« Chapter 1 »
This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening.
I'm breaking all the rules, she thought. The realization both terrified and thrilled her at the same time. I can't do this.
But the inexorable force that was pulling her towards him told her otherwise. It wasn't that she couldn't do it; it was just that she wasn't supposed to.
His head was turned slightly in her direction. He couldn't see her—he was blindfolded—but he could hear her. She could pretty much do anything she wanted with him, and he wouldn't be able to do a thing.
His breathing sounded shallow and erratic beneath his gag. Her own breath caught in her throat at the sight of him, bound and gagged. She hated this. She hated him for being who he was. She hated her mission supervisor for assigning her team this task. And she hated her team for succeeding. But most of all, she hated herself for not being able to do anything to make it all better.
He wouldn't know that it was her, of course. All he would know was that his entire world had turned upside down, and no matter what he did, or she did, there was no way to ever make it right again.
From the very start, I knew that this mission was a very bad idea. There was absolutely nothing that could go right, and there was no justification whatsoever for our assignment.
Normally, we always do as we're told. We do what we're supposed to do, because that's the way we were trained. We always accomplish our given tasks without asking questions.
Except for this time.
"Micah," Kale was saying uncertainly, "this isn't going to work. We can't all just randomly transfer into a public school at the same time. And all of us getting close to the target? It won't be believable."
"I agree," Ashley piped up. Her response didn't surprise me in the slightest; she always agreed with her boyfriend. "Besides, this is a terrible assignment. We can't just randomly kidnap some boy."
Micah leaned forward in her seat. Her eyes were dark and her gaze was intense as she stared down the petite brunette in front of her. "This is not just 'some boy' I'm talking about here. I am talking about the son of one of the richest men in the state. I'm talking about the son of a CEO of a company that sells new, high-tech equipment to rogue task forces and international customers. If that's true, then he's a threat to national security. However, no one can call him on it, since technically, we don't have any proof that his customers exist. At least, not yet. But we have agents working on it." She didn't look too happy about the entire situation.
Lance spoke up. "So basically, since you can't touch the guy, you want us to go after his son?" His eyebrows were arched and he had a shrewd look on his face. He knew he'd hit the nail right on the head. I knew it too, by the way Micah grimaced.
"I don't like this any better than you guys do," she told us. "But just like you guys get your orders from me, I get my orders from someone else. Someone wants me to put you guys on this case."
"But we've never done a mission like this before," Kale insisted. "Getting information, sure. Shadowing people, sure. Even eliminating targets is okay. But kidnapping?" he shook his head. "You're giving the assignment to the wrong team."
"It'll be like babysitting a rich brat," Micah said practically. "Get close, get him, and get out. That's all there is to it."
"What's his name?" Shayne asked.
Micah glanced down at the papers strewn across her desk. "His name is Jaden. Jaden Belmonte."
"And what's going to happen to him?" Ashley asked quietly. Her hazel eyes were dark. "If his dad doesn't want to cut a deal, what are we supposed to do? Kill him?"
Her words hung in the air. Micah didn't answer. No one spoke; we all just watched her, waiting.
Anyone else would have broken down under the stares of five trained agents with licenses to kill. But not Micah. She dealt with us on a regular basis, so she was used to it. Still, she fidgeted, clearly not wanting to answer Ashley's question.
"That's not your concern," she said finally. "You will receive more instructions as you proceed. For now, your main goal is to acquire the boy. After that… well, we'll see."
It was a clear dismissal.
I shot a glance at Kale. His chocolate-brown eyes were troubled and his mouth was set in a grim line, but he didn't argue. He just stood up to leave, and the rest of us followed his cue.
"Kale," Ashley burst out as soon as we'd left Micah's office, "don't tell me you're going to go along with this!"
"This is demeaning," Lance jumped in. "Micah knows we're good. We can do anything. So why send us on a mundane kidnapping mission? She could have sent any other team to do it. It's undignified, that's what it is."
I suppressed a grin. Lance was the ultimate tech genius. He always felt that field operations that actually required physical effort were undignified. A "dignified" mission, to him, consisted of hacking into companies' top secret files or crashing an entire network infrastructure.
"This is stupid," Shayne agreed. "If she wants us to kill him, then fine. I'm down with that. But I'm not going to cozy up to some rich kid and then kidnap him and babysit him while Micah and everyone else decides what to do with him. This is a waste of our time."
Ashley swung around to glare at him. "You're an ass," she hissed. "Do you have no conscience whatsoever? You talk about killing as if it's easy."
He smirked at her. "Babe, you're the one who's out of place here. You're an agent with a license to kill. We all are. And we all do what we need to do. This is no place for someone with a conscience."
