Oh gee. Great.
“This last challenge is, of course, for immunity. The two teams that finish last will be taken to Judgment, where one team will be eliminated.”
The last one. We just had to get through this one, and we’d make it past the first round. After that, it would be individual challenges, and our secret alliance would quietly clean up behind the scenes. I wanted to look over at Dean and see if he was relieved or unhappy that we’d soon be lumped in with everyone else, but I didn’t dare glance over.
I remained calm and silent as I was lashed to Dean’s side with a bright purple bungee cord of some kind. It separated us by about a foot—just enough so that we’d trip over each other—and had a bit of give, but not enough. I could quickly see how the producers wanted this challenge to go—one partner dragging the other through the obstacle course. Lovely. I peeked ahead at the obstacles through the trees—yup, sure enough, I could see some sort of swinging vine and a pool of mud up ahead.
Poor Dean, stuck with me.
“Teams ready?” Chip shouted, dragging my attention back, and as one we hunched forward, one knee placed in front of the other, readying to run.
“Last two teams across the finish line head to Judgment.” Chip lowered his arm. “Good luck! Go, go, go!”
The teams surged into action. Dean and I surged forward as well. The rope tying my waist to Dean’s jerked as he leapt ahead, and I had to scramble to keep my feet, the breath sucking out of my lungs. Adrenaline rushed through me and I began to charge forward. I wanted to beat the others at their game, suddenly—show them that Dean and I truly were a force to be reckoned with.
And I really, really did not want to go home tonight.
The first obstacle was a low climbing wall, and the teams crammed together, pushing and jostling to try and get over—not an easy feat considering we were lashed together. Dean was right at my back and nudging my shoulder, and as soon as I felt an ounce of give in the rope, I began to climb, swinging my legs over.
I still wasn’t much of an athlete, but the rush coursing through me helped. I managed to wobble my way down the other side without more than a skinned knee as I fell forward. Dean grabbed me by the arm and helped me back to my feet and we dashed forward.
It wasn’t long before we were ahead of the other teams by a long shot. No surprise, really—Dean was so athletic he was dragging me along when I faltered, and his momentum spurred me on. We’d also had protein (the peanut butter) to fuel us. I was hanging in with him, while my other female competitors seemed to be wilting. Even Lana, who was quick and fast thanks to her tiny frame, wasn’t quite keeping up with Leon.
We were going to win again. Joy surged through me, and I grabbed onto the rope, trying to urge Dean forward. The line of obstacles continued—a rope net, another wall climb, and a digging challenge. Dean seemed full of endless energy, and as other people caught up with us and then fell behind again, pride surged through me. I watched his shoulders flex, tawny with the sun and gleaming with sweat.
Perhaps I was a little too focused on watching my partner, because after we both grabbed onto a knotted rope swing and flung ourselves over a mud pit I landed on my ankle.
There was a nasty pop as my weight landed awkwardly on my foot and pain shot through my leg. I yelped and collapsed, and the short length of rope ensured that Dean fell on me. Pain—red and blinding—flared, and I nearly blacked out.
Dean cursed as he pushed off me, not realizing how hurt I was. “Get up, Abby. We almost have this!”
The pain was excruciating, but some stupid part of me was rushing with adrenaline and at his urging hands, I tried to stand on my foot anyhow… and promptly fell to the ground again as white-hot agony shot through me. Dean fell back over me again.
As we fell back to the ground, I saw the first team rush past us, heading for the finish. It was close.
“My ankle,” I said, my voice sounding too close to tears. “I can’t walk.”
“We have to finish or we’ll be eliminated,” Dean said, trying to help me up. “You have to try and walk. Just a few feet.”
I nodded and leaned on Dean, trying to shift my weight so I could limp along with him. We did that for a few moments. One team whizzed past us, then another. I made a frustrated sound in my throat, and Dean sucked in a breath. He was thinking the same thing I was—if we were one of the last two teams, we’d be on the chopping block. The last place I wanted us to be. But I couldn’t seem to swallow the agony. The pain was overriding all rational thought as I leaned heavily on him.
Another moment later, Dean hesitated. I thought he was going to get mad at me for my slow limping, but to my surprise, he swung me up in his arms. “It’s okay, baby,” he whispered and pressed his mouth to my hair, hauling me into his arms. “Almost done.” I buried my face in his chest as he carried me across the finish line, moving heavily into last place.
All my fault.
I hung my head at the Council of Judgment as Chip stood in the front, ready to read the votes. The questions we’d received from him hadn’t been warm and had mostly been about how I was dragging my team down. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy in the expressions of my other competitors, either. One or two had a look of glee on their faces, though they’d tried to hide it. After all, I was pretty much out of the water in any sort of physical challenge. The last team immunity and I’d lost it for Dean.
