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

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Chapter 5: May

Danny closed her eyes as two cucumber slices were placed on her lids. After a good massage and a thirty minute facial, she felt amazing. Lauren and Amber were trying to get her back into a normal routine and a beauty treatment at Madame Fouche’s Day Spa was apparently something they tried to do at least once a month. She was grateful to get out of their tiny apartment. Max was at work all day, which left her with nothing to do most of the time. Amber had taken her out for coffee a few times, but she was becoming bored at home and this outing was a welcomed break.

Max had been right about Amber. She did take a little getting used to. She could be so rude sometimes but for some obscure reason, Danny liked that about her. Lauren on the other hand, was completely the opposite. She was poised and lady-like, never speaking out of turn. She was much older than the two of them yet somehow they all got along.

“How are you doing, Danielle?” Lauren asked from the bed next to hers.

“I’m doing well,” Danny replied. “I mean, I’m in no better position than I was last week when it comes to my memory but I’m feeling a lot better, more positive and you guys have all been so great and so accommodating.”

“And how are things between you and Max?” came Amber’s voice from the other side of her.

“Great,” Danny replied almost instantaneously. “He’s amazing, Amber. He’s so patient. He answers all my questions. He holds me when I cry. He makes it easier to deal with everything. He puts me at ease and I feel…comfortable around him. I like him. I…really like him but—”

“But what?”

“I just have this weird feeling that he’s hiding something from me.”

“What could he possibly be hiding, dear?” Although Lauren’s tone was light, she sounded a little nervous.

Danny sat up, removing the cucumbers from her eyes. “I don’t know. He seems very guarded.”

“That’s just how Max is,” Amber offered. “He has to start from scratch again and at the moment he has a lot more invested in the relationship than you do. He’s probably just a bit skeptical about how all of this is going to play out.”

Danny nodded. “I guess that makes sense.” She laid back again but did not replace the cucumber slices back on her eyes. “Sometimes it feels as though our relationship is completely platonic.”

Her statement made Amber snap up on the bed. “What makes you say that?”

“He’s very affectionate,” Danny explained, “but I have been living with him for three weeks and he hasn’t even…tried to…kiss me yet. I mean, I’m not really sure if I’m ready for that but…he hasn’t even tried.” She shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t find me attractive anymore. I don’t blame him. Look at me. I’m hideous.”

Lauren sat up then, too. “You are not hideous, Danielle.”

“Trust me, Danny,” Amber said. “That isn’t the reason why he hasn’t tried to kiss you yet. He will wait as long as it takes until you feel ready to move forward. I’m not sure how you’re going to take this, but if and when you do feel ready, you’re going to have to make the first move.”

Danny was not sure what she was feeling. All she wanted was to restore some sense of normality, but nothing was normal to her. In which normal scenario could a woman ever say she was crushing on her boyfriend? And she was crushing in a big way.

She hadn’t lied to Amber when she said she really liked him. He was a very likeable guy, but that’s what it felt like. A crush. Their light hand holding had progressed to hugs and a casual arm around her shoulder, but nothing more. There was a boundary he didn’t overstep. There were times when she thought he might cross the line, but he never did and she was at a point where she didn’t know what she really wanted anymore.

A part of her wanted to move forward with Max, while the other part of her was still too scared and insecure. She was definitely too insecure to make the first move but allowing her relationship with Max to progress would be another small step to getting her life back to what it used to be. And maybe that’s what she needed to do.

* * * * *

“Max!” Danny called urgently. “Come here! I think I burnt it.”

Max paused his video game and raced to the kitchen, which was completely clouded with smoke. He coughed and tried to fan the smoke away with his hand. “You sure it’s burnt?” he asked sarcastically.

“I know. I know. I should be banned from all kitchens.”

He smiled. He no longer made her aware of things she said which were actually recollections of their past conversations. He lifted the lid of the pot and more smoke erupted. Again, he fanned it away with his hand. What he saw could have been the charred remains of chicken breasts, but he was not entirely certain.

He sighed. She had forgotten the little progress she had made.

“Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly. “They’re in a better place now.”

She giggled as he opened the small window in the kitchen.

“Let’s go out to dinner,” he suggested. “You’ve been cooped up in this apartment for long enough and the doctor said I should surround you with familiar things.”

Max opened the front door and stepped out.

