Project Ancora goes to betas today, and I’m taking a short break from formatting to share part of it because it’s crazy exciting (the book, not the formatting. Formatting sucks).
Side note: If you’re planning to read parts 1 and 2 of the series, this chapter has spoilers. So don’t read it.
Loud tapping on the wall of his cubicle yanked Levin’s attention from the monitor. Charlie leaned through the doorway. “Hey, what are you doing tonight?”
Levin blinked away the lines of code he’d been staring at for the last several hours. “Probably just going to the gym. Why?” He spun his chair, facing his friend.
“Well,” Charlie pulled himself upright and stepped towards the desk, “Donna has this friend—”
“Nope.” Levin held up his hand. “I’m gonna stop you right there.” His phone vibrated in his pocket. He ignored it.
“Come on, man. It’s been three months. Maybe getting out there again will help you move on.”
“Are you an expert in psychology now? Please, let me know the required minimum time of grieving so I can neatly fit into everyone’s expectations.” Levin winced at his own retort. His friend was simply trying to guide him back to normalcy, whatever that looked like. “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”
Charlie shrugged. “I thought it might help.”
“Thanks, but don’t try to help me with that.” Levin felt compelled to make nice. Lately, he was more inclined to tell people to go to hell, and he didn’t want to be completely friendless. “You wanna go get some beers or something this weekend?”
“Yeah.” Charlie nodded. “Sounds good. I’m out.” He waved as he left Levin’s cubicle.
Levin shut down his computer and prepared to head home, annoyed by his own irritability. In the elevator, he remembered his phone had vibrated, and he pulled it out of his pocket. Dr. Craig’s name lit the screen, along with a simple text: Keep the names close.
A lump formed in Levin’s throat. He hadn’t heard from their former leader in months. Though Dr. Craig had alluded to someone potentially targeting Levin’s group of PRs—those like him, who were genetically engineered to survive a global disaster—he’d seen no sign of such a threat. Was this random text supposed to count as one? Why else would the old man contact him now? As he left the elevator, he texted a reply: What do you mean?
He waited several minutes, and when no response came, he pocketed the phone and headed for his car.
The timing of Dr. Craig’s message and Charlie’s offer to set him up reminded him how his life had changed all those months ago, and before he could stop them, images from that horrific day flashed in his mind.
The gun blast.
He’d gone from newly engaged to witnessing his fiancée’s murder in less than twenty-four hours.
Resisting the urge to run, he held his breath and jogged the rest of the way to his car. Yanking the door open, he collapsed into the driver’s seat.
With a shaking hand, he put the key into the ignition as he contemplated the assignment his counselor had given him. He was supposed to keep a journal. He was supposed to write in it whenever the emotions related to Maggie crept up on him.
Taking a deep breath, he willed his heart to slow. The lump in his throat grew.
Maybe the journal wasn’t such a bad idea. Why was he paying a counselor if he was planning to ignore his advice?
Levin, you understand doctor/patient confidentiality, right?
Maybe it would help if he told the guy the truth.
He made the short drive to his apartment, looking away from the Christmas decorations that insisted on assaulting his senses and focusing instead on the radio or the speedometer. He used to enjoy the bright lights and cheery music. Now, hiding in a cave until after the New Year felt like a better option.
As soon as he was in the door, he rushed to his desk and found a note pad and a pen. This time he would do it.
He wiggled the pen in his hand as Maggie’s smile and the sound of her laugh filled his memory. Would those details fade over time? Now, they were as clear as they would be had he seen her yesterday. Equally clear were the memories of her murder, how she slumped in the chair after the bullet passed through her head. How her dead eyes stared into his.
His stomach turned, and he wrote the first thing that came to mind.
It made sense to write to her. She was all he thought about when he wasn’t distracting himself with work or at the gym.
After fumbling with his words for half a page, he crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash. He’d normally eat dinner by now, but his stomach wasn’t up for it. He changed into his workout clothes and walked to the gym. The falling snow and crisp night air should have made him feel peaceful.
But it had been snowing on his first date with Maggie almost a year ago. She’d looked like an angel, with the big snowflakes landing on her brown hair.