My ankle was wrapped tightly but swollen to twice its normal size. As soon as the cameras had stopped rolling for the competition, medical had swooped in and checked me out. The verdict? A bad sprain but no breaks, so I was left in the game unless I chose to bail out (and thereby drag Dean into the loser lodge involuntarily). I chose to stay.
Even if it was just until Judgment.
Jack and Meg sat next to us on the Elimination Bench, and they seemed quite a bit more confident than Dean and myself. After all, they were both whole. They’d had trouble working together to cross the mud pond with the rope swing and had ended up wading through. Their clothes were still dark and covered with mud, but they seemed confident as they flicked glances over at me and my monstrous ankle.
“Teams, pass your slates forward. I’ll read the first vote,” Chip said in his best TV-host voice. He pulled up the first slate, regarded it, and then flipped it as he read the name.
I regarded the slate with mixed emotions. The next would be for us, for sure. Dean was a strong competitor.
Chip held up the second slate. “Team Six.”
I sat up a little at that, surprised. I glanced over at Lana, who sat in the audience, and she gave me a meaningful look, her eyes hard. Had she orchestrated something quietly at Judgment Council to save our asses? I would so have to thank her when we got back if that was the case. She could eat all my peanut butter if she wanted it.
Well, maybe not that.
She was stone-faced as they read the next vote. “Team Six,” but I noticed the faint hint of a smug smile on her partner Leon’s face. Further down the row, Will was openly smiling, his arms crossed over his chest.
Sure enough, Lana had saved our asses. I owed her.
Dean seemed to realize the same thing, slowly. He sat up straighter as the last two votes were read, and I glanced over at him and smiled, delighted, and reached for his hand. I wanted to hug him, but such a brash display of affection would work against us.
Apparently Dean felt that any sort of affection would work against us. He pulled his hand out of mine and gave me a hard frown.
I pulled back away, trying to brush it off, but his cold rebuff had hurt my silly, stupid feelings. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying. It was stupid, but my ankle hurt, my pride was wounded, and my emotions were completely strung out. I wanted Dean to hold me, not push me away. I glanced over at Lana to see if she’d seen my small gesture as well.
She had. The look on her face had turned hard and unfriendly. She didn’t approve of my needy actions.
“Team Eleven! You live for another round,” Chip crowed as he moved over to us and helped me to my feet. “How do you feel?”
“Ready to keep playing,” Dean said in his smooth, effortlessly cocky voice.
“Great,” I added, forcing a smile to my face.
With the help of a shirt-wrapped stick acting as my crutch, we were able to hobble back into camp once the boat dropped us off. Dean hadn’t said much to me, which was just as well—I wasn’t in the mood to talk to him either. All of my energy was going into walking without maiming myself further.
When we made it back to camp, I sat heavily on a log and put my head in my hands, frustrated. Frustrated at myself for screwing up in the challenge, frustrated that I’d tried to be needy with Dean and he’d turned me away because it was the smart thing to do. Frustrated because Lana had noticed and she was unhappy with me. This day had been one big mess of crap from the start.
To my surprise, Dean sat next to me and began to brush the hair off my shoulders, rubbing the frustrated knot at the base of my neck. “How are you holding up?”
“I feel stupid,” I admitted. “I almost blew it for us.” I decided not to bring up the part about him rebuffing me in front of the others. It was stupid to get hurt feelings over it.
“It happens.” He pulled me into his lap, careful of my injured foot, and began to nibble on my neck. “Don’t beat yourself up.”
“Too late,” I said in a grumpy voice, but twined my arms around his neck and leaned in so his lips could have better access to my skin.
His lips moved to mine and his tongue slid along the crease of my mouth. I parted to let him in and his tongue flicked against mine, and a small moan rose in my throat as I forgot about my wounded ankle. He groaned low and slid his hands to my hips, shifting me in his arms. His h*ps lifted against my own in a suggestive move. “Can you slide your leg over?” he breathed against my mouth and then bit at my lower lip, as if his mouth couldn’t stand to be parted from mine for a single moment.
Sounded like a good idea to me. With his hands on my h*ps to steady me, and my hands on his shoulders, we maneuvered a little awkwardly, watching for my injured foot. After a bit, I was able to straddle him as he sat on the log, and the cradle of my sex was firmly slid up against the hard length of his. It felt enormous and hot even through his swim trunks, and I flexed my h*ps forward and was delighted to hear his breath suck in. He grasped my ass and ground me down against his c*ck and his mouth lowered to nuzzle my breast through my bikini. I gasped as his mouth grazed my nipple and I twined my fingers in his hair to hold him in place, my eyes focused on his intense, handsome face. His short buzz of dark, ash blond hair was growing out and it stuck up from his head like a spiky bed of grass.
Something moved behind his head. I glanced up just as he pushed aside the fabric of my bikini, exposing my nipple and placed his mouth on it again.
The moan of pleasure died in my throat at the sight of Lana and Leon heading down the beach toward us.
I grabbed at my bikini, nearly snapping his head backward.