When she muttered “Alex” in her sleep, I placed my hand on her cheek.
A few other passengers were starting to stare. I put my face close to hers, and whispered, “It’s a dream, Max. Wake up.”
Her hand fisted in my shirt, and I wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close.
“Sssh. You’re okay. I’m here. Just wake up.”
Her eyes flew open, and she flinched back.
“It was a dream.” I kept repeating that sentence because I wasn’t sure she heard me. Her gaze darted around us, but when she realized where we were, she released her grip on my shirt.
“You okay?” I asked.
She pressed her lips together and nodded. She closed her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. She tipped her head back toward the seat, but my arm was still around her. When her neck touched my bicep, her eyes met mine.
My emotions were still on overdrive from my dream, and having his arm around me sent my heart sprinting. I stared at him, tracing the line of his nose and the curve of his cheekbones with my eyes. His face had the stubble that I loved so much, and his eyes were still heavy from sleep.
He smiled, and a familiar warmth uncurled low in my belly. I wet my lips, and his eyes cleared. I couldn’t make myself look away. Confusion crept into his expression, but he didn’t break our gaze either. I wanted him to know how badly I felt, but I didn’t know how to put it into words. I didn’t know if it even mattered to him. He shifted in his chair, and his arm weighed heavier around my shoulders.
God, I was so confused. I was Alice in Wonderland, tumbling down the rabbit hole for a second time. I was lying with my head against his arm when a flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I’d like a drink. I gave a polite nod and by the time I looked back at Cade, his arm was no longer around me, and he was looking down. My earbuds were still dangling around my neck, music blaring. I turned down the volume and opened my mouth to say something. What I was going to say was a mystery, but if I stayed silent any longer I was going to spontaneously combust. I took a deep breath, and he spoke before I could.
“The past is past, Angry Girl.”
I snapped my mouth closed, and after a moment, I nodded.
He pressed his lips together in something that was meant to be a smile, but there was no life in it. And his eyes were distant, like he was looking past me.
For the first time I felt positive that he was acting.
Suddenly, the thought of spending days with him didn’t make me nervous. It made me sad. There were many parts of my life that I wanted to leave firmly in the past, but now I was pretty sure he wasn’t one of them.
Once again, I was too late.
I hated how easy it was to put on a mask in front of her. I’d been pushing her to be herself, and I wasn’t any better. All I wanted to do was grab her and kiss her.
But I had to listen to my brain instead of my heart. It was the only way I could survive this trip. The new hair color softened her somehow, but her eyes were lined with terror. It was so unnatural to see fear written across the face of a girl who was so fearless that for a few moments she had felt like another person entirely.
So, I told her what she needed to hear. Even though it shredded me.
She relaxed, but only a little. She spent the rest of the flight fidgeting and checking the time. The closer we got to landing, the more frenetic she became.
The plane’s descent turned rapid, and Max tensed up. Her hands clutched the armrests, and her eyes closed. She pressed her head back into the seat, sat very still, and took deep breaths. I had the urge to put my arm around her again, but I fought it off.
I asked, “Is it the landing that has you nervous or what’s waiting for us on the ground?”
She didn’t open her eyes as she answered, “I choose option C.”
She nodded. She licked her lips and explained, “I just feel like landings last about one minute longer than I can handle. And frankly, as far as this trip is concerned, I’d prefer we just stay in the air.”
She didn’t get her wish. The sound of the wind roared in the cabin as the plane came in for a landing. Her hands turned white on the armrests, and her lip turned a vivid pink as she bit down. I knew, logically, that she was nervous, but the tension in her neck and the way she worried her bottom lip reminded me of other things entirely, and I had to look away.
The wheels touched down, and she pressed her hands into the back of the seat in front of her, grimacing as the plane slowed down. When it was over, she released a long breath and wilted back into her chair. I waited for her to perk back up, but her eyes stayed closed, and her hands still gripped the armrests.
“You’re looking a little green, Angry Girl.”
I was expecting a response like “You’re looking like you wanna get punched, Golden Boy.”
Instead, she stayed silent. When she did open her eyes, she just stared at the people ahead of us unloading their things and pressed her palms into her thighs. I didn’t see her fear anymore. I didn’t see anything really. She was blank, like she had just shut down completely. It was torture seeing her this way. Maybe I shouldn’t have made her do this.
I decided then . . . no matter how painful it was or what it cost me, I’d help her get through this in whatever way I could. Even if I never saw her again afterward.
I carried both of our bags off the plane, and Max was quiet as we left the terminal for the arrivals area. She pulled out her cell with numb hands to call her parents. We walked side by side until suddenly she was no longer there. I looked back, and she was standing still as a statue, looking as if she might scream or pass out or both.
When I got closer she groaned, “They didn’t.”
“Who didn’t?” I asked. “What’s the matter?” I placed my hands on her arms and her eyes snapped to mine. For a few seconds neither of us said anything, and I knew I’d crossed a line. I pulled back, and put another foot between us.
Her face went soft, and she said, “I’m sorry.”
