Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 45): Let Them Come
Chaos breaks out. Between the gasps and raised voices, I have the urge to cover my ears.
Panic wells in my chest. My first instinct is to object to his plan, just the way everyone else is, until Max's plea comes to mind.
Back me up.
I suck in a deep breath and stand. “Wait, wait. Everyone, hold up a minute!”
The room falls silent. All eyes are on me.
“Before we protest, how about we give Max a chance to share his plan. He's kept us safe so far—do we have any reason not to trust him now?” I stare at the faces of my new family, looking each of them in the eye. I stop before reaching Max, who squeezes my thigh under the table.
Ali nods with a healthy dose of pride. “My brother can do anything he puts his mind to. Let's hear him out.”
Tek agrees. Eric agrees. Next to my chair, Grace tilts her head, aware of the tension in the room. Andrea is now the center of attention and obviously uncomfortable about it.
“Um, I don't know any of you that well . . .” Andrea blushes and bows her head. “I don't trust easily—never have—but the way all of you come together and support one another . . .” Choked up, she takes a sobbing breath.
Eric pulls her close. “We.”
“The way we come together. You're part of this crazy family, too, baby.”
A tear slides over Andrea's cheek. “Thank you for accepting me, all of you. I wasn't very nice when I first got here.” She sniffles, leaning into Eric. “Let's hear your plan, Max.”
Max claps his hands. “All right, then! Let's get down to business.” He hops up and grabs a thin stack of papers off the counter.
Once the sandwiches Ali prepared are divvied up, she removes the platter so Max can spread the papers on the table. He takes a huge bite of his ham and cheese, washing it down with a mouthful of beer.
“Okay, the Alliance assholes are coming. The VP allowed Gibbs to go AWOL, working with him on the side. To me, that makes him as bad as Gibbs and twice as dangerous. Wesley is hand-picking a team to come here. Clearly, the left hand didn't know what the right one was doing with regard to power, and I'm sure heads will roll, but their mistake gives us an advantage.”
“How so?” Eric asks.
“This has to be a stealth mission for Wesley. He basically lied to everyone and allowed the Alliance to waste precious manpower searching for Gibbs when he knew where the bastard was the whole time. Worse, I'm sure he's well aware what a sick fuck his nephew is and didn't give a shit who Gibbs might be terrorizing. The good news is he can't bring a large crew—more witnesses to his deception. You saw the way he waited until most of the men were out of earshot before sharing his intel with Axle and Pruit.”
Tek leans forward. “Even if he does bring a small group, if they disappear, others will come.”
“That's the beauty of it. We're going to discourage them from coming back without harming anyone.” A satisfied smile spreads over Max's face.
Andrea breaks in. “I'm okay with hurting those bastards.”
Max looks at her with a mix of admiration and warning. “We do whatever's necessary. I have no problem dishing out some pain, but it's in our best interest to avoid that. Gibbs was a piece of shit and deserved to die—no argument there. We do need to resurrect him, so to speak, for my plan to work.” He separates the papers, unfolding a hand-drawn blueprint, and points to the entrance closest to the tunnel. “They'll come in this way. I expect them to shoot the camera out and bust the lock. Don't forget what a maze this place is. They would have to find the correct elevator—which requires a key, by the way—and descend the correct number of floors in order to find us. Everything we need is below ground . . . our quarters, the control room, food and supplies. They won't get far, and I propose we give them a reason not to try.”
“I love your plan already!” Ali wiggles in her seat.
Max grins and shakes his head. “Gibbs left some gear in the industrial complex. I say we gather some of his shit and set something up inside the plant, like a little base camp. Make it look like he's staying here. Wesley won't be sending troops in if he thinks Gibbs is holed up here. His desire to protect the secret will keep him from exploring too deeply. I think it's worth it to set a booby trap early on—let Wesley think Gibbs has the place rigged.”
We finish our food and gather around the coffee table in the living room. Everyone is enthusiastic about Max's plan, especially the part where we relax in comfort with plentiful food and spirits while the vice president's crew bumbles around in the maze.
The guys start tossing around ideas of how to discourage Wesley and his crew. Max and Eric will gather some of Gibbs' gear from the industrial complex while Tek works on cameras and reprograms elevators and entrances with keypads.
Max stresses the need to let Wesley’s men in without making it seem too easy. He chooses an alcove close to the entrance, but not too close, to make it seem Gibbs is using the plant as his new base of operations. Tek offers to help Eric rig a trip wire with a charge that will blow a keypad that's already broken.
We discuss other details, such as making sure the Alliance won't be able to detect our presence, setting up a laptop with remote access to the control room monitors, stocking our quarters with necessities in case we can't get to the stock room, and deciding where Grace will relieve herself while we're sequestered.
Tek mentions the need for around-the-clock surveillance, and we set up a rotating schedule.
We talk late into the night until my mind is numb, and my lids heavy. Max finally takes my hand and leads me to our room. Grace follows at our heels, yawning widely, and paws at her blanket until satisfied. She then circles around and around, plopping down with a contented sigh.
Max takes me in his arms and sways us gently. “Thank you.” He plants a kiss on my forehead.
“Backing me up.”
I smile into his shirt. “It's a brilliant plan.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no, but you paved the way. Your trust means everything to me. I'm not—” his voice breaks, thick with emotion “—used to having that.”
“Ali believes in you.”
Max tips my face up until our eyes meet; his shine and are as intense as I've ever seen them. “China . . . though that also means the world to me, I'm not talking about my sister's trust. You've turned me upside down and inside out since the moment I knocked you on your ass that first day.” A slight smirk tugs at the corner of his mouth.
