Chapter 1 from Out Of The Ashes
NOTE: The book was still going through copy edits when originally posted, so please pardon any erorrs. :)
March 23, 1AE
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Body tense and heart racing, Jake scoured Zoe’s face for any inkling of recognition. He couldn’t allow himself to believe she had no memory of him or all they’d been through together. She’d admitted she loved him only hours earlier. Now, she was scared, casting furtive glances around the room at friends and family she clearly didn’t remember, including him.
In the dying moonlight seeping through the undressed windows, Jake watched her, desperation making it hard for him to breathe. Her eyes…he couldn’t tear his gaze away from her teal eyes.
Zoe studied the two women in front of her, taking in Chris and Dani before settling her gaze on her brother, Jason. Her wide eyes narrowed, and her chest heaved, like she was frantically trying to remember him. Her gaze lingered on him a moment longer without a hint of recognition, and then landed on Jake. He could see the confusion and fear warring within their depths, making his heart ache and his conscience cloud with an undeniable guilt.
He shouldn’t have left her alone on the golf course.
Her head tilted slightly as she considered him, and he prayed there was even the slightest nagging familiarity. Remember, he silently pleaded. But seeing no recognition of him—of them—reflected in her eyes, he knew the Zoe standing in the room, looking at him like he was a complete stranger, was only a shadow of the woman he’d fallen in love with.
His grip on the doorframe tightened so hard he thought the wood might detach from the wall. Zoe was terrified, and for the first time since he’d met her, there was nothing he could do to help her. He fought the instinct to go to her, knowing that if he did, he would frighten her more, and then he might lose her completely.
Unable to stand the tension any longer, Jake turned and strode out of the suffocating room. He couldn’t get away fast enough.
Cooper, his loyal-friend-through-it-all Husky, trailed behind him, panting and trotting to keep up as Jake made his way down the hall. He needed space…needed air. Continuing toward the kitchen, he hoped the fresh air beyond the sliding glass door would give him a clearer head. But regardless of how quickly he strode through the house, the image of Zoe’s fearful eyes remained, permanently projected in his mind, a constant reminder of his failure to protect her.
His hands fisted at his sides. He’d known something wasn’t right when Zoe said she felt strange outside of the Colony, and if he’d just stayed with her instead of leaving her side to help Harper, she might not have run off…she might still be her.
With a roar, Jake spun toward the wall. His fist met the hard, textured surface in unbridled anger. His knuckles cracked beneath his skin as they barreled through a layer of drywall, but he was unfazed. Bracing his hands against the wall, he tried to catch his breath…to stop his mind from spinning out of control.
Hearing Dani and Zoe’s muted voices in the bedroom down the hall, Jake turned away from the hole his fist had made and continued into the small kitchen, but stopped. With a heavy sigh, he leaned against the Formica countertop, not ready to go outside with the others. Not ready to answer questions.
Almost immediately, Jason came through the doorway behind him. In two steps he was at the counter, gripping the ledge, and in the dim light pouring in through the sliding glass door, Jake could see the hard set of his features.
“I can’t blame the Colony this time,” Jake said. “I knew something was wrong.” Zoe was infuriating and stubborn, but she wasn’t stupid; she wouldn’t have just run off for no reason. But without her memory, there was no way to know why she’d done it.
With a heavy sigh, Cooper lay down on the linoleum floor, his eyes angling up to Jake and then to Jason, ensuring that, even in their silence, they were still standing there.
After what felt like a few minutes, Jason grunted and shook his head. His shoulders were tense, and dark emotions clouded his vibrant blue eyes.
Jake couldn’t help but wonder if Gabe—his best friend turned traitor—was to blame. Despite their friendship as children, Gabe had brought soldiers into Jake’s home, ready to take his sister, Becca, away from him, and then he’d lured Dani into the Colony for the General. Had he been just as involved in what had happened to Zoe?
“What a fucking mess,” Jason said, shaking his head. “I guess I’ll just keep nulling her, at least until—”
The sound of footsteps approaching brought both men’s attention to the hall doorway. Chris spoke softly, Zoe’s hand resting in hers as they entered the kitchen, Dani and Jack, her German Shepherd, close behind them. Though Chris and Zoe were both grown women, the image of them walking hand-in-hand resembled that of a mother and child.
