Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 26): The Edge
“I love you, China.”
Everything inside me freezes—including my lungs, which refuse to contract and expand. Max let me know in his own strange, roundabout way that he loves me, but to hear the words spoken against my skin is indescribable because I know how difficult it is for him to let anyone in.
Max bands his arms around my waist and rests his head on my shoulder. “You don’t have to say anything. It was hard for me to acknowledge this to myself, let alone tell you, because I’ve never been in love before. Never even understood what it meant until you.”
“Oh, Max.” I run my fingers through the soft strands of his hair. “I love you, too.”
“Why do you sound so surprised?”
He shrugs but keeps his cheek pressed to my shoulder, leaving me unable to see his expression. “I didn’t think anyone could love me, that I wasn’t worthy.”
Tears fill my eyes. “You are so worthy. Everything you do is directed by passion and loyalty. I’m lucky to be part of your inner circle.” Mike springs to mind and so do Katie’s words about the effect the love of one’s life should have. It pains me to realize I agreed to marry a man who didn’t stir my soul the way Max does. “I’ve never been in love before either.”
“You were engaged.”
“I shouldn’t have been.”
Max finally looks at me. “Why?”
“Because Mike didn’t take my breath away or challenge me . . .” I incline my head, staring intently at Max, and reach around to grab one of his arms, bringing it between us. I clasp my hand over the back of his, dragging it up my stomach beneath my shirt until my breast fills his palm. “His touch never burned my skin . . . never like this.”
Max’s eyes darken, and his lips part, his breath quickening. The arm still around my waist tightens, pressing us closer, and he kneads my breast. “Never?”
“I didn’t even know if the kind of love Katie described existed—until I found you.”
Max’s gaze drops to my lips. His breath hitches, and then he leans in, bringing our mouths together. The kiss starts slow and gentle, reaching all the way to my soul, and swells, filling me with love and desire and heat and belonging. He pulls away to raise the shirt over my head, tossing it aside and stripping off his own as well. Warm, slightly rough hands capable of both violence and tenderness roam my bare back, bringing our chests together. Max’s lips find mine again, and I skim my fingers over the powerful muscles of his arms and shoulders, anchoring them in his hair.
Max stands up with me in his arms and turns, depositing me on my back on the bed. Remaining connected, he rests one knee on the mattress and rears over me. His darkly intense eyes focus on mine, and a blush rises to my skin. “I want you,” he whispers. “I know we’re embroiled in the cluster fuck of all time, but—”
“Yes.” I put pressure on the back of his neck, tugging him closer, and ignore his surprised expression. I wrap my legs around him and grind my pelvis against his. “Yes, yes, yes.”
Max doesn’t need further encouragement. He peppers kisses across my clavicle, breastbone, and then he moves lower, sucking a nipple into his mouth and nipping it between his teeth. I cry out—it’s almost too painful—and then the warmth of his tongue laves away the bite, sending a rush of heat through me. He drags his tongue along my side, tugging my yoga pants down a few inches to suck at the tender skin of my hipbone, releasing a soft groan as he does. And then Max growls, yanking my pants and underwear off. He struggles with his own, cursing when his feet get tangled in his clothes.
Callused hands ghost up my legs to grip my hips, and he kneels between my knees, gazing down at me with a heated look. “You’re beautiful.” He moves to lower himself, but I press a palm against his flat stomach.
Reaching out with trembling fingers, I trace the vines of roses inked across his sculpted chest, stopping at the one over his heart. “Tell me about these?”
Max grasps my wrist and brings it to his lips, kissing the sensitive underside. “It’s a timeline of sorts, chronicling pivotal events that shaped my life. Going through them would stir up a shitstorm. Can we leave it at that for now?” He stares down at himself, jaw flexing.
“Yeah, we can leave it at that.”
He leans in to swirl his tongue over the tender skin beneath my wrist, his eyes closing, and continues a path up my arm, across my shoulder and clavicle to the hollow of my throat. “I love this little dip here.” Max’s traces the indentation with the tip of his tongue, then flicks it lightly.
The action is far sexier than I could have imagined, and tiny flames of desire ignite and spread low. I grab his shoulders, guiding him over me. “I need to feel you—all of you.”
“China . . .” Max groans out my nickname and brings his lips down on mine, sliding his tongue against my own, lingering and sensuous. He kisses along my jaw to whisper against my ear. “Are you sure?”
I dig my nails in. “I’ve been waiting, dreaming of being with you again.”
