Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part Twenty): Snare
Max lifts himself off me and walks across the room, leaving me alone and confused. We did just declare ourselves, right?
I sit up, swinging my leg over the bench to plant my feet on the floor. When I glance up, the door clicks shut, and Max presses his forehead against it as he flips the lock.
“Do you mean it?” he asks, still facing the door. The muscles across his shoulders and back are pulled tight.
“Are you mine? That's what you want?”
I stand and walk over to him slowly, placing my palms on his rigid back. “Max, it's no longer a matter of what I want but what is.” His skin is hot beneath my fingers as I run them across the tops of his shoulders and skim them over his bulging biceps. My arms aren't long enough to reach the ends of his longer ones, so I wrap my fingers around his forearms just above the wrists as I press my bare chest against him and nestle my cheek in the valley between his shoulder blades. “I didn't plan to fall for you. But I did, and I'm here.”
Max groans, hitting the door with the side of his fist. “I don't know how to do this, China. I'm trying … but I'm not sure I can be good for you. You're so beautiful and kind, so perfect. I don't want to let you down.”
“I'm hardly perfect!” I wrap my arms around his waist and slide my hands up his hard chest. “You are good for me. I feel safe with you.”
Max turns to face me, cupping the back of my neck and gripping the hair at my nape in his fist. He looks into my eyes, a fierce, possessive gleam shining from his, and then he crushes our lips together. We move, and I find myself pressed against the door. Max bends his knees and grabs the backs of my thighs, hiking me up until my legs wrap around his waist. I wrap my arms around his neck, noting there’s a little more hair to grip now. Longer strands on top are beginning to flop onto his forehead, and it’s easier to imagine him brushing it out of his eyes.
“Hold on,” he mutters, spinning away from the door and carrying me back to the weight bench before setting me on my feet.
Grace perks up and watches us for a few seconds. Normally, she’d race over to greet me, but as if she knows something’s happening between me and Max, she lays her head on her paws with a soft chuff.
Max sinks to his knees, gazing up at me with heated adoration as he hooks his thumbs in the waist of my pants and underwear and peels them down my legs. I hold on to his shoulders for balance as I toe my boots off and step out of the remainder of my clothing.
He holds me by the waist and ghosts his lips over my navel, placing gentle kisses around my belly button. I expected to feel shy standing naked before him, but I don’t. The way he looks at and touches me, it’s as if I’m a precious jewel.
“You’re so beautiful, China.”
Max rises and leans over the weight bench, angling and securing the pad on an incline.
“What are you doing?”
“You’ll see.” He smirks, pulling me into a kiss.
He starts edging toward the bench, but I stop him. “Wait.” I slide my hands into his sweats and gasp when I find nothing but naked, hot skin. I squeeze his cheeks, digging my nails in lightly. “Commando, huh?”
Max chuckles. “Gotta give the boys a little space.”
I free my hands and kneel in front of him the way he did to me. Max draws in a deep breath and makes this growly sound as I tug the sweats down and he steps out of them. I feel superior until my gaze travels above his thighs, and my eyes widen.
Max reaches for my arms and easily lifts me to my feet, pulling me close. He lowers his mouth to mine in a searing kiss, his hardness pressing insistently against my stomach. I can’t stop myself from reaching between us to feel all of him.
“Oh God,” he mutters, grasping my wrist. Max sits on the bench and rests his back on the incline, bringing me with him. “Straddle me.” He gazes at me with heavy-lidded eyes, his sculpted chest rising and falling with rapid breaths as he helps position me above him.
With Max’s large hands guiding my hips, I sink down until he’s so, so deep inside me. The angle is one I haven’t experienced before and sets off a delicious fluttering heat low in my belly. My lips part involuntarily, a soft mewl slipping out as my head tips back, long hair swishing along the base of my spine. He cups my left breast, his thumb grazing the sensitive nipple in lazy circles.
He uses the hand remaining on my hip to guide me. Max thrusts up as I come down, driving him deeper still. I use a hand on his chest for balance, sliding my other up the side of his neck to dig my fingers in his hair.
I lean forward and nip his bottom lip between my teeth. With a strangled moan, Max pushes his tongue into my mouth and cups my ass, increasing the pace of our movements. We explore each other with an all-consuming level of intensity. Max is everywhere. He’s buried inside me, touching me, surrounding me. It finally feels as if I’m his and he’s mine. I break away from the kiss and cry out as I shatter, body and soul, the pieces reassembling to create a new woman.
Max groans my name and bites my shoulder, his body stiffening as he lets go.
I collapse against him, breathing hard. His arms cradle me, and he whispers sweet things into my hair. Mike and I never had this. I finally know what it feels like to become one with another, and the realization causes tears of happiness to pool in my eyes. We remain tangled there so long, I start to fall asleep.