Jake’s eyes met Zoe’s as she passed him; hers were shrewd and penetrating. They were the same eyes that had affected him so intensely the first moment he saw her, their brilliance and expressiveness capturing his attention—his soul—in a way no other woman ever had, pulling him in so fully that she’d become his home. Regret and anger gnawed at him; he’d never told her any of that, and now she might never know how he felt.
Her eyes narrowed on him slightly. He could tell from the way Zoe walked—with less fortitude and more uncertainty—that she was a poorly made replica of his Zoe. But she was a version of her, nonetheless, and like always, the endless depths of her eyes housed her every emotion: embarrassment – curiosity – confusion. Jake was grateful she didn’t seem to be afraid, and he knew he had Chris’s Ability to curb Zoe’s unease with a single touch to thank for that.
Chris whispered something inaudible, and Zoe’s gaze shifted to the sliding glass door. They stepped through and outside, heading toward the rest of the group and the horses waiting in the early morning shadows, Dani’s dog traipsing after them.
Dani, however, hung back in the kitchen. She moved closer to Jason, her gaze darting between him and Jake. With her broken arm, swollen and bruised face, and hunched shoulders, she looked like she’d been the General’s punching bag while she’d been held captive in the Colony. The sidelong glance she gave Jake made his blood run cold.
“What is it?” he said.
“There was a letter,” she said tentatively, fingering the edge of the sling holding her left arm. “It’s from one of my Colony contacts. She brought Zo here after finding her in the golf course…with Clara.”
Jake stopped breathing. His anger drained from him, his stomach knotting with fear.
He exhaled slowly and rubbed his hand over his face harsher than was necessary, fighting to maintain what semblance of composure he had left. Clara’d had it out for Zoe from the first moment they’d met. Back at Fort Knox, she’d poisoned Zoe in a desperate attempt to get rid of her, then attempted to kill them all in a barracks fire that had claimed several lives. And now she was here, in Colorado, trying to hurt Zoe again. White, hot rage and self-loathing scorched through him. He should’ve left Clara in the hospital where he’d found her, wandering and scared.
“She’s dead now,” Dani said, but Jake’s anger lessened only slightly.
“Dead,” he repeated hollowly. Clara might’ve been dead, but not before managing to strike one final blow.
Dani’s eyes met Jake’s for a brief moment before settling back onto Jason’s. “Did you tell them about the T-Rs and the memory wiping…?”
“It looks like that’s what happened to Zo…sort of. Clara started the process, got interrupted…at least now she’s dead.”
Jake studied Dani, finding it difficult to believe in Clara’s demise through hearsay. “How do you know for sure?” he asked.
Dani smiled weakly and shook her head, wisps of her curly, red hair escaping the braid it was gathered into. “My contact said so,” she said. “I trust her…at least with this.” She glanced between them once more, like she wasn’t quite sure of something. “There’s more, but we should probably get going.”
Jason reached for her, lacing his fingers with those of her good hand, and nodded. “We’ll figure the rest out on the way to Colorado Trails,” he said. “We’ve got to get moving or Ky and the others will think something’s happened to us.”
The sliding glass door opened and Becca stepped into the doorway. She glanced between Jason and Dani, and even though she still didn’t seem to believe that Jake was her brother, her eyes found and locked with his. “We should go,” she said, her voice raspy, as it had been since she was young. “I have had a vision. If we do not leave soon, the General will find us.”
“Shit,” Jason muttered, and Becca turned slowly and exited the kitchen, leaving the door open behind her.
Dani led Jason toward the sliding glass door. His imposing form dwarfing her petite, battered one. Part of Jake wished Zoe’s wounds were as straight forward as bruises and broken bones; those wounds would heal, what Clara had done to her might not.
Once again, Zoe was right in front of him, but as unreachable as though she were miles away; it infuriated him. While Clara’s first attempt to kill the only woman he’d ever loved had inevitably brought Zoe and Jake closer together, Clara’s final attempt might’ve succeeded in tearing them apart completely.