“Hang on a sec,” She dashed back inside and returned with a gray woolen cap. “Can’t go out looking like I just survived an encounter with Freddy Kruger.”

“Really?” Max asked, taking the cap from her hand and carefully pulling it onto her head. “You remember Freddy Kruger and not me?”

She shrugged. “He’s just better looking.”


He wrapped his arms around her waist and she tilted her head up. Her lips parted and her hazel eyes were filled with anticipation. For a moment he almost lost focus. Another second of her looking at him like that and he would have given in to the temptation. But if there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was how to control urges like these. With a heavy breath, he released her, casually slung his arm over her shoulder, and began walking to the stairwell.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“You’ll see.”

* * * * *

“Max! Danny!”

Max looked over at Danny, who was smiling at the tall man who greeted them with a thick Italian accent. She seemed excited to be there.

“Welcome to Rocko’s Pizza and Pasta,” Max said. “That’s Rocko.”

They walked across the wooden floors, passing a few tables covered in red and white checkered table cloths, until they reached their usual seats in the far corner of the restaurant. It was a quaint little place, easily bringing together all the warmly comforts of home. The smell of burning wood and melted cheese floated through the air. Rocko followed them, carrying two menus.

“You guys haven’t been here in months,” Rocko said, placing a menu in front of each of them. “Mama,” he called, “they’re here!”

“Brace yourself,” Max whispered to her when he saw the very large Italian woman scurrying out of the kitchen as fast as her stubby legs could carry her.

Maria stomped towards them, murmuring in Italian. When she got to the table she took Danny’s face in both her hands and kissed her on each cheek, then did the same to Max.

“You no come for so long,” she shouted, looking from him to Danny again. “And why you cut your hair? You look so thin. Why?” Before Danny could respond, Maria turned to Max and slapped him across the face. “You no take care of her.”

Max adjusted his jaw slightly before he spoke. It was not the first time Maria had slapped him and he was sure it would not be the last. He knew she had not meant for it to be hard, but her fat hands caused it to sting a bit. “Mama, Danny was—”

Another slap silenced him. Clearly no excuse was going to be good enough for her. Maria lifted Danny’s hand and studied her arm. “Thees no good,” she said with disgust. “So frail, no meat. Rocko, bring thee pasta. Alfredo for Danny.” She turned to Max, leaning closer to read his mind the way she always did. “Chorizo…yes, chorizo for Max. You eat. You eat,” she said before bustling back to the kitchen.

“Friendly crowd,” Danny said with a giggle as she perused the menu. “That’s odd.” She lifted her head slightly to look at him “It doesn’t look like they serve piping hot slaps.”

Max laughed. “I’m a special customer. She only brings that out for me.”

“Did she just order for us?”

“Yeah. She’s been doing it for years. She can take one look at us and know exactly what we want and, trust me, she’s never wrong.”

“That’s pretty cool.” She leaned back in the wooden chair and crossed her arms. “Tell me about your family, Max.”

Max smiled at the thought of his exuberant family and the large country-style house he had grown up in Great Falls, Montana. “Well, my parents are still madly in love even after thirty-two years of marriage. I have four siblings. Dominic Thadeus, my oldest brother. He’s thirty-one.” He laughed when he noticed how her face scrunched at his brother’s name. “I think my mom was in a Harlequin phase when she had him. Then there’s Shane Eldrick, twenty-eight.”

“I think that’s actually worse,” Danny said, her face contorting once again.

Max chuckled as he continued. “It was Shane’s birthday party that I invited you to. Anyway, I came next, Maximillian Augustus. After me is my sister, Jordan Alberta. We’re exactly ten months apart. Her birthday is the sixth of Feb.”

“Gosh, your parents were busy.”

Max ignored the comment because he didn’t want to have thoughts like that about his parents. “She says we’re Irish twins even though technically we’re not. And then there’s Kevin. He’s twenty.”

“Just Kevin?” she inquired with a cute little twitch of her eyebrows.

“Yeah, we have a theory. We think that by the time he was born, our parents were tired of thinking of such ridiculous names, so yeah, it’s just Kevin.”

Rocko walked to the table and placed a hot plate of pasta in front of each of them.

“Oh, one more,” Max said, sticking his fork into his pasta. “Perry. He’s not blood, but he’s definitely family. He’s been Kevin’s best friend since kindergarten. I don’t think he ever leaves my parents’ house except to shower and change.”

