Chapter 8: August
“Woman, you are going to get me fired!”
Max’s hands were fast but hers were faster. She was undressing him quicker than he could redress. She unbuttoned his light blue shirt, her body slipping lower as she undid the ones at the bottom. His hands followed the same path to button it up again.
“Just a quickie,” she pleaded as she dropped to her knees in front of him.
The raw hunger in her voice sent a burning urge to the lower half of his body. “Stop talking, Danny.”
All he wanted to do was get to work on time. Just one morning. If he managed to get to the front door, he could still make it. Being punctual was something that had not happened in over two weeks. He could actually pin point his tardiness to the very day he had started sharing a bed with Danny. He had thought that she was insatiable before but she had become a nymphomaniac since they first made love.
The first few times were awkward and still a bit painful for her, but it got better and better every time. Learning to control himself was also getting easier. Easier was maybe the wrong word. It wasn’t easy to control himself when an irresistibly sexy woman slid down hot and tight on top of him. But he could restrain himself for longer. He had certainly had a lot of practice in a short space of time because Danny was unstoppable now.
He grabbed his tie from the dresser, lifting his collar before he pulled it around his neck. His hands tried to pull together a decent knot in his tie while her hands unbuckled his belt, the same belt he had just buckled. He sighed. His every effort to get dressed was being reversed. It was almost frustrating, almost disappointing, but he felt neither of those emotions when he heard his zipper slide down.
“I promise I’ll make it worth your while,” she said seductively.
He looked down at her with his tip barely an inch from her luscious mouth.
“You’re a sex-crazed maniac!” he shouted.
She smiled and her tongue darted out to taste him.
“I’m not sure what you’re begging me for, Max.” There was that fake innocent tone again. He loved it. He hated it. “Is this what you’re begging me for?”
She pulled Penis into her mouth and he knees almost buckled. Resistance at this point was futile. He grabbed her hands, lifted her up, and slammed his mouth against hers. She undid the little progress he had made with his tie and pulled it off. Her hands unbuttoned the shirt he had just re-buttoned before moving into the hair he had just combed. He didn’t care anymore. He just kissed her. It was hard, lacking any kind of tenderness, filled with molten heat that could only be the product of two fire signs colliding.
“Is this what you want?” he whispered roughly.
She smiled that devil smile and he wanted to punish her for being so evil. He threw her up against the wall and lifted her legs around his waist.
Access was easy enough. All she wore was a tiny nighty with nothing underneath. He pushed his trousers off his waist and entered her, quick and solid. They had given up condoms a few days ago and the feeling of her wet folds on his bare skin was a shockwave of indescribable pleasure. He began to thrust, so deep she gasped, her soft thighs tightening around him.
“Do you like what you turn me in to, Danny?”
She smiled again. “Oh, God…yes!”
He bit her lip, plunging harder and faster. She dug her nails into his back.
“Harder,” she whispered urgently. “I’m coming.”
He never got tired of hearing those words. That mixed with the feeling of her walls clenching around him, brought on his own release.
A nerd and a virgin. Who would have thought?
He waited for his breathing to slow before he withdrew from her and set her down on the floor. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and shook his head. His shirt and trousers were wrinkled now. His hair was pointing in all directions. He had to start all over again. Every morning. It was the same thing every fucking morning. He sighed, knowing he was going to be late…again.
“Just one morning,” he said as she sighed with satisfaction and threw herself on the bed. “Can we just behave like a normal couple for one morning?” He walked to his cupboard and pulled out a different shirt and trousers. “You could walk me to the front door, hand me my bag and kiss me goodbye. That’s what normal couples do.”
“Are you complaining?” She shifted her legs on the bed and his eyes were drawn to the top of her thighs, her nighty barely covering that firm ass.
“Definitely not complaining!” he said with a smile.
He re-dressed, re-combed his hair and walked to the front door with Danny following behind him. Stopping outside, he turned around and kissed her, ensuring it didn’t linger too long or he would be pulled right back in.
“Have a great day, Sugarpie,” she said.
His face scrunched with distaste. “Sugarpie? Really?”
“What?” She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “You said you wanted us to behave like a normal couple. That’s what normal couples say.”
“Maybe in the fifties.”
“Well, I like it.”
He nodded but still couldn’t bring himself to leave just yet. “You’re meeting a new client today, right?”
“Yeah. They’re coming over at nine.”
This conversation was starting to sound exactly like a normal couple, so much so that he had to remind himself that the basis of their relationship was the furthest thing from normal.
“I need to learn how to drive again,” she said. “I need to be able to go to clients instead of them coming to me.”
“I’ll teach you. I taught you the first time, too.” He leaned forward and gave her another quick kiss. “I’ll see you later, Honeybun.”
“That’s even worse than Sugarpie.”
She giggled and he felt his chest tighten. “God, I lo—”
He stopped himself once again from uttering the words that could expose him. Every time she smiled or laughed or looked at him in a certain way, he had to catch it before it slipped out. If she regained her memory or he told her truth, there was a chance that all this could end and he just wanted to hold onto those words, keep it to himself. It was a form of protection, a way to save his pride if it all blew up in his face. She knew his body. She knew his strengths and his weaknesses. And he was fine with her knowing that. But if she found out the truth and she left; at least she wouldn’t take those words with her. It was better not to reveal it because at least that way she wouldn’t know…she wouldn’t know how desperately in love with her he was.
