Max jogged down the porch steps like he couldn’t get away from the house fast enough. He stopped short when he saw my car.
“Birthday present from my dad,” I said sheepishly. “It’s no Aston Martin.”
Max laughed heartily at that. “Yeah, but it’s . . . wow.”
“You want to drive it?” I fished the key fob out of my pocket and held it up.
He shook his head, and his hair fell into his eyes. “I couldn’t do that to you. It’s your new car, and your birthday.”
“I came over to tell you that I’m not going out with Carter anymore,” I said. “So this may be your last chance.”
Without another word, he took the key from me with his good hand. When he turned the engine over, he grinned. “Grrrrrr,” he said along with the motor. We were laughing as he backed out of the driveway and pointed the car down the lamp-lit street.
“So, you’re not going out with Carter anymore?” he asked. “I take it your birthday date didn’t go well.”
“He gave me a bear,” I said. “He made me a bear wearing an ‘I love you’ T-shirt.”
I expected Max to laugh uproariously at this, like he laughed at just about everything I said, making me feel a hundred percent better about myself. Instead, he frowned at me and said, “That sounds like a good birthday, not a bad birthday.”
“I don’t love Carter,” I said. “And he doesn’t love me.”
“You make out with him like you do,” Max said quietly, watching the road. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he sounded jealous.
“I don’t want to have that argument with you again,” I said quickly. “And now that you’ve pointed it out, I feel ashamed about my reaction to the bear. I should have more appreciation for the bear. Maybe I’m allergic to the stuffing. Or the fur.”
“Or sentimentality,” Max said.
“Yep.” I turned to the window, unable to look at him anymore without crying. Because I was allergic to sentimentality. Yes.
He glanced into the backseat. “Where’s the bear? Did you toss him?”
“No! I’m not that heartless. He’s in the trunk.”
Max pulled into a shady park with towering oaks. My cheeks burned at the thought that he wanted to be alone with me here. But as soon as he turned off the engine, he popped the trunk and bailed out of the car, saying, “Let’s see this bear.”
I met him at the trunk. He opened it, and we stared at the bear lying in the fetal position.
“It’s like you’re a serial killer,” Max said.
“I don’t fit the profile.”
He gave me a sideways glance. “It’s always the quiet ones that fool you. Mild-mannered. Keeps to herself.” He closed the trunk and leaned against it, crossing his arms with some difficulty because of the cast. “Have you told Carter you’re not going out with him anymore?”
“No, but I will. Maybe you and Addison can arrange some other way to spend time together. You could ingratiate yourself to her mother. Just open the door for her a few times. Mothers love that.” I mimicked him, leaning on the trunk and crossing my arms for protection against what I was about to say, and how I was going to expose myself. “I was so sorry you didn’t get to come tonight. I realized I looked forward to seeing you more than Carter.” Revealing this didn’t necessarily tell him I had a crush on him, right?
Regardless, I felt a strong need to change the subject before he could grill me about my feelings for him. I nodded at his cast. “What happened to you?”
“Carter told you I wasn’t hurt?”
“He—” I needed to phrase this carefully so I didn’t make things worse between them. I didn’t want to misrepresent what Carter had said. “He didn’t seem sure.”
Max nodded sadly, as if this affirmed bad news he already knew. I noticed then how different he looked from last Friday night. This time he hadn’t grown a goatee or shaved one off. He looked like he’d aged five years. His eyes were hollow and dark.
“Tell me what happened,” I repeated.
Max smiled wanly with one side of his mouth. “You know how there’s a penalty in football for roughing the kicker?”
I cringed. The reason there were rules against tackling the kicker, even touching him, was that he was so vulnerable when he kicked, off balance with his foot in the air. He couldn’t defend himself against somebody coming at him.
“Fifteen-yard penalty, automatic first down,” I said. “Did you get roughed? What did those bastards do to you? I’ll kill them for you.”
In answer, he held up his cast. “I was trying to protect my leg, so I fell on my hand instead.”
I asked dryly, “Was it worth it?”
He looked at me kind of funny. I’d said the wrong thing. Again. Around Max, I never knew how to act. I wanted to be funny so he would like me, at least as a friend. I wanted to act like I didn’t care about him, so he wouldn’t guess that I watched his eyes for any flicker of affection. Sometimes I tried so hard to be funny that I ended up sounding like an uncaring bitch, the very princess I was afraid of being. Which might have been true of me about some things, but not about this. Not about Max.
If he was thinking how cold I was, he laughed it off the next moment. “No, it wasn’t worth it at all. I made the field goal, so we took the points and declined the penalty anyway.”
“That’s sweet revenge. At least you made the goal. Is your arm broken?” To make up for acting like I didn’t care, I went a little overboard. I reached out for his cast. He moved it nearer. I supported it with my palm.
“My wrist,” he said.
“Can you play?”
“Yeah, I can play. My mom doesn’t want me to, but I’m going to. Coach says the next guy on the team who hits me or allows a hit on me is off the team, so I think I’m safe now.”
Nobody should have allowed a hit on him, especially during a scrimmage when they were playing themselves. But to say the next person who allowed a hit on Max was off the team . . . that was saying a lot. The coach saw something in Max and wanted to keep him.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“Yep.” I could tell by his curt answer that it hurt a lot.
“Does your hand still work?”
Ever so slowly he turned his wrist over in my palm. The cast whispered against my skin as he slid his hand down. We were holding hands.
No, he was just giving me a demonstration of the fabulous, still intact workings of his digits. And even if we were holding hands, I was in the eleventh grade, and there was absolutely no reason for my face and arms to tingle or my mind and heart to race. I couldn’t slow my breathing, but I tried to pant quietly so he wouldn’t notice.
