Page 4

Author: Cora Carmack


“I was meeting your parents.”


I tried to hold on to my anger, but really boys should not have such gorgeous eyes and long lashes. An unfamiliar heat crept up my neck, and I knew I was blushing.


I was not a blushing kind of girl.


I ripped gaze away from his face, and then my hand out of his. My voice was shaky and all my anger had fled when I said, “More like ruining my chances of them ever liking one of my actual boyfriends.” It was easier when I wasn’t looking at him. My thoughts became clearer. “I mean, you hugged my mom. Hugs are like crack to that woman.”


“I’m sorry. You didn’t tell me your last name, so I improvised.”


I crossed my arms over my chest. He had done a pretty good job, and my parents seemed convinced and happy. He was clearly good at this kind of thing. That should have made me less nervous. It didn’t. I still felt like I was going to go into cardiac arrest at any second. “Just . . . don’t hug her again.” Heaven forbid she start expecting me to follow his lead. “I just need to survive this without them getting suspicious. No need to go for the Oscar. And the last name is Miller.”


“Of course, I’m sorry, Mackenzie.”


The name grated against my ears. It had been years since someone besides my family called me that, and somehow I hated it even more now. I was almost snarling as I said, “Don’t call me Mackenzie. It’s Max.”


My anger didn’t faze him at all. He paused for a second, and then smiled. “Max. That fits you much better.”


Damn him. He had this way of extinguishing my anger that was so beyond frustrating. He put his arm around my chair and turned toward me. My personal bubble popped like a frat boy’s collar. Between the arm on my chair and the one resting on the table in front of me, I felt surrounded by him. His caramel-colored eyes were right there, and the scent of cologne, spicy and sweet, wafted up to my nose. I should have pulled away. I should not have been looking at his eyelashes again. He leaned in, and the stubble on his jaw brushed my cheek. Warning sirens blared in my mind, even as I closed my eyes. He whispered, “Your mom is coming back. I’m sorry. No more hugging, I promise.”


His lips were still by my ear when my mother returned. He was pretending. He wasn’t putting the moves on me. He was just trying to keep my mom from hearing. That’s all. The warning sirens quieted, but I still felt ill at ease.


Cade stood and pulled out my mother’s chair for her while my father waited on their drinks. I closed my eyes and tried to sort out the mess of my thoughts.


Mom asked, “So, Cade, Mackenzie tells me the two of you met at the library.”


I opened my mouth to answer, but Cade spoke first.


“Oh, yes. That’s right. Max”—he shot a quick smile at me—“actually helped me find the book I was looking for. I was looking in the entirely wrong section.”


Mom’s perfectly plucked eyebrows arched. “Is that so? I wasn’t aware she knew her way around a library. When she was younger, we could barely convince her to read anything unless it was one of those lyric sheets that came with a CD. Normal children you can bribe with candy to do their homework. Not our Mackenzie.”


I ground my teeth to keep from popping off about just who the normal one in our family was. Cade didn’t miss a beat. “Well, it was a book on music composition I needed for my paper, so I got lucky in finding an expert. She was exactly what I needed.” He looked sideways at me, and the arm around my chair moved to my shoulder. “She still is.” This guy had the strangest affect on me. A really small part of me wanted to swoon at that cheesy declaration. Most of me wanted to vomit. Not that it mattered, since this was all pretend.


It did the trick for Mom though. She aww’ed loudly and forgot about how much she hated my interest in music.


“Paper?” she asked. “Are you in school?”


“Yes, ma’am. I’m getting my master’s from Temple University.”


Jiminy fucking crickets. What happened to not overdoing it?


“Master’s degree?” Mother’s face lit up for a moment, and then dimmed. “In music?”


“No, ma’am. Acting, actually. I was writing a paper on the use of original music in theatre.”


“Acting? Isn’t that nice.” Mother’s smile stiffened. Finally, something my mother didn’t love about this guy.


“Yes, ma’am. It’s what I love. Though I’m also interested in teaching on the collegiate level.”


“A professor, how wonderful!”


I give up. In the war for my parents’ approval, I’d lost to a complete stranger.


Dad returned with two mugs of coffee, and asked, “What are we chatting about?”


Mom didn’t give either of us a chance to answer before she exclaimed, “Cade is getting his master’s degree to become a college professor. Isn’t that just fantastic?”


Mom could qualify for the Olympics in selective hearing.


“That does sound nice.”


Cade said, “Thank you, Mr. Miller.”


Dad paused in blowing on his coffee to say, “Oh please, call me Mick.”


MICK?


I had a nightmare like this once. Though, in that one I was naked. I wish I could say knowing it could be worse made things better, but it didn’t. Cade grinned easily, and relaxed back into his chair. He looked so calm, almost like he was enjoying this.


“Of course, Mick, thank you. So how was your trip?”


Dad huffed. “Terrible. Airports are the armpits of the universe. They treated your mother and I like we were terrorists, making us take those X-ray things. Probably gave us cancer. I say we get rid of them and go back to train travel. It takes longer, but it sure would be simpler.”


And so began the crazy.


Cade said, “You know, I’ve only taken a train once, but I thought it was a really enjoyable experience. I’ll have to try it again sometime.”


