In a previous episode, Max uses a gladimort to cut through a cell bar before the sword is confiscated. When the time is right, all Max has to do is kick out the bar and Addy can squeeze through to escape. Unfortunately, Max can't escape with her as he's too big and muscular to fit through the small opening. Will Addy leave him behind?
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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Addy's chest tightened. Max couldn’t escape, and it was all her fault. She had been responsible for the Hyboreans finding the sword. After all he’d done for her; after all they had been through together, she’d be out on her own and Max would return to...where? HuBReC? A race master?
She couldn’t bear thinking of him in the harsh arctic world forced to slay man and beast, or worse, being slain. He should be with his son. He should be with her.
But he couldn’t escape because of her.
What if she stayed with him? After the HGC gave her back to Ferly Mor, she could somehow try to communicate with the Hyborean. Maybe Duncan could help. There had to be a way to convince Ferly Mor to keep Max. After all, he had no owner. They could make room in Duncan’s house for him. Regan wouldn’t bother her, knowing she was Max’s woman.
Max’s woman. She liked the sound of that. “If you don’t go, then I’m not going, either.”
“You’ve been courageous all along, Addy. Don’t be stupid now.”
“You can’t call me stupid until the end, remember?”
“If staying with me isn’t stupid, what would you call it?”
What would she call it? Loyalty? Honor? Love? Not love. How could she love the barbarian gladiator who almost strangled her? Yet, how could she not love the compassionate man who cared for her and nursed her son while she lay dying? Though he still struggled with the beast within him, she knew given time he’d slay it for good. He couldn’t do that on his own. He needed her.
“Loyalty.” The word didn’t quite express her heart. “We’re teammates, remember.”
“You forget. I tried to ditch you. Twice.”
“Sounds like you’re trying to make it a third time. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
She caught his brief smile before he fixed his mouth in a hard line.
Too late, Max. You want to be with me. I know you do.
She wanted to be with him, too, and not because she needed his protection in the wilderness—though she was grateful to have it. She’d grown up in the woods. She had great respect for Mother Nature’s ability to immediately change weather and beast from tame to ferocious. She understood that world. It brought comfort, not panic.
In fact, she had imagined her and Max building a shelter in the refuge, where together they’d hunt, fish, gather, and raise Noah—and perhaps a few other children. Cramps tightened her belly as she remembered giving birth. Okay, forget more kids. They’d have to be safe when they made love.
Love. There was that thought again.
Max’s mouth softened. “I need to know you and Noah are safe. Besides, I’m not smilodon chow yet. I’ll escape and find you in the refuge.”
“You have my word.” But his eyes told a different story. Two beasts can vow not to eat each other, he had said. What’s an animal’s word worth to you?
She now understood what he’d meant. How could he keep his word when he fought tooth and nail to live? How could he promise an idea when his life was a consequence of actions?
He wished to live free in the refuge, but his reality would be dictated by his ability to survive. As would hers. And she needed him to survive. Not to survive the wilderness—though his skills were markedly better than hers. She needed him to help survive parenthood. She needed him because he was the only person she’d ever learned to trust fully. She needed him because...because leaving him behind would mean leaving behind a piece of her heart.
That settled it. If she escaped, then so would he. She got up, gripped the bar next to the cut one, and pulled with all her might.
* * *
With determination like no warrior he’d ever seen, Addy yanked on the cage bars. “What are you doing?”
“I’m bending the bars so you can escape. Help me.”
Though he appreciated the effort, he knew it would never work. He didn’t have the heart to tell her. Better she learn on her own. Max braced himself, and on three, he and Addy pulled.
She grunted. He struggled. The bar didn’t budge. He knew it wouldn’t. He’d had many past occasions to try.
“Help us,” Addy snapped at the other two, who were looking at them like they were fools. Surprisingly, they obliged. They must have thought the same thing he did: better to humor her and let Hyborean technology let her down than to argue. Besides, maybe they’d get lucky.
The four of them pulled with all the strength they had, but as expected, the damn bar didn’t budge. Someone had the idea to brace their feet against the bars and push with the strength of their legs, so they did.
The bar bent about a quarter inch. Strained grunts gave way to cheers. With renewed hope, they continued until exhausted and all they had to show for their efforts was a bar that bent a pitiful half-inch.
