“Fuck, could it be any hotter here?” Rachel asked as she fanned herself on the deck.
“You know Landon can see you out there,” I said through the open door.
“He’s at the expo site, practicing with Wilder,” she answered.
“How do you even know that?” I asked as I packed up my books from this trimester. Our last final had been this morning, and I’d actually managed to keep my attention on the test instead of on Paxton sitting next to me. English and our verbal examinations and defense of our thesis hadn’t been so easy. Especially not when Paxton stood in front of me and answered the class’s interrogation on his thesis on the theory of love and redemption in Les Miserables. It was like he’d directed every answer at me.
“I may have paid off Hugo to let me know,” Rachel responded, reminding me that I’d asked her a question.
“Well, if that wasn’t slightly unethical. You’ve been here three days and you’ve got the staff on payroll?” I finished as I leaned on the doorframe.
“Do you want to talk about him? Landon?” I clarified.
“I’d rather rebreak every bone I’ve ever mangled. It would probably feel the same.” She pulled her sunglasses down and dismissed the topic like only Rachel could. “So, have you seen this trailer?”
“What trailer?” I asked.
“I guess they cut a trailer for the documentary, and they’re trying to get it to a million hits before the expo tomorrow.”
“Oh.” I hated being out of the Renegade loop as much as I desperately needed the space. “No. I haven’t seen it. I promised Penna I’d go over and watch the rehearsal, though. I’m guessing you don’t want to go?”
“No, thank you. How are you doing with all this? I mean, you’ve been swamped with finals, and I know you love to hide under schoolwork, but really?”
I sat on her lounge chair and fingered the hemline of my black shorts. I used to be scared to put my legs into the sun because the scarring would only stand out more with a tan, but now it simply was what it was—another part of me like the freckles on my nose or the color of my eyes.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “And I don’t know how to talk to you about it. You’re my best friend, but you’re his ex, and that’s really freaking weird. I can’t think about you two without wanting to vomit.”
She slid her sunglasses up into her black hair. “Leah, I love you like a sister. What Wilder and I had was so long ago, two and a half years, and if I had to rate that relationship in importance in my life, it’s probably somewhere around a four, and that’s only because it led me to Landon.” She winced, like even his name was painful. “Landon, I loved…and I thought he loved me, especially after he walked away from the Renegades for me. But that was the month of the X Games, and it was just too much, and when Wilder dropped the ultimatum, Landon chose them. I didn’t think I’d be able to breathe for the longest time. He was my ten, and then he was my zero. What is Wilder to you?”
“He’s an eleven,” I admitted. “He probably shouldn’t be. The guy isn’t exactly known for monogamy.”
“Has he looked at anyone since you’ve been together?”
“No. He’s always made me feel like I’m the only one he notices.” My eyes slid shut. “But I don’t know how much of that was real and how much was just keeping me happy to make sure I wouldn’t leave before you got here. When I think of everything he did, how deep the plan went to get you on board, and then I think that maybe to him, I’m only a cog in that plan…I can’t breathe.”
“I saw him with you, you’re not just a cog. Maybe you were at first, but the way he begged you? If you were just a part of his plan, he wouldn’t still be after you. Wilder never gets attached, he never begs, and he never apologizes—all of which he did for you. His plan worked. I’m here, and I’m going to stay.”
“You’re willing to stay? You’re sure?” My voice pitched in excitement. She’d offered already, but I had to be certain.
“Yeah. If you’re in, I’m in. Once upon a time I let Landon ruin me. I’m not letting him ruin this, too. If that means I have to duck him in the hallways, then fine.”
I hugged her, careless of her suntan oil seeping into my shirt. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Her arms closed around me. “Same here. I was kind of lost without you, and you were halfway across the world, getting lost.” She laughed.
“Yeah, but as crazy as this sounds, I feel kind of found, too. And I know it was Paxton, pushing me, accepting me, loving me. Rach, what am I going to do?”
“I can’t answer that. You’ve done pretty damn well on your own, and honestly, if I’d been here to start with, I would have done everything in my power to keep you away from Wilder, and look what a huge mistake that would have been. You know him in a way I never did, and you”—she gestured to my bare legs—“the changes he’s brought in you are amazing. I hated you being here without me, but I’m so glad it happened this way.”
“Me, too,” I said. “I just don’t know how to trust him.”