He stopped with his hand on the gym’s door as his grief plowed into him. Running to the side of the building, he crouched against the wall next to a dumpster and took deep breaths, squeezing his eyes closed as tears escaped, mourning the woman he’d loved.
After a few minutes, he pulled himself together and entered the gym. The teenage girl checking members in at the front desk looked away when he made eye contact, apparently noticing his disheveled state, but said nothing.
Setting his bag on the counter, he retrieved his wallet. He kept his membership card tucked next to the thing he needed to see as often as possible: the note his sister, Dayla, had given him, completely covered on the back with the names and phone numbers of his Project group.
“Oh my God. Names.”
“What?” The girl held up a scanner, waiting to check him in.
“Oh.” He held up the card. “It’s nothing.”
Levin had collected the names and numbers of his siblings and friends on their last night together, the night they defeated Uriah’s band of recruits. Dr. Craig had put him in the position of his group’s protector, and should they be threatened again, it was up to him to get everyone to safety.
Why would Dr. Craig send a message about the note now? Especially one so cryptic?
How are you doing this fine evening?
Dante’s instant message popped up on Rana’s laptop, blocking part of her English essay. Shifting in her desk chair, she smiled. Good. Doing homework. What are you up to? She glanced around her bedroom, as if someone would bust her for chatting instead of working on her assignment.
She held her breath and waited for his reply.
I was just thinking about what you’ll be doing in three weeks.
Her eyes narrowed as she typed. Oh? And what will I be doing, exactly?
Making me the happiest man alive.
Rana laughed. No pressure or anything.
None whatsoever. All you have to do is be you.
She sighed. That I think I can handle. Is it weird that I’m looking forward to the week after Christmas more than Christmas itself?
Not weird at all. I feel the same way. I can’t wait to give you your present.
Is it a pony? She sat back and smirked.
His response took a bit longer to appear this time. Crap. Now I have to exchange it.
She laughed again.
“I’ve never seen anyone smile at a computer that much.” Jacey’s voice permeated the silence. Her friend stood in the bedroom doorway, holding a box of art supplies and a giant drawing pad. She had her short, blonde hair done up in pigtails tonight.
Rana kept her smile. She wasn’t surprised at Jacey’s sudden appearance. Rana’s house was like a second home to Jacey, and knocking on doors and waiting on porches were long-abandoned formalities.
“It’s not nice to sneak up on people.” Rana turned back to the screen to see if Dante had replied. Jacey peered over her shoulder.
Just having you here will be enough for both occasions.
“Ugh.” Jacey groaned. “Is this guy for real?”
“Yeah, I promise. Hold on a sec.” Rana typed a response. I have to go. Jacey’s here. We have to work on a project together.
“Really? Have to?” Jacey put her hand on her hip.
Okay. Can’t wait to talk to you again. Good night.
Good night. See you soon.
“What, he doesn’t tell you he loves you?” Jacey plopped onto the bed, setting the drawing pad next to her.
Heat rushed to Rana’s face. “We haven’t gone there yet.” She moved to her bed, sitting across from Jacey.
“I don’t get it. You guys decided to date the last night you saw each other, and now it’s just the long-distance thing? How well can you know someone without seeing them?”
Rana shrugged. “I guess we didn’t have anything from before to miss. We’ve been able to learn about each other without…” She blushed again. “Without the physical distractions.” She thought back to the emails, the texting, and the long phone conversations that seemed to last only minutes. Building a relationship over seven hundred miles worked for them. She felt like she knew him completely.
“Oh? And what will happen after this little visit you’re planning?”
“I guess we’ll have to see how it goes when we’re together.” She bit her lip with anticipation.
“I love this. You know, you never told me what he looks like. And since you all swore off social networking, I can’t spy on him.”
Rana grabbed the supplies kit and popped it open. “We should get started on this project. You teaching me art could take all night.”
“Stop dodging.” Jacey snatched away the kit and glared.
