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

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Chapter 2: February

“Would you two speed it up please,” Danny muttered irritably as they walked towards the conference room.

“I can’t believe we gave up another weekend of gaming for this,” Charlie whispered to Max.

“Next weekend, I promise,” Max whispered back.

Even though they tried to keep their voices low, Danny still overheard them. “You have no right to complain,” she said, glancing back at Charlie. “You were only invited because Max didn’t wanna ditch you again.”

“Back off, Satan!” He placed one index finger over the other in the shape of a cross in front of his face. “I have holy water stashed in my pocket, too.”

Danny bared her teeth and hissed at him like a cat ready to attack. Charlie had a habit of always conversing with her as if she were Satan’s little helper. Sometimes, like now, he would go as far as referring to her as the devil himself. He didn’t try to hide the fact that he didn’t like her and she didn’t hide the fact that she despised him. They had a very hateful relationship, which they were both quite comfortable with. Max was the only one who did not understand the dynamics of their relationship, but that was probably because he constantly had to play referee.

“Cool it, guys,” Max said sternly. “We’re all here for the children.”

They walked into the large conference room and Danny took a deep breath, feeling very proud of herself. Lauren had decided to host a dinner and dance party as an attempt to raise money for children with special needs. After the last two functions had gone off without a hitch, Lauren had entrusted Danny to plan yet a third event, and as she took in all the details, she knew she had done a fantastic job.

The conference room, which was big enough to cater for the two hundred benefactors she had invited, was expertly decorated in black and lime. Fairy lights hung across the walls and ceilings, giving the entire place an electric, magical feel. The waiters were scurrying around, placing cocktail snacks and other refreshments on the tables, while the DJ tested his sound equipment.

Danny glanced at her cell phone. 18:35. It was almost time. She recounted her mental checklist and nothing seemed missing or out of place. Perfect! She had just enough time to freshen up. She tugged off her cardigan and hung it over the back of the chair. She left Max and Charlie at the table, went to the restroom, and quickly touched up her make-up. She adjusted the straps of the powder-blue dress she wore. It was a light, airy dress, perfect for the evening of dancing she had planned. It was not tight, but it snugly hugged her abdomen before flaring out at the waist, accentuating her small frame. She ran her hand through her long, dark brown hair as an attempt to neaten it as she headed out the door.

When she returned to the table, Amber was already there, sitting next to Charlie. She seated herself next to Max. Lauren, her husband Jeffrey, and Jen sat down at a table in the front of the room. Lauren would be making an introductory speech soon and thus had asked for the table closest to the podium.

“You did a really great job,” Max commented, scanning the room.

“Yeah, this place looks amazing,” Amber agreed.

“What’s amazing is that you actually found time to do all this,” Charlie said, looking almost impressed. “I mean, in between sacrificing children and buying peoples’ souls.”

“Eat a dick, Charlie!” Danny retorted and turned her attention to Max. “Why do you even hang out with this loser?”

“For the sheer enjoyment of watching you two fight.” He smiled, his dimple showing ever so slightly.

He looked incredibly handsome tonight in a black suit and a bow tie. She had only seen him in formal wear a handful of times, but it was definitely something she could get used to.

The waiters came around serving starters, a variation of halloumi cheese, Greek salad, or butternut and leek soup. Danny decided to take the halloumi cheese while the rest of them settled on the soup. After starters, Lauren addressed the attendees, thanking them for their generous contributions and hyping them for the party to come.

When the mains were served and eaten, the DJ began playing his beats, the first one being LMFAO, Party Rockers.

Danny stood up immediately and pointed at Amber. “You and me. Right now!”

Amber needed no further convincing. They rushed off to the dance floor. They were the first ones on and, just like in college, Danny already knew that they would be the last ones to leave. She cast a glance back to the table to look at Max. He sat there, smiling as he watched her with Amber. Danny waved her arm to call him to the dance floor, but he declined the invitation with a brief shake of his head.

She knew by that simple gesture what mood his was in tonight. If she wanted him to join them, she would have to pull out the big guns. It was amazing what six years had done to them. They could communicate with talking, tell one word jokes that no-one else understood. She knew every form of Max; every mood, good and bad. She knew he was groggy when he didn’t get enough sleep. She knew he hated boy-bands and celebrity gossip, particularly any articles about the Kardashians. He loved Harry Potter, video games, and any food containing chicken. She had seen him at his best and his worst and everything in between. All of those little things culminated into a friendship so deep, she would be lost without him.

She danced with Amber for two more songs before she walked to the DJ. She whispered her request into his ear, then moved to the podium where Lauren had addressed the crowd earlier. There were only ten or twelve people on the dance floor, which was perfect for what she had in mind.

She tapped the microphone and the music stopped. “Maximillian Augustus Shepard.” Their eyes met across the room and a grin slowly formed on his face. “Yes, you, Max Shepard. Please report to the dance floor immediately. I have something special for you.”

She watched as Max exhaled a heavy breath and stood up. He handed Charlie his phone and after saying a few words, he pulled off his jacket, loosening his bow tie as he strode to the dance floor. He knew exactly what was going to happen next.

“Was it necessary to say my full name in front of all these people?” he asked as she approached him.

“No, but that was payback for bringing Charlie.”

His grin widened and simply seeing him smile was probably payback enough for bringing Charlie. Danny kicked off her heels and noticed that all eyes were on them. It was something she had never had a problem with and, thanks to her, Max now felt the same way.

“Alright. Let’s do this,” he said, undoing the top two buttons of his white shirt. For some unknown reason, the movement made her breath hitch involuntarily in her throat.

The DJ waited for them to walk to the middle of the dance floor and then the familiar beat of Timbaland and Keri Hilson, The Way I Are began to play.

As soon as the bass dropped they began dancing. High Jump. Land with feet apart. Hip sway. Bounce. Bounce. Slide.

The crowd started cheering. Five weeks of watching MTV and this was the choreography they had come up with.

Big rotation of the arm ending with a fist pump.

Max had not been much more than a nerdy, awkward teenager in college. He was always afraid that people were judging him, silently hating him. He refused to dance at parties, opting to rather be the wallflower who faded into the shadows so he would be safe from condemning eyes. After attending five parties with him, Danny had finally had enough. She had turned to him and said, “Who cares what anyone thinks, Max? People should like you just the way you are.”

And that was when it hit her. She downloaded the single the following day and for the next five weeks they had practiced this routine in her dorm room.

Snake to the left. Snake to the right. Two hops and a turn.

Sure, it wasn’t the best choreography. They had to adapt some of the moves due to his lack of co-ordination and her two left feet. It would look completely dumb if either of them did it alone, but it worked when done in unison. Simple yet effective and a hellava lot of fun.

Pop and lock with a slight turn to do the robot - That part was his idea.

