Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice:
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 12): Alliance
Max sets me on my feet, his hands resting on my hips. Grace is already standing at attention and growling low in her throat.
“Stay here.” He cups my cheek and waits for me to look at him. “I'm going to check things out.”
I trap his hand, holding it against my face. “No!”
Max pries my fingers loose, holding them in his own. “I'll be fine. I have a gun hidden in a tree on the edge of the property. I'll come back for you as soon as I can.” He leans in and kisses me hard, tracing his fingers along my hairline, then crouches in front of Grace. “Grace, stay.”
Before I have a chance to say anything else, he takes off.
The dying light of the sunset barely illuminates the lake now, the surface rippling purple and blue. In about ten minutes, darkness will creep in, blanketing the area. The thought of the unknown in the dark sends my heart into palpitations.
I turn my back to the lake, peering into the gloom at the steep and treacherous path before me. It's not going to get any lighter, and I want to be where Max is. I also suck at following directions.
“Come on, girl.” I pat my thigh with more confidence than I feel and start after Max.
It's cooler under the umbrella of thick foliage—and a great deal darker. I stand with my eyes closed for several seconds, allowing my pupils to dilate, then open them. My vision improves enough to find my way without tripping and falling, but it’s slow going. Every so often, I stop and listen to the sounds of the encroaching night. There are no more gunshots, and I don’t hear Max although he had a good head start and knows the area far better than I do.
Grace lopes along, her attention fully on me. She doesn’t stop to sniff anything or chase animals. I wonder what Grace did in her former life. Was she a police dog? She seems trained to protect and serve. Maybe she’s just special. Whatever the reason, I thank God she’s by my side—the world would be much scarier without her.
By the time I reach the edge of the yard, my vision has acclimated to the darkness. Grace paces herself by my steps, stopping when I stop, moving when I move. We creep along the perimeter of the yard, and I listen for signs of Max.
A booming voice yells out, “Jesus! Put that thing down!”
Another voice mutters something back, but I can’t make out the words. I follow the soft drone of conversation, picking my way carefully along the edge of the trees until I see them.
Max leans against the house talking to another man. The guy is built like a tank. The rolled up sleeves of his khaki shirt showcase massive biceps. The sheer size of his chest and shoulders dwarf Max’s by comparison. He has a cap of wavy, cropped hair that probably has a mind of its own when left to grow untamed.
“How did you end up out here, man?” Max asks. His arms are crossed over his broad chest, but his posture seems relaxed.
“Looking for you. Almost got my ass shot up doing it, trigger finger!” His good-natured laugh bellows through the air.
Max knits his eyebrows, and his demeanor changes slightly. “How’d you know where to look, Eric?”
Eric scrubs thick fingers through his short hair. “Tek sent me.”
“He said you should have been back already. Ali’s worried about you.”
Max groans. “There’s nothing to worry about. How did you get free to come here? Did Tek ask you to?”
Eric shakes his head. “Nah. I volunteered. Could you see Tek stumbling over the river and through the woods? Besides, I didn’t think it was a good idea to leave her alone. Max, she’s worse.”
Max’s jaw tightens, and he rakes his fingers through his short hair. “Shit. I hit the pharmacy, but they’re cleaned out.”
“Wish I could help with that.”
“You’ve done plenty.” Max slaps Eric on the arm. “I owe you. Won’t you be missed?”
“I’m entitled to leave time. Most guys don’t want it, but I’ve always enjoyed a good romp in the woods.”
“Was that you shooting before?”
Eric laughs. “Yeah. I saw a deer. Missed.”
“Listen . . . there’s someone else here with me.”
“She stumbled into town a few weeks ago, delirious with fever. I took care of her. She’s been living in one of the houses.”
“Max, are you crazy?”
“She knows what the deal is, and she’s been careful. You haven’t heard any reports, right?”
“No, but you know it’s only a matter of time.”
A short, uncomfortable silence descends between them.
“I left her in the woods. I have to go get her.”
Now what? I can’t go back to the ledge before Max gets there. Do I pretend I didn’t eavesdrop, or should I just come clean? A sinking feeling swirls in the pit of my stomach. There are things I don’t know. Until I do, it’s probably wise not to give too much away.
I backtrack into the woods a short way then come out, making enough noise that Max and his friend will hear me.
Max halts mid-stride. “Marie?”
“Sorry I didn’t listen to you. It was getting dark and creepy.”
When Grace sees Eric, she yips and scuttles over, jumping up on his legs.
“Hey, Nudge!” He ruffles her fur and lets her lick his face then digs in his pocket, bringing out a few dog treats. “Here you go, precious.”
I remain some distance away, nervous about Eric though he seems friendly enough.
Max strides over and grabs my hand. “You all right?”
“Yeah. Who’s he?”
“Come here.” Max tangles our fingers and pulls me along behind him. “Eric, I want you to meet Marie.”
The gargantuan man, still bent down playing with Grace, glances up. Despite his intimidating size, his expression is friendly and open. Grace seems to like him, which is quite an endorsement.
