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“You did what?” I gape at Max, my emotions running the gamut from anger to disbelief to fear.
He gazes at me calmly, still holding my wrists captive. “I donated the blood for your treatment.”
“How is that even possible? Garth said the mixture was patient-specific. They have a walk-in separated by blood type!”
He smiles. “Universal donor, baby.”
The words are akin to ice-water thrown in my face. Dread twists in the pit of my stomach, and I clench my fists. “Do you have a death wish?”
“Your blood has to be the most coveted of all!” I lower my voice to a whisper. “Does Ali have the same blood type as you?”
Max looks away. “Yeah, she does.”
“What were you thinking?”
Max's intense gaze returns to mine. “I’m fully aware of the risks.” He releases my wrists and cups my face, leaning in closer. “I couldn’t just let you die, China. This is why I fought my feelings for you at the start. I was—I am—afraid of being forced into a situation where I can’t protect both you and Ali.”
“Oh, Max . . .” Tears spring to my eyes, blurring his tortured expression. Max’s actions when we first met make sense when viewed through the filter of choosing between me and his sister. “You shouldn’t be in this position.”
“Hey . . . none of us should have to deal with this shit world. But here we are. We’ll make the best of it—together.” He kisses me softly before pulling me into his arms.
I wrap weak arms around his back and hug him close, resting my cheek against his neck. “Does Garth know about the others?” I whisper.
“Hell no! He only knows about Eric because I had to send someone to get him. We moved you to this house and waited. Eric threw himself at Garth’s mercy and begged him to come.”
There’s a tentative knock on the door. “May I come in?” Garth.
We move apart, and Max looks as if he’s about to say no, so I speak up first. “Sure.”
I want explanations and the chance to gauge the climate. Will Garth continue to help, or will his scientific training kick in and cause him to betray us?
Garth pulls a chair next to the bed, angles it toward us, and sits. He’s changed into a clean set of clothes and is freshly shaven. His bloodshot, dark-circled eyes are the only remaining clues that he’s exhausted and stressed. “It’s good to finally see you awake and alert, Marie. I suppose you have questions.”
“Finally? How long was I out?”
“Almost two weeks.”
“What?” I glance between Garth and Max, incredulous.
Max massages the back of my neck. “Yeah, it’s been . . . tense. You were in and out, mumbling a lot.”
Garth nods. “The fevers were worrisome. Even after the treatment, your temperature continued to soar. We had to pack you with ice at one point. Once you were out of the woods, we had to wait and watch, hoping there was no permanent damage.”
A queasy feeling gnaws at my gut. I was incoherent for almost two weeks? That means I was vulnerable all that time. The thought causes a shiver to tingle up my spine. Perhaps Garth is trustworthy.
“Max said you’re the only one from the alliance that knows I’m here.”
Garth barks a short laugh. “That’s right. Max, Eric, and I have been taking turns keeping an eye on you. I’ve been going back and forth between facilities and requested one of these houses as a place to contemplate my work and get away from stress.”
“How are you keeping this from my mother?”
“It’s not that hard. Nina is—” He pauses, looking thoughtful. “Your mother prefers not to deal with difficult situations. She rarely questions my explanations, especially since the virus.”
“I see. And the others?”
“I’m one of the few scientists at this location. They already consider me eccentric. I’ve perpetrated that belief throughout my career to keep nosy parkers out of my business.”
Garth has an answer for everything. I don’t know whether to feel reassured or start running. I glance at Max, who stares back with an unreadable, blank expression. Is he drinking Garth’s Kool-Aid or just playing it cool?
I lace my fingers with Max’s as he continues to caress my neck. “Explain the treatment I received, please. Max already said he donated the blood.”
Garth relaxes back in his chair and nods. “As it turns out, Max’s blood type is O negative. It wasn’t ideal, you understand, but it was the only option, given your refusal to receive treatment.”
I frown. “Why wasn’t it ideal?”
“O negative used to be known as the ‛universal donor.’ I could go into a mind-numbing explanation about blood transfusions and possible reactions, but the short explanation is the closer the match, the better. We didn’t have the time or resources to do a type and crossmatch, so it’s a good thing Max knew he was O neg. I’m pretty sure that’s why you had a slow response to the treatment.”
“What about the other component? Those bottles I saw at your facility.”
“As I’m sure you recall, we took samples when General Smith first brought you in. I tested a vial of your blood and chose the correct formulation.” Garth hesitates, his gaze bouncing between me and Max. “What both of you need to understand is that we’re in uncharted territory. We haven’t come across O negative survivors before.”
My spine stiffens, and I pull away from Max, pointing a finger at Garth. “Don’t even think it!”
“Marie.” Max rubs my arm in an attempt to soothe me.
“You trust him—the man who helped create the virus?”
Max grips my chin, turning my face toward him gently. “You know me—I don’t trust easily—but sometimes you gotta take a chance. I couldn’t let you die, so I exposed myself, hoping your stepfather would be more interested in saving his wife’s daughter than in dissecting me. If Dr. K were going to expose us, it probably would have been within the first twenty-four hours.” He trains his gaze on Garth. “I haven’t ruled out future betrayal, but it would be real hard to find a cure if the creator died in the midst of his research, wouldn’t it?”
