Cole Wilborn eyed the perfectly decorated room with suspicion. It was clear that it belonged to his mother—her signature style was everywhere—but he had never set foot inside until her armed guards shoved him through the door. He slowly walked around the large living room, his eyes jumping from a family picture above the fireplace to a framed candid shot of him and his fiancée, Zoe, on the end table.
Cole picked it up and ran a finger over Zoe’s face. God, he hoped she was all right. She had lost so much blood after his mother shot her. He knew sending her away with Ian was the best hope to keep her safe, but he had no idea where Ian had taken her or if they had access to medical treatment. It wasn’t like they could go to any of the local hospitals. Cole was sure his mother’s terrorist group, the Arrow Equilibrium, had plants at all of them who would see to it that Zoe didn’t survive.
He took the picture with him as he went to sit on the couch. What was he going to do? Cole stole a glance at the armed men standing in the doorway, watching him. Would they stop him if he tried to leave? He was fairly confident they weren’t allowed to kill him. At least not yet. His mother still thought there was a chance to win him over to her side, but he had no idea how much pain they were allowed to inflict before it crossed the line.
He looked at the picture of Zoe and let out a breath. He needed to find her, though part of him wondered if he should even try. The last thing he wanted to do was lead the Arrows to her. He had no doubt his mother would have Zoe killed if they found her.
“Cole? What’s going on?”
Cole tore his eyes away from the picture to see his older sister, Victoria, walking in with her three kids. Even with a baby’s car seat in one hand and a diaper bag slung over her shoulder, she still looked like the stylish, confident businesswoman she was, even if her face was etched in confusion at the moment. Her two older sons, Finn and Maverick, had their faces buried in their tablets. She shooed them to the other side of the room while carefully setting down the car seat so as not to wake up the baby.
“You can drop the act,” Cole said.
“What act? I was on my way to the airport when Dad called and told me to come here instead. That there was some kind of emergency.” Victoria scanned the room, her eyes stopping on the family picture before turning back to Cole “Whose house is this?”
“I assume it belongs to the Arrow Equilibrium,” Cole said in an offhanded way.
“The what?” Victoria sat down next to him on the couch. She was looking at him like he had lost his mind.
Cole sat up and turned to his sister. “I’m done with the games, V. I know everything.” Victoria ran the London branch of the family’s company. Was Cole really supposed to believe that she didn’t know about the terrorist group operating in their midst? Though, he was head of North American operations, and the vaccine had been manufactured at one of his facilities without him knowing, so he guessed it was possible that she didn’t know.
Victoria crossed her arms and glared at him. “Then you’re way ahead of me, because I have no idea what’s going on.”
“Cole!” Jackson’s voice echoed through the whole house. Jackson had been in the parking garage when Ian released him back to his family. Cole wondered how far behind him their parents were. He wasn’t ready to face Gordon and Alana Wilborn. He wasn’t sure he would ever be ready.
“Cole!” Jackson burst into the room, leaping over the armchair to get to Cole. Jackson pulled him off the couch and into a hug. “Thank God you’re okay.”
“I’m fine.” Cole brushed his brother off and sat back down.
“Why wouldn’t he be fine?” Victoria looked from Jackson to Cole. “Someone needs to tell me what the hell is going on.”
Jackson sat down on the coffee table in front of the couch. He looked over to make sure Victoria’s kids weren’t listening, then leaned in. “They broke into Wilborn Holdings this morning.”
“Who did?” Victoria asked in a whisper.
“Ian Sutton, the guy who kidnapped Zoe. When I got to work, he was standing in the parking garage with a gun to Cole’s back.”
“Are you serious?” Victoria turned to look at Cole, but he just rolled his eyes. They really had no idea what was going on. “What did he want?”
Cole didn’t answer, instead turning his focus back to the picture in his hands. He would give anything to know that Zoe was alive right now. He should be out there trying to find her, but instead he was stuck here.
“Dad wouldn’t tell me,” Jackson said. “He just told me to come here and wait for him.”