“Anyway, it’s over now,” he said, as if it wasn’t a big deal that we were holding hands. And maybe it wasn’t. But I was dating his best friend—or at least, I had been—and he was still dating mine.
“I’m sorry I missed your birthday date,” he went on. “I was at the hospital getting X-rays. Maybe I should show them to Carter. I guess he thought I was faking.”
“There’s more to it than that,” I prompted him.
“Tell me,” I said.
He sighed the longest sigh. “I can’t prove it, of course, but I’m pretty sure it happened because Carter’s always telling the team what a wuss I am. He didn’t actually order that guy to hit me, but he might as well have.”
I nodded. Judging from the way Carter constantly attacked Max in front of Addison and me, Max was probably right.
“Carter’s not the team captain,” Max said. “A senior is, but as quarterback, Carter has a lot of sway. I already knew the damage was done and the team didn’t respect me, but I didn’t realize how bad the damage was until they came after me on the field. I don’t know of any way to undo it.”
I asked quietly, “Are you afraid you’ll get hurt again and you won’t be able to play?”
“I’m afraid I’ve lost my mojo,” he admitted. “I’m afraid I’ll never make another kick. Part of me thinks that if I can’t, it serves me right. The great kickers are the ones who don’t get rattled. That’s football.”
“Kickers aren’t usually hit,” I pointed out, “especially by their own teammates in a scrimmage. You shouldn’t second-guess yourself because of it.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. I could tell he agreed with me, in theory. He knew his team was at fault, not him, but he didn’t feel it, and his mojo had everything to do with feeling it.
He looked up at me for the first time in a while, eyes sad. “This is crazy, but I really wanted to kick for Georgia Tech.”
“That’s not crazy.”
He shrugged. “They’re not the greatest team in the world, but they have their years.”
“They won the national championship in 1990, sort of.”
“Right! They had to share it with Colorado.”
“Some years,” I said, “the kicker might be the only player putting any points on the scoreboard. On the bright side, you’d get a lot of respect from the quarterback.”
Max laughed bitterly, let go of my hand, and tried to run both hands back through his hair to push it out of his eyes. He’d forgotten that one arm was in a cast. He put both hands down.
“When this happened,” I asked carefully, “did you get mad?”
“Ha,” he said. “Yeah.”
“As mad as you got at Addison last week?”
He colored in the faint glow of the streetlight. “There were a lot of things going on that night, and then what Addison said caught me off guard. I would never lose it like that in front of the team.”
“Good,” I said. “Sometimes the way a guy reacts can just feed the fire, you know? He gets so upset that other guys just want to come after him more.” That’s what Robert and his friends did to freshman boys in the band. The more upset the boys got, the more fun they were to torture.
“I know better,” Max said. “I have experience with being bullied.”
“So after you got hit, you looked like you do now,” I guessed. “Half smiling with your jaw locked, like you’re very angry and holding your breath and waiting for it all to be over.”
“Probably.” His jaw locked again.
“That’s how you looked in the car when you drove me home last Friday, right after you kissed Addison.”
I flushed hot with embarrassment the instant the words left my mouth. I had hoped he’d kissed her only to make me jealous, because he was angry after watching me kiss Carter. But I was way out on a limb, voicing this suspicion.
Max’s brows were down, and his dark eyes held mine.
My heart sped up. It knew what was about to happen, even if I didn’t.
Max reached his good hand behind my head. His fingers slid across the nape of my neck and interlaced themselves in my hair.
He set his forehead against mine, resting there for a moment, making sure I wouldn’t pull away and I wanted this as much as he did.
I cradled his jaw in my hand.
And then he kissed me.
This kiss was not tentative like my first kiss with Carter. It was deep immediately. I kissed Max back with the same passion. I had never felt so good in my life.
We leaned against the trunk, with his casted arm sandwiched awkwardly between us. He moved it behind my back. Now we were not only face-to-face but chest-to-chest, thigh-to-thigh. I put both arms around his neck and pulled him even closer. He groaned and slid his good hand out of my hair and down my back.
We kissed that way for a long time. It still felt awkward, standing against the back of the car. But I was afraid that if we stopped, Max would remember Addison, and that would be the end of this. I was going to feel terribly guilty about making out with my best friend’s boyfriend, later. But not right now. Not when my blood sparkled in my veins like this.
It was Max who finally broke the kiss and rested his forehead against mine again, panting a little against my lips. “Let’s make better use of this car.”
Heat flashed through me. Obediently I let him go and backed around the car, putting my hand on the passenger door.
He looked across the roof at me from the driver’s side, but he didn’t have his hand on the front door like I did. He had his hand on the back door. He growled, “That is not what I meant, Gemma.”
My hand was trembling as I reached for the other door handle. We closed ourselves into the backseat and met in the middle of all that white leather.
We kissed for a long time, slowly learning each other. Max spent some quality time experimenting with my ear, chuckling every time he found a new way to make me shudder. Chill bumps broke out all over my skin.
Then he slid his hand down to my waistband. Still kissing me, he gently tugged the tail of my shirt out of my shorts. One-handed, he fumbled with opening the lowest button of my shirt, then the next, then the next. Though it was warm in the car, the air felt strangely cold breezing against my stomach. He warmed my bare skin with his hand.
I was not the least bit self-conscious about him touching my waist. I liked being close to Max. But as his hands traveled upward, toward my bra, I kissed him less and shuddered more. Addison had let a guy touch her there last year. I should be ready to let Max feel me up, but I wasn’t. He was the second boy I’d kissed in my whole life.
“No?” Max’s hand stopped on my skin. He pulled away and whispered, “We don’t have to.” But his expression was serious, and he did not take his hand off me. He would stop if I told him to stop, but he didn’t want to stop.