Rana glared back. “Fine.” She retrieved her phone from her desk, scrolled through the few pictures Dante’s sister had sent and settled on a candid shot of Dante’s profile. He appeared to be laughing; Destiny had said he’d been chatting with Rana at the time. Warmth filled her as she took in his details again: his shoulder-length black hair draped the side of his face, and his bright teeth contrasted against his tan skin. She admired the picture for a few seconds before handing the phone off to Jacey.
Jacey’s eyes widened. “He’s cute!”
“Tell me about it.”
Jacey laughed. “Now, I want details. Last name, favorite animals, hobbies, everything.”
Rana grabbed the kit back and opened the giant drawing pad. “Art first. We need to get this over with.”
Jacey huffed. “Fine.” She gave instructions for the project Rana needed to complete for her English class, of all things. Rana vowed to only assign relevant projects when she became a teacher.
“How old is he?” Jacey asked as Rana completed the lines of her drawing.
“Didn’t we already have this conversation?” While Rana wanted nothing more than to talk about Dante, doing so made her impatient for the coming trip.
“No. This is the most you’ve talked about him. I’m glad I busted you chatting online.”
Rana looked up from the paper. “He turned nineteen last week.”
“And is he part of this Project group thingy you were talking about?”
Why had she told Jacey about Project Renovatio? It was something her friend could never fully understand, which happened to be the same reason she didn’t talk much about Dante before now. Telling Jacey out loud that she and her siblings were genetically engineered by a government organization was weird enough. Admitting she’d been part of a group like that made her feel like a complete outsider to the rest of the world, but Jacey hadn’t wavered in her loyalty. Maybe Rana should have given her friend more credit. “He’s obviously a part of it, or we wouldn’t have been together that last night.”
“What does he do?”
“What do you mean? For work? He’s still in school.”
“No, I mean like, his skill. You said everyone had to be good at something to beat that other group.”
“Oh, right. He’s an archer. Actually, he’s the archer. He trained all the others, including Levin.”
Rana stopped drawing and imagined him standing guard over everyone in the auditorium, protecting them from Uriah’s faction despite a deep cut near his hairline that sent blood running down the side of his face. Dante had been fearless. A warrior.
“Wow, you’ve got it bad. You’re holding the pencil in mid-air.”
Rana looked at the pencil and smiled. “Yeah, I guess I do.” She drew a few more lines. “Can you do me a favor, Jace?”
“Don’t talk about the Project anymore.”
Jacey scowled. “Why not?”
“I don’t want you to be in danger just because you know about it.”
“Didn’t you beat the other group? Isn’t that why you’re here?”
Rana stopped drawing. “It’s more complicated than that. Dr. Craig made it sound like someone else, or another group or something could come after us at some point.”
“Geez.” Jacey huffed. “Maybe he could have been a little more vague.”
“Just promise you won’t talk about it, okay?” Rana leaned forward and raised her eyebrows.
Jacey didn’t answer for a moment. “Yeah. Okay. I can do that.”
“You know I never told anyone what you told me, right?”
“Yeah. I know.”
The next evening, Rana sat in the new-to-her silver Accord. She drove to her brother’s apartment, sure Levin would be off work by now. She was dying to show it off.
Using the Bluetooth, she called Levin from the driver’s seat. “Come outside.”
“Why?” His voice boomed through the car’s speakers.
“Just do it.”
“All right.” He ended the call, and her favorite Taylor Swift song resumed.
Levin’s front door opened, and Rana flashed the headlights at him twice before leaving them on to blind him. He held his hand up, shielding his eyes as he approached. She rolled down her window.
“Look what you got.” He put his arm on the door frame and the other hand on his hip as he surveyed the car. “Looks nice!”
“Thanks. Wanna go for a ride?”
“Sure. Let me get a jacket and lock up.”
She cranked up her music and played with all the dials and buttons she could find while she waited.
The passenger door opened and Levin slid into the seat. She turned on the dome light, and he scanned the interior. “I like it. Did you pay for it yourself?”
“Yep. I had some money saved from before we went to the camp, and I’ve been working long weekends since we got back.” She smiled so widely her cheeks started to hurt.
“You’re so excited. Let’s take her for a spin. It’s nice to have someone else drive for a change.” He winked.
She snapped off the light and pulled the car onto the street.
