There were so many things to say that sat just on the edge of my tongue. But all of them seemed like too little and too much at the same time. So, I just held him tighter, and kept my eyes closed until the tears passed.
He laughed, but it wasn’t the laugh that I was used to hearing, the one that turned all eyes toward him. This laugh was bitter and broken.
“When my dad came home for the funeral, I assumed he would take me with him. I imagined what my room would be like in his new house. I stressed about whether or not his new girlfriend would like me. I was so determined to make it work that time. But he left then, too, and I went to live with my grandma.”
I listened to his heartbeat beneath my ear, and all I could think was—how much of a dick do you have to be to leave your kid even after he loses his mother? I’d never been any good at holding my tongue, and now was no exception.
I said, “At least we know douchebaggery isn’t hereditary.”
I was seconds away from suggesting a road trip to find his father and put the bastard in his place. His hand smoothed up and down my spine like he was comforting me, instead of the other way around.
Then I realized . . . he was.
A lot of things pissed me off about my parents and about Alex’s death, but nothing upset me more than the fact that I felt alone in my pain. I mean, I knew my parents missed her. I knew they thought about her constantly, but it was with this happy kind of sadness that was completely foreign to me. When I thought about Alex, it was pure, undiluted pain. It felt like my insides had been rearranged, like I still had internal trauma from the wreck. All these years later, just the image behind my closed eyes of her was enough to make me feel like I was bleeding out. I couldn’t understand why everyone else didn’t feel this way, and it made me furious.
But I could tell from the way the muscles of Cade’s chest and stomach flexed below me . . . he felt it, too. I did the same thing—flexed the muscles of my body like armor. Tendons and tissue were the only things keeping the mess inside me at bay. The only thing worse than feeling this way was putting all those emotions on display for the world to see.
For the first time in a long time, maybe since Alex, I didn’t feel so alone.
I took a deep breath and said, “My sister died.”
The hand on my back slid up into my hair. Any other time that would have sent my hormones into a rave, but now it was just soft and sweet, and it flipped a switch in the back of my mind that I spent most of my days trying to turn off.
The vision of that day in my mind never wavered or faded. It was as vivid today as it was then. When I let the memories get the best of me, I could almost imagine the blinding headlights, the sound of glass shattering, and the pressure of the seat belt cutting into my neck. I squeezed my eyes shut.
I couldn’t hold back the images, but I could hold back the tears.
Cade didn’t try to make me talk. He didn’t ask questions. His touch remained firm and constant, keeping me tethered here in the present. We lay there, wound together so tightly that I didn’t have to keep my muscles tense. I didn’t need the armor because he was holding me together.
After what could have been an eternity or a few seconds, Cade whispered, “Pain changes us. Mine made me want to be perfect, so that no one would ever want to leave me again.”
I inhaled deeply. “Yours made you Golden. Mine just made me angry.”
One of his hands found my jaw, and he lifted my head up enough to face him.
“Your pain made you strong. It made you passionate and alive. It made us both who we are.”
A laugh pushed its way past the pain that lived in my lungs, and escaped from my throat. “Golden Boy and Angry Girl.”
“We should make a comic book about our adventures.”
The laugh came easier then.
It was funny how a guy who’d known me for so little time managed to put me at ease in a way that my parents, friends, and a string of therapists never had.
“Thank you,” I murmured. I returned my cheek to his chest but tilted my face up toward his. “For this . . . for today and yesterday. I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here. I know you probably had somewhere better to be—”
“Trust me. This was much better than the alternative. I’m exactly where I want to be.” He glanced down at me and gave me a half-smile.
I walked my fingers over his stomach and asked, “And what was the alternative?”
“Spending time with someone better left in my past. I prefer moving forward.”
For the first time, moving forward felt like a possibility.
We stayed there in a sanctuary of our own making, at ease without speaking. We’d done all the talking we needed, and slowly I drifted off to sleep with Golden Boy beside me in bed.
A bright light flashed on the other side of my closed eyelids. Groggily, I went to rub my eyes, but something had my left arm pinned to the bed.
A woman stood over me with a camera in her hand. Black spots flooded my vision, and it took me a few moments before I remembered where I was and what I was doing here. The woman with the camera was Mrs. Miller, and she’d just taken a picture of Max sound asleep on my arm. There was a little wet spot on my sweater from her drool.
God, I wanted a copy of that picture.
Mrs. Miller held a finger to her lips and whispered, “I’m sorry. The two of you just looked so sweet that I couldn’t resist.” This was officially the weirdest day of my existence. “Dinner is ready. Mick and I will wait for you two to get freshened up.”
She tiptoed out of the room and closed the door on her way out.
Time to wake the sleeping dragon.
In sleep, Max looked younger, softer. She had long eyelashes that rested against her cheeks. Her nose was small and turned up slightly at the end. Even sleeping, she had the sexiest lips I had ever seen. Full and slightly puckered, it was like they were calling to me. And I couldn’t stop thinking about her saying she wasn’t sorry I kissed her.