He continued telling Danny about his eventful childhood as they ate their pasta. She asked questions, she giggled, she completely immersed herself in the stories. That was something about her that had not changed. She had always listened intently to his stories about his family. It was because she had never known what it was like to have both parents, siblings, a full happy home. Although Jake had tried to give her everything; that was one thing she had always yearned for.

“I hope I get to meet them soon,” she said.

“Christmas,” Max said with a nod. “We spend every Christmas at my folk’s house so you’ll meet them then.”

“But that’s another seven months,” she complained.

“Trust me, you’ll regret being so eager.”

Danny smiled as she twirled the pasta around her fork. “So do we come here often?” she asked, slipping the creamy pasta into her mouth.

“All the time. It started in college. Mama would keep this open ’til the early hours of the morning so we could study. And we still kept coming here after we graduated. I have had some of my happiest moments here.”

She smiled, intrigued. “Like what?”

“Like my birthday last year.” He grinned, trying to contain his excitement as he reflected on the events. “You and Amber got some girls together and did this whole flash mob.”

“What’s a flash mob?”

“I can’t really explain it, but you’ll get it once I’m done. So I’m sitting right here and you’re over there…” Max pointed to the front of the restaurant, near the payment counter. “…looking sexy as all hell, twirling your hair and chewing gum like a teeny-bopper. And all of a sudden, this song…Pretty fly for a white guy come blaring through the speakers and you start dancing. Then Amber comes out from there.” He pointed to the corner of the room, where the restrooms were situated. His voice boomed with excitement. “And she joins you in the front and starts dancing, too. And then girls just start popping out of nowhere. From behind the booths, behind the counter, coming through the door and they were like…all over me. Just…with these short schoolgirl skirts and tight tops…It was the single most rewarding experience of my entire existence.”

Danny laughed and he knew it was because he was blushing profusely. “I can’t believe I did that,” she said.

Rocko returned and placed a pitcher of iced tea on the table.

“You’ve always been pretty ostentatious.”

“So all good memories here?”

“Some not so good,” Rocko added. “Like—”

“Shut up, Rocko!” Max kept his smile intact so that Danny would not get suspicious, but his good mood had disappeared all too quickly.

Rocko took the hint and walked away without saying another word.

“What’s he talking about?” Danny asked, looking confused.

Max gritted his teeth and forced a smile. “Nothing.”

She fixed her hazel eyes on him and he could tell that she was not going to stop questioning. “Was it bad?”

“Drop it, Danny.”

“Max, I keep getting the feeling that you’re keeping something from me. I’m trying to rebuild my life and I can’t do it without all the pieces. So please tell me what happened. I can’t only know about the good stuff, I need to know the bad stuff, too. You don’t need to protect me from my own past.”

Max exhaled a loaded breath, realizing that he was going to go down the road he had barricaded in his mind years ago, a road that intersected with Anthony Townsend.

Anthony was Danny’s first real boyfriend. Max had only met Danny a few months before he came swooping into her life with his dazzling good looks and cocky attitude. She was smitten, completely taken in by his bad boy demeanor. But it was all fake. He pretended to be from the wrong side of the track with his tattoos and leather biker jacket, but actually he was just a spoilt rich kid who couldn’t take no for an answer.

Anthony was a fucking vulture, preying on the weak as cowards do, and Danny was an all too easy target. He exploited her, using her insecurities to draw her in, but in the end his efforts had been futile. Although Danny had always been loose with her heart, she was much more protective of her body and Anthony had not taken rejection well.

He got her drunk one night as an attempt to loosen her up and when he still didn’t get what he wanted, he left her stranded on the beach. Danny broke up with him the very next day and before lunch time, very graphic pictures of her began circulating around campus.

“How did he get the pictures?” Danny asked.

“He must have taken them while you passed out on the beach.”

“What a sicko!”

Max sat back and crossed his arms over his chest, trying to secure the agitation in the pit of his stomach. This story had never been easy for him. He felt bile rise up in his throat every time he thought about it. The pictures were disgusting, her unconscious and half-naked with his grimy fucking hands all over her body. He didn’t tell Danny about that. He didn’t want her to feel the shame she had felt that day.