Danny looked over at him as he mouthed Timbaland’s lines and wondered when he had evolved from that nerdy teenager to the man in front of her. She knew he still had his insecurities. He was still shy around women, still afraid to make the first move, but he wasn’t ashamed of being himself anymore. He was a geek and now he owned that title.

Running man. No dorky dance would be complete without the running man so that was thrown in for good measure.

It was this very song, this very dance that had pulled him out of his shell. The first time they had done it in public, he had left the party with two girls’ numbers. The boost to his ego had done wonders, because here he was six years later, dancing in front of two hundred strangers without a care in the world.

One more hop and a slide as the song came to an end and then he pulled her into his arms. He was the perfect snuggling height, tall enough to nestle her head against his chest right beneath his chin and that was exactly what she did. As she melted into his embrace, she noticed that she was drinking in his scent again. She took a deep breath, trying to lose herself in Max and this moment for just a few more seconds. He kissed the side of her head and her stomach clenched.

The DJ slowed down the pace and played a love song. Danny knew she should step away, but instead she wrapped her arms around his neck and led him into step.

“God, we were awesome,” she said, leaning her head back so she could look up at him.

“We were more than awesome. If you weren’t here, women would be throwing their G-strings at me right now.”

She coughed out a mocking laugh even though she knew he wasn’t lying. She had noticed some of the come hither looks thrown in Max’s direction, especially from Jen, who was still watching him attentively from the table in the front. But she didn’t want to think of Jen right now. “If I wasn’t here, you would have looked like an idiot doing that by yourself.”

His hands slipped around her waist, pulling her a fraction closer. “You’re right. But…” He gave her a teasing grin. “…if you leave right now, I could still get my rain of underwear. At this moment, you are actually my biggest cock-block.”

Despite his words, she felt his arms tighten around her, as if he was ensuring she did not take him too seriously.

“So you think all these women are just waiting to jump you?”

“Of course. Statistics don’t lie, Danny. They probably saw the one dimple and now they know what I’m packing beneath these well-tailored trousers.”

Her one eyebrow shot up and her mouth dropped slightly. “That is still the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

He smiled the same way he did every time she said those words and once again, she felt her stomach tighten. Every now and then, he would look at her like that and everything would stop making sense. She didn’t want to question it, didn’t want to think too much about it. She didn’t want anything to distract from this moment, a moment of feeling sheer bliss in his arms.

* * * * *


Charlie pressed a button on Max’s phone to stop recording. Another asshole idea. Max now had yet another video of the two of them together that he would obsess over. He slipped the phone into his pocket when he saw Amber strolling towards him. “Hey,” he said. “You wanna get some dessert?”

“Sure.” She brushed her auburn hair out of face. “But if you try to grab my ass, I will slap the crap out of you.”

“Deal.” He moved between two tables to get to the aisle and she walked with him to the dessert trays that were laid out in the front of the room. He looked to the dance floor, where Danny and Max were still giggling as they slow danced. “He’s got it bad for that girl. He’s so deep in the friend-zone, I don’t think he knows how to get back to the mainland. The saddest part about all of it is that she is never going to feel the same way.”

Amber stopped walking to glance over at them as well. “See the way she’s looking at him?” She pulled her cell phone out and took a picture of the two of them before turning back to Charlie. “She already feels it. She just hasn’t realized it yet.”

* * * * *


The phone rang and there was a knock at the door at the same time. Danny set down her magazine and went to the door, while Max ceased plugging in the video game console and answered the phone.

“Hi, mom,” Max greeted.

“Oh, it’s you,” Danny said glumly. She stepped aside and allowed Charlie to enter.

“Well, it’s nice to see you, too,” Charlie replied with fake enthusiasm.

Danny walked back to the sofa and resumed reading her fashion magazine.

“So,” Charlie began, taking a seat on the opposite end of the sofa, “have you sacrificed any small children lately?”

“Just the little innocent one I found lost and alone at the grocery store yesterday. You still downloading illegal porn, Charlie?” she asked idly, not lifting her head from the magazine.

Charlie glanced at her with a look of sheer arrogance. “A guy like me doesn’t need porn when the real thing is so easily accessible.”

Danny flipped over another page. “Yes, and I’m sure the biggest turn on for any woman you date is the fact that you still live with your mother. That’s extremely sexy, by any standard, and what makes you even sexier is how old you look. Women love sugar daddies. How old are you now anyway? Forty-five?” Danny tried her hardest to hold back a smile. The worst imaginable thing anyone could say to Charlie was to make a comment about his age. He hated the fact that he was turning gray prematurely.

“I look mature,” he corrected firmly.

“You look old.”

“Mature!”

“Old!”

“Mature!”

“Break it up, guys,” Max intervened, handing Danny the portable phone. “My mom wants to speak to you.”

Danny stood up and took the phone. “Old,” she said before she lifted it to her ear. “Hey, Mommy Jess. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Max’s mom replied. “Is my boy taking care of you?”

“Yes, he’s taking really good care of me.”

“That’s good, and how’s work? Not too stressful, I hope.”

“No. Lauren and I want to branch out and we’re looking into publishing self-help books and magazines, but it’s still in the pipeline. We’ve had some meetings and it looks like the idea is finally beginning to take shape.”

“That’s great, Danny. I’m sure you’ll make it a success.”

“And how are the grandkids?”

“Keeping me busy,” Mommy Jess answered with an exhausted breath. “But five isn’t enough. Just waiting for Max’s little one now. So…” She dragged the word and Danny knew exactly what was coming next, “…will you two be engaged by the time you come up for Christmas this year?”

Danny smiled. Max’s mother was under the absurd notion that they were going to get married one day. That question was asked at least once a month. She had spent the past six Christmases at the Shepard’s and had become well acquainted with his parents, three brothers and nutty sister Jordan.

They were a loving family and were it not for the fact that she and Max were completely platonic, she would not mind at all marrying into his family. They had welcomed her and Jake so warmly into their home and being with them last year — the first year she had spent Christmas without Jake — had made all the difference in the world.

“Well, Max hasn’t proposed yet,” Danny said, casting him a playful glance.

“Is she hassling you again?” He leaned over her shoulder and shouted into the phone. “Would you give it up, Mom? Danny and I are just friends.”

Danny tilted the receiver so they could both share in the conversation.

“Oh, nonsense, Max,” his mom said. “Leo and Aries are very compatible in friendship and everything else.”

He rolled his eyes. “You gotta stop obsessing over star signs, Ma.”

“It’s the truth. I think you two are perfect for each other and besides, everyone knows how you feel—”

Max ripped the receiver out of Danny’s hand before his mother finished her sentence, leaving her staring at him in bewilderment.

“Mom,” Max said desperately from between clenched teeth, “just drop it.”

