A/N: At long last, a new chapter! See you at the end for some commentary...
Vice President Wesley appears to be in good spirits even though his men are hitting the ground, one after another. He claps sharply, his gloveless hands a network of twisted pinkish-red flesh, and now I understand why he usually keeps them covered.
I recoil, taking an involuntary step back, but Wesley doesn't notice. He's having too much fun watching the drama unfold below.
Late day sun has broken through the cloud cover. Burnished gold rays slant across the front of the fortress, creating pockets of darkness. Someone cleaves to the resultant shadows, picking off Alliance soldiers. Panicked shouts ring out, punctuated by cries of surprise as men go down.
"Do your worst, Kyle!" Wesley bellows. He grabs me by the arm and back of the neck and wrenches me close so I'm positioned beside him in the window. "I have what you want. You'll never reach her without my permission! Call a ceasefire. Come on in so we can talk!"
Soldiers continue to hit the ground. Chatter comes through the mics of the three soldiers who remain in the room with us.
"—the fuck is happening?"
"Where is the bastard?"
"It's like he's a ghost!"
I think Wesley finds the scene exhilarating, that he's aching to capture Gibbs and drive him to his knees. He releases me from his grip, commanding me to remain on display within the frame of the window, and pulls a walkie-talkie from his pocket. "This is Wesley. Defend yourselves, but bring him in alive." This time he notices me staring at his ruined hands, and his mouth turns down at the corners. "An unfortunate occurrence. We all have scars—some of mine happen to be on the outside."
Wesley's stare is intense and goes on long enough for me to fidget. "I'm sorry, too." His gaze returns to the battlefield.
An icy finger climbs my spine. His words concern me, as if he's apologizing for atrocities yet to come. Perhaps Wesley plans to trade me to Gibbs for whatever it is he wants from his nephew. Maybe he's willing to sacrifice an innocent to make a point. Then again, all the posturing might simply be a matter of injured pride.
My curiosity gets the best of me. "Why are you so determined to bring Kyle in—to sacrifice so much manpower?"
Wesley commands the soldiers to leave the room and guard the door; then he paces the stone floor, careful to remain out of the view of anyone outside. It takes him a while to answer, and when he does, it's with his back to me. "I was in love once. She was beautiful . . . inside and out . . . the kind of woman most men only dream of loving." The words come slow and halting. He lowers his head, shoulders slouched, his usually imposing persona seeming to shrink and fold in on itself. "She didn't want to be a military wife or raise Army brats. The idea of moving from place to place, the inability to lay down roots, was so repugnant to her that it . . . it trumped our love. I continued on with my career, staying away for several years. When I returned . . . she'd married."
I'm not sure how this relates to my query, but I decide to let him talk. Maybe he'll drop information I can use to extricate myself from this mess.
Wesley's tone turns musing, almost tender. "I didn't blame her for moving on, settling down with someone who could provide the requisite picket fence, 2.5 children, backyard barbecues, and family vacations. She was . . . pregnant when I came back. God, her belly was a ripe watermelon about to burst! Twins. They run in the family." He pauses, shaking his head slowly. "Richard didn't seem to care that Lila settled, that she spent every day of their marriage staring at my face, that their children would share my blood."
My breath catches. Lila married Wesley's identical twin? I intimately understand the unique bond between twins; it must have hurt them both immeasurably for one to have Lila's body while the other had her heart. How sad for her. Most women are forced to move on when a relationship ends, but Lila had the choice to accept a substitute.
Wesley lets out an ugly laugh. "Have you made the connection?"
"Lila married your . . . twin—and she was carrying twins?"
"My nephew was intense even in the womb. Kyle was born hale and hearty, but his twin was weak and sickly, dying mere hours after being born. Rich and Lila perished in a car accident when Kyle was six. People heard them arguing at an award dinner in honor of my brother. He asked her how many years it would be until he replaced me in her heart and then stalked from the room." Wesley's head droops, his voice lowering to an aggrieved whisper. "Lila chased after him—stupid, stupid woman—and died alongside him in the wreck. Even in death . . . she ended up with my brother. I took Kyle in, raised him the way Lila never wanted, but there was no other choice. He was the last . . . bit of her I had." His voice breaks.
