Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 17): My Girl
Eric doesn’t believe you’re immune.
My mind seems incapable of comprehending five simple words. As the resulting void expands, echoes ping back.
The dream I had of Mike reminding me I left him alone, that we belonged together until death, and his repeated lament of “She cheated.”
Mom sobbing because Katie didn’t come with me to Florida.
The bee sting dream I had when I visited Mom just before the virus broke out.
My mother behind the fence with the enemy.
Finding out Garth Kasabian is the lead scientist for the alliance.
It all swirls into a tornado, moving faster and faster, until the picture suddenly freezes and comes into painful focus.
My mother knew the virus was coming.
She called Katie and me to visit her in an attempt to protect us. When I woke from the bee sting dream, Mom was sitting on the edge of my bed. She must have injected me with the vaccine. That’s why I got to watch my entire family fall to pieces around me, why I had to bury my twin, why I was left alone to navigate this new reality.
The impact of this revelation breaks me.
Max grabs for me, but I slip away, leaping off the bed.
“Marie . . .”
“Don’t! Oh my God! Oh . . . God.” I tear at my hair and stumble across the room, curling into a ball facing a corner.
Max crouches beside me but keeps his hands to himself. “Please don’t worry. I’ll fix this.”
“Fix it?” My voice is shrill. “Nobody can do that.” Wrapping my arms tighter around myself, I rock slowly.
Grace whimpers from across the room.
“I can. I will.”
It dawns on me that Max isn’t talking about the same thing I am. “You can’t bring my sissy back!” I yell. Part of me knows I’m being unfair to him, but I’m too destroyed inside to care.
“What?” The surprise shows on his face. When I continue to cry, he tentatively touches my arm. “Talk to me. Please.”
“The bee wasn’t a bee at all. She saved me and condemned Katie! Mike said I belonged with him, that she cheated, and now I know what he was referring to!” I babble on.
“Come here.” Max tugs me toward him gently, wrapping his arms around me. Part of me wants to push away, but I can’t. He feels too good, his affection doled out so selectively. I allow my body to lean into his. “You’re scaring the shit out of me. Tell me what you mean.”
I take a few deep breaths to calm myself enough to talk. “My mom knew the virus was coming—I don’t know how. That’s why she wanted me to visit her in Florida. I’m pretty sure the bee sting dream was her vaccinating me. Max, my God . . . she let Katie die! I should have died, too. Instead, I had to bury my family, one by one, until I was the lone survivor.”
Max lets out a string of curses that would make a truck driver do a double-take. Still swearing, he stands us up and pulls me so close, it’s difficult to draw a full breath. His fingers tangle in my hair. We’re so entwined, I’m not sure where I end and he begins.
“So sorry I misunderstood you. I can’t bring Katie back, but I am going to save you. After you came along and broke through my defenses, I’ll be damned if anything will get in our way.” His voice breaks. “You’re my girl.”
Hearing those words from Max is like sunbeams breaking through a tempest. Despite my grief, warmth blooms inside me.
“Say it again.”
“That I’m your girl.”
Max loosens his hold and cups my face, his eyes afire with tenderness. “You’re my girl.” He rubs a thumb over my bottom lip. “My girl . . . and I won’t let anything happen to you.”
I gaze up at him, my bereaved heart filling with a joy that repels the loneliness and sense of betrayal weighing on me. And I believe him when he says he’s going to save me even though logic suggests otherwise.
“I believe you.”
An indescribable change takes place in his sea-glass eyes just before his lips touch mine, one that says he’s not used to hearing declarations such as this. Max wraps his arm around my shoulders, his large palm cradling the back of my head. His kiss is both gentle and possessive, passionate and hungry. I melt into his embrace, slipping my arms around his waist, and give myself over to whatever is happening between us—because something vital is taking place even if I can’t give a name to it in this moment.
Max turns us, backing me slowly toward the bed until I sit down. He leans over me, keeping our lips connected, and braces his arms on the mattress on either side of me. His tongue teases against mine then delves deeper, sending a blinding burst of desire through me. I claw at his bare skin, finding purchase on his broad shoulders, and kiss him back, pouring everything I feel for him into it.
Releasing my lips, he licks and sucks along my jaw and down the side of my neck. My mouth opens wordlessly, and I dig my nails deeper into his shoulders. Max groans and nips my sensitive skin between his teeth.
“Oh . . .” I gasp.
He pulls away and kneels on the floor, looking up at me. The pads of his fingers draw a line of fire where his lips and teeth just traveled, ending along the ridge of my clavicle. He takes my hand and flips it, bending his head to place a kiss in the heart of my palm, then holds it against his cheek.
“Nobody’s ever believed in me before. I’ve never had . . . someone special.” His fingers trail over my breastbone to play with the filmy ribbon along the neckline of my shirt. Our eyes meet, and he deliberately tugs an end, never looking down as the loosened laces spread apart, baring cleavage.