He moved to the corner of the room and lowered his voice so he could not be overheard. Danny continued watching him and she was pretty sure that by the way his lips moved he mentioned something about Richard and then this look came over his face, as though the conversation had stirred a deep-rooted sadness within him. “It’s not up to me,” she heard him say softly. He was quiet for a while before he spoke again. “Okay. I love you, too. Bye.” He ended the call and looked at her. “I’m sorry about that.” He smiled, but the sadness was still encompassed in his eyes. “She’s crazy. I don’t think she’s ever gonna let up on that idea.”

“Can we get on with it?” Charlie asked impatiently.

Max returned to the console and plugged in the controls. Charlie took a purely supervisory role in this task and Danny returned to the sofa feeling very unsettled. She had the same weird feeling she had when Richard had made that comment about Max having a crush on her. She had blamed the butterflies in her tummy on Richard but Richard wasn’t here now. And he was supposed to be. He was over an hour late for the date they had planned.

She wanted to be out with him right now, not watching two nerds battle it out without actual fists, not feeling all weird over what Mommy Jess had said. She wanted to be with the man she loved and then things would make sense again.

She lifted the magazine and tried with great difficulty to focus on the article she was reading. Her eyes swept over the words, but her brain refused to interpret what she read. It seemed to be preoccupied with other things.

She glanced up every few minutes to look at Max furiously thumbing the controls. He had a wide grin on his face — seemingly because he was kicking the crap out of Paul Phoenix using Jin Kazama — and that grin made the dimple on his left cheek more prominent. Just watching him as he nudged Charlie and watching him laugh made her feel…

She didn’t know what it was, but it definitely made her feel uncomfortable. She needed to get out of there. She stood up and looked at them. “You guys want anything from the kitchen?”

“Coke for me please,” Max said, his eyes never leaving the screen.

“Age rejuvenation spritzer for you, Charlie?” she offered with fake sweetness.

“Now what did I do to you?” Charlie tossed his controls on the floor and stood up. “I’m just trying to enjoy my Saturday, playing Tekken with my friend and you have to go and throw around comments like that.”

“Calm down, Charlie,” Max said, tugging his arm so he would sit down again.

My friend,” Danny corrected. “He was my friend before he was yours.”

Max snickered and shook his head. This was why he generally tried to avoid them mixing company.

“Oh, that’s mature!” Charlie shouted. “That’s really mature. You know what? Why don’t you just toddle your little ass back to hell? Hitler’s missing you.”

“You wanna talk about maturity, grandpa? Video games are—”

“Grandpa? Grandpa!” Charlie’s breathing elevated and his face started turning red. “I have never sucker punched a woman in my life, but you are asking for it.”

* * * * * *


It was time to intervene. Max stood up and placed his hand on Charlie’s chest before he threw himself at her.

“C’mon,” Danny taunted. “What are you waiting for? Scared you might pop a hip?”

Charlie jerked forward.

“Relax,” Max said calmly, pressing his hand more firmly against Charlie’s chest. “She didn’t mean it.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Danny,” Max turned to her and gave her a reprimanding look, “you didn’t mean it. Now can we all just try to get along?”

He looked at one and then the other and neither of them showed any signs of giving in. The knock at the door was a welcomed distraction. Danny slowly started backing away to answer it.

“C’mon, Charlie,” Max said. “Let’s get back to the game.”

“She went too far that time.”

Max looked down at Charlie’s pitiful expression. He wanted to laugh but nodded sympathetically instead. “I know.”

“Richard,” Danny said, “what took you so long?”

Max quickly turned to see the Dick of the Year standing at the door. He only stopped staring when Richard stepped in and pulled Danny into his arms.

“Sorry,” Max heard him say. “I got caught up.”

He heard the smack of their lips, as if Richard was deliberately making it known that he had kissed her. He raked his hand through his hair and tried to keep his jealousy confined. He sat down and lifted the controls again as an attempt to keep his hands occupied, because they were ready to punch Richard in the face.

“Stay cool,” Charlie whispered when they heard footsteps approaching.

“Hello, Max,” Richard said smugly.

Max gritted his teeth and looked back at them. “Hello, Richard. It’s nice to see you back in town.”

Richard seemed to notice the lack of sincerity, but responded anyway. “It’s nice to be back.”

“How long will you be staying…this time?”

“Today’s my last day, I’m afraid.”

“That’s a shame. Work must be really tough.”

“Max,” Danny warned before turning to Richard. “I think we should get going.”

Richard wrapped his arm around her shoulders and gave her another kiss. “I think that’s a great idea, sweetheart.” He gave Max a haughty smile as he took Danny’s hand and led her to the door.

Max waited to hear the door close before he threw the controls on the floor. “That arrogant fucking prick! What does she see in him?” He stood up and began pacing the length of the room, shouting but not expecting anyone to hear. “How can she be so blind? This is the same guy who blew off the charity dinner last weekend because he probably had better things to do.”

“Danny didn’t invite him,” Charlie said.

“What?”

“Amber told me that Danny didn’t invite Richard.”

Max stopped for a second as the information sank in. It seemed strange that she would have invited him and not Richard. Actually, that didn’t make any sense at all. He wanted to believe that maybe she had wanted to spend the evening with him, but it was very possible that she hadn’t invited Richard because she knew how unreliable he was. Either way he wasn’t going to obsess about that, because right now she was with Richard. That smug, pompous asshole who didn’t deserve to breathe the same air she did.

“She can’t possibly love him,” Max said, his hands curling into tight fists. “I see her with him…and…and it drives me crazy! What the fuck does she see in him, Charlie?”

“Just forget about her, man. Move on with your life. It’s been six years. You’ve been there for six years and she keeps dating jerk after jerk. Just forget about her.”

“I can’t, Charlie. I wish I could.” He clasped his hands together at the back of his head. “It’s just…” He shrugged. “I’m in love with her.”

“I know, dude, but I want you to think about this logically. You don’t date anyone because you think that one day she’s just gonna wake up and realize that she’s meant to be with you. That in itself is a stupid notion. You’ve stood up to three of her ex-boyfriends and got beat up for it.”

“Four,” Max corrected.

“Yeah, four. That, too, was a stupid thing to do. You get stupid when it comes to her and you always end up doing the asshole thing.”

To Charlie, anything Max did when it came to Danny, whether in words or actions, was considered the asshole thing to do.

Max sighed. “Stupidity is a thing of the mind and unfortunately when it comes to her, my head has no say.”

Charlie shook his head. “Did you just grow a fucking vagina? That was incredibly corny, man.”

Max laughed, though it was not a genuine laugh. “That was pretty corny.”

“Are you done with your bitch-fit now?”

“Yeah…” He exhaled a steadying breath. “Yeah, I’m done.” Max sat down again and lifted the controls. “I’m taking Hwoarang this time.”

