Wanting to Remember, Trying to Forget (Meet the Shepards, #1)

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Chapter 1: January

“What the hell are you doing?”

The shout came from across the room, very nearly scaring Danny out of her skin. Her body jumped involuntarily and it was only her cat-like reflexes that saved her precious vase from a near-death experience. She had to face him sometime. Fake smile, enter stage right.

She turned around slowly, cautiously, and faced Max with a sheepish look, which she tried to hide with innocence in her wide hazel eyes. She knew even before she fully turned around that he wouldn’t buy it. Why would he? If she were in his shoes, she wouldn’t have been softened by the pathetic attempt to plead not guilty. In fact, she would have slapped that stupid grin right off her face. It was a good thing that Max wasn’t the type to hit women.

“Nothing,” she said, trying to spread her smile further, but the sheer lack of authenticity in that smile was beginning to make her cheeks hurt.

“Don’t lie. I caught you red-handed.”

He was a tough nut to crack. It was time for more drastic measures. Drop smile. Enter adoring puppy dog face. “But, Max—”

“No buts, Danny. There is no way that thing is going in there.”

Widen eyes. Pout lips. Tilt head to the side. “Pleeease.”


Round up the guilt-invoking troops. Mission failed. Accept defeat gracefully. “You’re such a jerk, Max.”

Danny sighed and reached for a sheet of newspaper. She had been unpacking her last box and if Mister I-hate-any-form-of-art hadn’t shown up, she could have placed the vase in the living room cabinet and Max, being the unobservant person that he was, would not have even noticed it.

Yes, it was his place. She got that. Yes, he was doing her a HUGE favor by letting her move in. She got that, too. But did he have to be so anal about every goddamn thing?

It had taken her a good few days to unpack and she had had the foolish notion that she would save the best for last. She held onto every last ornament so that she could have the explicit joy of placing them in the perfect spot, their new homes. Then came Maximillian Augustus Shepard with his dark cloud of interior decorating death and rained — correction, poured — on her parade.

She had decided to move in with him when Mister Coopers, the vice president of Banner and Coopers, had thought it best to move their offices from the upper side of town to the coast.

Thanks for that, boss! Now how about a monster truck so I can drive over the fifty million cars that stand between me and the shiny new offices you couldn’t wait to move in to?

She had been born and bred in Los Angeles, California, and had lived in this very neighborhood all her life. After she graduated from UCLA, she had moved for this job only to uproot her entire life and move right back because of something as dumb as traffic. She had borne the pain for almost an entire month but last week, right after she returned from spending Christmas at the Shepard’s, she had been struck with an ingenious idea.

Her best friend just so happened to live three blocks away from their new offices. Her best friend just so happened to be living in a two-bedroom place alone. Hey! Here’s an idea. Why not move in with this best friend? It’ll be fun.

Huh! As it turns out, her best friend just so happened to be the most pedantic man on the planet. But it was bearable. She could live with looking at beige every day. It was better than commuting for hours Monday through Friday. Danny did not have many hobbies, but she was pretty sure that dodging crazy, road-raged drivers during peak hour traffic was not at the top of her list of fun things to do.

But there was one thing she did know. Leaving work at five and reaching home twenty minutes later was probably the best feeling in the world.

Thanks, Max, you bland, beige-loving, pedantic lifesaver, you!

Okay, he wasn’t that bad. Max had been her best friend since college. Six years and still going strong. She could barely keep a plant alive for more than a week, but maintaining a friendship with Max was absolutely effortless. He was the most easy-going person she had ever met. Apart from, of course, his complete fascination with anything that would be interpreted as colorless to the female eye.

He liked his apartment dreary and well — beige. He refused to let her add anything of color. He refused to let her add anything with a feminine touch. He said no to everything. The beautiful waterfall painting? No. The gorgeous hand-made sculpture of an African God? A big, fat no. And now her lovely bedazzled vase, which she interpreted to be a hell no!

Even pillowcases. Who argues over pillowcases? What was wrong with him?

“How about I put it at the back so you don’t see it?” she suggested as a last attempt before she wrapped the vase in newspaper.

Max eased his long body into the one-seater sofa and lifted a slice of pizza from the box on the little table beside him. “Uh…how about no?”

She rolled her eyes. “You have no culture, you know that?” She quickly wrapped up the vase. “And don’t eat that. It’s been out since last night.”

“I know,” he said as he took a bite of cold salami and cheese pizza.

“That’s gross!” She placed the vase back in the box before looking at him apprehensively. “Are you sure you don’t mind me moving in with you?”

He grinned. “Yes, that is the question you should ask after you’ve unpacked your last box.”

“I’m serious, Max.”

“Of course, I don’t mind. I mean, which guy in his right mind wouldn’t want a violent, absent-minded, junk collector living with him? It’s a no-brainer.”

Her face drooped and he offered her a stale slice of pizza as a peace offering. “I’m just kidding,” he said softly. “I don’t mind at all.”

When she rejected his peace offering, he set the box back on the side table, and sat back to enjoy his hardened, cheese-encrusted slice. “I think we just have to decide on chores now.”

Her eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “I could cook.”

“N-o-o-o! No cooking for you. You should be banned from all kitchens.”

Danny narrowed her eyes, feeling slightly indignant. “Hey, I can make a really mean grilled cheese sandwich.”

“Yeah, that’s about all you can make. And even that repeats itself on you for two days afterwards.”

She sat down on the two-seater beige sofa adjacent to the one he was on, kicked off her shoes, and pulled her legs up underneath her. “Well, in case you forgot, I made that for lunch yesterday and you’re still smiling.”

Max finished off his slice of pizza and licked his fingers. “I’m smiling,” he said matter-of-factly, “because I have a sexy smile and I like to flaunt it.”

Danny choked, trying to hold back a smile. “Oh, yeah. With your one dimple. I think you were last in line when God was handing out dimples and when he got to you, he was just like, oh, I’m sorry. I only have one left.”

She watched the smile drop off his face and the laughter came bubbling out of her. She had teased him about that dimple since the moment they met. The same joke had been revised and innovated over the years. But she had to admit, it was one adorable dimple.

He had a naughty sort of face, not rugged, but boyish, and God had placed that dimple on the perfect spot on his left cheek. That, coupled with his thick, brown hair and mischievous brown eyes brought him just to the border of not being a complete geek. He had all the ingredients to make up a world-class nerd. Tall. Skinny. Shy. But that one dimple was his saving grace. One could see that he was a sci-fi movie junkie, but at the same time he was still kinda cute.

Okay, that was a lie. He was good looking. Actually, he was very good looking. But he was just such…a dork!