* * * * *
Max switched on the air-conditioner in his office then loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves. It was the fourth day of August and the heat was unbearable for eight o’ clock in the morning. Or maybe it was just him. Every time his mind hopped back to Danny wearing nothing but that tiny nighty and her lips encircled around his cock, his heart began to race. He had to remind Penis several times that she wasn’t in the room so he would go back to sleep.
He had a wide smile on his face when Charlie walked into his office and sat down on the opposite side of his desk.
“Why, don’t you look happy this morning,” he said. “Did you get lucky?”
“You can’t blame a guy for asking. At least one of us is getting some action. Until Dorothy wakes up and realizes what’s good for her, I’m stuck in a dry spell.”
“Well, you still have Lili. CGI but still smoking hot.”
Charlie chuckled. “I’m glad you finally got what you wanted, Max. I actually like her better this way. There’s a part of me that’s wishing she doesn’t regain her—”
Max’s ringing phone silenced him. “Hang on, Charlie. It’s my mom.” The fact that his mother was calling him during working hours was strange, but he began to worry when he answered it and heard her tremulous breathing on the other end.
“Ma? You there?”
“Max…oh, Max…it’s bad. Kevin…and Perry…when we picked him up from the hospital…he was covered in blood…and…and they couldn’t…they couldn’t save him.”
Max felt a cold sweat trickle down his spine. “Mom, slow down. I don’t understand what you’re saying. Who got hurt?”
“Not hurt,” she choked out. “Perry died last night.”
His blood ran cold. His throat closed. It took a few seconds for it to sink in and when it did, his hands began to tremble. The happiness he had felt just moments ago evaporated into thin air.
“Your brother needs you, Max.”
“I’m on my way, Ma.”
Max hung up the phone and it dropped from his weak hands. His body shuddered as he shut down his computer.
“Max, you’re as white as a ghost,” Charlie said worriedly. “What happened?”
“Perry…Perry died last night.” And as he muttered the words, it was more real, final.
“I’m so sorry, Max. I know he was like a brother to you.”
Max only nodded, unable to speak from the shock. He stood up and pushed his phone into his pocket. “I have to go,” he said after a few moments. “Charlie, I need you to do me a favor.”
“Tell the boss that I’m taking a few days off and get me on the next flight to Montana.”
Charlie nodded and Max left the room, racing to the elevators with heavy legs. His phone buzzed in his pocket.
Jordan: Did you hear?
Max: Just got off the phone with mom
Max: Leaving ASAP
Jordan: I could only get a flight on Thursday night
Max: It doesn’t matter when you get there. Just get there
* * * * *
“I don’t know why I can’t come with you,” Danny said.
Max released a loaded breath and continued packing his bag. He couldn’t deal with this right now.
“Max, I know how much Perry meant to you. You’ve always been there for me, now I wanna be there for you.”
And he wanted her there too, but that meant he would have to ask his family to play along with the façade. He couldn’t do that, not now, not in this time of crisis. They were all grieving and asking them to lie just to keep up this pathetic act was not something he would ever ask them to do.
“Danny, please. Just try to understand. You don’t know any of them…and this is the worst possible time for you to meet them. It’s just for a couple of days. I really need to be with my family right now.”
Her lips pouted a bit and she tried to smile despite her disappointment. “Okay.”
He pulled her into his arms, hugging her tight, stealing as much comfort as he could because he was going to have to face the next few days alone.
* * * * *
It was early the next morning when the taxi drove down the tree-lined street and dropped him off. Charlie had managed to secure him a late night flight and Max felt exhausted as he lugged his bags out of the car. He walked up the stairs to the large wooden porch of his parents’ massive country-style house and inhaled deeply, taking in the smell of home. This house held so many happy memories yet as his feet dragged lethargically across the floor, all he felt was sadness. Perry was gone and all the cheeky comments and witty remarks were gone, too. Perry had grown up in this house right alongside Kevin.
They were five years old when they’d first met and it didn’t take long before Perry started sleeping over and spending Christmas with them. His parents, Beatrice and Patrick, lived four houses down the road so their homes and their families were easily interchangeable. Their lives were intertwined from a young age, the bond of their friendship so deep that they even shared their moms. Momma J and Momma B, and neither mother ever complained about having an extra son.
Kevin was a difficult person to deal with, and that was putting it mildly, yet somehow Perry had done it with ease. His little brother was intense, a ticking bomb, a landmine. Step in the wrong place and he exploded with awful words and rude remarks. That’s how he dealt with things. He lashed out at anyone who tried to get too close. He put up walls and stopped everyone from entering his personal space, everyone except Perry. And now the only person who knew how to comfort him was the reason he needed comfort in the first place.
