THE KEEP – Chapter 1
Like a shiver, restlessness moves under my skin.
It’s time to run again.
Running. For the last six weeks that’s been my reality. The lack of permanence becoming permanent, a part of my life—as much a part as my abilities.
Leaning over the bridge’s marble siding, I look down the length of the canal. My eyes track across the sweeping brick buildings, the arched bridges, the gliding gondolas, the enamored tourists to the waters beyond Venice. To home.
I can go back.
I can let them take my memories, my knowledge, my pain and stop this endless running.
There’s a sliver of temptation. I pluck it out, unwilling to let it burrow any further into my thoughts. I might gain freedom, but I’d lose everything else. Everything that’s made me what I am. My ability to convert—to alter my emotions into energy, maximizing my potential. I’d lose that. The truth of my real father—a converter like me who died undergoing a harrowing procedure I somehow survived. Gone.
Blake. The one who started it all, the one I’m tempted to give it all up for if only to see him one last time. Forgotten.
I kick a small pebble into the water. It lands with a light plink. I fist my hand, pulling it against my side to keep myself from expanding the ripples, from adding to the energy. Spinning from the bridge, I walk away.
My thoughts full, I don’t notice the sunset’s red glow highlighting the brick architecture. Once I decide to leave, all hesitancy disappears because—during the last month and a half—my instincts have kept me alive and free, earning my absolute loyalty and unquestioned trust.
I navigate through the cramped alleys back to my pricey motel. Maybe this time I’ll focus on finding a less expensive hiding place. With my overused packing skills, I should be gone within the hour. I try to work up some excitement for my next adventure, but there’s none. I’ve learned running doesn’t mean leaving the past. It follows—lurking in my shadowy doubts, waiting at the next destination to again test my resolve.
I throw the door open to my tiny room. It bounces back closing itself as I start throwing things from the drawers to the bed. Once most everything is stuffed into my small pack, I grab the phone.
“Done already?” Denny’s animated voice fills my dim room.
I shove the last shirt into my bag. “Done with Italy.” I move to unlock the safe.
Denny whistles low. “Italy. There are hot girls there, right?”
“Oh, yes.” I smirk, pushing a strand of dark brown hair behind my ear. “I saw a gorgeous woman today—the sun was bouncing off her shimmering hair, light glimmering on her tan skin, water glistening in the air around her as she ran around a fountain…” I pause, letting Denny’s imagination catch up. “…chasing her two kids.”
Denny gags. “Way to ruin the visual, Dezi.” There’s the sound of loud crunching. He’s eating chips—to annoy me. “Where to next?” he asks.
“For me to know—” I start.
“And you to find out.” Denny finishes for me. Thankfully he’s decided my strange method for communication is a quirk. I really shouldn’t contact my family at all, but I always give myself one call before moving on.
Pulling my passport from the safe, I flip it open and glare down at it. Jessica Saunders—a name I’ve come to hate. She’s a person who hides. Desiree Morgan would never.
The crunching stops on Denny’s side of the line. “I almost forgot.”
“What?” I zip my passport into the front pocket of my pack. Denny fidgets with the phone. “What?” I demand.
Two words. Two words shouldn’t toss my heart around in my chest, shouldn’t shove my breath down into my belly, shouldn’t feel like they might change everything.
“And…?” I choke out, my fingers clutching the phone.
“We chatted for a while.” I close my eyes, hoping to find some patience behind the dark lids. “He says his job is good, but sounded kind of down.”
“Denny.” My tone is sharper than I expected.
“Alright, alright. He left you a weird message.” The line goes quiet.
The phone gets sweaty under my palm. “Denny if you were here—”
“Barmy, Dezi! I have to get this right.”
I strangle the phone.
“Okay, he said to tell you, ‘It’s over. You’ve been pardoned.’ Whatever that means.” He starts crunching again. “Do you know what it means?”
I sink down onto the ugly floral bedspread, rubbing the inch-long scar at my hairline.
“It means I’m coming home.”
I stand at the top of the familiar cliff. My cliff. The valley stretches out beneath me, golden in the light of dawn. The red sandstone grinds beneath my feet—right where it belongs. I focus on my property. The house looks smaller than before, the barn more worn, the meadow trampled, the seasonal creek dry.
I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.
Henry, my adopted father, pulls into the drive and exits the car with a gallon of milk. Tears pool in my eyes.
It’s over. I’ve been pardoned.
I repeat the message in my mind, because—even though my body brought me home—my mind won’t accept the consequence of those words. When I walked away from it all on the coast that day, I knew Blake would keep my family out of it. As long as I did. Coming back feels like voiding that guarantee and bringing all the hell that’s become my world into theirs. And what if it wasn’t Blake who called? But Denny knows his voice, had chatted with him.
Clutching the strap of my bag, I pull every doubt forward to examine and disregard. Time drifts as I solidify my decision. Finally, I sigh out the remainder of my anxiety and move forward.
My pace increases with each step down the path. By the time I reach the valley, I’m practically jogging, backpack bouncing with each stride. I take the porch steps in one bound, tighten my grip on my emotions, and knock on the worn wood.
My dad answers, pulling open the door. “Desiree.” His voice is tinged with wonder.
“Dad.” My smile fills my face. He doesn’t open the screen between us as if he’s afraid touching that barrier might make me disappear. We stand grinning at each other until Denny rushes over.
“Dezi!” He flings the screen back and scoops me up. “I didn’t believe it when you said you were coming home!” I let him crush me, let the feeling of home sink into me.
When he finally releases me my dad is there to pull me to his chest. “My girl, it’s so good to see you.” I nod against him. They pull me inside, back where I used to belong.