“I’ll have you know,” Max said when her laughter subsided enough for him to be heard, “this one dimple attracts a lot of women.”

“So what you’re saying is that it’s your personality that eventually has them running in the opposite direction? Maybe if you had two, they’d consider staying more than a week.”

“No, I’m content with one.” He stretched his arms arrogantly and clasped his hands at the back of his head. “Statistically, they say men with one dimple - on average - have bigger penises.”

She abruptly stopped laughing, as if she had just been slapped with a wet mop. She took a moment or two to recollect her thoughts. “What?”

* * * * *

Max watched how the confusion played with her face, how the words came to her lips, but froze on the tip of her tongue. Cute, he thought. She was so damn cute.

Her one eyebrow lifted and her mouth dropped slightly. “Okay, that has got to be the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”

And there it was. She said it. The incentive for him to say anything so undeniably stupid was simply to hear her say that. It wasn’t so much the words, but the look on her face that accompanied that statement. After six years, he knew every single facial expression she made, but this particular one was his favorite. A very close second was seeing her smile. She had one tooth that overlapped another at the corner of her mouth that could be seen ever so slightly each time she smiled. Everything about her was so adorable, so loveable, so…perfect.

And she had just moved in with him. What the hell was he going to do now?

* * * * *

Danny walked out of the bathroom after brushing her teeth and headed straight to the kitchen. All she wanted to do was climb back into bed, but her brain instructed her feet to move in the direction of the heavenly smell of coffee. She stopped in front of the living room and took a step back to admire the view.

The puppy-dog face had not completely lost its mojo. She had managed to convince Max to take down those dreaded beige blinds and replace them with elegant lace curtains. The sunlight came streaming in now, washing over the furniture, painting the room with a warm glow. She smiled triumphantly. It was a small triumph, but a triumph nevertheless.

She had also managed to steal a moment to sneak her Egyptian vase into the living room cabinet and as predicted, Max had not noticed it…yet.

A week had passed since she moved in and it wasn’t as bad as she originally expected. She still missed the smell of her old apartment and she still had to get the hang of adjusting the water in the shower to the right temperature, but that was the end to her list of cons. The list of pros were much longer. This apartment had the most magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean and she was definitely getting used to the distant sound of the waves breaking against the shore before she fell asleep at night.

The apartment was an adorable little place with just enough room for the two of them. A medium sized kitchen was situated just right of the entrance and the open-plan living room to the left. There was a round dining table behind the two-seater sofa in the living room. However, eating at it was not its main purpose. Max only used it for work. The table was his idea of fine art — boring and lifeless.

She wouldn’t mind it as much were it not for the fact that it was the first thing she saw when she walked in. She definitely needed to go shopping for a tablecloth.

Max’s bedroom was at the end of the short corridor and her bedroom and the bathroom were neatly placed on either side of the hallway, standing right opposite each other. The pro was the short distance between the two that definitely helped when she was running late in the morning.

Her favorite restaurant, Rocko’s Pizza and Pasta, was down the road, but having Italian food at such convenience would definitely turn into a con as soon as her butt started jiggling.

Oh! And let’s not her forget her new roommate. She did have trouble adjusting to coming home to an apartment that was not empty, but she had to admit that having a hot meal waiting for her was worth the small sacrifice of having complete solitude. Max was phenomenal. She had always known that he was a neat man, but living with him had really opened her eyes. He never left dirty clothes or wet towels on the bathroom floor, he never left the toilet seat up, and he never went to bed unless every last dirty dish was washed, dried and packed away.

They had settled into a comfortable routine of doing their chores. She did the dusting and sweeping, he took care of the laundry, and they both took turns washing dishes on alternate days. He cooked every night, except Friday nights because some daft paranormal series that he never misses was screened every Friday night. She didn’t mind, though. Friday nights presented the perfect opportunity to brush up on her culinary skills. One lesson later and she was already feeling like she was on the path to becoming the female version of Jamie Oliver. It was working out pretty well…so far.

She walked into the kitchen and saw Max. From the lack of stubble that had been on his jaw the night before, she could tell that he had already shaved and showered. How did he always mange to look so fresh? It was a Saturday morning. Why would he willingly wake up early on the weekend? Freak!

“Good morning,” he greeted, extending a hand holding a steaming mug. “I made coffee for you.”

She smiled. That was another pro. He made her a cup of coffee every morning. She took a sip and groaned her pleasure. It was sweet and creamy, just the way she liked it. She took a seat on one of the barstools next to the island counter on the opposite side of Max.

The kitchen was relatively small, but the island counter allowed for freedom of movement. All the cupboards had a light oak finish and the counter tops were an off-red sort of color. It was hideous, but at least it was a break from beige.

Max took a sip of his own coffee and resumed finishing the crossword puzzle he had started.

“Did you see the living room?” Danny asked. She was just about to start bragging about how much better it looked with curtains instead of blinds when he looked up at her, and he did not look very happy.

“It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie,” he said. “You know; the blinding light that the aliens come out of before they take over the world. We have to change it back. It’s just too bright…”

Oh, no. He was rambling again. He always complained excessively if he didn’t like something, but if he did like something he would limit it to just one word like nice or fine. He was so hard to please.

“Okay, Spawn of Dracula, would you just chill? It’s not like you’re going to melt or burst into flames. The curtains are nice.”

He quietened, silently accepting defeat. She waited for the vein on the side of his neck to stop twitching before she thought it safe to speak again. “So…you didn’t say anything about dinner last night.”

“It was…edible,” he replied cautiously. “It was a bit salty and way too creamy but the cheese was a nice touch. I’ve never had mashed potatoes topped with cheese before.”

Her face dropped in absolute horror. “It was macaroni!”

“Well…” he began, choosing his words carefully so as not to upset her further, “I guess that explains the cheese.” He placed his hand over hers and smiled reassuringly. “Look on the bright side. At least from this point on, you can only get better. I don’t think it’s possible for you to get much worse.”

“Thanks,” Danny said sarcastically. “You always know just what to say. Maybe—”

She was cut off by a knock at the door. She stood, walked to her bedroom, and pulled her robe on over her Winnie the Pooh boxer shorts before she made her way to the entrance to answer it.

“Hey, Lauren,” she greeted chirpily when she opened the door. “What brings you to our neck of the woods?”

Lauren Banner was the senior editor at Banner and Coopers by title but in actual fact she was the senior editor, team builder, guidance counsellor, unofficial matchmaker, and receptionist when Charlene called in sick. She was probably the nicest person ever. As in ever! Perhaps a little too nice, like if you slit her wrist, she would probably bleed pure honey.

