Just one more week! It’s nearly the 30th of January and that means release day, too. I’ve given you guys a free peek at the first chapter, but here is the second one, as well.
Right now. Online. For free.
And then, next Friday, I’m going to post the third chapter too! So that’s three free chapters… and the last one on the very eve of the release!
But, of course, I must again remind you that Delivering Hope is a much better read if you’ve read both Breaking Cadence and Forgiving Zander already. And if you haven’t then you should check out my release event on Facebook or my release event on Goodreads to help shave a little bit of expense off that first book in the trilogy.
READ YESTERDAY’S FREE CHAPTER, KNOTWEED CITY LIMITS, FIRST!
Long & Winding Road
He didn’t speak about the hand holding the next morning. Neither did I. Discomfort rattled around my head. We readied ourselves, mutedly, and carried on our trek in the same direction as before, neither of us talking.
Knotweed choked everything, wrapped around other plants and bursting from what could once have been tarmac but was no more. The ground was so littered and uneven that it was hard to tell what anything in that place had ever been. An old stop sign held in the trees overhead, somehow wrenched from its foundations and dragged aloft only to be bent and warped by the surrounding plant life.
Judging from the shadows on the ground, it was about midday when we finally stopped by what appeared to be an old post box shaded in scarlet and rust. I put my hand against a tree, the bark rough below my palm.
“How much further?” I questioned, chest heaving more than I meant it to. I couldn’t be that out of shape. “We’ve been walking for ages.”
I watched his shoulders shift uncomfortably, his face turned away. He knew that I wasn’t just speaking of today. We’d been hiking for days, slowed down by the rough terrain. Every minute longer we spent meant another minute that Alex would be suffering at Xanthia’s hands. Sanderson too.
Zander knew that, so why did I feel like he was stalling us?
“It’s not too much further,” he conceded, turning so I could catch a glimpse of his eye and the hard plain of his jaw. “Maybe a day and a half. And yeah, before you say it, the car would have been quicker than walking, but we wouldn’t have been able to cut through the jungle and in the end that would have left us with the same time frame.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“I promise this is the fastest route. There’s a settlement on the other side of these trees.”
I looked away, following his hand gesture as I leaned more of my weight against the gnarled trunk. My breath still came in gusts, betraying my exhaustion. I wiped the back of my hand across my brow, sweeping away scattered droplets of sweat.
“You okay?” he asked, a quizzical eyebrow lifting. “You look a little pale.”
“Yeah. Just tired.” A frown stole across his face. I hiked my rucksack up a little higher, trying to hide the discomfort that swirled in my belly. “Sanderson said I should eat more and that would help.”
His eyes flickered to my stomach. “I think you’re eating plenty.”
Heat crawled up my neck and tipped my ears. I shifted my weight, readjusting the loose vest top to hide any semblance of a bump. Not that it mattered. He’d seen me naked far too much recently. If he thought there was something going on, then no amount of clothing alterations would hide that.
“Walking gives me an appetite,” I answered, maintaining his gaze. “Besides, my iron levels are low. The doctor reckoned that was why I kept fainting.”
His eyebrows flattened, lips a thin line as he watched me. He had to be thinking about my collapse back at the lighthouse, just in time for him to secretly rescue me. I still didn’t understand why he had saved me, though. Especially when he’d come to the city so shortly after, mind set on murdering me instead. A dull ache zinged through my head. Why did everything have to be so complicated with him?
Words spilled out before I could stop them, changing the subject and yet raising the temperature. “You said you wanted to kill me. You could have done it at the lighthouse when I passed out or you could even have left me to the Infected and the sand spider. Why didn’t you?”
He looked away, loosening the rope from his belt and recoiling it around his hands to make the loop tighter. “I could have done a lot of things differently, but I didn’t.” He glanced up, that piercing quality infecting his eyes as they bore straight through me. “Are you disappointed I didn’t? I mean, you seemed pretty hell bent on getting yourself killed back at the helicopter.”
Something else that I couldn’t or wouldn’t explain, unable to untangle the reasoning from my own head. Instead, I muttered, “You only saved me for your cure.”
Anger spread across his face like lightning, flexing through his muscles and carving deep shadows into those hard angles and plains. Words spat from his taut lips. “Do you really think if I was more concerned about a cure than you that I would agree to take you to find Alex?!”
“Well without Sanderson, you can’t make a cure anyway. So yes,” I grit. “Yes I do think so.”
“You’re impossible, Cady.” The words ground into me. Edges of disappointment clawed at his face. “And sometimes I don’t think Sanderson did start any work on a cure.”
“Then why don’t you ask me?” I snapped, feeling heat prickle my back as sweat dripped. The humidity stifled everything, clogging every inward breath. “I’m sure I remember you calling me a rubbish liar; so go ahead!”
“Well did he?!” He stepped closer, fist bunched around the length of rope. Electric sparked in his eyes. Frustration fractured every inch of his expression. “Did he start work on a cure?!”
“Not with my damn blood!” I hissed between teeth, barely an inch from his face.
His eyes swept my expression, his lip curled in animalistic rage. His fist came smashing towards me. For half a second I thought he was going to hit me, my fingers jumping for the swell of my belly, but the punch cracked against a knotweed tree, futile and fruitless. He turned away. The rage rippled down his spine as he threw his rucksack to the floor, contents clattering in despair.
“Why?!” he snarled.
“Why didn’t he start?!”
My breath faltered. Was this weeks of build up or was he truly this angry with me? Perhaps he’d been this angry for a long time. Perhaps that was why he’d wanted to kill me. The reactive lie spewed from my lips. “I don’t fucking know.”
“Of course you don’t,” he sneered, sarcasm dripping.
“What does it matter?” I muttered. “You’ll get your damn cure in the end. After all, it’s the only reason why you’re here. You don’t really want to help me find Alex. You just want to have the cure for yourself and stop Xanthia from keeping it for herself!”
Zander shook his head, his lip curled in disgust. “You’re a damn selfish bitch, Cadence Laurence. Bitter, twisted, and damn selfish.” Another head shake as his eyes searched me from head to foot, leaving the sensation of nakedness scorching my flesh. “And I think you’d rather watch the world burn than put out the fire.”
Pain hitched in my chest. My lips parted.
His lashes closed and he wiped a hand down over his expression, voice drifting into resignation. “I wish I’d never bothered to test you.”
I turned my face away, allowing hair to hide my eyes. “So do I.” The memory of all those shared kisses, and laughter, and moments rained down on me. The last few days of any innocent time together pushed down on me with heavy hearted pressure, reminding me that I would never have felt his body aching with mine. “It’s the only reason you chose to court me anyway.”
“You can think what you like,” he growled, guilty rage threading through the bass.
The tree I was leaning against moaned. My head snapped around to find Zander cornering me, his palm against the bark and his intense eyes burning into my face. I swallowed, sensing the sudden change in his body that seemed to come so readily after arguments these days.
My lips parted, trembling. It was almost as if we fought to get to this point, as if it was the only way to excuse the passion we felt. Like we’d been conditioned by the committee to believe this was the only acceptable way to bare our feelings. Only if they were broken from us…
“You can think what you damn well like, Cadence, but if I kiss you right now, so help me god, you know you’ll damn well kiss me back.”
His breath burned my mouth and I swallowed, watching the play of his eyes as they fought to capture all of my gaze at once. My fingers curled around his shoulder, caught between pulling him close and pushing him away.
No, no. I shouldn’t…
My chin tipped up and there it was, that burning, consuming, everything kiss that I couldn’t, wouldn’t deny. He trapped me against the tree, one hand demanding that we press our pelvises closer and closer. And then my thigh was up and curled around him as he leaned into me. My fingers found his hair, lips parting before he could urge them, desperate to taste him.
Breathing harder. Thoughtless. Mindless. Static.
Oh god, static.
He broke from me as the crackle grew louder, more insistent. The look in his eyes…
His hand dropped from my thigh, taking a step back. I opened my mouth, faltered, and then closed it, resigned. My bag shrugged from my shoulder. The zip snapped open and I snagged the radio from beneath a swirl of material.
He shook his head and swallowed, a short, humourless, ghost of a laugh passing his lips. His eyes glittered, almost as if they were pricked with tears and not merely anger. “Anything else you’re hiding from me?!”
My teeth grit.
“Fucking fantastic.” That snort of helpless laughter again. My limbs felt useless, fingers grasping the block of screeching plastic as I stared at him. “How am I supposed to take you to Xanthia if you don’t trust me, Cady?”
He seemed to be forgetting how a radio had once announced his betrayal to me right when I’d begun to trust him the most. The hunk of plastic snatched out of my hand. Knobs turned and buttons pressed as he played with the interface, the crackle growing quiet and then loud again.
Xanthia had said that he’d led her to the city. How much of that was true? Was it wise to let him use the radio when he could signal to her through it?
The block emitted a higher pitch noise and then a voice crackled in and out on the old speaker.
“…Leaving Andoer… taking more… tonight…”
The sound dropped. Lights on the radio blinked out, batteries dead.
“Useful,” Zander muttered sarcastically. He pushed the radio back into my hands and moved towards his discarded rucksack.
“How did you know how to find them?”
A shrug tugged his shoulders, his back still hiding his features. “Same frequency as before.” I edged forward, trying to find his eyes, but he kept his gaze diverted, shoving the rope he’d dropped into his backpack, distractedly. “Sounds like they’re leaving the same place we’re headed to. The ‘Andoer’ that they mentioned is a little settlement. I figured we’d stop there.”
“Stop?” I repeated. “We can’t stop. What about Alex and Sanderson?”
“It’s only for one night.”
“And is Xanthia there?”
Irritation crackled up my spine and I hurled the radio. It smacked against his shoulder, bouncing off amongst the broken ground. Fire burned in the glare he threw me. “So where is she?” I snarled.
“I know where she is,” he growled, barely moving his lips.
“So tell me!”
His jaw muscles flexed, working the play of shadow and light across his strict cheekbones. I wanted to smack that chiselled face. “No.”
“And you wonder why I won’t trust you,” I spat, “but you insist on leading me blind into that psychopath’s lair.”
He stood up, fists clenched by his side, teeth tight as he spoke. “Because I know what you’ll do! You’ll take off, by yourself, and, yet again, get yourself into trouble! And how am I supposed to protect you then, Cadence?!”
“I never asked for your goddamn protection!”
I scooped up a small rock and chucked it at his shoulder. He snarled, barely keeping his feet still as that same light entered his eyes. That look that said he wanted to thrust me back up against the tree and make us both succumb to senselessness. Something hitched in my throat. I hiked up my backpack and took off running, desperate to have some space from him.
“If you never wanted me to protect you then why are you so angry that I left you all those years ago?!”
Check out chapter three, Risks, next Friday! And don’t forget to join the event on:
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