Turns out I have to meet Max at the station. Try as he could, he couldn’t get out of party prep. I climb out of the taxi just as the time on my phone changes to eight. I’ve matched the red dress with a pair of black, strappy heels and a furry jacket which is slung over my shoulders. I’m nervous. Far more so than I was an hour ago. When I was home and Ava was clasping a diamante choker around my neck, I could pretend that I wasn’t about to see the guy I’ve been thinking about for a whole week. Though now I’m here, it’s all I can do to grip my phone in my shaky fingers to keep it from falling to the ground.
The fire station looks exactly like Max described it. Two large, red garage doors face me but the building itself is brick and has three stories. Through the large windows of which, I see many people on the second floor. I text Max letting him know that I’m outside. He soon responds telling me that he’s caught up inside and that I’ll find him upstairs. With a heavy breath, I tug my jacket further around my arms before tucking my phone in its pocket. Then I head towards the building.
The stairs are rickety and feel as though they’re going to crumble beneath me, so when I reach the second floor I let out the breath I’m holding. They are a lawsuit waiting to happen if somebody drinks too much tonight. I turn around the doorway, stopping short when I see how packed the place really is. It’s easy enough to tell the firefighters apart from the guests though. They are dressed only in their uniform’s trousers, boots and thick, red suspenders. The many women who lull around are all in red. I am suddenly extremely grateful that Max gave me that memo.
A few people look my way as I begin to make my way through the crowd in search of Max. I feel very overdressed when I take in some of the women’s outfits. Many are in red dresses, yes, but theirs are of knee length and cardigan’s hide their arms. And then I see Max with his endearing smile, and I feel at ease.
A frown builds on my face when I realise what he’s doing. He’s holding a pile of helmets in his arms. They are stacked on top of each other and from my count, there’s around thirty of them. Though there’s a smile on his face, it’s also mixed with a look of sheer concentration. I watch on, silently waiting for something to happen. Sebastian, who I met at the club stands near him, holding a stopwatch. He laughs every time Max grimaces.
Max shakes his head, tilting it in my direction. That’s when he notices me and the helmets fall to the floor as his concentration fades. Our eyes meet, his as wide as saucers. With an awkward wave of his hand, he ignores the childlike laughter that leaves Sebastian and clambers over the helmets towards me.
“Hey, I see what you meant by being tied up inside,” I nod my head towards Sebastian who is now trying to clear up the mess caused by his friend.
“Oh, that? It’s this thing me and the guys do when one of us forget to do something in the station. We have to hold the helmets for five minutes and trust me, they get heavy.”
I attempt to hide my growing smile, “I see. And what did you forget to do?”
“I was supposed to pick up the pizza.”
“There’s no pizza here? That’s the reason I came. What will I do now?” I joke.
“Ah, see, there may not be pizza but we do have a fine selection of mini quiches. You definitely want to try those,” he replies instantly, his words making me laugh easily, “I’m glad you came. Honestly, the guys thought you wouldn’t show up.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because you’re, well, you... And I’m me.”
I begin to remove my jacket, “I happen to like you. So, here I am!”
“Woah,” Max’s eyes dance down my outfit before coming to rest again on my own, “You look... I have no words. You’re breath taking.”
“That’s a word,” I feel the heat in my cheeks already and I have yet to admire the view that’s in front of me. Max’s body is toned but not overly so. His own red suspenders cut across his olive skin. I find myself staring until he clears his throat. I cast a final glance over his broad shoulders, “It seems the both of us are at a loss for words.”
“It seems so. Would you like a drink, Veronica?” He offers me his hand.
He hands me a plastic, wine glass full of Chardonnay minutes later. I take it, drinking a fair amount straight away. The flat taste of the wine has me taken aback.
“What’s the matter?” He asks.
“You weren’t kidding when you said this stuff was boxed,” I smack my red lips together.
“It’s not that bad!” Max replies, taking a swig of his own glass.
“Max wouldn’t know a good wine if it came and bit him in the arse!” The woman who joins us wraps her arm around his waist. The soft curls of her sandy, blonde hair reach her shoulders. The wide smile on her face reaches her warm eyes. She watches me with that smile on her face until the confusion on my own makes her speak, “Hi! I’m Maize, Veronica, right?”
I shake her outstretched hand, “Yeah, that’s me...”
“I thought you weren’t coming tonight?” Max looks down at her.
