Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice:
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 24): Illumination
“Max?” My heart thunders, a mixture of adrenaline, fear, and hope. I want Max to be here, have dreamed of it for the past few weeks, but I'm afraid to believe.
“In the flesh. Didn't think you'd get rid of me that easily, did you?”
I picture his signature half-smile and the mischievous spark that ignites in his sea-glass eyes whenever he teases me.
“You're really here. I thought—I didn't know if . . .” I flounder, each breath singing my constricted throat.
Max cups my face, his thumbs stroking my cheeks. “I'll always come for you, China.” His voice is hoarse with emotion. “Always. Do you believe me?”
I grasp his wrists, relieved to have something comforting and solid to hold onto. Tears stream from the corners of my eyes, rolling over my temples to wet my hair. “Yes.”
“Missed you.” Max's mouth comes down on mine, a sense of urgency in his kiss. His fingers leave my cheek to caress the slope of my neck and freeze when they come in contact with the necklace. “What the hell is this?”
Reality crashes over me like a tidal wave. Max got into the compound somehow, but this nightmare is far from over. I clutch at my collar as the burn of humiliation heats my face, and suddenly I’m glad he can’t see me.
“Jesus . . .” Max lifts off me and rustles around nearby, finally flicking on a flashlight. The beam bobs around as he strides over to the door and locks it before returning to stand over me with his hand out.
I allow him to help me up, and he wraps an arm around my waist, holding me close. My lids flutter closed. In the midst of this awful place, I’m home. Max is my home. I cling to him, resting my head on his chest, and release a ragged sigh.
He leads me to the couch, stands the flashlight on the coffee table, and we sit, our arms still around each other. I breathe in the familiar scent of him, a soft sob escaping. “I’m so glad . . . y-you’re here.”
Max tightens his hold on me and kisses the top of my head. “Where else would I be?” He rocks us gently. “How much privacy to you have here? Do they conduct room checks?”
“I pretty much have complete privacy when I’m in here. Nobody’s ever checked the room.” I bite my lip, ashamed to admit I might have whored myself if he hadn’t shown up.
Max senses something and turns my face toward his. “What is it?” His face looks eerie in the bluish wash of light, skin painted black, tan, and green camo. I wouldn’t recognize him if not for his eyes.
“Why is your face painted like that?”
“A couple reasons. It helps me blend in outdoors and will keep these fuckers from recognizing me.”
“Why does it matter if they recognize you?”
“Just in case we run across them again—I’d rather they didn’t know I broke in. Gives us an advantage.” Max’s gaze softens, and he kisses the corner of my mouth. “Are you all right? Have they hurt you?”
“I’m okay. Just scared and missing you so much.” My eyes prickle with tears. “How are Grace and the others?”
“Grace is a good sport, but it’s obvious she misses her mama. She sits in front of your bedroom door and whines. Ali has been brewing your special tea regularly, and her asthma has improved a lot. Andrea is getting stronger every day. She’s not too happy that Eric hasn’t been around much, but he’s been busy as fuck helping me get to you.” Max tangles his fingers with mine. “I’m sorry it took me so long, but getting caught was not an option.”
“It’s okay. You’re here now.” I rest my head on his chest again, loving the feel of him. “How did you pull it off?”
Max’s laugh is humorless. “Very fucking carefully. Eric got me inside and then created a distraction at the other facility. The storm that’s heading our way was a lucky break.”
“The power outage?”
“Tek coordinated it with Eric.”
My heart picks up speed, and I raise my head. “But won’t the alliance go to the power plant?”
“Not to worry—the power will be back on before they think to send anyone. I wouldn’t risk our home.” Max nuzzles the side of my neck, the warmth of his breath branding my skin. “I had to get to you, China. Being away from you drove me crazy.” He traces a finger over my clavicle.
I draw in a sharp breath, desire coursing through my veins. “Me, too. Didn’t you get my message, though? Eric was supposed to tell you to forget me.”
“Yeah, he told me.” Max’s tone is dark. “You don’t know me at all if you thought I’d agree to such a ludicrous request.”
I can’t help but smile. “Never doubted you for a second. That doesn’t mean it was smart to come after me—not when you have Ali to worry about.”
“We can talk about my lack of common sense later.” Max glances at his watch. “I need to get my go bag before the power comes back on. It’s hidden in a ventilation shaft around the corner.”
