Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: One
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 25): Confessions
“Max, there are things you need to know—things that might change how you feel about me.” Saying the words causes a painful squeezing sensation in my chest.
Max laughs, amusement twinkling in his eyes. He places the comforting weight of one palm on my knee. “I doubt that.”
I lay my hand over his. “No, really.”
He pulls away and wipes his hands on a napkin; then he grasps me by the shoulders and ducks his head to look at me. “Hey.”
I blink a few times before meeting his steady gaze.
“Really, I doubt it. You’re a good person with an amazing heart. I admit I wanted to throttle you when you got yourself captured . . . but we’ll get out of this.”
My lids flutter closed, and I shake my head. “Let me explain. You have to hear the truth from me.”
Max cups my face. “Look at me.” I do, and he looks pissed. “What truth? Come on, then.” His voice is harsh.
I look away. “I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t do that! You look me in the eyes, and say what you need to say. Whatever it is, I need to see.” Despite the lash of Max’s words, the hands surrounding my face remain gentle.
I take a breath and look at him. His expression is a mixture of sharp and wary with a side of fierce. Inside, I’m quivering, but he needs to hear this. “Max, when they abducted me, I was locked up in the other facility, where they keep the immune and run experiments. I refused to speak, ate only enough to keep me alive, and shunned my mother when she attempted to visit. Then General James Smith came to see me. He was angry about my silence and demanded that I speak to him. He . . . he made me an offer.” I halt, taking a deep breath. “I realized there was little chance of escape if I remained locked away. My best bet was to accept his offer and move to this facility where I’ve been given more freedom.”
Max’s jaw flexes as he swallows. “What was the offer?”
“James wanted to . . . court me. He promised we’d take things slow, and he said he could protect me—” The words are out before I can stop them, and my heart speeds.
He tilts his head. “Protect you. From what?”
“Max . . .”
“Protect you from what?”
I lower my head and stare at my lap. “There’s this creep, Gibbs. He takes every opportunity to needle me. James doesn’t trust him and neither does Eric.”
Max releases my face and tips my chin up, but I refuse to lift my gaze. “Did this guy touch you?”
“No, but . . . he says things when there are no witnesses. He scares me.”
Max stands abruptly and paces around the sitting room with his hands laced over the back of his neck, biceps bulging beneath the sleeves of his T-shirt. He huffs heavy breaths and mutters too low for me to make out the words.
I rise, feet rooted in place, and wring my hands. “Max?”
“What about James? Did he touch you?”
Max stops in front of me and takes my hand. His voice softens, but the question stings. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Not for a second!”
“Did you sleep with him?”
“No! I couldn’t stand it.” Tears burn my eyes. “Every time he touched me, all I could think about was you.”
Max drops my hand and laughs, low and dangerous. “Let me get this straight. Gibbs is just looking for an opportunity to get his hands on you. This James guy had his hands on you, but you didn’t enjoy it. In fact, you allowed him to touch you only to make him think he had a chance with you—to find a way to escape. Do I have this right?”
My heart twists painfully. “I can explain!”
He rakes a hand through his hair and looks up at the ceiling. “I don’t want you to explain. Fuck! I hate this!”
Max holds his hands out to stop me, anger arcing from his stormy eyes. “Ali once told me betrayal begins in the heart, long before the actual act is committed. You know, I never really understood that concept until today.” He strides forward and yanks me against his chest, strong arms banding around me, tight enough to knock the breath from my lungs. My cheek mashes against his pecs, and I’m not sure what I dread more—seeing the anger in his eyes or having him hide it from me. “I’ve never had someone of my own. Someone who would never betray me, who accepted me, faults and all.”
A low, strangled moan catches in my throat, and I dig my nails into his sides.
“I thought you were the one, but this made me realize . . .” He chokes on the words and tightens his hold on me. “I’m not good enough.”
“What?” I struggle in his arms, fighting to push away so I can see his face, but his arms remain locked around me.