She was twenty-seven years Danny’s senior yet even with pushing fifty-two, she was still the most elegantly beautiful woman Danny had ever seen. She had absolutely flawless skin and the perfect posture. Her sandy brown hair was always neatly pinned up and she had a presence that could dominate a room. She could draw all eyes on her without even realizing it.

Lauren was the only person at B&C that had ever cut Danny any slack. As a junior intern fresh out of college, she was assigned the fascinating job of working the photocopier for her first three weeks. Dazzling. Though as mindless as the job appeared, she had not known how to work the damn thing. She had come top of her class in journalism, but learning how to print on both sides of an A4 page was like nuclear physics to her. But Lauren had taken her under her wing and gave her assignments that had eventually earned her some credibility.

“Morning, Lauren,” Max said as he stepped out of the kitchen into the hallway.

“Good morning, Maximillian.”

“Please refrain from calling me that.” Max leaned over Danny and kissed Lauren on the cheek once she stepped inside.

Lauren had become a second mother to both of them over the last few years. Not that Danny had ever had a first mother. Both her parents had been killed in a botched robbery when she was only a few months old. She had no recollection of them, not even a photograph. She didn’t even know what ethnic group she belonged to. Her hazel eyes, long, dark brown hair and caramel skin could fall into a number of racial categories. At twenty-five years old, she was still trying to figure out her heritage.

She had spent years looking at pictures in magazines, trying to find some resemblance to anyone, hoping maybe the person smiling back at her was some distant relative who could help her find some closure.

She had been sent from foster home to foster home, but finally when she was eleven, she was thrown into the arms of the most caring man, Jake Peterson. It was then that she finally made peace with her broken past. The first time he hugged her, all the questions melted away and it was the first time she felt like she belonged.

He had raised her with more love than most normal families had. He gave her everything a girl could want and the only thing he ever asked for in return was that she get good grades so she could earn a scholarship to college.

She had done just that. Everything she had, everything she accomplished was all thanks to good ol’ Pappa Jake.

Life was perfect until the phone call she received late February last year. Jake had had a heart attack, pronounced dead before she had even climbed into her car to drive to the hospital. Just like that her life had fallen to pieces. Just like that the world had become a dull and morbid place. Were it not for Max, she would probably still be living in that world and were it not for Lauren, she would still be feeling like she had no real family.

“Can I offer you something to eat or drink?” Danny asked.

“Oh, no thank you, Danielle. I cannot possibly eat another bite. I completely stuffed myself over breakfast this morning.”

And by that she meant that she had an entire bowl of bran flakes and a yogurt.

“I thought I would just pop by and see how you two were doing,” Lauren continued. “I come back from my vacation and find out that the offices have moved earlier than expected and you have moved. It’s like the whole world has gone topsy turvy.”

Danny could only smile. Lauren had a way of sugar-coating everything. Where a normal person would say, “Who the hell do those assholes think they are? Moving offices without informing me first?” Lauren would simply smile pleasantly and take it in her stride. It was not in her nature to be vulgar or rude. She did everything in a lady-like manner. She spoke eloquently, pronouncing each word separately. Another habit she had was always addressing people by their full names. She never took shortcuts in the English language, which explained why she was the senior editor of the biggest publishing house in California.

Lauren moved to the living room, sat down, and tucked one ankle neatly behind the other. “I see a lot has changed since you moved in, Danielle. The curtains are lovely.”

Danny cast Max a look of sheer arrogance before turning back to Lauren. “It is, isn’t it?”

She sat down on the sofa adjacent to Lauren while Max stood a few feet away, leaning against the wall.

“So you two are living together now. How delightful. It must be such fun.”

Max laughed. “I give her three more weeks before she’s completely bored of me.”

Danny looked up at him and smiled. “Max, I could never get bored of you.” Their eyes locked for a long time and it was only when Lauren spoke again that she remembered she was actually in the middle of a conversation.

“Tell me, Danielle. How is Richard? Is he back in town?”

“Fuck!” Max snorted under his breath and walked back to the kitchen, looking highly irritated.

“Oh, Richard is fine,” Danny responded after Max left the room. “He’s still in Miami doing a photo shoot. He should be back in a week or two. Fashion models have pretty demanding jobs.”

And Richard deserved every single cent that gorgeous face earned him, Danny thought. He had the most perfect features, hand-sculpted by the Gods themselves. Immaculate bone structure. Jet-black hair. Seductive green eyes. Killer smile. The man just exuded sexiness. And his body… Someone get a mop and wipe the drool off the floor!

Strong arms, broad shoulders, and a chest that was made to pillow a woman’s head.

Let’s assess. Absolutely, positively, fall over yourself trying to get a better look gorgeous. Check. Super-duper sexy. Check. Rich. Check. Caring and sensitive. Check. That should actually count two points. Double check.

Oh, what do you know? Richard was the perfect man. And she had been lucky enough to nab him before any of those cheap, gold digging, please sign my G-string sluts managed to get their grubby paws on him. In eight days, they would be dating for exactly nine months and what a blissful nine months it had been. Love was definitely blossoming. Scratch that. Love had already bloomed. Happily ever after. Check.

“How do you do it, dear?” Lauren asked. “It must be so difficult maintaining a relationship when you hardly ever see him.”

“It is difficult, Lauren. I get really lonely sometimes and long distance phone calls aren’t always practical, but I know Richard loves me.”

A look came over Lauren’s face. It was a face that Danny had grown to hate, a face that meant that Lauren was going to try for the umpteenth time to convince her to break-up with Richard. “Of course he does, but do you not ever wish for a normal relationship with someone who is always there for you when you need him?”

“I love Richard, Lauren. I take the good with the bad. He’s perfect for me. I could never find another man like him.”

“Maybe you are just not looking in the right places, dear.” Lauren cast a quick look to the kitchen. “Your Mister Right could be right under your nose.”

Oh, for goodness sakes! Had this been a one-sided conversation? There’s no need to look, Lauren, Danny shouted in her head. Mister Right has already been found.

She was about to give her a piece of her mind when the sound of a vibrating cell phone stopped her.

Lauren dug in her purse, pulled out her phone, and sighed. “I must be going, Danielle.” She stood up and headed towards the door. “My butler is not too sure that my husband will be able to put up with my grandchildren for much longer, but I will see you on Monday morning, bright and early.” She turned to Danny before she stepped out. “Think about what I said.”

Danny rolled her eyes and shook her head. There was no talking to this woman. “I’ll think about it.”