“Lou told me she’d force her beef stew down my throat if I didn’t leave her alone. Between me and Finn staying with her, she hasn’t been alone all week,” the woman explains, “He has told you who I am, hasn’t he?” This time she’s talking to me.
I shake my head, “I have no idea, sorry!”
“I’m his twin sister! I have heard a load about you, Veronica,” her eyes shine with excitement.
“Don’t make me out to be a psycho, Maize. I was telling Lou that I met you outside the school and this one overheard,” Max shrugs as casual as he can but the red in his cheeks tells me he’s told her more than my name.
“Don’t you just love what Max has on tonight? He looks like a bloody stripper!” Maize begins to laugh as she pulls at one of his suspenders. It hits his bare chest with a painful slap.
My eyes find Max’s immediately. The two of us stare until we can’t hold in our own laughter. He snorts, his eyes beginning to water as I shove my palm over my mouth.
“If only you knew, Maize,” Max wipes at his eyes before taking another mouthful of terrible wine.
“Okay... Veronica, your dress is beautiful.”
“Thank you, yours too.”
“I think I’ll leave you two to it! Goodbye!”
With a wave of her hand, she begins to walk away. I look back at Max,
“Twins? You didn’t tell me that.”
“It slipped my mind, honestly.”
I grin, “You do kinda look like a stripper.”
“Don’t. You’ll make me blush,” he waves his hand in front of him.
“More than you were a second ago you mean?”
“Oh, I see how it is. Well, I have to go and embarrass myself now but don’t expect much, I can’t dance as well as you,” he winks. A wink that sends my nerves into overdrive. I take a deep breath and accept his glass from his outstretched hand. Then, I follow behind him as we make our way through the crowd to the front of the room.
He and the scattering of other firefighters make their way onto the stage that has been set up there. Max is soon given a microphone.
“Hey guys! As is tradition, the lads and I will be performing for you. We ask that you wait until the guys have finished before bidding. That way our chief can easily tell who wants who. All the money raised will go to charity of course. I warn you, we are not trained professionals. I also warn you those of you with weak stomachs, to look away now because it’s about to get crazy in here.”
He hands the mike away after a few members of the crowd yell their approval. Then, the music begins, and I witness possibly the funniest thing I have ever seen. The men stand in a row and begin to sway their hips to Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles. Although there are ten firefighters, all with their strong muscles on display, I can’t tear my eyes away from the one who rolls his hips completely out of time to the beat. Max knows he isn’t doing well because every now and then he covers his face with the palm of his hand. As the music gets faster, their movements become more erratic. They spin on the spot, point their fingers and shake their heads.
Max is the seventh guy to have his solo. As Girls Aloud’s Love Machine blares through the speakers set up above the stage, he begins to dance. He keeps his eyes trained onto one spot on the floor. Despite his terrible dance, it’s the concentration on his face that makes it that much funnier. I struggle to hold in my laughter when he drops to his knees. He bucks his back up and down a few times before rolling his hips against the floor. The muscles in his arms tense as he jumps back up to his feet. When he begins to play with his suspenders, a shriek from the crowd makes everybody else laugh. He tugs the red straps off his shoulders, thrashing his head sideways as he does so.
When he finally finishes, the next guy begins. Though I can’t concentrate on anything else but the embarrassed smile that tugs at the corners of Max’s mouth. He watches me from his place in the line, his hands tucked into the pockets of his trousers. He looks to the floor before glancing back up at me. His teeth tug at his bottom lip almost subconsciously.
It doesn’t take long for the bidding to start. The tall, brunette stood behind me pays £100 for Ben and a pregnant, auburn-haired lady pays £115 for Henry. Once it’s time for people to bid on Max, a voice calls out £150 before the chief has the chance to even speak. I surf my eyes across the crowd in search of the woman who wants him. She’s stood behind his twin. Her dazzling, emerald eyes are glued onto him. No one else is willing to pay above £150 and so, she wins. Her hand punches the air in happiness. My eyes fall to Maize who mimics shooting herself in the head before rolling her pretty eyes. I smile before returning my attention to the stage.
The chief addresses the crowd, “That’s it, folks! I’m happy to say that we’ve earned a whopping £490 from your bidding alone! Thank you and enjoy the rest of your night.”
Max joins me after climbing down from the stage.
“That was great, Max. Really great!” I smile.
“I smashed it, didn’t I?” He quips.
“You really did. And hey, someone paid £150 for you.”
“She did, huh.”
I offer him his drink, “You don’t look too happy about that.”