He settles between my legs and runs a hand beneath my thigh, grasping my knee and hitching it around his hip as he fills me. I gasp, locking eyes with Max. We move together, the tide of our desire rising and falling. He sinks into me over and over, kissing me and whispering sweet things against my lips. Sensations gather inside me, letting loose a tempest, the strength of which I’ve never experienced.
Max lifts his head and gazes at me with hooded eyes. He rubs a thumb across my bottom lip. “So beautiful.”
Our bodies are in sync, as if we’ve done this dance many times. Max feels like my forever, and I want to be his. My release sneaks up on me, arriving much too soon. Helpless, I throw my head back and hang on for dear life, listening to Max lose himself in me.
Sometime later, I wake up to Max spooning me with one hand up my shirt, cupping a breast. We're both fully dressed with the exception of shoes. He said it was the wise thing to do even though he'd much rather have free access to my body.
I stare into the bluish glow of the alarm clock. Three thirty, and it's not likely I'll fall asleep again. I'm not sure what disturbed my sleep. Behind me, Max's breaths are long and even, peaceful. Knowing he's comfortable enough to let his guard down makes me feel good. I close my eyes and try to relax, but sleep continues to evade me.
Close to five, Max starts mumbling and shifting his legs. His hand slid from my chest a while ago but still remains inside my shirt. When the thrashing continues, I twist in his embrace and touch his sweaty forehead lightly.
“Max . . .”
“You can't.” He turns his head sharply, eyes still closed. “I won't let you take her!”
“Max, wake up.” I caress his smooth cheek, missing the scratch of his stubble.
His lids fly open, and he looks directly at me. “China? What's wrong?”
I marvel at how coherent he is in a matter of seconds. “You were agitated, muttering in your sleep.”
He grasps my hand and places a kiss in the palm. “Sorry. Did I wake you?”
“No, I've been up for a while. Can't sleep. Do you remember your dream?”
Max lifts up on one elbow, stroking his fingers through my hair. “No. Are you okay?” His sea-glass eyes emanate concern, which brings a smile to my face.
“I'm as fine as I can be, considering where we are.” I lean forward and plant a kiss on his mouth. “You make all this bearable.”
Max lifts an eyebrow, slipping an arm around my waist and sliding his hand into my panties. “I hope I make it more than bearable, China.” He buries his face in my neck.
“I'm not sure . . . maybe I need a little convincing.”
Max flips me on my back and proceeds to do just that without removing any clothing.
At seven, Max does a series of jumping jacks, followed by walking around the bedroom on his hands. I watch with fascination as I do sit ups and push ups—there's no way I'm doing jumping jacks in front of Max.
When his feet touch the floor again, he's barely broken a sweat. He gazes around the room. “Damn. I need a gym.” He eyes me craftily. “How much do you weigh?”
“No, no. You're not bench pressing me.”
Max laughs. “How'd you know what I was thinking?”
“I had body-builder cousins who liked to show off.”
Max stalks toward me, and I back away. “Down, boy.”
“It could be fun . . .”
A sharp knock on the door brings reality crashing around my ears.
“Marie? It's James.”
“Just a sec!”
Max and I freeze in place for a few seconds before rushing around the room and picking up anything that doesn't belong. Max grabs it all in a bundle and climbs into the vent. I straighten the bed and grab a towel, mopping the sweat from my neck.
Taking several deep breaths, I pull the chair from under the knob and place it against the wall before unlocking and opening the door. James stands before me in full uniform, his eyes bloodshot. “Good morning, Marie. I hope it's not too early.”
“Come on in. I was doing some sit ups and wanted to grab a towel—I'm all sweaty.”
James leans in to kiss my cheek. “You look lovely with your face flushed that way.” He takes my hand and leads me to the couch to sit. “We need to talk.”
A jolt of fear shoots through me. “Is everything all right?”
“We have to head over to the other facility. Your mother would like to see you, and the lab needs to draw some of your blood.”
“My blood? Why?”
“For the new treatment. You may not need it yet, but the treatments are very patient specific.”
“What does that mean?”
James smiles, but it doesn't reach his tired eyes. “I'm a soldier, Marie, not a scientist. I only know the treatment is mixed special for each individual.” He pats my knee. “Why don't you pack a bag with enough stuff for a few days. I'll wait.”
“We leave in a few minutes.” Cool blue eyes seem to catalog my every reaction.
“But the storm . . .”
