The two shared a kiss that left even me feeling like I’d overdosed on sugar.
“Follow us.” Bethany turned and trounced away, her curls bouncing slightly with her movement.
‘I’m going to kill her,” Max breathed. “You’re going to find her body chopped up and wrapped in individual boxes under the tree.”
“It’s scary how much I actually think you might mean that.”
We followed at a distance, and I kept my hand around Max’s shoulder the entire time. I don’t know if she even noticed. She was too concentrated on sending imaginary Chinese throwing stars at the back of Bethany’s head.
“She is everything I hate about my family,” Max said. “She makes me sick.”
I didn’t like the girl either, but Max spoke with a kind of venom that worried me. “Every family has one,” I told her. “And in a few days, you’ll be gone and won’t have to see her for another year.”
“You don’t get it.” Without looking away from Bethany, she said, “That was me. I was just like her all through high school. I was just as fake and vile and—”
I pulled her to a stop and said, “And now you’re not. You beat yourself up because of who you were and because of who you’re not and even because of who you are. You’ve got to stop.”
She stared at me, and I could tell I had penetrated her walls, if only for just a moment. Then Bethany turned over her shoulder and called, “You’ll have to forgive the car. There was a mix-up at the rental company, and they gave someone else the BMW that Michael reserved. This was the best they could do on such short notice.”
“Let’s go,” Max said. She pulled away and walked a few paces ahead of me all the way to a brand-new Toyota SUV that probably cost more than a new liver on the black market.
Michael opened the front door for Bethany, and placed a quick kiss on her lips before opening the trunk for us. I threw our bags in, and opened the door for Max.
“What a gentleman,” Bethany said. “Your taste really is improving, Max.”
There was going to be blood spatter all over these nice leather seats if she wasn’t careful. Max sat stiffly against the seat, her fists clenched in her lap. I placed a hand over one of her fists and squeezed. I figured the best thing I could do was to get Bethany talking about herself.
Once we were out of the parking garage and on the road, I asked, “So, how long have you two been married?”
“Oh two years this June. We had the most glorious June wedding. Everything about it was just perfect.”
Michael put the car in drive and said, “Only as perfect as you.”
Bethany aww’d, and the two of them looked away from the road long enough to share a quick kiss.
Max made a noise like she was going to hurl and said, “Perfect driver, too.”
“Any chance we’ll be hearing wedding bells in your future?” Bethany asked.
I couldn’t look at Max. I played my role, kept my eyes on the audience, stayed in character, and said, “We’re just taking things slow, seeing how things go.”
“Oh.” Bethany’s lips turned down in a pout and she gave Max a look of pity. “Of course you are.”
I followed Bethany’s eyes to Max in time to see her press her forehead against the window and close her eyes. She pulled her hand away from mine, and began to close herself off again.
I asked, “How long until we get to Max’s parents’ house?”
“It’s about a thirty-minute drive,” Michael answered.
“If they don’t kiss us into a ditch first,” Max said.
Mom threw open the front door of their two-story house and squealed when she saw us. The Joker probably had a more realistic smile than I did. When both my parents came into view, Cade’s hand curved around my waist, falling just below the line of my coat. I could feel the heat of his fingers through my shirt, and it was like five little daggers of doubt to my back.
This was too hard. My body and my mind and my heart were at war, and my sanity was the collateral damage.
Dad shook Cade’s hand, and Mom pulled both of us into a hug simultaneously.
“Come in! Come in! Oh, Cade, Mick and I are just so happy you’re here.” She released me and hugged him around the neck for a few seconds. His arm was still around me, so I’m sure we resembled some kind of radioactive waste monster that had begun sprouting extra heads and limbs. When she pulled back she lifted a strand of my hair and clucked her tongue. She said, “Oh, honey,” and frowned, but didn’t say anything further. It gave me a little bit of hope that maybe she could handle the rest of it.
But just a little.
I met Cade’s eyes, and his flicked to my mother.
I took a deep breath and said, “Mom?”
Her eyes met mine. They focused on me in a way they hadn’t in years. Normally, she’d look at me for a second or two before glancing everywhere around me. She blinked, still looking at me, waiting for words that I just couldn’t seem to pry from my lips.
Instead, I asked, “What room is Cade staying in?”
“Oh, we’ve put him in the guest room upstairs, right next to your old room.”
I looked at Cade, and he gave me a stiff smile.
Every time we took a step forward, I seemed to take a running leap back.
Mom continued, “Why don’t you two get settled in. Dinner is almost ready though, so be quick!”
I nodded and went to grab Cade’s hand. He stepped out of my reach and gestured for me to lead the way instead. His shoulders were even stiffer than his smile. I walked up the stone pathway through my parents’ large, ornate front door, and he followed. He paused in the doorway to take in the high, arched ceiling and Mom’s tendency to decorate every inch of available space.