Max stepped inside and went past the dining room, straight to the large kitchen to find his mother. He found her sitting sadly at the table, holding a cup of tea in her hand but it didn’t look like she had even taken a sip yet. Her shoulders were hunched over and her eyes were red and puffy. Although her dark hair was graying and there were wrinkles at the corner of her eyes, Max had never thought she looked old until now. Perry’s death had aged her overnight.
She gave a tired smile when she saw him. “Hey, baby. How was your flight?”
“Too long.” He walked up to her and hugged her tight. He didn’t ask how she was doing. The answer was apparent. Completely distraught, as if she had lost her own child. She held him for a long while before she finally pulled away.
“Dad’s at Momma B’s house,” she said, “helping with the funeral arrangements. It’s on Saturday.” Her voice grew shakier. “She’s a wreck, Max. Completely shattered. She was frantic at the morgue. They had to sedate her. Our Perry is gone. He was a good boy…such a big heart.”
He watched the stream of tears roll down her face. Standing there silently, he offered no words of comfort because there was nothing he could say to make the situation better. Instead, he listened to his mother as she poured her heart out, small smiles tugging at her dimples as she reminisced about the last fifteen years they had spent with Perry. But then she started talking about the night he died and the depression returned.
“There were four of them in the car,” she explained, pressing a tissue against her nose. “Kevin, Perry…Perry’s girlfriend, Shandre’…and Clayton. You remember Clayton? He lives in the next street.” Max nodded and after wiping her eyes, she continued. “The car spun out of control. Perry flew through the windscreen. They found…they found Shandre’s body in a ditch and Clayton is still in ICU.”
“What about Kevin, Ma?” Worry escalated inside him. His mother had only told him about Perry. She had said nothing about the other passengers and he had automatically assumed that Kevin was okay.
“He has a deep gash down his forearm.”
Max exhaled a breath of relief, but thinking about the way Perry died brought more sorrow to the forefront.
“He was the only one that came out unharmed,” she said, “and I think the guilt is killing him. He refuses to talk to me. And every time I try to talk to him, he snaps. He’s traumatized…I understand that. I just wish he wouldn’t shut me out.”
Max only nodded. A different reaction from Kevin would have surprised him. The only thing he did naturally was shut people out. His mother had always tried to get him to open up and all she ever received in return was venomous retorts. She pushed too hard and Kevin pushed right back.
Max understood then the depth of her grieving. Perry was gone and that was devastating, but losing Perry meant that they had lost Kevin, too. He was never going to recover. His best friend had been taken away from him and although Max did not understand completely, he could relate. After all, it had not been too long ago that he had sat in the hospital, praying at the bedside of his best friend.
Although he knew it was a bad idea, he looked at his mother and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’ll go talk to him.”
She smiled her gratitude and he walked down the corridor to Kevin’s bedroom. He didn’t knock because he knew he would be asked to go away. He walked in and found Kevin sitting on the bed. It could not really be called a bedroom.
When Max had left home to study in LA, his parents had knocked down the wall between his bedroom and Kevin’s and converted it into a full-on man-cave, complete with pool table, fooze ball table and a flat screen TV. Large posters of Beyonce’ and Jennifer Lopez covered one wall while his swimming medals were neatly displayed in a cabinet against another. Even though Kevin was the last of his siblings left at home, there was two of everything in there. Two beds, two bean bag chairs, two gaming controls. Another testament of how often Perry came over.
Kevin did not look at him when he entered the room. Instead, he ran a quick hand over his wet face and turned his head in the other direction, not wanting Max to see his reddened cheeks and puffy eyes.
Kevin never showed weakness by crying. Actually, he never showed any kind of emotion, but Max knew all the tell-tale signs. Balled fists, tight jaw and then he clasped his hands at the back of his head. He recognized it because these were things they both did, their natural reaction to anxiety, anger or hurt. Kevin’s body language told him that he was feeling all of those emotions at once.
Max didn’t say anything because his brother needed to be dealt with delicately and he wanted to avoid the landmines.
Kevin was different from the rest of them in every way. All his siblings – Jordan included – were tall and somewhat skinny. Kevin was much shorter and attributed his muscular frame to the fact that he was the only one who had any hand-eye co-ordination. While all of them excelled in academics, he excelled in sports. But the defining difference was his personality. Although Kevin had a light-hearted sense of humor, he wasn’t open like the rest of them. He used his sharp tongue as protection to keep everyone at a distance and this was why Max decided to proceed with caution.
Remaining silent, he switched on the TV and gaming console, then reached for the controls. He sat down, choosing to sit on the floor instead of the bean bag chair that used to belong to Perry.
Long, drawn out minutes passed before Kevin moved off the bed. No eye contact. No exchange of greetings. Just simple wordlessness as he sat down on the floor beside Max. As he reached for the other control, Max noticed the thick, white bandage on his forearm and was reminded yet again of how quickly life can take an unexpected turn and how grateful he needed to be for second chances.
They continued playing for hours, moving between games once they became boring. Their mom came in at lunch time and left sandwiches and chips on the floor in front of them.
“Thanks, Mom,” Max muttered, not wanting to disturb the quietness too much.