“Storm's over. They'll be making the announcement shortly.”
“This trip is a bit fast, don't you think? Celine is expecting me in the kitchen.”
“Already cleared it with her.” James tilts his head and regards me. “Is there some other reason you don't want to go?”
“No, you took me by surprise is all.” I place a hand on his arm and rub back and forth slowly. “Do I have time for a quick shower?”
He glances at his watch. “Sure. I'll be back to get you in fifteen.”
“Great.” I walk him to the door.
James cups my cheek and presses a lingering kiss to my mouth. His eyes rake over me slowly. “Enjoy your shower.”
I close and lock the door, breathing heavy.
Max saunters out of the bedroom. “Enjoy your shower,” he says, mocking James. “Tool.” He glares at the door then grabs me by the shoulders, pulling me close and kissing me hungrily. His tongue slides against mine, and his hands roam down my back to squeeze my ass.
When he finally lets me go, I stare up at him wide-eyed. “Whoa.”
Max stares down at me, his eyes glittering. “He touched you.”
“Marking your territory?”
“Hell, yes.” Max draws me close. “We may have to play this game right now, but for the record, I have the urge to break his hands.”
“Just his hands?”
Max's lips twitch. “His pretty-boy face, too.”
“Did you hear what he said?”
“Yeah. I don't like it, but you have no choice. I'll contact Eric, keep in the loop.” Max smoothes my hair and kisses me softly. “Be careful, China. I love you.”
I smile because the declaration seemed to come easier this time. “I love you, too.”
When we emerge aboveground, the first thing I notice is the change in atmosphere. There's a definite chill in the air, heralding the emergence of colder weather. A flame of color creates a mosaic throughout the trees though some green is still visible. Leaves blown off during the storm carpet the ground, colorful and green alike, but I don't see any other obvious damage.
James doesn't bother with the blindfold this time, not that I'd have a chance in hell of remembering the route between facilities. If asked to describe it, I could only say we drove through miles of dirt-packed, wooded roads and made several turns. A few times, my nose detects the brine of the sea, leading me to believe we remain close to the coast.
James is pensive during the start of our trip, which I don't mind. I try to keep my own mind blank, afraid if I think too much, something I want to keep hidden might show in my expression.
He has to stop once to remove debris from the road. When he climbs back into the truck, he glances over at me. “How are you adapting to alliance life? Do you enjoy your job in the kitchen?”
“Very much so. Celine's great. I admit, it's strange living here after being outside and accepting life . . . might never be the same.”
James rubs the back of his neck and stares straight ahead. “Is there anything you don't like about living here?”
“Gibbs.” The name is out before I have time to consider if it's wise to name names.
James bangs his fist on the steering wheel and curses under his breath. “What’s he done?” His voice is tight, and I’m not sure if he thinks I might be overreacting.
“Nothing specific. That’s part of the problem.” I tell him about the recent incidents and the provocative remarks Gibbs has made.
“Marie, I’m sorry about this. I can’t always be around to keep him in line, but I’ll talk to him, see what I can do.”
“You’re not angry with me?”
James looks at me askance. “What on earth for?”
I shrug and stare at my lap. “He’s a fellow soldier. I figured you guys might stick together.”
“If I had my way, Gibbs would be cleaning toilets.” His fingers tighten on the wheel. “The guy’s a fucking loose cannon.”
The truck emerges from the woods, the road flanked on both sides by grassy fields. The iron-gray sky rises above us, purplish-black clouds the color of bruises hovering in the distance.
“Don’t you outrank him?”
An ugly laugh issues from James. “Technically, yes, but he must have friends in high places. I’ve been instructed to keep him in line from a distance.”
This information makes my stomach curdle. Gibbs must know James doesn’t have the authority to take him down, and that makes him even more dangerous. I draw in a deep breath and let it out slowly as I stare out the side window.
James lays a hand on my arm. “Hey, maybe I can’t toss him in the stockade, but if he touches you, I’ll break his fucking face. Nobody’s immune from everything.”
“Thanks.” I try to smile, but a sinking feeling steals it away. Gibbs may have to be dealt with. I just hope it can be done without screwing up everything else.
When we finally arrive, James leads me to Garth’s empty office. He takes my bag with him, offering to put it in my room. My eyes must show concern because James assures me I won’t be in the glorified cell I was in last time. I’m grateful.
I sit on the couch in Garth’s office and close my eyes. A headache pounds in my temples and forehead, and a pulse thumps in my neck. I breathe in and out, rubbing sweaty hands on my pants.
