My voice was raspy as I said, “Ready.”
He didn’t move for several long moments, just pinned me to my spot with his intense gaze. Anticipation and want built in me until my knees felt weak. Just when I was ready to give in, he stepped back and into the hall.
Mom called my name a few seconds later. “Dinner’s ready!”
I squared my shoulders and joined him at the door. As we descended the stairs, his hand touched the small of my back, and it took all of my concentration not to tumble down the stairs. I faced a potentially life-changing holiday. I could lose my family, lose their support, and lose the life I’d built for myself. And yet somehow, all I could think about was his touch and how much I missed it. As disastrous as this trip was likely to be, I never wanted it to end.
Everyone was seated and waiting for us in the dining room when we came downstairs. This was the first time I’d been in a house that had an actual dining room instead of a table crammed into the kitchen. Her parents were seated at each end of the table, and Michael and Bethany sat on one side, opposite the two empty chairs meant for us. I pulled out Max’s chair for her, and then sat down beside her.
The dinner wasn’t quite as elaborate as the meal Mrs. Miller had prepared for Thanksgiving, but it was close. I could only imagine what Christmas Day would be like.
“Mick?” Mrs. Miller asked. “Will you say grace?”
I started to bow my head, and then Max blurted out, “Can I say it?”
Even Michael looked surprised.
Mrs. Miller blinked a few times, but smiled. “Of course you can, sweetheart.”
She reached out her hand to me, and I took it.
I turned to Max, and held her gaze as I laced our fingers together. Every head lowered, and I followed. But I kept my eyes open and fixed on Max.
She stared at her empty plate as she spoke, as if it might help her find the words.
“Dear God, thank you for this food and for family. For fear and forgiveness.” She paused, like she wanted to say more, but just couldn’t piece together the words. Finally, she let her eyes fall closed and said, “May our lives have a healthy dose of each. Amen.”
A chorus of hesitant amens filled the dining room, and Max stayed staring at her plate. I squeezed her hand and didn’t unlace our fingers.
Bethany placed a napkin in her lap and said quietly, “I’ve never heard a prayer quite like that before.”
“That was lovely, sweetheart,” Max’s mother said.
Max gave a nearly inaudible “thank you,” and it was the only thing she said for the rest of dinner. Luckily, Bethany dominated the conversation. She talked about Michael’s job, and their house, and how they thought they were almost ready to have kids. I was beginning to understand how she stayed so skinny. She never stopped talking long enough to really eat. Max distracted herself by picking at her food, and I distracted myself by staring at Max.
When dinner was over, Mrs. Miller shooed us into the living room while she cleaned up. And without the distraction of food, the discomfort level grew even higher. Mr. Miller pulled me aside to look at the various taxidermy pieces that were scattered across the living room. I’d grown up in Texas, where there were almost as many taxidermy places as there were churches, but I imagined what it must have been like for other guys that Max had brought home. I pictured Mace staring down the glassy, dead eyes of a twelve-point buck, and had to smother a laugh.
We were standing in front of a wild boar, while Mr. Miller recounted his hunting trip, when I overheard Bethany talking to Max on the couch.
She said, “It’s never a good sign when the fighting starts this early. I mean, between the arguing you two did upstairs and the uncomfortable silence between you at dinner, I give it a week, maybe two before you go separate ways.” Max was miraculously calm. She stared straight ahead, picking at a stray thread on the arm of the sofa. “You’re lucky I kept up the conversation during dinner or your parents would have noticed.” Max remained silent. “I know it’s hard.” Bethany placed a hand on Max’s shoulder, who stiffened in response. “But you could hardly expect to snag the first decent guy that looked your way. I’m sure you made some mistakes along the way, but next time you’ll know better.”
I didn’t know what Bethany had against Max, but there was a cruelty in her tone that told me she was enjoying this. I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I turned to Mr. Miller and said, “Excuse me for a moment, sir.” Then I headed for the couch. I plopped down beside Max, shocking her out of the statue act she was putting on for Bethany.
I said, “Hey.” And because I wanted to shut Bethany up and had been dying to do it since I first saw her this morning, I leaned in and pressed a kiss to Max’s lips. She locked up for just a second, but then closed her eyes and kissed me back.
My body roared to life, and I resisted the urge to deepen the kiss. I pulled back and draped an arm over Max’s shoulder. I tugged her closer until she was leaning against my chest.
“Sorry, I was getting lonely.” I smiled and asked, “What are you two talking about?”
Bethany sputtered, and a slow smile spread over Max’s face. It sent warmth to every part of me.
Max said, “I was just telling Bethany how great you were.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh yeah, I mean, you’re about as perfect as they come.”
I held back a laugh and said, “Oh no, you’re the perfect one.”
She leaned her head against my chest, and I wondered if she could hear the way my heart sped up. She said, “I guess we’re just perfect for each other then.”
I wrapped my arms all the way around her and held her close.
Bethany stood and said, “Excuse me. I’m going to go find Michael. I have no idea what could be keeping him.”
