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“I’m sorry,” I whisper. Wanting to connect with him, I admit, “My mom was banished from the ecocity when I was eighteen.”

He nods. “I know.”

“You do?” My eyebrows pop up. “Have you seen her?”

“A while back. Last I heard, she was at the main ward.”

A wide smile stretches across my face. Before I can ask, Chance says, “We’ll head to the main ward in a week, or so, then you can look for her.”

It’s such good news, I don’t think and dart forward, wrapping my arms around his waist. For a moment, he keeps still, but then his arms wrap around me.

An intense warmth floods me, and for the life of me, I can’t believe this is wrong when it feels so good.

Chance takes hold of my shoulders and pushes me back, and it pops my happy bubble.

“Sorry,” I mumble, and the shame I’ve been conditioned to feel creeps into my heart.

“It’s okay,” he says, tilting his head to catch my eyes. “Just don’t hug every man you meet. Most will take it the wrong way.”

I nod and explain, “The news just made me happy, and I didn’t think.”

It’s only then I realize he hasn’t snapped at me once since he took me from the drill zone. Frowning, I ask, “Why are you being nice to me?”

He picks another flower and holds it between us. For a moment, I wonder whether he’s giving it to me, but then he says, “You’re like this flower, Jai. Beautiful but fragile.” He plucks the petals out. “This will be you if I leave you to survive on your own.”

There’s a stab of disappointment in my heart. “You don’t think I can make it on my own?”

He shakes his head. “Against a ward full of sex-deprived men, you don’t stand a chance.”

That’s true.

My shoulders sag, because deep down, I know it doesn’t matter how hard I train, one thing will remain the same – I’m a woman. Not able to meet his eyes, I ask, “Why don’t you take what you want?”

Chance lets out a chuckle. “Just because I haven’t doesn’t mean I won't.”

His words surprise me, and still, I don’t feel unsafe around him.

We stare at each other for a minute, and all I can think is that out of all the men I know and all the strangers out there if I had to belong to someone, I’d pick Chance.

Without another word, Chance starts to walk back to the ward. I follow after him wondering if he’d take me as his if I were to ask him.

Not that I would. I don’t have enough courage to be so blunt.

Later that night, I sneak into the animal enclosure only to find Kenzo waiting by the chickens.

Without saying anything, he opens the gate and steps inside. I follow, closing it behind me so none of the chickens will get out. I watch as he picks out a little chick, and the corner of my mouth lifts when he comes to stand in front of me.

I’m careful as I take the chick from him, cuddling it close to my chest.

“How do you feel?” he asks.

“It’s bearable.” I brush the tip of my finger over the chick’s feathers. “Hey, little peepster.”

“You should thank me for not being hard on you. If it were Idris or Chance, you’d be bleeding. I’m the nice one out of the three.”

I shake my head. “Chance wouldn’t hurt me.”

Kenzo lets out a bark of laughter, startling the animals. “He put Skater in bed for six days. The guy couldn’t move.”

I can’t imagine Chance hurting someone. I shake my head but can’t find words to argue with Kenzo.

“Just because Chance is nice to you doesn’t mean he won’t break you if he has to.” His eyes narrow on me. “Just like I will.”

Break me? The words sound horrible.

He reaches out and strokes the chick’s head. “But it will make you stronger, and at the end of the day, it’s all that matters.”

He takes a deep breath then says, “Don’t freak out.”

“Huh?” My frown deepens.

“I know your mom. Rachel.”

Hearing my mom’s name, I almost drop the chick, but luckily Kenzo moves fast and takes the baby from me.

“Chance said he’s seen her. How do you know her?” I ask, desperate for more information.

“She asked me to be on the lookout for you.”

My mouth drops open, and tears jump to my eyes.

Mom’s been waiting for me. She didn’t forget about me.

Kenzo places his hand on my shoulder, then admits, “When she reached this ward, I trained her. You have her spirit, kid. Just get through training, and once we reach the main ward, I’ll find her for you.”

“Did you and Chance talk about me?” I ask because I doubt this is a coincidence. “You both mentioned my mom today.”

“Yeah, we talked.” He squeezes my shoulder. “Just train your ass off until we leave for the main ward.”

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