She shut the door, went back to the sofa and plopped down. What was wrong with Lauren? Any woman would jump at the chance to date Richard and here she was trying to push her into the arms of another man. Max also had an extreme dislike towards Richard and had tried on several occasions to persuade her to end their relationship. And then there was her friend, Amber, who seemed to be under the impression that Richard was only after one thing.

Danny sighed. Everyone just needed to back off. This was her life and Richard was going to be apart of it whether they liked it or not.

* * * * *

Danny met Amber on the sidewalk outside Madame Fouche’s Day Spa.

“Hey, you,” Amber greeted, her auburn hair shimmering in the sunlight.

Amber was Danny’s closest friend, second to Max. She was an average height, about the same as Danny, and brought to life the expression dynamite comes in small packages. They had gone their separate ways after college, but when Amber moved back to Los Angeles a year ago, it was like they had never been apart. They met for lunch as often as they could but no matter what, at least once a month they accompanied Lauren and Jennifer to the Day Spa.

They walked to the reception area where Jennifer and Lauren were already waiting. They were led up the stairs to the quiet rooms, where they each received a hot stone massage and an intense back rub. The scented candles and the soft music playing in the background allowed Danny to feel the relaxation she had not felt in weeks. She closed her eyes as Alicia’s hands worked their expert magic down her spine.

After the massage, they pulled on their white robes and walked to the shady area near the pool. They stretched out on the long pool loungers, waiting for the next session that would start in half an hour. Danny had just begun to relax when Jennifer started complaining, as usual, that her masseuse had not used enough pressure to work out the knot on her shoulder.

Jen was Lauren’s youngest daughter and although both Amber and Danny were not too fond of her incessant complaining, they tolerated her for the pleasure of Lauren’s company. Jennifer had inherited her good looks from her mother, her sandy hair and brown eyes, but by no means had she inherited Lauren’s good nature. Unlike Lauren, she was neither well-mannered nor reserved and she could definitely run her mouth off when she was unhappy about something.

Jen unclipped her bra and rolled over onto her tummy so her back could get an even tan. “So now that you’re living with Max, I think it’s time you set me up on a date with him like you promised.”

Danny coughed out a laugh. “I promised no such thing.”

She lifted herself onto her elbows and glowered at Danny. “This is the sixth time I’ve asked you and you keep making excuses. If you don’t do it, I’ll…I’ll…I’ll get my mom to fire you.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen either,” Amber chimed in. “It doesn’t matter anyway. You are s-o-o-o not his type. He doesn’t like loose women.”

Danny fought a smile. Amber had always had a soft spot for Max and the last thing she wanted was for Jennifer to get her hands on him. She was just protective that way. Amber was the type of person that never took slack from anyone. She was hard and told things as they were. She was feisty for someone so small. Even her boss was scared of her. Danny had learnt a lot from her over the years. Amber had taught her how to be more confident and more assertive. The only difference was that Danny knew when to hold her tongue. Amber, on the other hand, felt no need to keep her opinions to herself, no matter how offensive they might be.

“You’re such a bitch, Amber!”

“It takes one to know one, Jennifer.”

“We are ladies,” Lauren interjected as she adjusted herself on the pool lounger. “How about we start acting like it?”

Jen rolled her eyes, clearly upset that her mother had not taken her side. She let out a disgruntled snort, quickly stood up and stormed off.

“Fuck, Lauren. How do you put up with her?” Amber asked.

Lauren let out a deep sigh and shut her eyes. “With an insane amount of effort, Ambrosia.”

Amber and Danny giggled at her laid back response.

“Now, hush, ladies. After all, we did come out here to relax.”

* * * * *

Max sighed. He had been staring at his computer screen for the past forty-five minutes and still could not find any inspiration for his new web design. He usually never suffered from a creative block, but it seemed like all he was able to concentrate on lately was Danny.

Granted, a huge chunk of his day was generally spent thinking about her. That was the way it had been for the past six years but ever since she moved in with him two and half weeks ago, he could not get her out of his head. She would traipse around the apartment, wearing her tiny shorts and her tight little tank tops, and all that meant for him was another unproductive day.

The message tone that rang on his phone was a further distraction. He knew before he even unlocked it that it was his sister, Jordan. She had not texted him in four days so he was expecting something either outrageously funny or mildly nerdy. But he was wrong. It was outrageously nerdy.

Jordan: How many programmers does it take to change a light bulb? NONE. That’s a hardware problem.

Max: Lame! I expected more from you.

Max: P.S I’m not a programmer anymore

Jordan: Aren’t all IT guys the same?

Max: I’m not gonna dignify that with a response. Keep trying though.

He placed his phone back on the desk and stood up. Maybe some coffee could jump start his brain into working again. He walked to the office kitchen and took out a mug from the cabinet. He heard footsteps enter the kitchen behind him and he could tell by the exasperated splutter that it was Charlie.

“Well, if it isn’t Mister I-forget-my-friends-as-soon-as-hazel-eyes-moves-in.”

Max smiled and shook his head. “That’s a pretty long name.” He turned to face his very irate friend. “You can’t think of anything shorter?”

Charlie sneered his irritation. “Oh, you think this is funny? It isn’t funny, man. I told you letting her move in was a bad idea. That’s two weekends you bummed out on me. Not one, two. And for what? To pick out fucking curtains?”

“I’ve been told they’re really nice curtains.” He read the unimpressed look on Charlie’s face and decided to be more serious. “Would a sorry help?”

“I need more than a sorry. I had Tekken 6. We haven’t played that game in ages and now Dave—”

“You had Tekken 6?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you! I had my whole Saturday planned and you went and ruined it. I spent the entire weekend playing with myself.”

Max raised his eyebrows. “That just didn’t sound right, Charlie.”

“You know what I meant.”

“When does Dave want it back?”


Max sighed heavily. “Okay, ask him to extend it and I’ll loan him Gunstar Heroes.”

“That’s not gonna cut it, Max. I think you forgot how hot Lili looks in that one. I mean, like smoking hot. And Christie Monteiro…I have no fucking words.”

“I’m not really in to CGI characters, but I’ll take your word for it.” Max took a moment to think about their options. He had to make it up to Charlie.

His friend was sort of intense, the type of person who ran on a very short fuse. One little comment and a full-on rampage would ensue. He was much shorter than Max, stockier too, and he would have black hair if his continuous stressing had not caused him to turn gray prematurely. He had that whole Richard Gere thing going on and it was for that very reason that no one suspected that they were actually the same age.

They had made fast friends two years ago when Max first started working for IT Solutions. He was generally a fun guy until Danny was mentioned. He seemed to despise her. Not her as a person but the threat she presented to their friendship. Charlie knew deep down that Danny always came first so it made everything a constant competition. It was a fight for Max’s attention and Danny certainly gave Charlie a run for his money. But in instances like this one, Danny was forced to take the backseat. This was Tekken 6 they were talking about.

