week's episode, we learned who Max killed in his first Survival Race, and why it haunts him to this day. Can Max forgive himself, or will he forever believe he is a beast?
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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Shotgun blasts cracked, momentarily muting the sound frenzied barking.
Canine bodies bounded over the arctic desert in pursuit of a little red fox.
In pursuit of her.
Racing over the hard snowy ground, darting this way, zigging that way, Addy searched for someplace, anyplace, to hide. She found no fallen logs. No burrows in which to dive. No hint of refuge anywhere. Endless snow and ice blurred past beneath her furry paws.
A nonnative without generations of natural selection to provide her with a white camouflage coat, she stood out like crimson paint on a bare canvas. Or blood on snow.
And so she ran.
The hounds barked with fervor as they picked up her scent of sweat and fear. Close behind, their footsteps thundered along with those of a horse carrying a dark hunter. Again, the rifle cracked.
She ran harder.
How long could she keep this up? How long before teeth or a bullet sank into her flesh? How long would she suffer before dying?
When fatigue caught her, weighing her down until her legs gave out, she collapsed in the snow.
“Whoa,” the hunter shouted. “End of the road.”
Something caught her foot. “Get up, woman.”
Addy jerked awake, heart pounding. Somewhere between sleep and consciousness, a harsh beam of light revealed neither dog nor hunter kneeling at her feet, and a pelt—not fur—covering her. Wolves yapped and howled outside the umiak sleigh.
She bolted upright. “What was that? A gun?”
“Ice.” Max handed her the lightstick and ducked back outside. “Time to send the wolves home.”
She emerged from the tent into a black, bitter night, and quickly climbed out of the umiak following Max.
“Engage your crampons,” he said.
As she manipulated the little switches on her boots, he threw the remainder of the foul-smelling seal meat and blubber to the wolf pack, taking no time to feed the lead dogs first. It was every animal for himself tonight.
The windless night held an eerie calm, intensifying every sound, from the gnawing and lapping of the dogs to the crunch of the crampons digging into the frozen ground as they rushed around the vehicle. Working together, she held the lightstick while Max unfastened the umiak from the sled.
Crack. Crack. Pop.
She redirected the beam to her feet. The terrain no longer comprised white powder over hard-packed snow. It was ice. Frozen on the surface. Liquid underneath.
How thick was it? Could it hold the weight of an umiak, sleigh, team of wolves, and them?
She snapped the beam back to Max’s hands, trying to think weightless thoughts. How many pounds had she put on? Considering the amount of calories burned from escaping, plus the limited food, it couldn’t be more than fifteen pounds. Good for standing on ice. Not good for a healthy pregnancy.
At least she had eleven more weeks in which to gain.
“There.” Max unhitched the umiak from the sleigh. The boat slid back on the runners of its underbelly. The two wooden rods kept it from tipping over and protected the walrus-like skin from tearing as it slid over the ice.
After the wolves finished their meal, she shouted the return-to-home command and they took off. The barking faded into darkness, leaving her and Max alone. Stars twinkled in the moonless sky but offered no light.
Her fingers tingled. A shiver climbed her back. Pain gripped her belly. She lifted her abdomen to take some pressure off and realized the baby had been quiet lately. Too quiet.
“Yes.” She nodded for emphasis, but Max didn’t seem convinced. “Now what?”
His eyes narrowed, studying her, probably wishing he hadn’t agreed to be teammates. She forced a smile. His gaze shifted, searching the vast emptiness. When it returned, he scratched his bearded chin in contemplation.
Decision made, he suddenly grabbed the hemp rope tied to the bow. “We tow the umiak and hope we don’t fall through the ice. The cold hurts like hell…until you go numb and drown.”
“Been there. Done that.”
“Me, too. Twice.” He handed her the middle of the rope. “If you can’t pull, then walk. It will save me from having to haul extra weight. Don’t let go of the rope. It’s your lifeline. You know...in case.”
Yeah, “in case” was a scenario best avoided.
Max took the end of the rope, and walked away until it snapped taut in her glove. He turned to face the umiak, and digging his crampons into the ice like a pitcher getting ready on the mound, leaned his weight back and heaved. The umiak moved, and he spun one-eighty, pulling the rope over his shoulder.
She dug her crampons into the ice and helped Max drag the boat to the ocean.
The umiak, lighter than expected, slid easily at first, but as the night wore on, the boat grew heavier. Breathless and fatigued, she couldn’t muscle the load any longer. Her pelvis ached. Was it possible the exertion forced the baby to drop? Supporting her belly one-handed provided little relief. Tears spilled and froze to her cheeks. She walked, but could no longer assist Max with the pulling.
The cracks and pops came at faster intervals now, their pitch changing as if the thinning ice cracked underfoot.