“Don’t go!” I cling to him, suddenly afraid if he leaves my room he’ll never come back.
“I have to get my gear.” Max stands with me still clutching at him. He grasps my arms and pushes me away gently. “Be back in five. Promise. Here—you hold on to this.” He presses the flashlight into my hand.
I walk him to the door and close it behind him, resting against the wall beside it and sinking to the floor to wait.
It’s thirteen minutes before the door swings open and Max strides through, carrying a dark hoodie and a large, black duffel. The bag looks heavy and packed to capacity, the zippered compartments bulging.
I lock the door behind him.
“We need to stash my shit somewhere and find a spot for me to hide if anyone comes.”
I shine the beam of the flashlight around the sitting room, moving slowly into the bedroom and on to the bathroom and closet. “How about behind the air return? It’s probably big enough to fit you, too.”
“That might work.” Max kneels on the floor next to the bed and unscrews the fasteners holding the vent closed. He swings it up, and I shine the light inside. It’s a little dusty in there, but the metal ductwork goes off in three directions and is plenty wide enough.
Max shoves the bag inside and climbs after it, clicking on a penlight. I hear one muffled thump while he’s in there, but the rest of the time it’s completely silent.
I sit on the bed and wait, bouncing my leg. The movement causes the beam of the flashlight to jiggle, creating eerie shadows around the room.
Max shimmies out and lays the vent in place, tightening only one of the screws. “There was a short segment with a turn to the left, so I put my bag back there. Even if someone peeks inside the vent, they won’t see anything. I ran a rag around the visible duct work so there’s no dust trail.” He crouches in front of me and places his hands on my knees, quelling my nervous jitters. “If there’s ever an emergency, climb in there. Ductwork runs all over this place. You just have to be real quiet because sounds will echo. My go bag has lots of stuff you could use—weapons, flares, rations, water—”
I press a hand over his mouth, a cold shot of fear racing through me. “Stop it. Why are you saying this?”
Max’s eyes harden, and he grabs my wrist, pulling it down. “Because you need to know what to do if I don’t make it.”
“No!” I shake my head and look away.
Max turns my face gently and waits for me to look at him. His expression is earnest and sympathetic. “Yes, China. There’s always a chance shit could go sideways. I came here to save you, not so both of us could be prisoners or worse. I have every intention of getting out, but it’s always wise to have contingency plans.”
The lights come back on. We remain in semi-darkness because I didn’t have the bedroom lamp on. The alarm clock beside the bed flashes a ghostly blue 12:00.
Max is on his feet, flipping his wrist to look at his watch. “Right on time, Tek.”
“How are we getting out if the power’s on?”
“The storm is still rolling in. Another power outage wouldn’t be surprising.” He strides around the room, checking under furniture, behind pictures, and examining the clock on the bookshelf.
“What are you looking for?”
“Bugs. Transmitters, cameras.”
“What happened at the other facility? Will they search for you?”
Max shoves a stack of books back in place and looks over at me with a smirk. “The beauty of the so-called breach is they only have nature to blame. Eric trapped a couple of squirrels and let them loose in a high security area. The critters probably chewed some wires and made a mess, but there’s no reason for the alliance to be suspicious. Just a few wild animals that found their way into an air intake.”
“Nice. What about getting in here? This place is like Fort Knox.”
“On the surface maybe, but an underground facility has vulnerabilities—air intakes, sewers, maintenance shafts, tunnels. Eric gave me a diagram. He snuck me in yesterday, and I worked my way into position for the blackout.”
The PA system crackles to life.
Attention, citizens of the alliance: The security alert in Sector 7-A has been rescinded. There is no threat. I repeat—there is no threat. Power’s been restored, but the storm is still heading our way and gathering speed. All non-essential personnel should remain in their quarters tonight with the exception of mealtime. Further announcements will be made as the storm draws closer. Thank you.
Max winks. “See? They’re none the wiser. You should go to dinner, act normal.” He saunters over and grasps my shoulders, turning me away from him. “Hold your hair up.”
I gather my hair and lift it out of the way. Max’s fingers tickle the back of my neck as he examines the collar, and a pleasant shiver rolls up my spine.
“I tried to pick the clasp with a bobby pin. No luck.”
“The mechanism is too small and complex for that. We’re not going anywhere until we get this off you. There are proximity scanners all over the place, and I bet they can trigger GPS tracking once we’re out of the compound.”
“Isn’t there any way to disable it?”