Kale intervened before Ashley could even open her mouth to argue further. "Guys, stop. We've been over this before." He looked exhausted, and I didn't blame him; it was never easy to be the leader, especially of a group like ours. Everyone had their own opinions and personalities, and more often than not, those personalities clashed. Kale was best friends with Shayne, but he was dating Ashley, and that put him constantly in the middle of their arguments.
Shayne rolled his eyes. "Fine, whatever. Protect your girlfriend, like you always do. But you know I'm right."
Kale ignored him. Instead, his gaze focused on me. "Lyla, you haven't said a single word this whole time. What do you think about all of this?"
I shrugged. I wasn't normally this quiet, and Kale knew it. No one beat Shayne in terms of extroversion or loquaciousness—except maybe Lance when he was spouting technical nonsense—but I came close. I was definitely more outspoken than Ashley, in any case.
"I don't know," I admitted. "It may not be our ideal mission, but I'm sure we could pull it off. This isn't the hardest thing we've been asked to do."
"Nor the most dignified," Lance muttered.
Kale's lips curved into a wry grin. "But you're game?"
Shayne gave him a look. "Isn't she always?"
I bit my tongue to keep myself from snapping at him. More often than not, he was abrasive and arrogant, but what he said was true. I was always the first to agree to a mission. Unlike Ashley, I had no qualms about what we did. I knew the rules; I'd known them since I'd first been recruited to the team.
Killing wasn't fun, but when it had to be done, it had to be done.
That was just the way things were.
"I'm game," I replied.
Kale gave me a probing look, and I knew he'd sensed my slight hesitation. He was the most perceptive of all of us; it was the reason why he was our leader, and why we always followed him without question.
"But?" he questioned.
Once again, I paused. "I don't know, Kale. I just have a bad feeling on this one."
"It's just your conscience," Ashley assured me. "Because unlike someone"—she shot a pointed look at Shayne—"you definitely have one. Even if you've learned to hide it."
"It's probably nerves," Shayne said, ignoring her jibe at Kale's sharp look. "This is new to all of us, so you're probably just worried about how it'll all turn out."
"Maybe," I murmured. But despite it all, I was still unconvinced.
Kale gave me measured look before he turned to the others. "You guys go ahead. I want to talk to Lyla for a minute."
Ashley hesitated, but after a moment, she trailed after Lance and Shayne.
As soon as we were alone, he turned to me. "So what is it exactly that's bothering you?"
Kale might have been the most perceptive out of all of us, but I was the most precognitive. Whenever I got these feelings, I trusted them, and I knew Kale did too.
I shook my head. "I can't really pinpoint it. Maybe Shayne's right. Maybe I'm just nervous because we've never done something like this before."
His smile was small but genuine. "Lyla, I don't believe that for a second. You're fearless."
"But this feeling really is unfounded."
"It's called instinct."
"Or paranoia," I countered.
He ignored that. "Good instinct is the essence of a good agent, remember?"
"Quoting our trainers now?" I teased.
"Hey, they taught us some good stuff." But despite his light tone, his brown eyes were still slightly worried.
I sighed. "Look, Kale, it's okay. I don't know what's wrong with me today, but I'll be fine. I'm ready for this mission."
He studied me for a moment longer, then nodded. "Alright, I believe you. Try and get some sleep. We all need to get up bright and early tomorrow."
As I watched him walk away down the hall, conflicting emotions swirled within me. What Micah was asking us to do wasn't impossible, I knew. But something in me was telling me that this was going to be a lot harder than any of us expected.
"So has everyone contacted their real parents?" Jonathon asked the next morning.
We were all sitting at the breakfast table. It was crowded with everyone there: Kale, Ashley, Shayne, Lance, and Jonathon and Kayla, two agents who were posing as our "parents" during the mission. It was our assignment, but Micah had sent them along to ensure that we were covered if any sticky situations should arise.
There were nods all around. All of our parents were completely unaware of our rather unusual extracurricular activities. They had no clue that we were all agents of a special branch of the national government.
We'd all been recruited when we were relatively young. All our parents had been told that their son or daughter had been accepted into a prestigious private school. They had been informed that their children possessed remarkable talents and skills that the proper education would be able to hone. What they didn't know was that the private school was actually a government-funded boarding school for special agents. What they weren't told was that the "proper education" made us into the next generation of 007's.
"So do we actually have to walk to school?" Shayne asked. "Please tell me Micah at least gave us cars. We're technically seniors; we can drive to school."
We were all staying at a rented house not too far from the public high school that we were now apparently attending. It wasn't too far to just walk to the school, but as always, Shayne didn't have the time or patience to take a stroll.
"Yep, three cars. Car one, Lyla and Lance. Car two, Ashley and Shayne. Kale gets his own."