“You were afraid I’d judge you for doing what needed to be done. In your heart, you were true, and that’s all that matters.” Max nuzzles his face into my hair, tremors shuddering through his body. “I’ve done so much shit and never came clean with you about any of it. After you hear about my past, you probably won’t want anything to do with me.”
“That’s not true,” I whisper. I love Max, and I know him. If he did something bad, it was for a reason. Instead of trying to wriggle out of his grasp, now I cling to him, afraid to let go. “Tell me, Max. I’ll still want you, always.”
“Before the virus, I was serving time in Maine State Prison.” Max releases me, arms returning to his sides, and distance is already wedging between us. I dig my nails in harder. He looks down at me with resignation flooding his eyes. “For murder, China.”
A shot of ice spears me right down the center, leaving me reeling. This is not the confession I was expecting him to make. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “What happened?”
Max lets out an ugly laugh. “Which time?” He attempts to step away, but I shadow him. “I don’t know what I was thinking getting involved with you. Your moral compass points to true north—mine is skewed.”
He keeps trying to move away until his back hits the wall, and I step into him, finally unclenching my fingers so I can reach up and grab his face. “You listen to me, Connor Maxwell Quinn! Enough of this self-flagellating, poor me crap! Do you think so little of me?”
Confusion creases his forehead. “I think the world of you.”
“Then trust me with your past, and know that I’ll still be here when you’re done. My feelings for you are based on what I know of you, what I’ve observed. I’m confident—”
An authoritative knock on the door interrupts our exchange.
“Shit. What do we do?”
“Give me a second to climb in the vent before you open the door.”
Another knock, louder this time.
“Coming!” I call out, standing in the archway between the bed and sitting rooms. When the vent settles closed, I head toward the door and wish it had a peephole. “Who is it?”
“Timms, ma’am, with a message from General Smith.”
I open the door. Timms indeed stands before me, but he’s not alone. Gibbs reclines against the wall, chewing on a toothpick, his look a mixture of amusement and frustration. I’m sure he’d rather be here alone so he could harass me.
Timms holds his hat under one arm and nods politely. “Good evening, ma’am. I hope you’re well.”
“Relatively.” I glare at Gibbs. “What’s he doing here?”
Gibbs presses a hand to his chest. “You wound me.”
I’d like to. Creep.
“We’re on assignment. General Smith asked me to check on you and make you aware he probably won’t be back until tomorrow. Mrs. Kasabian asked me to bring you this.” He hands me a sealed envelope. “Are you in need of anything?”
“No, thank you.” I just want you out of here before Gibbs does something to incite Max.
“All right, then. Have a good night.”
Gibbs steps away from the wall and stops me from closing the door. “Wait. What’s all that?” He points over my shoulder to the food on the coffee table.
“I didn’t have much of an appetite at dinner . . .” I say with a pointed look. “ . . . so Celine sent some food back with me.”
Gibbs skims his index finger along an errant lock of hair, pushing it out of my face. I remain stiff, my jaw tight. “For someone who fought like a hellcat, you sure do enjoy the perks around here, don’t you? Perhaps the general will allow me to look out for you in his absence.”
I smack his lingering hand away. “When hell freezes. Stay away from me.”
Timms shifts uncomfortably. “Sorry to have disturbed you, ma’am.” He nudges Gibbs. “We need to move.”
“Yeah, we need to move.” Gibbs winks at me. “See you around, sweet Marie.”
I slam and lock the door, my heart thundering. Gibbs showing up with Timms is far from innocent. He’s putting me on notice.
I use a plastic knife to slit the envelope. Inside is an aging Polaroid of two children. The older one looks like my mother. I wonder why she sent this to me now with no explanation.
Max slips out of the vent and hovers in the archway, motioning for me to come to him. I put the photo on the coffee table and cross the room. He glares down at me. “Who the fuck was that guy?”
“He’s looking for trouble.” Max’s jaw flexes.
“He found it.”
“Max . . .”
He caresses my cheek. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“I know. When can we get out of here?”
Max slips lock picks from his pocket. “Sit on the bed. Let’s see if I can get that collar off you.”