As everyone sat down to rest, a distant roar caught his attention. The trees thinned, and the forest flora surrendered to mountainous canyon rocks striated with red and gold and flecks of silver mineral that flashed in the sunlight like cameras at the Olympics.
The roaring grew louder. “I’ll be damned.”
Addy came to stand at his side. “What is it?”
The vehicle stopped on a small peninsula-like section of a gorge where a white-water river—at least a mile wide—raged and snaked its course below. Upriver he watched thousands of gallons of water surge over a cliff, disappearing into a white mist resembling smoke rising from hell.
What ironic shit was this?
“What is it?” Addy repeated. Her gentle touch on his arm brought him out of his cursed thoughts.
He focused on the trees on the opposite bank. “The refuge.”
“What refuge? All I see is Niagara Falls and class six rapids. Maybe class seven or eight if the scale went that high. This can’t be the river you were all talking about. How can anyone cross those rapids?”
“I don’t know. This is the closest I got to freedom last time.”
“Oh. This is where they captured you.”
By the anguish in her voice, he knew she empathized with his long, perilous journey that ended one mile from freedom. What she didn’t know was that he’d do it all over again if it meant saving her and Noah.
Max stared at the churning water, remembering the last time he stood at this exact spot. “Xanthrag was on our heels.” He didn’t look up from the untamed rapids. “I knew he wanted me bad. After all, I was his undefeated alpha gladiator. I won him major coin, right? I raced through there”—he pointed at the thick vegetation and trees opposite the gorge—“giving Kedric a chance to find a way across the river. Xanthrag chased me down, caught me, and ceased his search.”
“Xanthrag killed you.”
It wasn’t a question. She no doubt remembered the story he told in the breeding box.
“Yes.” He neglected to offer any detail about being starved, humiliated, or beaten until he was beaten up beyond recognition as a warning to the other gladiators. Three times in three weeks he had suffered in constant agony until his body finally crapped out. Then he was brought back to life to continue his punishment. After his third reawakening, Xanthrag mercifully sold him to the Hyborean subclass.
Thinking back on the pain always brought about a surreal feeling. With no visible scars to prove it happened, sometimes it felt like a horrible nightmare. Maybe he’d be convinced of that if it weren’t for the scars emblazoned in his soul.
“They tortured you.” Addy regarded him with her freckled nose scrunched up and her gray eyes overflowing with sorrow.
How she always read his mind, he didn’t know—perhaps she was part Hyborean—but he liked that she did. It saved him from having to express them. He nodded.
“Well, that won’t happen this time,” she said. “This time, you’ll be free.”
“I’ll be free knowing you and Noah are safe with Kedric.”
“You mean we’ll be safe with you.”
His heart ached. He wished he didn’t have to shatter the hope in her eyes. “We didn’t bend the bar enough.”
She looked from him to the cage and then back to him.
“I can’t leave you behind. I won’t.” The tears in her voice were like weights added to his already heavy heart.
Why was she making this harder than it already was? He didn’t want her to go without him, but she had to. She had to get to the refuge. He needed something good in his life to remember when he returned to the survival races or wherever else he ended up. “You have to. For Noah.” He cupped her cheek, and she snuggled into his palm. This would be the last time he’d feel her warmth. “For me. Please, I need to know you’ll be safe.”
“I can’t cross those rapids with the baby. What difference does it make if we drown or die smilodon fighting?”
“You won’t be fighting smilodon.” Cyrus’s tone was tender. “My master will see you safely where you belong.”
“I’m from Earth. The United States of America. Land of the free and home of the brave. That’s where I belong. I will not live my life as a sex slave.”
“Freedom always comes with a price,” Red Beard sneered with a voice of experience. “It’s clear yours is your gladiator. Are you willing to trade him for the refuge?”
Addy gazed up at Max, confusion in her eyes, her mouth ready to form a word. He shook his head no to silence her. He’d do anything to free Addy, even listen to Red Beard’s offer.
“Then pay attention, girlie. The river collects into a deep pool about a half-day’s hike downstream. It’s calmer there and narrow, too. That’s where I swam across.”
“Why do you help us?”
Red Beard shrugged. “I had a mate once.” He hacked up phlegm and moved to the other side of the cage to spit through the bars.
“Max, I can’t—”
“Make sure you cross there and don’t get swept downriver,” Cyrus said. “The rapids are like nothing I’ve ever seen on four planets. They’re fast, huge, and treacherous. There is no surviving them.”
