Fifteen Years Ago
SIEGE Secret Training Facility, New Rochelle, NY
“Everyone, partner up. Someone you haven’t worked with before.”
Dix looked around the room, trying to find someone among his fellow recruits who fit the order. There weren’t many. Everyone knew who his father was. They assumed he could be an asset toward their goals of high placement in SIEGE and jockeyed to be his partner in each training exercise.
Most recruits to Strategic Infiltration of Enemy Group Enterprise, or SIEGE because damn, that was a ridiculous name, didn’t go through this session. The company, which gathered intelligence for a variety of agencies, operated with severe compartmentalization. Operators, conduits, and handlers took different, mostly individual tracks through training, their identities only need-to-know. This group, the one Dix was struggling to be a real part of, had higher aspirations and had passed the tests necessary to train as facilitators. SIEGE needed people to communicate with the outside world. To smooth over ragged interactions, clean up messes, deal with families. They were the logistical and psychological manipulators of the agency. They alone knew who worked for the company, in what capacity, and helped them do their jobs. They were the SIEGE elite.
Dix wanted to be a facilitator. But only half of the ten people in this room would make it. That was all they had room for when this session was over. The others, at least those who didn’t wash out, could become handlers. As the son of one of the founders of SIEGE, Dix would be disgraced if that’s what happened to him. Everyone in here thought he had it made, that his father would put him wherever he wanted to be. The truth was the extreme opposite. His father didn’t want him in SIEGE at all.
His gaze landed on the one person he hadn’t worked with yet. Skye Burgeson. She stood on the far side of the training room, wearing the same black workout tights and royal-blue, short-sleeved athletic shirt everyone else wore. Her blond-streaked brown hair was pulled back in a really long ponytail that swished like a horse’s tail every time she turned her head. Which she kept doing, obviously looking for a partner while avoiding Dix’s attempts to catch her eye.
But he had no other options, which meant she didn’t, either, and he walked over, wishing the thick padding on the floor didn’t make his stride so wobbly. Skye’s shoulders rose and dropped as she gave an obvious sigh, and she finally met his gaze with gold-green eyes that somehow managed to be icy, despite the glow they gave her copper complexion.
“Hi,” he said cheerfully, holding out a hand. “Conrad Dixson. Dix.”
“I know.” She ignored the hand and pushed past him. “Let’s just get this over with.”
He trailed in her wake to an open spot. An assistant passed around padded gloves.
“This workout is about not getting hit. One of you will do your best to strike the other, using whatever form of personal combat you think will work. But the goal is contact, not disabling, so if anyone causes deliberate damage to their partner, they’ll lose ten points.”
Dix handed back a pair of gloves that were too small and glanced sideways at Skye while he tried another pair. Sure enough, she looked disappointed at the instruction not to cause harm.
“The second person will not strike, but only concentrate on avoiding the hits. We’re watching.” The instructor pointed to the ring of cameras surrounding the room. “Every touch will subtract two points from your score. Every avoidance will add one. When I call time, you’ll switch roles. The first person to reach a score of two hundred will receive fifty extra points, and the exercise will end.”
These were Dix’s least favorite drills. The point system was arbitrary and complex. Everything they did had points attached, so there were a million opportunities to gain or lose. It kept them on their toes and strengthened the competition, but also prevented friendships and support among classmates. That undermined some of the traits he thought were essential to a facilitator’s job.
Skye’s gloves fit on the first try, and she smirked while she pulled them on and fastened the Velcro across the back of her wrist. “You don’t like these sessions, do you, Dixson?”
“You have good instincts,” he told her, not afraid to admit his thoughts. “But you probably don’t know why I don’t like them.”
A ready buzz accompanied the start of a twenty-second preliminary countdown. They faced each other, Skye’s raised, loose fists an obvious declaration that she was hitting first.
“Because you lose them?” she suggested, her tone holding way more disdain than he felt he deserved.
“No, because facilitators don’t fight.”