One thing he was grateful for was that there were at least ten people at the beach that night. There was no telling what else that perverted asshole would have done to her had they been alone. This, too, he kept to himself.

“It wasn’t too long after that that the rumors started,” Max said softly. “And then one day he comes in here while we’re studying, tells his friends to get in on the action, that you don’t mind doing more than one at a time.” Max clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. “Fuck, I lost my shit. I didn’t think, I just attacked…but there were five of them and only one of me so…it didn’t end well.”

She reached out and touched his arm. “Max, I’m so sorry. It was because of me—”

“It’s not your fault. You just have a knack for dating the biggest jerks on the planet.”

She smiled. “That can’t be true,” she said. “I chose you, didn’t I?”

Suddenly every ugly feeling Anthony Townsend stirred up dissolved and was replaced by guilt. Again, he kept this from her. He couldn’t tell her that being with him had never been her choice.

* * * * *

Danny stepped into their apartment, her giddiness threatening to brim over. Every second she spent with Max made her like him more. He was goofy and funny and he had a warmth about him that made her feel relaxed. She would tell him her deepest, darkest secrets if she could remember what they were.

But there was something else, something she was beginning to notice the more time she spent with him. He had a temper, a rage brewing just beneath the surface. She had seen it earlier, but Anthony Townsend appeared to be merely the tip of the ice-berg. There was something much deeper that he was angry about and she couldn’t help but feel that she had a part to play in some of it. She chose not to bring it up for discussion. After tonight, she was sure he would also start opening up to her a bit more.

“So you watched Jerry Maguire?” he asked, closing the door behind him.

“Yeah. That guy…Tom Cruise…he’s amazing. I loved it!”

“You always did,” he said softly, reaching out to pluck lint off her blouse that might not have been there.

He had touched her more times than was necessary and every time he did, butterflies erupted in her stomach. Crushing on her boyfriend? How ridiculous!

He had flirted with her all night, not with words, but with his eyes. He had a way of looking at her. Even when she was right in front of him, there was still distance in his eyes, almost like he was admiring her from afar, like she was something out of his reach.

Their eyes met for a single, awkward moment and he quickly moved his hand and ran it through his hair. “Well…um…I guess I’d better let you…get to bed. Goodnight, Danny.” He turned and started heading to his bedroom.

“Max,” she whispered and he turned to face her again.


“Aren’t you…aren’t you going to kiss me goodnight?”

He froze for a few seconds and with uncertainty weighing down his every movement, he slowly made his way back to her. He lifted his hand to her neck, tilting her lips up towards his, and her eyes closed as he leaned closer. Nervous breaths warmed her skin. There were a few more hesitant ticks before his lips touched her. It was an awkward kiss, landing half on her lips and half on her cheek.

“Goodnight, Danny,” he whispered.

She opened her eyes only to see his back as he walked to his bedroom and shut the door. Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back. Amber had told her that she needed to make the first move and apart from throwing herself at him, she couldn’t have made it more obvious than that. It wasn’t easy to put herself out there and now she just felt embarrassed, rejected. Amber was so wrong. He didn’t want her.

Danny had wanted to believe that he was still attracted to her despite her scars, but realized that she had misread everything tonight. He made it very clear that he was not interested.

She walked to her bedroom and quietly closed the door. Pulling the woolen cap off her head, she slowly traced the fingers across her scar. Her hair was growing back, but it was barely half an inch, still too short to cover the scar. For the first time she felt the true impact of the accident. Not only had it transformed her appearance, it had done the same thing to her relationship with Max. And neither of these transformations were for the better.

Since she had been discharged from the hospital, Max had always made her feel accepted, but she had misread that, too. It wasn’t acceptance. It was pity and she wasn’t going to be anyone’s charity case.

* * * * *

Max walked down the tree-lined street, kicking away the occasional stone in his path. He wanted to be alone this evening. He had cancelled gym with Charlie and yet he still could not bring himself to go home. Three days had passed and Danny had not said one word to him. Hurting her feelings was hard enough to deal with, but the silent treatment was driving him crazy.

It was his fault. That much was certain. She had taken a bold step by asking him for a kiss and he rejected it, turned his back and walked away from the very thing he had been chasing for years.