“You fight dirty with Hwoarang.” Although Charlie protested, he let Max have his way, giving him time to simmer down before he spoke again. “You know, New Year’s Day was only five weeks ago. It’s not too late for one more New Year’s resolution.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Get out there. Meet new people. Date more chicks. We’ll start working out, start taking care of ourselves. You need to move on with your life.”

Max gave a disheartened nod. “I guess that’s about all I can do.”

* * * * *


Max stopped typing when his phone beeped beside him and smiled to himself. He had not heard from his sister since he texted her for her birthday over a week ago and he suspected it was going to be something dumber than before.

The picture she sent him was of the clown from the movie It, sitting in front of a computer, and the caption read: I, too, am an IT guy.

He chuckled silently.

Max: LOL. You may be on the path to earning back my respect.

Jordan: Did you really laugh out loud? I hate being lied to

Max: No

Jordan: Damn! Have to try harder next time.

“Mister Shepard?”

Max looked up from his phone to see Dorothy, who had popped her head into his office. “Yes.”

“The boss wants to see you in his office.”

“Good news or bad?”

“Good, I think.”

He smiled, stood up, and walked down the long corridor to Mister Marsden’s office. There were a few people in there so he knocked to announce his presence. “You wanted to see me, Mister Marsden.”

“Max. Come in. Come in.” His boss led him into the office to stand in front of three other men, but then his eyes shifted and from behind the man, who was roughly the size of King Kong, came…Wow!

“Max,” Mister Marsden began, “this is Terrence Truman…” Big nose. Floppy hair. Really large teeth. “…Jonathan Abrahams…” Short. Fat. I’m-a-mama’s-boy sort of face. “…Luke…um…Sky Walker...” He was probably tortured as a kid. Which sane mother would give her kid a name like that? But seemingly, Chewbacca was his biological father. The guy was hairy and extremely large, standing a good few feet above everyone.

“And this,” Mister Marsden said, “is Sofia Panadero.”

Finally, some eye candy. She was gorgeous. Tall. Slender. Thick, black hair. Enormous blue eyes and light chocolate skin. Dressed in a tight red shirt and an equally tight pair of white pants. The perfect attire for Valentine’s Day.

Max’s hand went around, giving a firm handshake to all, but when he got to Sofia, suddenly the nerd in him gave instructions to his heart to beat faster and his palms became sweaty. She glanced at him with a look that did not seem professional and he felt the stirrings of a nervous knot developing in his stomach.

“Everyone, this is Max Shepard. I’ve assigned him to your account.”

“Glad to meet you,” Luke said, tapping him on the back.

Max jerked forward on the impact. What felt like a light tap to the man the size of a house actually felt like the Hulk Smash to the puny man on the receiving end. And to look that pathetic in front of such a beautiful woman after the sweaty palm incident was just another small sign of God’s undying love for him. A side order of a thousand watt lightning bolt would hit just the right spot about now.

“These are the board of directors of Bit-by-Bit,” Mister Marsden continued. “They’re a large tool company and they’re thinking of trading over the Internet. Max here is our best web designer and I trust you will find his work more than adequate.”

“Sofia will be taking the reins on this one,” Terrence said, handing Max a thin blue booklet. “Here’s a few of our specifications but they’re not final. You and Sofia can make alterations as you deem fit.”

“I’m really looking forward to working with you, Mister Shepard.”

She spoke with the slightest hint of a Spanish accent and the way she pronounced each word only drew attention to her luscious mouth. Her tone was so suggestive; it almost convinced Max that they were the only two people in the room. But they weren’t and he needed to say something purely because talking would force him to think about something other than those glossy lips that looked absolutely kissable. “You can…uh…you…and…um…” Great! He was stuttering now. That lightning bolt was starting to seem more and more appealing. “Call me Max. Yeah…just call me Max.”

“Alright.” She smiled. “Max.”

He noticed the quick wink of her eye and his throat ran dry. They continued talking to him about their plans and objectives and Max found that he was not listening with the required amount of attention to commit anything to memory. He refrained from talking to save his pride and simply nodded when he was addressed.

Eventually the conversation began to wind down and he pounced on the opportunity to get out of there as fast as possible. “I’m…uh…I’m gonna get back to work,” he said, using a great amount of effort to keep the wobble out of his voice. “It was nice meeting…all of you.” He risked looking at Sofia again. “Uh…when you’re ready, we can…we can set up a meeting and…yeah.”

“Sure.”

“Alright.” He nodded then left the room, sprinted to Charlie’s office, and shut the door. “Charlie, you’ll never guess what happened.”

“Dorothy agreed to go out with me?”

“Uh…no.” Max swallowed hard and tried to calm down. “So the boss calls me into his office and tells me I’ve got a new account. Fine. I’m cool with that. So I’m looking at Luke Skywalker and—”

“Luke Skywalker? Max, have you been drinking?”

“It’s his name, Charlie. Anyway, she just pops out from behind him and I find out that we’re gonna be working on this thing together.”

“Wait a minute. Who’s she?”

Max sighed and threw his head back. “Sofia Panadero. I don’t know if I can do this. She winked at me. She winked at me.”

Charlie looked completely dumbfounded. “I don’t get it. Is she ugly or something?”

“Just the opposite.” He heard Mister Marsden bidding the Bit-by-Bit team farewell outside the office door. “Come here. I’ll show you.”

Charlie crept to the door, opened it just a crack, and peeped outside.

“She’s the one with the red shirt,” Max said, moving backwards to the desk.

“You are shitting me, Max! That’s Sofia?” He cast a quick look back. “She did not wink at you. Chicks like her don’t wink at guys like us.” He closed the door and turned back to Max. “Okay. If what you’re saying is true, you gotta go for it.”

“Go for what?”

It, Max. Go in for the kill. Ask her out.”

“I can’t do that. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it.”

Charlie threw his hands up. “I can’t believe you’re making excuses. Anything with testosterone would find any reason to tap that—”

“Charlie!” Max began pacing the length of the room. “I can’t do it, okay? I won’t.”

Charlie threw him a dirty look. “This doesn’t have anything to do with hazel eyes, does it? Because you made a resolution last week.”

Max stopped pacing and glared at him. “When you said to move on with my life, I didn’t think you meant immediately…And I didn’t think you meant with one of our clients.”

Charlie walked across the room, grabbed his shoulders, and shook him hard. “Get a grip! Would you start thinking with the right part of your anatomy for a change? She’s not going to be a client forever and the chances of you having the opportunity to nail a woman like her is never gonna happen again.”

“Would you stop speaking about her like she’s just a piece of ass?”