My heart beats wildly as he slips his hand underneath, dragging his fingers along the scalloped edge of my bra.
Max cups the nape of my neck, tugging me forward for a kiss. “You’re so damn beautiful.” He rests his forehead against mine. “I want to touch you . . . everywhere.”
I swallow hard, unable to speak. There’s nothing I want more than to have Max’s hands all over me.
He must see something in my eyes. “We won’t do anything you don’t want, China. Say the word, and I’ll back off.”
Max fingers the edge of my shirt then lifts it slowly, giving me plenty of time to protest. I raise my arms, allowing him to remove it. He presses soft kisses over my bare shoulder as he slips an arm behind me and works my bra open. The straps slip down my arms, and the sharpness of the cool air teases my sensitive nipples, causing me to gasp.
Max’s lids flutter closed as he explores my skin with his lips and tongue and fingertips. He pays attention to every inch of my upper body—lips wandering, tongue tasting, hands roaming.
As I inch up the bed, Max kneels on the mattress, moving with me. He palms my breasts, kneading gently before sliding down to skim the curve of my waist. His fingers toy with the button of my jeans. When I don’t protest, he undoes it and tugs the denim down my legs. My shoes are already missing, and the jeans slip off easily.
Max’s gaze roams slowly up my form, taking in my mostly naked body. My face heats, and I resist the urge to cross my arms. Instead, I take the opportunity to examine him.
The flickering candlelight creates undulating shadows over his muscular arms and chest, bringing the vine of roses winding over his skin to life. His flat stomach has ridges of muscle leading to a trail of downy hair. My gaze halts below his leather belt and flashes up to his face. He watches me with a faint smirk.
Max stretches out next to me on his side, running an index finger along the top of my shoulder, eliciting a small shiver. I trace the vine leading from his shoulder over his left pec then lean in to press a kiss over his heart. A shiver works through his body, and Max strokes my hair gently. Urging me onto my side, he kisses me deeply, pressing the bare skin of our chests together. The feel of him against me is intoxicating. His palm slides down my back to rest over my silky panties, applying gentle pressure as his hips rock forward. The rough denim against my sensitive skin causes a delicious tingle to start at the apex of my thighs, spreading warmth into my belly.
Max reaches between us and unbuckles his belt, pushing his jeans down and wiggling out of them. He flexes his hips again, and there's no mistaking how hard he is. I wind my leg around Max's, bringing us closer, and revel in the harsh breath he releases.
We roll until I’m on my back with Max hovering above me. Our lips meet in a searing kiss, and I gasp softly when Max tugs at my panties. I know it’s irrational, but this is my last scrap of fabric, and I suddenly feel shy.
He presses tender kisses along my jaw, pausing at the sensitive spot beneath my ear. “You can tell me to stop.” His breath is hot against my neck.
When I don’t protest, Max shimmies the panties down my legs, using his foot to push them completely off.
Tingles prickle all over, my breaths growing shallow.
I’m naked. With Max.
He slides down to my feet and begins with nibbling kisses along the arches. He explores every expanse, dip, and curve with his lips, tongue, and fingers as he makes his way slowly up my body. I stiffen as his warm breath ghosts the tops of my thighs, and he continues past the place where I both want him to go and fear that he will. He flicks his tongue against my hipbone and nestles his lips against my navel.
I curl my fingers in his soft hair and wish it were longer. I’d love to see him as he was before and to know what prompted him to cut it off.
Max’s eyes are closed as he travels higher, and I watch his face while he samples my skin, touching and tasting. It’s like he’s memorizing me.
“Turn over.” His voice is low and gravelly.
My pulse throbs in my temples and throat, and I wonder what he’s planning but silently obey. He repeats his exploration up the backs of my legs, palming my ass with a soft chuckle when I wiggle around. The combination of his rough hands and velvety tongue dragging slowly along each vertebrae of my spine and the prominence of my scapula liquefies my insides. When he reaches the nape of my neck and sucks the tender skin between his lips, I writhe beneath him.
“Beautiful,” he whispers. “I want to look at you now.”
“But you just—“
“Did all that with my eyes closed, to learn your body. Now I want to explore you with my eyes.”
“Max . . .” A blush blooms over my neck and face.
He presses his body against mine, and I feel every hard inch of him. “I just licked and fondled every part of you—well, almost every part. Don't get shy on me.”
When he puts it that way . . . He lifts off me, and I flip over.
“You did have your eyes closed.” I point out.
Max straddles my legs and gazes at me with a mixture of heat and amusement. He’s still wearing black boxer briefs, and it’s quite apparent how much he wants me. “Don’t be embarrassed.” He traces a finger along my flaming cheek. “You’re exquisite. It’s been a long, long time since I wanted anyone.”
