Hunted (Talented Saga # 3), p.1
Published by Sophie Davis
Copyright © 2012 by Sophie Davis
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The Talented Saga
Talented (Talented Saga # 1)
Caged (Talented Saga # 2)
Hunted (Talented Saga # 3)
Captivated, A Talented Novella
Created (Talented Saga # 4)…Summer 2013
Pawn (Nightmares Trilogy #1)
Sacrifice (Nightmares Trilogy #2)…Winter 2013
Blind Barriers Series
Blind Barriers (Volume #1)…Summer 2013
For my Grandma Nan and Grandpa Bob.
“Do you have to go, Talia?” Kenly Baker whined for the hundredth time since she found out about my new assignment. She batted her long lashes, jutting out her lower lip as if she were five instead of sixteen. I rolled my eyes at her failed attempt at manipulation. She’d clearly forgotten who she was dealing with. I, of course, was a master manipulator; her efforts didn’t hold a candle to my abilities.
“I have to, Kenly,” I soothed my protégé. “But like I’ve told you a million times, I’ll only be gone for three weeks. Donavon promised to oversee your training, and he has the practice schedule that I made. .You’ll be fine.”
“I know, I know, but it’s not the same. He’s not you,” the younger girl pouted.
“No, in many ways he’s better. He actually became a Hunter,” I reminded her - and myself - a little bitterly.
“That’s not what I meant,” she grumbled, refolding a dress shirt from the pile on my bed.
Guilt washed over me. As much as I wanted to get away from the School, I hated leaving Kenly. Over the past few weeks, she’d become more of a friend and less of a mentee. I knew she would never be the best friend and confidante that Penny had been, but Kenly put me at ease, and the calm that I felt while with her was a welcome respite. Training her soothed the hurt and confusion of Penny’s betrayal, and Kenly’s loyalty and dedication to the Agency helped renew my own.
“You’ll be fine,” I promised, liberating the shirt from her long fingers before she could make any more creases in the soft fabric. I held up a basic black cocktail dress and matching jacket. “What do you think about this?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Kinda boring,” she mused, barely sparing the frock a second glance as she made her way across my bedroom. Kenly rifled through the assortment of garment bags in my walk-in closet.
“How about this one?” She held up a long green silk dress with a cinched waist.
Pursing my lips, I shook my head and returned my attention to the stacks of black pants and white shirts covering my king-sized bed. Tears stung the backs of my eyes and I blinked furiously to hold them at bay. The dress she’d selected brought bittersweet memories back.
The first and only time I’d worn that dress was for Festivis two years ago. I was still a Hunter Pledge then, and Mac, the Director of Toxic, had given me and Penny permission to go into Washington, D.C. to celebrate. It had been an incredible day…but having spent it with Penny made the memory so conflicted. And it wasn’t just that one; every thought of Penny caused nauseating spasms to rip through my stomach, and ropes of anger, pain, and guilt to wrap around my lungs, making every breath that followed a chore. I’d thought that I knew her. I’d thought that she was my best friend. And until three weeks ago, she was. When I’d learned that Penny was the spy for the Coalition, the person responsible for my brush with death and subsequent health problems, I was livid. But when I confronted Penny, she’d pleaded with me to understand that Mac was not who I thought he was, and that the Agency couldn’t be trusted. I hadn’t known what to think then, and I still didn’t now.
I wanted to hate her for her deception. I wanted to be happy that she was getting what she deserved, wanted to feel pride that I’d been the one to uncover her treachery. Yet every time that I tried to summon any of those emotions, I found it impossible. When I thought about Penny and the price she’d paid, I mostly felt disgust – for her, for me, for the Agency.
“I just don’t understand why you’re taking all black,” Kenly commented, replacing the dress and drawing my attention back to her.
“I’m going on assignment, Kenly. I’ll be working the entire time. It’s not as if this is a vacation,” I answered absently.
“It’s not a funeral, either, Tal.”
She rolled her large brown eyes. Kenly knew about Penny - it seemed to be the only thing anyone talked about anymore - but like everyone associated with Toxic, she didn’t understand why I grieved for a traitor. Sometimes I didn’t either.
“Right, I guess you have a point,” I mumbled, gripping a shirt so tightly, the skin over my knuckles turned as white as the fabric. Kenly did have a point. Except, while it wasn’t a funeral I’d be attending, I was in mourning.
I glanced at the communicator sitting on my bedside table - 3:12 p.m. I hugged myself to still the tremors starting in my limbs. Penny had been dead for just over ten hours.
The memory of Penny pale and gaunt, in the courtroom on the day of her sentencing, haunted my dreams. I hated remembering her that way. When we’d first met, Penny was vivacious and carefree. I tried to concentrate on that version of my former best friend - so full of life. Thinking about the fun we’d had together, and how much she meant to me, I could almost block out the painful memories of the last time I saw her…almost.
“It’s okay to miss her,” Kenly said, startling me out of my reverie once again.
“I can tell you’re hurting, Tal. It’s because of her, right?” Kenly rarely said Penny’s name, if she mentioned her at all.