His brother ignored her and continued thumbing the controls. Max nibbled a bit but Kevin refused to eat anything.
It was late evening when Max finally thought it was safe to speak. “You wanna talk, Kev?”
Kevin’s jaw immediately clenched and his nostrils flared slightly with annoyance. He didn’t respond, though, and Max could hear him grinding his teeth. It was an irritating habit from early childhood, but he didn’t complain because he knew what that ugly sound meant. It was a mechanism Kevin used to stop himself from crying.
“I know this is hard for you. Perry was—”
His hands tightened around the controller. “Max.”
It was a sharp whisper to reinstate the silence and Max did not know what kind of acerbic retort waited on the other side of his stilted pause. Kevin had never snapped at him before, but there was a part of him that thought it would happen today.
His brother turned to face him, his deep blue eyes lined with tears and burning with anguish. “You’re my brother,” he said, his voice low and unsteady. “You already know how I feel…and I know how you feel…so there’s no need to talk about this. And if you mention his name again, I’m gonna ask you leave.”
Max nodded. That wasn’t the verbal lashing he was expecting but it made him understand his role in the situation. Kevin hadn’t played video games all day for the entertainment. He had done it for the distraction. And he hadn’t allowed Max to sit in his room for so long because he intended to open up. He had kept Max there because he wanted the silent comfort, the pillar of strength only a brother could provide.
* * * * *
Max awoke the next morning, his body stiff from having slept on the floor. Kevin was already up. Actually, his red, tired eyes suggested that he hadn’t slept at all. He had returned to his spot on the bed; staring out the window, and Max took that as his cue to leave. He closed the door of the man-cave, quickly brushed his teeth and washed his face before pulling out his cellphone.
He called Danny, spoke to her for a few minutes then walked to the living room. His three nieces and two nephews were in there, running around like they were high on sugar, cartoons blaring on the TV. The noise pinched his tired brain.
If the kids were here, Dominic and Shane had to be around somewhere but as his eyes searched the room, the only adult he spotted was a man he had never seen before. He was neatly dressed in a gray suit and tie, arguing with his niece, Makayla, about how many lady birds she had on her dress. Makayla was becoming more irritated and Max thought it best to not get involved in their squabble.
He walked into the kitchen and his mood lifted instantly. Running from the door, he leaped up and caught Jordan in a choke hold as he landed.
“Max,” she yelled. An annoyed snort burst from her mouth as her small fists jabbed into his ribs. All that got her was a series of noogies.
“Max, let go of your sister.”
He let her out of the choke hold but kept his arm around her shoulder. “Hey, Jo-jo,” he said, slapping a quick kiss on her cheek before turning to his mother. “Momma, how come you always take her side?”
“Because I’m her favorite,” Jordan stuck out her tongue and adjusted her glasses, which had shifted on impact.
“Now, Jordan Alberta,” his mother reprimanded, “enough of that. I have five children and I love all of you equally. I don’t have a favorite.”
“Except Kevin,” Jordan and Max chanted together.
“Well…yes,” she admitted sheepishly. “Except Kevin.”
“Who’s the stiff in the suit?” Max asked, pointing his thumb towards the living room. “Looks like it’s gonna come to blows with him and Makayla. The argument seemed pretty intense when I saw them.”
Jordan’s bluish-gray eyes widened behind her glasses. “What? She’s only three years old, Max. Why didn’t you do something?”
“’Cause my money’s on her.”
“I’ll go check on them,” his mother offered and left the kitchen.
“So where’s Danny?” Jordan asked once they were alone.
Max nipped his lower lip. “I didn’t want her meeting everyone at a time like this. Who’s the guy in the suit?”
“You’re lying! Why didn’t you bring her?”
“It’s complicated, Jo-jo. Who’s the guy in the suit? Is he the one you were obsessing over?”
“You tell me then I’ll tell you.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“Bullshit! You and Danny are attached at the hip. So where is she?”
Max walked to the other side of the kitchen and began preparing two cups of coffee. “You first.”
“Fine. Tyler’s my boss.”
Disgust wrinkled his face. “Didn’t need to know that part.”
“He’s weird and I think slightly crazy. He thinks I’m…tall and that’s about the only concrete thing I can get out of him. He just got out of a long term relationship so I’m not sure what’s going on, but whatever it is, it’s nothing serious. Now you.”
Max exhaled slowly. “So you know what happened with Danny, right? And I may have told her a small white lie.” He paused, nervous to reveal his secret. “I stretched the truth a bit and now…and now we’re kinda…dating.”
Her eyes were so wide it looked like they were going to pop out of her head. “What? Max, this is…not good. Is that why you don’t let mom talk to her? This is seriously a bad idea.”
“I know that. I didn’t even want to do it, but then Charlie—”
“Charlie?” she shouted. “You took dating advice from Charlie? The same guy who jerks off to CGI characters?”
He handed her a cup of coffee and they sat down at the wooden table. “It was stupid, Jo-jo, and now I’m stuck in this lie and I can’t get out of it. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I didn’t think…it would get so out of hand.”
