones cracking like eggshells under the weight of stone and concrete and . . .

“Why did you enlist in the Army?”

“Simple question, but a complicated answer,” he said. “When you’re a Prime, especially an heir Prime, your life stops being your own once you graduate from college. Certain things are expected. Your specialty is predetermined by your family’s needs. It’s understood that you will complete your education, work to further the family interests, select a mate whose genetic pedigree is most likely to produce gifted children, marry, and have said children, at least one but no more than three.”

“Why not more than three?”

“Because it tends to complicate the family tree and division of assets. It’s that same old version of go to the right school, marry the right person, land the right job. Except in our cases magic dictates everything.

“The system allows for certain leeway, but not much. Instead of working on advanced weapons systems like my father, I could’ve moved into the nuclear reactor business. Instead of marrying Rynda Charles, I could’ve married her sister, or I could’ve imported a bride the way my father did.”

When we got out of here, I’d have to look up Rynda Charles just to see what she looked like.

“My course was predetermined. I was the only child and a Prime. Somewhere around my eighteenth birthday, I realized that I was burning through my free time faster than my peers. If I ever hoped to break free of my extremely comfortable gilded cage, I needed to find someone strong enough to block my family’s influence. The military fit the bill.”

My memory resurrected his words. I joined because they told me I could kill without being sent to prison and be rewarded for it. “And you got to kill people.”

“Yes. Let’s not forget that. Was your father in the military too?”

“No. Dad never went in. Military tradition in our family runs mostly through the female side.”

He was doing that thing again. I couldn’t even see his face and I knew he was doing it, that attentive focused listening, which made you want to keep talking and talking just to have the benefit of his attention. His hold shifted around me slightly, his body cradling mine. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it . . . If I concentrated on it too much, he might sense it. I still had no idea what sort of telepath he was or what abilities he had.

“You didn’t go in either,” he said.

“My father died when I was nineteen. Someone had to run the family business. My mother couldn’t do it, because . . . for various reasons. Everybody else was too young.”

“What was wrong with your father?”

Something inside me shrank, twisting into a cold, painful ball. “He had a rare form of cancer. It’s called malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor. MPNST.”

How I hated these five letters.

“He had sarcomas, malignant tumors that formed around his nerves. They were so close to his spine that the doctors couldn’t surgically take them out. When all of the traditional treatments failed, we moved onto experimental therapies. He fought for four years, but eventually it dragged him down.” And the last year had been so horrible.

“And you blame yourself?” His voice was soft.

“No. I didn’t give him cancer. I didn’t even know exactly what he was diagnosed with. I had just read a letter from his doctor I didn’t fully understand. He caught me and made me swear to not talk about it. I should’ve told my mother.”

“Why didn’t he want anyone to know?”

I sighed. “Because my father knew he was terminal and his chances of recovery were nonexistent. It was never about curing the cancer. It was about buying him a little bit more time. He knew it would come at a huge emotional and financial cost. My father always wanted to take care of the family. He . . . he weighed the costs and heartache of going through treatment against a couple years of his life and decided it wasn’t worth it. When we finally found out, my mother was so angry at him. I was angry at him. Everyone panicked. We pressured him to go into treatment.”

“Exactly what he didn’t want.” He said it as if he understood.

“Yes. We bought him three years.” There was so much more to it. My father had poured his life into building the agency. In his mind he saw it as the means to provide for us, even for our children. A family business. We’d mortgaged it to MII to get the money for the experimental therapy. By that point control of the agency had passed to me and my mother as joint owners, with me owning 75 percent of it and my mother holding a 25 percent stake. We never told my father where the money came from. It would’ve killed him faster than any cancer. There was so much guilt to go around already. We kept drenching each other with it in bucketfuls.

No matter what happened, I would keep the agency alive.

Something scratched the stone above us.

I jerked.

“Easy.” Mad Rogan pulled me closer to him, his arms shielding me.

His phone chimed.

His phone chimed! He had a signal. We couldn’t be that deep underground.

Mad Rogan swiped across it. “Yes?”

A curt female voice asked, “Major?”

“Here,” Mad Rogan said.

“Apologies for the delay, sir. We had to convince the first responders to grant us access to the scene. We’re directly above your signal. It doesn’t look too bad. You’re under two shattered columns.”

For a supposed recluse, he sure employed a lot of people, and those people spoke in very familiar tones. He hired ex-military or ex-law enforcement. Probably both.

