Radioactive #4

The X-Factor

by Rachel Anne Jones

The X-Factor by Rachel Anne Jones "Amy would do anything to avoid her ex, but step-brothers are impossible to ignore.”

“It’s been a long four years. Amy is finally a college graduate. She’s excited about a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity. The only setback is it's far from home. She doesn’t know how she feels about leaving her family behind.

Her indecision grows when her step-brother Austin, aka her ex, shows up unexpectedly with a new fiancée. Jealousy hits Amy like a ton of bricks. She quickly calls for reinforcements in the form of her long-term boyfriend, Lee, while she tries to sort out her feelings. Amy tries to avoid Austin in close quarters, but he makes it difficult by cornering her at every opportunity.

When Amy discovers her mom is missing and Lee takes off, Austin is quick to step in to fill his place. Amy and Austin set off in search of her mother, and Amy can’t help but notice it feels like old times. This isn’t their first adventure together. It isn’t long and Austin takes over in every way, just like he did when they were together. Amy guards her heart while Austin attempts to break down her walls. What she doesn’t know is why.

Her every instinct tells her to run the other way, but she has to rescue her mother. It’s a long road to travel. Amy and Austin sift through the emotions of their past in order to find closure, causing buried feelings to re-surface, making it difficult to differentiate between the past and the present. Amy knows there’s no future with Austin, but she can’t help wishing there could be. If Austin isn’t a choice for her, why do all his actions suggest otherwise?






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Chapter One

“Your boyfriend is such a sardine.” His familiar deep, gravelly voice hits my ears before starting its usual path, betraying my body as it steals my breath and sets off Austin-induced tachycardia. My ex, who just happens to be my stepbrother, is home for a visit. Why is he here? It’s been almost four years and we’ve managed to avoid seeing each other in person all that time, an accomplishment which was no small feat. It required me mostly living at home and getting as many online college credits as I could.

Thanks to a hot mess of a freshmen year including our serious break-up that lead to avoiding Austin, I took studying to a whole new level which meant staying secluded in the loft apartment over the garage with noise-canceling headphones and burying my head in a book whenever Austin was around, which was seldom. My other brother, Simon, was my PIC. Luckily for me, he likes games more than he likes people. We developed a whole new CODE language just so I could avoid contact with my ex, aka HC, because as usual, Simon and I couldn’t agree on a nickname for Austin. Simon says it stands for Half Chimp, because of Austin’s constant need to dominate. HC to me means Hot Chocolate for Austin’s beautiful brown eyes and overall hotness. There are no laws that say a girl can’t like looking at her ex, even if he’s an idiotic, male chauvinistic pig.

His dad and my mom are on vacation, but Mom could have given me some sort of heads up. She knows I avoid him like the plague. If there’s such a thing as break-up PTSD, Austin is my trigger.

I whip around to face HC. Three-and-a-half years fall away. I want a sip. Shut up, thirsty girl. I prepare a mental shutdown. I can be all chill and cool and pretend it’s perfectly normal I haven’t seen him in person for forty-two months; a fact that’s all on me except it isn’t because he was talking to my hot Russian adopted sister behind my back. Ugh. I’m getting all fired up again over our stupid break-up that happened not enough semesters ago, apparently. I take a deep breath. I’m a mature woman now. I’ve graduated college. I have some sense. The past is in the past.

My problem of not being able to deal with Austin in my breathing space, which, happens to be a five-mile radius from his inescapable presence that throws off more heat than an incinerator is non-existent because I have decided it is. My rational decision ranks right up there with Zeno’s Paradox about space and the existence of an infinite number of halves which supposedly keep us from ever getting too close to another human being, a scientific fact I know thanks to the brilliant dialogue of Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins in I.Q., a movie I never tire of watching. “A sardine?” I ask, but I’m only half-listening to his answer. I’m just relieved I remembered how to respond like a halfway normal person.

His signature smoking-hot smirk burns my insides like only he can, forcing me to acknowledge the powerful feelings he invoked in me when we’re together weren’t all attributed to crazy teenage hormones. It’s a safe bet by the confidence in his brown eyes I know so well I could pick them out of a police line-up of paper-bag heads, he knows exactly how much he devastates my senses. Everything would be a lot easier if I could just hate him. “He’s basic, slimy, and a little too salty,” he continues with his insult that is far more creative than I’d like to give him credit for.