We sit, and I push my hair out of the way so Max can get to the clasp. Warm fingers rest against my nape, sending light shivers along my spine. The only sound for a while is the tink of metal on metal, punctuated by a few colorful expletives from Max every so often.
Max stops fiddling and sighs. “Look, I know you’re anxious to escape this place, but we can’t yet.”
I turn to face him. “What are you talking about? We can’t stay here!”
He cups my cheek. “Even if we get this collar off and get out, that only solves half of the problem. You’re not immune. The vaccine will only last so long before it stops working. Then what? At least here you have access to the treatments.”
Bile churns in my stomach. “What are you saying? You’re not going to . . . to leave me here?”
“Fuck no! I’m staying right here until we can go. Eric is doing some reconnaissance, trying to discover what this new treatment is.”
“How long do you think we’ll have to stay?”
“I’m hoping a few days at most. You follow the normal routine, and I’ll hang out here.”
“What will you eat?”
“If you can sneak me food, great. If not, I’ll use my rations.”
I turn away, staring at the adjoining door between my quarters and James’. “What about . . . when James comes back and—and wants to visit me?”
“I’ll be in the vent, waiting.” His fingers stroke the side of my neck and come to rest on my shoulder, squeezing lightly. “No judging.”
I shrug my shoulder, throwing his hand off. “Are you kidding me? I’ll never be able to act normal around James with you watching! And what if you cough or sneeze?”
“You could always fake a headache or stomach bug. Hopefully, before anyone gets suspicious, we’ll be on our way home.”
Home. The word sets off a crippling longing within me—to be back at the power plant, safe in Max’s arms again; to feel the warmth of Grace’s body and receive one of her full face-licks; to experience the camaraderie of my new family.
An announcement interrupts my thoughts.
Attention, citizens of the alliance. The storm has gathered speed, and landfall is imminent. A reminder to all non-essential personnel—please remain in your quarters with the exception of meals until further notice. Regularly scheduled work and activities will resume shortly. Thank you.
Max grabs me by the hips and pulls me close, ghosting his nose along the side my neck. “You hear that? We’re relatively safe until the storm ends. Why don’t we get you into bed?”
I slide my palms over his muscular arms. “Will you join me? We still need to talk.”
“Absolutely.” His breath is hot against my skin, his lips soft as they nuzzle there for a long moment. “Go on. I’ll make sure we’re secure.”
When I emerge from the bathroom, I notice in addition to engaging all available locks, has wedged a chair under the doorknob of the suite entrance and the adjoining door to James’ quarters.
Max rakes his gaze over my yoga pants and T-shirt. “No pajamas. Smart. That’s my girl.” The left side of his mouth quirks up.
Hearing Max call me his girl sends a pang of longing through me. I want us to get back to where we were. I know it’s impossible to go back in time, but the unresolved matters between us feel wrong.
He notices the sadness in my eyes. “What is it?”
I shake my head. “Come to bed?”
“Let me get this shit off my face and change my shirt.”
Max is in the bathroom for a long time. I turn the bedside lamp on low and try to get comfortable. The palpitations fluttering behind my breastbone keep me on edge. I sense Max and I are at another crossroads in our relationship. If he trusts me, we can make it. He didn’t judge me for deceiving James. We just have to get through Max’s past. I know he went to jail, but I also know him well enough to have confidence whatever he did won’t change my feelings.
When he finally joins me in the bedroom, camo paint washed away, the dread in his expression is plain. He slides between the sheets, facing me on his side. He looks like a lost little boy, and my heart clenches.
“China . . .” My nickname comes out an anguished groan.
“Just tell me the truth.” I caress his smooth cheek, the usual layer of scruff absent. “We’re going to be fine.”
He traps my hand against his face, leaning into my touch with his lids half closed. “I hope so. I really do because you mean everything to me. Everything.”
I lay my head on my arm, our faces mere inches apart, and gaze into his troubled eyes. “Talk to me.”