He had been so ready to do it, so ready to taste those lips, possess them, claim them as his own, but in the end he couldn’t do it. Kissing her would make the lie real and he couldn’t do it. She trusted him more than anyone and betraying her trust was not something he was ready or willing to do. His intention was merely to plant the seed and see what happened once her memory returned. He wanted her to have the choice and he wanted to see if that choice was him.

He walked to a bench outside a restaurant called Bon Appetite and sat down. A few minutes went by before the silence was broken by the muffled sounds of two people arguing. Max tried to drown out the noise, but it became louder as they burst through the glass doors of the restaurant.

“Melissa, honey, wait!”

The familiar voice drew Max’s eyes to its owner. They didn’t see him even though they were only a few feet away on the sidewalk. In the midst of a heated argument, neither of them noticed anyone else.

“No, Richard,” the woman said, yanking her hand out of his. “I am tired of your lies. You don’t call me for weeks and then I see pictures of all these half-naked women all over you. Are you really gonna try to deny this?”

Max gritted his teeth and watched as Richard tried to weasel his way out of this trap, using lies to cover up more lies.

“Melissa, there is no-one else, I promise you that.”

“And what about that other woman? The one who was with you the night you asked me for my number. Are you still seeing her?”

Richard smiled, almost amused. “I told you, I stopped seeing her when you and I got together. That was the beginning of February.”

Melissa must have noticed the same amused grin because she slapped him then. “You are a liar and a cheat!” she shouted. “And I never want to see you again.”

She turned on her heel and marched down the street, leaving Richard chuckling on the sidewalk.

Max stood up and walked a few feet to reach the other man. “Hello, Richard,” he said with his usual fake-friendly tone. “Broken any hearts lately?”

“Just one today, I’m afraid.” Richard turned to him and smirked in a way that made his skin crawl. “Anything else you wanted to know?”

“Yes, now that you mentioned it.” Max crossed his arms over his chest. “Do you have any intention of going to see Danny? You remember Danny, right? Your girlfriend? You may have told Melissa that you ended it in February, but we both know that’s not true.”

The amused grin curved on Richard’s face once more. “Let’s cut the shit, Max. I may remember Danny, but from what I hear, she doesn’t remember me and I’d like to keep it that way. So the answer to your question is no. I have no intention of ever seeing her again. You should be happy about it. Now you can have what you always wanted. Keep the nun. I’m not spending another nine months with her just to get some pussy.”

Max’s blood ran cold at his words, then heated up to the point where it felt like it was bubbling under his skin. “You arrogant fucking prick!”

He didn’t think, he just jabbed, a solid punch to Richard’s perfect nose. His head flew back on impact.

Damn, that felt good. But, fuck, it hurt bad! He shook his right hand off to get rid of the sting and when that didn’t work, he placed his left hand over his knuckles as an attempt to absorb the burn. That probably hurt him more than it hurt Richard.

Richard placed his hand over his nose. A steady stream of blood oozed over his fingers. “You son of bitch! I have a shoot tomorrow.”

“Like I give a fuck!” Max used his left hand to punch Richard square in the jaw. Everything he felt was delivered in that punch. His rage. His jealousy. His pure annoyance for having to deal with this guy for so many months. He heard a faint crunch of bone and did not know if it was his hand or the other man’s jaw that had cracked with the sheer force of that punch.

Richard tumbled over and fell hard onto the ground, but he recovered quickly and stood up, menace in his eyes. “You’re gonna pay for that.”

Richard charged at him and with both his hands out of commission, Max decided to use his legs. He attempted a round-house kick he had learnt in tae-bo class, but it lacked so much grace and precision, it would have made Billy Blanks shake his head in shame. If someone had to take a picture of the exact moment his leg collided with Richard, the caption would read: FAILED: Round-house kick? You’re doing it wrong!

Richard threw himself at Max, sending them both crashing to floor. He straddled his legs over Max’s abdomen and started pounding. Max lifted his forearms above his face to protect himself from the heavy blows, but Richard’s furious punches still connected his eye, his cheek, his mouth. There was one point where Max thought his body would go limp from pain.

Richard beat him until he felt he had had enough before he finally stood up. “Remember one thing,” he said, kneeling down on the sidewalk beside Max. “You only have her because I don’t want her anymore.” He rose and after one swift kick to the stomach, he left Max on the ground, squirming in pain.