"I'm so sorry." Theirs is an awful story. I feel a pang in my chest for me and Max, praying we get through this nightmare intact.
"That's kind of you. And surely you understand the lengths I've gone to in order to protect Lila's child. Kyle has always been . . . different, somewhat disturbed."
I can't stop the words from tumbling out. "That's an understatement!"
Wesley turns my way, but his expression is repentant instead of sharp. "Please accept my earnest apology for Kyle's transgressions against you. I must shoulder a significant portion of the blame."
I glare at him. "That would be a nice sentiment if you hadn't kidnapped me in an attempt to lure him home! Perhaps the apple didn't fall all that far from the family tree."
"Point taken. Nevertheless, I will always protect Kyle." A cool hardness enters his icy blue eyes, replacing any trace of repentance.
I fear if Wesley finds out his last piece of Lila is forever lost, he might not be so willing to release me unharmed. The uneasy feeling urges me to change the direction of the discussion. "The two of you don't share a last name."
"Gibbs was Lila's maiden name," is all he says in response. His tone is clipped, and I wonder if he regrets telling me his history or if talking about it stirred emotions he'd rather not deal with.
Our conversation peters out. There's nothing more I feel the need to ask, and the vice president seems content to wait for Kyle to come for me.
Wesley leaves the room, but the cadence of his commanding tone is recognizable from nearby.
The wait is excruciating; the seconds seem to tick by slowly. My mood fluctuates from hope and elation to fear and dread. I can hardly wait for Max to arrive, but what will happen when he does? My thoughts turn to the soldiers outside, being taken down one by one. How could one man, even one as well-trained as Max, go up against the Alliance alone?
I return to the window, peering anxiously into the lengthening shadows. The setting sun has dipped behind the fortress, leaving the grounds below in a deep pit of shadows while a short distance away, the last golden rays highlight the edges of the landscape. A flock of birds takes flight, erupting in formation from a copse of trees, swooping and rising as one. I watch as their sleek bodies pass through the last of the light and blend with the impending dark before returning my gaze to the shadowy scene below, straining to see.
The lights in the room go out, leaving me in a darkness more complete than the one forming outside these walls. A panicked murmur of voices rises from outside my chamber.
Max must be working his way inside the fortress now. And I'm fairly certain he has night vision.
The hinges creak as my door opens slowly. A ghostly light hovers in the air, heading straight for me. My heart speeds as hope blossoms in my chest.
A rough hand clamps around my arm, yanking me forward. "Let's go. Your part in this is almost over," Wesley whispers, sending my stomach plummeting.
"I can't see!"
"But I can. Follow my lead, and move quickly!"
"No! Wait—" I flounder, struggling to find the right words. Every instinct inside me screams that Wesley is playing a game for Gibbs' benefit, but Max is the one likely to end up in the snare.
Wesley ignores my pleas, tugging me across the room and into the even darker hall where he weaves his way along the corridor, making several turns. We ascend a long flight of stairs. He warns when we're reaching the top and leads me several feet farther before I hear the screech of rusted hinges.
A brisk wind whips hair across my eyes. I make out a hulking shape through the fluttering strands and feel the chill of outside air on my cheeks. I brush the hair away and gaze around. "My God . . ." Parapets of various heights dot the vast roof, and jagged teeth of stone surround the entire structure. I wrench my arm from Wesley's grip. "Get off me!"
Wesley laughs softly as he shuts the heavy metal door. "Such spirit! No wonder Kyle is so taken with you. Don't be a fool, though. There are still things to trip over in the dark." He grips my arm with renewed strength, hard enough to leave bruises, almost daring me to refuse. He lowers his voice and leans close enough for me to feel the heat of his breath against my ear. "I can't allow anything to happen to you before my nephew arrives."
