Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 36): Ties that Bind
Max leads me from the room, and I willingly follow without shame, amid murmured comments and Eric’s good-natured laughter. I don’t even pay attention to their words, my gaze trained on the broad shoulders in front of me and the inked biceps bulging beneath Max’s T-shirt. My mind is still focused on the hunger in his eyes from a few moments ago.
Anticipation tightens my chest on the walk to our room. He releases my hand and holds the door as I walk in ahead of him. We share a space now. My belongings co-mingle with his. I’m welcome in his world, part of the family. Pride and desire swell inside me.
The lamp Max gave me emits soft, muted light from atop the scarred dresser. The drawing he did of me is still affixed to the wall. I glance at that Marie, the mix of apprehension and hope in her eyes, and wonder how I’d look if he drew me now. How have the experiences of the past several months seasoned and changed me?
The door closes firmly, a muffled thump following as Max leans against it and watches me with a hooded expression. There was a time the fathomless intensity in his sea-glass eyes would have caused an insecure panic to well inside me, but now my heart races, injecting a heady shot of adrenaline into my bloodstream.
“Come here.” Max’s voice is gentle with a rough edge. He reaches out, keeping his back to the door.
I go to him, and he pulls me close, lowering his head until our lips are a hair’s breadth apart. Our gazes connect, unspoken sentiments passing between us.
“You know I’d do anything for you.”
It’s a statement, not a question, but I nod anyway because I <i>do</i> know. A sense of love and belonging causes goosebumps to race up my arms. Max doesn’t love easily. His loyalty can’t be bought—it must be won.
He cups my cheek and closes the distance, kissing me slowly. We cling to one another until he pushes me away for a moment to yank the T-shirt over his head and toss it to the floor, reeling me right back in.
My lids slip closed as I lean into him, one palm braced on the hot skin of his abs. His lips find mine again, no longer soft, the passion between us burning hot. We shuffle across the room, fumbling with fabric and buttons and zippers until we land on the bed.
Max lifts up to shed his jeans and boxer briefs before running calloused hands lovingly over my exposed skin and removing what’s left of my clothing. Then he rises over me, braced on both arms.
“You’re beautiful,” he says with words, eyes, lips.
I blush from head to foot, warm radiance flooding through me. Why these two words affect me so deeply, I’m not sure. Tears spring to my eyes, catching me off guard, and I blink fast in an attempt to ward them away.
“Max.” I swallow, my throat aching, his name a strained syllable.
He lays a finger against my mouth, eyes glinting in the low light. “I know, baby. You don’t have to say anything. I feel it.”
I nod, slipping my fingers into his soft hair, so much longer now than when we met. A fringe of unruly strands falls across his forehead, lending a boyish look to one so lethal. Knowing he’d do anything for me makes me feel like the most special woman in the world.
Leaning on one elbow, Max lowers his mouth to mine, kissing me deeply. His free hand explores my wanting skin. He stops to ask if I’m okay before going further, my body singing for the return of his touch.
“You don’t need to ask. I’m yours, Max. Always.”
He doesn’t speak aloud, but it’s all there in his eyes—how much my trust in him means, how much my love for him means, the last vestiges of resistance burning away to leave his heart tender and vulnerable, open.
This time is different from the others. Max’s lips whisper over my skin as he enters me. He pauses a moment and groans softly, his hot breath searing the side of my neck. I slide my hands around his body, cupping his backside before running questing fingers over the muscled planes of his back to his broad, flexing shoulders. He takes me slow and worshipful, intense passion overtaking us both.
Afterward, Max cradles me in his arms, keeping my ear pressed to his heart, his strong fingers stroking my back. Every so often, he drops a kiss in my hair. But we don’t talk about the obvious shift in our relationship. Words seem inadequate, insignificant compared to the energy flowing between us.
Something has come to life inside me, and once and for all, I understand what Katie meant on the long ago night of my engagement party. Max takes my breath away; he challenges me to grow; his touch burns my skin. And when we’re together, all rational thoughts depart. He takes me higher than I ever hoped or expected to go.
I shift around and burrow against his broad chest, getting comfortable before closing my eyes. As sleep persuades me to enter its mysterious realm, one thought remains with me to color my dreams: Even if I don’t survive in this new world, I have lived, loved, made a difference—Katie may not have survived long enough to find the love of her existence, but my intention is to live that dream for us both.