Garth smiles tightly, not missing the implied threat. “I’ve told you, Max, and now I’ll tell you, Marie—my loyalty is to myself and those I love. Nina is my sun, moon, and stars. I love her, faults and all.” He leans forward, imploring. “She was a terrible mother to you and Katie, but she does love you. Granted, not the way a mother should.”
“So you're doing this for her?”
“And for me. Do you think I wanted any of this? I don't necessarily agree with the alliance's methods, but I'd rather be in a position to influence events than be helpless.” Garth lays a hand on my arm, his tone turning gentle. “I'm not evil, Marie. Truly I'm not. The day I collected your mother . . . when you were ten—”
I draw a harsh breath and yank my arm away. “Don't. Whatever you were going to say, just don't.” My eyes sting, and I turn my face from Max and Garth, staring at the Iron Man mask emblazoned on a glossy poster beside the bed. My voice fades to a strangled whisper. “I'll never forget the day she left as long as I live. Katie knew—she seemed to expect it—but I was blindsided. And you . . . you just pulled up out front and popped the trunk, didn't even get out of the car. You stole my mother and broke my father's heart.” I clench both fists in my lap, willing Max and Garth not to touch me as hot tears slide down my face.
A soft sigh issues from Garth. “I didn't steal your mother. Nina confessed her fear of becoming too close to you and Katie. She tried to hold herself aloof, to raise you without being touched by you, but the fear consumed her. I know it must seem to you that I'm the bad guy who swooped in to destroy your parents' marriage and ruin your family. That day, I didn't get out of the car because Nina begged me not to. She also insisted I shouldn't get too close to you and Katie. I'm sorry, Marie. Perhaps I shouldn't have acquiesced to her wishes.”
“Why was she afraid to love us?”
“I don't fully understand it myself. I encouraged her to get therapy, but Nina is extremely good at sticking her head in the sand and pretending nothing is wrong.”
Max pats my thigh. “I'll be back in a minute.” He leaves the room, shutting the door behind him.
I swipe at my face and sniffle. Part of me wants to hate Garth and discount everything he's said, but his words ring true. So far, he's kept his word and protected us from the alliance. What reason does he have to lie about my mother?
“I'm sorry. I shouldn't blame you for what my mother's done.” I meet his sympathetic gaze and offer a halfhearted smile. My insides feel scraped raw, my heart bruised. Mamie always taught us forgiveness. Katie wasn’t very good at it, but I’d like to think I am. Even so, thoughts of my mother tend to set fire to my anger, especially with regard to her failure to save my sister.
“It’s all right.”
“So . . . what happens now?”
“Well, Max has assured me he has a safe place to stash you and has no intention of letting me know the location.” Garth offers me a genuine smile, perhaps the first he’s ever bestowed upon me, and pats my hand. “I don’t blame him one bit. I wouldn’t trust me either. Once you’re strong enough—perhaps another day or two—he can whisk you away. You may require follow-up treatments, but that could become tricky.”
“Well, I’ve already taken more blood from Max than is recommended. He probably won’t be able to safely donate again for at least twelve weeks.”
My heart stutters. “How much did you take?”
“Two pints. He wanted to give three, but I refused.” Garth smirks. Clearly, the irony is not lost on either of us.
“You refused. What about the rest of the immune the alliance has been sucking dry?” My words are sharper than I intended.
“I’m only one man.” Garth smacks a palm against his thigh with a huff of frustration. “Do you think I run that place? I’m important, yes, but only because I’m one of two survivors of the original team.”
“Your hands are dirty.”
“I know this. My soul is forever stained by my involvement, but I’m doing the best I can within the constraints I'm bound to work under. Treason was punishable by death in the old world—just imagine what could happen now. Desperation sometimes causes even the most rational people to commit horrific acts.” Garth holds his hands up as if he knows I'm about cut in. “It's not an excuse, never an excuse, but a fact nonetheless. You and Katie have always been so black and white about certain issues. Admirable, for sure, though not necessarily conducive to survival in this new version of humanity.”
There are so many questions pinging around in my head, so many comments fighting to escape my mouth, so many emotions churning. Part of me realizes allowing my words to run free won't help. I'm not sure what could help, so I decide not to address any of the disturbing facets of the situation.
“What happens now?”
Garth seems surprised and pleased by my question, as if he fully expected me to play woodpecker to his tree. “Well. Now we wait . . . and hope. I'll continue working on a cure that doesn't take out the rest of the immune, and you should endeavor to keep yourself and your people off the alliance radar.”
Fear nibbles at my insides like a horde of hungry gnats, and I swallow before speaking. “My people?”
A faint smile spreads across Garth's tired face. “Surely you don't think I bought Max's bullshit. I know there are others. Frankly, I don't want the details.” He clasps my shoulder. “May we meet again under happier circumstances. If you need to contact me, do it through Eric.” He moves to get up.
“Wait!” I grab for his arm. “Tell me about Gibbs.”
He tilts his head, regarding me with a puzzled look. “Gibbs went AWOL. How did you know something was amiss?”