* * * * *

Max limped into the apartment. His body ached everywhere. Blood-stains covered his shirt. Slowly, he made his way to the bathroom and he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. A bluish-black bruise encircled his right eye and with the swelling, he could barely keep it open. His lip was cut on one side and was jutting out like he had underwent a Botox injection with an infected needle.

As he opened the bathroom cabinet to retrieve the disinfectant, he heard the creak of Danny’s bedroom door. She was in the bathroom behind him within a few seconds.

“Where the hell have you been?” Her tone was harsh, but her voice cracked, very clearly showing her worry.

“Out,” he clipped curtly.

“It’s almost ten o’ clock. You don’t call me. You don’t tell me that you’re gonna be late.”

Max took out the disinfectant and a few cotton balls from the cabinet. “Oh, so you’re talking to me now?”

“Are you saying—” She abruptly stopped speaking when he slammed the cabinet door shut and she saw his reflection in mirror. “Max, what happened to you?”

“I fell down some stairs.” He nipped his lower lip and winced at the pain.

“You’re lying! What happened to you?”

He squirted the disinfectant onto the cotton wool and began cleaning his lip. “I got mugged.”

He turned around and her eyes widened at the full sight of him. His ripped, blood-stained shirt made him look like he had been mauled by a bear. Her lip quivered and he could tell by her constant blinking that there were tears on the verge of falling.

With his swollen, numb hands, he began the tiresome exercise of unbuttoning his shirt. Pulling the shirt off revealed more bruises on chest and forearms and that’s when the tears came.

“Max, please tell me—”

“Drop it, Danny!”

She quickly wiped her eyes and without saying another word, she walked to him. “Sit down,” she said softly.

He limped a few steps and sat down on the edge of the bath tub. She didn’t look at him. Instead, she soaked a hand towel with cold water, dropped to her knees in front of him, and began gently cleaning the cuts on his knuckles. He heard the sniffles, felt the heavy teardrops land on his hand, but she wouldn’t look at him.

“Hey,” he whispered.

There was no response. Turning his wrist slightly, she moved the cloth up to clean the wounds on his forearm.


She still didn’t look at him as she tossed the hand towel into the basin and grabbed the disinfectant.

Max placed his hand over hers to still her. “Danielle?”

Slowly her head lifted to look up at him, tears escaping her eyes. “Why are you so angry at me? What did I do?”

Max exhaled an exasperated breath as he considered the question. He wasn’t just angry at her. He was angry at everyone. Angry at Amber and Charlie for putting him in a situation where he had to lie to her every day. Angry at Richard for the hateful words that had left his mouth. Angry at Danny for every single thing she had done in the last six years that made him feel invisible. But mostly, he was angry – just angry – because he didn’t know. He didn’t know if she would be looking at him like that had it not been for the accident.

Richard’s words were haunting him. She had never made the choice to be with him, not ever. She had not done one thing to make him believe that what was happening between them was actually real.

He used his thumb to gently stroke away the tears on her cheek. Moving both hands around her neck, he clasped his fingers together at the base of her head. The fine length of her hair tickled his skin. “You didn’t do anything,” he whispered, resting his forehead against hers. “I think that’s the problem.”

* * * * *

Max dropped the plugs of his gaming console when he heard a knock at the door. He had not fully recovered from Richard’s ass whipping and standing up required quite a bit of effort. He slowly limped to the door to answer it.

“Hey, Charlie.”

Charlie’s eyes popped out. “Fuck! What happened to you? Did you run face-first into a bus?”

“Richard,” was the only explanation Max offered as he limped back to the living room.

Charlie closed the door and followed him in. “Is that boyfriend number four?”

“Five,” Max corrected, plonking down on the sofa.

“So was it a full on death match or did you go down swinging?”

“I only got in two good punches.” Max didn’t think it was necessary to mention the failed roundhouse kick. The situation was embarrassing enough as is.

Charlie sat down and lifted the controls, but when Max did not do the same, he turned to look at him. “You okay? You seem a bit out of it.”

“Yeah.” Max nodded. “Just got a lot on my mind. Richard said some things that were so…it was so…true.” He went on to tell Charlie about the whole series of events from the rejected kiss to the argument he’d witnessed with Melissa to Richard beating the living daylights out of him. “He basically said that I only have her because he doesn’t want her anymore…and…and he’s right, Charlie. Danny is only with me because I lied to her…lying to her.”