“Han and I have a history. I didn’t realise she’d be here tonight but I’m not at all surprised she came.”
“Oh. You don’t need to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“We were together for three months, but it didn’t work out. It’s not that big of a deal, I promise,” he explains.
“Max, you really don’t need to worry about telling me this,” I take a hold of his bicep and squeeze gently before pulling my hand away.
Though I tell him not to worry, I can’t help but do so myself. People who share history are difficult. And so far, everything about Max has been extremely easy. I don’t want anything to ruin that.
“Are you sure?” He asks.
“What did she win?”
“A date, I suppose.”
“Veronica, she may get a date with me one day, but you’ve got me tonight.”
I barely notice the soft beat of the music until Max offers me his hand after placing our drinks down. Without hesitation, I take it and allow him to pull my body towards his. He places his hands on my waist once I’m close enough and I wind mine around his neck.
“That was smooth,” I comment.
“I can be when I want to be. Did I tell you that I’m glad you came?” He runs his thumbs up and down my waist.
“You didn’t... I’m glad I came too,” I look around the room, “How long have you been working here?”
“You were twenty when you started here?”
“Yeah, seems like a million years ago now.”
“I bet, I take it there were no requirements for you to begin working as a firefighter?”
Max smiles down at me, “Not really. I finished my degree and came straight here. Back then there was only a handful of us. Henry and I started around the same time.”
“No. Technically I could become a mechanic but it would be a step down from my degree.”
“Oh, so what made you become a firefighter?” I ask, genuinely interested in everything he has to say.
“I couldn’t afford to live in London without a job and it was the first one I found. From the first second, I loved it. Plus, I had quite the belly when I started and now, I have the muscles I longed for as a teenager.”
I glance between us at his toned stomach, “There’s nothing wrong with having a belly, Max. Women love a dadbod.”
“What in the world is a dadbod?”
“Google it later. Leo has one and everybody loves Leo,” I continuously move my feet gently side to side along with the music.
“Of course, who else?”
“Right. Well, I’ll have a look. Tell me, did you go to university?”
“Actually, I went to The Royal Ballet School from age sixteen until nineteen. Then I studied in New York for a further year. By then Joel and I were married and of course, I got pregnant at twenty-one. I couldn’t do ballet anymore because I was already huge at six months. It sort of went south then. Joel left pretty much immediately, and I was forced to find a job. I can dance so-”
He interrupts me, “You used that skill to your advantage?”
“Pretty much. Though, they teach you in ballet school to hold yourself a certain way; it’s all about strength there and then there’s the sort of dancing I do now. My old teachers would be disgusted in me.”
“You still have strength though, that’s obvious from the way you held yourself up on the,...” he tilts his head to whisper the next word, “...pole.”
I throw my head back, a short burst of laughter leaving my lips, “You’re right. But that’s from plenty of yoga and strength training at the gym. It takes a lot of effort.”
“I don’t doubt that. I haven’t been to the gym in years! This job gives me the workouts I need daily.”
“It is definitely working for you.”
The words leave my mouth before I have the chance to stop them. Once they’re out there, I feel heat begin to spread across my cheeks. I hope and pray that my foundation is enough to keep the crimson shade from appearing embarrassingly obvious. The silence that fills the following seconds is a welcomed occurrence. I need it to rack my brain over what to say to him next. What more embarrassing things to say can I come up with?
“Do you want to go outside? I’m feeling really warm all of a sudden.” Max’s question knocks me off guard. After the way I have been staring at him, as though he’s a piece of damn meat, I do have my doubts that he’ll ever want to be alone with me again. I resemble a crazed person!
I really need to chill.
“Sure,” I reply, almost too quickly.
Max’s smile continues to be as easy as it always has been as he slips his hand around mine. He leads me through the crowd directly past the blonde who bid on him earlier. Her eyes find our clasped hands and they narrow a considerable amount. I can’t help the smirk that tugs at the corners of my lips.
Once outside, the wind whips around my bare legs, instantly cooling me down. Max helps me tug my jacket on before the two of us begin walking. My heels tapping against the concrete pavement is all we hear for a few minutes. We continue walking until I see the light, brown fur of a rat just ahead of us. It scurries across the path before rushing into a clump of bushes.
“Holy shit!” I must jump pretty high because when I land, the heel of my shoe snaps.
Max’s arms are around me immediately. And though he holds onto me with such a strength it knocks the air out of my lungs, he does so laughing wildly. I slap at his chest, a pout on my lips at the sight of my broken heel.