Gibbs went AWOL.
I shake my head as a swarm of butterflies takes flight in my stomach. “He's dangerous, Garth.”
He stares back at me with raw curiosity before shaking his head. “Godspeed. Be careful, Marie.”
“You, too. Take care of Nina. She wasn't meant for this type of world.”
“Truer words were never spoken, my dear.” He nods awkwardly and leaves the room, shutting the door behind him.
It doesn't escape my notice that I've transitioned to calling my mother by her given name, a bittersweet moment.
Murmured voices come from downstairs. The conversation lasts longer than I would have expected. The back door closes, and it's almost five minutes before the thump of Max's boots sounds on the stairs, slow and cautious.
The bedroom door creaks as it swings open, and Max peers around the edge warily. When our eyes meet, a smirk tugs at his generous lips. “Is it safe to come in? No flying objects?”
My mouth wants to return his smile, but I suppress the urge. “And why would there be flying objects?”
He saunters into the room and stands beside the bed, arms crossed. “Come on, China. Cut a guy some slack.”
I sit straighter and cross my arms, too. “Are you too tired to banter with me, universal donor?”
Max's smile grows, and he kneels beside the bed. Uncrossing my arms, he takes my hand and brings it to his lips for a kiss, gazing up at me while rubbing his thumb across my skin. “My blood is running through your veins now.” His voice is husky, eyes dilated.
My pulse flutters in response, a liquid heat spreading low. I throw his hand off and recross my arms. “How is it you manage to make an act of stupidity sexy?”
He shrugs. “It's how I roll.” The amusement seeps from his expression, leaving him serious. “You can be mad at me if you need to, but tell me—if the situation were reversed, would you let me die?”
“Of course not!”
“The defense rests, your honor.”
I have no answer for that one.
I'd like to say we spend the next few days romping in bed to make up for lost time. Instead, Max is a taskmaster, pushing me to regain my strength. I sweat—a lot—just not in a way I prefer.
The day is dreary, the clouds pregnant with rain, the air ominously still. Max leans against the side of the window, staring into the gloom. “Fifty more.”
I collapse against the floor, my heart pumping hard. “Are you . . . crazy?”
After just completing one hundred crunches, I'm looking forward to a cool glass of water and a hot bath. My abdominal muscles quiver with fatigue.
Max levels me with his signature intense look. “Seventy five.”
Heat gathers in my cheeks as we reach a standoff. Being on the floor while Max towers over me doesn't put me in a position of power. My chest heaves, my labored breaths the only sound in the room.
I look away first.
“Fine. But I'm only doing fifty!” I lift my chin in defiance.
“All I asked for, sweetheart—all I asked for.”
And he snatches away my victory. Smug bastard.
Max kneels on the cracked tile beside the tub afterward, dipping a washcloth in the fragrant hot water and massaging it over my back, shoulders, and chest. This feels so good, I want to purr like a kitten.
A network of twigs whipping in the wind claws at the small window, an unwanted reminder of the outside world I choose to ignore.
He lets the cloth sink beneath the surface and runs the pads of his fingers along my arm and the side of my neck to caress my jaw.
“Sorry if I was rough on you earlier. It's just—I need you to be all right. You have to be strong, able to defend yourself.”
I sit up fast. Water splashes his T-shirt, some sloshing onto the floor. “Why? Is something wrong?”
For a moment, he stares at me with his head cocked, then a rare laugh fills the small bathroom. “In this world, the question to ask is what's going right.” He shakes his head, still smiling, and leans in to press a kiss on my cheek. “What am I going to do with you?”
I turn my head swiftly, causing Max's warm lips to drag across my cheek, stopping once our mouths meet. He stills until I wrap my arms around his neck and sigh his name. Maybe it's the gravity of our situation, the impossibleness of it that ignites the fire between us. Whatever it is, the tension of the last few days evaporates, and Max kisses me with a passionate intensity I've only experienced in his arms.
My damp fingers weave into the back of Max's soft hair, holding on tightly, anchoring us together. But he's not trying to pull away. With a rough groan that causes a delicious heat to bloom inside me, he cradles my head and explores me with lips and tongue.
We kiss for a long time. He leans over the tub, exploring my nakedness with gently greedy hands, pausing every so often to make sure I'm okay. And I don't have the heart to tell him that the only time memories of what Gibbs did to me enter my thoughts is when Max hesitates to touch me.
He finally scoops me out of the tub, dripping water everywhere, and carries me back to my room, laying me on the bed. He pauses to yank his soaked T-shirt off before covering my nakedness with his body.
We take our time, kiss and fondle, his jeans a rough pleasure against my wet skin. I reach between us to unbutton his pants, and his pelvis rocks against me, causing tingles to awaken all over.
“Are you sure?” The heat of his strained whisper brands the juncture between my neck and shoulder.
Max raises himself on one elbow and looks into my eyes, brushing damp hair off my forehead. “I love you so much.” There are more words dammed behind his lips, maybe many words, but he swallows them back and peppers kisses along my jaw.
Downstairs, the back door thuds closed.
Cold dread chases away the heat as a familiar voice calls out, “Come out, come out, wherever you are . . .”
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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