“I see you’re just as petty as you’ve ever been,” I reply as I try to ignore the doubts Austin just put in my head about my boyfriend, Lee, which is so stupid. They’ve never met, so there’s no way any part of Austin’s opinion is informed. Austin’s always had a big mouth. He only means about half the crap that comes out of it. The front door opens again. A tiny, dark-headed woman steps through it. I’m too confused by what looks like an apology on Austin’s face to really see her. When has Austin apologized for anything? What’s that about?

A tiny hand slips itself through his arm. Between the reptilian glint in her perfectly half-lidded eye fixed on me and her glazed coffin nails, it’s not hard for me to imagine her hand transforming into a claw. My eyes fly to her other hand that’s not attached to his arm like a vice grip. The rock on her fourth finger is impossible to ignore. It may as well be permanently embedded in my eyeballs. A sense of loss I do not understand lodges itself in my chest as Austin pats her delicate hand resting on his arm. “Amy, this is my LiLi.” I fight the urge to giggle at the absurdity of her strange excuse for a name despite her nationality and exotic beauty, which I cannot begin to compete with or place.

I can’t believe no one told me he was engaged. What is going on? Her dark eyes roam over me, leaving me feeling stripped to my underwear. For half a second, I forget that I’m a well-trained criminology major who specializes in analyzing and profiling female criminal masterminds. I look her full in the face. Alarm bells jangle every instinct, but this is Austin’s fiancée, a title I longed for far too long. It’s just jealousy that has me wanting to rip the ring off her finger before tossing her behind bars where she potentially belongs.

So many emotions hit me all at once. I try not to stare at her, but it’s hard. Half of me wants to set her hair on fire and the other half of me is imagining what it would be like to be her, wearing Austin’s engagement ring. Picking out a white wedding dress. Sending out wedding announcements. Arguing with him about where we’re going to raise our children. They would be so adorable. Someone slap me in the face. I blink a few times and try to focus on LiLi. Is she as sinister as the vibe she emanates, or am I just crazy-blind jealous?

I hate that I question my instincts, the one thing I’m supposed to rely on in my line of work. I move on to analytical logic. Austin’s no dummy. If she were the criminal sort, he would know, wouldn’t he?

I stick out my left hand, the one that doesn’t have a ring bearing any sort of promise from Lee, my boyfriend of two-and-a-half years. It’s not like I’ve given him any hints. I’m not even sure I’m ready to settle down, but that’s not the point. It would be nice to be asked so I could have the opportunity to wear something big, sharp, and pointy to dig into LiLi’s hand like she’s doing to mine right now. I resist the urge to grab a hold of the offending rock as I force a smile that is as fake as the one she gives me. “I’m Amy, Austin’s annoying step-sister,” I joke.

“It’s nice to meet you, Amy. What a surprise, after four years,” she says, making her little dig.

So it’s like that then. “Likewise, LoLo,” I say before turning away from the two of them, but not before I catch a look of surprise on Austin’s face.

I can’t believe the degree of satisfaction it gives me to give him crap like he usually gives others. Slighting someone by calling them by the wrong name is usually his move. I’ve always thought that petty behavior was so transparent, but I’m feeling desperate and blind-sided.

“Well, as you know, I’m pretty busy these days so I’d better get back to it. Excuse me,” I say as I walk out of the room and into Mom’s office.

I could care less where I am so long as I’m not out there staring at Austin while pretending not to just to avoid looking into the endless depths of nothing which is what I saw in LiLi’s almond-shaped eyes with their perfect wing-tips that make her look like she walked right out of a make-over at some high-end salon. My suspicions aren’t just because she’s his fiancée or my hyperactive imagination that sometimes gets the best of me, or at least it did. I’ve mostly outgrown that bad habit. I have a four-year degree and an internship that confirms I am capable of logical thought.

I text my boyfriend Lee for reassurance.


I’m not crazy right?


Excuse me?

I smile. Lee is so wonderful. No matter what time of day I text, he almost always responds within five to ten minutes. Austin hasn’t texted me for like four years. Ugh. I’ve got to get him out of my head. I wonder how long he’s staying. I pause in the middle of my train of thought. It’s not a holiday. Why is he here, and why did he bring her?


Austin is home. I don’t know why.


Who is Austin?

O-kay. So one thing I don’t like about Lee. He is not the greatest listener. I don’t go on about Austin to him because that would be insensitive, but still. I can’t believe he doesn’t know the name of the only step-brother I have who sort of broke my heart. In all fairness to Lee, my heartbreak is a fact I may have kept to myself. I hope.


My stepbrother.


The one you dated.

Emoji eye roll, which I then delete while muttering to myself. “I only have one stepbrother. The rest of them are adopted. Geez.”


Yes. He and I dated.