“Is that why we have a security detail?” Victoria nodded toward the two guards at the door.
“Not exactly,” Cole said under his breath. How could he tell them that the guards were there to keep him from leaving, not to protect them? That the people they really needed protection from were their parents, not Ian?
“Cole.” Jackson reached out and touched his knee. “I saw other people in the car that Sutton drove away in. Did they take Zoe again?”
“No.” Cole let out a sigh. He had to tell them something. They deserved to know what was really going on before their parents arrived and told Jackson and Victoria their warped side of the story. “I mean, Zoe’s with them, but they didn’t kidnap her. They were trying to save her.”
“Save her from who?” Jackson asked.
Cole hesitated. He had no idea how to tell them this. “Mom shot Zoe.”
“What are you talking about?” Victoria demanded.
“In the control room at Wilborn Holdings. Zoe broke in to try to stop the field test, and Mom shot her in the leg.”
“Why would she want to stop the field test? It was her experiment,” Victoria said.
“That was just a cover so Mom could release something else into the environment without anyone knowing. A toxin that will bring about the end of humanity. And she did.” His voice had a faraway quality that made it sound like it was coming from someone else.
“Cole, you aren’t making any sense.” Jackson looked at Victoria, concern clear in his eyes. They thought he had lost his mind. He really couldn’t blame them; it was probably how he looked when Zoe first told him the truth.
“That’s why Ian broke into Green Tech in the first place. He was trying to stop her. Zoe found out while they were holding her and started helping them after she was rescued.” Cole locked his gaze on Victoria. “Mom runs a terrorist group called the Arrow Equilibrium.”
“We’re not a terrorist group.”
Cole turned his head to see his parents standing in the entryway. They both looked like they had just wrapped up a business deal instead of ending the world.
“I thought I asked you to keep him separated from the others until we got here,” Alana said to one of the guards at the door.
Cole wanted to get up and run from the room, but he was frozen in place. He hadn’t admitted it to himself until this moment, but he was terrified of Alana. How could this be the same woman who had raised him? The woman who claimed to love him unconditionally? Had any of it been real, or was it all an act?
Alana shook her head and went over to her grandsons, who were still playing on their tablets on the other side of the room. “Boys, I asked the housekeeper to lay out an ice cream sundae bar in the kitchen. Why don’t you go and get started? We’ll be there in a little bit. I need to talk to your mom and uncles first.”
“Sure thing, Grandma,” Finn said, and took off running with Maverick in his wake.
Alana came over and joined Gordon by the couch. Cole refused to look at them. “Now, Cole is right; I do run an organization called the Arrow Equilibrium, but we aren’t a terrorist group.”
Cole laughed, anger displacing the fear he’d felt when Alana first arrived.
“We’re a group of people who care about the environment,” Alana continued, ignoring Cole’s outburst, “and are willing to do what needs to be done in order to ensure it flourishes.”
“Killing billions of people in the process,” Cole said.
“That’s enough, Cole,” Gordon warned with a look that normally would have filled him with guilt—but now it held no power over him.
“So, Cole’s wrong?” Victoria asked. “You didn’t release some kind of toxin that will kill everyone?”
“It’s not that simple.” Alana sat down on the coffee table next to Jackson and took Victoria’s hands in hers. “Earth is overpopulated. Something drastic had to be done to restore the balance.”
“Wait, so what Cole said is true?” Jackson looked from Alana to Gordon in disbelief.
“Yes, I released the toxin this morning after Zoe’s attempt to stop me.” A small smile crossed Alana’s lips. “I will say, she got closer than I thought she would.”
Victoria pulled her hands from Alana’s grasp. “What about my kids? My husband? How could you do this?”
Cole got up and walked to the other side of the room. “Oh, don’t worry.” His voice dripped with venom. “There’s a vaccine, and we’ve all had it already.”
“So, they pieced that together too,” Gordon said. Cole could have sworn there was a hint of pride in his voice. He had always been impressed by Zoe’s intelligence.