“Did you see that ass, Max? You could bounce a penny off that ass. Danny’s finished. She’s over. She’s in the past. Okay? Now ask yourself this. Do you want a deranged, devil worshipper who you’re never gonna get or do you want a hot, sophisticated woman? She’s probably rich too, and did I mention that she’s hot?”

“She’s not a devil worshipper, Charlie.”

“I say all that and that’s all you heard. You’re not focusing, man! Now—”

The knock at the door stopped any further conversation and both heads snapped in the direction of the sound.

“Max,” came Sofia’s voice from the other side.

Max froze. “Fuck! It’s her!” he whispered frantically. “Charlie, it’s her!”

“Go talk to her,” Charlie whispered back.

“I can’t. You go talk to her.”

Charlie’s lip tightened. “She’s not here to see me.”

“Tell her I’m not here. Tell her that I’m sick and I had to leave early.”

“She just saw you five minutes ago. I think she would have noticed if you were sick.”

“Then tell her I retired. I handed in my resignation forms and she has to find someone else to handle the account.”

“I’m gonna slap you, man.” Charlie gritted his teeth. “I’m gonna slap you; hit you with a classic Jin Kazama triple power uppercut. Go and talk to her!”

Max moved around the roller chair and used it as protection to keep Charlie at bay. “You don’t get it! I’m gonna bumble like an idiot and that’s so uncool. She’s gonna think I’m a complete dork.”

Charlie lifted a stapler and it did not look like an idle threat. “I swear, your nuts are getting stapled to this stack of paper if you don’t go talk to her right now.”

There was another knock on the door. Charlie lunged himself at Max, toppling the chair shield in the process.

“Charlie!” Max whisper shouted almost desperately.

“Now!”

Max inhaled a heavy breath of courage as he moved towards the door. He took another deep breath before he opened it, but he only opened it halfway so as not to reveal the toppled chair and Charlie behind the door, holding him hostage with a stapler. The left side of his body was still shielded from her view, which made Max feel just a tad less vulnerable because his trembling leg was not exposed. “Sofia…what a…what a surprise. What brings you…to…here…this part…of the office?”

Way to go, Max, you player, you. Dazzle her with your articulation and witty charm.

She smiled delicately. “The receptionist told me you were in here. I came to set up that meeting.”

“Oh…well um…I’ll have to check when I can…slot you in…” Just play it cool, he thought, running a nervous hand through his hair. “’cause uh…I’m al…I’m always doing…some…thing…stuff.” Wow! That was really cool.

Her smile widened. “How about tonight?”

The question took him by surprise. People didn’t have business meetings at night. They had dates at night. Was she asking him out on a date? His stomach tightened. His throat ran dry. “Ooh, tonight? Um…tonight is out…Tonight is…bad.”

“How about tomorrow night?”

“T-t-tomorrow?” Tomorrow was Saturday. That wasn’t even a working day. This was definitely sounding more and more like a date. “Tomorrow would be…”

Charlie kicked his left shin from behind the door. Max winced but managed to keep his smile intact. “Great,” he spurted out squeakily. “Tomorrow would be great. You can ask Dorothy for my business card…and you can call and…yeah.”

“Okay. Great.” She turned and started walking away. “Oh,” she said after a few short steps. She stopped and turned back to him. “I think the bumbling is kinda cute.” She lowered her voice to somewhat of a whisper. “And you’re too young for retirement.” She winked at him again. “Hasta manana, Mister Shepard.” She turned and waved as she strolled away, leaving Max with his mouth hanging open.

He slowly closed the door and gaped at Charlie. “She heard everything we said.”

“That’s not so bad,” Charlie assured him. “She thinks it’s cute. You are the man! Not many guys would’ve been able to pull off that what brings you to this part of the office line but you did. You had her eating out of the palm of your hand. And did she speak to you in Spanish? She probably said take me to bed, Mister Shepard.

“I think it means see you tomorrow,” Max corrected, still feeling rather shaken.

“Well, in essence, it means the same thing.” Charlie walked across the room, lifted the chair, and rolled back to its rightful spot in his office. “Why didn’t you wanna go out with her tonight?”

“It’s Valentine’s Day,” Max replied simply.

“And you don’t wanna go out with a hot, beautiful wom— Wait a minute.” Charlie narrowed his eyes and looked at him with undeniable scrutiny. “What did you do?”

Max didn’t respond.

“You can tell me. I won’t hurt you…severely. What did you do?”

Max still did not respond.

“Max, as a friend, I’m begging you to tell me that you didn’t do the asshole thing again. I mean, I know you got it bad for that girl but please…please tell me that you did not do something as idiotic, as assholy, as buying her something for Valentine’s Day.”

Max dropped his head and nodded slowly. “Charlie, I most definitely did the asshole thing.”

* * * * *


Max sat on the sofa, waiting for Danny to come home. She generally cooked on Friday nights, which had left him with nothing to do to occupy his mind. He knew he had done something indescribably stupid today. He didn’t need Charlie to tell him that, but what Charlie didn’t know was the depth of that stupidity. Buying her something for Valentine’s Day was bad enough, but what he had done took stupidity to the next level.

Now he was just waiting to reap the rewards of that harebrained idea. Danny was going to come in any second now, bubbling with excitement, and the shitty feeling he could already feel building inside him was the price he seemed willing to pay this morning when he had been slapped with a stupid stick. Then again, it was like he told Charlie. Stupidity was a thing of the mind. Those asshole tendencies he spoke so fondly of were very much alive.

As predicted, Danny came home a few minutes later. “Max,” she called excitedly from the door. “Max, where are you?”

She would have seen from the door had he not been slouching, had he not been willing the sofa to swallow him whole. He inhaled a deep breath and prepared himself for what was to come. “In the living room.”

She came rushing in with a big bouquet of red roses and a gigantic white and red teddy bear. “See what Richard sent me. He isn’t even in town and he still went through all the trouble of sending me a gift for Valentine’s Day.”

He looked at the gifts and simply smiled. He had expected this to happen. Okay. Maybe he hadn’t expected it to hurt quite as much. Maybe he had been holding onto the hope that she would have instinctively known that the gifts were actually from him. After all, Richard wasn’t the type to do things like that and Max was hoping that she would see that. But hope had no place in Danny’s little dream world.

He had contemplated for twenty minutes who he should sign the card from. If he had sucked up his courage and signed it from himself, she would have given him a thank you and a smile, but it wouldn’t have been the smile that was stretched across her face right now. And after the formalities of the fake smile and half-hearted thank you, she would have gone to her room and cried her eyes out, the same way she did last Christmas when Richard hadn’t even bothered to pick up the fucking phone.

He therefore decided not to sign the card at all and he knew that by doing so all praises would go to that undeserving bastard, but at least she would be happy, gleaming the way she was now.