He was almost my first everything, but there is no need to say that to Lee. If Lee spilled every romantic detail to me about girls he dated before me, I don’t think I could still date him. I suppose I have a slight problem with jealousy, but that’s what makes me human, which is why it’s perfectly normal I wish LiLi would fall off a cliff. Kind of.


Why is he there?


He’s engaged.


Okay. So he came home to announce it. That makes sense.

Ask me if I’m okay because I am sooo not, I think, but don’t say. I’m not going to ask Lee to ask me anything, but I will be mad if he doesn’t. My therapist, Shane, told me communication is not my strong suit. I suppose he’s right, but I also think Lee should know me by now. We’ve been together for twenty-eight months. That’s a long time for him not to even mention marriage, commitment, or moving in together. I don’t necessarily want any of those things with Lee, but after two years, certain conversations should be had out of common courtesy.

I start to text something, though I’m not sure what, when someone knocks on the door in a familiar rhythm. I hate the smile that sneaks out of me as I stand up and open the door. Austin waltzes past me, filling my nostrils with an unfamiliar scent. This makes me sad. I feel like a stalker when I stand here stricken by the fact that some time in the last four years I’m pretty sure he changed his cologne. I don’t know when that was. “Mom’s gone,” he says by way of a reason to invade my privacy.

“Yeah. She’s on vacation,” I reply.

“No. She’s gone, gone, like as in someone kidnapped her,” he states all matter-of-fact. I can’t breathe. I try to sit down to put my head between my knees, but my knees don’t cooperate.

I wake up to the sight of Austin’s five-o’clock shadow, something I never thought he’d have. Now that I’ve seen it up-close-and-personal I wish I hadn’t. A hint of flower petals on his skin peek out of his button-down Henley shirt collar in all different shades of brilliant pinks and oranges, making me want to see more. Austin’s always been a vibrant memory to me, and that was before he became a grown man. I don’t know how I forgot how much of everything he is that makes him impossible to ignore. My head rests on his collarbone, allowing me to smell his wonderful smell, which assures me he did change his cologne and it wasn’t just my imagination earlier. I sit up and try to ignore his one hand that rests on my leg and the other arm wrapped around my waist.

“If you wanted a hug from me, Amy, you could have just asked. You didn’t need to faint.” His tone is teasing, but the look in his eye tells me he’s more than a little worried about me.

“Who took Mom?” I ask in a tone sharper and louder than I intend.

The door swings open. LiLi sticks her head in. “Is everything okay?” she asks while looking at me like she’s in the middle of tearing me limb-from-limb. So help me, I fall a little in love with her long dark hair, miniscule nose, full lips, and exotic eyes that hold just enough mystery to make me interested. I can’t imagine the effect she has on Austin. He clears his throat and tries to shove me off his lap.

“Just give us a minute, please,” he begs. “I told her Mom’s news. She fainted.”

LiLi’s eyes zero in on me. “Did she now?”

I’m so pathetic. I can’t believe she thinks I fainted on purpose so I could end up on Austin’s lap. “No, it’s all an act,” I say, as I feign staring adoringly at the side of Austin’s face. “I missed the person I’ve avoided for the past four years so much that I forced myself to black out so he would rescue me,” I snipe. Man, I’m ugly.

Austin pinches my side between his two fingers. He twists just enough to make it burn. I will not react. “LiLi, honey, just give her a minute to get her bearings. I don’t want Miss Clutz, here, to fall and hurt herself. I can’t have a limping best woman in our wedding.”

Sucker punch. My stomach just dropped out. Why in the hell would Austin ask me to be his best woman, and how am I going to get out of it without looking like a lovesick fool who obviously isn’t over him?

LiLi raises an eyebrow in question but smiles impatiently at the two of us as if we are children. “Of course, dar-ling. If you need me I’ll be right outside,” she says as she closes the door as soundlessly as she opened it.

“Where is she from?” I ask.

“I met her at college,” Austin answers. “She climbed in my dorm room window.”

That is not the answer I was expecting, but it sounds just like Austin. He’s so hot he doesn’t have to leave his domain to meet the love of his life, who is not me. I can’t believe how much that hurts. He’s staring. What were we talking about? LiLi. “No. I mean, which country is she from?”

“She’s Cambodian, but she was born here. She’s a first-generation college graduate in her family.” There’s no mistaking the pride in his voice when he talks about her. It tears at me. It’s my own fault he didn’t come to my graduation or send me so much as a card, but it hurts just the same. I don’t want to hear about how proud he is of LuLu. It’s not my fault she’s a first-generation college student, which would be totally cool if she weren’t dating the love of my life. Argh. He was the love of my life. He isn’t anymore. I need to remember that.