“You mean that you put the vaccine to your toxin in RiverLife so that your customer base would be saved? Yeah, she figured that out.”
Alana turned back to Victoria. “See, you have nothing to worry about.”
“Other than the fact that our parents are genocidal maniacs!” Cole snarled.
“That is enough out of you, young man,” Gordon yelled.
“I don’t have to listen to you anymore. I’m thirty-five years old. I should have stopped listening to you a long time ago, but I thought you had my best interest at heart, so I was happy to take to your advice. That ended when Mom put a bullet in my fiancée’s leg and killed billions of people with the press of a button.”
Alana rose to her feet, a coldness in her eyes Cole hadn’t seen before. “Everything I did, I did because I love you. Do you really think Zoe would be alive right now if I didn’t?”
“I don’t have to stay here and listen to this.” Cole held up his hands and started toward the door, but the guards blocked his path.
“I’m sorry, Cole, you’re not going anywhere. Everyone is staying here until this first phase is over.” Alana nodded to the guards, who seized Cole’s arms. He tried to pull free, but it was useless.
“What are you going to do, lock me in my room?” Cole spat at Alana.
“As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” Alana made her way over to him. “I know you’re upset right now, but soon you’ll see that what I did was for the good of everyone, and you’ll forgive me.”
“I will never forgive you.” Tears ran down Cole’s face. In the course of a few hours, he had lost the love of his life and his family. The only thing that mattered now was living long enough to make sure they paid for everything they had put him through.
Alana pursed her lips and nodded to the guards, who dragged Cole from the room. He didn’t bother to fight them.
A stale, musty smell filled Zoe’s nose. She had no idea where she was. The last thing she remembered was being in the back of Ian’s car as they fled from Wilborn Holdings.
Zoe stretched out her hand and felt rough, cheap fabric as far as she could reach. She wasn’t in the car anymore, though she was fairly certain she wasn’t in a hospital either. Maybe she had died, and this was the nothing that waited for her in the afterlife?
She was surprised by the effort it took to open her eyes. A small part of her hoped that when she did, she would find herself back in Cole’s bed. That breaking into Wilborn Holdings Headquarters, getting shot, the toxin, and the Arrow Equilibrium had all been a bad dream. When her eyes finally opened, the off-white popcorn ceiling above her confirmed that wherever she was, it wasn’t Cole’s bed. She didn’t recognize anything about the room, but she could tell from the drab curtains and the muted floral comforters on the two full-size beds that she was in some kind of motel.
On the other side of the room, Ian sat backward in a chair with his shirt off. Iris sat across from him, holding his hand, while someone Zoe didn’t recognize dabbed something on the blisters covering his tan skin. She knew Ian had gotten burned when the Arrows set her apartment on fire with them in it, but it looked far worse than she’d realized. She felt a pang of guilt as she remembered him covering her with his body as the ceiling came down around them.
Zoe turned her head expecting to see Blake, but he wasn’t the one sitting in the chair next to her bed. It took her a moment to place the older man sitting next to her. She had only met him a few times.
“Dr. Sami,” she said in a soft whisper. She shouldn’t have been surprised to see Ian and Iris’s uncle there. He was probably the best asset they had right now. Hamid Sami had been hiding from the Arrows for ten years.
“Easy, child, you’re safe now,” Hamid said in a voice just as soft.
Zoe nodded, though she knew she would never really be safe again. Not as long as the Arrows were in power.
“How are you feeling?” Hamid looked at her with a kindness in his eyes Zoe knew she didn’t deserve. It was her fault they were here. Why did she think she could stop the Arrows on her own? The last thing she wanted was to drag the others into this. She had no idea how Ian had known where she was, but she was glad he had shown up. Otherwise she would be the Arrows’ prisoner. It was thanks to them that she still had a chance at life, even if she had no idea what that life would be now that Alana had released her toxin.
Zoe tried to take stock of her body. She was tired, and there was a dull, throbbing pain in her leg, but it wasn’t anything like the pain she had felt when Alana shot her. “All right, I think.” She tried to sit up, but weakness made it impossible. Hamid helped her up, putting a few lumpy pillows behind her back. “The pain’s not nearly as bad as it was,” she confirmed.