“You know what you have to do,” Max said.

Charlie’s eyes widened. “I know you’re not suggesting…”

Max nodded.

“Oh, c’mon, Max. You can’t be serious!” He crossed his arms like a stubborn child. “Rising Dead? You want me to lend him Rising Dead? I wouldn’t even lend my own brother that game.”

“Charlie, it will just be one weekend.”

Charlie shook his head. “And we both know how Dave just appropriates things. You remember what happened with my Xenoblade Chronicles?”

Max turned back to his cup, poured in hot coffee from the percolator and added one teaspoon of sugar. “I don’t think Dave is brave enough to try that with Rising Dead.” He stirred his coffee slowly, allowing sufficient time for Charlie to give the suggestion some thought.

“Fine,” he said eventually. “But you owe me big time ’cause if you weren’t so wrapped up in hazel eyes, we wouldn’t be having this problem.”

Max took his cup of freshly made coffee and started heading back to his office with Charlie walking beside him.

“You playing tonight?” Charlie asked idly.

“Who’s gonna be there?”

“Me, Dave, Jeff. Willy can’t make it. His wife’s bitching again. Apparently married men shouldn’t be having boys’ poker nights.”

“Oh, Mister Shepard,” the receptionist called as they walked past, “Danny just called. She said the meeting was a success.”

Max smiled. “Thanks, Dorothy.”

Charlie rested his forearm casually on the reception desk. “So, Dorothy, what do you say to me, you, and some Barry White tomorrow night? My mom’s outta town this week. I’ve got the whole place to myself.” He licked his lips and blew a kiss.

Dorothy rolled her eyes and pulled her face in disgust. “What do you say to a knee to the groin and a sexual harassment charge?”

“So you’ll think about it?” Charlie asked, his confidence not diminishing in the slightest.

Max grabbed his arm and pulled him away before Dorothy got out her pepper spray. “About poker tonight,” Max began slowly. “I don’t think I’m gonna make it. I’ve gotta—”

“Save it,” Charlie clipped, shaking his head. “I already know what you have planned for tonight and I can bet that you’re gonna do the asshole thing again. You gotta give it up, man. You make this chick your whole world and she’s never gonna see you as anything more than a friend.” Charlie grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “It’s never gonna happen. She’s still dating that deadbeat model. And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can start tapping some ass.”

Max laughed. Charlie was a self-endowed player. He didn’t tap much ass himself, but the CGI women usually kept him entertained during his dry spells.

“If at some point you feel like you wanna take your head out of your ass,” Charlie said irritably, “we’ll be at Dave’s house.”

* * * * *

Danny raced out of the shower to her bedroom in a panic-stricken frenzy and assessed the almost impossible task she had to tackle. Okay, she told herself. This wasn’t completely undoable. Many women had done it before her. Being late for a date was sort of given. Beauty took time. No one just naturally looked like they were ready to hit the red carpet at the Oscars. Richard would understand. She was only about ten… maybe twenty minutes late. No big deal.

Right. Apply body lotion. No! No! No! Too much! Too much! Why did that always happen at the worst possible time?

Try forcing handful of body lotion back into bottle even though any idiot can see that the hole at the top is too small to swallow that much liquid but trying never hurt anyone.

Alright. Back on track. Apply body lotion. Rub excess on bed sheets. Pull on dress as fast as possible. Oh, damn! Slippery fingers and zippers weren’t the best combination. Leave that for now. Go on to easier things. Earrings.

Danny raced around her bed, grabbed her gold earrings, and tried with great difficulty to put them on. “Max,” she called.

“Yeah,” he called back from the kitchen.

“Have you seen my black sandals? I can’t find them anywhere.”

* * * * *

Max lowered the heat of the stove and walked to her bedroom where she was rummaging through her cupboard. He couldn’t see her, but he did see flying tops, shoes and belts.

“I think I saw them in the—”

She stepped out from behind the cupboard and suddenly the words he was about to say disappeared. The little black number she chose to wear hung loosely over chest but ever so tight over her legs; hugging her hips, her waist.

Now when did that happen? She never had hips or an ass. She never had…curves. Maybe he was imagining things. He blinked twice.

Nope. Those curves were every bit as real as they were a second ago. His home-cooked meals had certainly filled her out in all the right places. Note to self. Strictly salads from now on.

“Hello? Anyone in there?” She waited for him to lift his wandering eyes to meet hers before she continued. “You were saying?”

“Uh…yeah…I think… I…uh…saw…” He looked away when he noticed that he was stuttering like an idiot. “Living… uh…yeah, living room…right next to…the c-coffee table.”

Quizzical eyebrows lifted his way. “Thanks.” She turned around, grasped her hair, and pulled it to the front of one shoulder. “Can you zip me up?”

Oh, yeah. Of course that would happen. How else would he know that God didn’t love him? The day she decides to wear the sexiest dress ever made just had to be the day that she wanted him to zip her up.

He felt the stirrings beneath his jeans and took a deep breath to subdue it. Taking hold of the zipper, he slowly pulled it up, his fingers gliding against the smooth skin of her back as he did so. He tried to swallow the nervous lump in his throat. “All done.”

She turned around and he had to step back before he did something stupid. She walked to the mirror and began applying her make-up. She generally didn’t wear make-up. And it was a Tuesday night. She never went out on a week night. What was the occasion? She hadn’t mentioned anything to him.

She fluffed her long, dark brown hair and turned around.


She was hot!

Her hair was bouncy enough to give her a just shagged look, but not so much to look untidy and the gold jewelry she adorned herself with made her caramel skin look extra soft, like Egyptian cotton kind of soft.

She pressed the dress against herself as she turned to get a side profile of herself. “Does this dress make my boobs look small?” she asked, pulling it tighter over her chest.

Oh, jeez! Like the tight dress and newly developed ass weren’t enough, he had to entertain questions like these. It was official. God didn’t love him.

This was the worst part about being the best friend. She would ask him questions like that and expect it not to affect him. She needed a reality check. He was in fact a hot-blooded, straight man who happened to like breasts and thighs and tight black dresses. And now, due to her well thought out question, he was forced to look at those perky little buds. She wasn’t the most well-endowed woman. Actually her breasts were rather small, but they were perfect.

The designer of that horrid dress had seemingly taken a lesson in less is more. Less material, more torture for poor, defenseless roommate. There was a huge V missing from the top half that exposed a generous amount of her cleavage yet still managed to leave enough to the imagination. And he was definitely imagining, imagining his hands running up her thighs, imagining how much better that dress would look on his bedroom floor. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. The troops were going to start heading south if he didn’t stop imagining things.