Not that it mattered. She was taken.
I was doomed to always be attracted to the girls I couldn’t have.
Plus, what she’d told me earlier . . . it couldn’t have been easy. I could tell how raw the memories left her, and the last thing I wanted was to take advantage of that tenderness.
I was about to nudge her awake when her eyes opened, and she caught me staring at her. She blinked a few times and then her eyes narrowed on me. She sat up and slid to the complete opposite side of the bed.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Whatever closeness we’d gained earlier didn’t appear to have carried over through her nap. The walls were back up and I was still on the outside.
“I swear it’s not as creepy as it looks.”
“Said the serial killer to the police.”
Her hair was messy and closer to how it usually was.
I said, “I was about to wake you up. Your mother just said dinner is ready.”
“My mother was in here?”
I was coming to enjoy that wide-eyed exasperated look she got every time something concerned her mother.
“She might have taken a picture of us.”
She grabbed a pillow, and I narrowly blocked a swipe to the face.
“You let her take a picture of us?”
I grabbed the pillow when she went in for a second swing, and used it to pull her closer. “I didn’t let her. I woke up to the flash.”
“Seriously?” She made a noise that was part groan/part growl and buried her face in her hands. “Kill me now.”
I kept the pillow between us as a buffer and said, “It’s almost over.”
“You’ve not been to one of my mother’s Thanksgiving dinners. It’s only just beginning.”
She slid off the bed and went to the bathroom to splash her face with water. I followed and did the same. It was frighteningly domestic as we both tried to maneuver around the small space without bumping into each other. I was struck by the oddity that I had known this woman just over twenty-four hours. And twenty-four hours from now, we would likely go our separate ways, never to hear from each other again.
I swallowed, and she looked at me from the bathroom door.
“Well, are you coming?”
“Yeah, right behind you.”
We were ambushed with another photo attack as soon as we entered the living room.
Mrs. Miller’s eyes reminded me of those commercials about abused pets—designed to make you feel bad. “I’m sorry. Cade mentioned earlier that you were okay with pictures, and I—”
“Oh did he now?”
I was in trouble. She laced her hand with mine and squeezed a little harder than was comfortable.
“Oh, you know, sweetie. I told your mom how upset you were that you overslept because you wanted to look nice for them. We talked about how nice it would be to have pictures to commemorate our first holiday together.” Mrs. Miller snapped another picture while I was talking to her daughter. “Mrs. M, don’t mind Max. Maybe we should just save the pictures until after dinner.”
“Of course, and for the last time, Cade. Please call me Betty. Or Mom.”
Max smiled widely at me, but I had a feeling it was more like those predators on the Animal Channel, baring their teeth in a show of aggression. She leaned up, smiling all the while, and said quietly, “If you call my mother ‘Mom,’ I’m going to replace that turkey in the oven with your head, okay?”
I smiled back, and curled a hand around her cheek. “I’m calling your bluff, Angry Girl.” Max was glaring at me, but I could tell she was glad to be back in normal territory. Normal, of course, being our attempts to piss each other off. I called to her mother in the kitchen, “Mrs. Miller—I mean Mom—your daughter says the sweetest things sometimes. I think it would shock you how romantic she can be.”
Max laughed low in her throat. Her eyes glinted. She placed her hand over the one on my cheek and said, “It’s on now, Golden Boy. You’re going to be sorry.”
“I can take it.”
And if this is what made her feel better, less vulnerable, then I could.
There was a feast on Max’s table, and her living room was looking decidedly more lived in. Max waited until we were seated at the table to launch her first attack.
“Oh, Dad, I know you usually say grace, but do you think we could let Cade? He’s very religious, and I know he would be so happy to do it.”
I smiled and shook my head. She was going to have to try a lot harder than that to throw me off.
“Mick, I would be happy to say the prayer, but I would never want to change your holiday traditions.”
Max’s dad waved a hand. “Nonsense. Pray away, son.”
I smiled at Max and took her hand. I pressed a chaste kiss on the back and then reached for her mother’s hand on my other side.
“Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for allowing us to be together today. Thank you for guiding Mick and Betty safely here to Philadelphia that we might join together as a family to eat and give thanks. More than anything, I thank you for bringing Max and I together. It feels like only yesterday we met, but she has changed my life in so many interesting ways. Sometimes, I feel like our relationship is too good to be real. I pray that you will continue to bless us all and may our day be filled with food and fun and fellowship. It is in your holy name we pray, Amen.”
As soon as the prayer was over, Max tugged her hand from mine. Max’s parents held hands a little longer, glancing at us, and then sharing a knowing look. While they watched I leaned over, and placed a kiss on Max’s cheek. There was no harm in taking a few liberties with my role, especially since this gig only lasted through the end of the day. I whispered, “You’re gonna have to do better than that, Angry Girl.”
She waited until her parents weren’t looking to flip me off, but we were both smiling.