Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 48): Cake
A high keening comes from behind the fist jammed against Andrea's mouth. She rocks in the chair, wild gaze riveted to the laptop as the soldiers radio for reinforcements.
The guy who tasered Eric leans down. “Red, this guy’s one of ours. What the hell was he doing skulking around?”
Red reclines against the wall and waves a hand, disinterested. “Who gives a fuck? We follow Wesley's orders—let him sort this shit out.”
Eric groans and tries to roll onto his side. Red uses one foot against Eric's beefy arm to shove him the rest of the way. “Stay down or we'll have to juice you again.” Red slips handcuffs from his belt and secures Eric's wrists behind his back, leaving him on his stomach.
Eric manages to turn his head to one side, issuing gasping breaths.
Ali's quivering voice comes over the walkie-talkie. “Connor, I know you. Don't you dare go out there! If they get you, we'll really be in deep.”
Tek chimes in. “She's right, man. Eric's one of them. He'll talk his way out.”
A long silence follows. Perhaps Max can't maneuver to send Morse code or maybe he’s considering his options.
I grab the walkie-talkie and press the transmit button, praying he can hear me. “Max, they're right. Don't do anything rash. Wesley is a snake, just like Gibbs, but we'll outsmart him, too. If they find out where you're hiding, it could lead down here, and this will all be for nothing.” I bow my head, praying he listens.
Andrea puts her hand over mine and presses the button. “Marie's right, Max. Our best chance of getting Eric back is to remain secret.” She lets go and sits back, closing her eyes. A tear slips down her cheek, and she draws a shuddering breath.
Max doesn't respond, but he doesn't pop out of the wall like a jack-in-the-box and get captured either. Andrea and I remain tense, watching and waiting. Grace whines, placing her head on Andrea's lap, and looks from one of us to the other.
Eric finally speaks, his voice low and scratchy. “Guys . . . I'm Alliance. How 'bout taking the cuffs off? Help a brother out.” He laughs, but it sounds nothing like his usual booming baritone. “Thank God I didn't pee myself.”
Red seems mildly amused but doesn't move. “Nothing personal, just following orders. If you are who you say you are, this will all be sorted out soon.”
The other soldier tilts his head, listening. “Go ahead . . . Copy that.”
Red, having received the same transmission, nods. “We've been ordered to bring you in. I'm going to stand you up now. Don't try anything. Cooperate, and we all live to see another sunrise, my friend.” Red grasps Eric's bound wrists and hauls him to his feet.
Eric grunts as his legs give out, but he manages to right himself. Red tells the other soldier to stay behind and takes hold of Eric's arm, leading him away. “We're not going to have any problems, are we, buddy?”
“Nope. You're just following orders—I get it. Shouldn't have gone off on my own trying to find Gibbs.”
Red's tense posture relaxes. “Live and learn. I'm sure you'll be back on patrol in no time.” He makes a disgusted sound. “We shouldn't be wasting time on that piece of shit. I'd just as soon use him as target practice than take him in, but you didn't hear that from me.”
Their voices fade as they move off camera.
Andrea blows out a breath and slumps in the chair. Crescents of blood well up over the pale skin of her palms. “He'll be okay. Eric will talk his way out. There's a certain amount of trust he's built with the Alliance.”
I murmur my agreement though she seems to be speaking more to herself than to me.
The other soldier melts into the shadows, presumably to continue surveillance. I wring my hands, worried Max will pop out of the wall and get himself captured.
Time passes, seconds growing to minutes.
We watch Red lead Eric out the back door of the plant and into the tunnel. Soldiers occasionally shift around or leave their posts to relieve themselves. None of the men seem worried or suspicious. They have no idea Max is in the walls.
Ali returns to the kitchen and starts making food. An ashen pallor shadows her skin. She starts wheezing and takes a hit from her inhaler.
I make Ali sit at the table, and then I brew a cup of butterbur tea, placing it in front of her. Andrea continues monitoring the feeds while I take over making sandwiches. Twenty minutes later, the color is back in Ali's cheeks, and her breathing is freer. The three of us sit in silence, picking at our food. Grace nudges my thigh with her snout and turns on the charm. I feed her a piece of grilled chicken and laugh when she swallows it whole, licks her chops, and waits for more.
“Yikes! Did you even taste that?”
The walkie-talkie emits static, and then Max's voice comes through, barely a whisper. “I finally made it past those bastards. Now it's a matter of making it the rest of the way down without breaking my fucking neck.”
Tears of relief sting my eyes as I answer him. “We've got cold beer and sandwiches waiting for you.”
“I need a damn shower first.”
“We have that, too. I love you. Be careful.”
“Love you, China.”
Tek opens the kitchen door and pokes his head in. “I'm going to wait for Max. Want to join me?”
“Heck, yeah!” I wash a bite of chicken down with a swig of water and stand. Ali's steady gaze meets mine, and I pause, my cheeks heating. “I'm sorry—you should be the one to go. He's your brother.”
Ali's lips curve into a knowing smile. “He's your heart. Go.”
Tek and I move silently through the halls. We reach the grating outside our quarters, and Tek removes the panel. We sit on the floor with the walkie-talkie between us and settle in to wait.
Tek scrubs a hand over his face and sighs. His eyes are bloodshot and tired looking. “How is she? This is taking a toll on her.”
He doesn't need to tell me he's talking about Ali. “She's strong stuff, just like her brother.” I pat his arm.