“Max! My shoe!” I whine.
“I’m sorry!... I’ll stop, I will... It’s just, you looked like some sort of cartoon. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody jump so high off the ground other than Jerry when Tom was after him,” he speaks through bursts of deep, belly laughter. He does eventually stop when he notices that I am severely unimpressed, “Okay. Are you okay? You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”
Shaking my head, I lean against him as I lift my leg up to study the damage, “Nope but my shoe is ruined.”
“Can’t you fix it?” He asks innocently enough.
I roll my eyes, “Do I look like a cobbler to you?”
“Woah!” He holds his arms up in surrender, almost knocking me off balance as he does so, “Who knew you were so feisty?”
“I should’ve warned you about that, huh?”
“It would’ve been nice to know.”
I do not notice how close we are until I feel his warm breath against my forehead. And as if only just realising that he’s in my personal space, Max takes a tentative step backwards before he kicks at the floor beneath us. His eyes avoid mine, somehow wrecking my nerves in the process. Am I that off-putting?
“You know, I’m five four without these heels. You’re a giant compared.”
He looks up from the floor, “We have spare shoes inside if you need them?”
“Yes, please. I can’t really walk in these anymore,” I remove my heels. My bare feet hit the cold pavement. The two of us turn to head back to the station but we don’t get that far. No. Before we reach the doors, I step on something sharp and it pierces the skin at the arch of my foot. I hiss and jump backwards.
“Woah, what happened?” Max asks, worry filling his hazel eyes.
“Something cut my foot,” I scoff, “My luck is just not in tonight, is it?”
“Jesus, it really isn’t. Come here.”
Before I can comprehend what he means, he swiftly lifts me into his arms, fireman style. The irony of which is not lost on me. I smile briefly and wrap my arms around his neck.
“My hero!” I say as he carries through the huge, red doors.
“Let me have a look at you.”
I don’t get the chance to fully appreciate his strong arms around me because seconds later after entering a bathroom, he sits me on the counter. Then, I get to witness Max doing what he does best; helping people. He rushes around, collecting supplies as he goes. A wad of toilet roll and a tube of antiseptic cream land on the counter by my hand minutes later. I don’t notice the blood seeping from the bottom of my foot until Max crouches down ahead of me to look at the damage. He moves my foot into the light with a feather-light touch.
“Is it bad, doctor?” I ask as I wiggle my toes, “I should warn you that I am extremely ticklish, so I may or may not kick you in the face.”
“Thanks for the warning,” he raises an eyebrow, “You have a shard of glass in your arch. I’m surprised you can’t feel it.”
“Brilliant. Will I make it?”
“I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.”
The next ten minutes are spent with me hissing profanity every time he attempts to pull the shard from its bloody bed. When he finally removes it, he punches the air with his fist, earning a thumbs up from yours truly. Then he dabs at the cut with toilet roll and layers it with antiseptic cream before bandaging my foot.
“Considering the size of it, you’re lucky it only cut you slightly,” he holds the glass shard up with tweezers.
I pout, “Hurts like a bitch though.”
“I’ll drive you home and you can rest it. If it doesn’t heal, go to A&E just in case the rat outside pissed on it before it ran away. You can never be too sure.” His joke is met by a wide-eyed stare, “I’m kidding!”
“I am, aren’t I?” He approaches the counter, placing the tweezers by my side.
Suddenly, I feel nervous again. I stare down at my thighs, my breath growing heavier by the second.
Delicately, he nudges my chin upwards with the tips of his fingers.
“Can I kiss you?”
I’m clutching at the countertop now, my arms shaking slightly. To have him kiss me is all I want and he’s finally going to.
“Yes please,” I reply, the words soft on my tongue.
It seems like an eternity passes between us. It’s as though Max didn’t expect me to say yes. He carefully pushes a strand of my hair out of my face before resting his palm against my cheek. We’re close now, the outside of his thigh flush against mine... Too close for nothing to be happening. I part my lips, hopeful that he’ll close the distance.
Then a loud thud echoes around the bathroom and he stops inching his face forwards.
“Damn it...” he mutters.
The two of us look at the door and the shadow of a person that lays underneath it. I graze at my lower lip with my teeth before resting my forehead against his. The moment is over and the two of us know it. A soft sigh leaves his lips as he pulls away from me, leaving me cold all too sudden.
What keeps me sane is the thought of one day feeling his lips against mine.