Max’s eyes are darker than usual, more green than blue, and he uses the intensity of his gaze the same way as his touch—caressing and exploring my body, eliciting heat and tingling without laying a finger on me. Somehow, I end up feeling more exposed than before.
He reaches for my hands and places them on his abs. I trace the contours of his muscles, rising higher to his pecs, and end up following the vines tattooed over the skin of his shoulder and arm with my index finger.
Max’s breath shudders, and his lids flutter closed. “Your touch is like heaven.” When he opens his eyes again, pure desire emanates from his darkened irises. He slides the boxers off and covers me with his muscled body, peppering kisses along my jaw. “Tell me if you want to stop.”
Max nudges my legs apart with his knee and fits himself into the cradle of my thighs. I long to say something profound, but words escape me. I only know that I want him. He doesn’t give his heart easily, and I’m honored he feels so close to me, to know I’ve become part of his world.
Max kisses me, his tongue playing against mine. His hips shift forward—a little more and he’ll be inside me. “Tell me.” His voice is hoarse, the muscles of his shoulders going rigid under my fingers.
“It’s okay if you’re not ready.”
I grip his waist, digging my nails in lightly. “I want you, Max. Don’t stop.”
“China . . .” My nickname is a low rumble in his throat.
Max presses forward, melding us together. His movements are slow and deep, and so are his kisses. He touches all the spots that make me squirm, paying special attention to the place our bodies are joined.
“God . . .” So much sensation flows through me, I can’t manage coherent thoughts or words.
“Look at me.”
Our eyes meet, adding yet another layer to the desire burning inside me. His gaze is so intense as he watches me with unabashed lust and bites his lip.
“Hold on to me.”
I do as he says, my fingers roaming over the hot skin of his shoulders to grip his sweat-damp hair. We find our own special rhythm, gazes locked, until the very end when we both fall. The sensations are too intense, and I lose control, crying out to him, my eyes scrunching closed.
In the aftermath, I’m left limp and exhausted in Max’s embrace. This shouldn’t surprise me because Max does everything with intensity. He doesn’t trust or give his heart easily; it stands to reason he’d make love the same way. The knowledge makes me feel incredibly special.
On the heels of this thought, I experience a small epiphany. Kissing Mike never elicited such passion. Mike’s touch didn’t burn my skin. Making love to him was pleasurable but could never compare to what Max and I just shared.
This line of thought feels disloyal, and a tear slides over my cheek. Max notices immediately, capturing it with the pad of his thumb. “Hey . . . are you okay?”
“Talk to me.” He kisses my forehead.
“It’s just—I realized Katie was right, and I feel disloyal even thinking it.”
“O-kay . . .” Max nudges my leg with his foot. “Is this some kind of chick-speak? I have no idea what that meant.”
His reaction brings a faint smile to my face. “Mike wasn’t 'the one.' I never felt the things with him that I just did . . . with you. I had no idea it could be so . . . all-consuming and intense and special.” I turn my face away, scared to death he doesn’t feel the same.
Max blows out a breath, hugging me close. “I’m so damn glad you feel it too, China.”
Elation washes over me. There’s no deeper discussion of feelings, and I’m okay with that. We simply fall asleep, wrapped in each other’s arms.
When Max shakes me awake, blinding sunlight pries at the edges of the blinds. I blink a few times then yank the covers over my head. “Tired. You wore me out.”
Max chuckles. “That was me in first gear, China.” He slips under the comforter and kisses my neck.
Tingles zip along the surface of my naked skin. Reaching out, I realize he’s fully dressed, and I’m abruptly awake. “What time is it?”
“Almost eleven. I’d let you sleep longer, but we have a meeting with Eric in an hour.”
I yawn, stretching my arms upward. “We were gone all night. Won’t the others be worried?”
Max slips off the bed and lays a pile of clothes on my lap. “Taken care of. I snuck away while you were sleeping—filled Ali and Tek in on what’s happening and set up the meeting. Why don’t you get dressed? I’ll rustle up something to eat.”
He abruptly leaves the room, and I wonder if something is wrong—other than the fact I might die from this insidious virus.
Grace pads into the room and hops on the bed, giving me one of her full face-licks. I sputter and laugh, hugging her warm, furry body close. “Good morning, Grace. Is everything all right? I sure hope so.”
Her answer is another sloppy lick.
I freshen up and dress, then wander downstairs. A protein bar and bottle of water sits on the kitchen counter, and Max paces, his bulk dwarfing the small space.
“You call this breakfast?” I joke.
Max rakes his hands over his short hair. “Sorry. I thought it was best in case we have to hoof it.”
My heart skips a beat. “Are you expecting trouble?”
“No.” His answer is clipped.
“Max, what’s going on?” I step in his restless path, placing a hand on his chest.
“We’re going to fix this.”
