Last week's episode ended with Regan and Duncan detained with their alien master in a prison, giving Max and Addy a little time to get to know each other while they drive the umiak sleigh toward the ice breakups...and hopefully to freedom.
An abducted cop and a gladiator prisoner must learn to trust each other with their lives…and their hearts…to escape their alien captors.
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For three days, Max brooded in silence, speaking a few words when it was time to eat, rest, or stand guard as she slept. He had retreated into himself like Justice had done the first few months in his new home. Leave him be, Father had said about the stray they had found. The dog will engage with us when he feels safe.
At least she had Superbaby for company and as a constant reminder that she wasn’t completely alone in this world. The baby flip-flopped and kicked, stretching the thermal suit, reminding her of the movie Alien, as if she needed any more reminders of those.
It was an active little sucker. Was it a boy or a girl? Would its hair be strawberry-blonde or dark like Max’s? What color would its eyes be? There was no hurry to find out. A baby on the inside was a less terrifying thought than a baby on the outside. How would she know what to do when it came? She didn’t know the first thing about newborns. She grew up a tomboy and preferred climbing trees and catching frogs to playing house or dress-up. She’d never even diapered a doll.
Superbaby moved. She caressed the little hard bump, presumably the head. How did this little miracle growing inside simultaneously delight and frighten?
The only thing worse than worrying about the uncertain future was not being able to share those feelings. Max didn’t want to talk about himself. Why would he want to talk about her fears?
Loneliness touched her heart. This must have been how her mother had felt. Although, Mom had allowed her loneliness to consume her and damage her relationships. She had isolated herself. Why couldn’t Mom admit she needed someone? That she needed love. That she deserved love.
A lump formed in her throat. Now wasn’t the time to shed tears. What good would it do, anyway? Mom was a million miles away, and Addy would never hear the three words she’d prayed for since childhood.
That was a mistake Addy refused to repeat. Superbaby would know everyday that he was loved.
The only thing in her power now was forgiveness.
Eyes closed and inhaling deep, steady breaths, she turned inward, blocking the sound of the howling wind outside the tent, blocking the wolves’ pounding steps and the sleigh scraping the ice. All thoughts receded until her mind’s eye had one clear image. Her mother. Wearing her mountain rescue uniform. Standing on her back porch under a starry night, staring into the woodland behind her home, her long blonde hair swaying in a summer breeze. She held Zira, scratching the cat’s ears, and kissing her furry head. Mom never had a problem giving love to animals. People, on the other hand, were another matter.
I know you were scared, Mom, Addy said in her mind. I know you did the best you could. I forgive you.
In the darkness, her mother replied, No one is a planet unto herself.
Her eyes flew open. Her heart palpitated. She had hoped meditating about forgiving her mother would result in a little peace of mind and spirit. She’d never imagined it would have resulted in her subconscious doling out advice.
But it was right. Isolation wasn’t the answer. She needed Max, and whether he admitted it or not, he needed her, too.
Addy left the tent to sit next to Max on the driver’s bench. His eyes were shining this morning. The lines beneath his bearded face were smooth, amiable. He appeared to be in a good mood—a human mood—and she wondered if it was due to the bright and clear day or the gentle wind at their backs.
“I want to show you something.” He didn’t resist when she placed his hand on her belly.
“It moved.” His voice rose in awe and he pressed harder. “It moved again.”
“I think it has the hiccups.”
“Get out of town. Babies get hiccups in there?”
She shrugged. “I guess so. It’s too rhythmic to be anything else.”
“Maybe he’s using you as a punching bag while he practices his jabs.” He punched the air a couple of times in demonstration.
Addy couldn’t help smiling. Not only was Max in a receptive mood, but a playful one. How long would that last? She gathered up her nerve. “I’m scared, Max. This baby is coming in twelve weeks, and I’m not ready. I don’t know how to give birth. I don’t know how to care for a baby.”
“We’ll be at the wildlife refuge before then. I’ll find someone to help you.”
She nodded though doubt weaved through her mind. How many people lived there? Would they accept outsiders? Would they feel inclined to help? “What do you think the refuge is like?”
“I suppose it’s a hard life. Like pioneers in the Old West. Hunting, trapping, struggling for survival. A life of blood, sweat, and tears. And a life far better than what I deserve.”
Her heart ached for him. “How can you say that?”
“Because it’s true.” Tension tightened the muscles in his jaw. His eyes narrowed and then focused on the wolf team. He was on the verge of shutting down again.
“No man is a planet unto himself, Max. Please, talk to me.”
“Yes, you can. You know, when you hold captive something that needs to be set free, it turns on you and takes its revenge. Believe me, I know. Let go of your pain.”
Though his head remained fixed straight ahead, his eyes didn’t appear focused on the team or the snowy terrain. He was staring into space, deep in thought. “Suppose,” he began and stopped. “Suppose I deserve its revenge? Suppose I deserve worse?”