“Oh, my God.” She covered her mouth with her hand when she saw something he hadn’t realized he had put on show. “Oh, my God. You slept with her. What’re you? Insane? What were you thinking, Max?”
“I wasn’t thinking. It’s just…how…how could I say no to the idea? It’s what I’ve always wanted. I’ll tell her the truth, Jo-jo. I will, just not now.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing.” Her concern was evident in the weighted breath she let out. “Now enough about me and enough about you. How’s Kevin?”
Max shrugged. “He’s…Kevin.”
“You need to talk to him.”
He turned his cup idly on the table as he threw one arm over the backrest of the wooden chair. “I was just in there. All he did was play video games. He doesn’t want to talk, Jo-jo.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re telling me that you’ve been here since yesterday and all you did was play video games? Geez, Max! Get back in there and do…I don’t know…just do something.”
“What do you want me to do? You know how he gets. He wants to be alone.”
“Well, Bink shouldn’t be alone right now. He’ll do something stupid.”
“Then you go talk to him.”
“Me?” She stopped sipping her coffee and glared at him. “Max, we both know that I am worst person to be around in a time of crisis. You remember what I said after Penny the Parrot died. Shane cried for two days. I didn’t even send you a message on your birthday because of what happened to Danny. I always end up saying the wrong thing. I think it’s better if you go.”
“Let’s settle this the democratic way,” he said, leaning forward. “Rock, paper, scissors.”
She rolled her eyes but leaned forward anyway. “One…two…three.”
She threw out a flat hand but Max threw out a fist with his index finger pointed out.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s a stick of dynamite and…”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“…it can blow up rock, paper or scissors…”
“You’re being ridiculous!”
“…so I guess that means I win…”
“Just when I thought you couldn’t be a bigger moron.”
“…and you’re going in there.”
Her face dropped with dread. “Max, please.”
“Jordan, it’s up to you now. Who knows what will happen if I go back in there? We could get all emotional and then our dicks will fall off and then we’ll start listening to boy bands and you don’t want that for your brothers, right?”
“I can’t believe you would use my own words against me.”
“You should always watch what you say to me. It may come back to bite you when you least expect it.”
She groaned her irritation. “I hate you!” She finished her coffee and stood up. “Fine, I’ll go talk to Bink but you’re on Tyler duty. Just make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble.”
Max watched her leave the kitchen and stood up, feeling very proud of himself. That dynamite trick worked every time.
He walked back to living room and stood at the entrance, watching the tall, brown-haired man his sister was apparently obsessing over. He was, in fact, very weird. Still arguing with Makayla but for something different now.
“I don’t know how you watch this,” Tyler said, pointing to the talking ducks and mice on the screen. “I, for one, have spotted several loopholes already.”
“What’s a loophole?” his niece asked innocently.
“Like how does that thing know exactly which tools to have every episode?”
“Because he knows,” Makayla responded simply.
Yep, Tyler was strange, alright. But that probably meant he was perfect for Jordan. Max groaned inwardly as he walked to the sofa. This was going to be painful.
“Hi,” he greeted, extending his hand. “Max.”
They shook hands and Max sat beside him.
“You’re pretty passionate about cartoons,” Max said.
“I dare you to find any sort of logic in it.”
It took less than ten seconds before his nieces swarmed around him. First kisses, then excited giggles, then the make-up and glitter came out.
Max sighed his submission as his three nieces started with their make-over. Protesting was useless so he just sat there as they attacked him with all shades of pink. Makayla (3) on hair, Mackenzie (5) on eye-shadow, and Madison (7) on lipstick.
“Where’s Danny, Uncle Max?” Madison asked, smearing the pasty cream outside the lines of his mouth.
The question made him realize how much he missed her. “She’s back in LA. Promise I’ll bring her next time.”
He waited for the girls to finish before he looked over at Tyler. “You want a beer? Make all of this a little more…manly?”
“Sure. Pink is definitely your color, by the way.”
Max laughed. “Don’t think you’re safe,” he warned, leaving the living room.
When he returned, Tyler’s hair was also untidily tied with pink ribbons and glitter eye-shadow coated his eyes. His nieces were scattered around now, building puzzles on the floor, while his nephews crashed cars into each other near the fireplace.
Max handed him a cold beer. “Told you.”
He sat down beside Tyler again, taking in his expensive suit. Max already knew he was filthy rich. Jordan was the group financial manager at Diamond Properties, the largest property company on the west coast, and Tyler was the majority stockholder. However, wealth did not automatically make him good enough. “So what exactly are your intentions with my sister?”
“Nothing,” he replied instantly. “We don’t have that boss-accountant sort of relationship.”
Max was going to continue probing, but his older brothers entered the living room and interrupted the conversation. Dominic said nothing about the pink ribbons and eye-shadow because he recognized the work of his daughters.
“Nice hair-do,” Shane said, shaking Tyler’s hand.
They exchanged greetings and introduced themselves before his brothers sat down on the opposite sofa.
“Kevin still in his room?” Shane asked.
“Yep.” Max replied. “Don’t think he’s gonna come out anytime soon. Jo-jo’s with him, though.”