A soft, pinkish glow lined the horizon on the left. With the dawn came the spectacular sight of blue-tinted glacial mountains flanking them as they traveled through the valley or, as Max called it, the glacial tongue.
Her hand jerked down with the tightening rope. Max’s lead leg broke through the ice up to his thigh. Cracks spidered around him. He sprawled out, spreading his weight over the fracturing ice. “Get in the boat.”
He didn’t need to tell her twice. She held her breath, fearing an exhale would add weight to the breaking ice.
Slowly, carefully, Max heaved himself out. He tied the rope around his waist, moved to the back of the umiak, and pushed. The boat made it about ten feet before the bow crashed through the ice, knocking her to all fours on the planks.
Max gave another push, and the rest of the umiak plunged through the ice, along with his lower half. He clung to the stern. “Move starboard. I’ll climb in port side.”
Addy shifted over to prevent capsizing while Max shinnied hand over hand along the gunwale until he cleared the tent where there was enough room to scramble into the boat. Seawater dribbled down his legs and boots, but he didn’t seem to notice. In fact, he didn’t bother drying off. He made his way to the front, wielded his broadsword, and leaned over the bow, plunging the Hyborean steel through the ice and breaking it into pieces.
“Grab the oars. I’ll make a path. You propel us through.” Again, he plunged the sword into the ice.
Addy weighed the oar in her hand. It wasn’t heavy, and under normal circumstances, she could row a boat with no problem, but nothing about these circumstances had “normal” written on it. Her thighs ached. Her lower back ached. Her pelvis ached, and not from fatigue of exertion. Something else was going on. Something alien and frightening.
Max’s sword cracked the ice. Shattered pieces skidded and plopped into water. Ocean lapped against the boat.
This was a two-person job. They were in this together. Max counted on her to do her part. How could she tell him she couldn’t row this thing? How could he possibly chop away a path and power them through before the boat froze into the ice?
Breathing labored, he paused to wipe his brow. His stomach gurgled. He had worked nonstop all night and into the morning transporting them to the sea, while she walked without towing the line. Not once had he berated her or complained.
He didn’t rest long before wielding the sword again.
The surrounding ice made it impossible to row the boat as intended. Dropping an oar straight down the side like a paddle worked better as she propelled them through Max’s manmade channel until the sun chased away the last shadow of dawn.
Morning light touched the blue-white chunks that littered the ocean like three-dimensional puzzle pieces. Seawater cut between them like narrow roads, shifting as ice drifted, merged with other pieces, and broke up again.
Max deposited the sheathed sword on the wooden frame floor. “Nice teamwork.” The unexpected pat on the back brought a smile to her chapped lips, cracking them. The sting faded beneath the sincere compliment. That was the first time he freely touched her in approval. Well, not counting the breeding box. Her neck heated at the memory. “Thanks. You, too.”
“We’re not in the clear yet. Give me the oars. You direct and I’ll maneuver us through this minefield.”
Offering no argument, she moved to the next bench as he attached the oars to the oarlocks before using his whole body to row. His shoulders and back muscles stretched and contracted beneath his gladiator suit with each rhythmic and powerful stroke. Too bad she had to tear her gaze from the magnificent sight.
A cascade of striated ice broke from a glacial wall in a rumbling avalanche that plunged into the sea, churning waves large enough to capsize the boat had they been in its vicinity.
How was it that water, even in its solid state, remained dynamic? Snow drifted on wind. Glaciers calved icebergs. Water froze, melted, glided on its liquid self, creating passages one second and obstructing them the next. Countless times Max rowed for her suggested outlets but encountered shifting blockades. He’d curse, change course, and they’d get trapped again.
Mother Nature may be beautiful, but she had a cruel sense of humor and an evil laugh. The bitch.
Cramps gripped her low back, squeezing tight and deep. The pain rounded her sides. Repositioning and rubbing gave little relief.
Was this normal? Didn’t women sometimes have false labor pains?
She was nine weeks—as far along as Tess had been every time she had miscarried and died.
The cramping finally lessened. But another wave followed closely on its heels. She grasped and squeezed the gunwale. Mimicking the short breaths taken by pregnant women on TV didn’t ease the ache.
“Hell, woman, do you have to breathe like that? You’re driving me nuts.” He glanced over his shoulder, did a double take and turned fully around. Color drained from his cheeks. “You okay?”
“No.” More short pants. “I think I pissed off Mother Nature.”
“I called her a bitch, and now she’s retaliating.”
“What are you talking about?” He used an oar to push the umiak away from an iceberg. “Are you okay or not?”
“No, I’m not okay!” Any idiot could see she was in pain and scared out of her mind. “I’m having really bad cramps.”
“What do you mean, cramps?”
“I don’t know. Cramps. Pain. I think I’m in labor.”
Max’s face froze in an oh hell expression. His anxiety did nothing to ease hers. “Try to relax.” He turned around and rowed faster than before.