Max calls my name softly, his fingers tracing along my spine.
“We should get back before they start wondering and looking for us.”
“No.” I kiss his Adam’s apple and nestle my face in the hollow between his neck and shoulder. “Want to stay with you.”
His fingers continue to dance over each vertebra, causing little shivers to radiate. “You’re welcome in my bed every night. If you don’t sleep in mine, I’m coming to yours.”
I smile, reminded of his earlier gift. “Thanks for the lamp. That was so thoughtful.”
“No biggie. I know you hate those shitty, buzzing light bars.”
“It was sweet.”
“Anything for you, China.”
Reality intrudes, and I remember the crumpled note in my pocket. The meeting is tonight, and I have to make a decision.
I sit up, my skin sticking to Max’s as I pull away. Chilly air hits drying sweat, and I shiver. Max lifts me off his lap and sits me on the bench, leaning over to grab our clothes. He pulls on his sweats then helps me dress.
With every moment that passes, a cold dread takes over my body, banishing the joy from the love we just shared. It’s hard to swallow or breathe or look Max in the eye.
He laces his fingers in mine and ducks his head to capture my gaze. “Tell me what’s wrong. Are you sorry we made love here?”
“No!” I shake my head and tighten my fingers in his. “It was . . . incredible, and I feel so much closer to you.”
“I agree.” He brings our joined hands to his lips and kisses the back of mine. “What’s bothering you?”
Now or never. The realization that I can’t lie to Max washes over me. I won’t ruin what we’ve found for the sake of my mother. She’s not worth the risk. I reach in my pocket, pull the note out, and give it to Max.
He opens the crumpled paper and reads it. “Who’s this from?”
“How did you get it?”
“Why would he do this?” Max’s brows draw together, his jaw clenched.
“I don’t know. My mother is quite charming and persuasive when she wants something. Eric doesn’t know much about our craptastic history.”
“Maybe she’ll get the message when you don’t show.”
I touch his arm as I swallow the butterflies fighting to rise. “I’m going.”
“That’s crazy! She can’t be trusted!”
“True, but we need to find out what she wants. Maybe I can get more information about the alliance. She did come through with the vaccine.” I’m not sure which of us I’m trying to convince.
“It’s too dangerous. No.” Obstinate Max makes an appearance: crossed arms, rigid posture, and stormy eyes.
“You can come with me and hide in the woods.”
We enter into a staring contest I refuse to lose. Whatever my mother has done in the past, some small part of me longs to prove there’s some good in her, that she’s not as worthless, cold, and unworthy as her actions suggest.
Max swears, breaking contact and jamming his knuckles into his eyes. When he finally looks down at me, his expression is wary. “I obviously can’t stop you, but I don’t like this. Especially since—” He cuts off, shaking his head.
“Ali. I told you she gets feelings about things.”
The events of the past day click into place. “Is that why you were so cranky?”
Max stares at his feet but tangles his fingers with mine. “Yeah.” He tugs me closer and wraps an arm around my shoulders, tucking my head beneath his chin. “I didn’t want to know you, and now . . . you mean so much to me.” He crushes me so tightly, it’s hard to breathe, and I don’t mind at all.
The night is clear and cool. Even in the woods surrounding town, the tang of ocean brine drifts on the air.
I watch the blue house from my hiding spot in the thick brush where I’ve spent the past hour. My mother’s note didn’t specify a time for the meeting, and Max insisted she had to approach the house first so we could scout for traps. He wisely pointed out how unlikely it was my mother would make it on her own from the compound to town.
We spent a great deal of time discussing possible scenarios and contingency plans before coming here. In the end, Max decided to tell Ali we were going for a moonlight stroll because stress and worry might trigger one of her asthma attacks. He did take Tek aside to tell him the truth.
Max is in the woods somewhere with Grace. I haven’t seen or heard them at all, a testament to their outdoor skills. He assured me he’d be watching.
The bob of a flashlight beam cuts through the darkness, shining on the blue house. Two figures appear: my mother, escorted by Eric. They walk into the back yard, talk for a moment, and then Eric disappears over the fence into the fields, leaving my mother alone with the flashlight.
I follow Max’s instructions and watch her for a half hour before leaving the woods and approaching the house, making my way carefully along the right side.
My mother paces back and forth in front of the porch, fiddling with the charms on her bracelet. I’ve never known her to stay still; she always flitted around like a nervous little bird.
The gate creaks as I open it, startling her. She gasps, whirling around with one palm resting over her heart.
“Marie. You came.”
As I stroll toward her, I take in her appearance. Though she’s wearing jeans, it’s hard to miss the designer blouse, leather jacket, and knee-high boots. Who tromps around looking like a model from a magazine spread during the apocalypse?
I stop a few feet away with my arms crossed and one hip cocked, staring at her, mainly because I know it will make her nervous.
