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The bed beneath me was thin as paper, though not as thin as the cotton gown still tied around my na**d body. I felt oddly vulnerable in a way I never had before. One year at the beach, my best friend, Tiffany, dared me to run na**d from one end of the park to the other.
I did it without a second thought.
I got banned from the beach park for the rest of the summer, but it had been worth it. Everyone said I was fearless after that, until it became part of my name. ’’Dani, that fearless girl,’’ they called me. I never bothered correcting them. Never bothered to point out that running na**d through a park was more bravado than fearlessness and that, at home after dark, I cowered in my room like a mouse. Afraid of the monster that was my father.
The truth was, when I was with my friends, I pretended I was fearless. And I liked it. And as each day went by, it seemed a little truer than the day before.
I was fearless now. It was no longer a title handed down by a bunch of friends at the beach. It was a part of me. So why did I feel like I wanted to break free of this room and run? I was safe here. Wherever here was.
Goose bumps popped on my arms, racing clear up to my shoulders.
You are fearless. You are fea
The door opened and I nearly lurched out of my skin.
’’Sorry,’’ the female lab tech said. I hadn\ met this one yet, but she looked almost exactly like the last three people I\d encountered.
Her dark hair was tied back in a tight bun. Whatever she wore beneath her white lab coat was hidden to the point that it seemed like she wore only the coat. Her ears were bare, despite obvious piercings. Her ring finger was just as unadorned.
Everything about this place was toneless.
’’I didn\ mean to scare you,’’ she went on.
’’You didn\ ,’’ I answered, and she gave me a look that said she wasn\ buying it.
’’Come.’’ She waved me forward. ’’He\s ready for you.’’
’’Who is \he\?’’
She held the door for me and said nothing.
After a standoff of eleven silent seconds, I gestured to my gown. ’’Am I supposed to meet him half-naked?’’
A blush of color touched her cheeks. ’’Oh, right. Sorry.’’ She hurried past me to an inset closet door that I hadn\ realized was there. Inside were the clothes I\d arrived in a black dress with a short, pleated skirt, a white belt, and a pair of patent leather flats.
’’I\ll wait outside for you,’’ the woman said, and left me.
I slipped into my clothes quickly. Once in the hall, the woman led me to the left. We took several more turns after that, and she had to use her key card at no less than four checkpoints.
Finally, we reached a section labeled NORTH. This wing of the building didn\ feel much like a lab, not like the section I\d spent the greater part of the morning in. North section had a flagrantly expensive air to it, with dark-stained hardwood and soft inset lighting.
My guide came to a stop at a six-panel door, and pressed a buzzer on the outside. A second later, the door opened and a man peered out at us.
’’Thanks, Ms. Hemlin,’’ a voice said from inside the office. ’’You are excused.’’
My guide nodded and scurried off.
The man at the door opened it wider, allowing me through. He hadn\ said a word to me, which gave me the impression he was only a door-opener and nothing more. I wondered how one got a job opening doors, and what special skills were on his resume. Opens doors deftly and efficiently?
I took a step inside and noticed it was easily five degrees cooler in here than it was in the hallway.
’’Sit,’’ someone said.
The voice came from a young man seated behind an old desk with gold inlays and delicate scrollwork carved on the front. He wasn\ much older than me, or at least he appeared young, and he was more handsome than he ought to be. He knew it, too. I could tell. One of those people who used his good looks to his advantage.
I was no stranger to that. People act like beauty is a shallow thing to give weight to, but it can be a weapon, used in the same way as humor, or cunning, or intellect. You use what you got.
Growing up, my mother had always said I was beautiful, but it was never meant as praise. She had the rare gift of turning compliments into disparaging remarks.
My being beautiful was seen as a weakness in her eyes, as if I would ’’rest on my laurels’’ for the rest of my life and let the less attractive people wait on me. When I was seven, she cut my long, auburn hair to a short, short boy cut. I was called Daniel that entire year at school.
When I turned fourteen and grew C-cup boobs, she bought me compression bras.
It wasn\ until about a year ago that I started to realize that being pretty wasn\ such a bad thing. And just to drive the point home to my mother, I started wearing tighter shirts, shorter skirts, and push-up bras. She tried grounding me, but by that point I\d outgrown her, both physically and mentally. I\d learned how to intimidate her from the best teacher: my father.
My mother backed off after a while.
Thankfully, she\d all but ignored Anna. I only hoped she continued to ignore her while I was gone.
’’Dani,’’ the good-looking man said. In the soft overhead lighting, his dirty blond hair appeared wet, but I suspected it was some kind of hair product to keep it slicked back. Darker stubble covered his face.
He wore a plain white button-up, the top two buttons undone, and a tailored black suit jacket that hinted at toned arms. Sitting beside him, on the desk, was a pair of camel-brown leather gloves.
In his left hand, he held a file, and in his right was a tumbler of amber liquid.
He took a swig and set the glass down as I eased into one of two chairs. I checked his desk for a nameplate but found none.
’’It\s nice to meet you.’’ He smiled, displaying a row of flawless white teeth.