Trains. I kept reminding myself that it could have been worse. If my father had tried to talk trains with Mace he probably would have assumed my dad meant the perverted kind of train. That would have been disastrous.


“Enough about us. I want to hear more about you. Why has our baby girl been keeping such a nice boy a secret from us?”


Cade looked at me, and I glared at him. Now I get to talk?


He laughed, and squeezed my shoulder. His fingers stayed there, distracting me as he spoke. “I can’t speak for Max, but I think we just wanted to keep it between us for a while. Take it slow.”


And there were the magic words. I didn’t do long relationships, and I’d take things slow when I was dead. Life was too short. I think my three months with Mace was one of my longest relationships, and we were already talking about moving in together. Good thing we hadn’t done that yet.


My parents hated my tendency to move too fast. By the time they finished their cups of coffee, my parents would probably be begging to trade and have Cade as their child.


“What about hobbies?” my dad asked. Probably looking for someone to go golfing or play tennis with him. Lord knows none of my previous boyfriends had.


Cade shrugged. “School takes up most of my time. I also volunteer once a week at ASAP, it’s an after-school program for at-risk youth.”


Unfuckingbelievable. Mace didn’t know the meaning of “Hey, I don’t want your hand on my ass in public,” and this guy didn’t know the meaning of “Lay off!”


I leaned over, placed my hand on his thigh, and pinched. His thigh was strapped with muscle, and he didn’t even jump at my pinch. He put his hand over mine, and flattened my palm against his leg. I tried to pull away, but he held it there, his large, warm hand pressed mine into his hard thigh. Now it was me who needed to be pinched because I was looking at my hand on his leg, and thinking too much about the skin that lay beneath the material of his jeans. I’d forgotten why I was upset in the first place.


I shook my head and smiled at my parents; splitting my lips to show teeth felt like cracking open concrete. “Listen, Mom and Dad, Cade and I really have to get going. I didn’t know you guys were coming or I would have rearranged my schedule.”


Dad hefted himself up from the table, and tugged his pants up higher. “Oh, no worries, Pumpkin. We’re staying at a hotel not too far from you in the nicer part of town.”


Meaning my place was a dump. Which it wasn’t, it was just in Chinatown, and Dad felt uncomfortable when all the signs weren’t in English.


Mom joined him, “Besides, we’ll see both of you tomorrow for Thanksgiving!”


“Oh, Mom, I really don’t think Cade can—”


“Nonsense. I heard him say over the phone that he was free, and I won’t take no for an answer. No more hiding this nice, young man from us. You clearly adore each other, and sooner or later slow becomes an excuse like any other.”


We did not adore each other.


My eyes caught on the line of his jaw, but I forced my gaze away.


We didn’t.


I didn’t care how handsome this guy was or how warm his hand was on mine.


“Mom—”


“Mackenzie Kathleen Miller, don’t you argue with me. Now, Cade.” She fixed her eyes on him, and it was her maniac stare, the one like the picture on my cell phone. “Tell me you’ll see me tomorrow, and then go talk some sense into my daughter.”


Cade looked at me. I knew what he was going to say, and had no way to stop him, short of tackling him (which was either a very good or a very bad idea).


“Sure, Mrs. Miller. I’ll see you tomorrow.”


“Excellent.” She leaned down and placed a kiss on his cheek. “What happened to calling me Mom?”


5


Cade


There was a moment of silence after Max’s parents left that reminded me of those few shocked seconds right before a car crash. Your brain screams at you to step on the breaks, but it takes too long for your body to follow through. It was in those quiet seconds that Max smiled a slow, sinful smile.


Then slapped me.


It didn’t hurt. Not really.


But it felt surreal, like the car had crashed, and I was flying through the windshield. I’d never been slapped by a girl before. I think I was definitely the only guy in the world to ever get slapped for impressing a girl’s parents.


I couldn’t help it. I laughed.


Max’s cheeks turned pink, and she raised her hand to do it again.


“Easy, babe.” I caught her hand as it started to swing, and pushed it down onto the table. That meant I had one hand pressed to my leg and the other to the table. The violent little thing was tied up in knots. She tilted her chin and met my gaze like she was going into battle. Fire sparked in her eyes, and she looked dangerously sexy.


“Why are you trying to hurt me?” I asked.


“Because it will make me feel better!”


Having her hand on my thigh was not helping me take her anger seriously. And her skin had flushed from her cheeks, down her neck, and I wished she wasn’t wearing my scarf. “It’s not like I wanted to say yes. Your mother isn’t exactly easy to say no to.”


She huffed and squirmed in her seat, trying to pull her hands free. It only brought her closer to me. The red in her cheeks matched the vibrancy of her hair, which smelled divine.


“You could have at least not made up such a ridiculous backstory. I mean, volunteering at an after-school program? I told you to take it easy!” She growled the words through gritted teeth.


“Max, I didn’t make that up. I just told the truth. And stop struggling, people are starting to stare.”


She stopped and a lock of scarlet hair hung down in front of her face. She blew it back and said, “You told the truth?”


After a few moments, I released her hands, and held my right out between us. “My name is Cade Winston—MFA student, volunteer, mom-hugger, and your boyfriend for the next twenty-four hours. It’s nice to meet you.”

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