“And listen to what the card says,” Danny said, retrieving the card from the bouquet of roses. She unfolded it and read it aloud. “I searched everywhere trying to find something as beautiful as you, but when I realized that such a thing doesn’t exist, I settled on the roses. Happy Valentine’s Day. Love Always.” She clutched the card to her chest and sighed. “Isn’t that the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard?”

Max tried to smile, wondering if it would have made any difference if he left the card in his own handwriting instead of asking the florist to print it out. “He’s quite a charmer,” he said despondently, trying his best to keep the hurt out of his voice.

“And everyone at the office was just going on about it. Like, oh, your boyfriend’s so sweet and I wish I had a guy like that. Amber almost fell off her chair when I called her to tell her about it, but you know Amber. Richard can do no good in her eyes. She doesn’t think he’s the type to do this sort of thing.”

Max pulled his lips in and tried not to make a comment about that. How was it possible that everyone could see it except her?

“And Lauren thinks I have a secret admirer because the card isn’t signed, but I know its Richard.”

“Of course, it is,” Max said softly.

That stupid stick had slapped him pretty hard this morning. He found himself wondering why the hell he had done it in the first place. As much as he hated Richard, he had decided to swallow in his pride and make the noble sacrifice. Only he wasn’t feeling too noble right now. He felt as if Cupid had shot that fucking arrow straight through the heart and the pain just wouldn’t go away. It was torture to watch her swoon over those wretched flowers that Richard hadn’t even sent. This abyss of emptiness threatened to consume him. It was devastating. It was suffocating. He was drowning, but Danny was too blinded by Richard to even notice.

* * * * *


“That was not five spaces,” Danny said irritably. “You were supposed to land on jail.”

“No.” Max moved his ship-shaped bead from the jail space Danny had placed it on to the one next to it.

After the burnt chicken schnitzel Danny tried to prepare for dinner, they settled on grilled cheese sandwiches and Max suggested a game of Monopoly to lighten her mood. Not that it took much. She was still glowing because of the gifts Richard sent today. This was the first time since she moved in that they were actually using the dining table for something other than work and she seemed glad about that fact.

“Count it,” she said, placing her forefinger on the space his ship had occupied. “One…Two…Three…Four…Five. See? You were supposed to land on jail.”

“But I wasn’t on that space,” he explained.

“Go to jail, Max.”

“…I was on the one next to it…”

“Go directly to jail.”

“…so I would land on this space…”

“Do not pass begin. Do not collect—” Tired of arguing, Danny reached over the table and tried to grab his ship, but he snatched it before she did and clutched it tightly in his hand. “Must you cheat at every game we play?” she asked impatiently.

“I didn’t cheat,” Max said, nipping his lower lip.

“Liar! I saw that, Max.” She climbed onto the table, grabbed his hand and desperately tried to uncurl his fingers. “Just go to jail so we can get on with the game.”

Max smiled as he watched her. Her lips were curled in, an expression she made when she was really concentrating on something. Favorite facial expression, number three.

“Max,” she said through gritted teeth, “would you just let it go!” Then without warning, she bit down into the side of his palm.

He fiercely jerked his hand away from her mouth, but she holding on so tight that the sudden reaction brought her sliding across the table, knocking the board, and everything on it, onto the floor. She flew into him, toppling him off the chair, and sending both of them crashing to the carpet. Her head hit his chest. They stayed on the floor in a pool of cards, paper money, and little red and green houses for quite some time trying to recover.

“Ow,” he groaned, shifting in pain as he tried to sit up.

Danny lifted her head from his chest as he did so. Her knee was digging into his thigh and she moved her leg to relieve the pressure, straddling his hips, yet she made no attempt to get off him.

“There are other ways of getting what you want without using violence,” Max said.

“Maybe if you didn’t cheat at everything, I wouldn’t have to resort to violence.”

The retort was supposed to be firm, maybe even harsh, but it didn’t come across that way. Her hand slowly moved up to remove a little green house that was lodged in the collar of his shirt and her fingers lingered there even after she had discarded the house. She inhaled a shaky breath as her eyes slowly moved up his neck; her gaze dwelling on his lips for a few moments before it moved up to his eyes.

Max swallowed hard, his throat feeling awfully dry all of a sudden. The way she was looking at him was just not friendly. Her hazel eyes were asking for something he so wanted to give. In six years, this was not the first time they had found themselves in such a compromising position but in six years, this was the first time it looked like she wanted to compromise, compromise this friendship and meet him half-way.

But then something clicked inside her and it was like the moment never happened. She quickly removed herself from his lap and looked awkwardly around the room. Her eyes caught sight of the large white and red teddy bear still sitting on the sofa and the last smidgen of anything she felt dwindled from her eyes. The atmosphere in the room suddenly became very tense and still nothing was said.

There was a knock at the door and Max exhaled a breath of relief. He felt awkward and exposed and the presence of someone else was not just welcomed, but necessary. He slowly stood up and went to open the door.

“Sofia!” he said, surprised. “You’re here! Well…of course you’re here…’cause I’m looking right at you…but what…what are you doing…here?”

His eyes moved up and down the length of her. She was dressed in black skirt that hugged her hips and flared at the knee. Her light blue shirt was tight, but not too tight and her dark, luscious curls hung beautifully over her shoulders. It was not the most revealing attire and yet she still managed to make it look sexy. Not many women had that gift yet she did it effortlessly.

Sofia smiled at his stuttering. “Your colleague, Charlie, I think his name is…caught me in the parking lot and told me that any plans you made had been cancelled. He gave me your address and said I should just come by.”

Max laughed nervously. “Oh, he did, did he?”

He found himself mentally writing out Charlie’s eulogy. Of course getting time off from prison so he could attend the funeral might pose a slight problem. They rarely showed compassion to those who committed murder in the first degree.

“I’m sorry,” Sofia said. “I should’ve called first. You’re probably busy. We’ll do it tomorrow as planned.” Looking hurt and rejected, she turned to walk away.

“Don’t be silly,” Max said quickly. “I’m not busy.”

She turned around and he stepped aside. “Come in.” He led in a few feet, where Danny had begun cleaning up the mess they had made.

She looked up at them when they entered and her eyes widened.

“Danny, this is Sofia Panadero.” He turned to Sofia. “This is my roommate, Danny.”

She extended her hand and Sofia gave it a quick shake.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Sofia said pleasantly.

“You, too,” Danny responded with a little less sincerity.

“Sofia and I are going to be working on a web design for Bit-by-Bit,” he said before his attention settled on Sofia again. “Let me grab a jacket and we can leave.”

“You’re going out?” Danny asked, looking confused. “What about your series? You never miss it. You’ve been talking about this episode all week.”