“Your…uh…your breasts…” He looked away from fear of losing his sanity. “Your breasts are…amazing,” he whispered.

Danny stopped admiring herself and abruptly turned to face him. She looked fairly shocked. A slight flush crept up her neck and onto her cheeks. Her gaze locked on his for a few seconds, and for those few seconds it seemed like the world stopped spinning.

“Oh, shit! I’m so late,” she said as she whizzed out of the room.

What a way to piss on the mood, Max thought. “Where are you going?”

“On a date,” she called from the living room.

He checked that his temporary negligence had not caused the food to burn, then walked to the living room. He found her sitting on the edge of the sofa, pulling on her black stiletto sandals and then without warning, she stood up and began tossing the throw cushions off the sofa. “Where is it?”

“Slow down. What are you looking for?”

“My cell phone. I know I left it in here.”

“No, you didn’t. It’s in the kitchen.”

She bent over and hurriedly picked up the discarded pillows, tossing them back onto the sofa; the short, black dress riding up further as she did so. God, she had great legs, the type of legs that he couldn’t help but wonder how they would feel wrapped around his waist.

Oh, damn! The troops were on the move again. He shut his eyes and tried to think of something mundane. Butterflies and daisies! Butterflies and daisies!

Exhaling a steady breath, he opened his eyes just in time to see her rush into the kitchen on unsteady heels.

“So who are you going on this big date with anyway?”

“With Richard, of course.”

“Oh,” was all he said, not even attempting to disguise the disappointment in his voice.

Danny stepped out of the kitchen and dropped her cell phone into her purse. “Max, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” he replied before the question had fully left her mouth. He lowered his head, slowly nipping his bottom lip. “It’s nothing.”

“I know you for six years, Max, and I know that every time you bite your lip, you’re lying. So what’s up?”

“It’s nothing, really…” The warning look she shot him told him that it was better to tell the truth than ignite her violent streak. “It’s just…I made your favorite, you know. Your meeting…it went well…and I just…I just thought we’d…” He pulled his lips in. “Just forget it.”

Her face flinched as if she was upset with herself. “I’m really sorry, Max, but I have to go. I’m dying to see Richard and I don’t know how long he’s going to be in town.”

“You don’t have to go, Danny. The guy rotates you on his schedule. He just snaps his fingers and you go rushing off to him.”

“That’s not true. I had the same conversation with Lauren a few days ago. Why can’t you guys give him a break? You know Richard does his best. He just has a really demanding job.”

“Oh, his job?” Max asked sardonically. “Tell me something, Danny. You’ve been living with me for almost three weeks and does Richard even know about it?”

She slowly shook her head.

“No. Of course, he doesn’t. And do you wanna know why? Because you haven’t even heard from him in over a month!”

He was shouting now, his temper threatening to spiral out of control.

“Okay, Max,” she said calmly. “I don’t wanna fight about this again. I’m really sorry about dinner, but I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

He tried his hardest not to sneer. A trail of broken promises always preceded a date with Richard. Charlie’s words came back to bite him. She was never going to see him as anything more than a friend. She had a choice right now to either spend the evening with him or with Richard and it had taken her not even a nanosecond to make that choice, the wrong choice. He did make her his whole world, which always made moments like this harder to endure.

He gritted his teeth and forced a smile. “Okay. You two have fun.”

“I will,” she responded softly. “I won’t be too late.” She walked towards him and kissed him on the cheek. His hand moved around her waist onto the small of her back. He heard her inhale a deep breath, but then she quickly pulled away and glanced at him awkwardly.

“I am sorry, Max,” she whispered.

He simply nodded, silently letting her know that it was okay but it wasn’t really okay. Nodding back, she slowly began walking to the door. He grabbed her wrist and she turned to face him again.

“You…uh…” Searching for courage, he broke eye contact for a moment or two before he looked at her again. “You look really pretty tonight.”

A shy smile curved on her lips and she glanced at the floor to hide her flushed cheeks. “Thank you.” She remained frozen even after he released her wrist. “I’ll see you later.” And with that she made a hasty escape from the apartment.

Max watched her close the door and slumped back against the wall. He hit his head against it, trying to rid himself of his thoughts. Why couldn’t he just forget? Why couldn’t he just wake up one morning and forget everything he felt for her? It would make life so much easier. It would make the ache he was feeling in his chest right now a whole lot less painful.

If he could just forget about the happiness he felt every time he saw her smile, he could simultaneously forget about how much it hurt every time Richard made her cry. If he could just forget about how good her lips felt against his cheek, he could forget about the grating jealousy he felt knowing that those lips would be pressed against Richard’s before the end of the night. If he could just forget about the fact that he was so completely in love with her, he could forget about the lump that formed in his throat every time she claimed to love a man who wasn’t worthy of that love. If he could just forget about the dreams of them becoming more than friends, he could forget the pain of knowing that those dreams would never come true.

Max walked into the living room, switched on the TV and threw himself onto the sofa. He wanted to call Charlie and ask if he could sit in on poker tonight, but he knew that he wouldn’t be good company. He flipped through the channels, hoping the imagery would take away the sight of her popping out from behind the cupboard, her pulling that black dress tight over her breasts. It was memories like that that made forgetting so damn hard. And then to top it all off, she’d kissed him and his first instinct was to shift his head so that her lips would land on his lips instead of his cheek. The more he thought about it, the more he felt like he had imagined it.

Was it just him or did that kiss linger a little longer than usual?

* * * * *

Danny stood outside Bon Appetite, the classiest restaurant in California, and she was going to be dining with the hottest man in the world. A girl could not ask for more. If she had to be completely honest, this sort of thing wasn’t really her style. She would choose Rocko’s Pizza and Pasta hands down any day, but Richard loved to spoil her and who was she to say no.

She had been freaking out for being late but now she realized that there was no need to. Richard had not arrived yet. She felt a bit foolish standing out there all by herself but Richard was not aware of the fact that she had moved in with Max and she did not want to go through the trouble of giving directions to the apartment.

Well, if she had to be honest about that, too, the real reason was that she just did not feel right telling Richard that she had moved in with another man over the phone. He generally wasn’t the jealous type — he was too confident to be insecure — but she wanted to have the conversation in person so that she could properly explain herself.

She peered into the restaurant to make sure that she had not missed him, but she couldn’t see past the reception area. She sighed and looked at her watch.