The table exploded all at once. "What?" Ashley and Shayne burst out at the same time.
"That's a bad idea—" Kale interjected.
"—they'll kill each other," Lance finished.
"Lovely," I muttered under my breath.
Jonathon shrugged. "You guys read your assignment files, right? The two of you are supposed to be brother and sister."
"We didn't get those files," Shayne said, his blue eyes snapping with anger. "We just received the mission yesterday. We were expecting to get them this morning."
Jonathon and Kayla exchanged a look before Kayla got up and left the room. A few moments later, she returned with a stack of folders in her hand. "We meant to leave these outside your rooms last night so you could read them this morning when you got up, but I guess it must've slipped our minds." She handed each of us a folder with our names on the sides: Kale Davis. Shayne Morrison. Ashley Hayes. Lance Bryant. Lyla Griffin.
I ran my fingers lightly over my name, then opened the file. I scanned through it quickly, trying to memorize my new alias and cover. Then I glanced over at Lance. "Let me guess… Lance Atherton?"
He grinned at me. "Good guess, little sis. I'm a year older than you. You skipped a grade, which is why you're a senior."
"Lyla and Lance Atherton." I shook my head. "Why is it that we always get assigned a brother-sister role? We're nothing alike."
"It's the hair," Jonathon said, watching us with an amused look on his face.
Self-consciously, I ran a hand through my light blonde hair. It was a shade paler than Lance's sandy hair, but I supposed they were close enough to pass. Our eyes were different, though; I had green eyes and he had light blue.
"Our names even match," he said, as if sensing what I was thinking. "But apparently I got all the brains in the family, while you just got the looks."
"Hey!" I snatched up a bagel and threw it at him.
He caught it in midair, laughing. "I'm just kidding, little sis."
"Siblings," Kale said knowingly.
At his words, I glanced over at Ashley and Shayne. Both of them were reading their files still, not looking too happy.
"So?" I prompted. "What are your covers?"
"Kale Benjamin," said Kale. "I just transferred from a school in Connecticut. I'm an only child—thankfully—and my parents are rich." He looked over at his girlfriend. "Ash?"
"Ashley Callahan," she said, not looking up from her file. "Related to an arrogant idiot named Shayne Callahan. We're fraternal twins. Micah's insane; she has to be. Fraternal twins, seriously?" She slammed her folder shut. "I swear, this kid we're kidnapping had better be worth the time. Otherwise, I'll kill him myself."
She rose from the table and stomped out of the room. Kale sighed and got up to follow her. At the doorway, he turned back to look at Shayne. "She'll meet you out by the car in ten minutes," he said. Then he left, presumably to calm down his girlfriend.
"I didn't even do anything this time," Shayne said.
I rolled my eyes. "Could you please just not antagonize her so much?"
"Ooh, big word," Shayne mocked. "Be careful, Lance, or Lyla will steal back the brains and have all the looks."
"See what I mean?" I demanded.
"You guys have to leave soon," Jonathon interrupted before Shayne could say anything more. "School starts in fifteen minutes, and you'll want to get there early."
I pushed back from the table and went upstairs to my room to grab my stuff. All of my books were already in my bag; the semester had started a week and a half ago, and I had everything I needed to effectively become a student of Glen Oaks High. Micah had made sure that all the bases were covered: the rest was up to us.
Since Lance didn't want to drive, I took the keys to the shiny black Volvo. On the way, the five of us had a brief conversation though a three-way call.
"Lyla and Lance, you guys are going to 'accidentally' run into Ashley and Shayne in the main office while you're getting your schedules. You know the drill. You're all new, so you become friends. Make sure you have as many witnesses as possible." Kale's voice filtered through Lance's cell, which was on speakerphone so I could hear what he had to say also.
"No problem there," Shayne murmured. "Everyone's always interested in the new kids."
"What about you, Kale?" Ashley asked.
"I'm going to come in late. I'm a spoiled rich kid from a private school in Connecticut, remember? We have to cover all our bases. We don't know anything about Jaden Belmonte. If he turns out to be a spoiled rich kid too, then I'm the one who gets close. If he's an arrogant asshole, Morrison can move in." Kale's voice held no malice towards his best friend.
"If he likes to save the whales, Ashley will be his friend," Shayne murmured. Then, "Ow! Don't hit me, I'm driving!"
"If he's a techie or genius—which I highly doubt, but I suppose it is probable—I'd be more than happy to be the link," Lance said, ignoring the argument coming from Ashley and Shayne's end of the conversation.
"What about me?" I asked.
There was a slight pause in the conversation. Finally, Kale spoke. "If he's none of the above, then Lyla, he's all yours."