I smack his chest. “Really? You're going to ruin the moment by mentioning that?”
“It was an attention-getting moment for both of us and, I'm sure you'll agree, a pivotal one.” Max grins. “You were so adorable and fierce in your indignation. I admit to underestimating you at the beginning, but your inner tigress showed her claws and corrected my misconception right quick.”
My cheeks flush with embarrassment and pleasure. “You thought I was adorable?”
“I'd have to be dead not to.” He kisses the tip of my nose. “At least when your mouth wasn't running. Then I found you to be the most frustrating female—next to Ali, of course. She has the capacity to drive me to drink.”
Max holds me closer then lets go. He strips his clothes off, quickly getting down to the bare essentials, offering me a full view of his tight behind and sculpted back and shoulders as he searches the dresser for a pair of sweats and pulls them on. My gaze traces the intricate vines adorning his skin. I'm still hovering beside the bed watching him when he turns around, giving me an eyeful of his bare chest.
“Are you in pain? Do you need help getting undressed?”
I am in pain, but my hesitation had everything to do with ogling. “Um . . . sure.”
Max roots through the dresser and tosses a T-shirt and yoga pants on the end of the bed. Then his hands encircle my waist. “Let me know if I hurt you.” He lifts the shirt slowly and allows it to fall to the floor. Hooking the waistband of my pants with his thumbs, he pulls them down and waits for me to toe my boots off before continuing.
I shiver when the air hits my exposed skin.
Warm, calloused hands ghost over my shoulders and arms and move to my hips, inching their way up my curves. I wince when he reaches a tender spot, and Max hisses between his teeth, eyes growing stormy.
“I wish that fuck could die again. I hate what he did to you while I was off on a wild goose chase.”
“It's not your fault. I should have listened to you and stayed put.”
Max's fingers brush lightly over the black and blues littering my torso. He bends his head to feather kisses across the mottled bruising that wreathes my neck. Sparks of pleasure spread a tingle of desire through my body, and I suck in a breath.
Max's lips lay a path up the side of my neck and across the edge of my jaw, finally meeting mine, softly probing. Strong hands slip around me to cradle my shoulder blades, pressing me closer.
I slide my fingers up his arms and over his broad shoulders until they sink into the soft hair at his nape. “God, Max.”
Here we stand, skin to skin, with only my bra and panties and his sweats between us.
“I want you, China. More than I've ever wanted anything.”
Max scoops me up in his arms and lays me carefully on the bed, stretching over me, propped on elbow and knees. “You mean so much to me. I don't know what I'd do if . . .” He chokes, shaking his head.
I caress his face and rub the pad of my thumb across his full bottom lip. “I'm fine, thanks to you—safe and loved.”
Max pushes my hand away, capturing my wrist and pressing it to the bed. He kisses me hard, his tongue seeking mine.
Gentle touches, deep kisses. Max's fresh clothes join the dirty ones on the floor. He unhooks my bra and shimmies the panties down my legs, swirling his tongue across my hip bone on the way back.
He hovers above me for a moment, vulnerable. “Stop me if I hurt you?”
Past the point of talking, Max enters me, worshiping my body, skin to skin, our sweat mingling, sounds of pleasure filling our room.
There is no pain, only love.
I dream of a perfect day by the ocean. Sand warmed by the sun sifts between my toes, and a strong breeze whips hair across my face, obscuring my vision. I tuck the wayward strands behind my ears and survey the beach. The intensity of the clear blue sky is only rivaled by the turquoise of the sea. The foaming surf surges in, crashing against rocks and rushing up the open sand.
I close my eyes and tip my face toward the sun, soaking up the warmth.
“Great day for tanning.” The voice belongs to Gibbs.
A chill runs up my spine, and a sick feeling pools in my gut. I don’t turn but instead continue facing the water. “You’re not really here.”
“That’s right. I’m rotting away in the abyss.” He’s closer. I can almost feel his breath on my neck. “Perhaps you’ll join me in the dark. If my uncle finds out what you’ve done, I can see him reuniting us for eternity.” A cold finger traces my arm, and I slap it away.
“Leave me alone.”
“I would, but you called me.”
“What? I did not!”
“It’s your dream. You put me here, princess. Miss me?”
The sky darkens rapidly, storm clouds swelling on the horizon, and the ocean morphs to an angry blue-black, the waves crashing violently. The wind ceases, leaving the air still and eerie. Foreboding swells inside me, and the hair along the back of my neck prickles. I whip around, and nobody’s there.
A distant voice wakes me.
Max is off the bed and grabbing for the walkie-talkie before my eyes are fully open. “Yeah?”
Eric’s voice answers back. “We need to step up our plans, pull an all-nighter. Wesley gathered a team quicker than expected.”
“We have enough time—just barely. Tek and I rigged some traps already. We need to get Gibbs’ gear to make it realistic. Up for it?”
Max rubs his eyes. “Meet you in five.” He puts the walkie-talkie on the nightstand and stretches.
I’m still naked, but Max has sweats and a T-shirt on. Always ready. He cups the back of my head and leans in for a kiss, pressing his forehead to mine.
“I love you, China. Be back soon.”
“I love you, too. I could help . . .”
“You can help by staying here. Don’t make me worry about you. We’ll be back in a flash and ready for those fuckers. Why don’t you go over the list with Ali and Andrea again, make sure we haven’t overlooked anything.”
He kisses me again, and then he’s gone.
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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