“You’re not going to stop me from escaping?”
Ouch. Max mentally slapped a steak on his ego. Did she really think this scrawny guy could kill him? Because the only way anyone could stop her from leaving was over his corpse.
“Of course not, ma’am. My job is to protect you from poachers. Since there are no poachers in the refuge, my job is done.”
Hell, if Cyrus did his job fifteen years ago at the campsite, Max would be in Oregon right now. But if that were the case, he’d have never met Addy. He ought to be shaking Cyrus’s hand, but socking him between those sappy eyes would make him feel a hell of a lot better.
Stop looking at her like that, you asshole.
Stepping between Addy and Cyrus, Max used two hands to brush the strawberry-blonde hair from her beautiful face. Damn, he’d miss her, and he’d miss the way she made him feel almost human. “Once those two poachers over there finish their lunch, I’ll set you free. Run as far and as fast as you can. Don’t look back.”
“Max, I—” A siren screamed, cutting her off. Noah wailed, and Addy ran to pick him up. “What’s that?” She looked around.
Cyrus clutched the bars and put his face to them. “My master.”
They ran to the edge of the cage, trying to glimpse the HGC vehicle they heard moving through the trees. Lights flashed on leaves and rock.
Emitting panic, the poachers dropped their lunches and ran past the cage and into what sounded like brush.
The HGC vehicle came to a screeching halt. He heard the scrambling of paws over loose stone as the agents chased the poachers. A trigger snapped. Something fell to the ground with a hard thud. Other footsteps continued into the woods.
“This is it.” Max focused on the cage bar. He had never been a kicker, but knew he had to kick the hell out of the rail. From across the cage, he ran full force.
Upon impact, shooting pain reverberated through his foot and up his leg bone, then vanished when he saw the white cell bar sailing into the air.
She was free.
Before Addy moved, Max wrapped his arms around her and kissed her sweet lips one last time. He wanted to hold on to her and kiss her for hours, to explore her world, but he couldn’t. He pulled away.
Tears slid from her eyes.
“Go,” he said.
She didn’t move. “I can’t.”
Red Beard was on the floor trying to squeeze through the opening. He’d never fit, and Addy would lose her only chance. They’ve come much too far to let that happen.
“You’re too big.” In a heart-pounding rush of adrenaline, he grabbed Red Beard by the hair and shirt, yanked him from the hole, and threw him across the floor. He didn’t spare him a second glance as he took Noah from Addy. “Go.” He pushed her toward the opening.
She squeezed between the bars and got stuck for a moment before finally pulling through. He handed her the canteen, which she slung over her shoulder like a mailbag, then he kissed his son’s fuzzy head and handed him to his momma.
This was the last he’d see of them. His chest constricted. Heat burned behind his eyes.
“Come on, Max,” Addy pleaded. “Try.”
He did for her sake so she would know without doubt he couldn’t squeeze his chest through the bars. “I can’t. Now go!”
Tears spilled down her cheeks.
“Hell, woman, run. Get out of here!”
Supporting Noah’s head, she clutched him to her chest like a little football and ran into the same clump of thicket-infested vegetation Kedric had run into five years ago.
Kedric had made it into the refuge. Addy and Noah would make it, too. They’d be safe. They’d be free. So why did he feel miserable?
“Goodbye, Addy.” Drained of all life force, his body slackened against the cage bars. Without her, he was hollow inside. A shell of a man. He sniffled and wiped his tears.
From behind the cage, the HGC vehicle door crackled, and he imagined a poacher sitting in the back seat, handcuffed. An agent rounded the cage, decided Max—with arm still dangling between the cut bars—was no threat, and examined the rocky ground before taking off in Addy’s direction.
Fear exploded inside him. “No! Come back here, you wooly fuck!” But the forest swallowed the Hyborean.
“Dammit.” Max punched the rail until his knuckles bled. He should be out there running interference for her, not stuck on the sideline, useless.
He closed his eyes. Although the Almighty’s ears didn’t reach this planet, he prayed anyway. Please, God, let them win this race.
Can Addy outrun the Hyborean, or will she be caught and returned to captivity at the Human Breeding and Research Center? Stay tuned next week for Chapters 47 & 48 or read the full story now at your favorite retailers.