Charlie released a heavy sigh. “Max, I’ve never really liked Danny and you know that. She is selfish and crude and I used to believe that she was more trouble than she was worth. But one thing I could never fault her on is how much she cares about you.”

“As a friend, Charlie.”

“No, Max! I wouldn’t have sacrificed you to the devil if I didn’t see with my own eyes. Let me tell you what your problem is. When you think about her, all you see is every other guy. You don’t see what’s right in front of you. She goes out of her way every year to make your birthday special. Why would she do that, huh, Max? Why did she invite you to the charity dinner instead of Richard? Why was she so jealous of Sofia? Why is she with you every Christmas, no matter who she’s dating? You may be lying to her, but you can’t force her to feel something that’s not there. She wanted to kiss you. You didn’t put that thought in her head. Those are all her feelings. You want her to choose? She’s choosing you every day, but you’re so hung up on the past that you’re screwing up the present.”

Max dropped his head and considered Charlie’s words very carefully. He wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t a hundred percent right either. One thing he agreed with Charlie on was the fact that he was messing up the present. She had sat crying on the bathroom floor just two nights ago because he had been too consumed with his own rage. He was lashing out at her for things she could not remember and she didn’t deserve that. Damn Richard! Damn him and Anthony and Steve and Rolind and all those other fucking jerks. It was his time now.

Danny came through the front door a few minutes later.

“Hey,” Max greeted. “Did you have a good time with Amber?”

“Yeah. Though sometimes she’s so rude it shocks me.” She giggled as she walked to the living room. “Hey.” She nodded a greeting. “It’s Charlie, right?”

“Hi,” Charlie responded.

“Oh, you like video games, too?” she asked, glancing down at the control in his hand. “I guess it’s a good thing you guys have that in common. It must make the age gap feel a bit smaller.”

Max chuckled when he noticed Charlie pull in his lips to stop an outburst. “Are you sure you’re not faking your memory loss, because that’s—”

“Charlie,” Max said quietly to settle him.

“We’re the same age,” he said instead.

“Oh.” A cute little sheepish grin curved on Danny’s face and she toyed with her fingers as an attempt to hide her embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I…I didn’t know…um…I’ll get you guys something to drink.” She hurried out of the living room, but Max could hear her laughing in the kitchen and he was sure Charlie heard it, too. She wasn’t really trying too hard to keep it down.

“Make no mistake about it,” Charlie said, pressing the start button on the control. “I meant what I said earlier, but I still hate her guts.”

* * * * *

Danny adjusted the throw pillow beneath her head and sprawled her legs out on the living room carpet. She looked over at Max, who was also on the floor, sitting with his back against the sofa. He looked up from his cards, flashing her a smile, and she quickly turned her attention back to her own cards, which she held above her face.

She didn’t like it when he looked at her in that way anymore. It made her feel vulnerable. It made her believe that he was actually attracted to her when she knew he wasn’t.

Side stepping issues was becoming the norm in this apartment. There were no awkward moments, no stilted silences, but the small space was beginning to fill with all the things they weren’t saying to each other. There had been no mention of the goodnight kiss request, no explanation for his bruised and battered body. That was over a week ago and still not one word. They talked. They laughed. They played games, but having a discussion about the things that were really bothering them was the one thing they didn’t do.

Danny slipped her finger under the material of her bandana and scratched her head. Her head itched constantly, but she preferred to keep it covered. Hiding the scar meant hiding every feeling that went with it.

She risked another glance at Max before studying her cards again. One jack, two aces, a two, a four and an eight. With these cards, the game couldn’t possibly end well. “Give me all your jacks,” she said after some deliberation.

Max slid two cards across the floor and without lifting her head from the pillow, she reached over to retrieve them.

Ha! Now, three jacks. It was looking a bit more promising.

“Give me all your sixes,” Max said.

“Go fish.”

After another Friday night of grilled cheese sandwiches, Max suggested a game of cards to break the monotony. She was truly going insane staying at home day in and day out. She had watched Jerry Maguire four times already. She had even watched every Harry Potter movie to kill the time. She cleaned. She read. She listened to music. She tried to perfect her culinary skills, but with limited options of things to do, boredom was eating at her brain. At least the card games were a different form of entertainment.

She felt his eyes on her and tried to focus on her cards. “Give me all your fours,” she said.