The starting bell went off. Skye leapt hard into it, but Dix spun left, easily dodging her full-body attack. Then there was no time for taunts or banter. Dodge. Duck. Jump. Left. Left. Right. Left again. She was quick and smart, mixing up her approach so he couldn’t detect and avoid a pattern. She almost clipped his ankle on the leg sweep he jumped over, but that was on him. He wasn’t good at height.
Skye pulled her final punch and rocked back, re-balancing on the balls of her feet just in time for Dix to miss her shoulder. He tried to get behind her, but she was able to follow his motion, keeping him in sight so even when her body wasn’t turned fully, she knew where he was coming from. She avoided every strike, and when the instructor called time again, they switched without pausing. Grunts, panting, and a few cries peppered the room, but Dix barely registered any of it. Skye was determined to beat him, so he was equally determined not to let her.
After the third switch, she managed to land a blow. He cursed under his breath and ducked, which avoided the next swing but hampered his awareness so he couldn’t see the kick coming at his back. Two more points lost. He danced backward, out of her range, and she didn’t get another chance at him until the instructor called time again. He surged forward, bouncing his fists off her shoulder, ribs, and thigh in quick succession, regaining most of the lost points before she was able to get out of his way again. She avoided all his other strike attempts, but when the buzzer went off and everyone in the room relaxed, including Dix, she slammed her fist into his nose.
The world went white, then blurred back into view as he slowly—it felt slow, anyway—tipped backward and landed hard on the mat. He blinked at the ceiling, his ears buzzing, his nose and cheekbones on fire.
“Minus twenty points!” the instructor barked. “Deliberate damage, Burgeson, and failing to heed the signal ending the drill.”
Skye sneered down at Dix. “Worth it.”
Her ponytail swept the air over him as she spun and followed their classmates out of the room. Dix gently prodded his nose with his fingers. He didn’t think she’d broken it, but a swipe under his nostrils showed blood. Great.
The room fell silent. Everyone had left him there, including the instructor. Not that he cared. He was no longer here to make friends and didn’t need help. But Burgeson’s animosity went way beyond anyone else’s. What the hell had he done to her?
And why did he care?
* * *
Skye glared at the tote board in the main hallway in SIEGE’s training wing. Every person on the board had thousands of points after four weeks of training. They had a few days left, and she was solidly in the middle of the pack. Not a place she was used to being. You’d think, with all the constant, stupid ways the trainers had thought up to earn or lose points, it would be easier to make progress. But despite some fluctuation in the standings every day, they’d pretty much laid their ground in the first week.
Fifth place. She sneered at the number. Her brother would never have allowed himself to drop that far. In all his short years on Earth, he’d always been at the top. Poor tribute she was paying to his legacy. His voice drifted through the back of her mind. You got this, Blue Skye. Ignore the number. That was always how he’d been. Far more forgiving and encouraging to her and her sister than to himself.
But he wasn’t here, so it was all up to her. Four people ahead of her. Three of them deserved their spots, she had to admit. They were all good at different aspects of the program, and their numbers were single digits apart. So were hers and the guy who held the fourth position, thanks in part to the flash of temper that had cost her twenty points last week. Until then, she’d had a solid lead on Conrad Dixson.
The back of her neck burned, and she had to consciously unclench her hands. The loosening allowed air into the vents on her fingerless leather gloves, cooling the sweat on her palms. Dix hadn’t earned his way into this program. He’d been handed his spot, and for what? He was going wherever he wanted to go in SIEGE, and everyone knew it. That meant someone else, someone who’d do a better job, who’d care more, had been screwed. Skye had been bummed when her friend, who’d applied with her, didn’t get into the program. But she’d been furious when she found out Dixson was here. Son of one of the founders. Taking up a spot someone else should get. She’d avoided him since the start, because her fury would interfere with her focus. Smart decision, given what happened in that sparring drill, and even though she’d told him it was worth it, right now she regretted it completely. She had to make the top five.