“That’s going to be something you have to decide. No one else—not even Wilder—can make that choice for you. But you and I both know how rare love is, and if you two have it, then fight for it. Figure out the rest as you go along.”
“And don’t look where it’s taking us? What happens after this trip is over?”
She smiled. “I kinda feel like it should take you to your bedroom, and then to the expo site. After that it’s all up to you.”
She smiled and shrugged, then went back to sunbathing.
I walked to my room and found a red package on the bed with red tissue paper and a red card. Subtle, Pax.
My hands shook as I opened the card, ripping through the paper. It was from one of the tourist sites on Mykonos, with a glossy picture of the shoreline. When I opened it, my eyes prickled.
I closed the card and gently put it down on the bed before I unwrapped the frame inside the bag. It was the picture from Mykonos. When had he had it developed?
My fingers traced our lines, my breath caught at not only the look on my face but on Paxton’s—the complete devotion I saw in his eyes as he held me above his head. A guy couldn’t fake that kind of look.
I wanted to say no. Everything in my body cried out that he was real, that our love was genuine. But what if it wasn’t? What if I was making a fool out of myself, when I should be bailing, getting out of this relationship when I needed to?
What if I hadn’t learned my lesson from Brian’s death, and I was still hanging on to something that I needed to run from—destined to break more and more the longer I stayed?
But what if my fear was what I was clinging to, and Pax was the one I should be running toward?
I closed the door behind me and checked my watch. Practice was still going—I could make it. I would have been even faster, but I’d changed into pants and a breezy shirt so I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb here in Abu Dhabi.
Paxton’s door opened, and my heart stuttered, even though I logically knew he was already at the expo site. Little John came out shaking his head until he saw me. “Oh thank God, Leah. Are you headed to the site?”
“Yeah, I promised Penna I’d stop by.”
“Good. Paxton is a wreck out there, all jumpy about damn near everything. Rebel’s bike broke, and it’s a hot mess. You’ll calm him down.”
Don’t count on it. “You going back?”
He nodded. “Yep, as soon as I can find Rebel’s pink bandana. She says it’s lucky or something, and I didn’t see it in her room.”
“Where did she say it was?” I asked. I hadn’t seen it at our place, either.
“In the purple backpack?” He looked at me for the answer.
Luckily I had it. “That backpack is Brooke’s. I bet it’s in her room, not Penna’s. Do you have her key, too?”
He nodded, and in a few seconds had her door open. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” I answered, hurrying in. Her suite was smaller than ours but gorgeous. I checked the closet, the bedroom, and the living room, finally heading back into the bedroom and looking under the bed.
“Bingo,” I said, pulling it out. It caught on the bed frame, and I yanked it clear, but as I did something fell from the frame. Shit, I hoped I hadn’t broken the bed.
It was a piece of folded paper, and I tossed it onto the made bed before standing up with the backpack. I plopped the bag onto the bedspread and opened it, digging through until I found the pink bandana Penna loved. As I zipped the pack up, feeling pretty darn victorious, the seal on the top of the paper next to me caught my attention.
It was an official-looking document to be kept in a bed frame, but it was none of my business. After I stored the backpack, my morals wavered…then fell. I snatched the paper off the bed and opened it.
What the fuck?
It was the photography permit from Madagascar.
Brooke. No way. It wasn’t possible.
Chills raced up my limbs, pooling at the base of my neck. She was the one helping to admin the site when the videos were being hacked. She had access to Paxton’s gear, to his fire box. She’d been the one to push me on the ramp that day, and Morocco…
Damn it. I’d heard her voice, but only Little John had been standing on the shore when I’d been pushed. In the confusion, she could have called out from anywhere, and I wouldn’t have noticed.
But why would she do it all when her own sister was a Renegade?
I looked up over the paper and Brooke’s nightstand came into view, a framed picture of a handsome blond guy with one arm wrapped around her and the other braced on a motocross bike. Nick.
I didn’t have all the pieces, but I had enough.
My feet flew as I ran from the room, clutching the bandana and the permit. “Where is Brooke?” I asked Little John as I almost fell into the hallway.
“At the expo with Penna. Why?”
“We have to get there, now!” I shouted, already running for the elevator. “How fast can you drive?”
“I’m a Renegade,” he answered, as if that was enough. It was. “But Wilder gave us explicit orders that we’re supposed to go slowly if you’re in the car.”
Of course he did.