She looked up again and just like that, the world was perfect again. More than perfect. There he was, strolling across the street towards her. The most heavenly sight. His jet-black hair was slicked back. The top two buttons of his black shirt were left undone, exposing his broad chest. His green eyes sparkled and the sexiest smile curved on that gorgeous face as he approached her. She took a deep breath. The temperature just went up a few degrees.

“Hi, sweetheart,” He planted a quick kiss on her cheek. “Let’s go in. I’m famished.”

That’s it? Six weeks with no contact and that was it? Just one kiss…on the cheek? No I missed you? No it’s good to see you? Just one kiss and let’s eat?

Danny shook her head. She was just emotional. That was all. It was just because of that argument she had with Max that she was feeling like this. She was making a big deal out of nothing.

She smiled up at Richard. “That sounds great.”

Richard held the door open as she walked in. He led her through the extravagant reception to the maître d’, who smiled at them with a plastic smile. Ordinarily a man would not be allowed to dine here without a jacket and tie but Bon Appetite afforded certain concessions for supermodels, especially one with a status like Richard.

“Good evening,” he said pleasantly. “Richard Fox. Reservation for two.”

The maître d’ nodded. “I know who you are.” She pulled out two menus and started walking. “Follow me.”

She led them through the equally extravagant foyer to the seating area. Danny inhaled deeply. Even though Richard had brought her here many times before, she still felt anxiety every time she came here. It was so beyond the lifestyle she was used to. This place was for the rich and famous, but if she wanted her relationship with Richard to progress, she needed to learn to fit in.

Her heels clicked on the black and gold marble tiles and she found herself noticing every detail of the restaurant as an attempt to stop her discomfort. The ceilings were high and angels had been engraved in it with delicate expertise. A dimly lit crystal chandelier hung from the center of the roof and it was the slight luminous glow that gave the entire place a romantic atmosphere. Plush tablecloths were laid over the tables, alternating between black and white, and low-set candles were placed in the middle of each of those tables.

They were led to the far side of the restaurant to a secluded table near the window overlooking the ocean.

“I asked for this table,” Richard said. “I wanted some privacy. I haven’t seen my baby in weeks and I wanted you all to myself.”

Danny smiled. She knew it was probably the dorky smile that made her look like an idiot but she didn’t care. That was all she needed to hear to set her mind at ease.

He pulled out the chair for her and waited for her to be seated before he sat down. He was such a gentleman, always making sure that she was taken care of.

The maître d’ set their menus down in front of them and then the plastic smile reared its ugly head once again. “Your waitress will be with you momentarily.” She turned around and after a moment’s thought, she turned back to them again. “Mister Fox,” she began nervously, “may I have your autograph?”

Danny shook her head. It was the same thing every time they went out. He was not the A-class kind of celebrity who was constantly hounded by the Paparazzi, but he definitely had his fair share of fans.

“Sure,” Richard said, taking out the pen that he always carried around with him in case such a situation presented itself. The hostess pulled out a piece of paper, he signed it, and then they were finally alone.

He reached over the table and took her hand. “So how are you, sweetheart? It seems like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

Danny tried to smile and almost got it right. “You haven’t.”

“You haven’t seen me in ages.”

“I’m sorry. Things have been a little crazy. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

“Watch yourself, Richard,” she teased. “I might just hold you to that promise.”

He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed each one of her fingers. “I hope you do.”

The waitress arrived and he was forced to release her hand. She was tall and slender, wearing a tight black skirt, a white shirt, and a black tie, but even the simple attire of her uniform took nothing away from her natural beauty.

“Hi, I’m Melissa,” she said sweetly. “I’ll be your waitress this evening.”

“Hi, Melissa,” Richard said with an easy smile. “We’ll have a bottle of your finest wine. Only the best for my baby.”

Danny lifted her hand to protest and Richard looked at her questioningly. “Is something the matter?”

She sighed and cast her gaze to the floor to hide the hurt on her face. She hated wine. She hated alcohol in general after that one rebellious night in college, the only exception being a stiff shot of tequila on a really bad day. She had told Richard twice before that she wasn’t much of a drinker and she especially didn’t like mixing alcohol with food. It probably just slipped his mind. “It’s nothing,” she said.

Once Melissa left to get their drinks, she decided that maybe she was being a tad bit tetchy and she wanted to enjoy herself. She needed to lighten the mood. “How was Miami?”

“It was amazing, basically a six-week party. Our shoots were scheduled between nine and eleven in the morning and once that was over, we had the rest of the day to relax. We just lazed on the beach, sipping cocktails.”

All she could hear was Max’s voice at the back of her head, shouting “Really demanding job, huh?”

“Oh.” She faked another smile. “Sounds like fun.”

“I would have come back to see you,” he added quickly. “I begged my agent for just one weekend to come back here, but he blatantly refused.”

“You could’ve called,” Danny retorted, her response soft but jagged.

Richard opened his mouth to defend himself but seemed to be at a loss for words. Melissa was his saving grace. She arrived with a bottle of wine and two wine goblets. She placed one in front of each of them, then filled it midway with the crisp red liquor.

“Are you ready to order?” Melissa asked, pulling out a small notepad and pen from her apron.

“I’ll have the chef’s specialty tonight,” Richard responded.

“I’ll have the butternut soup,” Danny said, having completely lost her appetite.

Melissa left again and Richard tried to change the topic of conversation as fast as possible. “So what’s new?”

“Well,” Danny began apprehensively, “I…uh…moved in with Max about three weeks ago.”

“Oh.” He smiled, but it was a smile that was dripping with bitter sarcasm. “You just thought you’d get closer to the best friend who can’t stand me?”

“It’s just more convenient, that’s all. We moved offices and…”

“You don’t have to explain. I don’t feel threatened by a guy like Max. I just think that living with him is going to cause problems…between us. He hates me, Danny.”

“He does not hate you, Richard. He’s just protective.”

Richard smiled and leaned back in his chair. “I think he has a crush on you.”

He winked at her and her stomach tightened. She felt shy all of sudden and could not decide what the root of it was. Was it the way Richard was looking at her with those gorgeous green eyes or… was it possibly the fact Max might have a crush on her? No, she told herself. It definitely was not the latter. That was just ridiculous.

She tried to shake the feeling, but somehow her mind kept hopping back to when she had kissed him earlier, the kiss that had ended so awkwardly. She recalled every detail. It was supposed to be a simple kiss on the cheek. Nothing out of the ordinary, but then his hand had slipped onto the small of her back, the warmth of it taking all her troubles away and just for that moment nothing else mattered except for his skin beneath her lips. She had kissed him so many times before and yet somehow it was different. He smelled so good. He smelled the same every day and yet earlier tonight it was different. His scent had beckoned to her senses. Her nose drank him in, wanting to get lost in that fragrance. She took a deep breath, still lost in that moment before she realized what she was doing.