What is this new treatment, and why is it individualized? I have no medical or biology background, but something feels off.
The door opens, and Garth leads my mother in. She’s thinner, frail, but her coloring looks healthy. She leans on his arm and stares at the floor.
“Marie, good to see you again.” Garth nods, assisting my mother to sit on the couch beside me. He leans over to kiss her forehead. “Ring me when you’re finished, my dear. I’ll be in my lab.”
She grasps his hand and presses it to her cheek. “Thank you.”
I sit silent and uncomfortable even after Garth leaves us and shuts the door behind him.
My mother finally looks at me, her hazel eyes unsure and pleading. “Marie, honey, thank you for coming.”
I shrug. “As if I had a choice.” My words are matter-of-fact rather than scathing. “How are you?”
Her lips curve in a faint smile. “Wasn’t sure you cared. I had a relapse—a bad one. The vaccine stopped working, and the new treatment was the only option left. There were some difficult moments—a rash and vomiting—but it seems to be working.”
“I’m glad, and of course I care. Just because I hate the things you’ve done doesn’t mean I wish ill on you.”
“I suppose that’s a start.” My mother stares at her hands.
“Why am I here, Mom?”
“Did you get the photo?”
“Yes. One of the girls was obviously you. Who was the other?”
“My sissy, Caroline.”
My eyes widen. “You have a sister?”
“Had.” A sheen of tears coats her eyes. “Caro had leukemia. She needed a bone marrow transplant. I wanted to donate, but my father wouldn’t let me.”
“He wasn’t her biological father. He forbid my mother to consider it, threatened to take me and leave. My mother had an affair . . . Caro was the result. Father said he wasn’t risking his only daughter to save her love child.”
My mother’s lids scrunch closed. “She didn’t make it.”
I stare at her in horror.
She covers her eyes. “The sins of the father are laid upon the children. I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. When I had twins . . . you girls were my life at the beginning, but the pressure was too great—the thought that one of you might come down with an illness and I might have to make a decision like my father.” A plaintive sob hiccups out of her, and she grabs my arm. “I became like the man I hated in spite of myself. Marie, I’m so sorry. It was never that I didn’t love you girls—I loved you so much it paralyzed me. I tried therapy, antidepressants. In the end, I couldn’t do it.”
My heart twists painfully. “Wow. I don’t even know what to say. Am I supposed to fall at your feet and forgive you? What do you want from me?”
“No, of course not! I want you to understand even if you never forgive me for being so weak.”
It’s an awful story, certainly one that might garner sympathy, but I’m just numb. I feel nothing for the woman beside me. I don’t wish her ill; I’m glad she’s recovering from the virus, but I can’t imagine having her in my life. She let Katie die even after going through a similar loss with her own sister. Somehow, that lowers my opinion of her even more.
“I’m sorry you lost your sister. What your father did was awful.” I stop there, leaving many words unsaid, but I can tell by the pain in her eyes that she gets the message.
A knock on the door interrupts the awkward moment. There’s a woman standing in the hall, wearing scrubs and a lab coat with a mask covering her nose and mouth.
“Dr. Kasabian sent me to fetch you.”
I hesitate a moment. The only thing waiting for me here is more awkward conversation. I may as well get these tests over with. “All right.” I look back at my mother. “See you.”
My mother’s only answer is to lower her head into her hands.
The woman leads me through the maze of halls, never bothering to introduce herself. I’ve been through here before and see people through the windows, poring over microscopes or working at computers. We stop in front of a door, and she slides a key card, admitting us.
There are four workstations in the smallish room, only one in obvious use. She leads me to a chair beside the desk. “Have a seat. Do you know your blood type?”
“We’ll check. Wait here.” She strides to the other side of the room and disappears through a doorway.
I’m curious and follow her into an alcove containing a walk-in refrigerator or freezer. I yank on the handle and step inside. One wall is covered by shelving with glass bottles filled with various vibrantly colored fluids. They’re segregated by color and marked with a series of letters and numbers that mean nothing to me. A few shelves on the opposite wall hold clear bins stacked with bags of blood. Blood types are written in black marker on the front of each bin.
I find the woman in the back of the walk-in, bent over a metal table. There’s a chart on the wall, listing blood types and corresponding codes from the colored bottles.
Panic seizes me. I don’t quite understand what’s happening, but I know it isn’t good.
“What the hell are you people doing?”
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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