“Okay.” Max swallows hard. He runs the pads of his fingers from my shoulder down my arm, eliciting goosebumps. When his hand finds mine, he laces our fingers together. “I’m going to tell you my ugly truth. I completely understand if you want nothing to do with me afterward, but promise you’ll at least let me see this through and get you out of here.”
“I already told you my mom died when I was twelve, and I entered the system at fourteen. Mom kept my father sane somehow. Even though he was a complete asshole, he thought the sun rose and set on her. She was the light to his darkness. When she died, he lost his fucking mind. He’d look for any excuse to beat the shit out of me. I didn’t really care, but when he turned his attention to Ali . . .” Max chokes on the words, moisture pooling in his eyes. “She looked so much like Mom. He started hitting the bottle big time after my mom died, to the point he’d start hallucinating. Got this idea in his head a few times that Ali was mom. When he sobered up and realized the truth, he’d get abusive. I’d step between them and take the brunt of what he was dishing out, but this one night . . . I woke up and heard muffled screams. I rushed into Ali’s room and found my father there with his hand over her mouth. She was already in the middle of an asthma attack, but he didn’t notice. He was too busy shoving her nightgown up.” He breaks off with a sob and pulls his hand from mine to rub at his eyes.
“Oh, Max.” I raise a hand to my mouth.
“I ran out in the hall and grabbed my baseball bat, smashed the fucker in the side of the head. After I gave Ali her inhaler, she . . . he’d done this before. She was afraid to tell me. I picked his ass up and tossed him in his bed, figured he wouldn't remember it in the morning. I didn’t know what to do. The anger shredded my insides, and I knew he wasn't going to stop. A few days later, Ali was sleeping over a friend’s house, and my father came home drunk—really fucking drunk. It’s a wonder he didn’t kill someone on the road. He pulled the car into the garage and fell asleep at the wheel. On impulse, I closed the garage door and turned the car back on, waited outside until he was dead, and called the police.”
“My God, Max. What did they do?”
“Ruled it accidental. Death by intoxicated stupidity. It could have happened that way. I didn’t want Ali to know, but she figured it out. It's been our secret ever since. Social services was called in. I told you about the wonderful foster family we were with for a few years. I was seventeen and Ali was fifteen when we had to go to separate homes. I was placed with four other foster kids, all boys. The Grants were in it for the money, but they were okay. As long as we didn’t make a ruckus, they left us alone. Ali was a few blocks away in what seemed like a good home. Jack and Pauline didn’t mind me visiting and shit as long as I called first.” Max leans away to lie on his back and stares at the ceiling.
I sense he’s reaching the truly ugly part of the story. I snuggle into him, resting my head on his chest, and he holds me close.
“I noticed Ali seemed paler than usual. And quiet. My sister never stops yapping. I got suspicious and started staking out the house on occasion but never noticed anything out of line. Jack and Pauline started working opposite shifts. Pauline ended up pulling the graveyard shift at the local diner. I was out late with one of my buddies one night and passed Ali’s house. Her bedroom window was shut tight and the shade was down. I knew something was wrong because she always had the window cracked—both for the asthma and because she had a fear of being trapped during a fire. That didn’t seem like enough proof to barge into someone’s house in the middle of the night. I tried to leave, but something didn't feel right. I knew the back door was often unlocked, so I checked and found it open.” Max hesitates, his heartbeat thundering in my ear.
I close my eyes and rub a hand up and down his side. “Take your time.”
His breath hitches. “I made my way upstairs to Ali's room. The rest of the house was dark and quiet. I stood outside the door for a while. It was so silent, I figured I'd made a mistake. I was about to leave when I heard a retching sound, then the murmur of a man's voice. I threw the door open—Jack had Ali on her knees. Tears were streaming from her eyes, leaving black trails of makeup streaking her cheeks. I just . . . saw red.
“Jack looked over at me and winked. He said to watch and enjoy or get the fuck out of his house. I pulled him off my sister and beat the shit out of him, slamming my fist into his face over and over. Ali had grabbed her inhaler and opened the window, gasping for air. Jack threw me off and stumbled to his feet. He said I'd made a grave error, that he'd make sure I wasn't allowed to visit anymore, and my absence would give him unrestricted access to my sister. Ali ran from the room, and he kept threatening. I kicked him square in the stomach. Knocked the sick bastard out the window.”