I join Ali and Andrea in the supply room midmorning, after I’ve taken a long hot shower with Max. “Saves on resources,” he deadpanned when suggesting it, only the slightest twitch of his lips giving away the fact he wasn’t concerned about conserving anything.
The women—one short, petite, and brunette, the other tall, willowy, and blond—stand in one corner, working side by side. Ali’s bubbly laughter rises in response to something Andrea says.
The two made fast friends in the weeks since Eric carried a half-dead Andrea into the power plant. The friendship and respect they have for each other was clear at dinner last night.
I knock on a wooden board propped against the wall. “Hey.”
“Morning, Marie.” Andrea smiles shyly, still uncomfortable around me if her posture is any indication.
Ali grins at me, a hint of mischief in her eyes. “Good almost-afternoon. My brother kept you up late last night—and probably pretty busy this morning.” Her unrepentant eyes widen as she presses a hand over her mouth. “How inappropriate of me.”
Andrea’s mouth rounds in an “O” of surprise as she glances back and forth between us.
Max would go nuclear if he were here. My cheeks flush with color, but I can’t find it in myself to be cross with Ali. I wave dismissively. “It’s okay.”
Ali raises a brow and nods, as if confirming something. “We’re sorting through some toiletries Eric brought in, putting like products together and organizing by expiration date.” She beckons me over and gives me a box packed with over-the-counter medications. “Can you sort these and put them in the bins on that shelf? They should be separated by type and date.”
We work in silence for a while, the mindlessness of the tasks a therapeutic balm washing away the residual awkwardness of our trio. My back eventually grows stiff from bending over, so I straighten up and stretch.
Ali claps. “Well, girls, I say we finish the boxes we’re on and take a break, make some lunch for the boys. Tuna wraps and fruit sound good?”
Andrea brushes dusty hands on her jeans and nods. “I’m in.” The translucent skin of her face seems paler than it did last night, the bluish circles beneath her eyes almost bruise-like.
It seems Max was right about Ali; she seems to have a sixth sense, bordering on psychic. She realized Andrea is pushing herself to keep going for fear of disappointing us, maybe as payment for her place here.
For no apparent reason, I recall the day Ali had an asthma attack, and I rushed to her room to find an inhaler. There were drawings in her dresser, obviously done by Max. One of a younger Ali and the other of a Hispanic man.
I wait until Ali and I are making wraps at the kitchen counter while Andrea sets the table.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course.” She continues spooning tuna on a lettuce-lined wrap and begins rolling it.
“Remember the day you had that horrific asthma attack, and I went to find your inhaler?”
“When I opened your dresser, a few sketches fell out. One of them was a young Hispanic man with a scar by his right eye . . .” My words drift off awkwardly.
Ali places the completed sandwich on a plate and lays out another wheat wrap. “That’s Hector. Alejandro Diaz sent him. I used to call him Hector the Protector—that really pissed him off.” She pauses, looking into space with a fond smile. “I had <i>such</i> a thug crush, but he wouldn’t lay a hand on me—against the rules, he’d say with this little sneer.”
“Were you in love with him?”
"Infatuated.” She bumps her shoulder against mine. “I used to have a weakness for bad boys.”
“Oh.” I don’t tell her Max already said as much.
“Now Tek, he’s the kind of man a girl like me falls in love with.” The accompanying smile could light up the room. “Every mistake I ever made seemed to fall away the first time I looked into his gentle eyes.”
“You guys seem really happy.”
“We are.” She frowns. “I pray Hector makes it, pray for him every day. There’s a softness under that lump of coal he calls a heart.”
“Is he still alive?”
“Yes. He continued to protect me as society crumbled. We parted ways when I insisted on finding Connor. Hector thought it was dangerous and foolish, but I couldn’t leave without my brother.”
“Do you know where Hector is?”
“No idea, but I haven’t given up the thought we may meet again. He mentioned Viper business before he left—a plan formulated as soon as they found out about the virus.”
I lower my voice so Andrea won’t hear. “You know Eric’s a Viper?”
Ali nods. “That’s what saved Connor’s bacon. Connor saved Eric’s life, not knowing he was a fellow Viper. After Eric spotted my brother’s tattoo and flashed his own, he vowed to help us.”
“Does Max or Eric know the Vipers’ plan?”
“No, the information was restricted to a core group of long-time gang members.”
