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I didn’t want to either. I just wanted more time. Next time, maybe, or the time after that. And I wished that I could tell him this. But as I looked into his eyes, I remembered this would probably be the last time I saw Max.

Our relationship was very, very complicated.

“Let me instead,” I suggested.

He nodded and smoothed his hand down my belly, out from under my shirt. His hand was shaking.

I placed my hands between his T-shirt and his hot skin. He jumped at my touch. As he watched me with his black hair hanging in his dark eyes, he had never looked more sexy, and I had never been more in love with him.

Slowly I worked his T-shirt over his head and off him. I straddled his lap with his strong, bare arms encircling me and kissed him again. I trailed my kisses down his neck and dragged my lips across his chest. My adrenaline spiked every time he gasped. I began to have second thoughts about not letting him put his hands where he wanted.

But time was up. Glancing at my watch, I said sadly, “I have to go. My curfew is early on school nights.”

“Damn it.” Max tightened his hard arms around me and rubbed his cheek against mine. “I don’t want you to go.”

I didn’t want to talk about leaving, because it would lead to a talk about not seeing each other anymore. My head filled with what we would say. Maybe one of us would suggest meeting again behind Addison’s back. Which reminded me of what my dad must have said once upon a time to his girlfriend, when he was still married to my mom.

Instead, I said lightly, “Why’d you shave your goatee?”

“It was itchy when I put my helmet on.”

I ran my thumb along his stubbly chin, where the goatee had been. “Why’d you grow it in the first place?”

“I thought you might like it.”

I giggled. “You thought right. I did like it. I like you without it too. Why don’t you grow it back sometime? We can test which way I like better.”

I stopped stroking his chin. That was exactly what I was trying not to do, hint at what came next for us. Or not.

“That sounds like a plan.” He kissed my cheek, then my lips, seemingly oblivious to the problem that stood in front of us like a roadblock.

I sat up straighter on his lap, one hand centered on his bare chest, and looked him in the eye. “Wait a minute. What do you mean, you grew a goatee because you thought I might like it? That was before you went out with Addison.”

He blinked. “I’ve wanted you all along, not her. But could we make out some more before we have that conversation? You’re going to be kind of mad.” He closed his eyes and kissed my lips again.

I scooted off his lap. “Max. If you liked me this whole time, why’d you go out with Addison?” I meant to keep my voice even, but the end of my question came out as a whine, filled with all the frustration I’d felt during the last three weeks.

He crossed his muscular arm and his casted arm over his lean chest. “If you bought your Studio 54 shirt because you knew I would like it, why did you go out with Carter?”

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I had plenty to say, but I was too outraged to say it. Finally I managed, “I was with Carter because you asked Addison out!”

“I did not!” he exclaimed.

“Addison told me you did.”

“No! You must have misunderstood her. No.”

I had not misunderstood Addison. I knew this in my heart.

But Max went on earnestly, “I saw you from across the football field at camp. I thought you noticed me, too. When camp was over, I asked Carter to wait with me so I could try to talk to you on your way out.”

“And Addison talked to you instead,” I griped.

“Well, you got hit in the nose,” he said, gently touching where Addison had clobbered me. “I thought that quieted you down. I was going to try to talk to you at the Varsity, but you got sullen, remember? And then, when you left the table to text your mom, I suggested to Addison that the four of us could go out together. I was afraid if I asked you out by yourself, you’d say no, because we’d just met and you’d mentioned serial killers. I figured if we went out as a group first, I might grow on you, and then I could make my move on you.”

“That’s not what Addison told me,” I said, so frustrated now that I could have cried. “She specifically told me that you had asked her out, and that I had to go out with Carter so her mother would let her out of the house.”

Max shook his head. “I have no idea where she got that.”

I knew where she had gotten it. Addison had seen something she’d wanted, and she’d lied to get it.

Max pointed at me. “But then she came back to the table and said that you thought Carter was fine!”

I stared at Max for a few moments with my mouth open, not quite believing what I was hearing. “I said Carter was fine?”

“That’s what Addison said.” Max glared at me accusingly.

“I did not say that,” I insisted. “When she told me you’d asked her out, she said she wanted me to go out with Carter. She asked me if I liked him. I may have said that I liked him fine.”

He sighed suddenly like he’d been holding his breath. “So she just misheard you. She wasn’t lying.”

“She was totally lying, trust me.”

His brows went down like he disapproved of my comment.

I was so angry that I hardly noticed, and I definitely didn’t care. “How could you believe I said Carter was fine?” I protested. “That doesn’t sound like anything I’d say about anybody. That is a strange expression Addison would use.”

“I didn’t know that. I’d just met you.”

“But Max! Why would you still want to go out with me if you believed I said it?”

“I had my misgivings. But you were too perfect, and I couldn’t let you go just because you thought you liked Carter. I knew he wasn’t into you. He knew I was. And I could tell he had a thing for Addison but didn’t want to admit it. He was too wrapped up in moping about his ex-girlfriend. So I kicked him under the table a few times to make him go along with the plan.”

Max reached out to finger the embroidered GLADYS on my shirt pocket. “Then, in the MARTA station, you said the tile art of the countryside was ironic, and I was hooked again. I had to have you. When we got home, I called Carter and convinced him that if we all went out together, we could switch it up and make it right.”

I took in Max’s handsome, shadowed face, the gold pendant on a red cord around his neck, the chiseled muscles of his arms and chest. After all the weeks I’d pined for him, this revelation was too good to be true, and I did not quite believe it. “You never liked Addison?” I repeated.

“No.”

I thought back to our first date, meeting her and Carter in the shopping center parking lot. “You were staring at her cleavage, Max.”