“Go fish.”

He was doing it again, looking at her with his distant admiration that made her insides turn to jelly. On days like this, she found him irresistible. On days when he was just Max, goofy loveable Max, without the weight of the past on his shoulders, he appealed to something inside her that was beyond her understanding. A certain look in his brown eyes and she would heat up from the inside out. Despite everything that had happened during the last few days – and the tension and lies that went with it – she was still the girl crushing on her boyfriend.

He drew his knee up to his chest, then eased it back down, trying to stretch out the leg that still caused him to walk with a bit of limp. That was the only remnant that remained after whatever had happened to him last week. The cuts and bruises had healed, leaving behind only the slightest hint of blue under his right eye.

“Give me all your jacks,” Max said.

Danny cringed internally at the thought of giving away her three jacks, but then something struck her. “When did you get a jack?” she asked, sitting up.

“I just picked it up.”

He nipped his lower lip and she had learnt last week what that gesture meant. “You’re lying. You had three and you only gave me two.”

He looked back at his cards with indifference, but the sly smile that curved on his lips showed his guilt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You cheated!”

“Listen, Baldilocks, I did not cheat.”

“Baldilocks?” she repeated, tasting the name as it left her mouth. “Did you just call me…Baldilocks?”

“Yes.” He snickered, pulling in his lips to stop it from progressing to outright laughter.

“Well, I’ll have you know, Mister hop-along-Joe…” she said it like a nursery rhyme as she pulled off her bandana to reveal the slight fuzz of dark hair on her head. “…that my hair is beginning to grow.”

“Oh, I see,” he said, his amusement seemingly harder to contain. “I apologize. I should call you…Sargent Baldilocks.”

She tossed the throw pillow at his head, stopping his bubbly laughter dead in its tracks.

“It always ends in violence with you.”

Before she could think of a comeback, he crawled across the small space and tackled her to the ground. He straddled his legs over her and her hands quickly moved up to his sides, as if they remembered his weak spots.

“No tickling,” he warned.

But her fingers began to move faster, inching its way up closer to his underarms.

“No tickling!” His laughter was infectious, almost squeaky as he tried to push her hands off his body. “Fight fair, Danny! Stop! Stop! No tickling!”

It took a few tries but he finally managed to clasp both her wrists and with minimal effort, he pinned them to the floor. “You fight dirty,” he said, his ragged breathing warm against her lips.

It was only then that he seemed to realize the position they were in and suddenly all playfulness vanished from his face. This was her undoing. With the unconcealed hunger in his eyes and his succulent mouth within her reach, she couldn’t resist.

She lifted her head and their lips touched for a brief, fleeting instant. With a quick jerk of his head, he pulled back; his breathing unsteady, his fingers tightening around her wrists. His eyes locked on hers, asking questions she didn’t know the answer to. A few more silent seconds. A few more shaky breaths…

“Fuck it!” he whispered and then he came crashing down, taking possession of her lips like he had never wanted anything more in his entire life. He drove his tongue into her mouth, kissing her with a desperation she couldn’t even fathom.

His hands moved up from her wrists, interlinking with her fingers, squeezing so tight she thought he was trying to trap her in that moment. Heat coursed through her entire body. Her tongue played with his. A groan rumbled in his throat, reverberating on her lips and all she wanted to do was bury her hands in his hair, pull him closer so she could feel more of his body on hers. But with her hands restrained, the most she could do was lift her chest up to his, her breasts aching to feel any part of him. This caused another groan and more pulsing heat erupted within her.

He was submersed in the kiss, not even coming up for air for a single second if it meant their lips would part. She lost herself in his hunger, giving as much as she took. Then without warning, he suddenly pulled away, ending the kiss as quickly as he had started it.

“I’m sorry…I’m sorry…” The breath came out of him in short puffs. “I don’t…I…I don’t know what came over me.”

She gave his fingers a gentle squeeze, unable to speak as she tried to slow down her own breathing.

“I don’t think we’ve ever kissed before,” she said after some time.

Something that resembled nervousness twitched on his face. “What makes you say that?”

“If this was anything to go by, I definitely would have remembered it.”

He smiled, his adorable dimple deepening on his left cheek.

“Was our first kiss anything like that?” she asked.

His grin widened. “Danny, our first kiss was exactly like that.”

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