He zipped up his jacket. “Where are we going?”
“To get pie.”
“Because I can!”
Enjoying the excuse to drive, she purposely headed to a diner thirty minutes away. Levin asked her all sorts of questions about her car, letting her ramble for as long as she wanted.
After they ordered, Rana unrolled the napkin containing her silverware. “Are you coming over for Mom’s dinner party on Saturday?”
“Um . . .” He pursed his lips as he took off his jacket. “I don’t think so.”
“Come on. You haven’t been over to the house in ages. Dayla asked if you were out of town.”
“I know. I’ll come by soon, I promise. I don’t know if I can handle a party right now.”
She used the end of her spoon to draw small circles on the table top. “I’m not sure it will get easier if you put it off.”
“Put what off? I just prefer not to talk to lots of people these days. I think that’s allowed.”
The waitress returned to the table with their pie. Rana’s mouth watered at the sight of her slice of chocolate cream.
“Did you talk to Dante today?” Levin asked as he took a bite of Dutch apple.
“Last night, before Jacey came over to help me with my English project.”
“How’s he doing?”
Her cheeks burned.
“I wish that would stop happening.” She covered as much of her face as she could with her hand.
“Don’t count on it.” He sipped his water. “Everyone in our family does that. I was with Maggie for months before I didn’t blush all the time.”
He froze and stared at the empty space next to Rana.
“Are you okay?”
After a few seconds, he nodded. “Uh . . . yeah.” He took another bite.
He was no longer with her. Maybe a subject change would get him back. “Have you been working out more? You look, you know…” She curled her arms in front of her and scrunched her eyebrows. “More buff.”
He glanced at his bicep. “Oh. Yeah. I go to the gym almost every night after work. Pure coincidence I was home when you came by.”
“Any particular reason? Are you training for something?”
“It’s just to keep busy. They have martial arts training where I work out.” He cleared his throat. “Are you still emailing with Brent?”
She nodded. “He has a girlfriend now.” She worried the information would send her brother into another trance.
After a few silent moments, he asked, “What’s her name?”
She exhaled. “Erica.”
He stabbed the last bite with his fork.
“They met at his shop. He fixed her car,” she added.
“That makes sense. I know he’s not one to just approach a girl at the grocery store and start talking.”
“Be nice.” She didn’t like anyone acknowledging their half-brother’s stammer.
“I am. Just saying.”
The waitress reappeared with the check. Levin snatched it and retrieved his wallet from his pocket. “I’ll get this. Consider it celebratory dessert in honor of your new car.”
Rana smiled and said, “Thank you!” through a mouthful of pie.
He opened his wallet and fished out some bills. A folded paper stuck to one of them and fell onto the table.
“What’s that?” Rana recognized the names on the part she could see. Before he could grab it, she reached over and snatched it away.
“Rana, don’t.” He held his open hand out to her.
She glared at him and unfolded it, examining the drawings and message. “Did Dayla do this?”
He lowered his hand and grinned. “Yeah. She gave it to me the day we left the camp.”
“Long hair. That’s funny. I think you should have kept it that way.” She looked at his shortened, black, wavy hair.
“Seemed a little informal for work.”
She flipped the paper over. “What’s all this for?” Dante’s name and number were listed among the many others.
“It’s… just in case.”
“Just in case of what?”
“In case I need to reach everyone.”
“Why would you need to do that?”
He took a short breath.
Scowling, she handed him the note.
After Rana dropped Levin off at his apartment, he walked straight to his desk and found his notepad and pen.
Journaling. He could do this. The annoying envy he felt at every new relationship had to stop. He should be happy for his sister and brothers and not feel sorry for himself every time one of them managed to find someone.
He tapped his foot and wiggled his pen for several minutes.
I need to
The words were hard to form.
let you go.
His hand shook.
I wish you could show me how to do that.
He stopped writing and read the first sentence, the words catching in his throat.
“I need to let you go.”
Tossing the notepad aside, he went to the kitchen to get a drink.
Want to read more? Pre-order the book for $0.99 until release day, or if you want to read early and for free, you can still volunteer to be a beta reader! Just send me a message via the Contact Me page.