“No one deserves what you’ve gone through.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew what I’ve done.”
“You’re wrong about that. Besides,” she kept her tone light, “I can’t know what you don’t tell me.”
“Right.” He grew quiet for a moment. “Tell you what. Let’s make an accord. If you don’t change your tune after I open my scars, you get my rations.”
“You’re on.” She reached out her hand to shake on the bet.
“But.” He met her gaze. “You have to open your scars first. I’m curious. What pain did you free?”
Judging by his smug expression, Max must have believed he had outsmarted her. He probably figured she’d never confide in him, so naturally he wouldn’t have to confide in her. Didn’t he know women at all?
“Like I said”—she held out her hand—“you’re on.”
With a look of satisfaction, not surprise, he ignored her gloved hand and placed two fingers to his lips, repeating the bet. When he was finished he rested his hand on her chest. Could he feel her heart pounding from his touch?
“Where to start?” Out of habit, she began picking under her fingernails. It didn’t work with gloves on. “Basically, I messed up my mother’s entire life before I was even born. She got pregnant at nineteen, which somehow was my fault, and she resented me ever since. I stole her youth. I scared the man she loved out of marrying her. I caused her to miss career opportunities.
“My parents were in the Wilderness Rescue. Mom was great at her job, but she’d married her superior, who protected her from dangerous jobs because of me. They argued about that a lot. I remember her yelling one night that if she hadn’t had a baby, she would’ve had his job years ago, and she’d be his superior.”
Strands of hair whipped across her face. She tucked them back into the thermal suit’s hood.
“I never got into trouble, had nearly all As in school, made captain of the softball team, but none of it mattered. I couldn’t make her happy. I thought if I was extra good and did everything on my own, maybe she’d...love me.”
Addy swallowed the lump in her throat. “Depending on yourself for so long makes it difficult to trust others.”
His eyes grew sad, and his shoulders rounded. He nodded in understanding. Of all people, Max truly did understand. Sharing this with him lightened her heart.
“I was determined not to wind up like her. Ironic, right?” She cradled her belly and smiled at the little body parts stretching and moving beneath her thermal suit.
“I’m sorry.” By his tone, he meant for more than her story. He was sorry she was pregnant.
“Don’t be. In some odd way, this baby has actually brought me closer to my mom, if that makes any sense. I understand what she went through now. What she was thinking, feeling. How scared she must have been. Which was probably why she married the first man who came along.
“Don’t get me wrong. My father’s a great guy. He loved me like I was his own flesh and blood. But Mom never loved him and wouldn’t have married him if not for me. A baby changes everything, but unlike my mother, I’ve made a decision to embrace that change.”
She gently touched Max’s arm and leaned in to catch his gaze. He had to see her eyes. He had to know what she was about to say was true in her heart and soul.
“I don’t resent this baby.”
* * *
Her eyes reflected truth. The relief in knowing she didn’t resent his child was surprising. He had tried hard not to care. “That’s good.” He wanted to ask if she still resented him but knew she did. “How did you let go of your pain?”
“I forgave my mom.”
“Just like that?”
“It took a while. The scars are still healing. But I feel much freer. Like I can start moving forward with my life rather than living in fear of the past.”
Damn, she was a strong woman. “I can’t do that.”
“Of course you can.”
Her hand rested on his arm again. It wasn’t to gain his attention this time. She already had that. It was to offer support as a friend might. “The first thing you have to do is face your pain. You have to acknowledge it.”
That was the whole problem. He didn’t want to acknowledge it. He’d never spoken about it. Ever. Hell, he had blocked it from his thoughts. To remember it would be to live the torture again. But she had opened her wounds and bled for him, and now it was his turn. He’d promised.
Max took in a deep breath and exhaled a long white cloud. “I was nineteen when my cousin set up an adventure trip—hiking, camping, rafting—for two of his buddies and me. My kid brother tagged along, too. My mom almost didn’t let him go at first. He was fifteen and the other guys were college seniors. But he begged, and I promised to watch out for the little dude, and she gave in.
“One night we were in the mountains playing poker by campfire. There were six of us, including a hiker who’d found our camp that day. After a few hands, we heard bears in the brush near our site, so we made noise to scare them away.
“Cocky bastard that I was, I shot-put a rock the size of a grapefruit at one. Hit it pretty hard, too. But I pissed it off. I didn’t understand it then, but I could actually feel its anger all around me. It was like this eerie fog of hatred rolled into the campsite. Someone else must have felt the same freaky thing, because they shouted the mountain was haunted. That’s when Hell broke loose. The bears charged the camp—except they weren’t bears, they were Hyboreans. My cousin’s buddies took off. Four of us stayed to fight but never got the chance. They hit us with tranquilizer darts.