I hold in a sigh. “I suppose she was just as bowled over by you as you are by her,” I mutter beneath my breath.

He laughs. I feel so good. “Actually, no. She really made me work for that first date and the month following. She’s kind of a free spirit. She wasn’t too sure about committing.”

I can’t help but giggle at his words. “That must’ve driven you crazy.”

He shrugs. “It did.” He gives me a wicked grin, forcing me to keep my mouth shut so I won’t drool. “But you know me, I love the chase.” He gives me a nudge. “You think you can stand up without falling?”

Embarrassment floods me as I clumsily climb off his lap and find my footing. I turn to face him. “So, who took Mom?”

He leans forward on his crooked elbow. His hand goes to the side of his face. He runs his fingers through his hair. I hate how much my hand wants to follow. I have always loved the feel of Austin’s thick strands, which I envy, just like his hand right about now as it pauses on the back of his neck. “We think it’s Children of the Sun. They haven’t identified themselves yet, but we did get a ransom note.”

“How much?” I ask, knowing my stepdad Juan will pay it. He’d pay anything to get Mom back. It’s sickeningly sweet how much they love each other. I’ve mostly accepted I’ll never find a man who loves me like that. I stare into Austin’s dark eyes that are softer than I’ve ever seen them and hate that he makes me remember I thought I had found my forever someone when we were together. Mental slap. My amygdala is taking a beating today. What does any girl really know about boys at eighteen? A lasting love is too much to ask of any guy before he’s had a chance to see the world, isn’t it?

“They named an astronomical amount. There’s no way he can pay it even if he is a cardiovascular surgeon. But if he could I don’t think he would,” he states, and my knees start to buckle again. I perch on the corner of Mom’s desk as a solid obstacle to keep me from falling to the floor.

“Why are they doing this now?”

He rests his elbows on his knees and presses the ends of his fingertips against each other repeatedly. “I’m guessing it’s because Hank’s dad is still there, and this is payback for Hank crashing his helicopter and Simon stealing his gold.” He pauses. “Or, they could have a new leader and he’s demanding the money,” he pauses again, “or, it’s just Hank’s idiot half-siblings paying him back by stealing the only mother he’s ever known and really cared about.” He leans back in the chair. “Or, it’s just them taking our mother as a continuation of a game they think they’re playing with us because they’re stupid and don’t realize it’s all one-sided. We don’t want to have anything to do with them. We just want them to stop coming after us.”

I consider everything he just said. “Where’s Simon? Why isn’t he helping find Mom? And where’s his Russian entourage, the 5-G? Don’t they want to help?”

He clears his throat. “Our Russian sisters don’t know. Dad didn’t tell them. He was afraid of what they might do to rescue Mom.”

I’m so confused. “They’re her daughters, too. Why wouldn’t he want them to help?”

“Because, Amy,” he blurts with obvious impatience. Austin is getting annoyed, and this feels strange, because I’ve seen him annoyed and confrontational plenty of times; it’s just never been with me. “Because our sisters aren’t stable. They never do what they’re told. They don’t listen. Every mission they’ve ever done with Dad they end up going rogue. It’s a pattern they can’t seem to break.”

Whoa. What is going on? Juan’s been sending the five Russian spy girls my best friend Jenni rescued from the missile silo before they became child brides and instead became my adopted sisters on missions? “What kind of missions, Austin?” I ask because I have to know. “Is Dad like hiring them out as some sort of super-spy team?”

Austin rolls his eyes again. “You know you’d know these answers if you ever thought to ask about how everybody’s doing. You’ve been so wrapped up in your own life of research and studying for the past four years it’s like the rest of us don’t exist. We just fell off the Amy-radar of caring.” His voice sounds so sad and a little too personal.

“We broke up, Austin,” I say in a quiet voice. “We agreed it was better that way.”

He stands up and shoves his hands in his pockets. He opens his mouth as if to say something but closes it again before taking a deep breath and looking anywhere but at me. “Simon is in hiding. He got into something too deep with all his cyber-hacking. It had something to do with a satellite in space and the monitoring of governmental activities of countries with dictatorships. He pissed off a lot of important men in power on an international level.”

He stops at the door and lays his hand on the knob. He hesitates as if he’s stuck on something. He faces me while leaning against the door. “We didn’t break up, Amy. You dumped me because you didn’t trust me.” His brown eyes I love so much narrow in my direction. “And that’s something I’ll never forget,” he says, just above a whisper. I have to sit down in the chair he got out of as he opens the door before closing it again. He hasn’t forgiven me for hurting him and it’s been four years. What does that mean?