No doubt he’d snuck off to enjoy the superior company of his BlackBerry. We watched Bethany stalk out of the room. Max hesitated for a moment, and then turned her face into my chest to muffle her laughter.
“That is officially my favorite Christmas memory ever,” Max breathed.
“Why does she hate you so much?” I asked.
Max propped her chin on my chest and looked at me. When she wasn’t looking at me, I could pretend that this was all an act. That this was a role like any other. But with her eyes on mine . . . I lost focus.
She said, “I mentioned she’s the Antichrist, right?”
“Ah, so this is a battle of good-and-evil kind of thing.”
“No, this is a she’s-psycho kind of thing.”
“I could buy that. She enjoys hearing herself talk too much to not be at least a little bit sociopathic.”
Max’s eyes fluttered closed, and I realized that my hand was threading through her hair. I hadn’t even realized I’d been doing it. I knew what that did to her. I started to pull my hand back, but she laid her cheek back against my chest and wrapped an arm around my waist.
If that wasn’t permission, I didn’t know what was.
Bethany came back with Michael, and Mrs. Miller brought out a tray with mugs of hot chocolate. I took one, but Max declined. She stayed pressed against me, her head resting over my heart as her family took seats around the room.
I tried to keep my body calm, and my mind calmer as we sat there.
I was tired of questioning what everything meant, so I just gave in. I brushed my fingers through her hair, skimming her neck and her back. I didn’t know what she was thinking or if she was thinking at all, but it was peaceful, like a reprieve from the world.
Bethany kept glancing our way, but for once she didn’t say anything. I closed my eyes and leaned my cheek against the top of Max’s head. I took the reprieve because we both needed it.
“Michael,” Mrs. Miller called to her son. “Why don’t we put all those years of piano lessons to work and sing some Christmas carols?”
Ah, there was the Christmas fiend Max had mentioned.
Michael obediently moved to the piano in the corner of the room, and he pulled the cushion of the bench up to look in the hidden storage beneath. He picked up a book.
“The red book,” Mrs. Miller said.
He returned the book he’d chosen, and picked up a red one instead.
He flipped through the pages for a few seconds then asked, “Silent Night”?
Mrs. Miller nodded, and he began to play.
Max sat up a little, and leaned her head against my shoulder instead. Everyone began to sing, but my ears only heard her.
“Silent night. Holy night.
All is calm all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.”
It was amazing how even a song I’d heard a hundred times sounded beautiful and special coming from her. There was something just slightly different in her tone, in her phrasing, that made the song sound fresh to my ears. Her voice was soft and vulnerable, and I couldn’t stop myself from turning to face her. She lifted her head up and looked at me. I brushed a hand across her cheek, and she leaned into my touch.
I brushed her hair back, and I could feel her walls dropping. Her fear fled, my anger abandoned me, and certainty crept in. I was certain that we weren’t as different as we wanted to believe, certain that she felt something for me, certain that this could work.
She took a breath, and I was certain that she could feel it, too.
Then the music ended, and the spell broke. I saw her retreat back into herself. She slid over on the couch, and all my certainties came crashing down.
I understood that she was unsure, but I just couldn’t take this anymore.
I kept my distance.
It was the only way I knew to keep my heart.
I knew I couldn’t keep him away forever, but I managed it through the rest of Mom’s impromptu caroling session. I maintained the distance until it was time for bed. He was in his room, and I was in mine. And I was going to need my sleep to recharge my resolve—both with respect to Cade and to telling my parents the truth.
It was a bad sign for both that I was still wide-awake at 2:00 A.M. when a knocking started on my door.
I was wearing an oversized T-shirt and a pair of boy-short underwear. I thought of rummaging for a pair of shorts to pull on, but whoever was knocking was making enough noise to wake up my parents, so I figured it was better to just answer them.
When I pulled open the door, Cade stormed into my room. Panicked, I peeked my head out the door, but there were no lights on, which meant he hadn’t woken anyone . . . yet. I shut the door quietly and said, “What are you doing here?”
His eyes snapped from my bare legs up to my face, and his eyes were blazing.
“You’re mad,” I said in confusion.
“Hell yes, I’m mad.”
“I told you that I would tell them, Cade. I was planning to do it in the morning, in fact. It’s all I’ve been thinking about.”
“That’s not what I’m mad about.”
I barely had time to mutter, “Then what?” before he’d caught my face in his hands and pulled my lips to his.
His kiss was angry and punishing, and I felt it all the way in the marrow of my bones.
“I’m angry that you keep pushing me away when I know you don’t want to.”
He crushed our lips together again, bruising and beautiful.
“I’m angry that you left me after the best sex of my life.”
He turned and pressed me against the door, just like he did that night. I whimpered in response.
“More than anything, I’m angry that I had to wait so long to kiss you again.”
Then he poured his anger into me, our tongues battling for dominance. I was so in shock that I didn’t know whether to push him away or pull him closer, not that he gave me much of a choice. His hands found my wrists, and he pressed them into the door above my head. He wrung every last ounce of fear out of me until I was weak and panting and absolutely out of my mind with desire.
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