“How could I help it? Everybody was staring at her cleavage. You were staring at her cleavage.”

I laughed bitterly at that, because it was true. “And this is why you kept throwing darts at me, like at Little Five Points when you made fun of the way I dress. You were mad at me for liking Carter.”

He opened his hands. “Because why would you like Carter instead of me? You were supposed to be with me!”

I felt ill. “This is what you and Carter have been arguing about.”

“Like we didn’t have enough already,” Max grumbled. “Yes. He was supposed to go out with you, if that’s what you wanted, but not to stick his tongue down your throat. He’s been doing that because he knew it infuriated me and I couldn’t do anything.” Max’s eyes blazed fire.

“Why did Carter go out with me tonight, then, when you couldn’t?”

“I told him he had to. It was your birthday. I didn’t want you to get stood up.”

“Thanks, Max,” I said sarcastically, thinking of the heartfelt gift of the slasher film. “Was that ‘I love you’ bear your idea?”

“I told him to give you something for your birthday. His ex-girlfriend gave that back to him, I think.”

Max still sat in front of me, but all I could see was Addison, lips pursed and fists balled in excitement as she told me her great news in the Varsity, every bit of which was a lie to steal my guy.

“I hate Addison,” I said. “I hate her with every fiber of my being. I have never hated anyone like I hate that girl, not even my dad’s girlfriend. I would seriously like to put hair remover in her shampoo.”

I took a long, ragged breath. The anger relented a little. Max stared at me with his nostrils flared like I was some distasteful lower species—the way the cool, popular kids used to look at me when I was younger and I passed by their table in the lunchroom.

“Good to know.” He found his shirt balled on the floorboard, turned it right side out, and jerked it on. “I’m sorry to have put you through all this trouble, Gemma. I can tell now that it’s not going to work out.” He got out of the car.

“What?” Alarmed, I shoved open my door and met him at the hood. “What do you mean it’s not going to work out?”

He kept walking around to the passenger side. “I make girls mad. I make you mad too, but you kept coming back for more. You understood me. That’s what I thought, anyway.” He opened the passenger door. “I fell in love with you, Gemma. I’ve been waiting to tell you that every waking moment for the last three weeks. I love you. And all you can focus on is that you’re angry at Addison!” He slammed the door behind him.

I stood there in a huff, trying to calm down, staring at his scowl through the windshield. With a sharp breath I looked up at the tops of the oak trees towering overhead and disappearing into the starlight. He was right. I was so angry at Addison that there was hardly room in my brain for anything else. She had fooled me and used me and tricked me out of being with the guy I wanted most in the world. But if I didn’t snap out of it, I was going to lose him permanently.

A cool breeze swept through the trees. I shivered, then realized I was standing in a public park with my shirt unbuttoned and my bra showing. I buttoned up, glancing once at Max. He was watching me.

I walked to the driver’s side and slid behind the wheel. Starting the engine with a roar, I said, “We have got to solve this, Max, but it’s a school night and I have to go.”

He waved his casted arm in the air, dismissing the problem. “There’s nothing to solve.”

“Don’t say that,” I insisted, turning onto the road to his house.

So he didn’t. But he didn’t say anything else, either. We sat in stubborn silence all the way back to his house. My lips still tingled from kissing him. My skin tingled where his hot hand had touched me. I could not believe Addison had made me wait three weeks for Max, and tortured me by making me think I would never have him.

And now I never would.

As I parked in Max’s driveway, I didn’t want my anger to get the better of me. The more times that happened, the angrier I got at Addison, which just fed the fire. I took a deep breath and tried one more time.

“Max. Just because you think you have it all figured out doesn’t mean it’s true. You’re not always right.”

“Really?”

“Really. What we did for the past hour . . . that was real between us. That was not some scheme to get revenge on Addison, at least not on my end. Didn’t it feel real to you? I could not fake that with you.”

He nodded. “So you’ve liked me all this time, from when we first met at camp. You weren’t trying to get back at Addison. You liked me for me.”

“Yes!”

“Just like it was real and you didn’t fake it when you made out with Carter last Friday, and the Friday before that.”

I took a breath to tell him the truth. When I’d been with Carter, I’d been trying to make the best out of a bad situation.

“You’re not going to be with me,” Max said, his voice a sexy, menacing rumble over the roar of the engine. “You won’t win your game with Addison this time. By next year, all the two of you will remember is that you had an argument about some guy, but you won’t remember me or exactly why. I’m not even a real person to you. To you, it’s all about getting one up on Addison.”

“That is not true, Max,” I whispered with tears in my eyes, because it wasn’t. I reached across the car for him.

He opened the door and backed out, pulling away from my hand. “You thought you were hungry, but then you decided, no, you really just wanted something to eat.” He slammed the door behind him.

14

Friday was such a big day for me. That night I would perform for the first time ever as a majorette! I’d ironed my clothes for school several days beforehand, and caught up on my homework so I could sleep as long as possible the morning of my big day. And wouldn’t you know, I hardly slept at all. I woke up hours early, all with one thing in mind: telling Addison off.

By that time I’d obsessed all night and planned the attack carefully. I did not want to wait until band. That would mean I had to live with the anger cycling over and over in my mind for almost the whole school day. I didn’t have any other classes with her, so I had to catch her before the first bell rang, when everybody walked from their cars or the buses and gathered on the grass in front of the school.

I found a parking space—not as easy as it sounded, since it was my first time driving myself to school—and jogged around the building to the front lawn. Addison was laughing with the other majorettes, chatting them up before the vote. That made me even angrier. On top of everything else she’d done to me, when she won head majorette–elect that night, she would officially be the boss of me!