“We woke up in cages with eighty other guys and were surrounded by aliens. My kid brother was terrified. He clung to me like a burr to socks. I won’t lie. I was terrified, too. A Hyborean grabbed me and I tried to fight him, but I got shocked and taken away.”
Old anger surfaced sharp and raw. He slapped the reins hard and hollered at the team. It wasn’t necessary, but it made him feel better, as did Addy’s hand squeezing his arm for encouragement. He didn’t want to continue. When she heard about what he’d done, she wouldn’t ever want to touch him again. But he had to go on. He had to purge his soul. He’d promised.
“I woke inside a filthy Yard crammed full with gladiators and spent the next five years getting the snot beat out of me. I did everything I could to survive. I learned hand-to-hand combat, sword fighting, archery, and anything anyone would teach me. I learned what I could eat and what could eat me. I analyzed survival races—not so I could win, but so I’d know enough about the planet and the aliens to escape.
“Then one day I’m thrown into a real survival race. This huge guy charges me, hollering. I’ve been practicing for this moment for five years. Pumped up on adrenaline, I throw my spear like a jav. It sailed perfectly. Pierced him dead center in the heart. Killed him instantly. I can still remember that power rush, that exhilaration I enjoyed from taking my first life. It wasn’t until after the guy fell that I realized he’d been calling my name.
“I—I didn’t recognize him. He had long hair and a beard. He was at least six feet tall with an extra hundred pounds of pure muscle. Alien bastards must have pumped him with ’roids. I couldn’t believe he was the first man I murdered. But there he was, lying at my feet, staring through me with dead eyes.”
“Cameron. My kid brother.”
He’d expected her to scream, to shove him away, to cry that he was a monster. Because he truly was one. What else do you call someone who took the life of his baby brother and gained pleasure from it?
He was supposed to have kept Cameron safe.
Addy didn’t scream or move away. Instead, she wrapped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him closer. He was too numb to resist. Besides, she felt good leaning into him. Soft. Warm. If only he could turn to her and hold her and cry on her shoulder like a boy again. But he wasn’t a boy. Hell, he wasn’t even a man. He was a murderous beast.
Cameron had run toward his big brother—his idol—with excitement and relief lighting his eyes, and Max had raced toward his kid brother with Hell’s fury in his. What had Cameron been thinking when Max threw that spear? What had he been thinking when it pierced his heart? He loved his brother, but in Cameron’s last thoughts, he would have believed Max hated him.
“I prayed every day that Cameron would be reawakened. I’ve searched every Yard I’ve been to. Every race. Every hospital. I’ve never seen him again. I never got to tell him I’m sorry.” The last two words came out as a whisper. The lump in his throat wouldn’t allow anything more.
Addy sniffled. She wiped her nose and the frozen tears from her cheeks. “There’s still a chance he’s out there somewhere. You have to keep faith.”
Max half shrugged a shoulder. He’d given up on faith a long time ago.
“What about your cousin? Do you know what happened to him?”
“No. Never saw him since the day I was taken from the cage. He wasn’t very athletic. He’d never have survived being a gladiator. I’m sure he’s dead. They both are. Because of me. If I hadn’t gone camping. If I hadn’t provoked the aliens. If I hadn’t thrown that damn spear.” He squeezed shut his eyes to prevent the spill of tears. Unable to hold his head up any longer, he let it fall onto his fists.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, stroking his hair. So what that her hands were gloved? Her touch was tender and caring. It felt good. He hadn’t been touched like that in a long time. Desire sparked within him.
He wanted to kiss her chapped lips. He wanted to carry her inside the tent. He wanted to strip her naked and fu—
His vulnerability had weakened him. She had to stop touching him before his animal urges took over. He had to remember he was a beast. If he got too close to Addy or the baby, he would hurt them. He wouldn’t want to, but he inevitably would.
He shot upright, spine straight, jaw set, and heart hardened. “Now do you understand why I deserve my pain?” His gladiator voice sounded reassuring to his ears.
She didn’t appear taken aback by his sudden attitude change. She hadn’t jerked away, but she knew not to touch him, either. She sat there with her hands under her soccer-ball belly. “No. By my calculations, you’ve overpaid for your sins.”
How could she say that after knowing his terrible secret? What made her think he didn’t deserve more pain as punishment for all the beastly things he’s done?
“There’s only one thing more difficult than forgiving someone else, Max.” Her gray eyes turned sober. “That’s forgiving yourself.”
Could he do that? Did he even deserve to do that?
He leaned back, grabbed the food sack behind him, and then tossed it to her. “You won my rations. Dig in.”
My heart breaks for Max. The things that poor man went though on this planet. No wonder he considers himself a beast. Can Addy help him learn to forgive himself? Maybe we'll find out in next week's episode Chapter 36 or you can read the full story now for only $2.99 at your favorite retailers.