Where did he think he was going in such a hurry? It wasn’t like there were any maternity wards out here. The only hospital was at HuBReC. Ferly Mor would have known what to do.
Though the thermal suit appeared dry on the outside, fluid trickled down her inner thighs. “My water broke.”
“I’m only nine weeks.”
“Ow, ow, ow.” She squeezed her fists and continued her version of Lamaze breathing.
“Can’t you say anything but ‘shit’?”
“I would’ve asked you to cross your legs and hold it in for eleven more weeks, but figured you’d pitch me overboard.”
She laughed and sniffled at the same time, then wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I’m scared, Max. It’s too early. It’s going to be stillborn, and it’s all my fault. If I stayed in the village—”
“Don’t.” He pushed off another iceberg. “Forget the village.”
“What do I do, Max?”
* * *
“Hell if I know.”
He’d never been around for this part. He’d never witnessed a woman grow round with his child. The joy from watching her belly and breasts swell had been surprising. He liked knowing he was responsible for her transformation. He liked knowing a part of him grew inside her.
You damn animal. She’s in pain, and all you can feel is pride?
And guilt, but now wasn’t the time to think about that. He was the alpha of this pack. He needed to take charge. “Get in the tent.” Her body, warm from crying, leaned into him for balance and support as he helped her into the makeshift tent. He eased her down on the animal pelt. “I wish you had someplace more comfortable to do this.”
She nodded but said nothing. She didn’t need to. Terror shone in her wide gray eyes. She must’ve been thinking the same questions. Had the baby died? Would she?
Guilt, as resilient and uncompromising as Hyborean steel, stabbed full force in his gut and twisted. She had reached the limit for physical stress last night, yet he’d made her help tow the sleigh. Why? To save himself 140 or so pounds? He was a damn alpha gladiator. He should have been able to handle her added weight, especially after gaining some muscle back when Ferly Mor patched him up after that last bout of torture. He was a pussy.
He did and heard the zipper of her thermal suit, then some rustling as he imagined her wiggling her way out of it.
“Okay,” she said.
He faced her again. Thermal pants were folded next to her and a blanket of soft animal fur covered her naked-from-the-waist-down body.
The boat pitched. He fell forward and straddled her body, bracing his arms to avoid landing atop her. His mouth was inches from hers. It wouldn’t have been a bad position to be in if she weren’t about to give birth. “You okay?”
“I think so.” The dim glow from the lightstick couldn’t veil her pale face and panic-stricken eyes.
“I’ll be right back.” He scrambled out of the tent to find the umiak had collided with a floe. “Hell.”
He leaned over the side. There was a small tear in the walrus skin covering about a foot above the waterline. The damage wasn’t bad, but the boat couldn’t drift freely, bouncing off icebergs like a pinball. He had to maneuver it through this frozen obstacle course.
“I don’t know if I’m breathing right,” she called from the tent.
He didn’t know either. He wasn’t at his brother’s birth. Though he remembered the first time he held Cameron at the hospital. He sat with Mom and Dad on the bed. Being a big brother is an important job, his father had said. Big brothers watch out for their little brothers. Can you do that?
His stomach dropped.
The woman grunted in pain. She needed him, but if he didn’t fight through the endless hazards, they’d either be crushed to death or ripped to shreds.
* * *
Max peaked in, looking ill. Defeated.
“What happened? Is it the Hyboreans?”
“No. We hit ice.”
Titanic’s iceberg scene played in her mind then skipped to the people bobbing in the water, frozen to death. “Are we sinking?”
“No.” He seemed hesitant to say something.
“What is it? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Can you deliver this kid by yourself?”
By herself? She didn’t even know if she could deliver the baby with Max’s help. “I can’t.”
“If I don’t navigate us through the passage, we’ll keep smashing into the ice until there’s nothing left of the boat.”
“Can’t we dock?”
He shook his head. “Even if there was something to tie us off to, nothing is stable out here. We’d float with the ice until we crashed again.”
“Can you pull the boat onto an iceberg?”
“I don’t know if I could lift the umiak out of the water without capsizing you. Plus, there’s a risk of the ice rolling. I’m sorry. If I don’t get us through the ice breakups, we’ll be killed.”
The umiak rocked back into an upright position. Water lapped against the sides. The boat moved in the current that had freed them.
“I’ve got to get out there.” The tent’s flap closed, leaving her alone to birth a premature baby that probably wouldn’t survive, if it weren’t already dead.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Ferly Mor, if you’re the dark hunter from my nightmare, please catch me before it’s too late.
Will Ferly Mor find Max and Addy before it's too late? Or can Addy manage to give birth on her own while Max navigates the umiak through the ice breakups? Find out next week in Chapter 37 or read the full story now for only $2.99 at your favorite retailers.