I thought she meant for her reaction to my touch until she stepped behind me and began buttoning her coat. She fastened it all the way up to her neck, and threw on her scarf, too. She undid the clip holding back her hair so that it fell around her face.
She still looked beautiful, but I knew what she was doing.
“Max . . . what is going on?”
She tamed her appearance with the same ease and efficiency that she had before her parents’ arrival on the day we met. I turned and looked behind me, but I couldn’t see her parents anywhere.
“Damn it, Max, we talked about this . . .”
“I know.” Her eyes met mine, and they weren’t blank anymore. “They sent Bethany and Michael to pick us up. I just can’t start with her. I can only fight this battle once.”
The minute she had hidden all the things that made her Max, her body relaxed and all the tension that had plagued her disappeared. I had the sinking feeling that I wouldn’t see my Max again for the rest of the trip. Not that she was mine anymore. Or ever had been really.
“I promise I’ll do it, Cade.” She sounded more like she was trying to convince herself than me.
I sighed and said, “Okay, fine. Let’s go meet the Antichrist.”
She squared her shoulders, like she was preparing for battle. I followed her glare across the terminal to a couple dressed in business attire, and I recognized the man as an older version of the brother I’d seen in her mother’s photo album.
The couple started toward us, linked at the elbow. Her brother was in a suit, his tie loosened slightly. The woman on his arm, Bethany, looked to be mid-to-late twenties. She was wearing a red dress and black heels that looked more appropriate for a cocktail party or a political campaign than picking someone up from the airport. She had long, flowing blond hair that reminded me of Sleeping Beauty. She was smiling widely and giving a small wave that I imagined she had perfected during her run for Miss Oklahoma.
Max looked like she wanted to take out all her nerves and fears on a punching bag with blond hair. I could see already that this was going to be a very long trip.
“Mackenzie, sweetheart!” Bethany called. “It’s so good to see you! We’ve heard so much about your little boyfriend that I just insisted that Michael and I be the ones to pick you up. I had to see this for myself.”
I leaned closer and reminded her, “Breathe.”
Bethany’s appearance was meticulous, from her manicured nails to her blond ringlets; they stopped simultaneously, as if all of their movements as a couple were choreographed, and stared at Max. Her sister-in-law looked at her from head to toe, and then clucked pitifully. “Don’t you look tired from your flight.”
Max gave a grim smile and opened her mouth. I rushed to cut her off. “It’s so nice to meet you both,” I said, holding out my hand. Michael shook my hand first. He looked like he could care less what his sister looked like. He was more concerned with the BlackBerry he kept pulling out of his pocket. “I’m Cade. Though it sounded like you already knew that.”
Bethany smiled. “Yes, all Betty and Mick have talked about is how much of a”—she paused and looked back at Max—“good influence you’ve been on our Mackenzie. Lord knows she needed someone to whip her into shape. I’ve been trying for years, but an Ivy League education can only work so much magic.”
I returned to Max’s side, unsure whether or not to touch her. Her fists were clenched tightly at her side, so I took that as a no. Bethany kept talking. “Now, Mackenzie, don’t you worry for a second about that bad dye job. It might be tough, since it’s the holidays, but I bet my hairstylist can squeeze you in and get all of that taken care of.” Bethany’s gesture didn’t cover Max’s hair so much as all of her.
I watched Max inhale and exhale very slowly. This appeared to be another instance where her coping mechanism wasn’t quite working. I considered turning her around and walking away. I didn’t want to see her put up with this any more than she wanted to deal with it herself.
“Listen, Beth—” She said the name with such malice that I was sure she was thinking of another b-word.
I cut in before the conversation could become dominated by four-letter words.
“You don’t like her hair lavender?” I asked. “I think it’s beautiful.”
Max stiffened beside me, my attempt to put her at ease failing miserably.
Bethany smiled. “Oh, bless your heart. That’s sweet, but you don’t have to coddle her. If there’s anything our Mackenzie is it’s tough. She can handle it.”
Max took a step forward, and I stopped worrying about whether or not it was okay to touch her. I clamped my arm down on her shoulder to hold her in place.
I said, “Do you think we could get on the road? I don’t know about Max, but it’s been a long trip, and I’m anxious to get settled in.”
“You don’t have any checked bags?” Bethany looked at the Max’s duffle bag and my backpack slung over one arm. “Tell me you don’t have your dress wadded up in there.”
Max’s face went pale. “What dress?”
“For the Charity Gala at the hospital. Your mother has been talking about it nonstop. She didn’t tell you to bring a dress?”
Max groaned and said, “I vaguely recall her mentioning something like that, but she didn’t say we had to go.”
“Well you do.” Bethany looked pleased at Max’s misery. She huffed as if Max had just ruined Christmas. “I guess we’ll have to squeeze in a shopping trip in the morning along with a hair appointment. I don’t know how your family survived before I came along.” Bethany looked up at Max’s brother and said, “Are you ready, sweetie?”
He paused whatever he was doing on his BlackBerry and said, “Whenever you are, honey.”
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