I preferred it that way. I couldn’t stand the feelings that emanated from people when they thought about Penny. Some hated her. Some felt sorry for her. And worst of all, a lot felt sorry for me. I didn’t want anyone’s sympathy
“I don’t want to talk about her,” I replied, more harshly than I intended. I knew Kenly was only trying to help, but I could feel her pity, and it made irrational anger bubble up in my stomach. Kenly paled.
“Right. I’m sorry.”
She turned away to hide her hurt feelings. The overload of emotions that I was already experiencing left no room for shame at the way I’d spoken to her.
“You ready? Dad will be back soon,” a deep voice called from my sitting room.
I looked up from the open suitcase that I had yet to actually pack. Donavon McDonough’s blonde head peeked through the open doorway. His bright blue eyes darkened as he took in my black pants, black sweater, and even blacker mood. Sympathy slipped through his mental barriers, washing over me in a cool embrace. I couldn’t meet his gaze.
“Does it look like I’m ready?” I snapped, gesturing to the clothes strewn across my burgundy comforter.
“What can I do to help?” Donavon asked, lightening his tone.
I sighed. First Kenly, now Donavon. I needed to get it together, or I wasn’t going to have any friends left. They weren’t the source of my irritation. In actuality, I wasn’t at all sure who I was really mad at, but I had plenty of options: Penny for lying, Mac for taking pleasure in extinguishing the life of another human being, or
“Just promise me that you’ll make sure Kenly is ready for her Placement Exams,” I replied, glancing to where the younger girl stood in my closet, still studying my wardrobe.
“Don’t worry, Kenly, you can count on me,” he called, pitching his voice so she’d be sure to hear. “I’m not as good as Tal, but I’ll do my best.”
Kenly’s face flushed as she basked in his attention.
God, don’t let her get distracted, I prayed.
“Thanks, Donavon,” she mumbled, studying the plush carpeting beneath her feet, too shy to meet his eyes. Donavon had been helping me since I began coaching Kenly, but he still made her nervous.
“Kenly, I think my mom made lunch. Why don’t you go get started while I help Tal finish packing?” Donavon suggested.
Kenly nodded jerkily as she scurried from my bedroom.
“How ya doing?” Donavon asked once we were alone.
How was I doing? My best friend had just been executed, I wasn’t allowed to mourn her death openly, and I was so on edge that I rarely knew which way was up. I was doing just peachy. But I didn’t say any of that.
“I’ve been better,” I answered instead, finally starting to jam the piles of clothes from my bed into the empty suitcase.
“Maybe now you can start to put this behind you,” Donavon mentally sent. He made his way to my side. His hand hovered over my shoulder for a brief moment before falling to his side. Instead of touching me, he busied his hands placing several pairs of black pants into my bag.
“I hope so,” I sent back, refusing to meet his eyes. If I saw the concerned expression that he surely wore, the waterworks would be unavoidable. Since Penny’s sentencing, Donavon became a constant fixture in my life. He was one of the only people that saw me every day, and despite his valiant effort to keep his worried thoughts to himself, I knew my increasing instability vexed him.
“Maybe going with my father isn’t such a good idea,” he suggested, gently tucking loose curls behind my ear so that he could better read my expression.
After Penny’s sentencing, Mac asked me to accompany him to Washington, D.C. to help administer the annual Talent Aptitude Test. Every summer, all of the five-year-olds in the nation were summoned to one of five testing centers and tested to determine whether they possessed unique abilities. The children who tested positive were offered a spot at the McDonough School for the Talented, where they would learn to use their Talents for the greater good. The job wasn’t exciting or glamorous like my previous assignment with the Hunters, but it was something. The only other option I had was sitting in my bedroom waiting for Medical to find a cure to my condition. Until that happened, the Placement Committee considered me too much of a liability in the field to return to the Hunters.
“It’s for the best. I can’t stay here any longer. It reminds me too much of her,” I replied bitterly. “Besides, I don’t really have anywhere else to go. Medical still hasn’t cleared me and school is no longer in session, so I can’t even help with classes.”
“You could stay and finish helping Kenly get ready for her Placement Exams,” Donavon said. He no longer tried to reassure me that the doctors would find a cure for my seizures. Dr. Thistler had finally managed to get them under control – I was three weeks seizure-free – but until I was actually cured, I was stuck living in a state of perpetual limbo.
“I could......But honestly I think it’s better if I just get away from here for a while,” I sent back, zipping the larger of my two suitcases shut. Then I turned to my vanity and began packing my toiletries. “Besides, she has you.”
Donavon used to be a Hunter too. After he’d broken protocol by insisting on giving me a transfusion of his unfiltered blood, his father had him suspended from active duty and brought to the McDonough School. Like me, he’d been undercover, posing as an instructor at the school for the past couple of months, trying to flush out the traitor. Since we found the spy and Mac thought Donavon had learned his lesson, he was technically allowed to return to the Hunters. But he liked being an instructor and asked to stay at the school instead. I envied him the choice.