My phone vibrates. I reach in my hoodie pocket for it.


Are you okay?

No. I’m falling apart inside. I just saw my ex and it turns out everything about him that I loved remains and it’s just as devastating and captivating as it was the first time. Only this time it’s ten times worse because he’s no longer a boy. He’s a man. I shake my head to clear it and wonder what is wrong with me.

I start to text Lee about Mom but stop mid-sentence and delete. I don’t want to do anything that would endanger her further. Crap balls. I didn’t get a complete answer from Austin on what we’re doing about getting Mom back. It’s not that I don’t have complete confidence in Juan, my stepdad who is so much more than a cardiologist who holds Mom’s heart. I stop and giggle at my thoughts right before I start crying silent tears that run down my cheeks. What will I do if we can’t get her back?

I half-hug myself and try to keep it together while feeling like I’m falling apart. I close my eyes when I think of my Aunt Evalina, the woman who started this whole mess when she got herself stuck in the missile silo with the crazy cult leader who now has my mother. “Please, dear Lord, keep my mother safe until we can get to her,” I whisper a prayer and hope for the faith of my aunt, who passed away while in the cult leader’s care. “Please don’t let us be too late,” I whisper again before taking a few deep breaths as I wipe the tears from my cheeks.

I stand up, walk across the room, and exit Mom’s office into the main part of the house. Giggling sounds emanate from the kitchen. Memories flood me of how funny Austin was when we were together. I recall how much he could make me laugh even when I felt hotter than a habanero pepper from the way he kissed. Ugh. Stop thinking about him, Amy, I self-admonish as I walk through the French doors to find him all wrapped up in LiLi, the vindictive Cambodian who is as mysterious and shady as her native jungles. Her lips are glued to the backside of his jaw like a sucker-fish. His hands are buried in her hair. His face is lost in her neck. Their make-out sesh looks so out of place up against the beautiful brand-new faucet. I’m frozen to the spot. “Dad got a new faucet!” I blurt out.

Austin somehow extricates himself from the Venus flytrap who might just end up being my new sister-in-law, a show I’ll have front-row seats to as his best woman. This is insane. “Hey, Amy,” he says all casual-like as he fiddles with his buttons on his Henley shirt. I look away. “What’s up?”

“We never finished our conversation about Mom,” I offer. “I guess I was just wondering how I can help.”

“You can help by staying out of the way,” LaLa commands. I turn to face her and her bee-stung lips. Just...why?

“Excuse me?” 

Her eyes narrow. “You heard what I said. Everything is under control, and you’re too close to the whole situation to think rationally. Working you into the rescue plan would be a monumental mistake.”

I force myself to focus on everything she said and not the fact that she’s seriously insulting. “So, there is a rescue plan in place,” I say while thinking she already took Austin from me, no way in hell is she ordering me to not help my mom.

“Yes,” she answers with one word, indicating she’s not about to tell me what it is. This infuriates me. I want to slam her head into the ground. Forgive me, Lord. I didn’t mean it. I think inside my head while wondering what it is about this particular woman that draws such violent thoughts from me. It can’t just be because she’s his fiancée, can it? There’s more to my visceral response to her than that. Right?

I turn away from the two of them to text Lee.


Is there any way you can come stay the weekend? I really need you here.


Is it that bad? I’m kind of busy. This is Fantasy Football draft weekend.

I can’t believe my boyfriend is blowing me off for something that isn’t even real! I’ve never asked him to do anything for me. That’s not our style. He should know something is really wrong from my request. Is he this clueless or is it just the fact I’m so ordinary he doesn’t hear me?


Can’t you do that online? I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.

I so hate begging. I hate Lee even more for making me beg. I start texting again but stop and wait him out.


Alright fine. I guess I can make it work.


Thank you. That would be great.


You owe me a plane ticket. LOL.

I read over his last message twice. He says he’s kidding, but he’s probably not. Lee is a little too frugal in my opinion. At first I admired him for it because it’s nice to meet a man who knows how to budget. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if he really makes me pay for his plane ticket out here a serious discussion will be had. I turn back around to say something to Austin and LiLi about his coming to visit but they’re nowhere to be found. Considering what I walked into in the kitchen, they’re probably in the bedroom. I can’t believe Austin is messing around with LiLi while Mom is being held hostage somewhere. It’s not even nighttime.

I shove an airpod in my ear and walk outside. The thought of the two of them having fun behind closed doors somewhere in Juan’s house that’s more of a mansion is too much.


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