I stabbed the elevator button. “Forget what Paxton said. We have to get there as fast as possible.”
“What’s going on, Leah?”
“I know who’s sabotaging the stunts.”
I closed my eyes and held on to the door handle while we skidded around another corner. “Just make sure we don’t get arrested. Our group doesn’t have the best track record with foreign authorities.”
Little John nodded but kept his full attention on the road, weaving us in and out of cars with the ease of a professional stunt driver…because he was. That didn’t help the nausea crippling me, or the heart-stopping fear.
“It’s kind of like being in your own action movie,” he explained as we flew through a red light.
“Overrated,” I answered in a high pitch.
We skidded to a halt in front of the expo site—a huge arena—and we both abandoned the car while the engine still ran. Little John threw open the doors, and we sprinted inside.
“Damn, this place is huge.”
“Get Paxton,” I ordered. “Page him on the intercom, or whatever. I’m going to find Brooke.”
He nodded, and we split directions. I ran past the concession stands to the entrance of the arena. The floor had been covered in yards of dirt, Paxton’s huge ramp center stage with others flanking it and a stunt track bordering it all. I made out the bright blue stripes on Paxton’s bike on the smaller ramps. At least Little John would be able to find him.
Each section was in use, and the noise was deafening as motocross bikes revved their engines, then drove full throttle. I scanned the stands, looking for any of the Originals.
Security had done a good job, and the stands were nearly empty, but there was no sign of Brooke.
A flash of white caught my attention, and I looked up to the Jumbotron that hung in the middle of the arena. “Shit,” I whispered, seeing Brooke on the catwalk, her hands on the wires that held the huge monitor. Whatever she was doing—it wasn’t good.
“Brooke!” I yelled, but there was too much noise.
Paxton couldn’t hear me, but Little John would be there soon. I just had to keep her distracted. I traced the path of the catwalk and ran to where it intersected with the wall, then climbed two flights of stairs as quickly as I could until I reached that level, sprinting to the ladder.
A fucking ladder.
You got this. Hand over hand, and one step at a time, I hurried up the deathtrap, keeping Paxton’s face in my mind as I climbed higher than I ever thought I’d be able to, finally coming out at the catwalk.
“Don’t look down,” I whispered to myself. Instead I locked my eyes on where Brooke fumbled on her stomach, her hands beneath the catwalk. She had hold of one of the giant light fixtures, but the way the catwalk wobbled when I stepped onto it told me she’d loosened that, too.
The motion also alerted her to my presence, and her head swiveled, a maddened look in her eyes I’d never seen before. “Stay back!” she yelled. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Leah.”
She had the light already loose, hanging by what looked like a single screw. Shit.
“Whatever you’re doing, Brooke, don’t. Please. Someone could die.”
She turned and stood, her hands locked around the railing like mine were. “He should! That stupid fucking trick took Nick! Someone should be punished! Instead they’re making a movie. A movie! While he’s confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, so ruined that he won’t even let me see him, they’re here, doing what he loved. Paxton shouldn’t be the first to do this trick. It was never his, it was Nick’s, and they’ve all forgotten him!”
“I know it feels that way,” I said, taking another step on the swaying catwalk. “What was your plan? Drop the whole catwalk? Have you lost it? Your sister is down there!”
She hesitated, looking down briefly.
“I disabled Penna’s bike. She’s fixing it in the back. I’d rather die than hurt her. I don’t want to hurt you, either.”
“And that’s why you pushed me off a cliff in Morocco?” I glanced down and saw Paxton still riding the circuit, and I silently cursed Little John. I didn’t know how long I could keep her occupied before I was the one she threw off the catwalk.
“That was unfortunate,” she admitted. “But the cameraman walked away, and you were alone. I thought you’d jump, land in the water. I hoped you’d be scared enough that Pax would stop the movie, or you’d just leave, and he’d fail his classes. I never meant for you to get hurt.”
“I could have died!” My brain was misfiring, trying to reconcile the angry woman in front of me with the friend I’d made the first morning on board.
“You didn’t, but you might if you stay up here. Now, go!” She bounced slightly, and the metal creaked, then descended a couple inches.
“I can’t let you hurt Paxton or anyone else,” I said, clinging to the railing.
“They need to understand that what they’re doing ruins lives. It ruined Nick’s life, and it destroyed mine! And they don’t care! They just keep on going, keep pushing. It’s not fair! I only want them to stop!”