Tek smiles and leans his head back, rubbing his eyes. “They are quite the pair. I think what they went through growing up brought them closer and made them stronger.”
“Ali went through hell. They both did.”
“Yeah . . . Ali told me what Max did to protect her. That kind of loyalty is rare and precious.” Tek tugs on a lock of my hair. “He’d do the same for you.”
“I know.” I smile, but sour bile churns in the pit of my stomach. Ali was right about keeping what Wesley said about me from Max. “Were you watching when—did you hear what Wesley said . . . about me?”
Tek nods. “Let me guess. You don’t want me to tell Max.”
“Ali thinks it’s for the best.”
“Based on what I know about Max, I have to agree. The last thing we need is his going off half-cocked. Cool heads should prevail.”
I pick at a loose thread on the seam of my jeans. “You think Eric will be all right?”
“The guy could talk his way into the Pentagon. Our big problem now is communicating with Garth. We’ve lost our eyes and ears into Alliance business—and we’re trapped down here until Wesley quits looking for Gibbs.”
“Hope it doesn't take—” The words die on my lips as a metallic ping, followed by rustling comes from inside the wall. “Max.” His name is a breathless exhalation as I scramble to my feet and stare into the snarl of wires in the opening.
Tek hops up and spreads the cables. “Max?”
A booted foot pokes out, followed by muffled profanity as Max struggles to extricate himself. “Son of a—” Both feet hit the floor, and the rest of him slowly appears. “Shit, it's bright!” He shades his eyes.
Sweat-soaked hair clotted with dampened dust hangs over Max's forehead. Every inch of exposed skin is streaked with grime, and his clothes are dirty and tattered. Even so, once his beautiful sea-glass eyes seek out mine, I throw myself at him.
He catches me, strong arms wrapping around, lifting, and crushing me against his hard body.
“Oh, China. God, it feels so good to hold you!” He swings us around before depositing me on my feet, holding my hips to steady me.
I go up on tiptoe, slinging my arms around his neck, and kiss his soft lips. He brings us closer, kissing me passionately, one hand roaming from the curve of my hip to squeeze my ass. I gasp, desire igniting inside me.
We finally part when Tek clears his throat. I laugh breathlessly and hook a finger on the hem of Max's tattered T-shirt, unwilling to lose contact quite yet. Tek averts his head, the skin of his neck flushing bright red.
“Shit, look what I did to you!” Max gestures to my newly grimy clothes and wipes at my cheek. “I'm making it worse.” He steps back and pulls his shirt off, using it to mop the dirt and sweat from his face.
I take in his bare chest and ridged abs with appreciation, reminded of when he stripped his shirt off beside a stream on the way back from our supply run. That moment seems long ago, but it also stands out in my mind because, though it was difficult for Max, he finally let down his guard and invited me to go home with him.
Tek clears his throat again and moves to the opening in the wall, pushing wires back in and fitting the grate in place.
Max looks me over and smirks. “Seems you need a shower now, too. We should definitely join forces, conserve water.”
After Max's tearful reunion with Ali and a lot of barks, wiggling, and licks from Grace, I join him for that shower.
Wisps of steam curl lazily in the air. It feels good to stand beneath the hot spray with Max. He can't seem to stop touching me even though we're mere inches apart. Strong fingers ghost over my arms, knead my shoulders, caress my back. He feathers soft kisses along my jaw and across my lips. And though we're naked and alone, the touches and kisses are more reverent than sexual.
I soap a bath puff and wash the dirt and dust from Max. He obediently allows this as long as his fingers are in contact with my skin, and I have no objection to that arrangement. At one point, he works shampoo into his hair and tilts his head, allowing the water to rinse the lather away. Then he pours more shampoo into one palm and tells me to put my head back so he can do my hair.
I pause washing his body to enjoy the feel of his fingers massaging my scalp.
He shifts our positions so I can rinse off, his sensual lips nipping at the skin on the side of my neck. “The only thing I could think of when I was stuck in the walls was getting back to you. I don't know if I could've done it otherwise.” He lowers his head and sighs against my shoulder. “Maybe I should have ignored you guys and gone after Eric. I just . . . couldn't chance being taken away from you. Does that make me a horrible person?”
I face him and caress his jaw. “No, it makes you smart. Eric is one of them, and he'll think of an excuse—but if they discovered you . . .” I shiver, despite the humid warmth surrounding us. “God only knows what would have happened. At least now we have a chance of getting Eric back and
keeping our presence here secret.”
“You're right. I know you are.” Max nods, but guilt clouds his eyes just the same.
We dry each other with fluffy white towels and pull on sweats and T-shirts. I ask Max if he wants something to eat, but he shakes his head and says he really wants to be alone with me.
When we enter our room, Grace is napping in the corner, and her tail thumps against the floor. A tray of sandwiches and two cold beers sit on the dresser along with the DVD remote. Max huffs a laugh and shakes his head.
“Who else? She knew I’d forgo eating in favor of being alone with you, so she made sure I could have my cake”—Max pulls me close and flicks his tongue against my neck—“and eat, too.”
We sit on the bed and eat, sharing swigs of beer first from one bottle and then the other. When the food and drink is gone, Max shuts off the light and pulls me to the bed, enveloping me in his strong embrace.
He kisses my temple. “I’d love to ravish you, but I’m exhausted.”
“Me, too—on both counts—but I’m happy right where I am.” I rest my head on Max’s chest, and sleep claims me, deep and dreamless.
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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