“Good,” Dominic sat back and threw his arm over the backrest. “He shouldn’t be alone right now. I just hope she doesn’t say something stupid like she always does or she might get another nail in her log, but rather her than us, right?” Dominic turned his attention to Tyler. “So are you Jordan’s boyfriend?”
“I was just asking him the same thing, Dom,” Max said.
Tyler appeared nervous. It was understandable. Three over-protective brothers would make any man shake in his shoes. His brothers were just as curious to find out why Jordan would bring him along. She had never brought a guy home before.
“We’re not…together,” Tyler responded after some time.
Dominic stood up, took the beer from Max’s hand, and sat down again. “It’s better you keep it that way, but just in case you change your mind, don’t say we didn’t give you a fair warning. If you hurt our sister, we’ll cut your balls off!”
Tyler’s brown eyes widened at the threat.
“Dad has some shears in the shed we could use,” Shane chimed in to drive it home.
“You got that, Tyler?” Max said. “That’s the message we’re gonna leave you with. Balls and shears.”
* * * * *
Max stepped out of the shower the next morning and pulled on a black suit pants. He didn’t bother with the shirt just yet because the bathroom was unbearably hot for him to consider wearing any more clothes.
Today was Perry’s funeral and it was going to be a hard day to get through for all of them. All he wanted was to have Danny at his side. She always made everything a little easier. But he had to accept that it was his fault that she was hundreds of miles away. Christmas would come soon enough and there was no way he would be able to avoid bringing her home so he gave himself a deadline. If she still didn’t remember anything by December, he would tell her the truth instead of asking his family to lie for him.
He walked out of the bathroom and saw the darndest thing. A few feet down the corridor, Tyler tip-toed out of Jordan’s bedroom and quietly closed the door.
Tyler froze when he looked up and saw him. “It’s not what it looks like,” he said quickly.
“It looks like you just spent the night in my sister’s room and you’re sneaking out before my parents catch you.”
He pulled his lips in and nodded. “Mmm. Then I suppose…it is what it looks like. But I assure you, nothing happened.”
Max shrugged but said nothing because he actually liked watching him squirm.
“Please don’t tell your brothers.”
“Balls and shears, Tyler.” Max gave him a quick tap on the shoulder as he walked past. “Balls and shears.”
The melancholy that filled the house made it feel like it wasn’t the same house. Max wanted to get out of there but escaping it was impossible. It was everywhere, in everyone. Max walked down the front stairs, waved a greeting to Shane who was parked in the driveway, and hopped into the back seat of his mother’s Land Rover. She sat in front of him in the passenger seat and his dad was behind the wheel. No-one said anything, but Max could hear the mournful sniffles from the front seat. He reached over and gave his mother’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. She placed her hand over his and squeezed back.
A few minutes later, Tyler and Jordan walked out, both dressed in black and she shut the door behind her.
“Where’s Kevin?” Max asked when they reached the car.
“He’s not coming.” She turned and shouted the same thing to Shane.
“What do you mean he’s not coming? This is a mistake, Jo-jo, and you know it. He’s gonna—”
“Bink’s a big boy now,” she said softly, climbing in beside him. “He can make his own decisions.”
The space between them got smaller when Tyler climbed in, his broad body dominating most of the backseat as he shut the car door.
Max quietened even though he knew that Kevin would forever regret not saying goodbye to his best friend. He didn’t argue with Jordan because she had been with Kevin all day yesterday and she probably understood his reasoning.
The drive to the church was morbid. The eulogies and the prayers even more so. Momma B was edgy, constantly looking around the church, her eyes searching for the son who was still alive. Her brown skin had darkened substantially, looking tired and overused because it was the only thing holding her together. She looked older too, desolate, inconsolable and all she wanted to see was the face of her other boy, but Kevin had made his choice.
As they carried the coffin out of the church to the hearse, Max felt the memories sweep through his mind. Playing catch in the back yard. Hide and seek. All the birthday parties. And somehow Kevin not coming actually started to make sense. He wanted to save himself from this. Max could only feel pity for his little brother. If he was feeling so torn, then Kevin was absolutely shattered.
He felt the tears roll down his cheeks and wiped them away with one hand. Jordan took hold of his other hand and rested her head on his shoulder. She was crying too, sobbing harder when Momma B’s grief-stricken wails echoed through the church. He put his arm around her and even though he found solace beside his sister, no one was a substitute for Danny right now. He wanted her there. He wanted to hold her, hear her voice telling him that it was going to be okay.
Lie or no lie, best friends were for life. Lie or no lie, best friends were irreplaceable.
* * * * *
Danny started grating cheese. Max would be home any minute now and she wanted to have a hot meal waiting for him. She had attempted a beef stew but it tasted like rubberized meat boiled in sea-water…with a hint of parsley. So they were going to have grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner again.
She dropped everything when she heard the front door open. She raced out of the kitchen and threw her arms around him. “Hey, there, Sugarpie.”
He released a deep sigh, as if a weight had been taken off his shoulders, and hugged her tight. “I missed you,” he whispered against her neck.