“That would be the pain killers.” The man who had been treating Ian’s back walked over to her with a smile on his face. He looked to be in his early thirties, clean shaven with neatly trimmed light brown hair. There were bags under his eyes, but they radiated kindness.
“Who are you?” Zoe eyed him suspiciously.
The man opened his mouth, but Ian cut him off from across the room as he pulled his shirt back on. “He’s a friend. It’s best to leave names out of it, just in case. We don’t want the Arrows to connect you back to us.”
Zoe crossed her arms. “But you all know who he is, so what you’re really saying is you don’t want me to know his name because I can’t be trusted.”
“That’s not what he means,” Hamid said.
“No, Uncle, that’s exactly what I mean.” Ian came to the end of her bed. “How many people told you not to go up against the Arrows by yourself? That you couldn’t win? And did you listen to any of them?”
“I was trying to save people,” Zoe said with a conviction she didn’t really feel. If she had listened to Cole or Ian or even Detective Pearson and left things alone, everything might be different right now.
“How did that work out for you?” Iris asked, coming to stand next to her twin.
“There’s no use worrying about that now,” Hamid said. “What’s done is done.”
Zoe turned her head away. She didn’t have the energy to fight.
“I’m a doctor,” the unknown man said as he took a step closer to the bed. “Ian asked me for help.”
Zoe turned her head back to look at him. “Well, Doc, am I going to survive?” She put what she hoped was a friendly smile on her face.
“You need rest, and it’s going to be a while before you’ve built up the muscles in that leg again, but yes, you’ll survive.” He pulled two pill bottles out of his pocket. “A pain killer and antibiotic, just in case.” Doc handed the pills to Ian. “They’re for both of you.”
“Thanks for all your help.” Ian clapped Doc on the shoulder.
“I’ll be back in a couple of days to check on you, and I’ll bring more pills if I can manage it.”
“Don’t do anything too risky,” Iris said, tucking her long black hair behind her ear. If Zoe didn’t know any better, she’d say Iris was trying to flirt with the good doctor.
“I’ll be careful, I promise.” Doc picked up his bag from the foot of the bed and walked over to the door with Iris following close behind.
“Did you start drinking RiverLife like I told you to?” Iris’s voice was laced with concern as she looked at the doctor with a softness Zoe had never seen from her.
Doc nodded. “This is really happening, then?”
“I hope we’re wrong, but it doesn’t hurt to be on the safe side.” Iris shrugged.
The doc smiled down on her. “That is something I never thought I’d hear you say.” He leaned down and kissed Iris on the cheek. “Be careful.”
“You too.” Iris closed the door behind him.
Ian crossed his arms and glared at Iris from his post next to Zoe’s bed. “I thought you two broke up.”
“That’s really none of your business.” Iris sauntered back over to the table to clean up.
Ian rolled his eyes. “I should go keep an eye out for Blake.”
“Where is he?” Zoe asked.
“He had to ditch the car, and then he was going to pick up some supplies.”
“Supplies for what?”
“For the end of the world,” Ian said with a shrug. “You should get some sleep. We’ll stay here as long as we can, but there’s no telling when the Arrows will send someone after us. You’ll need to have your strength back by then.”
“They already won. Do you really think they’ll come after us?” Zoe desperately wanted Ian to tell her that the Arrows would leave them alone now that they had released the toxin, but she knew in her gut it wasn’t true.
“Of course they will. It’s not like they’re going to want us around when they start to rebuild the world. Now get some rest.” Ian pointed to the door next to the head of her bed. “We’ll be in the adjoining room. Yell if you need anything.”
Hamid turned off the lamp and followed Ian and Iris out of the room. Zoe wasn’t sure how she would rest in the semidark room with all the thoughts currently running through her mind, but she felt herself drifting off the moment she closed her eyes. Doc must have given her some strong drugs to quiet the dread that had overtaken her.