“Stun gun, hacksaw . . . but not without hurting you. We’ll try lock picks after dinner.”
I want to argue with him about going to dinner, but he's right about keeping up appearances.
The sound of doors closing and chatter in the halls causes my breath to catch. Max cups my face and assures me everything will be fine, planting a firm kiss on my lips. Then he climbs into the ventilation duct to wait.
I open the door cautiously and join the trail of people heading for the dining hall, attempting to blend in. Palpitations flutter in my chest, causing a lightheaded, floaty feeling, and I bite my tongue to ground myself.
Don’t screw this up, Ro. Max is counting on you. So is Grace. With Katie’s voice in my head, I feel less alone.
Many of the tables are half-empty. Emergency personnel must still be working. There's no sign of James, Garth, or my mother. A few of the women at my table huddle with their heads bent together, talking in low tones. None of them pay me any mind, and I'm fine with that.
Celine spots me from the pass-through and waves. “Hey, you! Want to eat back here with me?”
I nod, grateful to see her friendly face.
Strong hands come down on my shoulders. “Why don't you keep me company at dinner?” Gibbs aligns his lips with my ear, speaking in a low, intimate voice.
I freeze, glancing at Celine, who stands there watching. I look into her eyes and shake my head with a jerk. “I already have plans to eat with Celine.”
“The food jockey? Your time would be better spent getting to know me. After all . . . pretty thing like you should keep her options open.”
“Thanks for the advice.” I try to stand, but Gibbs presses harder, causing me to wince.
From a distance, it probably looks innocent enough, a soldier talking with a woman, maybe massaging her shoulders. At the worst, people will think I'm playing the field. I consider throat-punching him at the first opportunity.
“Marie, you coming?” Celine strides up to the table. Though she addresses me, her cool glare is trained on Gibbs. “Lieutenant.” She nods curtly.
“False flattery will get you a loogie in your oatmeal tomorrow morning.” Celine smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
There’s a tense silence between the three of us, and then Gibbs laughs. He lifts his hands from my shoulders, and I leap up from the chair, almost tipping the food tray in my haste to get away.
“Ladies, enjoy your dinner.”
My face burns, and I simply nod, unable to meet his gaze. What if Celine hadn’t come to my rescue? If Gibbs is this bold out in the open, what will he do if he ever finds me alone?
“And you enjoy your oatmeal tomorrow, Lieutenant.” Celine winks at Gibbs.
“Cheeky. I like it.” He shoots her an appreciative look and winks when he catches me watching.
Celine takes me by the elbow. “Come on.”
We walk toward the kitchen, and though it feels as if lasers are boring into my back, I refuse to turn around.
Once we’re safely seated at the small farm table in the break room, I let out a long breath. “Thanks. You’re a life saver.”
“No problem.” Celine shakes her head with a disgusted expression. “Steer clear of that one. He’s trouble with a capital C.”
My brow scrunches. “Capital C?”
Celine smiles. “Creep with a side of dangerous.”
“Believe me—I want nothing to do with him, but he has other ideas.”
Something dark and furry leaps from a shelf on the wall, and I clutch my chest. “What the hell?”
A small black cat lands on the tile and raises her hindquarters high in the air, front paws stretching low along the floor.
“That’s Sheba. We’re not supposed to have pets, so let this be our little secret.”
We eat our food in silence for a while. Sheba sits stoically, licking her paws and watching me carefully. Eventually, she yawns and slinks over, rubbing herself against my legs.
“Sheba doesn’t take to many people. She hisses at frick and frack all the darn time.”
I feel comfortable around Celine and wonder if I can trust her if I get into a tight spot. My instincts say yes, but I won’t test that out unless absolutely necessary.
My thoughts drift to Max, who is crouched inside a ventilation duct, waiting for me to return. He must be hungry. I wonder if there’s a way to sneak him some food without tipping anyone off.
“You okay, Marie?” Celine pats my arm and looks pointedly at my half-eaten dinner. She sops up the last bit of gravy on her plate with a hunk of bread and pops it into her mouth.
“Just worried about the storm and the blackout . . .”
“How did you end up with General James, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“I was being held in your other facility, probably because the alliance wasn’t certain I could be trusted or whatever. James came to see me . . . asked if he could court me, if you can believe that, and offered me a place here. He promised to take things slowly. I was engaged before the virus . . .” I swallow, blinking back tears of guilt. “James has been patient so far. Gibbs seems to go out of his way to taunt me, especially when James isn’t around.” I push my food around on the plate and viciously stab a piece of turkey. “I just want my world back! My family and friends—my twin.” I choke on the words.