I'm helpless to stop him from dragging me across the roof. I purposely stumble and fall to my knees, feeling around for something to leave as a clue for Max. A flat shard of stone is all there is. Thinking quickly, I jam it into my palm and cry out as a jolt of pain shoots up my arm.
Wesley grunts impatiently and reaches for me. "On your feet!"
I smear my freely bleeding palm against the roof as I rise and then curl my hand into a tight fist, trying hard to ignore the stinging throb. Wesley propels me across the roof, heading for one of three metal doors similar to the one we exited. I smear more blood on the doorframe before he drags me inside.
Darkness envelops us as the door closes, and I'm once again at Wesley's mercy. He pushes me up against something cold and hard, ordering me to remain still. My wrists are grabbed roughly and bound together. Metal clinks as he weaves chain through my bindings.
"What the hell are you doing, Wesley?"
He laughs. "Intimate terms with which to address the vice president." There's a loud rip as Wesley measures out what I can only guess is a length of duct tape.
"No! What are you—" The rest of my words are cut off as he presses the tape over my mouth.
"Bait," is all he says before leaving and shutting the door behind him.
I'm left in the darkness to imagine the horrible things that might happen.
Tears dampen my cheeks. I can only make muffled mewling sounds behind the tape. A feeling of helplessness overtakes me, and my legs go weak as I sag to a seated position. The chains aren't long enough to allow freedom of movement, and my hands dangle uselessly at chin level. In no time, a vague numbness tingles in my palms, quickly spreading to my fingers.
Quit feeling sorry for yourself, and start thinking of a way out of this! Katie's brusque tone, laden with disappointment, snaps me out of my funk.
Lurching awkwardly to my feet, I open and close my hands until feeling returns. Then I bend them, reaching until the pads of my fingers can explore what encircles my wrists—a plastic zip-tie. I try rubbing against the chain, but smooth on smooth is ineffective. Exploring the wall slowly, I come upon a corner and start rubbing up and down. The chains make my efforts noisy and awkward, forcing me to slow my movements. I can't see my progress and have no idea if I'm making any headway, but the alternative is to simply wait for Wesley's nefarious plan to unfold.
It seems like hours later—though I'm sure only several excruciating minutes have passed—when the door is yanked open without stealth. A tall, shadowy figure hovers in the murky light for a moment before striding forward and grabbing for me.
"China!" Max's voice is low and rough. His hands travel down my arms and lift my bound wrists. With a grunt of outrage, he snaps the wire tie as easily as he would a length of thread. The chains fall away, clanking against the wall. "Son of a bitch! I'll—"
I shake my head, widening my eyes and making muffled sounds behind the duct tape in an effort to warn him of the impending danger.
Max leaves me for a moment and closes the door, shutting out the scant light. He returns, tugging me forward gently. He leads me around a corner and halts. "Shit, there's nowhere to go! Guess we make a stand here." Calloused hands cup my face, and warm lips are pressed to my forehead. "Thank God. I was out of my mind when I realized you were gone! I'm gonna pull the tape off—it might hurt a little." He peels up a corner of the duct tape and rips it off in one sudden jerk.
For a few seconds, I don't feel anything, but the stinging bite of pain quickly follows. "Ow!"
"Let me fix that." Max moves in close, pressing his warm mouth against mine. His lips are soft and familiar, sending a wave of heat rushing through my body.
I instinctively kiss him back, skimming one tingling palm over the cotton of his T-shirt to rest against his muscled chest. Touching Max fills me with courage, which reminds me of our predicament. I push him away. "This isn't the time."
"You trust me?"
"Of course I do!"
"Relax, then." Max kisses the corner of my mouth and grabs my hands.
I wince when he touches my sore palm.
He flips my hand over. "What the hell happened?"
"How did you find me?"
"Shit—the bloody smear on the door frame."
"I cut myself with a piece of stone so I could leave you clues."
The darkness is unnerving though I'm comforted by Max's presence. I throw my arms around his waist, holding on tightly, and tears spring to my eyes. "I'm so glad you're here. How did you do this?"
