I said, “Why don’t we make a toast?” The Millers were against alcohol, but I figured the sweet tea would work. I held up my glass and said, “To new beginnings, new family, and a promising future.”
Max looked queasy, but she took a drink when the rest of us did. Mrs. Miller placed a hand over her heart and said, “Cade, I’m sure Mackenzie has made it no secret that we haven’t approved of some of her boyfriends.” Max snorted, and I took that to mean that some meant all. “But I have to say, you are one of the most pleasant, put-together young men that I’ve ever met.”
Mick paused in carving the turkey to say, “Yep. Looks like our Max is finally learning how to pick ’em.”
I saw Max’s spine straighten out of the corner of her eye. She was looking at her father in shock, no doubt because he’d finally used her nickname. I’d only known them a day, and even I knew how big a deal that was. As I watched Max, the shock gave way to confusion and then finally anger. Her eyebrows pulled together, and those full lips flattened into a line. She did one of those long, slow inhales, and I couldn’t blame her.
We should have stopped it all then, put an end to the charade. I thought of standing up, faking an important phone call or an illness. But then Max decided to take her anger out on me. And because I cared about her, I let her.
“He is pretty wonderful, isn’t he?” Her tone was sugary on the surface with poison laced beneath. “Especially when you consider where he was just a year ago.”
Uh-oh. I didn’t like the sound of that.
“A year ago?” her dad asked.
“Oh yes. A year ago he was in a really bad place. Weren’t you, honey?”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “I suppose.”
“You suppose? Oh, honey, don’t downplay how far you’ve come. You worked so hard to overcome your . . . addiction.”
Her mother choked on her tea. I closed my eyes to stay calm.
One of Max’s hands was curled into a fist on the table, and I covered it with my own. I turned to her parents and put on my best smile. “Max likes to exaggerate. She thinks it’s funny.” I shot her a look and searched for an excuse that would smooth things over with her parents. I looked at her father, whose eyebrows had drawn together in a suspicious ridge. He was wearing an OU T-shirt, which gave me the only idea I had. “The addiction Max is talking about really isn’t that big of a deal. I used to spend a lot of time playing fantasy football, an unhealthy amount really. Max hated it, but I’ve managed to cut it out.” I could feel her urge to roll her eyes, but she kept her tight smile. I returned it and said, “For her.”
It was a thin excuse, but I was banking on the South’s universal love of football.
Mrs. Miller said, “Forgive me, but I’m so confused. I thought you’d only been together a few weeks?”
I opened my mouth to lie again, but Max beat me to it.
“Oh, we have,” Max said. “Cade was head-over-heels for me a long time before that though. He just kept asking and asking and asking me to go out with him. It was a little creepy at first.”
I gave her a grim smile. “I am persistent.”
Her dad said, “And we sure are glad. We were beginning to think Max would never meet someone.”
Max frowned and added, “It did get kind of obnoxious there for a while. Almost disturbing. You were practically stalking me.”
Her dad finished his last slice of turkey and said, “Don’t mind her. You have my permission to stalk her anytime.”
Max closed her eyes and whispered under her breath, “Unbelievable.”
I smiled and said, “Why don’t we take some pictures before dessert?”
I excused myself under the pretense of freshening up for those godforsaken pictures, and fled to my room.
I swear this guy had to have like supernatural powers. He had that mind-control power like the people on The Vampire Diaries. Or some scientist had experimented on him as a child, and now he had, I don’t know, extra potent pheromones that bent other people to his will.
It would explain why he was so damn likable.
Stupid magic sweat.
I sighed and turned to close my door, but Cade slipped in before I could.
“You’re looking even angrier than usual, Angry Girl.”
This guy had the worst timing in the world.
I closed the door, and left him for the comforting expanse of my bed. Maybe I was still sleeping, and this all had been one horrible, confusing, awkward nightmare.
“What are you doing here?”
“Just visiting my sweet, loving girlfriend.”
I threw a pillow at him in lieu of a reply.
He caught it easily, and then leaned back against the closed door, staring at me. The guy was straight out of a preppy GAP catalogue.
And I liked it.
What the hell was wrong with me?
“Do you want me to leave?” he asked. “I can make an excuse.”
There was no way my parents would accept an excuse. My mother was like an octopus, and he was pretty damn wrapped up in her tentacles already. But his sincerity made something pinch in my throat, and I had to look away from him again. How did he always know exactly what to say?
Supernatural. Had to be.
“Max, it’s not worth it. Lying just puts off the inevitable. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to accept you the way you are.”
I laughed bitterly. “Well, they’ve gone this long without accepting it. I’m sure they could squeeze in another twenty-two years.”
I heard the floorboards creak as he walked toward me.
“Max . . .”
I sat up and swung my feet over the other side of the bed, so that my back was to him. I’d already spilled enough of my secrets today. I wasn’t doing it again. And I needed to get this all under control before I snapped.