“You lost a twin?” Celine comes around to my side of the table and puts her arms around me. “That’s awful. I’m so sorry. Must be bittersweet for your mom.”
I snort, picking at my napkin so I don't have to meet the questioning expression that's surely on Celine's face. “Let's just say she'll never win mother of the year and leave it at that.”
Celine strokes my hair with a gentle touch before returning to her seat. “I'm sorry for your many losses. Sounds like your mom was lost to you before the virus came along. I hope the two of you can work through your issues, but you won't receive any lectures here.”
My eyes sting, and I reach across the table to clasp her hand. “Thank you for being so welcoming—and for protecting me. You don't even know me, but you stuck your neck out.”
“I have a knack for recognizing good people, and conversely, bad eggs. You need anything at all, come to me. If it's within my power, I'll make it so.” She stands to clear her dishes and startles Sheba, who races out of the room with a soft meow. “I'm going to pack some food for you to bring back to your room.”
Well, that worked out.
I'm on my way across the dining hall carrying a foil tray loaded with food when a hand comes down on my shoulder. I bend my knees, duck away, and turn, ready to strike out.
“Whoa, little ninja!” Eric steps back with his hands up. “I surrender.”
“Shit, Eric! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
He tilts his head. “Why so jumpy?”
I glance around to make sure nobody else is within earshot. “Gibbs.”
Eric's expression darkens. “Stay away from that asshole. He's got a problem with authority and the term 'no' in general. In the old world, his ass would be court-martialed.”
I glance at my table; Gibbs' seat is empty. “Where is he?”
“He got called in for something.”
“Walk me to my room?”
“Sure thing, little ninja.” Eric grins and falls into step beside me, making inane small talk until we're alone in the hall. “So . . . have any visitors lately?”
“As a matter of fact, I have.” I lift the tray of food. “I suspect this will be put to good use.”
“For sure. MREs will keep the body running but not happily.” As we near my door, Eric leans his head close to mine. “Tell our friend everything's running like clockwork, and I'll be in touch.”
“Will do.” I touch his arm and look earnestly into his eyes. “Thank you. For everything.”
Eric fist-bumps me. “Anything for my brother and his peeps.”
I watch him swagger away and wonder about the brother comment. Just an expression of friendship.
Once I enter the suite, I lock the door behind me, place the food on the coffee table, and double-check the adjoining door between my room and James'. He's still gone, but I'm taking no chances on him walking in on us before Max can get me out of here.
Strong arms surround me as I enter the bedroom. “Seemed like you were gone forever.” Max pulls me back against his chest, his lips nuzzling the side of my neck. “You feel so good, China.”
I understand the sentiment. When James touched me, I felt violated, but having Max’s arms encircle my body makes all the difference. I feel safe even in the midst of the enemy camp. Warmth blooms inside me, followed by the blaze of desire as I remember riding Max on the weight bench the night everything went awry. My body relaxes into his embrace, and I realize it’s the first time I’ve let my guard down since we were last together.
Max ghosts his tongue along the shell of my ear and sucks the sensitive lobe between his lips.
When I close my eyes, I see James asking to court me, walking me to my room, kissing me on the couch in the sitting room. I see the promise of mayhem in Gibbs’ eyes.
“Max, we need to talk. I brought some dinner. It’s in the sitting room. Maybe we can talk while you eat.”
He loosens his hold and turns me to face him. I feel the intensity of his stare, but I focus on his black T-shirt and trace my fingers over his pecs.
I’m surprised but grateful by his casual acceptance of my declaration. Taking his hand—more for my comfort than his—I lead him to the couch. We sit semi-facing each other with our knees touching and open the food Celine packed for me. She thoughtfully included a few plates, plasticware, and napkins.
Max digs in with gusto. “Damn, this is good! Aren’t you gonna eat?”
“I already did.”
“More for me!” He grins and side eyes me, stopping what he’s doing for a moment to stroke a finger across my cheek. “Talk to me.”
I wring my hands and try to ignore the roaring in my ears. The last thing I want to do is hurt Max or risk disappointing him, but every instinct I have is screaming at me to tell the truth while I can.
“Max, there are things you need to know—things that might change how you feel about me.”
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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