Max saw the ploy instantly. He had never chosen another woman over Danny before and she seemed perplexed that he was doing it now. But he had had enough of an emotional run-around for one day. First watching her excitement for the gifts Richard had not sent, then watching a magical moment evaporate into nothingness because of those very same gifts.

He needed to stop obsessing over moments like that, which probably meant nothing to her. He needed to get away from this apartment, away from her. He needed to move on with his life and Sofia presented him with the perfect opportunity. He didn’t know where this might lead. All he had to go on was two winks and a smile, but at least it was a step in the right direction, on a path that did not lead to Danny. “I’m sure Charlie’s got it covered,” he said as he left the room.

He grabbed a thin, black jacket from his bedroom and made his way back to the living room.

“That is the cutest teddy bear,” he heard Sofia say as he approached.

“Yeah,” Danny replied boastfully. “My boyfriend sent it to me. It was so thoughtful of him. He isn’t even in town. Things like this just make me love him even more.”

“He sounds like a great guy.”

“He is. He’s perfect.”

Max shut his eyes. He was such a fool. Anyone else would have gotten the hint after two years at most, but not him. No. He had to be hopeful and stupid and pathetic. Only an idiot would pine for a woman he knew he could never have. Only an idiot would hold on to hope after hearing that woman claim to love another man over and over again. Only an idiot would be content constantly being second best.

He swallowed the lump in his throat and tried to focus on his New Year’s resolution. Pulling on his jacket, he headed straight for the door. “Let’s go.”

“Well, it was great meeting you,” Sofia said, quickly wrapping up the conversation. “Hopefully I’ll see you again sometime.”

Max did not spare Danny another look as he left the apartment.

* * * * *


Max pulled out a chair and allowed Sofia to sit down. After much deliberation they decided to have dinner at a quiet bistro. It was not over-the-top fancy but professional enough for them to have their business meeting. The waitress came to take their orders. Sofia ordered a tuna bagel while Max decided to try the club sandwich. He already had dinner, but he found himself with an appetite. The grilled cheese sandwiches had not hit quite the right spot.

They spoke business for a grand total of five minutes before Max made a comment about Luke Skywalker and Sofia made him aware of the fact that Sky was actually his middle name. He should have been introduced as Luke Walker but as soon as people, like Mister Marsden, found out his middle name, they felt compelled to use it.

She then started talking about all her co-workers and moved onto what a great cook Terrence Truman’s wife was, which led to them talking about all kinds of food in general, which led to a conversation about how obesity was becoming a growing epidemic around the world, which led to Sofia making a statement about kids being overweight because of things like video games. Apparently she thought it was mindless and required no brainwork whatsoever. Max had thought it best to end that conversation there.

They continued chatting about other meaningless things until eventually the meals had been eaten, the drinks had been drunk, and all that remained was an insignificant portion of their chocolate mousse dessert.

Max had stuttered for about the first half an hour, but he had calmed down substantially since then. The nerves were not altogether gone though. Every now and then she would look at him in a certain way and the bumbling side of him would return. She was easy to talk to nevertheless and fun to be around. She was witty and intelligent, entertaining to the mind and the eye all at the same time.

He liked listening to her. She spoke English fluently, but her Spanish accent made everything she said sound so interesting. She pronounced R’s, even if they were supposed to be silent, and her lips rounded absolutely perfectly whenever she used the letter O.

“Do you like your job, Max?”

“I love it,” he replied instantly. “I actually studied Computer Science. I dabbled a bit in programming after I graduated and I was bored within a few months. I prefer the creative element of web designing. I think I’ll stick with this for a few more years.”

“And where did you study?” Sofia asked, lifting another spoonful of mousse to her full lips.

“Oh, right here in Los Angeles…UCLA. I moved here from Montana; wanted to see what the LA lifestyle was really like, I guess. It was a really big adjustment from the wide open spaces to all this hustle and bustle. I tend to get home-sick every once in a while.” He noticed her sapphire eyes caressing his face and the nervousness returned. “Where…where did you get…uh…your…eyes?”

Dear God, he thought. Please say it isn’t so. He shut his eyes, hoping that he did not just ask the beautiful woman across him where she got her eyes.

“What?” She snickered. “My eyes?”

She laughed and he lowered his head. It would appear that he had said something that stupid. He meant to say degree but his mind obviously was not co-operating in this conversation.

“Um…my mom has blue eyes,” she explained, a slight giggle still in her voice. “She’s Caucasian, my dad’s Latino, the combination is me.”

Max nodded slowly. “Good…combination.”

She blushed and bashfulness lifted the corners of her mouth.

“So tell me about the name Panadero,” Max said, subtly trying to change the topic. “It sounds very exotic.”

She giggled again. “No’ really. Panadero actually means baker in English.”

He was pleased with himself for asking that particular question. It made her say R and O in the same sentence but it also made him aware of the way she said ‘not’, where she had only half-pronounced the T. He noticed that she was waiting for a response and made an active effort to stop dissecting every movement of her lips and focus on the conversation. “Really?” he asked. “It means baker?”

She nodded.

“Wow! So at this table we have Sofia, descendant of the great Bakers and Max, descendant of the great…Shepards.”

She giggled and leaned forward, leaving a very marginal gap between them. “I think I like you, Max, descendant of the great Shepards.”

He smiled. “I may just like you, too, Sofia Baker.”

Max sat back and made a mental note to thank Charlie when he saw him again. This was just what he needed. In fact, he wanted this date disguised as a business meeting to go on for as long as possible. He looked up at Sofia and smiled. “I think we should get another chocolate mousse.”

* * * * *


Danny switched off the television, walked to her bedroom, and threw herself on her bed. She was angry and maybe a little hurt. Max had turned her down. He had never done that before. Why now? Why this woman? There wasn’t anything exceptional about her. Okay, so she was beautiful…and sexy…and she had pretty eyes…and she was sweet. What was so great about all that anyway?

She tossed over onto her stomach and pulled the pillow under her chin. Something didn’t feel right. Max had not had a girlfriend in three years and she was beginning to feel a little threatened. She remembered how he had stuttered when he opened the door. That alone was a very clear indication that he liked her and that was also the cause of her insecurities. It had started off as irritation, but that disappeared somewhere along the line and all she wanted was to be with Max right now, even if all they did was play Monopoly. And that revelation troubled her because it was Valentine’s Day. So why didn’t she want to be with Richard?

It was almost two o’ clock when Danny heard the key being slotted into the keyhole. She jumped off her bed and was already in the hallway before Max stepped inside. “So,” she said before he even closed the door, “how was your date?”

“It wasn’t a date,” he replied innocently. “It was more of a business meeting.”

“Business meetings don’t last until two in the morning.”

He walked into the kitchen, went to the fridge and took out a bottle of apple juice. “It was late. She lives close to LAX. I wasn’t about to let a woman travel alone at night. It isn’t safe, so I offered to follow her home. What are you doing up anyway?”