“You’re cute when you’re shy,” Richard said, bringing her back to reality. He leaned forward again and cupped her chin. “I really missed you.”

His lips were moving towards hers and she forced the thoughts of Max out of her head. He kissed her and she remembered how much she loved him. He was such a good kisser and that was everything a kiss should be. Sensual and satisfying, gentle and demanding all at the same time. He lifted his head a fraction and looked at her. “You look beautiful tonight,” he whispered.

Danny smiled. This date might have started off a little rocky but she had a feeling that Richard was on his way to redeeming himself.

Three hours later, Danny stood outside her apartment door. Things had gone along perfectly until a few short minutes ago. She still felt so perturbed. “You didn’t have to follow me home,” she told Richard, who was standing behind her. She slowly turned to face him. “I had a really great time.”

“I’d believe you if you didn’t look so sad.” Richard took her hand and lifted it to his lips. “What’s the matter?”

“Something’s been troubling me since we left the restaurant.”

“You can tell me.”

Danny suddenly felt a little silly. It was very possible that her insecurities were the root of this. “It’s just…” She exhaled slowly. “It’s just that when I was in the ladies room, I heard Melissa telling one of the other waitresses that you asked for her number and…Why? Why would you ask for her number?”

Richard seemed slightly taken aback by the attack. “Danny, Melissa wants to be a model. The last time I was in town, she asked me to organize a meeting with her and my agent, Carl. Carl agreed. I only took it so I could give it to him on Thursday.”

“Oh.” She smiled, feeling rather sheepish.

“Sweetheart, are you feeling insecure or something? You’ve been dissecting everything I do tonight.”

“I know…I’m sorry. I just haven’t seen you in a while…and then I heard this thing with Melissa and…”

“It’s okay.” He pulled her into his strong arms and hugged her tight. “I understand, but there’s something you should understand. You are my one and only. I have no interest in Melissa or any other woman for that matter.”

She nodded and he bent his head to hers. The kiss that followed was nothing short of amazing. His lips moved seductively over hers. She felt the muscles in her tummy tighten. His mouth moved down her neck. His fingers twisted into her hair. “I want you so bad,” he said hoarsely.

She was lost in the whirlwind of emotion, lust and desire, but when his hand moved up to cup her breast, she jerked back and broke the kiss. “Richard,” she said breathlessly.

He scanned her up and down with smoky green eyes that showed his exact intentions. “Let’s go inside,” he suggested deviously.

“Max is in there.” Her voice sounded constricted, helpless almost, a tell-tale sign that she was looking for an excuse. Maybe she was just a hopeless romantic, but she actually didn’t want her first time to be so rushed and more importantly, she didn’t want her best friend sleeping in the very next room.

“He’s probably already asleep,” Richard said, dipping his head towards her again. His hand moved to her breast once more but this time his fingers slid beneath the material of her black dress.

“Richard, please!” She backed away from him and crossed her arms awkwardly over her chest. Her cheeks felt hot and the embarrassment brought tears to the brink of falling “I thought we agreed to take things slow.”

“Slow?” He repeated the word with an anger she had never seen before. “I think that dating someone for nine months and never moving past first base is taking it at a snail’s pace, don’t you agree?”

“Just try to be patient.”

“Fine.” He lifted both hands and coolly started backing away. “I care about you, Danny, so I’m willing to wait, but bear in mind I am not a patient man.” He turned around and stalked off.

Danny slumped against the door once she was inside. She was beyond confused. If Richard loved her, he wouldn’t mind waiting. Then again, if Richard loved her, he would want to be closer to her in every way. Of course, he was frustrated. She always denied all of his advances. She stuck to first base because that was all she knew. Richard was one of the hottest men on the planet and there was no doubt in her mind that he had been with a lot of women before her. That’s what made this entire situation so difficult.

She sighed as she walked to the bathroom. Ten minutes later, she was plain and simple Danny again. She looked at herself in the mirror, her dark brown hair tied back in a ponytail, the make-up removed off her face. There was nothing special about her. She should actually count herself lucky that Richard had even bothered giving her a second glance. She felt emotionally exhausted and all she wanted to do was climb into bed and forget this whole ordeal.

She walked out of the bathroom and heard the slight muffles of the television. As she entered the living room, she saw Max sitting by himself in the dark. She would have noticed him when she came in had she not been so preoccupied. She moved to stand between the sofa and the purposeless dining table. “Hey, Max. You’re still up?”

He allowed his head to fall back against the backrest so he could look up at her. “Yeah. It just felt weird going to bed knowing that you weren’t home.”

Home. That one word brought comfort over her that she had not known could be felt so easily, especially after what had happened tonight. She smiled. He was so thoughtful without even realizing it. She looked at the screen and encountered a commercial for an ointment that was supposed to cure athletes’ foot. “Anything good on tonight?”

“Jerry Maguire, actually. It’s on an ad break now.”

“Really? I love that movie. I’m gonna get some ice cream. You want some?”

He nodded and she walked out of the living room to the kitchen and headed straight for the freezer. The pots were still on the stove. He had not touched the dinner he cooked for her. She tried to not acknowledge it but she felt so guilty. She stood there for a long while, staring at the pots. Maybe it wasn’t guilt. What it was, she couldn’t really put her finger on but she was pretty sure that the twinge inside her was not caused by guilt.

Forcing herself to brush it off, she emptied a generous portion of chocolate ice cream into two bowls and walked back to the living room. “So you’re watching Jerry Maguire?” Skepticism raised her eyebrows as she handed him a bowl.

“Yeah. You’ve been nagging me to watch it and I decided to give it a try. I had nothing better to do.”

Again, the twinge attacked her insides. “And?” she urged, trying to distract herself from her own thoughts.

And so far, I’m enjoying it.”

She sat down beside him and pulled his arm around her. Max tightened his hold and kissed the side of her head. It was obvious that he knew something was wrong, but he chose not to say anything. That was something that had always fascinated her about him. He somehow always knew when she didn’t want to talk, when words were cumbersome and a simple hug was enough.

Danny settled herself against the sofa to enjoy the rest of the movie. She snuggled into his arm and sighed, finally relaxing.

It was amazing. She had dated nine men in the past six years and before, after and during each relationship, the comfort she sought could only be found in these particular arms. These arms had carried her into her dorm room the night she had been too drunk to stand. These arms had taken on Anthony Townsend after he had spread rumors about her. These arms had held her night after night as she cried when Jake passed away. And in these arms was probably the best place in the world she could be right now.

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