’’We haven\ met,’’ I reminded him. ’’I don\ know you. I don\ even know your name.’’
The smile widened. He dropped the file next to the tumbler and pulled in a breath to respond.
I cut him off. ’’And don\ say touché.’’
He raised a brow. ’’Why not?’’
’’Because that\s what most people would say.’’
’’And you don\ think I\m most people?’’
I glanced around the room, assessing. What people choose to surround themselves with says a lot about who they are.
Behind him, hanging from gallery wire, were watercolor paintings. The art depicted different women, faces only, in bold black line work. On top of them were random strokes of paint, vibrant colors like neon green and pink and teal.
On his desk, besides the requisite computer and office supplies, was a framed picture of a young girl and a golden retriever, and then an artist\s mannequin. Which made me wonder if the watercolors behind him were his.
He spread out his hands. ’’So?’’
’’Not most people,’’ I replied.
He smirked, and grabbed the tumbler again. ’’You\ e nothing like I thought you\d be.’’
’’I\ll take that as a compliment.’’
’’It was meant as one.’’ He let that set in. I tried so damn hard to keep a straight face. ’’Should we get started, then?’’ he said.
’’Maybe you could tell me your name before we start whatever it is we\ e starting.’’
’’I suppose that\s fair. It\s Connor Van Norstrand.’’
’’That\s an ornate name.’’
I crossed one leg over the other and caught Connor staring at my bare knees. That sort of attention was something I might be able to use to my advantage later on, if there was ever a scenario where I needed an advantage.
’’How old are you?’’ I asked.
He drained the last of his drink. I wondered, absently, what it was he was drinking. The kind of liquor a guy drinks also says a lot. My dad drank cheap whiskey.
He gestured at the now empty tumbler. ’’Old enough to consume.’’
’’Anyone is old enough to consume. Doesn\ mean it\s legal.’’
’’True.’’ He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms casually over his chest. The smirk had barely left his face.
I pretended to pick at the hem of my skirt for a beat, thinking about asking something else personal to keep this game going, but an entirely different question came out, unbidden. ’’Where is he?’’
Connor paused. He knew exactly who I was referring to, and it was the first time I saw him reveal a tiny flicker of discomfort, which said a lot, I thought. I just didn\ know about what yet.
’’OB is out,’’ he answered.
’’Is that what you call him around here?’’
’’I usually call him the Fox.’’
’’I suppose you can call him whatever you want.’’
OB, as Connor called him, reminded me of a fox. Not handsome, but sharp, red haired, with dark, hooded eyes. He acted like one, too. The kind of predator that didn\ need to use its size to hunt.
OB was lackluster in comparison to the Fox, but it would do.
When the Fox or OB offered me a job here, I had no idea what it\d entail, but I knew the trade-off, and I knew it\d be worth it. The deal was, if I came here and took part in this new program, whatever it was, then my little sister, Anna, would have a chance at a normal life. That was something I\d lost the moment my dad broke several vertebrae at his factory job and turned into a shell of his former self.
I only knew bits and pieces about the program itself. OB had used words like assignment and training and advanced science and genetic something or other. I also knew OB worked with the government, or for it. But I wanted to know more. Now.
’’What does out mean?’’ I asked. ’’Out for an hour? Out for a day?’’
’’You\ e in perfectly capable hands,’’ Connor said.
’’That doesn\ answer the question.’’
He sat up straighter. ’’That\s because I don\ have the answer.’’
Which meant OB did as he pleased here, which meant he had far more power than Connor.
’’All right.’’ I crossed my arms over my chest. ’’I guess let\s get started.’’
He stood and nodded me toward the door, which was now held open by the door-opener, who I\d completely forgotten was there.
’’Let\s start with the room you\ve been assigned, and we\ll go from there.’’
* * *
My room was on the second floor, tucked into the back of the building I\d arrived in only eight hours before. On the outside, the place had looked like a high-profile ad agency, or maybe a law office. A lot of sharp edges and glass, windows spanning entire floors to keep the view of Lake Michigan beyond it uninhibited. It was surrounded by concrete. I\d thought it was to keep the building looking neat and clean, but now that I knew there were several floors underground, where I\d been taken and examined and where I had later met Connor, I realized the concrete was there to give it a strong foundation.
The portion of the building that was aboveground was a huge departure from what was below. I liked this part much more. The first thing I noticed when we entered my room was the view. Lake Michigan as far as the eye could see.
I didn\ know how I\d been lucky enough to be given a room with such a view, but I wasn\ complaining.
’’What do you think?’’ Connor asked.
I took a few tentative steps inside.
My room was long and narrow but still huge by my standards. Anna and I had shared a room for a lot of years. I wasn\ used to having so much space.
The floor was more polished concrete, the walls plain white. There was a bed on the wall to my right with a steel headboard and a thick white comforter. Matching nightstands stood on either side of the bed with twin glass lamps. Across from the bed was a sofa, the cushion navy-blue linen.
’’Bathroom is here,’’ Connor said, and gestured to a frosted glass door behind us. ’’Closet is in the hall to the bathroom.’’