She reaches out, and I jerk away. “Don’t touch me.”
“I’m not your baby!” I scream in her face. Pulling in a few deep breaths, I calm myself and lower my voice. “What the fuck do you want?”
She has the nerve to look stricken, tears welling up in her perfectly made up hazel eyes. Her fingers tremble as she swipes a lock of hair off her forehead. “I know you must hate me . . .”
“Don’t put words in my mouth. Just tell me why you asked me to meet you.”
“You had your shot?”
“Yeah. I’d say thanks, but you had to have your life threatened before you came through. And let’s not forget how you didn’t come through for Katie!”
She pulls a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and dabs at her eyes. “That’s not fair! I begged Katie to visit me.”
“I can’t imagine why she refused! You could have told me the truth, given me vaccine to bring home for her.”
“I only managed to get two injections. How could I tell you the truth and send you home with only one dose? I didn’t want to put you in that position.”
My mouth gapes. “Much better to condemn Katie to death, right?”
“You were never supposed to know.”
I flap my arms. “That makes it all better, doesn’t it? You’re a piece of work.”
“Marie, there’s no denying I’ve made mistakes—huge ones.” Her voice drops low. “I’m not a good mother. Do you know how much it hurts to admit that?” An ugly sob wrenches out of her, and she turns her back to me.
“Imagine how much it hurts to be on the business end of your mothering.” My tone is cold and unfeeling. The love and yearning that used to plague me, the nights I cried myself to sleep wondering why I wasn’t good to compel my mother to stay, now seem like a distant memory. It was never me who wasn’t good enough. Katie used to say it all the time, but I thought she was simply trying to lessen the blow.
My mother sniffles, and I wonder if her tears are for our lost relationship or because she can’t manipulate me. “I’m so sorry. I’ll never be able to go back and fix all the mistakes I made, but I’d like to do what I can.”
“And what’s that?”
She turns to face me, a glint of hope shining in her eyes. “Come and live with us at the compound.”
Those are the last words I expected my mother to utter, and I can’t hide the surprise or revulsion that passes over my features. “What?”
“The vaccine will eventually stop working. They’re experimenting with other treatments that have been quite successful.”
Bile roils in my stomach. I may not know what these “experiments” are, but Max described what Gary went through, and I saw the result myself when Eric brought Andrea in. I shake my head and back away. “No.”
“I know that young man is sweet on you, but he can’t save you. We can.”
“I told you. There are treatments that need to be administered by a doctor. Garth is heading up the team. You know how brilliant he is.”
“Brilliant doesn’t equate to ethical. Do you know anything about these treatments, or better yet, what sacrifices are being made in the name of keeping your people alive?” I look into my mother’s guileless eyes and realize she doesn’t know. Part of me is relieved to know she isn’t pure evil.
“What are you talking about?”
“Ask Garth.” Let him take responsibility for shattering his precious Nina’s childlike belief that the treatments used to save her people aren’t killing off the immune, sucking them dry until there’s nothing left but desiccated corpses.
As the realization sinks in that the alliance is doing much more than making vaccine, the urge to scream vibrates inside me like a tuning fork. If they catch Max, Ali, Tek . . . Grace. Even though Max has explained it numerous times, until this moment, I didn’t fully appreciate our predicament. I want nothing more than to get home and protect my family.
I grab her arm and yank her toward me. “Listen—I have no intention of becoming a part of your sick group. If you can get vaccine to me, fine. If not, I’ll die the way I would have if you hadn’t played God. Never contact me again. We were done the moment you allowed me to leave Florida without saving Katie.” At the mention of my betrayed sister, tears stream down my face, and I shove my mother away.
She slips something out of her jacket and holds it out to me. “Here. Take it.”
It’s a creased and worn postcard. I flip it. The picture on the front yanks me back in time.
Saratoga’s apple orchard. I picture Katie running through sun-dappled trees, laughing between bites of the apple clutched in her fist. I tripped on a root while chasing her and landed hard on my belly, knocking the wind from my lungs. The impractical gingham jumper Mom insisted I wear was smeared with mud. Katie leaned around the edge of a tree, her jumper still clean and perfect, and shook a finger. I cried for fear Mom would yell at me, but when she found me cringing on the ground, she pulled me into her lap and smoothed my hair.
I release the postcard, allowing it to flutter to the grass.
She picks up the postcard. “I’ve carried it with me all these years. When I look at it, I relive a lovely day with both of my girls. Remember how we brought home pies, and Mamie waved her hand, saying hers were much better?”
I smile faintly, nostalgia seeping into me. Then I remember the utter destruction of my ten-year-old world when she walked out on us and the destruction of my adult world when she let my sister die, both at her hand. She’s still making shitty decisions and hoping for sympathy.