“I was reading a very interesting book,” she lied. “I couldn’t put it down. So you drove all that way? That’s so far out.”

That knowledge upset her. He drove so far just to make sure Sofia got home safely. The gesture was as thoughtful as it was infuriating. Or maybe it was infuriating because it was so thoughtful. She couldn’t decide.

Max opened his apple juice and gulped down half its contents. “It’s not that far. And since when do you read?”

“I read all the time. It’s kind of a gigantic part of my job. Since when do you follow your business associates home?”

Max seemed slightly annoyed with the interrogation. “Okay, fine,” he admitted. “It was a date. Is that what you want to hear? I went on a date with one of my clients and I had a damn good time.”

Danny stood there, stunned. Her mouth opened and yet no words seemed to formulate. That was not what she wanted to hear at all. She wanted to hear that the date had been dreadful, that Sofia was boring, a pretty face with no personality.

“You do realize that dating one of your clients is…unethical?”

Max leaned back against the fridge and smiled. “Unethical? How’d you figure that?” He took another sip of juice and pondered a bit. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen you read anything other than text books and fashion magazines. Reading books as a hobby is something you don’t do.”

“She is one of your clients, Max,” she scoffed irritably. “You’d think that you’d be able to figure that one out by yourself. And I studied English. Our text books are reading books for normal people. That counts as leisure-time reading.”

“No, it doesn’t. Normal people don’t read Shakespeare at their leisure.” He tossed his empty juice bottle in the bin and resumed his previous position, leaning against the fridge. “Need I remind you how you met Richard in the first place? You were doing an article on him for your blog, remember? But that didn’t stop you from dating him.”

“That was different,” Danny countered quickly.

“I don’t see a difference at all. I think you should come out and admit it.”

“Admit what?”

“You weren’t reading and you’re jealous.”

“Jealous?” She laughed to show him just how absurd she thought that idea was, but it took quite a bit of effort because she had not been reading and she was in fact jealous. “Why would I be jealous?” she asked with her most unperturbed expression.

“Oh, come on, Danny. You did the same thing with Heather.”

Danny thought back on the over-exuberant blonde Max had dated three years ago. She was the only woman he had dated for more than a month. An eccentric drama queen, but there was something about her psycho tendencies that had appealed to Max. Eventually after six months, their relationship came to an end. He had only mourned and moped for about a week because even though he had cared about her; deep down he knew that he could never grow to love someone who thought Brazil was a European country.

“Heather had sawdust for brains,” Danny said.

“I’ll admit; she had her flaws but she was a kind and caring person, which is more than I can say for your gigolo boyfriend. He’s all brawn and no brains.”

“Richard,” Danny said, trying to keep her tone even, “is perfect. He’s gorgeous, he’s sexy, he has a great job—”

“He’s a model, for God sakes.”

“And he’s very good at what he does.”

Max shook his head. “Are all Leo women so superficial?”

“Are all Aries men so obnoxious?”

Max walked to the center of the kitchen and spread his hands on the island counter. “Richard has the personality of a cardboard box and if you would just open your eyes—”

“You don’t even know him.” Danny moved to stand opposite him. “And stop changing the subject. You still haven’t answered my question. Why would I be jealous?”

“You’re jealous because you think that if I get a girlfriend, you’ll be replaced. You see, I am mature enough to accept any relationship you have with any jerk you choose to have it with, but you can’t afford me the same courtesy.”

Her mouth dropped in shock. He couldn’t be serious. He couldn’t even stand hearing Richard’s name and here he was talking about maturity. “I’d like to point out two things. One, just because you’re four months and twelve days older than me, it does not make you more mature and two, don’t think for a second that I don’t see how you get every time the topic of Richard comes up. You become a snarling beast…way too overprotective! And it didn’t just happen with Richard. You did the same thing with Steve, the same thing with Rolind, the same thing with Ant—” Danny stopped herself short of saying Anthony Townsend’s name out loud. That was a road they would both prefer to not go down again. “You did the same thing with all my boyfriends,” she said instead.

“That’s because I was trying to look out for you and all of them were jerks. But I’ve gotta hand it to you, you’ve really outdone yourself with Richard.”

Danny sighed and shook her head. This argument would go on forever if she did not end it now. Max could argue things to death and she did not have the stamina at this time of the morning.

They both fell silent for quite some time until she eventually looked at him again. “So,” she began, her tone a mixture of apprehension and curiosity, “you followed Sofia home?”

He simply nodded.

“Like to her door or inside?”

Max fought a smile. “To her door.”

“And at her door…” She squished her lips together and debated with herself. “Did you kiss her?”

His mouth twitched, but he bit his lip and stopped it from developing into a smile. “Well, it is Valentine’s Day.”

“It was Valentine’s Day…yesterday.”

“That’s a minor technicality.”

He smiled, deepening that cute little dimple on his cheek. An overwhelming urge to throw something at him rushed through her. “You’re such a jerk, Max,” she said before she walked out of the kitchen.

She closed her bedroom door and tossed onto the bed. She didn’t know what to think. She knew he was lying about kissing Sofia, that was a given. She had noticed the way he nipped his lip and she knew that Max did not have enough game to kiss a girl on the first night but it angered her to know that he was intentionally trying to annoy her. The only problem was annoyance wasn’t the only thing she felt.

He went out with another woman and he had a great time. There was no doubt in her mind that it would happen again and the next time there could very well be a kiss.

She reasoned with herself to stop being childish. Max was a grown, single man and he could date whomever he wanted. But that was as much reasoning as she could muster.

She was more than jealous. She was more than insecure. There was something about Sofia that made her believe that this one date could possibly develop into a relationship. Or maybe it was a change in Max. She sensed that there was something different about him. It wasn’t anything he said or did, but there was a subtle change in him and somehow she felt as though she was going to be replaced.

Soon Sofia would be the one heading up to Montana to spend Christmas at the Shepards. She would be the one he called when he had a bad day. She would be the one dancing to Timbaland with him. She would be the one he laughed with and had pillow fights with.

If this turned into something more, Danny knew it was only a matter of time before Max completely forgot about her and their six-year friendship. The thought of losing him was something she could not bear. His friendship meant everything to her. It was more than just friendship. It was a bond, a connection, an understanding.

He knew her better than she knew herself. He saw her insecurities even when she presented confidence to the rest of the world. He saw her weaknesses because he was the only person she had ever shown them to. He saw everything that was bad and good inside her and accepted her just the same. That sort of thing didn’t happen overnight. That was something only time could perfect.

But now, for the first time in so many years, she was presented with the possibility of losing him and she hated it, because she knew that if Sofia replaced her there would be a gaping hole in her life that Richard could not possibly fill.

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