“Did the cops get Pierce?” I asked Rogan.

“Pierce?” he asked.

“Disappeared,” the woman replied.

How could he have disappeared? He was in plain view, belching fire at a tower from the middle of an intersection, and the cops had been en route. They would’ve converged on him like a pack of wolves. How in the world did he get away?

“Permission to begin the excavation, sir?” the woman asked.

“Granted,” Rogan said.

“Stand by.”

A muted mechanical whine of some sort of motorized saw cut the quiet above us. A tiny trickle of concrete dust fell on my face. I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Well, I knew they had to come and get us eventually,” Mad Rogan said. “But you can’t say we didn’t have an awesome time.”

I rang the doorbell. “You really don’t have to wait with me.”

“I do,” Mad Rogan said. “I must deliver you to your loving mother’s arms, or she might shoot me.”

She might shoot both of us anyway. It was almost eight o’clock. It took Mad Rogan’s people over an hour to pull us out, and the police detained us for questioning for another hour. We lied. Waiting to be cut out had given us a long time to get our story straight. Neither Mad Rogan nor I was associated with Adam Pierce in any way, so we both claimed to be in the building on business. The explosion had nearly obliterated the bodies, and when I asked Mad Rogan about the fact that bullets from a gun registered to me were in the bodies and in the wreck of the lobby, he told me he would take care of it. So I didn’t mention shooting anyone, he didn’t mention slapping anyone with the door, and I learned one crucial difference between a normal person like me and a Prime. When cops called Mad Rogan “sir,” they meant it. He told them what happened and nobody doubted it. I had never been treated with deference by the police before. Today I was, simply because he was there. I wasn’t sure what to think about that.

Mad Rogan’s people had locked the jeweled ornament in a small metal case and taken it to his vault. I hadn’t fought him on it. If Adam and whoever was working with him decided they wanted it back, Mad Rogan’s private army was much better equipped to fight them off. I’d taken several pictures of it and emailed them to Bern.

The door swung open. I braced myself.

I had examined my reflection in the Range Rover’s side mirror, and I knew exactly what I looked like. The shallow knife scratch at my hairline had bled all over my face. The blood smears had combined with rock dust, black, oily soot from the explosion, and fire-retardant foam, which had dripped all over me when Mad Rogan’s people had finally pulled us out of the hole. My hair had turned into a frizzy mess, and the foam cemented it together. To top it all off, the lasagna on my pants had ripened and now emitted an odor usually emanating from day-old roadkill. I was bloody, filthy, and soot-stained, and Mad Rogan didn’t look any better.

My mother stared at me, then at Mad Rogan, then at me again.

I raised my hand. “Hi, Mom.”

“Inside,” my mother ordered. “You too.”

“He doesn’t need to come inside,” I said. I didn’t want Mad Rogan anywhere near my family.

“He’s covered in blood. At the very least, he can wash it off.”

“I’m sure he has a very nice shower at his house,” I said.

“Actually, I would be very grateful for a chance to clean up.” Mad Rogan touched his forehead. His fingers came away bloody and stained with soot. Suddenly he looked young and disarming, like one of my cousins when they were in trouble. “And a bite of food if you could spare some.” If he laid it on any thicker, he’d be ready to audition for Oliver. My mother couldn’t possibly buy this.

“You don’t even have any clean clothes.” I was grasping at straws.

“I do,” Mad Rogan said. “I always carry a change of clothes in my car.”

“Inside,” Mother said.

I knew that tone. It meant the argument was over.

I walked in. Mad Rogan got a duffel out of the Range Rover and followed me. Mother closed the door behind us. I led him through the office into the hallway. He surveyed the warehouse from left to right, starting with the media room and the kitchen; the girls’ bedrooms built on top of each other, Catalina’s painted pure white on the outside, Arabella’s charcoal and covered with her attempts at graffiti, mostly involving her name; Grandmother’s rooms, the guest suite; my bedroom and bathroom above the storage room in the corner, Mother’s suite, the boys’ rooms; and finally, the Hut of Evil. Mad Rogan’s eyes widened.

“If you harm anybody in my family, I swear I will murder you,” I told him.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

I led him to the guest suite.

It took three shampoos and a lot of scrubbing, but when I left my room, I was clean. The air smelled of bacon and pancakes. Suddenly I realized I was starving.

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