A commotion erupts in the hall outside the kitchen, a mix of laughter, catcalls, and barks. Max, Tek, and Eric fight each other to be the first through the door. Grace pushes past the tangle of legs and trots in, tail wagging. Tek definitely loses out to Max and Eric; due to his lanky build, he’s no match for their brawn.
I drop into a crouch to pet Grace and receive an overdue tongue bath. “Who’s a good girl? Did you miss me?”
Her answer is a resounding yes, offered in the form of soft whines and kisses.
The guys are still laughing and shoving each other. Tek slips away from them to sweep Ali into his arms and spin her around the kitchen. Her delighted giggles distract Max, and Eric takes the opportunity to knock him on his duff.
“Score!” Eric yells, arms in the air.
Max glares at him. “What are you so happy about? Cheater.”
“Never become distracted or underestimate your opponent.”
“Whatever.” His lips twitch. “How is it you don’t come with a warning label?”
“I do.” Eric grins and flashes his Viper tattoo.
Max sobers at the sight. “Yeah, where the hell are they now?”
From my spot on the floor, I have a fair view of everyone. Ali is no longer laughing. She still smiles and hangs onto Tek, but her concerned gaze is trained on Max, worry wrinkling her brow. I think of what she told me earlier about Hector and the Vipers and wonder if she knows something Max doesn’t.
“Dude, they saved our asses—even after the fact,” Eric says with a pointed look. He helps Max to his feet, and they pat each other on the back.
“You’re right, man.”
Tek sets Ali on her feet and steps between the guys, slinging an arm over each of their shoulders. “What you failed to notice is that our lovely women made us lunch.”
Multiple exclamations of “Food!” and “Starving!” and “Last one to the table is a toothless Viper!” ring out as they cluster around the table and descend on lunch.
Grace barks and joins in the fray, her nails scrabbling on the floor as she tries to decide which of them to jump on first.
Once Ali admonishes them for acting like savages, the six of us crowd at the small table and eat together. There’s no conversation until we’re almost done eating.
“So, boys, what were you up to this fine morning?” Ali asks.
Tek and Eric look to Max.
“Checking and setting traps.” Max wipes his mouth and swallows a bite of fruit. “I don’t want anyone to panic, but there are signs of activity where we store shit after supply runs.”
Everyone starts talking at once, and Max holds his hands up.
“Whoa! There’s evidence someone was poking around a few of the front buildings, but the shed we use has not been compromised. It seems like one or two people, not an official search party.”
I freeze as our eyes meet. “What are you thinking? Gibbs?” Just saying his name leaves me breathless.
His expression is grim. “Possibly, but it’s dangerous to make assumptions. Tek set up a few cameras out there. We’ll retrieve them in a few days and see what we see.”
Andrea digs her nails into Eric’s arm. “They won’t find us, will they? We’re safe here?” Her voice holds a hysterical edge.
Eric slings an arm around her. “Don’t worry, baby. Nobody is getting through us. Our contingency plans have contingency plans. Right, boys?”
“That’s right.” Max squeezes my knee. “I don’t want anyone to worry. We have the advantage. Regardless, all of us should keep up with combat training, stay sharp.”
“Connor’s right. Everything will be fine.” Ali nods sagely then wiggles in her seat. “What else do you have planned?”
The only one who doesn’t look surprised is Max. He simply smiles. “It’s very mild out, lots of sunshine. How about a relaxing hike to the beach? We can do combat training out there today.”
An hour later, we exit the power plant from an alternate location I’m unfamiliar with that puts us on the other side of the cliff, closer to beach access. The sky is brilliant blue with abundant sunshine and devoid of clouds. The trail is rock-strewn and sandy but easily traveled. Ali and I hold hands with Tek and Max; Eric carries Andrea piggyback style since she’s still frail; and Grace lopes ahead, doubling back through the scrubby brush every so often to make sure we’re still there.
Enough distance plays out between the couples for Max and me to speak privately.
“What did you see out there? Do you think it’s him?”
Max shrugs. “It could be anybody. A few buildings were ransacked, probably someone looking for supplies. I spent time clearing those buildings of anything valuable when I started using that place. Your average scavenger will give up after a few empties.”
“What else? Something’s bothering you.”
His fingers tighten almost imperceptibly on mine. “You remember the railroad tracks we passed during the supply run?”
“Yeah.” Unease slithers through me.
“Eric found a bottle of alcohol out there, set on a railroad tie. The glass was clean, not dusty, and there were a few inches of liquor left in it.”
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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