He made an unpleasant noise deep in his throat. “Spending time with Erik is more important than Kenly’s future?”
My nerves were already frayed, and Donavon’s hostility caused several to snap. Rounding to face him, I shot Donavon an icy glare. Granted, the best part of the assignment was that Erik had been selected, as well, but I didn’t like the accusatory tone in Donavon’s voice.
When I met his pained eyes, my anger dimmed slightly. Donavon had been my boyfriend for most of my adolescence until he cheated on me. At the time, I’d thought his betrayal was the worst pain that I’d ever experience, save the night I’d witnessed my parents’ murders. Then I felt the sharp bite of real treachery when I’d learned that Penny was a traitor.
Eventually, I forgave Donavon’s infidelity, but I was no longer in love with him. He took the rejection better than I could have hoped, but his voice dripped loathing whenever he spoke Erik’s name. While the dislike was genuine, he used it to mask his hurt feelings. Over the past couple of weeks, Donavon had tried to keep his biting comments to a minimum, but sometimes – like now – he let them slip.
“I’m looking forward to seeing Erik,” I answered honestly. “But you know that is not the only reason I’m going.” While I wanted to spare Donavon’s feelings, I also wasn’t going to hide my relationship from him.
The very thought of Erik made my heart lift and my pulse quicken. I pulled my gaze from Donavon before the grin could spread across my lips. We’d last seen each other three weeks before, and I missed him terribly. We talked every day and had seen each other once, but Mac wouldn’t authorize more than a weekend visit. He hadn’t wanted me leaving school grounds and said that Erik needed to focus on his duties since he would be leaving to help with the aptitude testing for several weeks. I couldn’t wait to see him. The hologram Erik had nothing on the real thing.
“Yeah, I know,” Donavon said aloud. Abruptly, he turned, shielded his hurt eyes, and walked over to grab the dresses that Kenly had selected for my trip. “I’ll get all your bags. Why don’t you go eat?” he continued, keeping his back to me.
“Donavon,” I began, my voice trailing off, not quite sure what to say. Thanking him for being there for me after everything with Penny seemed inadequate. Apologizing for choosing Erik would only open his newly healed wounds and, worse, it would be a lie.
“I know, Tal,” he said heavily, glancing over his shoulder. Shaggy blonde hair hung low on his forehead, nearly masking the conflicted expression in his slightly watery eyes. “I know.”
“We will only be gone for three weeks, not three months, Natalia,” Mac said dryly as he walked into the kitchen. Donavon had piled my bags by the front door, and Mac wouldn’t have been able to miss them when he entered the house.
“Just want to be prepared for every occasion,” I answered as glibly as I could manage with a mouth full of turkey sandwich.
“Are you almost ready?” he asked, ignoring my snide tone.
“Soon as I’m done eating.” I swallowed the turkey, bread, mayo, and potato chips and offered him a weak smile.
Mac pursed his lips and furrowed his brow in disapproval. He opened his mouth to comment, but Gretchen interrupted him.
“Why don’t you eat something before you go?” she suggested, stretching to place a light kiss on her husband’s clean-shaven cheek.
“I ate on the plane,” Mac replied, giving her a quick peck in return. It was the most affection I’d ever seen the two express. Gretchen was more of the lovey-dovey type, but usually saved her fawning for me and Donavon. Mac, on the other hand, rarely displayed any level of emotion, towards anyone.
“I’ve packed your clothes. The suitcases are still in the bedroom,” Gretchen said, patting her perfectly styled blonde hair absently as she busied herself with cleaning the kitchen.
“Thank you, son,” Mac replied. “Good to see you, Ms. Baker,” he added when he finally noticed Kenly quietly nibbling on her own sandwich.
“Hi, Director,” she managed to choke out. Since I first started training Kenly, she’d become a regular visitor to the McDonough’s house, but she never seemed at ease in Mac’s presence. Mac didn’t notice her awkwardness; he’d already turned his scrutinizing gaze back to me.
“Dr. Thistler sent your medication to the hangar already. She explained how to perform the injections, I assume?” Mac confirmed. I nodded.
Dr. Thistler, the Head of Medical Research for the Agency and my personal physician, was leading the charge to find a cure for my condition. Normally, she gave me my daily injections and drew my blood to test the levels of the chemical present. But she wasn’t going with us, so I had to learn to perform the unpleasant task myself. Being in charge of my own healthcare made me nervous, but Dr. Thistler assured me that as long as I remembered to administer the shot every day, I would be fine. I certainly hoped she was right.
“You’re all set, Dad,” Donavon said, returning to the kitchen and saving me from his father’s impending lecture.
“Thank you.” Mac smiled fondly at his only child. “Natalia, it’s time to go.”
I shoved the last bite of potato chip-laden sandwich in my mouth and stood. Kenly stood too and gave me an awkward hug. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back in time for your exams. You’re gonna do great. Just stick to the practice schedule I outlined,” I whispered, returning her embrace.
“Will you call me?” she sniffed, sounding choked up. Her display of emotion touched me in a way little had since Penny’s arrest.