“Stairs are over here,” I said.
He nodded, but didn’t reply.
The entire way up the stairs, I could hear his heavy footfalls, and each one made me flinch. By the time I opened the guest room door at the end of the hallway, I could feel his emotions like a cloud at my back. He threw our bags down on the bed, and turned to face me.
I normally loved the way Cade looked at me . . . all of the ways. The way he’d looked out in the audience while I sang. The way he would keep his head down on our walks home, but look at me sideways. The way he’d looked at me when I’d been spread out beneath him. I could tell, just by his expression that he believed in me . . . all of me.
But his expression now was none of those things. He didn’t look angry . . . well, yes he did. But mostly, he looked sad. And he looked disappointed, an expression with which I was all too familiar. And that indefinable something that I’d always seen in his gaze was gone. So was his belief in me.
I shut the door behind me, and the click echoed through the silence of the room.
“I’m sorry.” I seemed to say that to him a lot, more than to any other person in my life except for Alex. “I know I said I would tell them . . . that I wouldn’t pretend anymore—”
“You’ve said a lot of things.”
I sucked in a breath, but my lungs still felt empty.
“I just don’t understand you.” His hands went to his hair, and he began to pace back and forth in front of the bed. “I thought you were fearless,” he said.
A noise ripped from my throat, and even I didn’t know if it was a laugh or sob.
“Well, you were wrong.”
“You get up onstage in front of hundreds of people and bare your soul. You don’t take shit from anyone. You go after what you want. You’re amazing. But then when you’re here, it’s like you’re a completely different person.”
“Oh, come on. It’s an act, a crutch, a mask, take your pick. I project fearless, and you project perfection. It doesn’t mean either of us actually are those things.”
His pacing changed course, and he came at me. I had to crane my head backward to meet his gaze. “How do you think this is going to turn out? You can’t keep who you are a secret forever. What are you going to do? Wear turtlenecks for every visit? Never come home during the summer? Not invite them to your wedding?”
“I’ll tell them. I just need time. I need to prepare them so that they’re not so shocked. They’re holding money over my head.”
He scoffed. “The world holds money over everyone’s head. It’s a fact of life.”
“Like it’s that easy. I don’t know why you suddenly think you can judge me.”
“Because I know you!”
He didn’t, not at all. If he really knew me he wouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t care about me. But I couldn’t say that, so I just backed away from him and shook my head. I wanted this conversation to be over, but he wasn’t done. He said, “I think you’re just scared.”
“Of course I’m scared!” My volume got away from me, and I slapped a hand over my mouth, hoping my parents hadn’t heard. I took a deep breath and continued quietly, “I’m terrified . . . Always.”
Terrified that I’ll never make it. That I’ll wake up one day to realize my parents are right. Terrified that I’ve poured my everything into a career and life that will never happen . . . that I’ve wasted the life that should have been Alex’s.
“What are you scared of, Max?”
“Of everything. Absolutely everything.”
I didn’t say that included him, but I didn’t think I had to. I think he knew.
“Is that what you wanted to hear, Golden Boy?”
He sighed, and put his head down. I was used to disappointing people, but I had never wanted it to be him.
He said, “No, not at all.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
God, I was. So sorry.
He took a step toward me, and I took three back.
I cleared my throat and said, “I’m going to put my things up next door. There’s a bathroom in the hall if you need it. Just pop over when you’re ready.”
Then I ran.
There were no prying eyes lurking at the bottom of the stairs, so I hoped that meant no one had heard us arguing. As soon as I was safely ensconced in my room, I leaned back against my door and concentrated on breathing.
I hated how afraid I was. I hated the way fear could eat away at everything until even the constant things in life, like the earth beneath my feet and the sky over my head, seemed like figments of my imagination.
The fear made me feel pathetic and small, but I couldn’t get past it.
It wasn’t just the money or the risk of angering my parents.
It was a thorn on the dark side of my heart that told me I was inadequate, that there was some measure of what it meant to be good, to be important, and I didn’t reach it. As long as no one else saw that thorn, it was a secret I could protect, a wound I could nurse in private.
Talking to my parents would open it up, start the bleeding fresh, make it impossible to ignore.
I pushed my coat off my shoulders and pulled my shirt over my head. I threw my duffel bag on the bed and tore it open. I scrambled for a turtleneck and found a black one. I was pulling it over my head when my door opened.
I couldn’t see through the black fabric, but I spun away as quickly as possible, so that my tattoos faced away from the door. I tried to tug the sweater down so that it covered my stomach, but the stupid turtleneck was caught on my head. I said, “Hold on a sec, Mom.”
My head pushed through the neck opening at the same time I heard, “It’s Cade.”
I felt like my heart turned to face him before I did.
I finished pulling my shirt down to cover my stomach, and met his gaze. There were so many emotions in his expression—anger and sadness and desire—but I couldn’t tell which one was winning.
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