“You know what? You could have had so many memories with your children! Instead of holding onto one day, we could have shared years of love and family traditions together. It’s clear you’ve learned nothing.” I turn and walk away. There’s nothing else to say.
I leave her sobbing in the back yard.
As I come around the front of the house, a semicircle of blaring bright lights flash on, surrounding me.
The cocking of several guns echoes in the air.
“Stop where you are, and show your hands.” The voice, amplified by a bullhorn, reverberates in my ears.
My heart gallops. What the hell is this?
“Show your hands—now!”
I emulate my inner Katie and offer a double bird salute. “How’s this, asshole?” I raise my middle fingers high in the air. “Mind turning down the spotlights?”
It’s disconcerting being unable to see who I’m talking to or know how many of them stand beyond the shining barrier. I pray Max doesn’t try anything. He’s alone out there with Grace, and these people have weapons.
A lone figure emerges from the light, a corona outlining his form. I shield my eyes, blinking to banish the Rorschach blots superimposed over my vision. There’s a cocky jaunt to his gait; I can see that even through the fading blue and yellow blotches. An unpleasant feeling worms around in my abdomen.
When he’s a few feet away, I take a step back.
“I’ll stay right here, give your eyes a chance to adjust. I’m unarmed.” His voice is soft, smooth, almost kind, but it sends a shiver skittering up my spine.
I avoid the lights and stare at the man’s well-worn leather boots. As the blobs fade from my vision, I force myself to take him in slowly. Khaki cargo pants tucked into steel-toed combat boots. He claims to be unarmed, but I notice the outline of a knife in a pocket alongside his right thigh. I’d be willing to bet there’s another tucked in the back of his belt, too—or maybe he has a pistol nestled there. He’s wearing an alliance issue shirt similar to the one Eric wears, but there are extra patches that suggest this guy is a ranking officer. Finally, my gaze rises past his chin. His face is handsome, almost little-boyish, with a light smattering of scruff. His light brown hair is buzzed, military style. I almost have the urge to relax until my gaze meets icy blue eyes filled with an equal measure of amusement and cruelty.
“Allow me to introduce myself. General James Smith of the American-Canadian Alliance.” He smiles benignly—at least as benignly as a snake can.
“Daughter of Nina Kasabian.”
I fight to hide my shock. Did my mother set me up?
“Where is my loving mother?”
“Never fear.” His answer is no answer at all.
“What is all this?”
“This is your welcoming committee. Where have you been hiding yourself, Marie?”
“I’ve been staying here in town, scrounging canned food from some of the houses.”
General Smith tilts his head. “Didn’t you hear our people out looking for survivors?”
“Why didn’t you respond?”
I lift my chin. “Because I don’t trust strangers.”
“We’re no longer strangers. In fact, your mother resides with us. We can talk more about logistics later on, but first . . . who’s out here with you?”
“Marie, it’s bad form to begin a relationship with lies.” General Smith steps forward and grasps my jaw, forcing my face toward his.
I close my eyes, knowing when he asks me again, my body language will give Max and Grace away. There are certain tells we all have. My father taught me well. Katie and I never could lie to him. I’m pretty sure this guy is going to watch my reactions closely. I can’t allow the alliance to capture Max.
He tightens his grip on my jaw until my lids flutter open. “Where are they?”
Because I’m expecting his question, I fight the urge to look toward the woods where Max and Grace are hiding and twitch my gaze to the right instead. “I’m alone.”
General Smith smirks, ghosting a finger along my cheek. “Thank you, sweetheart.” He releases my jaw and points. “Ryker! Take a team and search the houses on this block. The rest of us are heading back.”
“You’re wasting your time.”
“You think I believe that bullshit story that you’re alone? If we don’t find anyone, it’s because they already slunk away and abandoned you.”
“Whatever. Can I go now?”
General Smith laughs. “Home with us, sure.” He grabs my arm in a vice grip and drags me past the lights to a pick-up truck parked on the street.
A group of men run silently toward the houses to begin their search. Several others gather rucksacks and guns, tossing them into the bed of the truck. My mother sits in the cab with her head in her hands.
“You double-crossing bitch!” I scream.
“Family squabble?” General Smith remarks in his smooth voice. I imagine him sentencing someone to death in that same dulcet tone.
My mother leans out the door and fixes her tear-filled gaze on General Smith. “James, was this necessary?”
“With all due respect, Mrs. Kasabian, you were given a chance to bring Marie in.”
“You tricked me! Tell her! Tell her I didn’t know about this . . . this ambush!”
General Smith drags me toward the truck bed and the soldiers already seated there. He scoops me into his arms, leans in, and whispers, “Nina didn’t know” before dumping me onto the hard metal and lifting the tailgate, locking it in place.
The truck roars to life and jerks forward. I imagine Max going ballistic out in the woods. Tears roll down my cheeks, and I wonder if I’ll ever see him again.
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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