Heavy footsteps clomp up the porch steps, and a knock sounds at the door. “Anybody home?” Eric’s usual jovial tone is subdued.
“Come in.” Max grabs me and kisses me hard. “This is going to work.”
Whenever Max is nervous or scared, so am I. Our track record speaks for itself.
Eric hovers in the doorway. “You sure about this, Max?”
The reason for Max’s anxiety is apparent when Eric ducks through the doorway with my mother following closely behind.
Max steps in front of me, shoulders squared, blocking my view of Mom and hers of me.
Eric introduces them. “Nina Kasabian, this is Max.”
“Hello, Max. Eric insisted we come here in secret, and I’ve agreed because I trust him. He said you need help.”
Mom's voice up close is like a punch to the chest. The familiarity of her voice steals my breath and incites resentment at the same time.
“I need doses of vaccine.” Max's tone is emotionless and matter-of-fact.
“Oh, I can't help with that. It’s kept under lock and key.”
“You’ve done it before.”
Mom hesitates. “No, I haven’t. It’s not possible.”
I grab the back of Max’s shirt, twisting the thermal knit in my fists, and fight not to break down.
“Lady, you’re going to do as I ask.”
“Are you threatening me?” Out comes haughty Nina. My mother would probably sass a gunman in a hold-up.
“I’m doing whatever it takes.” Max lunges forward, pinning my mother against the kitchen wall by her neck. The impact jolts a clock loose, and it falls to the floor with a crash. He turns his head until our eyes meet; his are icy. “You might want to leave the room for this.”
“Man, what the hell are you doing?” Eric strides forward, but Max presses harder against my mother’s windpipe, cutting off her air. Eric holds his hands up. “Calm down. We can work something out. Maybe there’s another way?” He inclines his head in my direction.
“Give me what I want or die.” Max’s voice is colder than I’ve ever heard it. “You deserve to die, but we can put that aside if you provide what I need.” He lets up the pressure but continues holding her in place.
She coughs and sputters, taking in gulps of air. Only the bottom of her leg and the edge of her shoulder are visible to me from behind Max’s large frame.
I sense he means it. If my mother doesn’t turn over the vaccine, he’ll find another way to get it, maybe hurting her in the process. Max is all about protecting those he cares about—I’ve seen it with Ali, and he's alluded to a violent past more than once. Even though she's a pathetic excuse for a mother, I can't allow him to harm her.
“Stop! Max, please.” I step forward on wobbly legs and grab his arm.
“Marie?” Mom’s hazel eyes widen in disbelief. Her auburn hair is disheveled from tussling with Max. Up close, the dark circles beneath her eyes are prominent. “Is it really you, baby girl?” She reaches out.
“Did you do it, Mom?” I tilt my head, fresh tears threatening to fall. “Did you know the virus was coming?”
Her skin pales beneath her carefully applied makeup. It must be nice to have the luxury of using cosmetics, to lead a leisurely life without the threat of being captured and experimented on.
“Sweetie . . .”
“Did you vaccinate me when I came to Florida?” I bite the edge of my tongue in an attempt to hold the tears at bay.
She nods. “I snuck a few doses from Garth’s laboratory.”
“You let Kiki die!” I accuse.
“No! I tried to get her to visit!” Two red patches stain her cheeks.
“You could have told me the truth, sent a shot home for her. What about Dad?”
“I took a huge risk giving you the vaccination.”
Rage rips through me, and I slap her traitorous face. “When you love someone, you’ll risk anything! She was your child, you cold-hearted bitch!” The tears spill over in a torrent, and I’m angry she gets to see me cry. “I buried my family! My twin! What horrors did you go through—deciding what designer clothes and makeup to bring with you to the compound? How do you live with yourself?”
I lunge for her again, and Max bands one muscled arm around my waist to stop me from striking her while keeping his other forearm pressed to her chest. “Easy, China.”
Mom’s expression changes as she glances between us, recognition settling in. “You care for my daughter. You’re doing this for her, aren’t you?”
Max’s jaw tightens. “You going to help this daughter?” His tone is mocking, the meaning clear.
“Of course I will.” Her voice is a strangled whisper. Fat tears roll down her face, her mascara creating sooty streaks.
When I look at my mom this way, it brings to mind a crisp, fall day when I was six. An array of colorful fallen leaves carpeted the lush grass in the park. Katie and I took turns burying each other in piles of damp leaves then got bored and started playing hide-and-seek. We went too deep into the woods and ended up lost. When Mom finally found us, she was crying so hard she could barely speak. She flung her arms wide and gathered us up. “My precious girls!”
She loved us so much back then. What changed?
I scoff. “Because you’re a top candidate for mother of the year, right?”
“I did the best I could, baby.”
“No, you didn’t,” Max interrupts, “but one way or another, I’m going to.”
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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