My hands tightened on the rails, my knuckles turning white. “Let’s get down, Brooke. We can talk about this on the ground.”
She shook her head. “I’ve come too far, especially now that you know. Then again, I could blame it all on you. Nothing bad started happening until you showed up that first day.”
Another bounce and the angle deepened. I looked down to see Paxton at the start of the center ramp. The one we were directly above. God, this was the moment she’d been waiting for. “Don’t do it,” I begged.
“For what it’s worth,” she said, looking down at Paxton before she glanced back up to me. “I think he loves you. Even if you were just a tool to get Rachel on board.”
My eyes widened.
“Of course I know. Don’t be stupid. I’ve known since Penna ran the background check on you when you both applied to the program. That’s why I grabbed that picture before we left L.A. The only one who doesn’t know is Landon. Which is kind of fitting, seeing as Paxton was the only one who didn’t catch on when Rachel and Landon were fucking around behind his back. It hurts to turn the tables, doesn’t it?”
“So you planted the picture so I’d find it?”
Keep her talking. He hasn’t started yet. Distract her.
In fact, he wasn’t there at all. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Don’t get excited, he’s just backing up to get enough speed to hit the ramp. This will be the jump of a lifetime,” she said with a smile that didn’t even look like hers. She was losing it right in front of me, and if I couldn’t stop her, someone was going to get hurt…or die. “The one Nick would have made if he’d been here. But Paxton always has to have it all, doesn’t he? The tricks, the girls…even you. It was hard to watch you fall for him, knowing he was just using you. I really like you, and I thought you’d be smarter, that I wouldn’t have to involve you, but then I saw how badly he wanted you, needed you, and I knew you were the key to everything. If you were hurt, if you quit, the movie would fail. They’d go home and reassess. After Madagascar, I figured if you saw the picture, you’d leave him to rot in that jail cell. Movie over. Mission accomplished and no one gets hurt…other than Nick, not that they care. But no, you had to call Brandon. You had to fix everything for the guy who only wanted you for your best friend. Where is your self-worth?”
I heard the bike rev, then come flying out of the tunnel. As the bike hit the ramp, Brooke jumped as hard as she could, then ran, the catwalk falling as she raced toward me. When I tried to grab her, she pushed me back, and I fell along the catwalk as it turned into a giant slide. I saw the camera break loose at the last second before I gripped the support beam, catching my weight as the catwalk fell to a full ninety-degree angle.
“Paxton!” I screamed as the camera hit the dirt of the landing ramp right before his bike did. The front tire impacted, the bike flipping and flinging him off, where he tumbled over the side of the dirt ramp, falling twenty feet to the ground.
“No!” The sound was nearly inhuman as it ripped from my throat, seeing his leg at an unnatural angle as people rushed to him, the motors suddenly quiet. “Paxton!”
“I’m here, baby,” he said from above me. “Hold on!”
My head swiveled between my arms to see him on the supported length of catwalk, not in a crumpled mess beneath me. “Pax.” He was alive. He was okay.
My fingers slipped a fraction of an inch, but it was enough to send my heart into overdrive, beating out a panicked rhythm.
“No!” Brooke shrieked. “This can’t be for nothing! You’re supposed to be on your bike!”
“Yeah, well, Penna is!” he yelled as he gripped her forearms, yanking her onto the platform.
“No!” she yelled. “Penna!”
I wanted to look down, but my hold was too precarious. Let her be okay. God, please.
The metal creaked as he leaned back over. “Brooke?” I questioned.
“Security has her,” he said calmly as he headed toward me, Little John lowering him by his feet. “Firecracker, I’m going to ask this time that you not let go.”
“Smart-ass,” I said, my breath shaky. “Is Penna okay?”
“I hope so,” he answered. “Just hold on.” His hands gripped my wrists. “Now let go. I’ve got you.”
We locked eyes, and I knew with utter certainty that if he dropped me, I would die. Without another thought, I let go of the railing, trusting my weight to him.
“Pull us up!” he yelled, and we started to rise, the metal creaking and groaning as the screws began to give way. I wanted to close my eyes and wait for the inevitable fall, but I didn’t look away from him.
“Move!” I heard the ground crew screaming.
Paxton and I slid onto the catwalk, and as he gathered me into the safety of his arms, the last of the supports gave way, and the catwalk crashed to the now-empty ramp below.