“I missed you, too.” Sensing his need for comfort, she pulled him closer. “It’s gonna be okay.”
His fingers pressed harder into her back as she spoke. “You make everything okay.”
When he finally pulled away a few minutes later, he smiled but the sadness showed in his eyes. He sniffed, looking strangely around the apartment. “What’s that smell?”
She toyed with her fingers and tried to hide her embarrassment. “Um…I tried to cook again.”
The smile reached his eyes now, seeming more genuine. “You know they say that if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Yeah, you shouldn’t listen to that advice. You should just…just stop. Quit while you’re ahead, that’s the advice you should take.”
She hit his shoulder and giggled. “Stop being mean! I just wanted you to have a nice, hot meal when you got home.”
He pulled her into his arms again and kissed the side of her head. “The only thing I want right now…is you.”
* * * * *
Danny was pissed. Max! Sentimental Max! Make-a-big-deal-about-everything Max, had forgotten her birthday.
Jumping into her car, she turned down a narrow street, heading straight for the beach. The beach was in walking distance but she was taking advantage of the fact that she could drive now. Well, kinda.
She rode the clutch a bit too much and the car jerked and screeched. She heard Max’s voice shouting in her head: Clutch in, Danny! Release it slowly.
It took a little getting used to, but learning to drive again was not as bad as she had originally anticipated and she loved having some sort of independence.
Only a few blocks and she would be there. She needed a little time to herself before he got home. The sound of the waves and feel of the sand was calling her, promising to set her mind at ease. She wasn’t angry so much as she was hurt. Max was still grieving so it was understandable that it slipped his mind yet still it hurt. It was not about big gestures or expensive gifts. That wasn’t what she wanted. All she wanted was acknowledgement, a small Happy Birthday, Danny.
It was the first birthday she remembered in the last ten years and she had wanted it to be special, like all her other memories with Max. Lauren had called. Amber had called. Even Charlie!
Max had snuck off early this morning and the first thing she felt when she woke up was disappointment. She had waited with her phone beside her and nothing. Lunch and a meeting with another client and still nothing, not even a text message. As the day progressed, she had become more disheartened.
All she needed was some time to rearrange her thoughts, to stop thinking about herself. Max needed her support during this hard time and a few minutes with sea and sand would help shift her focus. One part of her felt selfish while the other part kept reminding her that a simple birthday wish was not asking for too much.
She took a deep breath and tried to calm her emotions as she parked her car and climbed out. Salty air filled her nostrils and she was beginning to feel better already. Tossing off her shoes, she buried her feet in the soft sand, allowing it to collect between her toes.
She walked a little further and spotted a boulder. A vague memory came to mind — Jake lifting her up onto that rock when she was a little girl — and she was instantly drawn to it.
She took her time, enjoying the harmony of the waves crashing on the side of her, the feel of the wind whipping through her short hair. When she reached the rock, she lifted herself up a foot to sit on it and there beside her, she saw a small stone with a piece of paper underneath.
The placement of it was odd enough to pique her interest. She pulled it out from under the stone and read it.
How To Get a Girl Right Where You Want Her:
Step 1: Ignore her
Step 2: Wait for her to become edgy and irritated
Step 3: Ask her to turn around
Danny immediately spun around and her heart stopped. Max stood on the other side of the rock with beige pants that were rolled up to mid-calf and a pale yellow shirt, which he hadn’t bothered to tuck in. The late afternoon sun caressed the side of his face and lightened his brown eyes. Gorgeous. That was the only word that came to mind.
“Happy birthday, Danny.”
Those were the words she had been longing to hear from him all day and somehow hearing them made her feel like all her emotions were going to overflow.
She slowly climbed off the boulder and walked around it to meet him. “Step one and two were entirely unnecessary.”
“I had to get you here without spoiling the surprise.”
“How did you know I would come here?”
He smiled and looped his arms around her. “I told you, you haven’t changed. You always came to this very spot whenever you wanted to clear your head.”
“I’m still mad at you.”
He shrugged. “It won’t last long.”
He led her a few feet down the beach to a secluded spot behind another boulder. A table draped in a red and white checkered table cloth from Rocko’s stood in front of her. Two place settings on either side and one large covered platter in the middle.
“I decided to give you a day of your favorites,” he explained. “This is your favorite spot on the beach. Rocko’s is your favorite restaurant, but…” He lifted the lid of the platter. “…I used Mama’s kitchen to make chicken-a-la-king.”
She covered her mouth with her hand, tears filling her eyes. “Max, this is perfect.”
“I’m not done yet.”
He walked around the table and lifted a weathered cardboard cut-out of the Beach Boys until it stood upright. It was faded, torn at the edges, and she could tell that it had seen better days.
“Don’t judge. This was impossible to find and bear in mind that you’re the one who likes music that’s a hundred years old.” He knelt down and pulled a battery-operated radio from underneath the table. He pressed play and sound of Kokomo filled her ears.
“I really do love this song,” she said, swaying her hips as it progressed. “Do you have the cast of Jerry Maguire under there, too?”
He sighed. “Unfortunately not. Tom Cruise was busy today.”