"Not alone, China. I had—"
The hinges screech as the door opens.
Heart in my throat, I go up on tiptoe and whisper into Max's ear, "Wesley thinks Gibbs is alive. You can't let him figure out the truth."
"End of the line, Kyle!" Triumph laces Wesley's words.
"Not quite, asshole." Max pushes me behind him and steps away, leaving me to flounder in the dark. "Surely you didn't think he'd make it easy for you."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Insurance—against a double-cross." The metallic snick of the safety on Max's pistol echoes in the stone chamber. "Step outside slowly, hands where I can see them."
"You're in no position to make demands, son." Though his words seem strong and sure, I sense a quiver of uncertainty in Wesley's voice.
"Really? We took down your fortress easily enough."
"Only because I allowed it. My men were ordered to immobilize, not kill."
Max snorts, his tone sardonic. "Apparently, they couldn't manage either option with any efficiency. Step out. Do it!"
"All right—take it easy, son."
"I'm not your son. And just for the record, I don't give a shit about your title, you corrupt son of a bitch. It means nothing."
Wesley's shoes scrape against the roof as he backs away.
Max reaches back to grasp my hand, and we shuffle forward slowly. "Stay behind me at all times. If I let go of your hand, grab onto my belt," Max murmurs.
I squeeze his hand in answer.
Once we move outside, the whipping wind assaults my sweat-slicked skin, causing a full body shiver. Max still has a hold of my hand, but I grip his belt with my other anyway, ignoring the throb of my injured palm.
I close my eyes for a few seconds and then open them, a trick my dad taught me when I was scared of the dark as a child. He said my pupils would open wide behind my lids in an attempt to let in more light, and the room wouldn't seem as scary. When I open my eyes, the scant light highlights Max's head and broad shoulders, but his sizable shadow still leaves me blind to what lies ahead. Perhaps that's a blessing.
"What's Kyle's end game?" Wesley asks.
"You're going to tell your remaining men to stand down. Once Bella is safely away from here, you and Kyle can talk."
Wesley laughs, his imperious attitude returning. "You expect me to allow my only leverage to walk out of here? And what about you—holding the vice president at gunpoint. Should I let you off as well?"
"That's the plan, Wes." Max's voice is cold and hard, without a trace of humor.
"It seems we're at an impasse. Tell Kyle to get his disloyal ass up here. Then I'll consider your request."
Max's posture goes rigid. "It wasn't a request."
A barrage of clicks sound in quick succession, echoing from every direction. I peer around Max's bicep, and my stomach lurches.
Snipers in Alliance uniforms surround us from multiple access points around the roof—some out in the open, others taking cover behind stone parapets—barrels trained on their targets. The drone of an engine draws close, quickly growing louder. A helicopter emerges from the darkness and hovers above us, whipping blades beating at the air.
Wesley barks a cruel laugh, and my gaze is drawn to his smug expression, made all the more hideous in the sudden wash of brilliance from the spotlight shining down. He makes a show of gesturing to the armed soldiers and the helicopter. "Request denied."
A/N: As you can see, I haven't given up writing—nor do I intend to. I made a recent post on my blog if you're interested in reading what I had to say about writing: saritadreaming dot word pressdotcom
There are a lot of intensely personal things going on, and while I feel I owe my readers an explanation, I don't owe anyone an explanation (there's a persnickety but essential difference). In the wise words of my gram (God rest her loving soul), if you're not lifting up, you're pushing down. I understand some of you are ticked off with the slow updates. I can guarantee you, I'm far more ticked off with what's going on in my life.
To those of you who have taken the time to lift me up (too many to name, I'm happy to say!), thank you from the bottom of my heart. I won't promise a speedy update, just that updates will come. All stories will be completed, however long that takes me. If some of you need to move on, I get it. May we meet again.
As ever, thanks to my awesome prereaders, Keye, Sandy, Aleea, and Liz, and to SassySue (chayasara) for wielding her red wand. And a special thanks to you, ever patient and loyal reader.