So close. It had been so close.
“Is she okay?” he called down, his arms firmly wrapped around me. I rested my head on his chest, listening to his heart and trying to match mine to its steady beat. For every ounce of bravery that had somehow surfaced, I felt that much weaker lying in Paxton’s embrace, like my body was completely depleted of adrenaline, energy, whatever it was that had kept me on that catwalk.
Landon hovered over Penna, his hands running the length of her body.
“Landon!” Paxton yelled, but still didn’t move when Landon threw him the universal one-fingered wait sign.
“She’s breathing! Give us a second!”
I felt the war within Paxton rage, the need to be with his friends versus the need to stay with me.
“You can go,” I whispered.
“Not until you’re okay,” he responded, resting his chin on my head. “God, when I saw you up here, I didn’t know if I could get to you in time. I’ve never been that scared in my life.”
“Me, either,” I admitted. “Thank you for coming for me.”
“God, Leah,” he said, tipping my face up to his, “all I wanted was to trade places with you. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you safe.”
Now my heart was racing again.
“Pax!” Landon shouted. “I think just her leg is fucked up.”
We both sagged in relief. “Are you okay?” Paxton asked.
“Let’s get down there,” I said.
“It was supposed to be you!” Brooke shrieked from behind us, where she was held by two huge security guards. “She’s supposed to be fixing her bike!”
“She wanted to use mine instead, you traitor! You could have fucking killed her!” Paxton railed. “You nearly killed Leah, you had me tossed in jail, and you messed with our equipment? I know you’ve had a hard time, Brooke, but she’s your sister! We’re your family!”
“It was supposed to be you! How could you leave him behind? How could you do his trick? How could you use everything he built and just step over him, forget him, knowing what you did to him?”
Paxton helped me to stand, keeping my hand tucked in his. “Because he’s helping me!”
Brooke stilled, her eyes blinking rapidly, sanity itself coming back into them. “What?”
“That’s his design, Brooke. That’s his ramp technique. That’s his kicker. Who do you think mapped out the drop zone in Madagascar? Helped design the pipe layout in Barcelona?”
“I don’t believe you,” she said, panic creeping over her features.
“Then ask him yourself,” he snapped and pointed to the end of the motocross track, where a young man sat in a wheelchair, looking up at us.
“Nick,” she gasped.
He simply shook his head at her.
“Take her,” Paxton ordered the guards.
We all descended as quickly as possible, Paxton and I both breaking into a run to get to Penna. Never once did he let go of my hand after we hit the ground. My lungs burned by the time we reached the main level, where Penna had been neck-braced and placed on a stretcher.
“I need to deal with the arena, but I need to go with Penna, too,” Paxton said, ripping his free hand through his hair.
“Go with Penna. I’ll stay,” Nick said, coming up behind us.
He was devastatingly handsome with thick blond hair that was given to curl, bright blue eyes, and a Paul Walker mouth. “You must be Leah. I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances, but I’m glad to meet the woman who’s tamed Wilder.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Nick. I’ve heard a ton of great things about you.”
“None of them are true,” he said with a grimace. “Seriously. Take Landon and go. I’ve got it here.”
“I’ll stay, too,” I told Paxton as they loaded Penna into the back of the ambulance. “Between the two of us, we’ll take care of it.”
Paxton nodded once, then pulled me against him, kissing me fiercely. “I thought I almost lost you.”
“You almost did,” I said, and we both knew I meant more than what had just happened.
“I love you, Leah. If that means you need me to stop riding, stop filming, stop…anything, I will. Everything is empty without you. I’m empty.”
I kissed him gently. “I love you, too. Now go.”
“Does this mean…?”
“It means we’ll talk later. Get your ass in the ambulance and keep me updated.”
“I know what it took for you to trust me with your life up there. I’m just asking for you to trust me with your heart.”
“I know,” I whispered, needing a little more time for my brain to catch up to what my heart, body, and soul already knew: I was always going to be his.
He stole one more kiss and then jumped into the back of the ambulance. As they pulled out, Brooke was being lowered into a police car, her eyes locked on Nick.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to him, unable to process the thought that it had been Brooke all this time, laughing with me, guiding me, and plotting against Paxton. But I knew that my feelings had to be nothing compared to Nick’s.
“Me, too,” he answered, his eyes saddened with a loss I could only imagine. “Me, too.”