A figure moved into place behind her right shoulder. Out of her view, but she knew who it was. Could sense him across a room—but only him. Something inside her came to life when he approached, and it drove her nuts.
“How’s your nose?” Her tone was as snide as she could manage, though the consequences were a sick tension in the back of her throat. She’d been raised better than that. Turn around and apologize.
The board flickered. The person in sixth position gained a bunch of points, and the order shuffled. Now she was in sixth place, with Dix in fifth. Marianas had somehow leapfrogged them both.
“My nose is fine, thanks.”
Dix had taken the high road. He sounded as if she’d asked with real concern, and his voice was a mellow, pleasant glide across her nerve endings that never stopped burning.
That’s too bad. She tightened her lips around the words and took three long, slow breaths. This wasn’t over. She had time to make it back. And she would. Without help. But maybe it was time to try to make things even. Maybe Dix needed to understand how things really were.
She spun, opened her mouth, and blinked, confused. He didn’t wear the workout leggings and shirt they’d all been issued, or sweats like most of them when they weren’t in official gear. There wasn’t any point in dressing any nicer, not during training. And they weren’t allowed outside the facility, not until they’d made the cut and went on to phase two.
But Dix wore a gray suit over a dark royal-blue shirt, the collar open. His normally messy hair was mostly combed, with a few bits sticking up in a very appealing way. He was clean-shaven, where most of the guys only bothered every few days. And he smelled amazing. Some light, spicy aftershave.
“What are you wearing?” Apparently, she’d overloaded her ability to control what she said.
He glanced down. “It’s called a suit.”
Snarky words, but without a snarky tone. Just humor. He was trying so fucking hard to make friends, even though she’d punched him in the face. What a jerk.
“Why would you wear a suit in here?”
He shook his head, hands sliding into his pockets. “Not in here. I had an appointment.”
The rage lit again. “We’re not supposed to have appointments. See, that’s the problem with you, Dixson. You’re not supposed to be here. You took a more deserving operator’s spot. And now you get privileges the rest of us don’t get. What was it, a job interview? Because, sure, cheat someone out of their dream and then throw it aside anyway. That’s fair.”
She threw up a hand. “I don’t care. Sorry I asked. I just wanted to tell you something. See that?” She shot a finger at the board. “I’m out. If they ended phase one today, I wouldn’t make the cut. And that would be fine if it was because I couldn’t help myself and punched your smug face.” She almost faltered when he grinned. Why wasn’t he more angry? It was disarming, and that just pissed her off more. She rocked onto her toes, trying not to turn purple.
“You have time to make it back,” Dix said with all the appearance of sincerity. “You’re good. And Marianas just got an early slot for the blind test. You’ll ace that. Your instincts are perfect.”
She dropped on her heels. He was actually complimenting her? No. It was a mind game. Because he had it made, and he was bored.
“Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. But what sucks is that the rest of us really have to be in that top five. You don’t make it, so what?” She raised her palms and sneered. “Daddy will just give you a job anyway. But if you’re in the top five, that cheats someone else out of a spot. Again.”
“What do you mean, again?”
She couldn’t. She was seriously losing her cool, and that was likely to lose her points again if anyone noticed. It was just after lunch, and the hallway had steady traffic, between the trainees and the staff and instructors. And she’d deserve it. Her temper, her inability to keep a level head when faced with injustice, had become her biggest obstacle to success. Dix ignited it faster than anyone, and she knew, deep down, that was because something else could grow between them if given even a moment of attention. The two together posed a huge threat to her goals. There was no room for either kinds of emotion in her career.
So she just shook her head and walked away. One more week. All she had to do was focus, and she’d make it.
Whether or not Dix also made it had nothing to do with her, and if he did make it, they’d have to work together. That realization was enough to blow foam at the base of her fire. She had to stop making it about him and concentrate on herself.
In the back of her mind, settling in next to the voice that had wanted her to apologize earlier, was the spark of a reality she refused to consider.
