Deliverance Page 91

At the moment, the Commander is locked in the captain’s quarters, going over strategy with his officers in preparation for docking tomorrow just above Rowansmark’s dam. Nola is resting, trying to make up for the nights she spends grieving for Drake instead of sleeping, and Jodi decided to stay on the lower deck to watch over her. The rest of us headed up to get some fresh air and a brief respite from the Commander’s constant scrutiny.

Willow, stripped to her undertunic, shinnies up the tallest mast, her hair whipping in the wind as the ship cuts through the murky green water of the river that leads to Rowansmark. Smithson wanders toward the prow of the boat, while Frankie, Adam, Connor, and I lean against the rail and watch Willow treat the upper rigging of the boat like it’s a collection of tree branches.

“So we land tomorrow. I admit, I’ll be grateful to partake in sustenance that isn’t fish,” Connor says. “I’ve never been overly fond of it.”

“Sustenance.” Frankie laughs and shakes his head. “Boy, you are a walking collection of words I never heard before.”

“Sustenance. Noun. A means of sustaining life through . . . do you see that girl? Amazing.” Connor’s eyes light up as Willow races to the end of a long metal pole and leaps onto a rope ladder that will carry her to the very top.

Adam punches Connor’s shoulder. “She’s taken.”

Connor rubs his shoulder. “I was only commenting on her athletic prowess.”

Frankie laughs again. “Lots of boys notice Willow’s . . . athletic prowess.”

Connor’s cheeks turn pink, and Adam scowls. Willow reaches the top and pulls herself up while sunlight glows against her dusky skin.

“Still admiring her prowess?” Adam asks. “Or have you moved on to other areas?”

“I wasn’t—she’s very—” Connor tears his gaze from Willow and looks at Adam. “Um . . . well equipped. Athletically speaking. Very fit. Very. Um . . . fit. I said that already. I’m done talking now.”

“You’d better be,” Adam says, though there’s no real threat in his voice.

I roll my eyes at Adam. “Are you joining Willow, or will you be staying down here to torture Connor?”

Adam grins and begins climbing the mast like he was born to it.

“He’s a bit territorial, isn’t he?” Connor asks. “I was simply commenting on her—”

“Athletic prowess. Yeah, I heard that.” I elbow him.

“Well, she’s an admirable specimen of the female persuasion.” Connor tugs at the collar of his shirt as if it’s become a noose.

“I think you just called her cute.” Frankie laughs while Connor’s cheeks darken again. “I’d give a lot to see you say that to her face.”

“And have Adam rearrange my internal organs? No, thank you.”

I sling an arm over his shoulder and turn him away from the mast. “Once you fall in love with someone, you’ll feel like that, too. But a word to the wise. Girls get pretty irritated if you act like you own them. I’ve made that mistake with Rachel plenty of times. I thought I was being protective. She thought I was being an idiot. If Willow had overheard that conversation, she’d have taken it out of Adam’s skin.”

Frankie nods wisely and nudges Connor in the ribs. “Girls like to feel special. Protected. But there’s a fine line between feeling protected and feeling like a fence post being marked by a stray dog.”

Connor ducks out from under my arm and shakes his head, though he’s smiling. “On that memorable image, I think I’ll take my leave and go see if Jodi wishes for some company.”

“Is Jodi also a fine specimen of the female persuasion?” I ask.

Connor walks away.

“Remember!” Frankie calls to his retreating back. “Don’t piss on the fence post!”

I laugh, and it feels good even though I miss Drake and worry about Rachel. Connor shakes his head and moves toward the stairs that lead to the lower deck.

Frankie and I lean against the metal rail in companionable silence. The warmth of the early summer afternoon bakes my skin, and I lift my face to catch the breeze, which carries the scent of damp bark, wildflowers, and freshly caught fish.

“The Commander ain’t taking us with him tomorrow,” Frankie says. “Not that I want to go to war, mind, but if the Commander has decided we’re useless, I figure he means to kill us.”

I nod and squint against the bursts of sunlight that ricochet off the river. “I know. I’ve got a plan for that.”

“Care to share it?” His tone is careful, and it hits me that he expects me to say no because I’ve said no so many times in the past. I shared my plans with Rachel, and then with Drake. But they aren’t here, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a more faithful friend than Frankie.

“I’ve been talking with Corey Burkes, the captain of the armada. Tara Lanning gave him permission to engage in the conflict as he saw fit. The Commander is using the ships simply as transportation and a backup plan in case Rowansmark retreats to the river.” I look at Frankie. “Rowansmark won’t retreat up the river. They’d have to go through the locks, one ship at a time, before they could get to the top of the dam.”

“So basically the armada is useless to us.”

“Not exactly.” I glance over my shoulder in case someone has joined us on the upper deck, but other than Smithson, who is now pacing along the railing toward the middle of the deck, we’re alone. “The Commander wants to remove James Rowan from power and take over the city as his own, keeping the tech for himself.”

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