“It’s fine. We’ll just finish out dinner, and then it will be over. I’ll tell them in a week or two that we broke up. They’ll get over it.”
Doubtful. Something told me I’d hear about Cade as the “one that got away” for the rest of my life.
He said, “Just tell them I chose fantasy football over you. Your dad seems like the kind of guy that would buy that.”
He laughed, “You know I’d always choose you over football, Max.”
I looked at him over my shoulder and asked, “Are you sure you’re from Texas?”
He smiled and said, “Truce?”
He threw the pillow he was holding, and it nailed me right in the face.
“Now, a truce.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You suck at insults.”
“You cringed when I said loving, so it counts.”
I smiled, feeling a lot less angry. He was good at that.
We returned to the living room, and though dessert was painful, it wasn’t excruciating. Cade chatted with my parents, so I didn’t have to. Cade was also exceptionally good at keeping them on innocuous topics that wouldn’t erupt into the arguments that normally typified our holiday dinners.
He was exactly what our family had been missing . . . well, since Alexandria’s accident. She was the good one, the one who always knew what to say and how to act. She was the ingredient that made our family work, and she was gone. Having Cade here made it easier to remember her without hurting.
When Mom brought out the pumpkin pie, she wouldn’t let anyone have a slice until they’d said something they were thankful for. Dad was thankful for the good food, and Mom was thankful that they got to be in Philadelphia for the holiday.
I wasn’t even lying when I said, “I’m thankful Cade could be here today.”
He had an arm around the back of my chair, and his hand came up and touched my hair lightly.
My mother said, “What about you, Cade? What are you thankful for?”
His eyes stayed fixed on mine. His hand brushed the side of my neck where my bird tattoos were hidden by my turtleneck sweater. He said, “I’m grateful that the past is the past, and the future is ours to make.”
I blinked, and thought pheromones. I mouthed, “Show off,” then slid him my piece of pie (which I also didn’t like). Somehow, Mom never seemed to remember that.
Mom asked, “Anyone want coffee with their pie?”
“I do,” I said.
Mom stood, and Cade joined her. He cupped my shoulder and said, “I’ll get it.”
“I take it—”
“One cream, two sugars. I remember.”
Seriously, this guy was good.
I watched him as he fiddled with my coffeemaker and chatted with my mom. The guy was too selfless . . . too everything. There had to be something wrong with him. Guys like him didn’t exist. And if they did, one had certainly never been interested in me.
The rest of the night went quickly, and before I knew it, we were saying good-bye. Mrs. Miller hugged me tightly, and Mr. Miller shook my hand.
“Say we’ll see you again soon, Cade. Christmas?”
I looked at Max, and she shrugged and said, “Sure, we’ll talk about it.”
We’d be “broken up” before then. I wondered how she would actually do it. She should make me the bad guy, that way she wouldn’t get any flack over it.
“Have a safe flight tomorrow,” I told them. Mrs. Miller hugged me again, almost like she was assuring herself I was real. Then they walked down the stairs and left. I closed the door and took in Max’s apartment. Her mother had insisted on leaving behind all the dishes she’d bought, along with some pillows, an afghan, the Christmas tree, and who knows what else.
It wasn’t empty anymore, but it was still lifeless because it wasn’t Max.
“Well, Angry Girl . . .”
“We survived,” she said.
I wasn’t ready to leave, but I didn’t have another excuse to stay.
I had one more reason to keep us together, but I was pretty damn certain it was a bad idea. When I’d agreed to do all of this, she’d promised me a date.
It had seemed harmless before—an innocent attraction. I had thought it would get my mind off of Bliss, and it had. I had thought of it like a date with a safety net, because we both knew it wouldn’t go anywhere.
But I didn’t know that anymore. Well, maybe my mind did, but the rest of me didn’t. Any date between us now wouldn’t be harmless, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be simple.
So as much as I wanted to, I didn’t mention the date.
She said, “Thanks for putting up with all of this. After what I’ve put you through, I probably should have paid you. You could have put it on your résumé—expert boyfriend.”
“Hey, I got some pretty great food out of it. I think that’s enough for most guys.”
“Food and sex,” she said.
Cue awkward silence. Her cheeks flushed prettily, and I let the silence go on for a little longer, just because I liked seeing her out of her element.
Finally, she threw her hands up, exasperated, and said, “What? It’s the truth! Are you implying that you don’t think about sex constantly, Golden Boy?”
“Oh, I definitely think about it.” I was thinking about it right now, and it was not making leaving this apartment any easier. My eyes, as usual, were drawn to her lips, and I had the sudden urge to ruffle her hair so that it was closer to her normal style. I wanted her out of that ridiculous turtleneck, so that I could see her creamy skin and the art that enhanced it. God, was it only this morning that I’d seen her tree tattoo in its entirety? I could still picture the bare branches and twisting roots. I wondered what it meant to her. I wondered what it would be like to trace the lines with my fingertips. With my lips.
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