If she had to work with Dix, she might not be able to work at SIEGE at all.
* * *
Skye stood on the stage listening to their lead instructor give a pretty decent speech about the five trainees who’d succeeded in reaching phase two of facilitator training. She and the four other graduates exchanged proud smiles, but she couldn’t help frowning out at the small crowd watching the ceremony. Four of the trainees who hadn’t made the cut sat glumly in a row, surrounded by the instructors and support staff. Half of the latter were on their phones and clearly didn’t care, but it probably seemed stupid to have a full ceremony with no one watching. It wasn’t like families and friends could come celebrate something they didn’t even know about.
What had her frowning was that Dixson wasn’t down there. She’d fully expected him to be on the stage. She’d even thought the board blackout was so they could mask it if he didn’t do well enough to make the top five. But he was clearly not ranked, and even more baffling, wasn’t in the audience. The total bitch in her wanted to snark that he couldn’t handle failure and had run off to Daddy to get him to fix things.
But she had to be honest. She was facing a big, serious job in a highly secretive, dangerous industry. Honesty with herself was vital if she was going to make it. And the truth was that the Dix she’d seen over the past week wasn’t the entitled douchebag she’d painted him to be. He was respectful of his teammates and had won a bunch of them over, except her and a couple of disgruntled jerks who’d thought they could cozy up to him and get tag-along preferential treatment. Dix hadn’t refused to share that treatment because he was selfish. He’d refused it because he didn’t have it. She could only now, at the end, see that.
Everyone clapped, and she blinked, joining in belatedly. A few minutes later, they’d broken up to do a final champagne toast and socialize before leaving the facility. Phase two started in two weeks, so she’d be going home to California until then. Her family thought she was in an intense post-grad internship, and part of their training had included how to talk about it as if it had actually happened. She was looking forward to that.
Skye hugged the woman she’d become closest to goodbye and carried their empty glasses to the collection table. She was near the door to the hallway and heard someone outside the room speak.
“You hear anything from Dixson?” they asked. “He know he made handler?”
“He told me he expected it and was fine with that,” someone else replied. She recognized the lead instructor’s voice. “But he hasn’t called. It sounded bad.”
“Poor guy. No wonder he struggled through the training.”
“I wouldn’t say he struggled. He came within two points of making it. Burgeson was unstoppable these last couple of days, though.”
She smiled slightly, pride a warmth in her chest.
“Still. Imagine how well he might have done if his mother hadn’t been undergoing brain surgery.”
Glass crashed, the fine crystal scattering across the white tablecloth. Two people leaned in through the doorway.
She grimaced and gestured at the table with the broken stem remaining in her hand. “Good thing I wasn’t so butterfingery during drills, huh?”
“I’ll get someone to clean that up,” the boss said. “Leave it so you don’t cut yourself.”
She used a napkin to try to push it all together, the warmth replaced with a ball of ice. It was like someone had gone inside her and tossed the room, completely messing up her understanding of how the world worked. She thought of the day Dix had worn a suit. His appointment must have been at the hospital. And if he wasn’t here today, and it “sounded bad,” things must be going wrong. She couldn’t imagine how that hurt.
Yes, you can.
She blinked away the memory of her brother’s official portrait next to the casket, Taps echoing faintly in the back of her mind.
It sounded like she’d been wrong about everything. If they hadn’t manipulated the rankings to give him the job he wanted, and were forcing him to be a handler, then he probably had gotten into the program on his merits in the first place.
“I’ve got that, Ms. Burgeson.” One of the staff approached with a hand brush and plastic-lined pail. “Don’t touch any of the glass.”
“Thank you.” She backed away and realized everyone was gone.
“Congratulations,” the man told her. “Lotta hard work ahead.”
“I know. Thank you. I’m looking forward to it.”
Except she wasn’t. As she headed back to her room to retrieve her things, she had only dread in her heart. She should be feeling amazing, on top of the world.
Instead, all she felt was shame.