She walked towards him and reached up to wrap her arms around his neck. “Thank you. It’s perfect; you’re perfect, but there’s one more favorite that I think you’ve forgotten.”
His dimpled twitched, but he stopped a smile. “Nope. I think I got it all.”
“You sure?” she asked, tilting her lips up to his.
“Pretty sure. Maybe you need to remind me.”
She kissed him then, her senses documenting everything. The mingled smells of salty sea air and Max’s cologne. The sight of the sunset on the horizon and mixture of colors in the sky. The sound of the waves crashing against the shore. The feel of his skin. The taste of his lips. It was her first birthday since the accident and she wanted to remember every perfect detail.
He broke the kiss and pulled out a chair. “Let’s eat.”
They sat down and Max plated their food. Before she lifted a forkful to her mouth, Max slid a blue suede box across the table.
“One more thing,” he said.
She stared at the box nervously. Her heart began to race. It was a jewelry box, but he couldn’t possibly be proposing. She loved him, yes, but she did not know how he felt about her and marriage was something she was not quite sure she was ready for. Four months was too little time to be a hundred percent sure. Or was it?
She slowly reached over and took the box, taking a fair amount of time before she opened it. If it was possible to feel relief and disappointment at the same, then that’s how she felt.
“Hair clips?” she asked with a laugh.
“Yeah. I had them made.” He took one clip out of the box and ran his fingers over the butterflies at the end. The sun had almost disappeared now so he tilted it so she could see the brownish-colored stones that were embedded in the wings. “You won’t understand my connection to butterflies,” he said with a naughty grin, “but let me tell you about these stones. It’s called Sardonyx, it’s one of your birth stones. It’s the less common one and there’s actually a very interesting story behind it. So back in the day, Queen Elizabeth the first had a ring with this stone in it and she gave it to the Earl of Essex as a token of their friendship, a symbol that she would always be there when he needed her. It didn’t end very well for them because she…had him executed, but…I like what it means…and that’s why I’m giving it to you.”
Her throat tightened and she tried to blink back her tears. The gift was thoughtful in so many ways. “This is the best birthday ever.”
He smiled, seemingly shy, and he tried to cover up his sentimentality with modesty. “You’re just saying that because you don’t remember what I did for you two years ago.”
“What did you do?” she asked before filling her mouth with chicken-a-la-king.
“There’s this…guy, a singer. Rudolph…Rudolpho, I don’t know. Something like that. He’s not really famous or anything but you love him because you have crap taste in music.”
“It’s my birthday so you can’t be mean to me.”
“Okay, well, anyway, he was doing a concert and I tried to get you tickets but they were all sold out so after the show, I managed to get past security and talk to him. I convinced him to go to your apartment and serenade you.”
Her eyes grew with fascination. “That’s insane! How did you get him to agree?”
He shrugged. “It didn’t take much to convince him. He’s a hopeless romantic, I guess.”
There was a part of her that was saddened by the story, because it was another moment of awesomeness that she could not remember yet it intrigued her even more. “What did you do for me last year?”
Silence. Balled fists and then more silence.
“Max?” she urged.
“Nothing,” he said softly. “You made other plans last year.”
They were entering a no-go zone again and although she was almost fearful of his reaction, she decided to probe further because she wanted all the details of her past, whether they were good or bad. “Will you tell me what happened?”
His jaw tightened, another sign that his temper was flaring.
The usual Drop it, Danny didn’t leave his lips. Instead, he simply shook his head. “Tell me.”
“Let’s not go down this road, Danny.”
The warning signs to back off were all there yet still she continued. Fueled by the need to fill in the blanks, she persisted, feeling that it was unnecessary to be protected from her own past. “Just tell me.”
He snapped. “Richard, alright! You made plans with Richard. He stood you up. You spent the rest of the night locked in your apartment, crying your eyes out, and refused to talk to me. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
He stood up so fast that his chair toppled over in the sand. He marched a few feet down the beach and stopped, clasping his hands behind his head.
She stood up too and approached him cautiously. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean…I didn’t want to ruin this perfect day and now I have. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“You wanna be with me, don’t you, Danny? I mean…this is real for you too, right?”
“Max, how can you even ask me something like that?”
His eyes locked on hers and she understood then his reluctance to tell her. He had not been trying to protect her from her past. He had been trying to protect himself. Questions filled her head and she wanted to know more. She wanted to know why he was asking questions like that. What had happened that made him so angry? Richard had become Voldemort, the name she could not mention. Lauren and Amber reacted the same way every time she brought him up.
As she looked at Max now, she realized that she would have to accept that Richard was one thing in her past that she would never know about unless she regained her memory.
“I just wanna know,” he said. “You don’t remember how you felt about him. If…if Richard had to walk back into your life, who—”
“Hey.” She cupped his face in both hands. “Don’t even think like that. I could never feel about anyone the way I feel about you. I don’t need my memory to figure that out. I gave you me and you gave me you and I won’t ever let you go.”
He pulled her towards him and kissed her, possessive and unyielding. “You’re mine now,” he whispered.