“Hey, Marie!” Eric steps forward, his big blue eyes widening when he notices Max's hold on me. “Oh, I get it now.”
Max follows Eric’s gaze. “It’s not like that, jerk.”
I smile and shake Eric’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
When he leans down to pet Grace again, I notice a patch on his sleeve—half American flag, half Canadian with the inscription American-Canadian Alliance.
The smile freezes on my face, and I can’t stop the words from tumbling out. “What the hell is that?”
Max’s fingers tighten over mine. “Easy.”
Eric stands up, letting out a creepy laugh. “It means I’m one of them.”
I’m speechless, my heart stuttering and racing.
Max kicks Eric in the shin. “Stop it, asshole. You’ll scare her to death.”
“Ow!” Eric hops around on one leg, rubbing his shin. “Sorry.”
Max looks into my eyes. “Marie, listen to me. Eric is technically one of them, but he’s a good guy. I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“He’s the source of your inside information.”
“Yes, and a clown.” Max shoots Eric a withering look. “Eric has a heart of gold, but he was holding the door when common sense got handed out.”
“What’s he doing here?” I’m curious if Max will lie to me.
“He came looking for me. I’ve been gone longer than usual, and someone sent him to find me.”
“Oh, it’s my fault—because I got sick.”
Eric looks at me with interest. “Sick how?”
Max shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it. We’re leaving in the morning.”
Eric nods. “I’m heading out tonight. Told them I’d be in the woods nearby. They shouldn’t come looking, but just in case . . .”
“You sure about traveling at night?” Max asks.
“Nothing scares me—except them finding out I’m not where I’m supposed to be.” Eric pats Grace on the head and salutes us. “See you back at the ranch. Marie, it was a pleasure.”
The giant melts stealthily into the darkness, and a few minutes later, it’s almost as if he were never here. Max and I stand awkwardly while Grace wanders around the yard.
I rub my hands up and down the sleeves of my hoodie, looking everywhere but at Max. The evening isn’t that cold; the chill I feel is a knot of icy doubt on the inside, working its way out. Others sent Eric looking for Max, one of them female. Is that why Max kept me separated, like a dirty little secret? Tears sting my eyes.
Max tugs my hood. “I’m going to put this gun away, and then we can get ready for bed. We’ll head out early tomorrow, okay?”
The darkness is complete now, and I can’t read Max’s expression. I’m relieved he can’t see the tears in my eyes. It seemed like I was getting to know him, and now I wonder.
I find Grace in the yard and hug her neck, pressing my face into her fur for comfort while he's gone.
When Max returns, we use the light of a lantern to clean up the remains of our dinner then pack our things in preparation for the morning.
I can’t shake the disquieting feeling twisting inside me, but I don’t know what to say about it or even how much of a right I have to question Max. Loneliness casts a shadow over me. Tonight, more than any other, I want to pull my phone out and hear Katie’s voice.
Max lets me use the bathroom first. I brush my teeth, splash water on my face, and decide to sleep in the clothes I’m wearing.
A candle flickers on the nightstand in the bedroom. A picture on the wall draws my attention—a group of people on a small airplane pose together, holding drinks in the air. I lean closer to make out the details and realize they’re cast members from The Walking Dead. I wonder where those actors are now and if working on a post-apocalyptic show helped any of them to survive.
I kick off my boots and turn down the comforter, slipping under the sheet. Grace hops up and curls into a ball at my feet. When Max comes in, I don’t mention the photograph though I’m not sure why.
I stare at the ceiling, listening to Max getting ready. He’s in the bathroom for quite a while, and fatigue pulls me under.
The dip of the mattress startles me, and my lids fly open.
“It’s just me.” Max sits on the other side of the bed, also in his clothes, the candlelight playing across his features, leaving them in partial shadow. “Is it all right if I sleep next to you?”
Part of me wants to ask why he wants to sleep beside me when there are several bedrooms in the house, but I simply nod. He draws the sheet over himself and turns to face me, bending one arm to support his head. I wish his expression was discernible. I know he’s watching me but have no idea what he's thinking.
Eventually, Max reaches out and runs a finger across my eyebrow, over my temple, and down the side of my cheek, rubbing it back and forth along the edge of my jaw. “What are you thinking?” he asks.
“I’m not sure what to think . . . about anything.” Vague but true.
“Are you upset with me?” His finger continues its lazy pattern across my skin, causing a sudden warmth to melt some of the ice inside me.
“Should I be?”
“No. I don’t know.” Max looks down for a few seconds before moving closer and spreading his hand across my jaw, his thumb brushing lightly across my bottom lip. “Did I overstep? Out by the lake?”
Desire awakens inside me, the rapidly spreading heat consuming the ice at the memory of him kissing me earlier. The practical part of my brain cries out, warning that Max might be making a fool of me. There are things I don’t know. The war inside keeps me from answering.