It’s an amazing morning—and a trying one. I stretch, bend, and push the truth until the last six weeks sound exciting, nothing like the fear filled escape they really were.
“So when are you taking off again?” Denny asks, throwing another pancake my way. Dad shoots him a glare.
“Trying to get rid of me already, huh?” I reach for the butter.
“Well, I have been trying to convince Dad to host an exchange student.” He flips a pancake high. “She’ll be needing your room.”
“Wow, his imagination has definitely grown,” I say to my dad.
“Ego too,” Dad grumbles.
“Good.” I take another bite of pancake. “I haven’t sparred in forever.”
Denny brings a stacked plate to the table. From his six foot four height, his light brown eyes gleam down. “So…you’re out of practice.”
I point my fork at him. “And you’re still out of luck. I’ve learned a thing or two about playing dirty while I was gone.” Across the table, my dad’s eyebrows rise. His head tilts slowly to the side as he appraises me, really studying me for the first time since my return. His eyes narrow when they reach the scar.
Putting his silverware down, he clasps his hands in front of him. “What happened?”
I almost tell him the truth. After all my years of lying, it’s there boiling inside, almost rolling out. Knowing the threat, I swallow the burning secrets down. They leave my throat raw. I grab a drink before pointing to the scar. “This? I fell. Hit my head on a nightstand.” I know he was referring to more than the wound, but I don’t add the rest: that I couldn’t move because I’d been drugged. That I was being hunted down by people who wanted to kill me.
I run a finger over the jagged skin and curve my lips up. “Probably should’ve had it stitched.”
Denny moves to get a closer look while Dad simply looks. Long and hard. For the first time I think he might call me on a lie. Instead he says, “All wounds heal, some just leave more of a mark.”
I force a smile, pretending his words don’t pierce me. Pretending my visual scar is the only one I carry. I rise to clear the table. “So what’s your plan for the day?”
Denny says, “I’ve got work at the auto shop and I know dad’s dying to crush some numbers.”
“Crunch, Denny. I crunch numbers for a living,” Dad corrects.
“I don’t see a difference.” Denny winks at me. I laugh. It sounds huskier than before—unused. Denny chugs his milk before adding, “You should relax now, Desiree…so I can beat you later. I don’t want any jet-lag excuses when we spar.”
“Fighting you does put me to sleep on a regular basis.” I pile the dishes in a precarious stack as Dad attempts to hide a smirk. “But, for you, I’ll attempt to stay awake.”
“Fighting words, Sis.” Denny tosses his last bite down and glances at his phone. “We gotta go. You ready, Dad?”
They rush out the door, Dad dropping a kiss on my hair and Denny throwing a punch at my shoulder. I watch them leave, reveling in the monotony of it all.
I take my time cleaning the kitchen—washing dishes, wiping counters, and sweeping the floor. Finished there, I hurry to change into my jeans and boots.
Outside, Hank knickers and trots over to me. I hop the fence to throw my arms around his buckskin neck. Pressing my face against his mane, I tamp down on my emotions. Hank was practically Blake’s horse, making him a painful connection to the person I’ve left behind.
With a rough pat, I push him away and seek out Sunfire. Catching and saddling the indifferent mare, I head up the ridge to Zion National Park.
The mid-summer sun is blistering hot. I welcome it, hoping it will burn off some of my angst. I trot Sunfire to my favorite overlook. After hobbling her in the shade of a scraggly juniper tree, I perch on the warm rock. The sun beats down on me as I remember. Blake found me here the day I discovered I was adopted, met me here the day I found out I was a converter, made this place a tangible reminder of himself.
I scoop up a handful of small pebbles and start tossing them over the side. I need a plan. A purpose. Staying here won’t work. I’ve outgrown this place—and there’s still too much of him here.
While Blake’s convergence is no longer hunting me, they aren’t going to be welcoming me either. A well-deserved public rant on their shortcomings kind of killed that chance for me. I could search for another group of converters, but I’m sure they’d test me too. Sweat beads at the back of my neck—I barely survived the last round. And, since I did retain a good portion of my sanity, I can’t imagine willingly putting myself through that again.
College is an option. I was accepted to Arizona State with my friends Nichole and Kyle. I try to picture myself taking classes, following the two lovebirds around. The visual image makes me shudder.
I do have an unusual assortment of skills. I’m a great liar. I know how to disappear into a crowd. I’m in awesome shape. I have a high pain tolerance. It all leads to one clear choice: a life of espionage.
I huff at my ridiculousness. Working for the government probably isn’t the best idea since Blake once told me they have a whole branch dedicated to finding and eliminating converters. Or studying them. Needless to say, I’m not too excited about offering myself up to them either.
I guess I’ll revert back to my pre-Blake plan to travel around the world looking for a place I belong—although it seems like a regression.
I toss the last pebble over the ledge and brush the dirt from my hands. Moving to the edge, I stand with my toes off the side. I really should relax, but I’m not very good at it. Maybe somewhere tropical would work. Jessica Saunders might love it there. Maybe I’ll just become her, leaving Desiree Morgan behind. Desiree has too much baggage. Baggage I’m tired of carrying.
I don’t realize I’m crying until a tear tracks down my cheek. I brush it away and run a hand over my scar. Back and forth—like there might be answers hidden somewhere in that damaged part of me.
Behind me, I hear Sunfire shifting in her restraints. She’s as antsy as I am. I’ll have to find a place where we can both release some energy. Anticipation brightening my outlook, I spin away from the cliff.
I take a step before I see him there. Leaning against the rock I was sitting on. Like he’s a part of the landscape. Like he’s supposed to be here.
But Blake Thomas shouldn’t be here.
Shouldn’t be looking at me the way he’s looking at me. Shouldn’t be making me regret the choice I made, the choice I’ll have to make again.
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