“Oh my God.”
“There were witnesses. The people across the street heard fighting and got video of me pushing him out the window. Even though Ali told the police what Jack had been doing to her, I still went down for his death. If she'd done it, she could claim self-defense. Me? Murder. It didn't help that I was mouthing off and spit on his body when we went outside—every ugly moment caught on video.” Max shakes his head and rubs at his eyes again.
“Max—” I reach for his face, but he grabs my wrist.
“Let me get this out. I shouldn't have let my temper get the best of me. Considering the brutality of the beating he took before I pushed him out the window, the prosecutor said I used excessive and unnecessary force to stop him, that I should have left him to the authorities. Maybe so, but it was too late to go back. My lawyer told me to negotiate a plea bargain. The DA offered me a ten-year sentence with the opportunity to get out on parole for good behavior. I took the deal. Every time I was up for parole, Jack's family protested. The board would watch the videos and deny me because they were unimpressed with my lack of remorse. I couldn't lie and say I was sorry that piece of shit was dead. I just didn’t expect Ali to find herself an abusive boyfriend while I was in the joint.” He kisses the underside of my wrist and presses it against his chest. “I was slowly losing my mind. I was the only family Ali had, and she got in with the wrong crowd. There was nobody on the outside to protect her. I had to do something, so I tried to gain the notice of the toughest gang.”
Suddenly, the tattoo on the underside of Max's wrist makes sense. “The Vipers.”
Max strokes my hair. “How do you know about the Vipers?” There's a touch of amusement in his tone, the first in a while.
“My dad was chief of police in Rockland.” I sit up, grasp his right hand, and flip it, revealing the tattoo on the inside of his wrist: a red snake curling around an ornate black V.
“Shit, that’s where I know your last name from.” Max curls to a seated position, allowing me to trace my finger over his Viper tattoo though it clearly makes him uncomfortable.
Three drops of blood drip from the snake’s fangs, and I glance away from the image to meet his eyes. “Three kills.” That means there’s another he needs to confess.
Max grimaces. “There should probably be four. I feel responsible for Gary, and I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
He shakes his head. “You know too much, cop’s daughter. So I finally get the attention of Alejandro Diaz, head of the Vipers, and he assures me they can protect Ali on the outside if I join the gang. My initiation . . . was to take someone out for them. They gave me a shank and a name.” Max grits his teeth and grips my arm so tightly it hurts. “I did it. Shanked this guy I had no beef with. He was a dirtbag, sure, but he’d never crossed me. My father deserved what he got; so did Jack, but I snuffed out a life with premeditation. I’m a murderer.”
“Is there anything else?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“How did you get out of prison?”
“Ah, another lovely story. Shortly after I shanked that guy, the virus hit. Things got weird at the prison. It got to the point we weren’t receiving regular meals, and all regular activities were canceled. I knew something was terribly wrong, so I flashed my tattoo at a guard and begged him to get me out. He helped although being transported out of prison under a pile of dead inmates was no picnic.”
“That’s so awful!”
“So there you have it. Now do you understand why I could never be upset with you? You came clean with me, which is a lot more than I did for you.”
“Max.” I rise up on my knees so I can straddle his thighs and loop my arms around his neck. “I’m so sorry for everything you and Ali went through. It’s a terrible, tragic story, but it doesn’t change my feelings for you. If anything, I admire you all the more for what you’re willing to do for your sister.”
“Not just for my sister.” Max gazes into my eyes with a mixture of wonder and desire. He slides his hands over the flare of my hips and pulls me closer, pressing open-mouthed kisses along the curve of my neck. I tilt my head back. “There is one other thing I should have told you a while ago.” His breath is hot on my skin.
A small frisson of fear flares in my heart. “What is it?”
He buries his face deeper between my neck and shoulder as if he can’t bear to look me in the face. “I love you, China.”
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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