“I’m not good at this, Marie. I never have been.” The pad of his thumb keeps up the gentle motion, sending more waves of heat rippling through my abdomen. Now that he’s closer, I can see sincerity and uncertainty in his eyes. “Please say something.” He lifts his thumb from my lip, sliding his hand further back until it cradles my head.
“I’m scared. Who was that guy, and how did he know where to find you? You said you wouldn’t lie to me.”
Max’s brow furrows, and his gaze roams my face. “I won’t lie to you.” He presses his forehead to mine and looks into my eyes. “Eric is part of the American-Canadian Alliance. The virus hit so fast and hard, it wiped out most of our government and Canada’s. A joint government was formed, dedicated to finding a cure in the name of preserving human life. The problem is their methods are cruel and unusual. They’re determined to find a cure as soon as possible, even if it means sucking the life out of the immune to do it.”
I tamp down the fear threatening to overtake me. “How do you know him?”
“He's a perimeter guard at their facility. He was investigating something and took a tumble on some rocks by the ocean. I saved his ass, and now he's helping save mine. Eric's a good guy. He doesn't agree with what they're doing.”
“Why's he with them, then?”
Max sighs and closes his eyes. “Sometimes we make compromises or do things we normally wouldn't consider moral. It's a different world now.” He places a kiss on my forehead. “I hope you never have to face a decision like that.”
We look into each other's eyes, his fingers massaging lightly in the hair at my nape. A shiver rolls through me, and I'm not sure if his touch or his words cause it—probably both.
“You didn't overstep before, unless . . .”
“Is there someone else? Is that why you tried to run me off and kept me on the outside?”
Max laughs, shaking his head. “There's no one.” He grows serious, intensity burning in his gaze. “I didn't want to care about you—I still don't. It complicates everything and puts us all in danger.”
“There are two other people with me. One of them, I'd do anything to protect. Anything.”
“Who are they?”
“My sister and the guy I found her with after the virus hit. He's in love with her and the only reason I can ever leave her alone.”
“She can't go on supply runs?”
“No. Ali's sickly. She has bad asthma. Eric snuck me some inhalers a while ago, but he doesn't have access anymore. The pharmacy here is cleaned out, so I'll have to search in another town farther away.”
“I might be able to help. My grandma had asthma, but she was into holistic remedies and refused to use an inhaler. I noticed an apothecary in town. We can check it out before we leave in the morning.”
“That would be great.”
“Can I meet Ali?” I look up at him shyly.
“Can't put the horse back in the barn now.” He grins. “When we first met . . . I didn't want to be cruel to you. I just didn't know how to deal—after Gary. I'm still worried about fucking things up and people I care about getting hurt.”
“I understand.” His actions make a lot more sense to me now.
“Thank you.” The look in Max's eyes sends a flash of heat to my nether regions.
“Not judging me. Being willing to help my sister. You're such a good person.”
“So are you.”
“No, I'm not.” His laugh is self-depreciating and ugly. “I've done shit.”
I reach out and caress his cheek. “Everyone's done things.”
Max's lips are suddenly on mine, hungry and devouring. No question. No seeking of permission. He exerts gentle pressure at the nape of my neck, drawing me closer as his mouth moves over mine.
Tingles race through my body, every cell responding. My fingers skim his chest, fisting around the soft cotton of his shirt. His hand leaves my neck, and he shifts, the weight of him pressing me to the mattress as he places hot, open-mouthed kisses down the side of my neck.
There’s a thump as Grace leaps to the floor. Dover never thought twice about staying on the bed while action was taking place.
Max holds himself above me, using his arms as support. The rest of his body comes in contact with mine, sending delicious zings everywhere. I lie helpless beneath him—scared of what I'm feeling, scared he'll disappear again once we get back to town, scared to be vulnerable in front of him.
Max returns to my mouth, his tongue sliding deep inside. He groans, flexing his hips when I dig my nails into his shoulders, his hardness jabbing me in the thigh through our jeans. One hot hand slides under the edge of my shirt, the calluses on his palm rasping along my side until encountering the black lace bra. Both nipples pebble, and the gentle kneading sends electric shocks between my legs.
I draw a long, shuddering breath when he breaks away again, heart drumming against my ribs.
Max's touch disappears from beneath my shirt, and he rolls off me, throwing an arm over his face. “Shit.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
Max's sea-glass eyes capture mine, and he cups my jaw. “No . . . no. I got carried away. Practically nailed you right here.” He skims his fingers through my hair and kisses me softly. “Told you I'm not good at this.”
I laugh and mutter, “Seem pretty good at it to me . . .”
“Oh, yeah?” Max smirks and leans his head on his arm, pulling me down to kiss him.
Our lips and tongues explore languidly, but it's no less intense than before—at least for me. He cups my face or wraps his arms around my back, careful to keep his hands above the clothes. Part of me feels disappointed; the other part realizes it's way too soon for more and appreciates the respect he’s showing me.
“We should get some rest. Long day tomorrow.” Max kisses the tip of my nose.
Max blows out the candle. We lie on our sides, kissing slowly and sharing gentle touches until we fall asleep in each other's arms.
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook