posted on 16-Jul-2002 11:56:26 PM
DREAMER HOLIDAYS: HALLOWEEN

Author:
Carol000 (aka spacemom)
Rating: G
Setting: Max and Liz are in 6th grade. They are so very aware of each other, but they have no relationship yet.
Disclaimer: I don’t own them, yada yada yada.

Author’s Note: Hi, everyone! First, I must take one more opportunity to THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for the awesome send-off you gave Epiphanies. It warmed my heart and made me want to keep writing.
Now I’m doing a little fluff. Why? Cause I wanna and my brain needs a break! So I am introducing the DREAMER HOLIDAYS Series. This is the first installment. It will be followed by Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day. Each story will be a snapshot of just one of the many holidays Max and Liz will spend together. They might be in the past, the present, or the future. I hope you enjoy!

Dreamer Holidays: Halloween

Liz trudged through the doorway to her family's home above the Crashdown and flung her backpack to the floor. It landed heavily and her mother looked up from the computer, eyebrows raised.

"Hi, honey. You okay?"

"Yeah," Liz sighed, falling backwards into a chair, her legs sprawled out in front of her. "It's just that I thought 6th grade would be so cool. Ya know, lockers and changing classes and all. I didn't know you'd have to carry around like a million books every day. My arm's practically broken from walking home with all this." She sighed again.

Her mother smiled. "Well, you might find a reward for all that pain and suffering in the kitchen."

Liz perked up. "They came?" She ran into the kitchen and squealed at the open box of Halloween cookies her grandmother sent every year. Pumpkins and ghosts and headstones. But the best part was, they were the most buttery, most flavorful cookies ever! Liz dug in, her cheeks bulging as she poured some milk.

Balancing a plate of cookies and her glass of milk, Liz returned to the living room. "Mom, I think I've decided what to be for Halloween this year. I thought about being Buffy, but she just looks like a normal teenager, so I think I'll be a vampire."

Nancy Parker frowned slightly. "Liz, don't you think you're a little too old to dress up for Halloween now? You're in middle school. Trick or treat is for younger children. How about you give out the candy downstairs at the Crashdown party this year?"

Liz's face fell. "That's not fair! I'm still a kid. What makes me too old? I'm not even an official teenager yet! I know lots of kids who are going out on Halloween."

She watched her mother's face, looking for those signs of hesitation that always meant she would give in in the end, but there weren't any. It was more like sympathy, like her dog had just died or something.

"Sweetheart, it's always hard to give up things we love, but sometimes we just have to face growing up. It's like when you found out about Santa Claus. You were so unhappy at first, but now you get to be in on the surprises for your little cousins, and that's just as much fun, right?"

No, it's not, thought Liz. Not even close. "Yeah, I guess," she pouted.

"You'll have a great time guessing who's behind all the costumes and watching them hesitate at the door when they hear that spooky tape playing. It'll be fun!"

Liz felt tired again. She took her plate back to the kitchen and came out to retrieve her backpack. "I'm gonna do my homework," she mumbled, and dragged the heavy pack down the hall to her room.

Pulling out her books, she reviewed her options: Math–problems 1-15 odds; Social Studies–read the chapter on apartheid; English–write a 300-word persuasive essay on something you feel strongly about.

Liz grabbed her notebook, slid through the window, settled into her chaise lounge, and began to write.

*****

"I'll be returning your essays today," Mrs. Burch told the class. "We have quite a range of interests in here–everything from skateboarding to religion to lowering the driving age. Some of you expressed yourselves very well, and I'd like the authors to share a couple of those essays with everyone."

"Tyler? Would you share your essay on humane treatment of animals?"

Tyler walked to the front of the class, a proud smile on his face, and began to read. Max tuned him out. He found it much more pleasant to watch Liz Parker. His heart skipped a little every time he looked at her. It always had. In a different world, he would have tried to make friends with her, maybe ask her to the fall school dance, although he was a little uncomfortable about dancing in front of anyone. Still, if it meant holding Liz close to him, he would've done it. It's not a different world, though, he thought sadly. His world would always be one of secrets and hiding. And it wouldn't include Liz.

So he settled for watching her. She was so pretty, so smart, so nice to everyone. Sometimes, he wondered if she would even be nice to him . . . if she knew. Now, he watched her profile as she listened to Tyler describe a heartless case of cruelty to a dog; her little face scrunched up in concern, then tightened in outrage. She felt things deeply, just as he did. She was a good person. They could have been friends.

"Thank you, Tyler," Mrs. Burch was saying. "Liz? Would you read your essay?"

Liz looked up, surprised, hesitant. Slowly, she stood and walked up to Mrs. Burch. Her eyes swept the room, pausing briefly on Max. She couldn't help it. He was such a mystery to her–always kind, always good at stuff like school and sports, but always on the outside of the school's social circles. She wished he would speak to her, but he never did. Still, she often caught him looking at her, and it made her stomach feel like there were caterpillars crawling around inside it. She'd also learned long ago that she could always count on him for a little smile, and right now, she needed a little smile.

He didn't disappoint her. He seemed to sense her nervousness, and his smile was accompanied by a slight nod, an encouraging nod. She felt calmer just knowing he was there for her. She took a deep breath and began.

Being 12 means getting a lot of mixed signals from adults. One day, they say you are trying to grow up too fast. The next day, they tell you you're too old for things you still enjoy doing. I wish they would make up their minds.

I spend a lot of time being confused. Sometimes, I like the idea of being older. I like the freedom people seem to have as they grow up. They can go to more movies, drive a car, and decide when to go to bed. But part of me wants to stay young so I can play with my friends and think about all the things I could be when I grow up. And I could still dress up on Halloween.

This week, my mother told me I was too old to go trick-or-treating. I was really mad. The more I thought about it, the more that made no sense. What is Halloween except using your imagination, trying out your creativity, and spending time with friends in good clean fun? Those are all things we're supposed to do! But there's no changing my mom's mind, so I'll spend this Halloween watching others have fun and trying to figure out why growing up means having to leave the fun and the magic behind.

What do I feel strongly about? I feel grownups should let us decide how fast to grow up and what that even means. In fact, I don't think there's anything wrong with being a child sometimes even when you're grown up. My dad seems to have the most fun when we're wrestling or having a squirt-gun fight. How can big smiles and happy laughter be a bad thing?

Grownups are too serious. They've forgotten how having fun can make you forget your troubles and help you remember to enjoy life. Instead of them trying to take childhood away from children, maybe we should try to put more childhood into them. Then we'd all have more fun.

Happy Halloween.

Liz Parker


Max watched Liz return to her seat. After warming to her subject and reading her essay with confidence and conviction, she had suddenly turned vulnerable again. Keeping her eyes lowered, she hurried back to her desk. Someone whispered, "Big baby!" as she took her seat, and Max simmered when he saw her blush of embarrassment. He willed her to look at him, and to his amazement, she did–a brief sidelong glance, a glance that begged for the support she'd come to expect from him for some unknown reason.

He held her eyes for those few seconds, his encouragement and approval written clearly on his face, in his eyes, in his smile. His own smile brightened as she visibly relaxed and looked away. He'd made Liz Parker feel better. She'd looked to him to feel better. It was already a good day.

And that's when his idea was born.

********

Two days later, Liz opened her locker to find an envelope with her name on it taped to the front of the small shelf toward the top. How had someone gotten into her locker? She looked around the hallway, which was alive with voices and locker doors slamming and bodies bumping. No one seemed to be watching her.

She slid the ivory paper from its sheath and read the carefully blocked letters:

If you're still looking for Halloween, let me help you find it. Meet me in front of the UFO Center on Halloween night at 7:00 p.m. I'll be waiting.

There was no signature.

Liz felt a mixture of excitement and fear. Was this for real? Was someone trying to do something nice, or were they planning to hurt or embarrass her? She knew if she showed her mother, she would never be allowed to go, but something in her wanted to solve the mystery. Still uncertain, Liz slid the note into her pocket. She'd have to think about this one.

Down the hall, Max pretended to be busy at his own locker, sneaking peeks at Liz's reaction. Surprise, of course. A little smile. Good! A little frown. Oh, no! What if she didn't come? Then he saw her pocket the note with . . . anticipation? . . . flitting across her face. He hoped so. He wanted to do this for her, to make her smile and feel happy. And this way, he could do it without ever being discovered.

After school, Max and Michael made their way to the Crashdown for Saturn Rings and a shake. Max positioned himself as he always did–facing the back of the restaurant in case Liz came in from the back, which she almost always did. Sometimes, if they got really busy, her dad even let her help serve, and Max would just sit back and watch her flashing that killer smile, laughing that throaty laugh that made him have to smile, too. She was a natural.

Today, though, Liz was quieter than usual. She came in to the restaurant from the kitchen area and gave her dad a peck on the cheek. Then she pulled herself up onto a barstool next to Maria. Max froze, his straw forgotten in his mouth, as Liz pulled his note from her pocket. He watched Maria's eyes get bigger and bigger, and soon they were head to head, whispering, giggling, nodding. He took it as a good sign, and he smiled.

"What?" asked Michael, his mouth stuffed with onion rings.

"What?" responded Max, trying his best to look appropriately innocent and confused.

"What're you smilin' at?"

Max looked down. "My shake is really good today–thick," he finished lamely.

"Oh,” answered Michael, still confused. He shrugged. “So you wanna go play some basketball in the park before we go home?"

"Yeah, sure," Max answered distractedly. His mind was already filling in the details of his master plan. She could never know it was him, but with any luck, he would make her smile like that on Halloween night!

********

Liz emerged from the Crashdown and looked up and down the street. There was no one waiting in front of the UFO Center—just costumed kids of all ages walking inside to see the haunted house that the Rotary had set up.

It was a joke, she thought sadly. No one’s coming to meet me.

Unwilling to give up too soon, she stood uncertainly under the UFO Center sign, checking up and down the sidewalk. She jumped when she felt someone touch her shoulder. Spinning quickly, she gasped as the beast from “Beauty and the Beast” stared down at her. Before she could even ask a question, he held an elegant, long dress toward her on a hanger and nodded toward the doors leading into the UFO Center.

“You want me to put this on?” she asked, curious and wary at the same time.

The beast nodded and opened the door for her. Once inside, he pointed to the restroom doors and then stationed himself against the wall. Debating with herself between pursuing this adventure or playing it safe, Liz caught a look at the eyes behind the mask. They were familiar, reassuring. Suddenly she felt safe.

Liz slipped inside the restroom, changed quickly, and took a quick look in the mirror. How had this person known what size to bring? Who had gone to so much trouble to give her a Halloween wish? She felt beautiful and feminine—a feeling she was growing to enjoy as she got older. She hugged herself and grinned. Go for it! she told herself.

She hung her clothes on the hanger and emerged into the UFO Center lobby. She stood self-consciously as the beast seemed to drink her in, standing immobile at the sight of her wearing the dress he had brought. The short puffed sleeves, the smocked bodice with the empire waist, and the long midnight blue folds showed off her developing petite figure. Her dark hair cascaded down her back, and her wide-eyed look of anticipation brought a glow to her face. Shaking himself, the beast took the hanger and hung it at the back of the coatroom. Then he offered his hand and led Liz toward the haunted house.

The Rotary had been creating this spook house for years, but each year it was different and full of the unexpected. As they rounded each corner, anticipating a new scare, Liz held tightly to the hand that led her. At one point, they had to get down on their knees and crawl blindly through a maze. Liz’s laughter skittered off the dark fabric walls at the glowing faces that would light up suddenly and the fiendish cackle that erupted from somewhere ahead every few seconds. Fighting with the long dress, Liz finally had to let go of the beast’s hand, hiking the skirt above her knees with one hand and feeling ahead into the dark with the other.

Suddenly, the floor dipped down and Liz fell forward into a small space where hands began to grab at her. She screamed in surprise. Immediately, her beast was with her, arms holding her, soothing her until her embarrassment at reacting like that took over, and she gently pushed away. She knew nothing there would hurt her, but still, she’d been startled, and those arms had felt so good around her.

Emerging from the haunted house, Liz looked up at the beast.

“Aren’t you going to tell me who you are?” she asked, feeling at ease with this person now. Again, she caught a glimpse of the eyes behind the large, molded head of the costume and felt a familiar twinge. She knew those eyes. Whose were they? The eyes held hers for a few seconds, and the large head shook from side to side. Whoever it was, he was going to stay hidden a while longer.

“Well, whoever you are,” Liz smiled, “I had so much fun. Thank you.”

The beast pointed down the street toward the park and offered his hand again. Liz hesitated briefly and then, with a glance at the Crashdown, reached to hold that hand. It was a welcoming hand, a friendly hand, a safe hand.

They strolled slowly toward the park, and Liz racked her brain to identify the familiar bits and pieces of the beast’s walk, mannerisms, and . . . those eyes! Directing her to a park bench, the beast brushed off the seat and offered it to her. They sat quietly for a few moments, gazing at the stars. The beast pointed upwards, and Liz followed his finger toward the moon. Drifting across the bright round disk was a cloud, a cloud that looked exactly like a witch on a broom! Liz squealed with delight.

“Oh my gosh!” she exclaimed. “Did you see that? I’ve never seen a cloud look so exactly like a shape before! And on Halloween!” She happily tucked her two arms around the beast’s arm and watched the cloud disappear.

The beast turned to watch her. She knew she was grinning like an idiot and probably looked ridiculous, but that had been so cool!

Suddenly self-conscious again, Liz realized she’d grabbed hold of this person—this anonymous person who had worked and planned to make her happy, but who was completely unknown to her. She began to pull her arms away when his free hand stopped her, holding her close to him. When she stopped to look up at him, he patted her threaded fingers as if to say, “It’s okay. Leave them there.” Again, she saw the caring in his eyes and let herself relax against him.

They sat like that for several more minutes, enjoying the moon, the distant laughter of children as they went from house to house, and their own closeness, cloaked in mystery and magic. Then Liz stiffened in excitement. Her beast was lacing his fingers with hers. Liz had never held hands like that with a boy before. It felt warm and gentle and . . . intimate. It felt good and right with this person. But how? She didn’t even know who he was.

He rose slowly, pulling her to her feet. Then he reached down under the bench and picked up a rose. No, not a real rose, a chocolate rose! And in the light of the moon, she could just read the little tag that was attached: “Do I have a GHOST of a chance?” She looked up at her prince—well, that’s what the beast had been, right? A prince under the spell of an evil sorceress. Well, he had become a prince in her eyes.

She smiled brilliantly at him. “I can’t answer that. I don’t know who you are. Won’t you tell me?”

Liz could see the hesitation behind those eyes. Almost a longing. Then he straightened and the look turned reassuring. It reminded her of . . . no, it couldn’t be. She lost her train of thought as her prince tugged at her hand. Soon they were walking down the streets of Roswell, dodging the little children as they raced from door to door under the watchful eye of their parents. Jack o’lanterns, flashing ghosts, suspended bats, and eerie music lent a festive atmosphere of harmless spookiness to the neighborhood, and Liz cherished every detail.

“This is wonderful,” she sighed. “I love seeing all the decorations and watching the little ones having so much fun.” Then she laughed. “I’d better not say that to my mom. She’s the one who said that at a certain age, it was as much fun to be a part of the behind the scenes stuff as to be one of the kids trick or treating. I don’t know. Maybe she’s right. I just don’t feel ready to give it all up. But seeing it with you like this—I don’t know. It’s like having the best of both worlds.”

To her surprise and pleasure, the beast stopped and turned, pulling her into a gentle hug. Releasing her quickly, they resumed their walk. Liz was struck by how good that had felt. She wished he’d held on to her just a little longer.

They had reached the edge of town where the last of the housing development came face to face with the empty, prairie-like wilderness that lay just beyond its borders. The sky was alight with stars, and Liz felt peaceful and calm. She saw her prince reach toward the sky. She hadn’t noticed at first, but now they seemed to be watching a meteor shower. Glowing orbs streaked across the sky trailing briefly visible tails of sparkling light in their wake.

Liz watched, her eyes wide with wonder at the spectacular display. “It’s so beautiful,” she breathed. “Look, there’s another one!” she pointed. But when she paused to glance at the boy who was watching with her, she found him watching her instead. His hand rose to touch her face, and then immediately fell to his side. That look. And then she knew. It was Max Evans under that costume. It had to be. And now she knew that if it weren’t him, she’d be bitterly disappointed.

The meteors died down, and they turned back toward town. Liz slid her arm through his, and he squeezed it to his side. She sighed contentedly, convinced she had solved the mystery. They only saw one or two children on their way back to the center of town and realized that trick-or-treating hours must be almost done. Liz had promised to be home by then.

“I have to go home now. My parents said to be back by the end of trick-or-treating.”

Her prince nodded and steered them in the direction of the Crashdown. Stopping at the UFO Center to don her own clothes again, Liz hung up the dress she had worn during one of the best nights of her life. She felt a little melancholy, as if taking off the dress would break the magical spell that wearing it had woven. But it wasn’t the dress that was magic. It was the person who had made this night possible for her. He had given her a wonderful gift.

As they drew near her doorway, Liz stopped and pulled her prince into the alley next to the restaurant.

“I had the most wonderful time tonight. I can’t thank you enough for giving me the best Halloween I’ve ever had. Will you take off the beast head now?” she asked hopefully.

The head bowed, a sadness in the gesture that nudged at Liz’s heart.

“Okay,” Liz conceded. “But I hope someday, you’ll tell me.”

She hugged the bulky figure and watched him turn to leave. He’d only taken a few steps when Liz threw caution to the wind.

“Max?”

Habit. Reflex. Wishing. Which one made Max stop and turn when his name was called? Whichever it was, he knew instantly he’d been found out. His heart leapt with joy, even as he berated himself for blowing his cover. She was never to know. He could never have her.

He turned and watched her watching him, her eyes glowing, a satisfied smile on her face. She began to walk toward him, and soon she was trying to lift the beast head from his shoulders. She was too short, though, to get it off, so he resigned himself to helping her. And then they were there, face to face, Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and the Prince, without costumes or magic or anonymity. Liz and Max.

Liz saw so much in his face then. He was embarrassed, fearful, happy. The same reassuring smile found its way to his lips. “Happy Halloween, Liz.”

And then Liz did something she’d only fantasized about. Something Liz Parker would never actually do. She pushed up on her toes, touched her lips to his for an electrifying moment, and sank down to the ground again.

“Happy Halloween to you, too, Max.” And then she gave him that smile he had longed for his whole life. It was spectacular and genuine and all for him.

Then she turned and walked through the doors to the Crashdown.

Max looked after her, his heart pounding. No doubt about it. There was still plenty of magic around on Halloween.


[ edited 2 time(s), last at 4-Oct-2002 12:37:03 AM ]
posted on 16-Jul-2002 11:58:46 PM
DREAMER HOLIDAYS: THANKSGIVING

A little background:


This is, in a very loose way, a look at 6 years after Epiphanies 3, but you don’t have to have read E3 to enjoy this. All you need to know is, Max’s planet is Voya (E3 was started before we knew his planet’s name), and a few characters may be referred to that you don’t know: Zeval is Michael’s sister from Voya, Jasar and Josh are other hybrids. Okay, that should do it. E-mail me if something doesn’t make sense!

Thanksgiving

Max took his eyes off the road to glance at Liz. She had been so quiet since they left Albuquerque an hour ago, and he knew she was brooding again. She was trying to block him, knowing that he would just make another vain attempt to console her, but it did no good. She was as much a part of him after all these years as the heart that beat within him. Never in their two years of tumultuous courtship or 6 years of marriage had she been more open to him, and he ached to reassure her. But his words had fallen on her wounded heart like salt in an open wound. Every attempt to pull her close had only served to push her away.

“Liz, honey, are you hungry? We won’t be there for another two hours.”

Liz roused herself from her dark thoughts and smiled weakly. “No, not really, but go ahead and stop if you want something. I brought the Tabasco.” She opened the straw basket at her feet and pulled out a bottle of his favorite condiment, working hard at a teasing tone. “Even Pepe’s Mexican pizza will be edible if you use enough of this.”

Max smiled back, recognizing with a pang how hard she was working just to make casual conversation.

“I don’t need anything yet,” he told her, and his heart sank as he watched her drift once again into the depths of her private thoughts. He could only hope that this Thanksgiving vacation would give her the break she needed from her self-imposed pressure. As soon as they had finished college, she had eagerly embraced the idea of a family. She said the greatest thing she could do for Max was give him children, and that their children would be a blessing to them and to the planet. But over two years had gone by, and even the fertility counseling available through the network of hybrids they had discovered had not brought them a child. Nothing Max did or said could convince Liz that she was enough for him, that she was his reason for living, his purpose for being on Earth.

They were headed first for the Mescalero reservation. It had become almost a tradition for them to take Thanksgiving week off and head for home. Their first year back, they had indulged a whim and stopped at the reservation to visit the cave where their first clue as to Max’s identity had been revealed. It had beckoned to Max since the first time he’d seen it, and now he found comfort in its familiar message, long since decoded with the help of Zeval and Jasar. Seeing his family tree and bits of Voyan history carved into stone in an ancient language centered him and filled him with a peace he usually only found in Liz’s arms—a sense of belonging, a sense of balance.

During that first visit, River Dog had surprised them in the cave, and the dialogue that began that day had evolved into a deep and trusting friendship. Now they both saw River Dog as a link between an Anasazi/alien ancestry and their duplicitous lives on Earth, where Max taught political science in his earthly identity and led the Voyan alliance in their evolution toward Democracy in his hidden alien life. Liz’s work toward her doctorate in microbiology had become secondary to her quest to bear a child, and Max had felt their tender, loving moments take on a sense of urgency as the months passed. It was eating away at his beautiful wife, and Max felt every heartbreaking moment of it.

Now, driving toward the solace of three peaceful days with River Dog, Eddie and his wife Carmella, and the isolation of the reservation, Max prayed that Liz could relax and find herself again. Somehow she had taken on all the responsibility for their failure to conceive, and in her effort to spare him, she had become withdrawn and quiet. He missed her desperately.

Reaching out to stroke her cheek, he cringed when she jumped at his touch. Her eyes turned immediately apologetic.

“I’m sorry, Max. I was lost in thought. Do you want me to drive for a while?”

“No, love, I want you to talk to me. Tell me what you’re thinking. The silence is killing me.”

“Sure, we can talk. I was thinking we should take the twins something, don’t you think? What about those wooden toys Eddie’s cousin sells at the reservation? Maria always likes those Native American crafts. Maybe dreamcatchers for over their cribs.”

Babies. Suddenly that’s all there was in her world. The birth of Michael’s and Maria’s twins had only added to Liz’s sense of desperation about having a baby. “Sounds fine, Liz. We’ll see what’s available when we get there.” More silence. “Hey, did you finish that chapter of your dissertation you’ve been working on?”

“No, not yet. I can’t seem to focus on it. Somehow the mutation of that one virus isn’t holding my interest.” Silence. “Mind if I take a nap?”

Max suppressed a sigh. “Of course not. Here, use my lap.” At least he could touch her that way. Maybe he could calm her through sheer force of will. She snuggled down on the seat, resting her head on his powerful thigh. He slid his hand through her hair and moved down her arm in long, slow, soothing strokes. Soon her breathing evened out, and Max bit back tears as he absorbed her pain.

********

The curvy road leading to Eddie’s home woke Liz, and she straightened up to look out the window. Her eyes lit up at the beautiful scenery, and she turned to Max with a genuine smile. That smile drove straight into Max’s heart, and he returned it with one of his own. Liz’s sleepy eyes, mussed hair, and rosy cheeks, combined with the best smile he’d seen in weeks lightened Max’s mood, and he almost laughed out loud. Instead, he pulled off the road, and when Liz turned a questioning look to him, he swept her into a spontaneous hug. Feeding off of his lightheartedness, she returned the hug, and threw in a nibble on his ear for good measure. He countered by sucking gently at her neck and soon they were wrapped up in each other, struggling to maneuver in the confines of the small car.

Laughing, they pulled apart. “We don’t seem to bend quite as easily as we used to,” Max chuckled.

“Speak for yourself,” Liz huffed, a sparkle in her eye. “My body hasn’t changed since I was in high school!” Then the mood disappeared. All the ways she wished her body had changed came barreling back at her, and she shifted into the passenger seat once again. “We’d better get going. Eddie and Carmella are waiting for us.”

The weight settled back on Max’s heart and he put the car in gear. Within minutes, Eddie’s new home was visible on a bluff overlooking a small valley. They could see his old pick-up sitting beside Carmella’s new Saturn and knew their old friends were watching for them. They were never sure how much Eddie knew about Max. River Dog knew, of course. In fact, they had learned over the years that he knew quite a bit more than he had let on at first. But Eddie never asked questions, so either River Dog had never told him or he was willing to let Max decide how much to share. In any case, he had always made them feel more than welcome, and they had learned to value his friendship.

As they pulled into the long dirt driveway, Eddie walked through the front door, waving a welcome. Max and Liz stretched their muscles and headed toward him with a smile.

“It’s about time!” Eddie complained. “Carmella has made lunch. I hope you haven’t eaten.”

“Nope, and I’m starved,” Max grinned and wrapped his friend into a quick hug.

Then Eddie turned his attention to Liz. She looked tired, her eyes dull. With a quick glance at Max, he swept her into a bear hug, lifting her feet off the ground and twirling her in circles. “Carmella can’t wait to see you. She says she needs a woman to talk to sometimes, and I just don’t qualify.”

He was gratified to see a sincere smile grace Liz’s face, and the three chatted easily as they walked into the house.

“Carmella’s in the kitchen, Liz. She’s getting the drinks on the table. I’m supposed to grab a couple extra chairs. Go on in.”

Liz walked to the back of the house where the kitchen overlooked the valley. Sun streamed through the windows and lifted Liz’s spirits once again.

“Carmella?” she called. She saw her friend bending over the dishwasher.

“Liz!” she cried happily, and turned to greet her friend. Her smile turned to laughter, though, when she saw Liz’s face. Liz was staring in shock at Carmella, or rather, at Carmella’s abdomen, which was distended by what looked to be a pregnancy of seven or eight months.

“Surprise!” Carmella beamed. “I wouldn’t let Eddie tell you. I wanted to surprise you! Meet Jeremy. He’s due to arrive in about six weeks! I’ve been dying for you to get here. I want you to see what we have planned for the nursery, and you have to settle a color dispute we’re having. We can’t decide . . .”

Her voice trailed off when she realized Liz’s shock hadn’t transformed into the excited response she’d been expecting.

“Liz? Is everything okay? I didn’t think you’d be this surprised.”

Liz shook herself. “No, no! It’s wonderful, Carmella. You must be so happy.” She offered Carmella a quick hug.

“Could I use your bathroom?” She took off like a shot, leaving a confused Carmella in the middle of the kitchen rubbing her belly.

********
Lunch was awkward and the conversation was strained. Eddie and Carmella couldn’t quite keep the confusion off their faces, and Max was working too hard to keep the light banter going. Liz was smiling in all the right places and offering brief comments when appropriate, but it was obvious something was wrong. As soon as they’d finished eating, she excused herself to lie down.

Eddie, Max, and Carmella went to sit on the back porch with its beautiful view. After a moment of silence, Max sighed heavily.

“I guess you’re wondering what’s wrong.”

“Did I do something, Max?” Carmella asked tentatively.

“No, no!” Max assured her. “It’s just that . . .”

A noise from the side of the house caught their attention, and River Dog came around the corner. Max rose to embrace his old friend.

“It’s good to see you, Max,” River Dog rasped, his aging voice matching his aging body.

“You, too,” Max smiled. “Come sit.”

River Dog lowered himself into a chair, took a long look at Max, and asked, “So, what’s wrong?”

Max’s mouth dropped open and Eddie snickered. “You don’t miss a trick, old man.”

“That’s right,” River Dog affirmed calmly. “Now tell me what’s going on.”

Suddenly Max needed to talk. Here in this quiet, beautiful setting among friends who knew him well, Max unburdened himself. He told them how their desire to have children had turned into a pressure-filled quest that was taking a toll on their mental state, their marriage, and, he feared, Liz’s health.

“I love her so much,” he choked out tearfully, “but I can’t help her.”

Carmella was stunned. “Oh my god, Max. I’m so sorry. The last thing in the world she needed was to see me pregnant and excited and asking for her advice. I’m so sorry!”

“Don’t be silly, Carmella. You should be happy and excited. And you had no way of knowing what Liz was going through. I just wish I knew what to do.”

“Well, there will be no more talk of babies while you’re here, I promise,” Eddie told him. “Although we can’t very well hide Carmella’s condition.”

“Nor should you,” Max countered firmly. “Liz and I are both very happy for you. It’s just the timing . . .”

River Dog had sat very still, listening to Max’s grief pour from him.

“When are you going out to the cave, Max?”

Max turned, surprised. It was a rather abrupt change of subject. “Tomorrow, I guess, if Liz is up to it.”

“Yes, make it tomorrow, Max. I’ll meet you there mid-afternoon, if you don’t mind.”

“No, that’s fine,” Max answered, still perplexed by the impression that River Dog felt this was important. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to go check on Liz.” He rose and disappeared into the house.

Eddie eyed River Dog warily. “What was that about?”

River Dog rose. “I’m sorry Carmella. I’ll have to skip dinner, I’m afraid. I have an important errand to run. Oh, and don’t count on Max and Liz for dinner tomorrow night. They . . . have another engagement.”

With that, he descended the stairs and left. Eddie and Carmella looked at each other. “I’ll never understand that crazy old man,” Carmella said, shaking her head. “But for some reason, I trust him.”

Eddie rose to help her up from her chair. “As well you should,” he mumbled under his breath.

********

“You suck!” Michael yelled at the television set as the Arizona Cardinals fumbled the football.

“Michael!” Maria hissed. “You’ll wake Brittany.”

Michael threw her a glare. “Brittany could play football better than that guy,” he complained. But when Maria grinned at him with raised eyebrows, his face relaxed and he walked across the room to take his daughter from her mother. Who would have thought he’d have girls? He always expected sons because, well . . . just because. When his daughters had been born, though, he lost his heart in an instant, and he doted on them to a ridiculous degree. He knew they would hate him when they were teens, because he knew what teen guys were about, and they weren’t coming near his girls.

“I’ll start dinner,” Maria said, smiling at the sight of Michael worshipping his daughter. “Listen for Laura.”

As soon as she left the room, there was a knock at the front door. With one eye on the game, Michael reached to open it, shocked into full attention by the unexpected visitor.

“River Dog!”

River Dog took in the incongruous sight of Michael cradling his tiny daughter with the football game raging in the background and smiled. He had seen the good heart of this man when he was just a boy. He was probably less surprised than anyone when Michael had married his high school sweetheart and settled into family life like a veteran. In truth, it was what he had always wanted—someone to love and care for, a family of his own.

Michael realized they were just standing there staring at each other. “Uh . . . come in,” he offered.

River Dog stepped through the door just as another demanding voice was heard from down the hall. “Sorry,” Michael smiled. “Looks like the other one is ready to get up. What can I do for you?”

“If you don’t mind, may I come with you to see the other baby?”

“Sure, if you want,” Michael shrugged.

He led River Dog down the hall into the nursery, packed solid with two cribs, two small dressers, a rocking chair, and a changing table. Laying Brittany down, Michael reached for Laura and carried her to the changing table. Immediately, Brittany began to cry. Looking exasperated, Michael crooned, “In a minute, Brittany. Your sister needs changing.”

“May I?” asked River Dog, indicating Brittany.

Again, Michael was surprised, and a little guarded. “Have you ever held a baby, River Dog?”

At this, River Dog laughed out loud. “Michael, have you forgotten? I’m the shaman, and the most medically trained person on the reservation. I’ve cared for hundreds of babies.”

Michael looked chagrined. He had forgotten that about River Dog. “Sure, give it a shot.”

As soon as River Dog lifted Brittany from the crib, she quieted, reaching to pull his long gray hair and babbling. Michael smiled. “I guess you do have a way with kids.”

“And a great deal more. Michael, I need the healing stones.”

Michael froze. “What?”

“I need the healing stones and I know you have them.”

“What do you need them for?”

“It’s a private matter, but I promise you, you would approve.”

Michael’s eyes narrowed. “Is someone hurt?”

“No, not in the usual sense.”

“You can’t even use them alone, River Dog. You need an alien.”

“Please trust me, Michael. I have what I need. I will return them to you in two days. Only good will come of it.”

Michael watched Brittany slapping randomly at River Dog’s face. She never let anyone hold her but Maria and Michael, yet she was perfectly at ease with this man. He had shown them where to start their search for their past, and had never failed to help them when he could.

Laying Laura down in her crib again, he crouched next to the diaper pail. Tipping it slightly, he reached under it and pulled a small pouch out from what must have been a false bottom. At the amused look on River Dog’s face, Michael shrugged. “Can you think of anyone who would try to take a diaper pail?”

River Dog laughed, a sound Michael had never heard in all the years he had known him. He couldn’t help but laugh, too, as they returned to the living room, each carrying a baby. Returning Brittany to her father’s empty arm, River Dog stopped briefly.

“You’re doing a good thing, Michael. I’ll have them back in 48 hours.”

Michael nodded, allowing himself to trust for a change.

********

In spite of what many might have believed, River Dog was among the most progressive people in the community. He believed in many of the old ways and remedies, but he also respected modern medicine, and he had long been aware of the presence of aliens and knew of their powers. He believed that these were all pieces in the great puzzle of life, and he was happy to embrace any and all solutions to problems.

He had grown so fond of Max and Liz over the eight years he’d known them. Suspicious at first, he had been stingy with what he shared with Max. His first strange encounter with aliens had been both good and bad, and he wasn’t sure what to expect from these young aliens. But as he had grown to know Max, he had seen into his heart, had observed the love and devotion he had earned from his young girlfriend, and had come to trust and care for them both. It pained him to see what they were suffering through, and he resolved to do what he could to help them.

As soon as he had returned from Michael’s house, he began his preparations. He brewed an unusual concoction over his campfire, he meditated, and he examined the healing stones. He was pulling out all the stops.

The next afternoon, he arrived at the cave. He’d seen Max’s car down the road and knew that he and Liz were inside.

“Hello?” he shouted into the cave, not wanting to startle them.

“Come in, River Dog,” Max shouted back.

River Dog made his way into the cave to find Max and Liz sitting cross-legged on an open sleeping bag, looking at the symbols on the wall.

“It seems more familiar every time I see it,” Max said out of the blue, “but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak or write it as I should. It’s so complicated.”

“Most things worthwhile are,” River Dog told him, and Liz looked up, smiling.

“That’s what my grandmother always said,” she remembered.

“She was wise.” He reached into his pack. “I knew it would be chilly in here,” he continued. “I’ve brought you a hot drink that is a favorite among my people. I don’t think you’ve ever had it before; it takes hours to brew, but I just happened to make some and thought you might enjoy it.”

He offered the large thermos to the couple, and they accepted with warm appreciation.

“Thank you, River Dog,” Liz said gratefully. “I was already feeling the chill. This will help, I know.”

They spent a few minutes talking, and then River Dog made a move to leave. “Do you have to go already?” Max asked, surprised that their usually long visit in the cave was cut short.

“Yes, for now,” River Dog nodded, “but I will see you at dinner tonight.”

“Alright,” Max agreed, disappointed. “See you then.”

Liz reached for the thermos as the late afternoon sun weakened, diminishing the scattered rays that found their way around the curved walls of the cave. Pouring steaming cups for each of them, Liz handed Max a cup, and they sipped in silence.

Outside the cave, River Dog smiled. Reaching into his pack again, he pulled out the pouch of healing stones. One by one, he laid them on the ground, spanning the cave entrance in the “V” formation. Then he knelt, said a blessing over them, and left. His work was done.

RIGHT BACK WITH THE REST

posted on 17-Jul-2002 12:00:04 AM
********

“This is delicious,” Liz murmured appreciatively, feeling all the tensions leave her body.

“Mmm-hmmm,” Max agreed, enjoying the soothing heat that trickled down his throat. He, too, felt relaxed for the first time in too long. He whipped his head toward Liz when he felt her hand stroking his thigh. His breath froze in his lungs when he saw the look in her eyes, raw desire that had been missing for too long.

“Liz.” It was a prayer on his lips. He was looking at his Liz, the one who he had loved his whole life, the one who had been with him through the best and worst of times, the one who loved him beyond all reason and let him know it every day of his life. This look—it wasn’t about conceiving, it was about loving and wanting and just plain sex, and it sent his heart racing in his chest.

He melted into her lips and felt her respond immediately. Her hands began to wander over his shoulders, his back, his chest, and in their wake a trail of small explosions shook him. His hands began their own search, seeking out all those places that would make her shudder with pleasure and moan his name. Tonight, though, that seemed to be everywhere he touched. It was as if their need for each other had been building behind this dam, and once the floodgates were opened, they rushed forward in an uncontrollable surge of passion.

Max’s hand found the bottom of Liz’s sweater and inched upwards, rotating in small circles toward Liz’s aching breast. She was concentrating on his every move, waiting breathlessly for that hand, those fingers to reach their goal. Her impatience won out and she moved to push his hand up over her breast, where she thrust into it, desperately needing to feel the sensation of his intimate touch. Max needed no further encouragement. He pushed the sweater up as far as he could, and tugged hard until the bra cup released her hard nipple. He sucked it into his mouth, relishing the feel and flavor of her, basking in the realization that she was pushing deeper, deeper into him. Her want was riding as high as his.

The warmth and erotic sensation of Max’s mouth kept her fully focused on that one peak of her body for what seemed like minutes, but gradually, Liz surfaced enough to know that she wanted to offer more to her lover. With practiced ease, she unbuckled his belt and began to work on the button to his jeans. When her hand grazed the straining heat that lay just beneath the cloth, he released her breast in a startled gasp and lay down, eyes squeezed shut, and let the sensation of her touch flow over him.

Liz made quick work of the zipper, pushed aside the boxers, and firmly took him into her hand, already stroking him with an insistent rhythm. His moan was all the response she needed. Speeding up her rhythm, she leaned forward to lick the small strip of skin that peeked out from under his shirt.

It was too much. They hadn’t felt such abandon in their lovemaking in so long that the sensations were overwhelming them. By unspoken mutual consent, they set about getting each other out of their clothes. Laying down on the sleeping bag, Liz reached for her magnificent husband, spread her legs in invitation, and said, “Make love to me, Max. I need you.”

With a whimper, Max fell to his knees, slid up her body, stopping to suck on each rosy peak, and took her mouth as he slid into her. Subtlety would wait. Their bodies were screaming for each other and the pace they set was furious. Liz met his pounding thrusts with wanton abandon, their hearts and minds merging freely as they always had until recently. When their hearts touched, their bodies followed suit, and their coming together was as spiritual and it was sensual.

As soon as Max could think at all, he raised himself slightly on his arms so that Liz could breathe deeply. When he moved, though, she squeezed her inner walls around him, as if to keep him close.

“I’m sorry, Max,” she whispered, as tears escaped the corners of her eyes.

“Don’t be sorry, Liz. God, I’ve missed you so much! Don’t leave me like that again, Liz. Promise me. Everything that happens, happens to both of us, right?”

“You’re my life, Max. How could I have forgotten that, even for a little while?”

Max gazed at her, love shining from his eyes. “You are absolutely luminescent,” Max breathed in awe. Ever since their wedding, when the passion-induced glow that so often surrounded them withdrew into their bodies and made them glow, they had enjoyed this different, more innately alien side-effect to their lovemaking. Max always thought Liz was at her most beautiful when they were making love.

Liz sighed happily. “I will never understand how I got to be so lucky, but I thank God every day for you, Max.”

He started to speak when he noticed her eyes turn dark again, and an impish smile flickered across her face. She raised her torso just far enough so she could reach out with her tongue and lick at his nipples. “Maybe I should thank you again, too.”

Max felt himself harden inside her again. She looked up at him, a knowing smile on her face.

“Apparently, you’re not opposed to that idea.”

“When have I ever been?” he teased.

Less urgent now, the young lovers began to shower each other with loving attention, reacquainting themselves with the other’s sensitive spots and favorite touches.

“Roll onto your stomach,” Liz instructed Max. His surprised look made her giggle. “Do as I say, Max. I won’t bite.”

At his snicker, she laughed, too. “Well, maybe a little.”

He did as he was told and she straddled him. “Relax, love,” she whispered. Her hands began to rub his broad shoulders, his incredibly defined back muscles, and each indentation in his spine. She could feel him almost purring beneath her and realized she couldn’t afford to have him too relaxed. Scooting down toward his calves, she began to massage his beautifully molded tush, and she grinned broadly when that brought his head straight up.

“Liz?”

“Hmmm?”

“What are you doing?”

“Just making sure all your muscles get fair treatment,” she replied, sliding down still further to rub against his thighs, dipping down to include the tender skin between his legs. His whole body jerked at this last touch, and he attempted to turn over.

“Not yet,” she insisted with a sultry voice.

“Oooohh, god,” Max groaned as her fingers continued their exploration.

After a few minutes, Liz lifted off of him, only to trace her tongue across the back of each knee. She was contemplating what to do next when he suddenly flipped over, grabbed her shoulders, and brought her mouth to his with fierce intensity. His tongue dove into her mouth, exploring and reaching as deeply as he could, a foreshadowing of things to come.

“There are only so many muscles you can tease before you have to attend to this one,” he mumbled against her mouth.” His hand found hers, and he guided it to his throbbing erection, slick with his juices. They both encircled it and shared a moan at the sensation.

Liz pushed Max back against the sleeping bag, but slipped through his hands as he reached to pull her down with him. Intent on attending to his immediate needs, Liz began to stroke him and then heard him gasp as she took him into her mouth, picking up the rhythm her hand had set.

Max felt all the air rush from his lungs. It had been forever since Liz had done this, always afraid to “waste” his precious seed that might otherwise give them the child they wanted. Now she was only intent on giving him pleasure, and his heart burst with the knowledge of her sacrifice. Ironically, it made him want her all the more, but inside.

He felt himself tightening and pulled out. “Liz, I want . . .”

He rolled her beneath him, slid down her body, kissing, nipping, sucking, until he felt the dark, silken curls meet his face. Gently nudging her legs wider, he sank into the hot, moist recesses of her body and began to lave her folds, alternately plunging into that place where her juices and his mingled together, then teasing her taut bundle of nerves that caused ripples of pleasure to shoot through her body.

She grabbed at his hair and pushed against his mouth, gasping, sighing his name, almost a cry in her voice. Feeling the intensity of her arousal was straining Max’s own control to the breaking point. Just as he felt her begin to come against him, he drew himself up to take her mouth and slid into her orgasm as it crashed around him. He burst inside her immediately, thrilled at this new experience. He came and came, astounding himself and Liz with the ferocity and duration of his climax. His whole body was trembling as his sense of reality returned, and Liz pulled him down into her waiting arms, crooning soothing words of love. She was only now beginning to understand the depths of his despair and loneliness over the last few months. What had she done to this gentle soul?

They held each other for a long time, lost in a communal world of gratitude and love. They were finding each other again. They already had more than anyone could ask for. Nothing else could be as important as this.

Max felt Liz suppress a little shiver. “Are you cold?” he asked, concerned that he’d been so lost in his happiness, he’d forgotten how quickly Liz’s small body reacted to the cold.

“A little,” she confessed.

“Here.” He pulled the sleeping bag over her and reached for the thermos. “This should still be hot.”

He poured them both another cup of River Dog’s delicious brew and settled into the sleeping bag.

“I love you, Liz. With all my heart.”

“I know that, Max. I’m sorry I shut you out. We’re one. I can’t believe I forgot that.” She raised herself up on one arm and let her arm slide across his chest. As she leaned forward, her breast grazed his and they both sucked in their breath.

“Max,” she sighed, lowering herself to his mouth.

********

The sun was high in the sky when Liz moved languidly against Max’s warm body and opened her eyes. Reality dawned slowly, but when it came into focus, she sat straight up.

“Max!”

Max bolted upright next to her. “What? What?”

“Max, we were here all night! Eddie and Carmella must be frantic! How did we lose track of time like that?”

Max fell back against the sleeping bad. “Man, I have no idea. We should get back. When they find out we’re okay, they’ll be mad as hell.”

Liz snuggled against him. “I can hardly move,” she giggled. “What got into us?”

“I don’t know,” Max smiled, kissing her head, “but I hope it happens again sometime.”

Liz looked up at her husband, her lover, her best friend, and felt more at peace than she ever had.

“It will,” she promised. “I’ve been an idiot, Max. You are everything to me, and whether we have children or not, my life couldn’t be happier or more complete than to share it with you. I love you so much.” She gazed intently into his eyes, willing him to accept that she meant what she said. With his answering smile, she bent to kiss him. Suddenly, a strong presence imposed itself on their kiss, and they pulled away, staring at each other.

“What was that?” Liz asked.

“I don’t know,” Max puzzled. “I feel you so strongly when we kiss, but this time, it was like there was someone else there, too.”

Liz didn’t do it intentionally; she just reacted. Her hand slid to her abdomen and rubbed gently. Max followed her movement, and placed his hand over hers. There was an immediate jolt, a warmth, and the presence pressed against their connection once again.

Liz’s eyes were huge . . . and hopeful. Max looked again at the faintly glowing hands. Then he closed his eyes, and instead of repelling the presence, he sought it out. Pulling Liz closer to him, he began to grin. Liz followed his lead and searched her mind for it. There he was. Their son. As surely as they knew each other, they knew this new life.

Max opened his eyes to meet Liz’s, tears of joy running down her cheeks.

“Oh, Max!” They threw their arms around each other and held on tight, overwhelmed with love, relief, anticipation. It didn’t matter that they didn’t understand what had happened this night. Whatever power had seen fit to answer their prayers, they would accept its gift with full hearts.

********

Two days later on Thanksgiving morning, they pulled into the Evans’s driveway. They knew everyone would be here: the Parkers, Amy and Jim Valenti, Alex and (a pregnant) Isabel Whitman, Michael and Maria with their twins, Josh and Jasar, and even an engaged (finally!) Tess and Kyle. Liz had been secretly dreading the reunion. Too many happy couples, happy families. Now she knew that even without their wonderful news, she would have been content. Max was her home, her family, come what may. The fact that their son was on the way just deepened the joy she felt. She smiled happily at Max and reached for his hand. He took it and squeezed it gently.

“Are we ready?”

“We are so ready!” she beamed, leaning in for one last private kiss before the onslaught of well-wishers.

They opened the door to the Evans home and entered almost unnoticed. The noise, the smells, the happy chatter filled the house with a sense of family and love. And they belonged to it. So what if it was fraught with secrets and messiness and trials; it was theirs, and they wouldn’t trade it for another family in the world.

“Look who’s here!” cried Maria, hurling herself through the living room toward Liz.

A chorus of greetings and smiles came their way as they merged into the welcoming arms of family and friends. Philip made his way toward Max and Liz, handing each of them a glass of Chablis. Liz began to take a sip, then suddenly changed her mind and set the glass down. “None for me just now,” she said casually.

Philip raised his glass. “Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!”

“Yes, it is,” Liz agreed, a huge smile on her face.

“My, my. There’s a story behind that smile,” Nancy Parker speculated. “What is it?”

Their hands found each other, and they felt their son join their connection. “Oh, we might have a bit of news or two,” Max grinned.

posted on 17-Jul-2002 12:04:28 AM
Title: DREAMER HOLIDAYS: CHRISTMAS


Author: Carol (spacemom)

Rating: PG

Setting: It's the Roswell you know EXCEPT Liz left Roswell in sixth grade, leaving a distraught Max behind. Now they're grown and destiny takes a hand.

Disclaimer: They aren't mine. Yadda yadda yadda.

Author's note: The holidays have dug deep into my Roswell time. I'm sorry this is out so late. I will try very hard to catch up on the stories I was following so faithfully until Thanksgiving. I have not abandoned you! In the meantime, I offer this little token of my affection to Dreamers who love the REAL Max and Liz. May they live forever in our hearts.
I am posting this one in two parts to avoid the "over 10-pages" ban, but they'll post one right after the other, so you don't have to wait. It's really meant to be a one-part story.

Part 1

Things would never be the same again.

Halloween night, his mother had passed away, the victim of a drunk driver. Now Max was filled with a deep melancholy that had a hold of his heart and was squeezing the very life out of him. It didn't matter that he hadn't lived home in years, that he had already published a best-selling sci-fi novel, or that representatives of Oprah, The Tonight Show, and Politically Incorrect had been trying to book him for appearances. All that mattered was that for the second time in his life, he'd lost his mother because of senseless violence in a world over which he had no control.

This had been the mother he knew and loved, and although he knew she loved him with all her heart, he also had to live with the fact that he'd never let her know him. He and Michael and Isabel had been so careful to keep their secret, so successful in blending into the society they had no choice but to embrace that no one had ever learned their secret. It had kept them safe . . . but alone. No amount of success, no circle of superficial friends, no family ties could wipe away the loneliness that kept them prisoners in their own secret world. What did it all mean? Why did they keep going through the motions? If he couldn't share himself with the woman who had kissed away the pain of a skinned knee, hugged him when the nightmares came, and cried when he'd left home for college, what was he doing on this planet? Suddenly, he was struck with the absurdity of it all. His life had no meaning.

In a desperate attempt to pull Max back from the dark place he had hidden himself, his father, Michael, and Isabel had chipped in to give him a Christmas cruise. Their love and support hadn't done the trick; Max needed to get outside himself, and a cruise seemed like the way to do it. So here he was, looking in awe at the mammoth ship that was supposed to represent his voyage to healing. The Infinity was perched high in the water, full of laughing people, luxurious appointments, and gleaming promise. Max dragged his unwilling legs forward. At least he could be alone here, away from well-meaning sympathy and empty solace. Here, he could hide.


********

Liz craned her neck to see the top of the enormous cruise ship Infinity. She had to admit, it was impressive. But she also knew this wasn't for her. Her proud parents had presented her with the cruise ticket at the small party they held when she received her doctorate, and she didn't have the heart to tell them it was just about the last thing she wanted to do.

Dr. Elizabeth Parker, at the top of her class in microbiology and headed for a tenure-track position at Cornell, was the product of the lavish but distant attention of her doting parents. When Liz's academic promise had emerged at an early age, they had devoted themselves to ensuring she had the best education money could buy, and they were certain it couldn't be found in little Roswell, New Mexico. So off she'd gone to the posh and pampered atmosphere of New England's Highcross School for Young Women, an academically demanding school where the brightest and richest girls in the country came to fulfill their parents' dreams. On partial scholarship, Liz had distinguished herself and was welcomed as an undergraduate at Boston College and a doctoral candidate at Yale. It had been a focused, if solitary, life, but she had never had room for fun or close friends . . . or love.

Liz had spent her whole life working single-mindedly toward this one goal. Now that she had accomplished it, she felt no satisfaction, no sense of purpose. Too late, she wondered why she had worked so hard to get here, when she wasn’t even sure “here” is where she wanted to be. There were times she had escaped to the ocean to watch the boats in the harbor bouncing and swaying with the waves, only to see herself, lost on a sea of uncertainty, no direction, no purpose, only going wherever she was pushed. She couldn’t put a name to the sense of emptiness she felt in her very soul, nor could she frame words to express it. So she kept it to herself.

Once or twice, in a half-hearted attempt to fill the void, she had pursued a relationship with one of the nondescript students who had crossed her path, but it had never gone anywhere. Her heart wasn't in it. Her thoughts always flashed back to a boy she knew as a child--a dark, mysterious boy who had always looked at her with such intensity, as if he were trying to tell her something desperately important and she was the only one he could tell–it always took her breath away. It did even now. Inexplicably, that boy still haunted her, and over the years, as the many boys and then men would look at her with interest and sometimes longing, she could feel nothing. She could only see that face.

Perhaps sensing this very problem, her parents had suddenly undertaken to thrust their beautiful and brilliant daughter into the world. It was time to come out from behind that tree and grab a slice of life. She had the degree, the secure job–now she needed a man. And what better place to meet one than a Christmas cruise!

Liz wasn't so enthused. Besides, she had no experience with men and no interest in leaving the safe haven of academia. But to refuse their offer would have created more problems than it solved, so she acquiesced, as she always did. She had no intention of meeting a man, though. She only wanted space between her and the anxious, hopeful faces of her parents as they saw her off.

Liz sighed and bent to grab the handle of her luggage. Trudging toward the massive ship, she almost welcomed the sense of disappearing into its great hollow shell. At least she could hide here for a while. She knew no one, and ten days of peace, lost in her own thoughts, would be a welcome refuge.

********

Liz would have opted for dinner in her cabin, had that service been available the first night, but guests were informed as they boarded that dinner was informal and only in the dining room this evening. Slipping quietly into the noisy but elegant room, she spied a table for two against the far wall, and when the maitre d’ had turned away to seat a shaky elderly couple, she seized her chance and headed for what looked like guaranteed privacy.

Moments later, Max appeared in the doorway.

“Monsieur? Are you waiting for your dinner companion?” The maitre d’ looked down the hall behind the striking young man, confident that he awaited an equally striking young woman.

“I’m alone, thank you,” Max answered stiffly. “And I’d prefer to eat alone, if that’s possible.”

The maitre d’ frowned. Alone? That was simply unnatural. He scanned the landscape with a practiced eye and straightened with surprise when he spotted a beautiful young woman alone at a table for two.

“This way, please,” he nodded, smiling smugly to himself.

To Max’s chagrin, the maitre d’ stopped at an out-of-the-way table and held out the chair. Max looked reluctantly at the woman sitting in the opposite seat, already forming his excuses for a quick getaway when his eyes met hers. His breath hitched in his throat as he fell headlong into the largest, most beautiful chocolate eyes he had ever seen. Memories of eyes just like that slammed through him, flooding him with images of a tiny, delicate girl from his childhood—a girl who had spoken volumes to him during the timid, painful years of elementary school. No, they had never had so much as a conversation, but he had always felt her soul deep within him whenever he looked at her, had felt that he had finally found someone to trust, to care for. And then she had left, forever. But that face, that soul had lived in him ever since.

Liz’s reaction was no less dramatic. Behind the handsome, brooding face of the dark stranger loomed traces of the boy who still haunted her dreams. She had been looking for that face again her whole life, all the while knowing she would never find it. Now he stood before her, an inexplicable reminder of what she didn’t have, could never have. She felt powerfully drawn to him and yet terrified by him at the same time. Frozen by images of childhood ghosts, she could only gape.

Max saw her uncertainty. It decided his struggle between his unthinkable impulse to know her—intimately—and the familiar instinct to retreat.

“I . . . I’m not really hungry.”

He turned to leave, and in an instant Liz felt relief turn to panic. He was leaving! Before she could speak, the irrepressible maitre d’ imposed his will.

“Oh, Monsieur, no! We have such delicacies to offer, and surely you would not leave this beautiful young woman to eat here alone. Who knows who might insinuate himself against her wishes. You must stay and see she is treated properly, yes?”

Max fixed his eyes on hers again, the question obvious.

Liz smiled shakily. “Please, join me,” she heard herself say.

Max visibly relaxed and took his seat. The happy maitre d’ snapped his fingers and a waiter appeared.

“These are my special guests, Miguel. Take good care of them.” Smiling broadly at the stunning couple, he gave them a formal nod and hurried away to attend to the next guests.

“I’m sorry,” Max began awkwardly. “I think you wanted to be alone.”

“So did you,” Liz responded, knowing it was true.

Max’s eyes flashed guilt for having been so transparent. “I, uh, I guess I’m more readable than I thought. I’m just here for some peace and quiet.”

At Liz’s raised eyebrows, Max cursed himself for being so rude. “I mean, not that I’m not glad to be here . . . eating with you. I just meant . . .”

A musical sound floated across the table and Max realized Liz was laughing. At him. At what he’d said. What had he said? Suddenly, all he could do was focus on those heavenly lips and wonder at the lyrical sound coming from just behind them. He wanted to touch those lips. He wanted to make her make that sound again.

The lips were forming words.

“What?” He felt stupider by the minute.

“I said, my name is Liz. Liz Parker.”

“Max Evans. As soon as I take my foot out of my mouth, I’m sure I can manage some actual conversation. All evidence to the contrary, I do speak English.”

It worked! There was that sound again! And then he smiled, and it was Liz’s turn to lose focus. She thought she had never seen anything so perfect. Full lips, straight white teeth, a dimple just off to one side. His tongue snaked out to moisten nervous, dry lips, and her mouth when dry at the sight.

What was happening to her? She had never reacted to anyone this way before. Maybe it was the resemblance to that little boy who had become her symbol for the perfect man, the man she knew couldn’t really exist. But here he was, licking his lips and asking a question. A question.

“What?”

Max laughed. He’d never had so much trouble talking to anyone, and yet he felt completely comfortable.

“Maybe we should start over,” he teased. “My name’s Max, I write books, and I’m on this cruise to just get away for a while.”

“Hi, Max. I’m Liz. I’ve just finished a lifetime of schooling, and I’m on this cruise to avoid starting an actual job.”

They laughed together, both at peace with the lack of any concrete information. Neither wanted to share too much right now. They just wanted to enjoy the magic that had sparked between them—a momentary mystery they didn’t want to solve.

They shared inconsequential chatter through their delectable meal, making it last as long as they possibly could. Finally, they couldn’t postpone the inevitable any longer. The dishes had been cleared away and they rose to leave. Liz felt like Cinderella hearing the bells chime midnight. Her handsome prince would soon be a precious memory.

The veil fell over her features, and Max ached to see it. She was closed to him again, and he had learned nothing important about her. Nothing except he wanted to be with her again. He felt his soul and his body stir in a way it had never done before, and the sense of recognition tugged at his mind. There was something about her.

“Liz?” he began.

“Thank you, Max, for a lovely dinner. Good night.”

She turned and walked away, biting her lip as the feeling of emptiness pushed aside the warm, welcome feeling that had filled her for the last two hours. But this was make believe. He was a writer from the western part of the U.S. She was an assistant professor of microbiology in the northeast. They shared a meal on a glamorous ship in a vast ocean under a romantic moon. It was a fairytale. Nothing more.

Under that moon, two lonely souls stared from tiny balconies into the distant stars—one wishing she could escape into them, one cursing that he had ever been there.

********

"Madame Natasha" fought off the malaise that had settled over her during the last few months. Doing "shows" for the carefree patrons of a cruise line was never how she foresaw using her gifts, but there had been bills to pay and it was more money than she had ever earned before, so she determinedly ignored the self-imposed cries of "Fraud!" that tortured her thoughts and gave the people what they wanted. Most of it was mindless showmanship. Only rarely did she actually feel something real and vibrant during these sessions. She lived for those moments.

In her real life as Gloria Matinkas, she had long ago accepted her abilities to sense others’ feelings, to read their auras, and to know before anyone else what was about to happen. Her mother had had that gift, and she saw signs of it in her own young daughter. But in a world fraught with charlatans and free 5-minute readings, her gifts had remained largely unrecognized. She knew she had to either take a regular job in the local grocery store or jump on the psychic bandwagon. Welcome to the Infinity.

She surveyed the passengers as they drifted into the room, most talking animatedly, some eyeing her skeptically. Her eyes fell on a young brunette woman who entered tentatively and hid herself at a rear table. She wore her gray, troubled aura like a shroud, and Gloria could sense how lost she was. An emptiness pervaded her whole being, a hopelessness that no one that young should feel.

Madame Natasha rose to begin her greeting when a latecomer appeared in the doorway. His aura was the most unusual she had ever seen–almost electrical, magnetic–and there was an unrecognizable element to the vibrations he sent out. He was different in a way she couldn't really explain. He wasn't frightening, though. She felt good in him, and great sadness. Her senses were on high alert, her curiosity piqued.

She watched him scan the room as if searching for someone. His eyes lit on the young woman Gloria had been watching, and she gasped at the electricity the sparked between them. They held that gaze for an eternity, and Gloria realized she was holding her breath. This was the strongest connection she had ever felt, including the many couples she had watched come together back in the old neighborhood.

To her surprise, the young man made his way slowly to a separate table and sat down, keeping constant eye contact with the beautiful woman. Mesmerized, Gloria just watched until a restlessness in the crowd drew her attention away. No matter. Audiences expected her to be spacey. It added to her mystique.

With one eye on the highly charged couple in the back of the room, Gloria began to weave her spell over the crowd, setting a mood of romance and intrigue. She told them how she felt two strong and distinct vibrations in the room this night, and that she could feel them trying to find each other. As she adjusted to the startling intensity that had swept through her as soon as they looked at each other, more detail about them filtered into her mind.

"Is there a woman here who comes from quite a distance?–New England, I believe. You are well educated and successful. But . . . you've been separated from your family. Who here recognizes this?"

They waited in silence. No one responded. Madame Natasha smiled.

"Apparently, we can add shy to the list, too." She began to stroll slowly through the maze of tables, following a seemingly random path. As she neared Liz, she stopped and stared at her.

"It is you, isn't it?"

Liz was a deer caught in the headlights. She shook her head unconvincingly.

"What is your name?"

"Liz."

"Where do you live, my dear?"

"Uh, Connecticut."

"And you have a college degree? Perhaps a masters?"

"Doctorate," she whispered.

Madame Natasha beamed. "It is you, just as I said. Now to find him–the heart that beats in time with yours."

She resumed her meandering. "There is a man in this room whose heart belongs with this young woman. I've rarely felt such a strong connection between two people. But something is getting in the way—perhaps they themselves are fighting it. He is a man with secrets, but a good man. He has been searching for his destined mate. He wonders if perhaps he's found her.”

She peered expectantly at another young man, knowing how to keep an audience engaged. She raised her eyebrows at him and he squirmed uncomfortably.

“I’m married,” he choked, taking his wife’s hand. The last thing he needed was for his wife to think he’d been fantasizing about another passenger! "And I don't have secrets!" He glanced at his wife nervously.

“It is not you,” Madame Natasha agreed. “But you are hoping to share some romance with her later, are you not?”

The man blushed and the audience chuckled.

Gloria was struggling to maintain her performance persona; the powerful force between the two people she’d been watching was threatening her equilibrium; it was hard to focus on anything else. As casually as possible, she made her way toward the handsome young man. She could tell he was at war with himself: he didn’t want to be singled out, but he was fascinated by her recognition of the strange magnetism between Liz Parker and himself.

He could feel his heart racing when she stopped in front of him. She gave him a long, lingering look.

“What is your name?”

Hesitation. “Max.”

“Max, do you know Liz?”

“We just met yesterday.”

“But you feel you already know her, don’t you? You feel a kinship, an old recognition, yes?”

Max froze. What should he say? He didn’t want to scare Liz, but maybe if she knew he felt something . . . old . . . between them . . . “Yes, I do.”

An undercurrent of whispering welled up in the room, then ebbed as the onlookers watched for what would happen next. All eyes fell on Liz.

She sat still as stone for several seconds, eyes riveted on Max. Then suddenly, she rose and bolted from the room. Max’s face drained of color.

“Damn it!” he muttered under his breath and ran after her.

Madame Natasha smiled. “The road is often bumpy,” she crooned knowingly. “Now, who here has recently lost a loved one?”

********

Max found Liz braced against the railing, her hands gripping the cool metal like a lifeline.

“Liz?” Max approached her slowly, cautiously, as he used to do with the rabbits in his yard at home, convinced that at any minute, she would run from him. She looked at him with such sadness, he longed to hold her and tell her that it would be all right.

“Liz, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have put you in that position.” She didn’t run. She just stood there, looking at him with questions in her eyes.

“It’s true, though, what Madame Natasha said. I do feel like I know you. I know it sounds crazy, but you remind me of someone—someone I knew as a child who meant a great deal to me. When I look at you, I see her . . .” He faltered. Her face had turned darker, almost afraid.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, and turned to leave her alone. Why hadn’t that damn maitre d’ just seated him alone as he’d asked?

“Max, wait!” He barely heard her above the whoosh of ocean as the huge ship plowed through its depths. He turned back to see her eyes pleading with him, and took a step back to the railing.

“I’m sorry, too, Max. I’ve been terribly rude. Believe it or not, you remind me of someone from my youth as well.” She smiled wistfully. “When I was very young, a boy at my school used to watch me every day. We never spoke, but he would look at me with these beautiful, intense eyes, as if he had something so important to tell me.” She smiled up at him shyly. “Eyes like yours, actually. And it made me feel special—not loved, exactly, we were only 9, but . . . needed. Somehow in my mind, I came to feel a connection to him, like he was going to be important in my life, and when I look at you, I see his face, and . . .” She shook her head in embarrassment and chuckled nervously. “I must sound like an idiot.”

When Max didn’t answer, Liz wished a hole would open up in the ship’s deck and swallow her. How could she have said those things?! Berating herself, she looked up with another apology on her lips. His expression silenced her. He was staring at her in utter disbelief.

“Liz, where did you grow up?”

“Roswell. That’s in New Mexico.”

His face transformed from shock to excitement. “Liz, I’m from Roswell. How old are you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“I'm twenty-eight, but I started school a year late,” he whispered.

They looked at each other for an eternity, each wondering if it were possible that the image that they had kept safe from the world since childhood had materialized before their eyes. The intensity they had shared as children sprang to life between them once more, a silent, certain communication that told them all they needed to know—for now. There was no awkwardness or hesitation as Max reached up to cradle Liz’s amazed face in his hands. There was no question in Max’s heart as Liz closed her eyes in silent invitation. He leaned forward and almost reverently touched his lips to hers. He could feel her respond, and they knew. They were home.

Part two posting momentarily!

posted on 17-Jul-2002 12:17:28 AM
Part 2

There were no advice columns on a courtship like this. It was just plain strange. On the one hand, they’d known each other their whole lives—in a way. Their souls certainly knew each other, and they finally felt a peace that had escaped them for all these years. On the other hand, they hadn’t seen each other in 16 years, and so knew very little practical detail about the other’s life. And then, of course, there was the matter of Max’s secret. That was an obstacle he didn't dare face yet. As things were, they couldn’t bear to part, and yet they weren’t quite ready to share a cabin either.

So it was that the ship’s Captain, taking his usual late-night stroll around the top deck of the ship, found the two wedged into a deck chair, covered in pool towels, sound asleep. He stopped for a moment and gazed at them, wondering what story had brought them here. If they’d come on board together, they’d be in their cabin. Yet they’d only been at sea for 24 hours—a very short time for a love affair to blossom. He looked at their faces. They were extraordinarily attractive people, but what struck him was the look of supreme contentment on their faces. He smiled happily. He enjoyed seeing the effects of a cruise on his passengers. He would enjoy keeping an eye on this couple.

The chilly breeze brought his mind to more practical matters. He could see the goose bumps on the woman’s arms. He touched her lightly and she started, rousing Max at the same time.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, sir, but it’s getting quite cool out here. I imagine you’d be more comfortable in your cabin . . . er, cabins.”

Liz sat up, embarrassed. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry, Captain.” Max sat up beside her, then stood quickly, helping Liz to her feet. The Captain took note of the protective way he slid his sport coat around her shoulders and then pulled her to him.

“Not at all,” the Captain said reassuringly. “I just don’t want you to get sick and miss out on all the fun we have planned this week. Christmas in just two days, you know!” He gave them a quick wave and hurried off.

“Liz, I’m sorry,” Max apologized. “You must be freezing.” He pulled her closer and rubbed his hand up and down her arm.

“Don’t apologize, Max. I’m a big girl. I could have left anytime. I . . . I just didn’t want to.” She smiled at him, and he took in the vision before him. The bright moon reflected in her eyes, her hair, her skin. She was glowing, and he gave in easily to his impulse. Sliding his fingers through her hair, he drew her to him, indulging in a long, lingering kiss. He was careful not to demand too much too quickly, and he broke it off as soon as he felt himself falling too deeply into her. He could get carried away so easily.

Buoyed by her slight whimper when he released her mouth, he smiled and slipped his arm around her. “Let me walk you home,” he offered. “What’s your cabin number?”

“947.”

“Really? I’m 931. We’re not too far apart.” He grinned at her. “Isn’t that nice?”

“Very,” she smiled back.

It was hard to watch her disappear into her room, but Max felt better than he’d felt in years, and definitely better that he’d felt since his mother’s death. A sense of hope began to sprout in his barren heart, and it put a bounce in his step.

Liz, too, hated to close the door on Max. She had never felt so comfortable with anyone, or so close—especially with a man. She whistled as she got ready for bed, and drifted off happily.

That’s when the dreams started.

********

She was playing on the playground after school and saw the boy watching her from the blacktop near the parking lot. They exchanged a long look, but as usual, made no move toward each other. It comforted her to see him there; she had grown to expect it, and for some reason, it gave her a sense of security.

“Liz!” her friend Maria called. “Come hold one end of the jump rope!”

Liz had looked back briefly at the boy and turned to walk toward her friend. Someone had told her his name was Max, but they never seemed to be in the same class, and she knew very little about him. She wondered why he showed such an interest in her, but never doubted that it was a good thing.

She looked over again and was startled to see he was gone. Her eyes searched the schoolyard but there was no sign of him.

“Jennifer, take over,” she mumbled, handing off the jump rope to a friend. Wandering toward the school, a movement caught her eye. There he was, under a tree on the edge of the school property, squatting over something on the ground. She came up behind him, curious about what was holding his rapt attention. Over his shoulder, she saw him touching a wounded bird. His hand began to glow and, seconds later, the bird took flight. He rose, watching the bird soar with a satisfied smile on his face—until he turned around to find Liz staring at him in something akin to horror.

She opened her mouth to scream but nothing came out.


Liz sat bolt upright in bed, panting heavily. Pushing her hair back from her face, she felt her hand trembling. That was no dream. It was a memory. Or was it? Confused, Liz reached for her robe and stepped onto her small balcony. She had seen that as a child, hadn’t she? It felt like a memory, but it couldn’t be. It was too wild. And she had spent the whole evening with Max and hadn’t felt anything strange or dangerous about him. Even Madame Natasha had said they’d been searching for each other.

Get a grip, Liz! she scolded herself. Since when do you believe in psychics?

Feeling the chill, in spite of her robe, Liz eased back into her stateroom. Eventually, she drifted back into a restless sleep.

********

The next morning, Max awoke in a wonderful mood. Christmas Eve! He dressed carefully and half jogged down to Liz’s stateroom, knocking confidently. No answer. He tried again with the same result. Thinking she was in the shower, he leaned self-consciously against the wall for several minutes, nodding to the couples and families headed out for breakfast. Trying again, he reluctantly concluded she was an early riser and was already out and about on the ship.

He cruised quickly through the two most popular breakfast restaurants with no luck. Soon he was striding purposefully around the pool deck, the top deck with the walking/jogging track, and the main lobby. Nothing.

Growing worried he began to peek in the quieter, more private areas. As he passed the glass-enclosed computer room, he saw the top of a brown-haired head. He knew instantly it was Liz. Coming around the edge of the carrel, he saw her taking a disk from the computer.

“Liz?”

She looked up, startled. “Max! Hi, I was just . . . I . . . You’re up early.”

Max frowned. What had happened between last night and this morning to change everything?

“I hoped we could have breakfast together.”

“Breakfast? Oh, you know, I . . . uh, I guess I’m not used to the sea yet. I’m just not feeling well enough to eat. In fact, I think I’ll lie down for a while. Maybe I’ll see you later.”

With that, she grabbed her belongings and hurried from the room, leaving Max confused and more than a little upset.

Not again, he vowed. I’m not losing her again.

With uncharacteristic boldness, Max went after her, racing the length of the ship to reach her cabin before she did. Waiting in a small recessed doorway, he popped out to meet her as she arrived at her door.

“Liz, we need to talk.”

“Max, really, I’m not feeling well . . .”

“You’re feeling fine, Liz. Something happened since we said goodnight last night that changed how you feel. I’d like to know what that is.” He touched her arm as she turned away. “Please.”

Just his touch did things to Liz. In spite of her resolve, she looked up into his anxious face and dissolved. There it was, the feeling of being home, the sense of rightness about being with him, the certainty about all she had felt last night. She sighed heavily.

“Let’s talk.”

She led him into the small room, and he followed her to the loveseat by the balcony door. She began without preamble.

“Max, last night I had a dream. Only I think it was more of a memory than a dream. We were back on the school playground after school, and I was playing with my friends and you were watching, as you so often did.” She smiled at the memory, in spite of what was coming. Max shifted uncomfortably. “I looked over once and you weren’t there. I was surprised and came looking for you. I think I was ready to actually talk to you. But when I found you, I saw you touch a wounded bird with a glowing hand, and then it flew off.”

She stopped, but he didn’t respond.

“Was that a memory or a dream, Max, because it really feels like a memory. I think I was scared of you after that, and we never talked again before I went away to school. But the memory of you has been with me every day since then, and somehow, the memory of you was good, very good. Help me understand, Max. What happened that day?”

Max sat immobile, searching her eyes as if looking for the answer to her question there. Liz’s heart almost broke when she saw a tear form in the corner of his eye and spill onto his cheek. Without thinking, she reached to wipe it away, only to gasp when he reached up suddenly and grabbed her wrist. Finally he spoke. He said the last thing she expected to hear.

“I think I love you, Liz.”

Speechless at first, Liz could only stare, wondering why it was that his declaration didn’t shock or upset her. Then it filtered through on a practical level, and all she could say was, “What?”

Max heaved a heartrending sigh, and reached for Liz’s other hand. Even in the midst of her confusion, the electricity of his touch caused her to shudder. It felt so right. Liz looked into the eyes of this man who she trusted so easily, cared for after so little time. It wasn’t really a decision. Her heart wanted to know.

“Tell me, Max,” she coaxed. “I’m sorry about before. I was scared, but I’m ready now. Tell me.”

“Liz, your dream was a memory—a memory I thought I had buried long ago. That day at school, I did heal a bird, and you were frightened, and I saw a look on your face I never wanted to see in my life. You weren’t just scared, you were horrified. You looked at me like I was a freak. It was my worst nightmare come true. The next night, I climbed your fire escape and snuck into your room while you were sleeping, and I took that memory away. I knew then that I could never tell you about me, but I could at least keep you from hating me. When you went away to school, I cried myself to sleep for weeks, but I finally realized it was for the best. I guess meeting me again just brought it all back.”

Liz stared, trying to process all that he’d told her. “But how, Max? How did you heal the bird? How did you make a memory go away? I still don't understand.”

Max knew his decision had been made the minute he realized who she was. It was only a matter of time. He couldn’t help but trust the soul he felt when he touched her; he had to believe the caring he found in those eyes.

“I want you to know everything, Liz. I want you to see it. Will you let me show it to you?”

She nodded mutely.

“I have to touch you.”

Another nod.

Gently, Max took her wide-eyed face into his hands, letting his fingers slide through her silken hair as his thumbs traced the delicate cheekbones. “Look into my eyes and just let your mind blank out.”

Instantly, Liz was transported through the unbelievable highlights of Max’s life—pods, Michael, Isabel, discovering powers, the fear, the secrecy, the joy in his heart whenever he was in the vicinity of Liz Parker, the sense of loss when she left, the anguish of his mother’s death, the loneliness.

Max lowered his hands and waited. He could see the whole reel replaying in Liz’s mind, leaving her almost in a trance. Her eyes were huge, her lips were parted, her breathing irregular. Finally, Max stood. “I’ve given you a lot to think about, Liz. Whatever you decide about us, I’ll respect it. But Liz . . .”

Her eyes finally rose to meet his. “There are those who would kill to know about me. My life is in your hands.”

He turned and left, leaving Liz gaping at the closed door.

********

It was the worst day of Max’s life. Worse than the day Liz left Roswell in sixth grade. Worse than the day Max found out the FBI alien-hunting unit was in town. Even worse than the day his mother died. He had no control over those events. This time, he’d brought it on himself, and his future happiness, maybe even his future existence depended on what Liz was thinking.

She was nowhere to be found at lunch, not that he could eat any food. She didn’t come up to take a swim. She wasn’t in the observation lounge when the helicopter came to take a sick passenger off. And she wasn’t walking on the upper deck. Even the Captain noticed; the nervous young man he’d found in the lounge chair late one night was without his companion and obviously in a bad way.

The turbulent aura was a dead giveaway to Madame Natasha, too. On Max's seventh lap around the deck, Gloria couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Max, isn’t it?” she asked, falling into step with him.

“Yes,” Max answered absently. “Do I know you?”

She laughed. “I’m ‘Madame Natasha,’ only without the wild get-up and the two pounds of make-up. Please call me Gloria."

Max made an attempt at a smile.

"Your aura tells me you're in turmoil, Max. I won't pry, but I couldn't stand by and watch you suffer." She stopped and turned toward him, willing him to believe her. "Max, you two have something special. Trust it. It will turn out all right."

"How?"

"I don't know. It's a mystery. I guess that's what faith is all about."

"Mama!" A little dark-haired girl ran toward them, and Max watched as Gloria turned to sweep her into a big hug. Suddenly, Max was picturing Liz sweeping their little dark-haired girl into her arms, smiling that beautiful smile and laughing. A sense of calm came over him.

"Thanks, Gloria. I hope you're right." She winked at him and walked off with her little girl.

Max changed into a swimsuit instead of going down to dinner. He needed to work off some nervous energy. Besides, the jazz band that played softly at one end of the pool deck and the brilliant sunset to the west set a calming mood. Pulling off his t-shirt, he stretched like a cat, anxious to relieve the tension that bunched every muscle in his body. Muscles flexed in his shoulders, stomach, and thighs, each sinewy fiber defined. Every pair of eyes on deck stopped to admire him, but he was oblivious. All he could see was Liz's face looming in front of him, sometimes smiling, sometimes closed and fearful. Which face would she turn to him when he saw her next?

Slicing through the water with barely a ripple, Max dove into the pool and began to swim laps. His rapt audience could only stare appreciatively. Powerful arms pulled him through the water like he was born to it; muscular legs worked fluidly to propel him forward. After several laps, he pulled his dripping body from the pool and reached for a towel, covering his face. The darkness welcomed him, and he stood motionless like that for several moments.

Sighing, he lowered the towel, blinking against the last bright rays of the sunset. As his eyes adjusted, he saw Liz standing in front of him. Almost afraid to believe she was really there, he reached for her tentatively.

"Liz?"

"I should have expected science fiction. Now I want to know if it's autobiographical science fiction."

He looked down to see her holding a copy of his first book, Hiding in the Open.

"Where did you get that?" he stuttered.

"Our ship's library is surprisingly large," she smiled. "I've been reading all day. I decided I would learn a lot about you by reading one of your books. And I think I did. Now answer my question."

Max looked deep into her eyes, still unsure of how this was going. Then he thought back to that first book that all but documented his arrival on the planet with Michael and Isabel, and the dangerous lives they had lived ever since.

"It's almost entirely autobiographical, Liz."

He held his breath, anticipating her next words. He watched every flicker of her eyes, every muscle in her face until she spoke.

"You're amazing," she sighed, tenderly stroking his cheek. He let his breath out with a moan and swept her into his arms, lifting her right out of her sandals. His lips were on hers, burning with a sudden flood of love, desire, passion. The collective sigh from around the pool was lost on both of them; as far as they were concerned, they were alone on this fragile island of happiness.

Max realized he was shaking, and it wasn't just because the sun had disappeared beyond the horizon. It was shock and relief and elation that all his hopes and dreams were coming true right in front of him. But maybe he had presumed too much. Acceptance isn't love, he reminded himself.

Setting Liz down, he examined her flushed face. "You must have questions."

She laughed out loud. "About a million. But they can wait . . . for a while, at least."

This time she launched herself at him, taking him completely by surprise. Losing his balance, they both fell with a giant splash into the pool, emerging amidst sputters and laughter. Groping their way out of the water, the passengers who had been enjoying this wonderful scene broke into enthused applause. The Captain paused on his way to the bridge, looking down toward the pool to see what the laughter and applause was all about. Seeing the happy couple in a soggy embrace, he winked at Gloria Matinkas. He'd heard about the performance she'd given the night before, and he could see that her pleased smile was heartfelt.

"Our first success of the voyage," he chuckled.

"Indeed," she nodded, watching the glorious aura that now surrounded the happy couple. "And it's only the beginning."

********

Later that night, having celebrated with an intimate dinner together in Max's cabin, Max and Liz strolled under a star-studded sky.

"Look, Mommy!" they heard a little boy say. "It's the Christmas star!"

They all looked up at the bright, twinkling star that dominated the sky.

"Actually, that's home," Max whispered into Liz's ear. Just the vibration of his voice and the warmth of his breath on her cool skin filled Liz with erotic ideas.

"No, Max. I'll show you where home really is." She began to tug at his hand, turning them toward the elevators. The surprise on his face made her giggle. She sighed, pulling him toward her. The moment her lips met his, she felt the electricity filling her, making her whole body tremble. She was falling headlong into Max Evans, and there was nothing in the world she wanted more.

"Merry Christmas, Max," Liz panted softly.

"And a lifetime of Happy New Years," he whispered.

posted on 17-Jul-2002 12:20:37 AM
DREAMER HOLIDAYS: VALENTINE'S DAY 2001 (1/3)


Max Evans had been staring at her for years. Maria had mentioned it during a shift at the Crashdown one day last year, but the truth was, Liz had been aware of it long before that. At first, it had freaked her out just a little. The news was full of stalker stories, and for a brief time, she was afraid he might hurt her. It wasn’t long, though, before she noticed little things that put her mind at ease—his caring toward his high-strung sister, the way he was the first to help if somebody spilled their notebook papers all over the hall or stumbled coming down the stairs, the way his eyes softened as he watched a mother help her child settle into the booth next to him. It was a lot of things, but eventually she had come to count on his quiet attention. Now, she admitted to herself, she wanted more.

One of Max’s most appealing traits was his total oblivion to the bevy of girls who worked hard to get his attention. Tall, dark, and brooding, with deep amber pools where his eyes should be, Max was the epitome of the unattainable perfect man. Being the first to attract and tame this desirable specimen had become an obsession for some of Roswell High’s most confident females. The unsubtle ones rubbed their bodies against his at every opportunity while they laughed shrilly and batted mascara-laden eyelashes. Liz often had to suppress a giggle as she watched him extract himself uncomfortably from their radar, sometimes catching her eye and shrugging helplessly, confused about how he always seemed to be standing in the most crowded places. Others did their homework; they arranged to share classes or joined the gym where he played raquetball with his dad just so they could forge that bond that grows from common ground. Meticulously polite but always remote, he remained alone.

And that was just one thing that confused Liz. Why was Max always looking at her? If he were interested in her, wouldn’t he have approached her by now? He couldn’t be so out of it that he didn’t realize he could have any girl in school he wanted. But if he didn’t want Liz, then what was all the time at the Crashdown about? And why did he look away every time she caught his eye?

“Just go over there and talk to him!” urged Maria. “You know he wants you to.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Maria,” Liz countered. “If he’d wanted to talk, he could have picked any of the 101 visits to the Crashdown.”

“Aha! You’ve been counting all those times he comes in!”

Liz rolled her eyes. “That’s absurd, Maria. That was just an expression. I just mean he’s had plenty of opportunity to talk to me, but he never has. I think that says it all.”

“It may just say he’s shy,” suggested Maria. “Cute guys can still be shy, you know.”

Liz shrugged and turned away to refill the napkin dispensers, but she couldn’t quite shake Maria’s words. In spite of her best intentions, a seed of an idea grew in her mind, and she bit her lip, wondering if she had the nerve to go through with it. The fates answered her question clearly when Max’s sister Isabel approached the counter, her usual aloof demeanor compromised by a trace of uncertainty.

“Liz?”

“Hi, Isabel, what’s up?”

“Uh, you know that physics project we have to do?”

“You mean the toothpick bridges due after spring break?”

“Yeah, well, Ms. Fletcher said we should choose a partner, and I thought, maybe . . .”

Liz tried hard not to smile. She knew Isabel was having trouble in that class and wanted to pair up with somebody smart so she’d get a better grade. It was a heady feeling to be in the driver’s seat with the school ice princess.

“You thought what?” Liz asked, pretending not to know where this was going.

Isabel sighed and took the plunge. “I thought maybe we could be partners. We have a basement with a big worktable where we could build it, and my mom keeps the fridge well stocked.”

Liz stifled amusement at Isabel’s attempt at a friendly smile. She looked like that awful Chucky doll from the old horror movie.

Enjoying the upper hand, Liz continued to bait her. “Oh, well, I was talking to Jerry Bowen and he said his dad’s an engineer. I was thinking he might be a good partner because his dad knows all about this stuff.”

The clown smile faltered. “Really?”

“Your dad’s a lawyer, right?”

The smile crumbled. Isabel heaved a great sigh and collapsed on the barstool. “My dad sucks at this stuff,” she huffed. “And I don’t have a clue. Please, Liz? You’re the smartest one in class.”

Liz savored the image of Isabel playing right into her hands.

“Okay,” Liz agreed. “Saturday at your house?”

“Yes!” Isabel jumped up, excited, until she realized how she looked to the largely teen crowd in the café. Instantly, she assumed her aloof air. “That would be fine, Liz. Shall we say 1 o’clock?”

Liz swallowed a yelp of victory. “See you then, Isabel.”

Operation Max Evans was underway.

********

Saturday dawned hot and dry, unusual for early February. Customers at the Crashdown were already complaining about the heat. Full of nervous anticipation, Liz darted impatiently through the kitchen’s humidity, the grouchy customers, and the spilled milkshake at table 6, distracted by the clock’s slow ticking toward noon. When the big hand at last clicked into place over the 12, she dropped her dishcloth, shed her apron, and sprinted up the stairs to shower and change. She was already sweaty, and that wasn’t the impression she was going for today.

Wearing her low-slung jeans and a coral tank top, she hoisted her backpack over her shoulder and stepped out into the hot sun. Turning in the direction of Max’s house, she suddenly began to doubt herself. What was she doing? She was going to his house? He would see right through her! She’d never ever been there alone before. The only reason she even knew where it was was because they’d built the freshman float in the Evans’s driveway two years ago. Get a grip, Liz, she told herself. Isabel asked you to be her partner. Not the other way around.

She was still psyching herself up when she arrived at the front door. Knocking tentatively, she took in the details of the yard. The garage door was open and a wheelbarrow with a young tree standing in it was poised at the gate to the backyard. Liz could see a hose snaking around toward the back of the house, and a bag of fertilizer stood open just inside the fence. Liz thought she could here a scraping noise coming from just beyond her line of vision.

When no one came to answer the door, Liz walked slowly toward the back of the house. The sight that met her eyes brought her up short. There in the hot sun, with his back to her, Max was digging a hole. She bit back a gasp, her eyes drinking in the powerful shoulders and bulging biceps that flexed and strained as he wielded the shovel. Then her eyes fell lower. He was wearing cut-offs that should probably have been retired last year, and the seams were taut to the point of bursting as his thighs raised and lowered his body in an even rhythm. The sheen of sweat made her think of those body-builder photos in the magazines. She was speechless. How had he managed to hide this body?

Breathing heavily, Max leaned against the shovel handle and reached for a glass that had been perched on the fence. Eyes closed, he slid the glass across his forehead, letting the beads of condensation cool him. Then he downed its contents in a series of gulps and sighed heavily. Setting the glass back down, Max turned to reach for the fertilizer. Their eyes met.

“Liz.” It was almost a whisper.

Liz dropped her gaze, embarrassed that she’d been caught staring. “I . . . I’m supposed to meet Isabel for our physics project but . . . uh . . . nobody answered the door. I . . . uh . . . heard noises back here. . .”

Max continued to stare at her.

“I’ll get Isabel,” he mumbled, and bolted for the back door.

Liz wanted to cry. Obviously, her appearance had been completely unwelcome. Obviously, project Max Evans was dead before it even began.

********
Max stood staring at Liz, wondering for a brief moment if she was really there or if his imagination had finally pushed him over some mental cliff. Here this angel had appeared in his backyard, wearing form-fitting jeans that left a strip of smooth, forbidden abdomen peeking out at him. That coral tank top only accentuated her deep tan, and her dark hair, fanned across her shoulders, shone in the sun. But whereas she was a vision, he was a mess—filthy, wearing these throw-away shorts, and dripping with sweat. She must be totally disgusted by his appearance. Damn Isabel! Why didn’t she tell him Liz was coming over!

“I’ll get Isabel,” he mumbled, and ran for the safety of the house. Bounding up the stairs, he pushed open the door to his sister’s room without knocking.

“Why didn’t you tell me Liz Parker was coming over here? And why didn’t you answer the door when she knocked?”

His face was pure outrage, and Isabel laughed out loud. “What’s the matter, Max? Don’t tell me that her just showing up here got your hormones in a twist! For your information, I was doing my nails and couldn’t get the door. Why don’t you ask her to come up? I’m almost dry.”

You ask her!” he fumed. “I’m taking a shower!” He slammed the door to her room. Seconds later, she heard the door to the bathroom slam as well.

Still chuckling, Isabel ran down the stairs and opened the front door. Where had Liz gone? Confused, she turned back into the house, only to hear a tentative rapping at the back door.

“Isabel?”

“Liz! Sorry, Max kinda freaked when you showed up. I can’t believe he left you standing out there. I didn’t hear the door. I’m just finishing my nails. Come on up.”

Liz followed Isabel into the house and up the stairs. “Why would he freak? Doesn’t he like visitors?”

Isabel laughed again. “Don’t tell me, Liz, that my brother’s total infatuation with you has escaped your attention!”

Liz gaped at her. “Infatuation?”

“Excuse me,” Isabel drawled. “Are you the same Liz Parker who works at the Crashdown where Max lives every day after school? Where Max tries to stare at you without being noticed day after day?”

Liz could feel herself blushing to her very roots. It’s what she’d hoped, even suspected, but he’d never approached her in all that time, and he’d bolted like a rabbit when she’d shown up here. It was all very confusing.

“Do us both a favor, Liz. Put him out of his misery or we’ll never get anything done on this physics project.”

Physics was the last thing on Liz’s mind now. Suddenly, the sound of the shower running was all she could hear. She kept getting images of him in there, naked, soapy, thinking of her. Her body heated up without warning, and she was helpless to control the reaction.

“Good god,” Isabel sighed, rolling her eyes. “You’re as bad off as he is, aren’t you?”

Liz could only swallow and stare. This was not going at all the way she’d expected.

“Liz, can you help me gather up these papers and stuff? My nails are a bit tacky still. We can take them down to the basement. . . . Liz!”

Liz shook herself. “Huh?”

“Papers? Basement? Physics?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure.” Liz began to stack the papers strewn across Isabel’s desk, and walked into the hall, plowing smack into Max, who was scurrying down the hall with only a towel around his waist. Papers flew everywhere. Their eyes locked in a moment of sheer agony. They were both as embarrassed as two people could get.

“Sorry,” breathed Liz, unable to keep her eyes from wandering down the chest, the towel . . . oh, god.

“No, it’s my fault. I . . . uh . . . forgot to take clean clothes in . . . Here, let me help.”

He bent to pick up some papers when he realized the towel was loosening around his waist. Dropping the few papers he’d picked up, he grabbed frantically for the towel before it slipped around his hips. “I . . .”

Giving up on rescuing any dignity, he almost ran into his room further down the hall, leaving Liz open-mouthed behind him. Between her reaction to him and her supreme embarrassment, she felt her body temperature spike. Looking back toward Isabel’s room, she found Isabel leaning against her doorjamb, shaking her head.

“I’m beginning to think you two deserve each other.”

Together they picked up the papers and made their way to the basement.

********

Max was miserable. He had managed to create two ridiculous scenes in which he made himself look stupid, incompetent, and klutzy, all at the same time. Even his fantasies about Liz Parker would have to stop after today. Even his imagination wouldn’t be able to dismiss this debacle. He had to get out of here. Now.

Entering the kitchen to grab his keys, he saw his mother struggling with the door, her arms full of groceries.

“Hi, Max. Is Liz Parker here yet?”

“You knew she was coming? Did everyone know but me?” His anger was obvious.

His mother stopped and looked at him through narrowed eyes. That one little retort was more reaction to a girl than she’d ever heard from her handsome son before.

“Why, Max? Is that a problem?”

Way to go, Max, he scolded himself. Let’s just see how really bad you can make this?

“No, Mom, of course not. I have to go.”

His mother frowned. “You do? Because I need some help with these groceries.”

Max sighed. “Sure, Mom.”

Eager to have something specific to do, Max walked out to the car, taking more bags of groceries from the open trunk. When he returned to the kitchen, his mother had already prepared a tray with two glasses of lemonade and a plate of cookies.

“Would you take these downstairs to Isabel and our guest, please, Max?” she asked.

“Mom, I was just leaving. Could you do it?”

Diane Evans hid a smile. “I’d appreciate your doing it, Max. I have these frozen foods to put away and some meat to take care of.”

Sighing with resignation, Max picked up the tray and headed for the basement stairs. As he descended, he caught sight of Liz, hidden behind a curtain of hair as she glued a toothpick into place. “See, Isabel, you have to create a series of triangles for strength. It’s the most stable geometric form . . .”

The sound of Max setting down the tray brought her head up, and when they locked eyes, they both began to blush again. Isabel could hardly stand it. They didn’t have time for this dance.

“So, Liz,” Isabel asked in a pseudo-casual voice. “Do you have a date for the Valentine’s Day dance?”

Liz dropped the toothpick triangle. It glanced off the edge of the worktable, breaking on one side.

“Uh, no . . . uh . . . Kyle and I sort of . . . well, we don’t really go out . . . it’s just this casual . . . uh. No.”

“That’s too bad, Liz. Who are you taking, Max?”

Max glared at her with such venom, it would have scared Liz had she been able to lift her eyes from their single-minded study of the floor. He was choosing from a number of inadequate answers when his mother intervened. Her words were both a relief and a nightmare.

“Liz, Isabel tells me this is a big project. I hope you’ll stay for dinner. That way, you can work some this evening, too.”

Liz froze. What should she do? She ventured a glimpse at Max, who seemed equally frozen in the moment. Was that hope or panic on his face?

“Thanks, mom!” Isabel shouted up the stairs. “Great, Liz,” she beamed. “Now we can knock off a bunch of this tonight!”

She threw a victorious glance at her brother. “So, triangles, huh? I didn’t realize they were so strong.”

Max trudged up the stairs. His day couldn’t get much worse.

********
“This is delicious, Mrs. Evans. Thank you.” Liz was trying to force down some dinner, which really would have been delicious if her stomach hadn’t been in knots. When Liz had returned from the bathroom before dinner, the whole family had been seated, and the only empty chair was next to Max. Every time they both reached for the salt or their legs brushed against each other, a shot of adrenalin zapped her system and her stomach did flipflops. She noticed with some satisfaction that Max wasn’t eating much either.

Thankfully, Isabel had deflected attention away from Liz with her whining. She was trying to convince her parents that she needed a new dress for the Valentine’s dance, even though she had half a dozen gowns already. Liz was sure her presence was all that kept a family argument from erupting.

“Liz, tell them,” Isabel insisted. “Tell them you can’t wear a gown that people have already seen to one of these dances.”

Liz was trapped. Her family couldn’t afford a new gown for every dance, and Liz often settled for different accessories or one of Maria’s magic makeovers. Her discomfort was obvious, and Max hurried to her rescue.

“Some people don’t need a new dress to make an impression,” he goaded her. Liz gave him a wide-eyed look, and saw him wink at her. She suppressed a giggle. She wasn’t sure if that was a slam on his sister or a compliment to her, but either way, she appreciated it. Isabel, however, did not. Rising from her chair, her eyes shooting daggers at her brother, she flounced from the room.

“Come on, Liz. We have work to do.”

Diane Evans watched Max’s face. His eyes never left Liz as she walked from the room.

“Liz, let us know when you two have finished for the night and Max will drive you home.”

Liz and Max both looked at her with surprise. “I can walk, Mrs. Evans. That’s okay.”

“Nonsense. We won’t have you walking home alone after dark. You just give a holler when you’re ready.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Liz tried very hard not to skip from the room.

********

Liz was motivated—motivated to get finished for the night so that she could go home. Or more to the point, so Max could take her home. Besides, she was tired of Isabel watching her work on the project instead of helping. Comments like “Oh, you’re so much better at that; you’d better do that part” or “I don’t understand what you mean. You do that and I’ll watch how you do it” made her realize why no one wanted to be partners with Isabel Evans. She promised herself that when it was time to write up the report to go with this bridge, Isabel would do it.”

Straightening up, she stretched. “I think that’s far enough for tonight, Isabel. I need to get home.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, fine, Liz. Thanks for helping me.”

Yeah, right. Who was helping who? Liz thought. But she smiled and headed up the steps. Walking through the deserted kitchen, Liz looked for Max. No one seemed to be around at all, and she sighed with disappointment. She wasn’t about to go looking through the house. Max probably hadn’t really wanted to take her home anyway; his mother was just pushing him.

Liz stepped out onto the front porch, shutting the door quietly behind her. As she moved toward the steps, though, a voice startled her.

“You weren’t going to walk home, were you? You want to get me in trouble with my mother?”

Liz spun around to see Max in the shadows, his long legs moving the glider gently back and forth. Slowly, he rose.

“Your chariot awaits.” He bowed formally and held out one arm. Liz grinned at him and wrapped her small hand around the crook of his arm. The act of touching seemed to have an impact on both of them because they spent several seconds just standing there, conscious of the contact and getting lost in each other’s eyes. Finally, Max broke the look with a little shiver, walked her down the steps, and helped her into his Jeep. They rode in awkward silence for several blocks. Suddenly, Max pulled the car over.

“Max? We’re still two blocks from my house,” Liz reminded him, confused by the sudden stop. She turned questioning eyes to him.

“I know, but I wanted to talk to you—without anyone else around.”

Liz’s heart sped up. This was the beginning of one of her favorite fantasies. She wondered if by some miracle, he knew the rest of it. She was almost afraid for him to speak again and spoil it.

“I . . . uh, well, I almost never agree with anything my sister says, but she actually did say one sensible thing tonight.”

“Yes, Max?” Liz was holding her breath.

“Well, if it’s true that you don’t have a date for the Valentine’s dance, and I know I don’t have a date for it either, well, wouldn’t it make sense to go together?”

He did know the rest of fantasy—or at least the next part of it! Liz realized she wasn’t breathing and when she went to take a breath, it sounded like a gasp. Max panicked.

“I mean, we don’t have to stay together the whole night. Like, you could dance with anyone you wanted, and . . . I mean . . . you probably don’t want to. Never mind.”

Max started the car and put it in gear, wishing he could somehow get Liz home without actually have to take her there himself.

“Max.”

He looked over his shoulder, waiting for traffic to clear.

“Max!”

Waiting . . . waiting . . .

“MAX!”

Spinning his head around, he looked at Liz. “What did you say?”

“I said ‘yes.’ I’d like to go to the dance with you.”

“Really? You don’t have to. I only asked because . . .”

“Max, I would like to go to the dance with you.” The relief on his face made Liz’s heart sing. He really did want to take her. “But I’ll warn you, I don’t have a new dress,” she teased.

“You’ll still make an impression,” he teased back, his eyes softening. Liz couldn’t take her eyes off of them. Smiling broadly now, he started toward the Crashdown again. The silence between them was still awkward, but lighter somehow. The air was charged with anticipation.

“Thanks for the ride home, Max,” Liz smiled, stepping out of the car.

“Thanks for agreeing to come to the dance with me. Next Saturday night? 7:30?”

“It’s a date,” she assured him. He stared after her as she walked through her door.

A date. He had a date with Liz Parker. What had he done?


BE RIGHT BACK

posted on 17-Jul-2002 12:22:24 AM
********

The rest of the weekend was torture. Max was beating himself up with worries of one kind or another. He didn’t tell Isabel that he’d asked Liz to the dance because he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. She was insufferable enough half the time. He was afraid to tell his mother because she would go on and on about “cute couples” and “come here for pictures” and “it’s so nice to see you with a lovely girl like that.”

Then there was the fact that he couldn’t afford to risk his secret by letting anyone get too close. And if he went out with Liz Parker, there would be nothing he wanted more than to be close to her. He wasn’t like Isabel; she was able to flirt and date and participate without risking anything of herself. Max knew he’d been only too ready to give his heart to Liz Parker for most of his life. How would he keep any distance between them once they’d crossed this line?

For that matter, he wasn’t entirely sure how Liz felt about the invitation. Was he just convenient because she didn’t already have a date? Did she even want to spend more time with him before the dance? Maybe she would think he was stalking her if he started talking to her between classes or at the Crashdown. This was too complicated. He started to wish he’d never asked her.

Meanwhile, Liz was on cloud nine. Maria had squealed uncontrollably when Liz told her the news, and they had already started working on transforming Liz’s dress. Every moment of Sunday was like living in an alternate universe, Liz’s mind hardly her own as flights of fancy took her to the dance again and again. The dialogue changed from daydream to daydream, but the outcome was always the same, and Liz’s lips burned with expectation.

Monday morning brought cooler temperatures and a few clouds, but nothing could mar Liz’s good mood. She almost danced to her locker, quickly pulling out the books she needed for her first three periods, and then scanned the hall for Max. His locker was down the hall, but he usually passed by hers.

Spying him walking through the doors, Liz beamed. “Here he comes, Maria!”

“Here who comes?” Kyle sidled up to Liz and threw an arm around her shoulders. “Me? I’m flattered.”

“Kyle, no! Not you. What are you doing here? I thought you had the flu.”

“Ah, yes, well, you could call it the flu, I guess. Or you could call it ‘I had an English paper due that wasn’t finished yet.’ Glad you missed me.” He planted a quick kiss on her cheek. “Later!” And he disappeared into the crowd.

Mildly annoyed, Liz turned back around to Maria, and her mouth fell open. Standing behind Maria was Max, looking hurt and trying hard not to show it.

“Max, I . . .”

“Hi, Liz,” he answered stiffly and hurried down the hall toward his locker. Liz turned to go after him, but Maria stopped her.

“Liz! Honey, don’t go running after him. This is perfect! He’ll realize that you have plenty of options and it’ll make him want you all the more!”

“But you didn’t see that look on his face, Maria. I think he was hurt.”

“It’ll just give him something to think about. Now come on. We’ll be late for Psych.”

Liz let Maria lead her toward their first class, the image of Max’s hurt expression looming in her mind. Whether by chance or design, she didn’t see him the rest of the day. He didn’t even come into the Crashdown after school or phone her that evening. Her euphoric mood evaporated into thin air.

Tuesday, Max must have entered school through a different door because she waited for him by her locker until the last possible minute, but didn’t see him. She even ran out to his car after school, but when she saw him come out of the building with Isabel and his friend Michael in tow, she lost her nerve and ducked out of sight. Another evening went by without a phone call, and she started to consider that he was regretting his decision to ask her.

Wednesday, Liz chose to eat alone out behind the school. She didn’t want to make conversation or explain herself to anyone. She just wanted to wallow in misery by herself. She ducked inside the half-wall that bordered one side of the football field and welcomed the soothing sensation of the sun-warmed concrete against her tense muscles. Seated with eyes closed, face to the sun, she sighed heavily and tried to let her mind blank out.

A loud thud next to her forced a startled cry from her lips. Her eyes flew open to see a backpack sitting right next to her. She looked around in confusion, wondering where in the world that had come from.

“Oh my gosh, I’m sorry.” Liz looked directly over her head to see Max staring down at her from the other side of the wall. “I had no idea anyone was there; I just tossed my bag over so I could hop over instead of walking around. I’m so sorry. I’ll grab it and go somewhere else.”

Liz’s patience gave out. “Max, I don’t understand. First you ask me to this dance, and then you avoid me like the plague. Did I do something? Are you sorry you asked me because if so, you’re more than welcome to change your mind. At this point, I just don’t care.”

Liz crossed her arms in front of her and stared straight ahead, oblivious to the half-smile that erupted on Max’s face. Soon she heard him land softly next to his backpack and slide down to a sitting position.

“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” he said seriously, using one of his father’s favorite expressions. “I thought you were the one regretting the decision to go with me. I mean, you know I saw you with Kyle Monday morning. It looked like maybe you were getting a better offer.”

“From Kyle?” she said with disdain. “I told you—he and I are nothing now. Just barely friends. Besides, you sure backed off in a hurry if that’s all this is about.”

Max crossed his legs and leaned toward Liz earnestly. She turned to look at him and caught her breath. All teasing was gone; all that remained were those tender eyes she’d almost drowned in on Saturday and that beautiful mouth she couldn’t stop thinking about. What would those lips feel like touching hers?

“Liz.” She forced her brain back into gear. “I’m sorry. I got the feeling that I’d pushed you into something you didn’t want, and I was trying to give you an out.” He reached for her hand and she thought she might not be able to breath at all. “I do want to take you, if you still want to go.”

The long silence was torture for Max. Liz was busy pushing through the wonderful images of what an evening spent with Max Evans might be like. Those eyes looking right through her, those hands holding her close, that mouth maybe . . . possibly . . . hopefully touching hers for the first time.

“Liz?”

“I’m sorry,” Liz let out in a rush. “Yes, I would rather go with you than anyone in this world!”

No. She did not just say that. Where on God’s green earth had that come from? Liz wanted to die of embarrassment. Was a cornier line ever delivered in the history of dating? Had she managed to ruin everything that had just happened? She couldn’t even look at him, which is why she didn’t notice the bemused expression on Max’s face. He recovered first. “Just this world?” he smiled.

Liz let out a giggle of relief, able to concentrate once more on the electric sensation of their hands touching. Neither Liz Parker nor Max Evans had lunch on Wednesday.

********

The rest of the week passed in a haze for both Max and Liz. Although still a little tentative, they began to plan little bits of time together. Lunch . . . a Crashdown conversation after school . . . a quick evening phone call. By Saturday, Liz was a bundle of nervous anticipation. Maria had worked wonders on her burgundy dress from Homecoming of sophomore year, removing the sleeves and replacing them with little spaghetti straps, cutting a daring slit up one side, and adding a beaded appliqué across the bodice. Liz went back and forth about what to do with her hair; she finally decided to go sophisticated, piling her hair high and applying her make-up with agonizing care. Even with all that, she was ready 20 minutes early. She paced in her room for a while, and then her imagination took flight.

Suddenly, she was dancing in his arms, breathing him in, reveling in the feel of his strong arms wrapped around her as they danced, looking into those miraculous eyes that made her want to fall in and never come out. In her fantasy, he bent his head to kiss her cheek, her neck, his hot breath tickling her ear.

“Liz! Max is here!” called her mother unceremoniously.

Jolted back to reality, Liz reached for the door. Stopping, she grinned sheepishly and reached for her perfume. Just a drop behind the ears, she thought.

********

Liz’s stomach was in knots. More than anything, she wanted Max Evans to be glad he had asked her to this dance. She wanted to be beautiful for him, elegant and graceful. Her dry mouth and sweaty palms did little to enhance her self-image, though, as she walked down the hall toward the living room. She rounded the corner into the room and saw Max sitting on the sofa, smiling nervously at her father. When Jeff Parker stopped mid-sentence to take in the vision that was his little girl, Max turned, too.

Liz’s heart swelled as Max rose slowly, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. The speechless gape was quickly replaced with a smile—the smile that Liz dreamed of night and day. It was only part of the package, though. He looked gorgeous—tanned, toned, and timid. She could have died happy right then.

“You look . . . incredible,” he stammered.

“So do you,” she whispered, beginning to feel like Cinderella. How had she managed to find herself on the receiving end of that smile? Why was this charming prince standing in her living room?

She watched, mesmerized, as he approached her. She couldn’t take her eyes off his, that is, until she felt him take her hand, and the shiver that went through her was delicious. Looking down, she saw him slip a wrist corsage of three white sweetheart roses over her hand.

“You look beautiful, Liz,” he murmured. “I don’t know if that’s a new dress or not, but you’ve definitely made a impression.”

Her head whipped up to see him grinning at her, a teasing twinkle in his eye. As happened so often lately, her fantasy life took over, and she pictured that grin dissolving into a slightly open, expectant mouth. It would descend slowly to hers and she would feel his breath kissing her before those lips did the same, and it would be soft and tender and . . .

“Liz?” Her mother was handing her the small florist’s box that contained Max’s boutonniere of one deep red rose. She pulled herself back to reality with a private grimace and lifted the boutonniere and it’s long pin from the box. Slipping the stem through his buttonhole, she struggled to pierce the tough florist’s tape with the pin. Just as Max reached to help her, she yelped as the pin slipped, pricking her finger and drawing a drop of blood.

Disgusted at how she’d ruined the moment, she instinctively pulled her hand back to suck on her finger when Max stopped her. Holding her gaze, he slowly lifted her finger to his mouth and kissed it, a soft, gentle, lingering touch that set her finger, then her hand, and then her whole body tingling. He smiled as he released it, and after a breathless moment of losing herself in those eyes again, she looked at her finger. No one would have guessed that she’d cut herself. Amazing.

Max finished securing the boutonniere, and offered his arm, just like he had when he took her home a week ago. “I have a classier chariot tonight,” he said, a mock-serious tone in his voice. “Dad loaned me the Miata.”

“I guess that will have to do, then” she countered, taking him by surprise. She saw him lift one eyebrow, amused by her playful sarcasm. They walked out into a perfect night.

********
To the neutral eye, the school gym looked exactly like a school gym, only decorated with shiny red and silver hearts; red, pink, and white streamers; a mirror ball; and 8-foot tall speakers blaring loud music. But to Liz, it was heaven. Just walking in with Max was a heady experience. Eyes followed them wherever they went, followed by heads bent together in gossip. She could have predicted their reaction: someone had finally gotten Max Evans to a school dance! What she would have been surprised to hear was the follow-up: he was with Liz Parker—that cute brainiac girl who Kyle Valenti dated until he found out she didn’t put out. How did she wind up with Max Evans?

Max was conscious of the stir as well. He knew his presence was probably a surprise to people, but he couldn’t imagine why anybody cared. He felt proud to be making his way through the crowd with Liz. He had always thought she was beautiful . . . wonderful, in fact. But suddenly he felt incredibly inadequate. He should have told Liz that he wasn’t a very good dancer—not much practice. Isabel had tried to teach him, but she was always so impatient and critical that he’d avoided pursuing that idea. He prayed he wouldn’t embarrass himself—or Liz.

Isabel and her date had saved Max and Liz a seat. At the same table were Liz’s friend Maria and Alex Whitman. They often went to dances together because Alex would have been too embarrassed to ask anyone else, and Maria seemed just a little “out there” for most of Roswell High’s mainstream guys. Liz adored her, but she had to admit, you had to chip through several layers of attitude to find the Maria that was Liz’s best friend. Liz, Alex, and Maria had bonded early in life, and, inexplicably, their differences had not broken that bond in all these years.

It was clear that Isabel was not happy that she had to sit with two geeks, but Maria had promised to sit with Liz, and Isabel had promised to sit with Max, so they were stuck with each other.

“You’re here!” Isabel fairly shouted when the newest arrivals finally found them. “Good. Everything okay? Great! Bye.” She grabbed her date’s hand and rose to find her “real” friends.

“Come on, Whitman. Time to show me those sexy moves of yours,” Maria announced, tugging at Alex.

“She wants me,” Alex winked at Max. “They all do.” Max and Liz laughed at her friends as they entered the fray on the dance floor.

“Can I get you something to drink?” Max asked.

Liz nodded, feeling the heat of young dancing bodies raising the room temperature already. Max moved away, quickly disappearing into the crowd. Liz just leaned back in her chair, taking it all in, still afraid she might wake up and find it had only been another fantasy. Max was a dream, that’s for sure. But she hoped he was a dream that would last a while.

“Lizzie!” Kyle stood swaying in front of her, grinning drunkenly. “How’s my girl?”

“I’m not your girl, Kyle,” Liz sighed and shook her head. “Go find your date.”

He groaned, as he tried confusedly to see just one Liz Parker. “My date? She had other plans,” he gestured vaguely across the room. “See ‘er over there, plastered to Steve Layman? Caught ‘em out in the parking lot swapping spit. Dance with me, Lizzie.” He reached out his hand.

“Go away, Kyle. You’re drunk. I have a date,” she tried to make it clear but he was wasted. As he reached for her arm, he tripped over the chair and landed in her lap, a drunken deadweight, his face delightedly coming to rest between her soft breasts.

“Get off me, Kyle,” Liz snorted, her patience running out. “Max won’t like . . .”

Suddenly, Kyle’s weight was lifted off of her and she watched in awe as he sailed several feet through the air, landing hard against the raised stage wall. Liz had hardly registered what happened when Maria and Alex hurried to her side.

“Are you okay, chica? What in the world got into Kyle?”

“Did you see Max toss him like he was nothin’?” Alex gaped, clearly impressed.

“I’m fine, you guys. Kyle’s just drunk. His date dumped him.” She looked between her two concerned friends to see Max standing over Kyle, jaw clenched. His lips were moving, but she had no chance of hearing what he was saying over the music. A crowd was starting to gather.

Liz rose, straightened her dress, and walked with as much dignity as possible toward Max and Kyle.

“. . . and if you ever so much as touch her again . . .”

“Max.” She laid her hand softly on his arm. He whipped around, eyes blazing, face flushed. Seeing her changed his demeanor completely, though.

“Liz, are you okay?” He pulled her into his arms for a thrilling moment, then drew back only far enough to see her eyes.

She smiled reassuringly. “Yes, Max. I’m not completely helpless. I think I can handle a drunk Kyle. I’ve done it before.”

Max frowned, as if he didn’t like to think she’d even had to deal with this before.

“That was a hella throw, Max,” Alex gaped. “You lift weights or somethin’?” He bent to help Maria pull Kyle to his feet.

“Uh, yeah, I work out sometimes.”

“Remind me not to piss you off, man,” Alex joked as they each supported Kyle on one side.

“Okay, stud,” Maria drawled patronizingly to Kyle. “I know a great trashcan outside where you can throw up.”

“Aww, thanks, Maria,” Kyle mumbled appreciatively.

Max turned back to Liz, searching her face again, not completely convinced she was all right. Liz’s heart almost stopped at what she saw there. If she hadn’t known better, she would have sworn it was love—shining, almost radiating from his face. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him. Her fantasies were out of control. She was reading too much into this. She had to keep control or they’d give her away for sure.

“Liz . . .”

“I guess you’re my hero, now, Max. Saving a damsel in distress and all?”

“He was hurting you . . . his face was practically . . .”

She could see how upset he was, and she struggled against her natural reaction. Those lips were so close . . . Down, girl, she thought. Don’t scare him.

“Dance with me, Max.”

It took a few seconds before Max drew some of his emotion back into himself, struggling to readjust his mindset. He had brought Liz to a dance—to her, it was their first date, even though he felt she’d been a part of him forever. Down, boy, he thought. Don’t scare her.

And then—oh yeah, a dance.

“Liz,” he began, embarrassed about throwing Kyle, embarrassed about what he’d revealed to Liz in that look, embarrassed about his dancing. “Liz, I should have warned you. I’m not a very good dancer. Maybe we should just sit and enjoy the music . . .”

“Not a chance, Max. I want to feel your arms around me.”

Max registered what she’d said ever so slowly. She wasn’t afraid of him or turned off or even embarrassed! She wanted him to hold her! That was the easiest request anyone had ever made of him.

Liz closed her eyes involuntarily when Max slowly slid his arms around her. She seemed to disappear into his broad chest, her head nestling perfectly into the crook of his neck. She didn’t even think twice when her body pressed itself against the length of him, eager to maximize the contact. She heard the hitch in his breath when their hips slid across each other as they adjusted their “fit,” and she smiled to herself. It wasn’t all her imagination. He was reacting to her just as she was to him.

In a spontaneous bit of womanly mischief, she adjusted her hips again, wriggling against him for several seconds. She almost laughed with joy when she felt the reaction she’d been seeking.

“God, Liz,” he hissed. She leaned back to grin her impish grin, but it faded on her lips when she saw the look in his eyes—desire, need, and . . . yes, there it was again . . . love. Then the fantasy kicked in. His head lowered slowly. She could feel his breath on her face, her lips. The air fairly sparked between them as inches became centimeters. And then his lips were on hers, and her mouth opened to him instantly. Their tongues slid together, searching for more . . . for deeper . . . for a promise of more kisses to come.

Liz could hardly let herself believe this was really happening, but this was much more real and beautiful and Max than any of her fantasies had ever been. And suddenly, without being able to explain it, Liz could feel what Max felt for her. And to her astonishment, she knew right then and there that it was love. It didn’t make sense, but there it was. First date or not, she felt to her very soul that he loved her. And equally strange, she knew she loved him. It was magic beyond any fantasy.

When at last they pulled back to look into each other’s eyes, everything had changed. Gone was tentative or embarrassed or afraid. Only they were left, together. It was the best feeling in the world.

“This dancing thing isn’t so bad,” Max breathed.

“Almost like a fantasy,” Liz sighed. They melded into each other once more and let the music wrap itself around them.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Liz,” Max whispered in her ear.

Liz smiled dreamily. There would never be a better one.

posted on 17-Jul-2002 12:25:54 AM
DREAMER HOLIDAYS: VALENTINE'S DAY 2002

PART 1


Dreamer Holidays: Valentine’s Day 2002

When he kissed her like this, all of the doubts and all of the questions evaporated. It started with his eyes, as they darkened, concentrating fully on hers . . . until they dropped inevitably to her lips and she didn’t care if she ever breathed again. It’s like he could stop time, and in those eyes that seemed to see into her soul, she found all she could ever desire, the perfect moment. She never wanted to be anywhere else or feel anything but this for the rest of her life. Then the lips would brush lightly against hers, making her tingle to the far reaches of her body, and when the pressure increased, all she could think of was how she could get closer, closer, always closer.

Then a torrent of emotion would wash over her, waves of intense love and longing, a thrilling clue to his feelings for her—or was it her feelings for him.? And this is where she always got stuck. The place where the doubts erupted deep inside. She and Max had been together for almost a year. The memory of their first date, the school Valentine’s dance, would be forever etched in her memory. It was there that they shared their first kiss—the most beautiful moment in Liz Parker’s young life. From that day on, they had been bound together, a couple in every sense. For a while, it had been the talk of the school: the elusive Max Evans, the most desirable but seemingly unattainable male in the school, had suddenly fallen for unobtrusive Liz Parker. Little could they know that it had been anything but sudden; Max had been in love with Liz since he’d first seen her in the third grade, but guarding his alien secret had been his painful burden, and he knew he could never let her in. It would put her in danger, and he wasn’t willing to risk that.

Succumbing to that first date, though, had been his undoing, for once he’d held her in his arms, kissed those lips, and seen those dark chocolate eyes radiating happiness—happiness because of him—he’d known he was lost. He’d boxed himself into an impossible situation now. He had let her fully into his heart, but not into his life.

This unspoken void between them was pushing at Liz, feeding her doubts and tearing at her heart. Pondering where this feeling was coming from, she gradually become aware of a pattern between her and Max. Their contented hours together were often spent in conversation—long talks about how they felt about things, what they wanted from the future. But whenever Liz turned the topic of conversation to Max, his past or his future, he carefully and skillfully circled around the question and brought it back to Liz. It took her a while to realize that he knew so many minute details of her life, but she really only knew an outline of his. She knew that he was adopted, as was Isabel, but the rest was shrouded in mystery, and he gingerly avoided opening himself up. The same was true of their physical relationship. As intense as their loving was, it was incredibly chaste for two healthy 18 year olds. Max had shown his love in so many other ways—he was attentive and caring, a sympathetic listener, and an ardent kisser. But that was always where it stopped; he somehow managed to ease out of situations that bordered on passionate or intimate. At first, Liz felt special because Max cared for her beyond her body. As time went on, though, she began to doubt herself.

She had decided before Christmas that she was ready to give herself to Max when he was ready to ask. She had always been a “good girl,” and she appreciated Max’s respect for her, but she wanted more. Maybe it wasn’t about respect; maybe she just didn’t have what it took to unleash his physical desire. She knew she was small—in every sense—and she was sure that many guys would find her wanting. It made her insecure, even though all other signs pointed to Max’s devotion. When she looked into his eyes, she swore she saw the desire there, but then . . . nothing. So tonight, she was going to push a little. Maybe he just needed to know she was okay with it.

The flip side was playing a few blocks away. Max was wondering how much longer he could hold out against Liz’s onslaught of hints that she was ready for more intimacy. How could she know that this had been at the center of his fantasies since he was young? He’d felt the stirrings well before he understood what they meant. Her body and her soul had called to him, but he had been too young and too afraid to answer. Now she was in his heart and in his arms, but his secret still stood like a sentry between them. He feared that his self-control might turn Liz away, but his lack of control could endanger her life. Besides, Isabel and Michael would never stand for it. It was a lose-lose situation, and he didn’t have a clue how to resolve it. Now Liz had invited him to her house, and he knew her parents weren’t home. How the hell was he going to survive this?
********

Liz had gone all out. Knowing her parents had plans with friends, she had invited Max over for a movie night. She had strewn her room with candles, refreshed the potpourri, and changed her sheets. Clearly, her previous little hints had been too subtle. Tonight, she would offer him more. So, hours later, the movie over and the pop cans empty, she turned in his arms and kissed him lightly on the neck. He responded immediately, pulling her up to meet his mouth.

This kiss was like the others—intense and passionate. Liz moaned slightly and felt Max pull her tightly to him, his own breath hot and rapid. His hand was rubbing circles at her waist. At first, Liz was transported to the perfect place he always took her, where her whole body warmed in the blanket of his love, but as she craved more closeness, more intimacy, and Max made no move to take them further, she called on her shaky resolve and reached for his hand. With the gentlest of pressure, Liz pushed their linked hands upwards, urging him to slide up and over her aching breast. When his hand cupped her eagerly, she thought she would burst from the sensations that roiled through her body, and she heard a primal sound erupt from Max as his hips pressed harder against hers.

Liz’s joy was short-lived. Suddenly the lips and warmth and pressure disappeared. Max threw himself back against the pillows, an anguished “Liz! We can’t!” rushing past clenched teeth. He was breathing hard and the hands that had been so gently caressing her a moment before were clenched in white-knuckled fists. His eyes were squeezed shut and his chest was heaving. Liz stared in hurt bewilderment, embarrassed that her tentative offer had been so harshly refused. She lay there, frozen, watching his face, unable to think. He didn’t want her!

His eyes snapped open, and for one honest moment, it was all laid bare—her hurt and confusion, his . . . what was it? Fear?

“Liz . . .”

Her eyes clouded over, struggling to hide from his scrutiny. She twisted so that she was sitting on the edge of the bed, hiding her face, ashamed that she had invited him to love her more intimately, humiliated that he had refused. In one swift move, he was on his knees in front of her, holding her hands, dying a little at her liquid eyes.

“Liz, please! This has nothing to do with you. Of course I want you, I love you, but . . .”

She waited, but he didn’t say anything else. Just looked at her, pleading for understanding. But how could she? How could she understand what he wouldn’t say? Tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Maybe you should go,” she said dully.

“Liz, no! I wish . . .” His face was twisted, as if he were engaged in a raging battle, emotion against emotion.

“What do you wish, Max?” Liz exploded. “You say you want me but you cringe at the idea of touching me. What am I supposed to make of that?”

Max raised his hand to wipe away a tear from her cheek, but she pushed him away. “I love you, Max, but I don’t know what you want. All I know is, it’s not me. Please go.”

Max stood slowly, his face a mask of desperation. His worst nightmare was being played out, but he couldn’t turn from her. He stood rooted to one spot, hating himself more thoroughly, more viciously than he had ever hated himself before. What he was had finally come between them. He knew it would happen. He’d been a fool to think otherwise. How could he expect her to settle for what he could give? It wasn’t fair. But he’d loved her so deeply for so long, he hadn’t been able to help himself when fate had put her in his car that night. And now look what he’d done—all that shame and pain and hurt on Liz’s face, the tears streaming down . . . all because of him.

She thought he didn’t want her! How could she know about the nights he lay awake, desperate to touch her, hungering to taste her, frantic not to lose her. Nights when his body raced out of his control, knowing instinctively what it needed. Nights when her subtle invitations to explore her body had driven him wild, while the effort to resist her had caused him both physical and emotional pain. And with all that, she stood here, embarrassed and hurt, thinking he didn’t want her. And now she wanted him to leave.

“I’ll go, Liz, because you asked me to. But don’t ever ever believe that I don’t want you. I love you. I have always loved you. That’s never going to change.”

With that, he walked quietly from her room, down the stairs, and out the back of the Crashdown. He slid into the Jeep, but was afraid to drive. He was shaking, and the world was swimming before his eyes. The pain tore at him like a wild animal trying to claw its way free from the inside. He gripped the steering wheel and bent his head, letting the tears fall because they would not be denied. Above him, Liz rested her head against the windowpane and cried with him.

********

After a sleepless night, a hollow-eyed Liz dragged herself through a shift at the Crashdown. Operating on autopilot, she fought off the sense of emptiness that engulfed her, barely noticing her customers’ irritated glances when she mixed up their order or forgot to refill the coffee.

“Welcome to the Crashdown. What can I get you today?” Liz mumbled, not even looking at the customer in booth 6.”

“What the hell did you do to my brother?”

Liz looked up sharply, right into the eyes of a furious Isabel. “What?”

Isabel took in Liz’s appearance and softened. “Maybe I should be asking who did what to whom? You look as bad as he does. What happened last night?”

Liz stiffened. She wasn’t about to air the details of their problem to anyone, least of all Max’s holier-than-thou sister.

“Maybe you should talk to Max about that,” Liz replied tersely.

“I did, once I finally banged on his door long enough to make him open it. He looks like you do—as if he hasn’t slept and feels miserable. Did you have a fight? No, don’t tell me. Just . . . whatever it is, you two have to make up. I can’t stand Max going back to that quiet introverted stick-in-the-mud he was before you two started dating.”

“What did he say?” Liz asked, unable to suppress her curiosity. How did he see what happened?

“All he said was that he wasn’t good enough for you, and you were better off without him. I swear, Liz, if that’s what you told him, I’ll . . . How could you tell him that? All he’s ever done is love you.” Her voice faltered on those last few words, and her lip trembled. It was the most sincere thing Liz thought she’d ever heard Isabel say.

“I know he loves me, Isabel. And I love him. I just don’t think . . . I just don’t think I’m enough for him. It was his call, Isabel, not mine.” She paused, more confused than ever. “I can’t talk about this now. Did you want to order something?”

“I do!” smiled Michael enthusiastically, sliding into the booth across from Isabel. “The works! I’m starved. Ham and eggs, couple o’ pancakes, and a big glass of milk!”

Isabel and Liz just stared at him, and his eyes shifted from one to the other as his smile turned into a frown. “What’s goin’ on? Did I miss somethin’?”

Liz shifted restlessly. “No, Michael. I’ll get your order in. It’ll just be a few minutes.”

As Liz tended to her other customers, she saw Isabel and Michael talking seriously, voices low, heads leaning in towards one another. There were frequent glances in her direction, and she squirmed under their obvious surveillance. When she appeared with Michael’s order, they stopped talking abruptly, but not before she heard Isabel say, “Maybe we should let him tell her.”

They both looked at her nervously, and said nothing more until she’d left the table. Tell her what? Liz wondered. Was Max keeping a secret? Had her suspicions about his reluctance to share personal details with her been more than modesty or shyness? Liz was sure he wasn’t gay; in spite of their conservative physical relationship, she’d had plenty of indications that he was definitely responding to her. Did he have a physical abnormality that made him embarrassed or unable to carry their relationship further? Didn’t he know he could talk to her about something like that? Maybe he’d been in trouble before—drugs? Crime?

She watched Isabel and Michael leave together, both hopping in the Jeep parked out front. They took off in the direction of the Evans home, and Liz wondered if they were going to see Max. Her sense of hurt was morphing into worry. What was going on?

********

A half-hour later, Liz’s shift ended, and she walked slowly up the stairs to her room. Climbing out her window and onto the rooftop, she settled into her lounge chair and closed her eyes against the sun. Her mind was spinning with possibilities. What was it he’d said? This has nothing to do with you. Of course I want you, I love you. Then Isabel had said Maybe we should let him tell her. What on earth was “it,” and how was it possible that it could keep them apart? She remembered Max’s face, twisted in conflict. He’d wanted to tell her something then. She was sure of it now.

Liz let her anger flare. She had grown to trust Max completely over the last year. There was nothing she would keep from him, unless it was a surprise of some kind. But he was willing to sacrifice their relationship to a secret he was keeping from her. Isabel knew. Michael knew. Who else knew what he couldn’t tell her? She pushed aside the worry behind that question and let her anger work for her. It was more comfortable, more controllable.

Jumping up from her chair, mouth set resolutely, Liz raced down the stairs. “I’m going to Max’s!” she yelled at her father as she hurried out the door. He just waved at the familiar goodbye and continued stocking the supply shelves. Had he seen her face, he might have thought twice.

Liz strode purposefully down the sidewalk, rehearsing her speech to Max. “If this is about not wanting me, fine. Just say so. But if you’ve been hiding some secret from me that’s more important than our relationship, then maybe I’m the one who wants out. Where do you get off . . .?” Liz faltered. She’d never spoken to Max like that. She’d never needed or wanted to. Everything about this was so out of character for their relationship. Maybe she should comfort him, coax him to confide in her. Be sympathetic. “Max, I know something’s bothering you, something you think you can’t tell me, but that’s not true. There shouldn’t be any secrets between us. Whatever it is, we can work it out.”

Lost in thought, Liz had lost track of her progress along the well-worn path to Max's home. Looking up, she was surprised to find herself right out front, as if her internal odometer had recognized where to stop. Walking toward the front door, though, she stopped. What if Isabel refused to let her see him? She had been so angry earlier. Maybe Max wouldn't see her. She knew she'd hurt him. What if Michael was standing guard? Standing guard? Where had that come from? She had often noticed how Max seemed to be the quietly acknowledged leader of the small group, and how Michael always seemed at his right hand, ready to protect, defend, implement. She’d always dismissed the thought, though. After all, what was there to protect and defend? Then an old Star Trek episode popped into her mind–the one where Kirk and Spock had found themselves on Earth in the 1940s. Forced to act like two homeless civilians, they were confronted one day by their compassionate hostess. She had commented on the relationship between the two men, something like “He’s always one step behind you, always awaiting your instructions. After every ‘yes,’ there’s a ‘sir’ that’s said without ever being spoken.” In a way, Liz realized, that’s how it seemed with Max and Michael, although the thought of Michael ever saying “Yes, sir” to Max was laughable.

Shaking herself, Liz chose to walk around the back of the house toward Max’s window. If he was as bad off as Isabel said, he’d be brooding in there, and she’d be able to get unimpeded access. As she neared the window, though, she heard voices. It looked like Michael and Isabel had, indeed, bee-lined straight for Max. Liz stopped short, unsure whether to make her presence known.

“Maxwell, you know you can’t say anything. It’s too dangerous.”

“Michael, I know that’s what we’ve always said, but look at him. He can’t function like this! She loves him, I’m sure of it. It’ll be okay.”

“He’ll get over it, over her, Isabel. But we might not survive this, did you ever think of that? We let one person in and the whole house of cards could collapse.”

“Do you honestly think we can live our whole lives and never let anyone know? Does that mean none of us will ever marry? Ever have families? Ever lead a normal life?”

“Damn it, Isabel! Can’t you ever get it through that head of yours that we will never ever be normal? We’re aliens, for god’s sake! Extraterrestrials! How can you even pretend to think that our lives will ever be normal? You want a husband and babies and the house with the picket fence? Better get that dream machine goin’, Iz, because that’s the only place it’s gonna happen!”

Liz had gone pale, grasping the trunk of a small tree outside Max’s window. Aliens? This was a joke. They were trying to joke Max out of his bad mood. But no one was laughing. Those voices were desperate, afraid. And why wasn’t Max saying anything?

“Stop it, Michael!” Isabel was crying now. “All you want is to find others like us and get home. But that’s not necessarily what I want. I want to make a life here. This is my home now. And it’s yours whether you like it or not.”

Sniffling.

“Max, say something. What do you want to do?”

Silence.

“Maxwell, you should never have started dating her. I told you that a year ago and I was right. What happened last night, anyway?”

More silence. Then Liz could hear slight rustling. She pressed herself against the side of the house. She saw Max’s fingers on the windowsill and held her breath.

“I’m not sorry about dating Liz, Michael, so you can shut up about that part. I’ve loved her for as long as I’ve known her.”

Liz’s heart was pounding—shock at what she was hearing, fear of being discovered, elation at the words that confirmed his love for her.

“But I knew this was coming. How could it not? When two people love each other, you inevitably get to the point . . . She wanted . . . I almost . . .”

“Sex?!” Michael had shot the word out like a bullet from a gun. “You were thinking of having sex with her? Are you crazy?”

“No, Michael!” Fingers left the windowsill and the voice dropped. Liz strained to hear, inching closer to the window. “First of all, it would have been ‘making love,’ Michael. I’m in love with her.” Max’s voice was low, agitated, intense; she could tell he had started to pace. “Second, no, I was not thinking of it. Oh, hell, of course I was thinking of it, but I wasn't going to do it! I don’t know what might happen to her. I don’t know if it’s safe, and I’m not going to endanger her.”

There was a long pause, and Liz knew Max was hating having this discussion. This should have been a private matter.

“But she wanted to, didn’t she?” Isabel asked softly.

Max must have nodded.

“Shit, Maxwell. I didn’t think Liz was the hot to trot type.”

There was ugly sound, the sound of fist meeting jaw–then a loud grunt, a crash, glass breaking, more grunts.

“Max, what have you done? Michael, are you alright?”

“Don’t you ever speak about Liz that way, Michael. Next time, it won’t be just a punch.” Max was almost hissing his words.

“What? You gonna zap me with your death ray? You’re lucky I don’t send you flying out that window. I’m not your punching bag, man.”

More rustling. Someone sighed and Liz could almost hear the tension in the air.

"Ow, Isabel! Don't press on it."

"Michael, it's swelling and your chin is bleeding. Max, fix this. You caused it, now fix it."

Liz leaned forward a few more inches. Max's dresser mirror came into view and she caught the reflection of the three teens on the opposite side. She watched, spellbound, as Max, reluctantly at first, held his hand to Michael's injured face. Seconds later, he removed his hand, revealing the unblemished skin beneath. Michael rubbed his jaw. Liz pulled back again, suppressing a gasp, afraid of being seen in that same mirror.

“Thanks. Look, Max, I’m sorry. I wasn’t dissin’ her. I know you love her. But this can’t work and you know it. No one knows what might happen during sex between a human and an alien.”

“Max, has anything weird happened so far?” Isabel asked, probably curious for her own reasons as well as his.

“No, not really. I have to keep her blocked some. I’m afraid for her to see anything too specific in my mind, so I try to control the images. That’s not easy. But everything else seems to be . . . ya know . . . normal . . . for a human.”

Michael was chuckling now. “So the equipment’s workin’?”

Max sighed heavily. “Maybe too well. Keeping from . . . I mean . . . when we have to . . . damn it! Holding on to my control is just about killing me!”

“Okay, I think I’ve heard enough!” Isabel was clearly not ready to hear details of her brother’s love life. “Can we get back to the main point here? Max, do you want to tell Liz?”

“Of course I want to tell her! At least that way, if she washes her hands of me, it’ll be for an honest reason. But the three of us made a pact a long time ago not to tell anyone. I mean, I realize we’re all affected by this, not just me. Besides, I’m afraid. If she can’t handle it, not only are we through, but who knows who else will find out? On the other hand, if she sticks it out, then what does that mean for us? She can’t commit to someone who can’t . . . love her . . . the way she deserves to be loved.” There was a long pause. "I can't lose her." The words were almost choked out; he was crying–or trying very hard not to.

"Hi, Liz! What are you doing back here?" Philip Evans smiled at Liz as he strolled around the corner with his bucket of gardening tools. Immediately, three faces gaped at her from the window. "I guess we didn't hear you knock. Just go around front and walk right in. Door's open," he invited casually.

"I . . . I have to . . . my dad needs me . . ." She looked at Max's stricken face and her heart lurched. She needed time . . . time to figure this out . . . nothing made sense. Isabel looked white as a sheet, but Michael's face was turning an angry red. Liz turned on her heel and bolted for the street.

"Liz! LIZ!" Max's cries were drowned out by the rush of blood in her ears. This was a dream, it had to be! More like a nightmare, actually. One of those dreams where you can't scream and you run and run but get nowhere. But she was getting somewhere, she was down the block and careening around a corner when two large hands grabbed her from behind.

Liz struggled against the arms that had clamped around her. She was losing control. She didn't know who people were, what was real, whether she was even here.

Spinning her around in his arms, Max looked into Liz's terrified eyes. His stomach turned inside out and his heart squeezed painfully in his chest; this was the look–the look in his nightmares. She saw a freak.

"Liz, please. It's okay. It's okay," he soothed, willing her to stop her struggle, to take that look of disbelief and horror off her face.

"Liz, I never meant . . . what did you hear?"

Liz was shaking uncontrollably, even more than that time she'd been in the car accident and couldn't even sign the form the police officer had handed her on a clipboard. Yet looking at Max, feeling his hands on her . . . well, it didn't feel alien or scary or even strange. It felt right, just like it always had. She concentrated on pulling air into her lungs and let it out slowly. Then she risked another look at Max. If nothing else, she couldn't deny the love there. That, at least, was real.

"I . . . was upset . . . about last night. I came to talk . . . but . . ." That's all she could say.

Max turned her back toward his house and then thought better of it. He had no wish to include Isabel or Michael in this conversation, not to mention his father, who must have taken the afternoon off to take advantage of the good gardening weather.

"Can we talk in the park, Liz? I'll answer all your questions, I promise."

She stood awkwardly, not knowing how to answer his simple question. She searched her mind–confused and afraid. She searched her heart, and felt what she'd always felt. She couldn't be afraid of him. This was Max. He had never been anything except gentle, sweet, funny, and loving with her since their first kiss. She'd spent a year trusting him, loving him. How could she not listen? She nodded.

He reached for her hand and breathed a sigh of relief when she didn't pull away. Then he offered her a shaky smile, and they began to walk in silence toward the park. He guided her to sit on a bench under the big tree near the center. He didn't want to be near the sidewalk or the playground or anywhere else where they could be overheard.

"Liz, how long were standing outside my window?" He'd already decided to tell her everything, but he wanted to know how much damage there was to undo. He could feel her trembling through the fingers he held loosely in his hand, but he resisted the urge to pull her tightly against him. He couldn't protect her from the truth, and to be honest, he didn't want to anymore. If they were going to be together, she needed to know. Everything.

Liz looked away, replaying the bizarre conversation in her mind. "You, Michael, and Isabel seem to think you're . . . aliens. And you're afraid to make love to me because you don't know what will happen." A nervous laugh erupted from deep within her. Out loud, it was even more ridiculous than when it was running around in her head. She glanced at Max, half expecting him to be looking at her incredulously, even mockingly.

He wasn’t.

Instead, there was resignation and more than a little fear. He was watching her closely.

"I can only imagine how preposterous this sounds," he began. "But it's true." He watched her face absorb the secondary shock. She was coming to terms with the fact that she hadn't just heard wrong, she wasn’t crazy, and she wasn't dreaming.

"How . . . ?" She didn't even know where to begin. "Max, I don't understand this at all. We've been together for a year. I thought we were close; I thought we told each other everything. Now you come up with this? I'd never believe it, never, except . . . " She bit her lip, embarrassed to lay herself so open, but there was no choice. "Except when I look at you or you hold me or kiss me . . . I can feel how you love me, Max. That's why I've been confused about you always pushing me away when we . . . get . . . you know, involved. I even thought there might be something wrong physically . . . that you didn't want me to know. Now you tell me this . . . impossible story.” The tears started to fall. “I knew it must be something really big keeping you from me . . ." A quick chuckle escaped amidst the tears. "This . . . this is really big, I'll give you that."

She looked up at him when he didn't respond. He was still watching her carefully, not sure which way this was going yet.

"Tell me, Max. Tell me everything. Please."

Max took a deep breath and enfolded both of her tiny hands in his much larger ones. "Okay, Liz, I'll tell you, but keep one thing at the front of your mind while I'm talking. Of everything you'll hear, the most important part–the one sure thing–is that I do love you. I have to live with the rest, but you are the part I choose, the part that counts."

Liz could feel herself tearing up again. His face was so open, so full of sincerity, fear, and love. She nodded her encouragement, and he began.

"I know everyone thinks the ’47 Crash was nothing more than a weather balloon, but the fact is, it really was an alien ship. We don't have many details, but we know that someone or something moved these . . . pods, where Isabel and Michael and I were growing, to a safe place. It was 40 years before we came out of those pods and ventured outside looking like 6-year-olds. We had no speech, but we understood each other. Michael was afraid, though, and kept himself apart from Isabel and me, so when we were found, he wasn't with us. We got adopted and he was pushed into the foster system. I've always felt guilty that we got the loving family and he got nothing."

Liz sat immobile, stunned at what she was hearing. Max was sitting there talking about this science fiction plot in such detail, so matter-of-factly that it was all making some kind of sense. She could almost believe this was true. She saw his sadness as he thought about Michael's life, and she was reminded for the millionth time what a good heart Max had. She stroked his arm lightly.

"Go on."

Max felt somewhat bolstered by her gentle encouragement, so he pushed on.

"We learned quickly, and soon we were able to go to school and interact with our parents pretty normally, but we also knew we could do things no one else could, and somehow, we just knew it was dangerous to let anyone else know. We made a pact, even at that young age, that we would keep our secret just among the three of us. We’ve always been convinced our lives depended on it."

"Your parents agreed? What about your doctors and all?"

Max smiled. "You don't understand, Liz. No one else knows. No one. You're the first."

Liz let it sink in. "Your own parents don't know?"

Max shook his head.

"And there's nothing different about your body? Nothing the doctors have noticed?"

"Have you ever known me to be sick, Liz?"

Liz thought hard. "No, I guess not."

"We don't get sick. No doctors. No medical tests."

"But what about the routine stuff? Inoculations, broken bones, gashes?"

Max froze momentarily. Dare he show her some of his powers firsthand? Slowly, Max, he reminded himself.

“Liz, do you remember our first date?”


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 17-Jul-2002 12:27:38 AM ]
posted on 17-Jul-2002 12:29:12 AM
Liz smiled in spite of herself. It would always be one of her most cherished memories.

“Of course, I do. I was the best night of my life,” she smiled, and was rewarded with a brilliant smile in return. Then Max turned serious again.

“You stabbed your finger with the pin from my boutonniere, remember? It was bleeding.”

“Yes,” she said slowly, remembering how he had kissed her finger and the warm sensation that had gone with it. Her finger had been fine after that. More than fine—it had been perfect. Slowly the truth dawned.

“Max?” She searched his face, feeling almost silly to admit what she was thinking. “Did you . . . do something to my finger? Did you . . . heal it?”

He nodded. “It’s my gift. We all have certain special abilities in common, and others that are ours alone. My gift is healing.”

Liz let that sink in. “What are Isabel’s and Michael’s?”

“Well, Isabel can dreamwalk.”

At Liz’s confused frown, Max hurried to explain. “She can go into someone’s dream and see what they’re thinking or what’s bothering them. It’s not dangerous, and she doesn’t do it unless there’s a good reason,” he assured her. He knew full well that Isabel had done her share of snooping that way, but he didn’t want to scare Liz any more than he already had. “And Michael, well . . . Michael is learning to control his ability to . . . let’s just say he’s very powerful. He’s been known to blow up a thing or two when his adrenalin starts pumping, but he’s getting better,” Max chuckled. "A word to the wise: don't piss him off."

Liz's expression grew wary, and Max realized he was making jokes about something that was still very scary to Liz. And he was supposed to be reassuring her! He took her face in his hands and poured his heart into his words.

"Look, Liz, I'll answer all your questions as you think of them, but what's important is that you understand that I do love you. I've loved you since the day I first saw you, but I was always too afraid to get close to you, afraid that letting you know me too well would somehow hurt me. Later, I quit caring that it might hurt me, but by that time I was afraid it could hurt you, and I would die before I let that happen."

He ran his thumbs slowly over her cheekbones and willed her to understand. “I know this is a lot to take in, but please, Liz, I need you to see that . . . I’m still me.”

Liz fell into his familiar eyes, and saw the same boy she had grown to love. He made her feel as if everything he had told her was apart from them, as if it couldn't possibly affect what they had. The world that they had built for themselves over the last few months was stronger than this new and confusing one that was trying to intrude on them. Then something else she'd heard him say popped into her mind, and she pulled away from him. He dropped his hands dejectedly.

"What did you mean when you said, 'I have to keep her blocked '?"

Max lowered his eyes guiltily. "That first time we kissed, Liz, do you remember how incredible that was? Like we could see right inside each other."

Liz nodded dreamily, sighing as the wonderful memory flooded her senses.

"That kiss took me by surprise. Not just that it happened, but the way we reacted to it. I realized that those kisses could reveal more than I thought either of us was ready for just yet. Ever since then, I've had to be careful not to let myself go . . . in any sense. I couldn't let you see my past, and . . ." Max winced, and Liz knew what was coming. "And I couldn't give myself to you physically because . . . god, Liz, I wanted to! . . . but I wasn't sure what it might reveal . . . or how it might affect you."

To Liz's amazement, Max's eyes filled with tears. "When I realized how much I was hurting you . . . how you thought I didn't love you enough or . . ." His throat tightened and he couldn't speak. His eyes squeezed shut and a tear began a slow path down his cheek. Without thinking, Liz leaned in and kissed it tenderly. Then she kissed his nose, his other cheek, his jaw, and soon his arms were holding her so tightly, she couldn't breathe. His lips found hers and a kiss exploded between them in a flood of sensation, memories, fantasies, and emotion. It was overwhelming, and Liz reeled under the torrent, whimpering beneath the pressure of his lips.

He broke it off roughly, gasping for breath, barely handling the images hurtling through their shared awareness. He felt Liz's hands hanging on to his shirt while she pressed her forehead into his chest. She was trembling again, and he cursed himself for losing control for even that short moment. He was relieved and warmed by what he had felt from her–the love was still strong in spite of everything, but there was confusion and wariness, too.

"Liz?" he whispered gently.

“I’m okay, Max,” she mumbled against his chest. “Just give me a little time.”

They stayed like that for several minutes, holding each other, one searching her heart for perspective, seeking out what was real to her, what was important; the other desperately praying to a God he’d never been sure existed that the best part of his life wasn’t evaporating within his arms.

********

They sat there for hours. Or was it just a few minutes? Max wasn't sure. He was afraid to move or even swallow for fear Liz would come out of her reverie and leave him forever. As long as nothing changed, she was there, in his arms, where she belonged. What he hadn't counted on was his stomach rumbling with hunger. He'd had nothing to each in almost 24 hours. He hadn't even wanted anything to eat, but now his stomach betrayed him and he tensed as Liz moved . . . away.

Liz pulled back from Max and looked at him closely, almost like she was seeing him for the first time. He let her look, still afraid to do anything that would make her skittish, make her put even more distance between them.

“Who are you, Max?” she asked softly. She didn’t seem afraid at all, just unnervingly quiet and a bit curious.

“What?” He had no idea what she wanted to hear.

“I want to know how you see yourself. Who is Max Evans inside his own head?”

Max thought for a moment. Did she have any idea how hard a question that was? He asked himself that every day until sometimes he was so tired of thinking about it, he just locked the question out of his mind so he could breathe. But he’d never really come up with an answer.

That is, until Liz Parker.

“I’ve never been entirely sure, Liz. Sometimes I think we have more questions about ourselves than you could possible have. But I can tell you the one thing I’m sure of. I’m the guy who loves you more than anything or anyone else, so much that I think it would scare you if you knew. And I’m the guy who wasn’t sure what it felt like to be human . . . until you.”

Liz’s eyes teared up at his words; she ached to believe them. She looked deeply into his wide amber eyes, clouded by uncertainty and desperation but alive with love, searching for some truth that she could cling to. She did believe him. She’d known it in her heart before she’d even asked the question. But his feelings for her were just one of the puzzle pieces that ricocheted chaotically in her head. If Max Evans truly was an alien being, with powers that could awe the human race and a mysterious past that could take him away from here, why . . . why would he want her—a simple, plain, boring girl from Roswell, New Mexico?

"Kiss me, Max."

Max's heart leapt in his chest, but he wasn't sure what Liz was thinking. This was not a passion-filled demand, but rather a thoughtful request. Eyes lowered, he asked, "Are you sure?"

"Max, you've been 'blocking' me for a year. A few minutes ago, you didn't block me, but I could barely cope with all the images and feelings that flowed between us. Now I need something in between. I want to see the real you, I want to understand who you are. I need what's between us to be honest, but still on a level I can deal with. Can you unblock me but . . . I don't know . . . control it somehow?"

Max hesitated, knowing he could do what she asked, but afraid that it would be the last wedge, driving her away from him. He drew a deep breath. "Liz, I can tell you whatever you want to know. I don't want to scare you."

Liz raised her hands to his jaw line and gently pulled his face up, forcing him to look at her. Her eyes were filled with questions, but her gentleness, her willingness to know this Max was so honest, so vulnerable that he knew he would do whatever she asked of him. She was still the girl he loved to the depths of his being, and if he wanted her trust, it had to begin with his trusting her.

His heart was racing as he reached for her, soared as she willingly came to him and raised her sweet mouth to his. Only as their lips met and the rush of images began to tumble forth did he remember to pull back a bit, just enough to keep from overwhelming her.

Liz leaned into his familiar warmth gratefully. Even with the shock of the afternoon, it was where she wanted to be. She was at home in his arms, and nothing she had heard today seemed to touch that singular truth. Gradually, images from those first frightening hours after the young aliens had emerged from the pods played like a movie in fast forward through her mind–people with kind eyes whose language he couldn't understand. A house with toys and love and tear-filled nights. School. Liz. Playgrounds. Liz. Michael. Liz. The Crashdown. Liz. Liz! LIZ! And suddenly she was filled with the ache of loneliness, the fear of discovery, and the hopelessness of his love for her–until last year. After that, she seemed to fill his life and his heart. She had brought him joy and a sense of fulfillment that changed everything, even though the tinge of fear never left him.

The kiss ended, but only a breath separated them as they stared into each other's eyes. Questions answered and more questions asked sparked between them, but all Max could focus on was the full force of Liz's love once again shining in her eyes. The moment was magic as her quiet acceptance sank in and unspoken joy burst from his eyes and spilled onto his face, settling finally into an awkward smile.

"Now I truly know who you are, Max," she whispered so quietly, he could barely hear her. "And you know what?"

He shook his head imperceptibly.

"You are just the same person I always knew you to be," she beamed, more confident now. "A different history, perhaps, but . . . as you said before, you're still you."

Max could feel the weight rising off his shoulders. Suddenly he was lighter than air and twice as unfocused. She still loved him! She wasn't afraid or freaked or disgusted! She accepted him . . . as he truly was! Before he knew what he was doing, he had thrown his arms around her, lifted her off her feet, and was spinning them both around in the middle of the park until they were laughing with dizziness and relief. Finally, he was forced to set her down for fear of falling on her–not altogether a terrible thought, he mused happily.

She looked up at him, her bright eyes struggling to focus again, and a smile lighting up her face. Once they were stable, though, the mood shifted abruptly. Max released her body just long enough to recapture her head in his hands, combing his fingers through her silky hair and planting delicate kisses over her cheeks, eyelids, and, finally, her mouth. There was no tentativeness now, only the confident, joyous union of two souls lost in each other's love.

"So we're still on for the Valentine's dance tonight?" he gasped, his breath coming in short bursts now.

Liz thought silently for a moment, just long enough to put a frown back on Max's face. "Oh, we're on," she crooned, "but I'm not sure how long we'll stay at that dance. I think we have some important research to take care of."

Max looked at her in confusion for several seconds until he felt her hand pressing small, slow circles against his chest. Understanding dawned with a hitch in his throat, and he pulled her to him fiercely.

"Yes, we do," he mumbled against her ear, sending a thrill shooting through her whole body. Then Max pulled away slightly and looked directly into her eyes. "But I won't take any chances with you, Liz. I won't be responsible for hurting you, so we'll go slowly, okay?"

Liz, giddy with forbidden knowledge and the promise of discovering even more about Max, felt reckless and excited. "As slowly as I can manage, Max." She pushed up to her tiptoes, dragging her body against his, and nibbled at his earlobe. She smiled in satisfaction when she heard the little guttural noise that he couldn't suppress.

“Walk me home?” she mumbled against his neck.

Max barely heard her. The relief he was feeling had released him from a tension that he carried constantly without even being aware of it. Now his muscles were trembling, his blood rushing, and he felt unsteady. Almost drunk. Just imagining how things would change between them now left his head spinning, and he was losing the fight to listen to the voice of reason and control that hammered away at him night and day. If she only knew of his fantasies about her, she might not be teasing him so brazenly with her body. He could feel his own body reacting already.

“Liz!” He set her firmly away from him. Her sly smile faded to concern when she saw his face.

“Max, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She felt embarrassed and her face flamed a deep red.

“Liz, I’m not upset! Don’t think that! It’s just that . . .” It was Max’s turn to blush. “Liz, the idea that we can . . . you know, see what happens if we . . . get . . . closer . . .” Suddenly he was pulling her to him again. “Liz, I’ve wanted you for so long, longer than you can imagine. Now that there’s a real chance for us to explore the more . . . physical side of our love, I’m more afraid than ever of losing control. You don’t know what you do to me! All you have to do is be with me and I’m turned on. When you start teasing me like this . . . I can’t stand it! You have to help me, Liz. I can’t be the only one trying to be responsible here!”

Liz peered up at him, trying hard to look contrite but, in reality, looking somewhat triumphant. “Okay, Max. I’ll try to be good. For now.”

“I’ll pick you up for the dance at 7:30, okay?”

“I’ll be ready. And Max?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s not share a ride with anyone, okay? I want to be able to leave when we want.”

Max winced at the image he was already struggling to put out of his mind. “You’re doing this to me on purpose, aren’t you?”

Liz laughed lightly and leaned up to kiss him on the cheek.

“Whatever do you mean?” she teased.

Fingers entwined, they began the slow stroll back to the Crashdown.

********

The hours passed painfully slowly for Max that afternoon. When he wasn’t fending off Isabel’s nosy questions about what happened in the park, he was countering Michael’s accusations and worst-case scenario predictions. Then, when he finally closed himself off in his room, he agonized over what the time apart might do to change Liz’s feelings. What if she took a step back from their closeness and started to question her decision to stay with him? What if it looked a lot more scary in the cold, harsh reality outside his presence?

He stepped gratefully into his shower, anxious to escape his own thoughts and groom himself perfectly for his night with Liz. Just thinking about her and their newfound possibilities brought his body to painful readiness for her. The temptation to bring himself to another lonely release was overwhelming, but somehow now it was different—now it felt like cheating. He washed himself with as little contact as possible and clenched his teeth against the ache that dominated his thoughts. He forced his mind in new directions, desperately concentrating on trivia—studying for a Calculus quiz on Tuesday, helping his dad fix the car stereo tomorrow, listening to Isabel whining about not having the right color nail polish—yeah, that was better.

Dressing carefully, he took a look in the mirror. Not too casual, not too dressy, he thought, satisfied at last. His black pleated pants draped easily over his lean form, and the sheen of his crimson shirt glowed softly in the incandescent light. At his neck, a black t-shirt peeked out from behind the open collar, adorned with a plain silver chain.

He grabbed the gel from the dresser and then stopped. Liz loved to run her fingers through the fringe of bangs that hung carelessly over his forehead, and he wanted nothing to discourage her from touching him tonight. Just thinking about her tiny fingers caressing him caused his breathing to speed up, and he closed his eyes to picture her. She was beautiful, as always, and she was smiling up at him, reaching for his bangs in that affectionate gesture he had grown to love. Oh god, here we go again! He set the gel back down and took a deep breath. It was time.

Arriving at Liz’s door, Max smiled nervously at Jeff and Nancy Parker. He’d spent his fair share of time here over the last year, and they liked him, but his nervousness had more to do with Liz than with her parents. Forcing the usual small talk, Max waited for Liz to come out to the living room. Everything hinged on what he would see in her face in that first moment.

“Hi, Max.”

Max turned slowly and his mouth dropped open. He was used to his girlfriend looking beautiful; he always saw her that way. But this . . . she was a vision. This year she obviously wore one of her rare new dresses, and he was speechless. Hugging her small, shapely figure was an iridescent midnight blue dress that gave off pale pink and lavender highlights as she moved. It ran, unspoiled by ornamentation, from the floor to high on her neck, with armholes that slashed sharply in from under her arm to the high collar, leaving her creamy shoulders bare. Her hair was pulled back from her face and hung luxuriously down her back.

“Max?”

Max shook himself. “You look . . . stunning,” he breathed appreciatively.

She bowed her head slightly. “Thank you. You look great, too. Out of this world, actually.”

He raised his eyebrows at her and she returned his look with an impish grin. Max relaxed immediately. She hadn’t changed toward him. In fact, she was even teasing him! Suddenly, Max Evans’s world was perfect.

He retrieved the corsage box from the sofa and she opened it to find three white sweetheart roses against dark green leaves.

“I know it’s the same as last year,” he said as he slipped the corsage over her wrist, “but you said they were your favorite, and besides, you wouldn’t tell me what your dress looked like.”

Liz giggled. “I wanted it to be a surprise.” She raked her eyes up and down him, clearly pleased with what she saw. He was more casual than usual for a dance, but somehow it took away that fake formality teens often had when they begrudgingly donned a tie and jacket; instead, he oozed sexiness, and Liz felt her body tighten. Forcing back the tide of erotic feelings, she fought to lighten her own tone. “Now I see why you said you didn’t want a boutonniere.”

“Call me a rebel,” he laughed. “No sport coat this year. We only take them off as soon as we get there, anyway.”

“Then all I need is my purse.”

Liz turned toward the antique sideboard to retrieve her evening purse, and Max did a double-take. The back of the dress—what there was of it—simply laced all the say down to the small of her back. Laced! Suddenly, all he could think of was untying one little knot and watching the dress slip down and off her body. He stared openly, unaware of the amused look on Nancy’s face and the growing frown on Jeff’s.

“Max? Is something wrong?” Liz was elated at Max’s reaction. She enjoyed keeping him off-balance sometimes. She knew he’d been brooding all afternoon. She knew him so well. But she had every intention of erasing all of his worries tonight, and she was obviously off to a good start!

Minutes later, they were entering the dance. Last year, when they had arrived together, it had caused quite a stir. The mysterious and elusive Max Evans had never been to a school dance before, and to see him walk in with little Liz Parker, science geek and waitress, on his arm had thrown the rumor mill into high gear. The altercation with her ex-boyfriend Kyle had only fueled the fire. This year, though, they were an expected couple, and except for the admiring looks, they raised no eyebrows.

Isabel and her date waved them over to a table where Alex and Maria were also seated, only this year, they weren’t together. Alex had finally asked out the girl he’d been eyeing all year, Valerie van Doren, the exchange student from Belgium. She was tall and quiet, like Alex, but shared his wicked wit and love of alternative music. Maria had surprised everyone by coming with Kyle Valenti. They had become good friends last year after he broke up with Liz in a rather dramatic fashion, and they’d grown quite fond of each other. Maria had okayed it with Liz, in case she felt awkward, but Liz had been happy for them. She harbored no ill will toward Kyle, and she knew Maria would be good for him.

There was little time for conversation as they danced to every possible style of music and shouted quick comments over the blare from the speakers. Max and Liz didn’t miss a single opportunity to hold each other, though, taking advantage of every slow dance. Just the feel of their arms around each other, their bodies swaying in time to the music, the subtle brush of lips was heaven.

The music changed abruptly, and Liz and Max were both startled when Maria and Kyle pulled them apart to begin a fast dance. “You need to dance with a real woman, Max!” Maria yelled to them as she drew him away and picked up the fast beat that vibrated the very walls. Liz laughed at her zany friend and turned to Kyle, who was showing off some serious dance steps of his own. Feeling deliriously happy, Liz waved at a befuddled Max and began to mimic Kyle’s moves. She had forgotten what fun he could be, and she was happy that they could be friends again. That’s what they had always been best at.

The dance had left them flushed and breathless. They were all thirsty and Alex and Valerie offered to get everyone drinks. Max and Liz were about to sink gratefully into their chairs when the DJ put on a dreamy oldie, “Unchained Melody”; Max swept Liz onto the dance floor and into his arms.

Sliding his hands around Liz, he quietly half-sang, half-whispered the first few words: “Oh, my love, my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch a long lonely time.” Liz nestled into his chest, breathing in the warm scent that she associated with him. It filled her dreams at night and distracted her whenever she had class with him. She could never get enough. Then she felt his fingers touch the moist skin of her back, and they almost jumped at the electricity that sparked between them. Slowly, Liz raised her head and looked at this boy, this alien, this being who she loved so much, and wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him down to a gentle lingering kiss.

The images started again, too chaotic at first, but Max reined them in and let Liz see some of his more tame fantasies, ones where he was loving her so gently and thoroughly. She responded instantly, pressing him closer, stroking his neck and shoulders. He gasped against her mouth when he saw one of her fantasies, not nearly so tame. She pulled away, embarrassed.

“Max, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to control that like you do. I’m . . . sorry.”

He lifted her chin gently, his eyes bright with barely contained passion. “Hey, if you’d seen the ones I didn’t let through, I’d be the one blushing. I’m glad you see us like that.”

Her eyes shot to his. “You are? I thought we couldn’t . . .”

“I don’t know yet, but we’ll figure it out. We just have to go slowly and be careful. You’re too important to me to take any risks. Meanwhile, maybe we can get started on that research you mentioned.”

She nodded, then looked around guiltily, as if someone might know what they were thinking. Max laughed and tugged her toward their table.

“We’re gonna take off, everyone. Great party!” And before anyone could respond, they were headed out the door and to the car.

“Where should we go?” asked Liz. “My parents will wonder why we left so early.”

“Mine aren’t home, and besides, they told me they’d leave snacks and stuff in the kitchen for when we got home, so it’s okay.”

Liz fidgeted nervously on the ride home. Now that the time had come, she felt very insecure. She knew she was being foolish; she believed Max loved her absolutely. But she had no idea what she was doing, and Max’s body was so strong and toned and perfect, whereas hers was so small . . . everywhere.

Sensing Liz’s concern, Max reached for her hand. “Nothing will happen that you don’t want, Liz. You’re in control here. I love you. What does or doesn’t happen between us tonight is not going to change that.”

Liz smiled up at him. He always said the perfect thing. Just that one reassurance swept her self-doubts away, and suddenly she couldn’t wait to get him alone.

They came through the kitchen door and Max saw the note on the fridge. His mother had actually posted an inventory of what was in the house to eat! Max grinned. “We won’t starve,” he assured her. “You hungry?”

When he heard no response, he turned to find Liz looking at him, hungrily, but he could tell it had nothing to do with food.

“Liz . . .”

Then she was in his arms, lifting her mouth toward his, molding herself to his body, all pretense of caution dispelled. He slid his hands over the slick dress and around to her back where his fingers wove themselves under the thin lacings. He took her mouth fiercely, savoring the freedom he felt with her for the first time. She loved him. She knew, but she still loved him. And she wanted him to love her, in every way. The heady feeling spun around them as they kissed feverishly, needing so much after rationing their feelings so carefully.

Max reached low and swept Liz into his arms, carrying her swiftly into his room. He laid her gently on the bed and eased himself down next to her. Lying face to face, he stroked her cheek. “I can’t believe the difference between tonight and last night,” he murmured. “Last night, I was afraid to touch you. Tonight, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“I was so afraid, too, Max. Afraid that there was something wrong with me . . . or you. I’ve wanted you to touch me for so long. So much. Please, Max. Touch me.”

Max traced his thumb around her mouth, not wanting to rush anymore. They had time now. It would all happen for them. “I love you,” he whispered, as he descended slowly to take her mouth. She opened to him instantly, and he savored her sweet taste. He felt her arm snake upwards and her fingers thread through his hair. He could tell she was pleased that he’d left it natural for her. Then she pressed closer, her breasts grazing his chest, and his heart began to race.

His hand forged a trail of heat down her neck and shoulder, following the edge of the dress around to under her arm. Then, with a single finger, he drew a line from her arm to her breast. She thrust herself toward him with a whimper and his hand instantly cupped her, kneading the warm, soft mound. He felt her nipple harden, reaching for him, and he caressed it softly with his thumb.

He could feel the sensations coursing through his body now. Every nerve was alive with her, alive for her. In his mind’s eye, he removed her clothes with a wave of his hand and worshipped her body. He clamped down on the image, disgusted with himself, afraid Liz would think this was his ultimate motive for being here with her. He withdrew his hand, desperately trying to regain control of his body, a body that seemed to recognize its mate too soon.

“No, Max,” she pleaded against his mouth. “I want that, too. Don’t pull away.”

“Liz, we have to be careful. We have to . . .”

Liz was pushing herself up to her knees. Max watched helplessly as she reached behind her, tugging quickly at a single strand of lacing. Instantly, the front of her dress draped downward, and Max knew one flick of his finger would bring it down around her waist. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he looked at Liz in a kind of desperation.

“Liz, if we start this . . . I don’t know where it will end.”

She smiled at him, calm, confident, ready.

He reached a trembling hand toward the edge of the dress and slid it inside. The shimmering fabric slid silently over her milky breasts and settled around her waist. Max was mesmerized. How could he ever have imagined anyone so lovely? His hand moved gradually forward, and he watched Liz’s eyes drift close even as her rosy nipples strained toward him. The second he touched one, she whimpered. The pleasure on her face sent Max spiraling, and all of his instincts kicked in.

Seconds later, his mouth was suckling at one incredibly soft mound while his hand stroked the other. Liz was moaning openly now and her hands urged him closer and closer. Releasing her breast, Max’s moist lips and eager tongue left a heated trail up toward her neck, stopping briefly to suck at the pounding pulse that beat there for him.

Liz was soaring, her hands operating with a will of their own. Fumbling with the buttons on Max’s shirt, she opened it wide, eagerly searching for the hem of the t-shirt. Soon her hands were working up under his shirt, tracing—in glorious detail—the rock-hard definition she had always admired. As her hands strained against the fabric, Max stilled them; he stood slowly and then tugged her to her feet. He pulled his shirt up over his head and they drank each other in.

“You’re so beautiful, Liz. More beautiful than even my imagination could have dreamed of.” Her eyes shone into his and he cupped her face, leaning forward to steal another searing kiss. His heated skin pressed into her aching breasts and a euphoric sensation rocketed through them. Gasping in surprise, they became aware of a strange current humming between them, and when they looked down, there was the barest light casting a glow where their skin touched. Liz was floating on a warm blanket of erotic pleasure, totally giving herself up to it.

“Max, what’s happening?” she sighed. “What is this? It’s . . . wonderful.”

Then she whimpered in protest as Max broke their contact.

“I don’t know, Liz, but it’s where we stop . . . for tonight.” He set Liz reluctantly away from him. “We said we’d see if things got weird. That definitely qualifies. Now we have to take some time—see if there are any side effects later. I told you, Liz—I won’t take any chances with you.”

Liz pouted petulantly, descending unwillingly back to reality, but she couldn’t ignore how seriously he was taking this. He was determined to protect her, and she no longer feared it was her own inadequacy. It would have been impossible to miss the very obvious effects their loving had had on his anatomy. Her eyes slid over him, and she chuckled at his blush.

“Liz!” he choked, reaching for his shirt.

Then she, too, became serious. Pulling her dress back up and securing it loosely at the nape of her neck, she moved toward him once more. “Max, I love you for taking such good care of me. I won’t give you any more grief about this tonight, but do you think you could hold me?”

He relaxed again, flashing his best killer smile. “Always and forever,” he promised. “It’s letting go that I can’t imagine.”

He settled back on the bed, drawing her down to his side. He kissed the top of her head as she nestled it into the crook of his neck.

“We have a lifetime to explore this, Liz. Believe me,” he chuckled, “as soon as I know you’re safe, you will never be safe from me!” He pulled her tightly against him, stroking her back and pressing small, slow kisses against her head.

“Maybe it’s your safety you should be worrying about, Max.” He groaned as she lightly drew a finger across his chest, pushing the open shirt aside. Then he felt her smile against his shoulder. “Oh dear, I said I’d be good, didn’t I? Okay, for now. I make no promises beyond that.”

Max sighed happily. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Liz Parker. You’ve made this the best day of my life.”

“Same to you, Max. I’d have to say this has been the most unusual—and best—day of my life, too. Promise me there’ll be many more.”

He lifted his head and looked at her intently. “As many as you’ll allow, Liz. I love you. I always have. The rest is your call.”

“Then settle in for a long ride, Max,” she sighed. “Because I love you, too.”


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 17-Jul-2002 12:33:15 AM ]
posted on 17-Jul-2002 9:52:49 AM
DREAMER HOLIDAY SERIES: Valentine Epilog
(for HopesandDreamers only!)

HEY EVERYONE--- This is a previously unposted epilog I wrote for my closest Rosbuds on our private list. But I figured HEY! Anyone determined enough to come to repost and read this far deserves a treat! WARNING: NC-17! (and then some) hehehe Enjoy!*bounce*


Friday night. Another wonderful, romantic, pulse quickening, frustrating date with Max. So often, now, they would start down that road to making love, and some little glow or vibration or even small sound from Liz would send him off on his “that’s far enough” speech. She loved him. Desperately. But if he didn’t back off of that pretty soon, she was going to start sending him flashes of her beating him over the head with his own sneakers.

It had been three weeks since Liz had learned the truth about the love of her life. He was an alien. For some reason, she seemed to be having a much easier time accepting that than he was. Now she lay in her bed each night, her head spinning with images of making love to him, her body throbbing with the need to have him fill that hollow place inside. Images of their bodies entwined, touching, thrusting. Whispered words of love . . .

Her hand crept slowly toward the ache as she summoned pictures of the hard, muscled body she had come to know so well, always ready for her in ways his mind could not yet accept--the erection so proud and taut whenever she touched him. She had fondled and stroked him to an urgent state more than once, only to have some suspicious effect drive him away from the edge. Tonight had been especially unnerving because she had been on fire like never before, driven to new and dizzying heights by his tender and maddeningly erotic attention. She never would have thought she could feel so wanton, eager for touches that would have made her blush in the light of day. And his mouth! She could still detect the quivering between her legs as she remembered how it felt to have his mouth on her . . . there . . . laving her so thoroughly, yet delicately, that she almost screamed out loud. She had been flying on a wave of pure pleasure when she had uttered a word totally unknown to her . . . and to Max--Amoshono. It sounded like an unknown language, and yet it had tumbled so naturally from her lips, she didn’t even recognize it as foreign until Max raised his head to look at her with concern. Damn!

Liz sat up abruptly, heaving a great sigh as she ran her fingers through her hair, knotted from restless tossing on her pillow. This had to stop. Max’s concern for her safety was turning into emotional torture, and she wasn’t going to take it anymore. If she had to play it down and dirty, then play she would. Smiling with the relief of a firm decision, Liz flew into action.

Showering quickly, Liz felt her pulse quicken with the thrill of adventure. She dried herself briskly, pausing when she noticed how sensitive and hard her nipples were already. Oh, she was ready for him! How could he not know how much she needed this? How much they needed this!

An impish grin broke out on Liz’s face as she pushed hangers aside in the closet looking for an outfit that was provocative and easy to get out of. Her eyes landed on the Crashdown uniform. So many times Liz had caught glimpses of Max’s sexual fantasy about that dress with its ten little snaps down the front. Deciding against undergarments of any kind, Liz slipped into the worn dress. Just the feel of the fabric grazing her breasts made her pulse race even faster, and the moisture began to pool between her legs. Hurry, Liz! she urged herself.

Climbing down her fire escape into the deserted street, Liz grabbed her old bicycle from behind the fence that hid the trashcans in the alley and pedaled furiously through the few short blocks to Max’s house, the seat rubbing against her sensitive and ever-dampening center–a ridiculous substitute for what she really needed. It was dark and quiet at the Evans home, just as she’d hoped. Letting herself into the backyard through the gate, she slipped behind the house to Max’s window. Fortunately, the window was cracked open to let in the warm night air, and Liz had no trouble easing herself over the sill.

Standing over his bed, she studied the face she loved so dearly. Max’s bronzed skin lay in stark contrast to the white sheet that covered only his hips and thighs, and the fringe of bangs that hung carelessly over his forehead begged for her touch. Soft, full lips parted invitingly, and she could hear him breathing raggedly. She frowned, wondering what dream could have him so restless.

She stepped closer and her eyes traced the firm masculine lines of his body—the body she intended to claim as hers before too much longer. Her gaze lingered over the covered part of his body; suddenly, her eyes widened and she suppressed a giggle. This dream might just work in her favor, for even in the midst of slumber, his body was ready, tenting the sheet quite obviously.

That looks like a good place to start, she decided. Kneeling beside the bed, Liz carefully lifted the sheet away from him, staring leisurely at his long, hard shaft. The cooler air wafted over it and it began to soften. Oh, no you don’t! Without touching anything else, Liz leaned in and took his relaxing cock into her mouth, sucking gently, swirling her tongue languidly, inching further and further toward the base. Liz almost gasped as she felt it harden and lengthen in response, and she smiled to herself.

“Liz.” The syllable was barely a whisper, and Liz wondered if Max had awakened or not. Then she felt his hips press up against her mouth, beginning short thrusts, in and out, and a small moan escaped from his throat.

“Yes, god, yes, Liz” It was all breathless and mumbled, and Liz realized Max was still asleep, lost in what he must have thought was a dream. The thrusts became more urgent, deeper. Liz could feel how impossibly hard he had become. But this is not how he would cum tonight. Tonight he was hers!

Knowing he was on the brink, Liz lifted her head from him to a mumbled protest. She watched his face as she climbed onto the bed with her knees straddling his hips. The movement of the bed was enough to rouse Max from his erotic dream, and his eyes fluttered open, locking with hers immediately. Obviously unsure if this was a continuation of his dream or an unbelievable reality, Max blinked several times.

“Liz?”

Liz smiled her most sultry smile and fingered the top snap on her dress. Pop. Max’s eyes grew wider.

“Liz??” he whispered more loudly.

Pop.

Max made a move to sit up, so Liz lowered herself slightly, just enough for Max to feel her heat brush against his throbbing erection.

Pop.

“Liz! What are you doing?”

“You mean it’s not obvious?” she answered him.

Pop. Pop.

Max’s mouth fell open as Liz simultaneously spread open the top of her dress and lowered herself another notch. She could feel the precum oozing from him already, and her own juices answered. Her inner thighs burned with the heat they were generating. An ache coiled tightly inside her and reached its fingers outward, searching for some release.

“I don’t know, Liz . . .” His tone was desperate, helpless. He had already lost the fight and he knew it.

Pop. Liz watched his face as she took her own breasts in her hands, cupping them, massaging them, pulling gently at her own nipples. The fire within her began to spread as her body responded to her own touch, but even more to Max's heated gaze. He was mesmerized, speechless, and totally aroused. A strangled sound erupted from his open mouth, and she felt him swell and twitch between her legs, pressing insistently against her creamy folds.

Pop.

Now he could see her curls peeking from just above the last two snaps. He licked his lips and tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. “What if . . .?”

Liz leaned all the way forward, brushing one hard nipple against his mouth. He drew it in hungrily and felt his hips buck up reflexively against her. The contact made them both gasp.

“No more what ifs, Max,” she murmured against his ear, reeling herself now as his tongue flicked back and forth over her aroused peak. The coil was drawing tighter now, pulling back like an archer’s bow, dangerously taut. Instinctively, she set up a rhythm, rubbing back and forth along his now-slick cock, moaning long and low and losing her sense of self in the sensations of their intimate contact.

Max released her breast and took in a great gulp of air. “Liz,” he panted. “I can’t . . . stop! I . . . must . . . have you.” The words sounded apologetic and yet demanding. Her heart soared as he flipped her to her back and took his turn straddling her. Against the light from the window, she marveled at the glistening shaft that stood stiff and twitching between them. His eyes were alive with a fierce light, and she knew that this was their moment.

“Make love to me, Max. It’s all I want. You are all I want. Ever.”

Max almost growled as he pushed her knees apart with his own. She closed her eyes briefly, wanting to memorize the first feel of his manhood entering her. She felt overjoyed that she was giving Max the ultimate gift of her body. No man had ever touched her like this. No other ever would.

Her eyes flew open when it was not his erection that nudged at her entrance, but his hot and attentive mouth. He knew how it had affected her earlier, and in the midst of his raging need, he was pleasuring her! Her legs opened wider, and she reveled in the warm moist stroking of his tongue. Seconds later, he went after her mound of nerves, already aroused to an electric degree, and she exploded against his mouth, sobbing his name with her fist in her mouth to quiet her. Warmth spread throughout her body and every muscle trembled with the waves of pleasure that washed over her. Tears trickled down her face and shone in the moonlight as he watched her shatter beneath him.

His own eyes grew big as he watched a glow spread over her entire body, beginning low against her curls and traveling to her furthest extremities. “Amoshono,” she sighed. Max froze, the old caution creeping into his mind. Then she opened her huge, shining eyes, full of wonder and love. “Oh, Max,” she sobbed again. “Oh.” Words were impossible. Where there used to be thought, there was only fulfillment and pleasure and perfection.

It was probably a full minute before she stopped shaking, but it was obvious Max was still painfully ready. Liz caught the hesitation in his face and reacted quickly; she wrapped her arms around his neck and started to pull him down fully on top of her. “We’re not finished, my love.” The glowing had made her warm, and when she leaned forward to tease his nipples with her tongue, a burning desire raced through his system, dominating every sense, wiping away all rational thought.

“No,” he breathed against her. “No, we’re not.” He paused, piercing her with his blazing eyes as he tore open the last two snaps and spread her dress wide. He raked his eyes up and down her body hungrily and a thrill shot through her. It was like he was touching her everywhere at once. But instead of feeling exposed or vulnerable, she felt only a spreading flow of desire grip her again, and she reached for him, guiding him toward her entrance.

He entered her more roughly than he would have if he'd any control left, but she had driven him mindless with her persistent assault on his senses. He'd started off wanting her in his dreams, and then his dream had materialized in his bed. There were no more decisions to be made; there was only the two of them now. Nothing else mattered.

She pushed toward him eagerly, tingling with this new sensation. He was inside her! And as he filled her body, he filled her heart and her soul–her world. This is what she had yearned for without even understanding what it was. She forced her eyes open to watch his face only to see him staring at her with such awe and adoration. His body, too, was glowing, and in the back of her mind, she felt relief that he was no longer willing to push their love aside because of these uncharted effects. Every step they had taken together felt safe and right and thrilling to her. She welcomed these new sensations, this unexplored plane where their two bodies–their two worlds–became one.

Even in the throes of passion, Max hesitated when he felt her barrier. Locking eyes with her, he cupped her face. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"I'm not," she breathed, pulling him down for a searing kiss and pushing her hips up against him. Her small gesture pushed at his body and his heart, and he took her with a swift, bold thrust, burying her cry beneath his lips. All movement stilled for a few long seconds. Max pulled back in concern.

"Are you okay?"

Even as a tear leaked out from the corner of one eye and trailed back toward her hair, Liz sighed with contentment. Her eyes opened, large and joyously happy.

"You're in me, Max," she smiled simply. "Now I'm yours, in every way. No one will ever touch my body . . . or my heart like this again."

Max could feel his entire body churning. Every physical and emotional sense that he had was head over heels in love with this amazing girl, and he swore to himself that he would never bring her another moment's pain or unhappiness. She was the fulfillment of every dream and fantasy he'd ever allowed himself, and now she was here in his arms, his bed, sharing her body with him as she had already shared her heart–unreservedly, fully, permanently. His own tear splashed against her face, and she licked at it with her tongue. It was enough to turn his thoughts back to the physical. He would make love to her with his body, hoping she understood that this was how he loved her with his heart and soul.

Their bodies began to move rhythmically, and the glow that had been simmering quietly over and around them began to swirl in unison. Secret nerves sprang to life, sending fiery threads shooting through every cell. Reality faded until they were alone in the light, awash in erotic sensation, merging into a oneness unlike anything they had ever imagined. Max pounded against her, almost crying with the ecstasy of it; Liz was meeting him thrust for thrust, wanting all of him inside her–it could never be enough.

“Amoshana!” he breathed.

As Liz felt her walls clench around him in uncontrolled waves, he spilled himself amidst a litany of moans, the stream of his warm seed merging with her body, making them forever a part of each other. Liz knew she never wanted to be anywhere else but sharing her life with this boy/man. He had offered her his very existence and she vowed never to betray his trust.

Their breathing slowly returned to normal, and Liz's face came into focus once again. Max gazed at her with love shining in his eyes.

“I said it, too, didn’t I? Amoshana.”

She nodded. “I said Amoshono. What do you think it means?”

Max was still fighting through his sexual haze. “It must be a language, maybe my language. And it must mean my love because that’s what I was thinking. I love you."

Liz's smile was radiant. "I was sort of counting on that." She searched his face. “Do you think I just sort of picked that up from you somehow?”

“I guess so. Maybe it came across in a flash or something. Are you alright? Did anything unusual happen?" Reality was still on the fringe of his jumbled thoughts, but caring for Liz was more like instinctive.

Liz chuckled, the vibrations tickling his chest and groin and he felt himself stir in spite of his best intentions.

"How would I know?" she grinned. "I've never done this before . . . or haven't you noticed?"

Max looked at her guiltily. "Of course, I knew that. I meant . . . I mean . . . do you feel funny or hurt or anything?" He glanced worriedly down at the red stain that had spread over his sheets. Without even thinking, he waved his hand over it and it disappeared.

Liz sighed and pushed at the damp bangs hanging over his beautiful amber eyes. "I feel loved, and sexy, and . . . lucky. I feel lucky, Max."

Max rolled to one side and gathered Liz into his arms. "You are loved and sexy. But I'm the one who's lucky, Liz. I never thought you could love me . . . not once you knew who . . . what I was."

Liz turned within his arms to face him. "What you are is the most wonderful person I've ever known. You have so much good in you, Max. So much love and patience and nobility. You may not have started out on Earth, but you're here now. With me. And that's all I care about."

Max’s eyes sparkled with her words for a moment, then clouded again. “What if we had a baby someday, Liz? What would it be?”

She turned his face to hers, refusing to let him look anywhere else. “Ours, Max. It would be ours.” She leaned in to kiss him, incredulous that he could need any more reassuring. Hadn't she come across town, half naked, just to seduce him?

He accepted her kiss, then dominated it as the tone turned demanding and possessive. Liz relished it, especially when she felt his cock spring to life between them again. Max pulled back, slightly embarrassed.

"I'm sorry, Liz. That's just what you do to me."

"Bring it on, ET."

Max laughed, quickly shutting his mouth over the sound. It was hard to remember his family was only down the hall. Liz suppressed a giggle of her own and turned her attention to his huge wet shaft standing at attention.

"Eager, isn't he?"

"Who?"

"Max junior," she teased. She could have sworn she detected blushing, but it only made her bolder. Grasping him firmly within her hand, she began to pump him with strong, even strokes, watching with fascination as he swelled even more, a tiny eruption of fluid coating his tip. Max's face was no less amazing, an expression of bliss so strong, it almost looked like pain.

"Liz, god, you make me . . . dizzy. I can't feel anything but you."

Liz bent to lick his tip and a new stream of precum flowed along her tongue. He was panting now, eyes squeezed shut, hands reaching for her head as he helplessly pushed at her, wanting more–more pressure, more warmth, more Liz. She obliged him happily, lapping and sucking at him until the moans threatened to give them away. Then she crawled up his body to cover his mouth, sharing his taste with him as she slid over his shaft, encompassing him in her body. She swallowed his groan and began her erotic dance, taking him in completely, then letting him slide almost all the way out.

Max opened his eyes when she sat up, just watching her with such hunger, he thought he might explode right then. His hands rubbed her thighs in perfect time with her rhythm. Undulating hips slid together, creating a friction that catapulted them higher and higher.

"Do what you did . . . before," he gasped between thrusts.

"Hmmm?" Liz was lost in a hazy world of her own. Taking Max at this angle was doing incredible things to her. She could feel the tightness pulling at her again, more intense than ever.

"What you did before," he said again. "Touch . . . your . . ." He couldn't bring himself to say it, but just picturing her playing with her breasts had almost made him cum the first time.

"Ooooh," she mumbled, understanding. "You mean this?"

She raised her hands to her nipples and circled her palms over them, bringing them to pebbled peaks. Then she took them between her thumb and forefinger, pulling and twisting gently, feeling the tightness coil so strongly she wanted to shout with anticipation. Max's face was frozen in an erotic trance, his eyes taking in every tiny movement, his hips thrusting up towards hers faster and faster.

It was then that he reached for her, parting her folds that trembled just above their joining. His thumb stroked her rock-hard nub and she plummeted over the edge, her muscles in heaven-sent spasms, melting her insides into useless puddles of sexual completion. Max tumbled after her, spurting endlessly into her, wanting this mutual possession to last forever.

posted on 17-Jul-2002 9:54:30 AM
VALENTINE EPILOG CONTINUED . . .

Liz fell, exhausted, into Max's waiting arms. "Oh my god, Max, this is just . . . incredible. Tell me again why we waited so long?"

Max sighed, stroking her back lightly, his head a fuzzy mass of happiness. "I can't remember," he admitted. "But in a way, I feel like we have always been meant to be together like this." He watched her raise up just little so she could look at him. She was glowing, but not that inexplicable light from the height of their lovemaking; this time, she was glowing from within, radiating joy, and he thought she had never looked more beautiful. "You, Liz. Only and forever."

They lay in a contented heap of satisfaction for a long time, neither willing to break the spell of perfection they had woven. Eventually, though, Max's stomach rumbled. Liz smiled against his chest.

"It's always food with you, isn't it?" she teased.

"Not always," he smirked, wiggling his eyebrows, and she smacked him playfully. "You hungry?"

Liz shook her head. "Not a bit, but I'm really thirsty."

Max nodded. "I'll go steal some stuff from the kitchen." He donned a pair of boxers from the floor and crept out of the room. Liz lay in their bed . . . wow, their bed . . . and breathed in the smells, of Max, of sweat, of sex. It was a heady thing to be laying here, perfect little Liz Parker–wanton, sex-crazed Liz Parker . . . Which one was she? She smiled. Both. Max turned her into someone she barely recognized but would always want to be when she was with him. It was the first of many changes, no doubt. And she was ready for them all.

A figure appeared in the doorway, and Liz sat up to see what Max had brought up. She felt downright parched by now.

"Max!" the voice whispered. "I think I hear somebody downstairs!"

Isabel. Isabel had come to look for Max. There was nowhere to hide, nothing to do but sit as still as possible in the shadows and hope she would go away.

"Max! Wake up! Somebody's downstairs." Liz was gripped with dread as Isabel moved forward into the room. She grasped the edge of the sheet and pulled it up to her neck just as a breeze pushed the curtains aside and a shaft of moonlight fell across Liz's face. Isabel stopped in her tracks.

"Liz?" she gaped. "What are you doing here?"

Liz was quite sure she'd never been asked a dumber question, so she let the self-evident answer lay unspoken between them. Isabel stared, trying hard to affirm that she was awake and that Liz Parker was in all likelihood naked in her brother's bed.

"Anybody in here hungry?" Max stage-whispered, easing into the room laden with bottles and plates. He almost walked right into Isabel before he saw her white robe catch the light.

"Isabel! What the hell are you doing in here?"

Isabel blinked at him, then realized she was the one with the advantage. "Hardly the most relevant question that could be asked right about now, is it, Max?"

Max peered toward Liz and saw her gripping the sheet to cover herself. Knowing how embarrassed she must be, his anger surged.

"Isabel, we can talk about this later, if you must, but I would appreciate your leaving for now. Please."

"Have you lost your mind, Max? I'm one room down. Mom and Dad are just down the hall. Why would you bring her in here like this?"

Max glared at her, but Liz spoke from the bed. "He didn't, Isabel. He didn't know I was coming. I came here on my own. It's my fault."

"Liz? Why would you do that? If sex is what you guys had in mind, there are other places . . ."

"Isabel!" Max was livid now. Even through his controlled whisper, Isabel could hear him take charge. "First of all, you are speaking to the girl I love, so watch your tone. Second, it's really my fault, in a way. Third, none of this is your business, so get out!" He set the food on his desk and walked quickly over to the bed, snagging a blanket along the way. He threw it protectively over Liz's shoulders and threw a challenging look at his sister. The look on her face softened him. She had walked into something she'd never expected and didn't know how to handle.

"Iz, Liz and I have been too careful for too long, mostly because of me. You're right, this might not be the best place, but it was long past time, so please, just go back to bed and pretend you never got up?"

"This is your first . . .? You never . . .? Oh."

Isabel watched Max wrap his arm around Liz, sitting small and nervous in his bed. Her brother had been unhappy for so long, and Liz had finally brought him from the depths of loneliness and fear into the land of the living. Even Isabel's life had improved since that happened. They both owed her a lot.

"Try not to make too much noise," he sighed, pretending to be disgusted, but Max knew her too well.

"Thanks, Iz."

Left alone once more, Liz buried her head in Max's chest. "Oh my god, Max. What do you think she'll do?"

"Nothing," he assured her. "She knows I'm truly happy for the first time in my life, and you're the reason why." He bent to kiss her, but when he touched her lips, he remembered how thirsty she'd been.

"Wait here."

He hurried to his desk and retrieved the Gatorade and plate of cheese and crackers. Liz drank gratefully, nibbling on the cheese, too, once she'd gotten a taste of it from Max's lips as they kissed lightly between mouthfuls. This felt so right, munching together in the middle of the night, sated from their loving, whispering about nothing and everything the way you do with only the most important people in your life. Liz sighed happily and Max grinned at her in return.

"You have a crumb . . .," she began, reaching to wipe the cracker from his cheek.

"Huh?" He turned quickly and bumped her arm, sloshing Gatorade down her front.

"Eeewww, Max!" she complained, looking down her front. "It's sticky and cold. Clean it for me?"

There was no response, and she looked up to see Max's eyes gleaming, a half-smile teasing his mouth. "You want me to take that off of you?"

She nodded, knowing full well that a wave of his hand was not what he had in mind. Max bent forward slowly and licked at the trail of liquid flowing in tiny rivulets between her breasts. She felt herself growing warm and pushed her breasts forward, feeling wanton and naughty after just one touch of his tongue. Surprised, Max reacted instinctively, moving to the right to capture one sweet sticky nipple and suck it into his mouth. Together they sank back onto the bed and Liz felt his erection poke her in the thigh.

"You know what you need?" Max mumbled into her hair.

"You!" she breathed back, already alive with expectation.

"Always," he agreed. "Me . . . and a shower."

Visions of the two of them in the shower crashed into Liz's imagination and her body reacted immediately. "But Max, someone will hear that for sure."

"Look outside, my love. The sun's coming up. If Mom or Dad hear the shower, they'll just think it's me or Izzie."

A smile broke out on Liz's face and she took him in her hands, feeling his body jump, eyes wide. "You are trying to drive me crazy!" he growled, scooping her up and carrying her into the bathroom that connected his bedroom with Isabel's. Bending his knees so that his hand would reach the doorknob, he locked the door to Isabel's room and turned to sit Liz on the countertop. She spun to face him, encircled him with her legs, and locked her ankles behind him. Her heat was pressed tightly against his rigid cock and he moaned into her neck.

"Liz, baby, let me at least get the water running."

She nibbled his earlobe and scooted as close as she could get, rocking against him gently. She felt his knees buckle and beamed in triumph. Making him crazy was likely to become her favorite hobby!

Max could feel her smile and decided to take her down a notch–or rather go down a notch. Sinking to his knees from within her hold on him, he buried his face in her curls and began to stroke her wet folds with his tongue, feeling her clit harden at his touch, relishing the juices that kept flowing. His fingers entered her and he heard her gasp, then moan as she gave herself up to his relentless assault. She could feel herself building toward a climax and whimpered when suddenly, he was gone.

Opening her eyes with a puzzled frown, Liz tried to clear her head. Max was standing in front of her, smirking arrogantly. "Now who's driving who crazy?"

He turned to start the shower, and Liz hopped down from the counter, a look of challenge on her face. Max eyed her warily. "What are you thinking, Liz?"

"I'm thinking you may have won the battle, but not the war," she tossed at him, rubbing herself against him suggestively as she slid past him into the warm water. She grabbed the body wash and the poof–a pink one, Isabel's no doubt; this would kill her if she knew!–and worked up handfuls of lather. Then she pulled a very aroused Max into the shower stall and began to soap him–everywhere. Turning him to face away from her, she worked on his neck, shoulders, and back. He braced himself against the shower wall and gave himself up to her magic hands.

Then she lowered herself to her knees and washed his legs, giving careful attention to his inner thighs. She had him spread his legs for easier access, and she lingered over his butt, reaching in to massage his already tight balls. Pushing at his legs, she had him turn around. She was face to face with his taut, pulsing cock. She soaped it with long, languorous strokes while she listened to his breath get more and more labored. Once he was rinsed off, she took a few moments to suck on it, gently. She wasn't ready to let him off the hook just yet.

Max grabbed her head with both hands, beginning to pump into her, delirious with erotic sensation. Liz took him all the way in, swirling her tongue across his tip and down the pounding vessel that ran the length of him until she tasted his first bit of precum. She released him and a small "no" escaped his lips. Liz continued to wash his chest and arms as he regained some equilibrium, and she smiled at his frustration.

"What's the matter, Max?"

Not to be outdone, Max took the poof from her and soaped it up again, more than willing to return the favor. The pain in his groin was a small price to pay if it meant watching her climb to the same torturous peak. Like Liz had done, Max turned her away from him, massaging her smooth back, her firm round buttocks, her long shapely legs. He was beginning to wonder if this was working him up more than it was her when he heard a long moan filter down through the water. Encouraged, he turned her around and worked his way up, stopping to make sure he reached every inch of her hidden center. He swirled his thumb over her nerve center with one hand as he reached inside her with the other. She leaned heavily against the wall, eyes closed, chin raised, lost in the ecstasy of his touch. Then his mouth was on her breast and the three-point assault was too much. She came into his hand and gasped a long, crooning "Maaaaaaxxxx."

Max stood transfixed, overwhelmed at her face, at the pure bliss he had brought her. She was everything to him, and knowing he could do this for her made him jubilant.

Jubilant, but turned on beyond endurance. Lifting her against him, she automatically locked her legs around him, impaling herself easily on his slick cock. Pressing her against the shower wall, Max pounded into her over and over, losing himself in the feel of her tight walls encasing him, her tiny arms holding onto him for dear life. It didn't take long. He exploded into her with a hot rush, trembling with the release that seemed to go on and on. He had cum so many times tonight! All for Liz, because of what she did to him, what she was to him. It would've given him bragging rights for sure, if he'd been among the high school jocks who compared notes on such things.

But this, this would always be between the two of them–their private place in a world that would never understand.

When the hot water ran out, the two lovers were startled back into reality, and Liz sank gratefully into a thick towel that Max offered. He wiped her down, afraid that she couldn't stand up on her own. He toweled off, too, and wrapped it around his waist. They emerged into this room to find the sun streaming in.

Liz stood naked at Max's window, astonished that daybreak had come already, totally unaware of Max's loving stare. Finally, she turned to him. "What?" she smiled.

He approached her and pulled her into his arms. "You know, don't you, Liz, that even though this was by far the most incredible night of my life, my love for you is not about the sex. That's only a way to show you what you mean to me. You're everything to me, Liz, and tonight was just the first of our life together. I'm yours, Liz, for as long as you want me.”

Liz looked up into his serious eyes, her own dancing with happiness. "I do know that, Max, or I wouldn't be here. You think I'd come over here and behave like a . . . like a . . ."

"Woman in love," Max finished for her. Liz smiled at him gratefully.

"Yes, like a woman in love . . . if I wasn't totally committed to you?"

Max searched her face, knowing she meant every word she was saying to him. "No, you wouldn't." He leaned down and took her mouth sweetly. No urgency or carnal desire now. This was a promise kiss. A "you may kiss the bride" kiss.

There was a knock at the door. Liz scampered across the floor and pulled her uniform on, snapping as fast as she could.

"Who is it?" Max called.

"Your sister, Max. Your sister who is very grumpy when she's kept awake all night . . . if you catch my drift." Max grimaced and looked at Liz. He opened the door to a rumpled and grumpy-looking Isabel.

"If that is your idea of quiet, then may I suggest you find somewhere else to . . . date . . . in the future?" She took a good look at Liz. "And why would you wear that thing to . . ." She shook her head disgustedly until she saw Liz snapping the last of the snaps. The purpose of the dress hit her smack in the head and she groaned.

"No, don't tell me. I can't stand it. Oh god, I'm going to get some breakfast. Then I'm going back to bed . . . and it had better be QUIET!"

"I have to work in a few minutes, Isabel," Liz assured her, feeling incredibly awkward. "I'm sorry."

Isabel turned to leave. "Isabel?" Liz called softly. Isabel turned around to face her. "Thank you, Isabel. I know this was selfish of us, but it will always be the most perfect night of my life." Liz turned radiant eyes to Max, who was looking at her with such love that Isabel melted.

"I know," she murmured, and left the room.

"How about a ride back to the Crashdown?" Max asked.

"Max, I can't let my father see me coming home with you! And my bike's here."

"Liz," Max reminded her, chuckling, "you have no underwear. And where are you going to tell him you've been?"

Liz blushed. "Okay, but drop me off a block away, and I'll tell him I felt like an early-morning walk. Then I'll stop by my room before I start my shift."

"Good idea," he agreed, leaning in for one more kiss. "And I'll bring your bike over later. I can feel a Saturn Ring craving coming on already.”

Liz slipped out the window and skulked around to the driveway where she huddled in the back of the Jeep. A minute later, she heard Max saying goodbye to his bewildered mother as he ran to the car bright and early on a Saturday morning. Emerging from the back as they rode down the block, Liz clambered over the seats to the front, lifting her leg high. Max turned to steady her and saw the short dress ride high on her thighs, revealing way too much for an open car.

Eyes on the road, Evans, he reminded himself. Liz grinned at him. That imp! She did that on purpose! Then he saw her wince and he frowned. “Liz, you okay?”

“Just a little sore,” she confessed. “That was bound to happen. Don’t worry about it.”

Max reached across the gear shift, and Liz knew what was coming. She opened her legs for him, and he placed his hand on the very spot he’d been loving to distraction for the last 6 hours. The temptation to arouse her again was strong, but there was nothing right about this time or place. He sent his healing warmth to her and removed the soreness that he’d inflicted. She smiled her gratitude, and he reluctantly removed his hand.

Pulling behind a building down the block from the Crashdown, Max turned to the beautiful girl who had changed his life forever. “Don’t forget about stopping by your room, my love. Your tips might go up, but your dad would freak.”

She laughed at his lightheartedness. The harsh light of day had done nothing to diminish the night they’d spent, finally sharing the love that had grown steadily over the last year, in spite of Max’s revelation.

“I love you, Max.”

“That fact just may have saved my life,” Max told her, his face completely serious.

Liz climbed out of the Jeep and walked away. Max smiled. For the first time, he felt that they would never really walk away from each other ever again. They would share the path, wherever it led.

His heart full, he drove away, wondering how to spend the hours until Saturn Rings wouldn’t wait.

posted on 17-Jul-2002 9:56:19 AM
DREAMER HOLIDAYS: 4th of July

He sat up in bed, shaking loose the remnants of his dream. Or rather trying to. Each time it became a little more real, and each time the realization that it was only a dream became a little more bitter. Every night, he both dreaded and looked forward to going to bed because she would be there—her inviting smile and wide loving eyes wrapping themselves around his heart, promising him a life that could never be. It didn’t matter anyway; she didn’t really exist. She was the ethereal incarnation of his deepest fantasies—a foolish ideal that served only to tease and frustrate him. Even if she were real, he couldn’t do anything about it. He was Max Evans, resident alien-in-hiding, and his life would be lived alone.

He shook himself resolutely. Time to get back to this world, he scolded himself. He could hear one of his roommates moving around in the living room and figured he’d have to wait for his body to calm down before braving the walk to the bathroom. Michael wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow, but if it were Kelsey out there, she’d give him a hard time—uh, make that a rough time.

He glanced at the clock. 9:12. His final wasn’t until 1, and he was fully prepared. English was his best subject, and this was his last final. This time tomorrow, he’d be a senior. So would Kelsey, if she passed her Greek Civilization final. Michael, of course, had put school behind him after being one of the few fifth-year seniors to ever grace the halls of Jefferson High School. He’d always said he wouldn’t go through life with a GED on his record, so he’d determinedly braved the razzing and taken a final semester of “real” high school. The diploma hung on his bedroom wall—the only space Michael would ever give to academia again.

Max chuckled to himself. No one could believe they were brothers, as different as they were, and they only bothered to tell a select few that they’d been adopted, but growing up in bustling Albuquerque had made it easy to lose themselves in different activities and groups of friends. When Max had decided on an apartment as a junior at the University of New Mexico, Michael had been eager to move in, away from their parents’ well-intentioned eyes, and the addition of Max’s friend Kelsey had sounded especially appealing—that is, until Kelsey let Michael know up front that she wasn’t interested in his suggestive comments, his ”accidental” groping, or his adult film festivals. They’d settled into a tentative friendship after that, and had actually become rather close.

Michael’s work as a fitness instructor in a nearby gym along with a part-time gig in a studio run by local artists had turned Michael into something of a recognizable figure—he’d worked his body into a fit and strong ideal (while grumbling about how easy that seemed to come to Max) and found some success with those first few paintings he’d put up for sale. Isabel, their sister, had taught him early what it took to attract women and he’d taken it to heart. Now, even from her distant job in New York, her laughter about his escapades belied her pride in him. He’d found the niche in life that had been so important to him, and it brought him enough money, attention, and women to make him happy. In fact, one woman in particular had been making him very happy lately. Max had worried about that at first, but Michael was the most adamant of the three about not getting permanently attached; he guarded their secret passionately. Maria was just another in a long line; she’d just lingered a little longer than most.

Max strolled into the living room to find Kelsey frowning at the computer monitor.

“What’s up, Curly?” he asked her, mussing her mass of curly red hair affectionately.

“I can’t get this friggin’ cover letter to read right,” she grumbled. “I need this internship, and suddenly I can’t write worth a damn.” She looked up at him and batted her eyelashes. “Pleeeease, Max? Help me?”

He grinned at her. They always came to him for writing help; it seemed to be his specialty. In fact, he was taking a creative writing class this summer, just for fun. “Do I get a lemon meringue pie out of it?” he teased.

“Only if you promise not to douse it with Tabasco Sauce, like last time,” she grimaced. “That was disgusting.”

Max shrugged and started for the bathroom. “Well, if that’s how you feel . . .”

“Get back here!” she shouted, glaring menacingly. “Fine, one lemon meringue pie—but only if I get the internship.”

“Done,” he agreed. She was a shoe-in—as smart and savvy a budding archeologist as he could imagine. His mouth was watering already.

An hour later, the printer hummed with the best cover letter ever written, and Kelsey ran to dress, anxious to get her package mailed out. Just as she rounded the corner, another figure appeared in the doorway.

“Hey, Max.”

“Hey, Maria. Michael up?”

She grinned at him. “Always.”

Max rolled his eyes and blushed, giving Maria exactly what she wanted. “You’re soooo easy, boy,” she laughed, and sat on his lap, wriggling intentionally. “Wouldn’t hurt you to get up once in a while. We need to find you a woman!”

Max blushed even more. Michael and Maria were so blatantly open about their sex lives, but Max couldn’t be that way. He couldn’t imagine having sex with a woman he didn’t love, and the woman he loved was only a figment of his imagination. Maria had first assumed he was with Kelsey, but as much as Max adored her, it wasn’t love. Not that kind, anyway. She was a dear friend, but no more. Then she assumed he was gay, but Michael had insisted otherwise, although she still wasn’t sure what Michael was basing that on. He was gorgeous and apparently uninterested in women. What other explanation could there be?

“Maybe someday, Maria,” he murmured sadly, setting her on her feet. Maria gazed at him, perplexed by the puzzle that was Max Evans. So unlike his brother, although they had told her they were adopted. So much for the power of environmental influences.

“So, what’re you doin’ this summer?” Maria asked, seeing Max’s discomfort.

His face brightened. “Well, I’m taking a creative writing class, and I’ll be managing the pool complex for the summer students.”

“Ohhh,” Maria crooned, inevitably returning to sexual innuendo. “Guess that’ll make you a tanned, sensitive, available guy. You’ll get laid by the 4th of July!”

Max gaped at her, unable to think of a response.

“Maaarrriiiiiaaaaa,” a male voice whined from down the hall.

“Looks like Michael’s up!” she grinned. “Later, babe.”

Max watched her retreating figure and sighed. Laid? Not likely.

********

Clipboard in hand, Max surveyed the day’s schedule and made some notes about what remained to be done before the pool could open officially for the summer. The week between classes and summer term had flown by, filled with end-of-year parties and plenty of work. The pools themselves were in great shape; the year-round staff had taken care of that. The special summer programs, though, were at various stages of completion: swim classes for the local kids, day camp for the physically challenged, and the 4th of July festivities all needed his attention.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. “Max, I wanted to give you a heads up.”

It was his supervisor, Tyler Crawford. “The coordinator for the 4th of July plans is on her way. She’s a student, like you, but really sharp with plenty of ideas. You have the budget there, so work with her closely. I’d like to be able to implement as much of what she has planned as we can afford. The 4th is going to be especially important this year.”

Max nodded in agreement. The events of September 11th had left the nation shaken to its very core. Now, with recovery and healing only just beginning, people would be looking forward to this day with a special need and high expectations.

Footsteps down the hall alerted the two men, and Max could see Tyler smile in greeting. “Here she is! Liz, this is Max. You’ll be coordinating things mostly with him over the next few weeks.”

Every thought fled Max’s brain as he sat frozen, looking—quite literally—at the girl of his dreams. There she was, the long shining hair, the petite body, the large, intelligent eyes. He stared, mouth open, eyes riveted.

Tyler looked quizzically at Max, unable to fathom why he was just sitting there, looking like he’d seen a ghost. Ready to make an awkward apology, he looked at Liz only to find a similar look of astonishment. Her hand had flown to her chest, wide eyes staring right back.

“Do you two know each other?” Tyler asked, eyes darting from one to the other.

“N-no, no, of course not.” Liz’s forced laugh was completely unconvincing.

Max pushed through the fog. “Uh, no.” He stood on shaky legs and took a tentative step forward, extending his hand. He saw it trembling and yanked it back, shoving it into his pocket. “I’m Max,” he finished, wishing he could hit rewind and start over.

“Liz. Liz Parker.” They stood, feeling the heavy silence push at them.

Tyler frowned, tact struggling to mask confusion.

“Max, this is the girl I was talking about—your 4th of July coordinator.” What the hell had gotten into these two? “Maybe we should schedule a meeting for later today.”

“Uh, yeah. Fine. What’s good?” He was mumbling.

“Umm, anytime really. Right after lunch?” She was mumbling.

Oh god, Tyler thought. Maybe we should just cancel the 4th of July this year.

Tyler and Liz retreated down the hall while Max slumped into his chair, holding his head to keep it from spinning right off his shoulders. She was real! Now what?

********

Lunch was out of the question; his stomach was in knots. Instead, Max paced his tiny office like a caged animal as the hands on the clock inched their way around its face. What to say? How to act? Was there any chance of recovering what little dignity might be left to him? How could he convince her to be with him? How could he convince himself not to ask her? Nothing about being with . . . Liz, Liz Parker . . . could be casual for him. And anything beyond casual was impossible. Damn it!

“Excuse me?”

Her small voice pierced his preoccupied mind, and he whipped around to face her.

“What?”

“You seem upset. Should I come back later?”

Max cringed, realizing his second meeting with this Dream of his wasn’t going any better than the first.

“No! No, I’m sorry. I was working through a problem. I didn’t even realize I’d said that out loud. Come in. Have a seat.”

Liz walked quickly to a seat opposite his at the desk, looking worried. She bit her lip, and Max almost smiled, recognizing the small gesture from his visions of her. It was like he’d really been visualizing her, not just thinking of a girl who looked similar. Max took his own seat and smiled, trying to put her at ease after his outburst earlier.

“So, you’re working on plans for the 4th of July. That’s great. This is a special one.”

Liz began to feel more comfortable. This face, this warm, friendly, smiling face was the one she identified with . . . Max. The name suited him—this man from her dreamworld. She had never expected to actually meet him; he was supposed to be a fantasy. The problem was, the existence of this fantasy man had interfered with her real life to an alarming degree. She never wanted to date any of the guys who asked her out because they weren’t . . . well, they weren’t him. And her friends had grown impatient with her, finally giving up their attempts to set her up. Their guy friends just wound up mad at them for setting them up with a girl who was totally not interested. But here he was, and she hardly knew how to act, or even how to feel. But he was asking her about the work. Focus, Liz.

“Yes, I submitted some ideas for the festivities and the committee really liked them, so I got the job!”

Max watched Liz’s face come alive as she talked about the project, her dark eyes bright with enthusiasm, her body language radiating energy.

“Would you like to see?”

“Huh?”

“The plans. Would you like to see the plans for the day?”

“Oh! Of course. That’s why we’re here.” IDIOT! Could you try looking a little stupider? he berated himself.

“Here’s a tentative schedule of events, and here’s a diagram of how the soccer field could be set up for different activities.” She walked around the end of the desk and handed him a sketch, leaning over his shoulder to point out specifics.

“Here’s the kids’ games section, including some face painting and a contest for a patriotic poster. Over here would be food vendors. The bandstand is over here where we can set up seating under the shade trees.”

Max was trying to listen. Honestly, he was. But her hair was draped over his shoulder smelling like strawberries, and her breath flitted over his neck as she talked. Her tiny hand looked so soft and inviting poised in front of him, and he just wanted to enfold it in his own. But he had to concentrate.

“Any ideas for the band?” he asked, turning to face her. There they were—lips inches apart, eyes locked in the moment. What would happen if he kissed her?

“Max!!!!” A rush of air broke the spell, and he felt his chair spin wildly in the opposite direction. “Max, you darling wonderful man! I got the internship! I really got it!”

Kelsey launched herself into Max’s arms, kissing him soundly on the mouth. “I will love you til the day I die!” she declared happily.

Suddenly, she noticed Max was with someone. “Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry. You were busy. I just couldn’t wait to tell you. I’ll fill you in later. What time will you be home?” She was practically bouncing with excitement, and her sentences came out in a short staccato rhythm with her rapid breaths.

Max recovered quickly, happy to celebrate Kelsey’s good news. “Congratulations, Curly. I’ll be home around 6. I’ll take you to dinner!”

“Excellent!” Kelsey flew out the door. “Sorry again for interrupting!” she called behind her.

Max grinned, sincerely happy for his friend. The grin faded quickly when he turned back around to Liz. What was that on her face? Disappointment? Hurt? But why?

Then the scene played out from Liz’s point of view, and Max realized what it had looked like.

“Uh, that’s a friend of mine. I helped her write a job application, and now . . . well, now she’s got the job. She was just, ya know, excited.”

“I can see that,” Liz replied stiffly. What was her problem? She didn’t know this guy. He owed her nothing. Of course he was with someone. For god’s sake, look at him! Her features softened. “Tell her congratulations for me . . . when you get [I[home.” Now why did she emphasize home like that? How obvious was that?

Max watched her react. It was almost as if she were jealous. But that was impossible, right?

“Uh, yeah, I will. I’ll see if our other roommate can come, too. We live together . . . the three of us . . . Michael and Kelsey and me . . . and Michael has a girlfriend . . . but I don’t . . . and Kelsey doesn’t . . . I mean, have a boyfriend . . . it’s not me . . .”

DEAR GOD, SHUT UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Max mentally looked for that rewind button again. Liz was looking at him oddly, one eyebrow arched, like Spock used to do. “That’s really none of my business,” she said coolly. “Shall we continue?”

Max nodded miserably and tried to listen to Liz explain her plan. In the end, he just asked if he could keep the paperwork and get back to her on budgeting. She bit out an “Of course” and left, her feet carrying her determinedly back to her car where she gripped the steering wheel and cried.

********

Max’s somber demeanor over dinner had Kelsey confused. Dinner had been his idea, after all.

“What’s up, sweetie? You look like you’ve just lost your best friend. Which you haven’t, ‘cause here I am!” She smiled at him, hoping he would recognize a good listener when he saw one.

He did.

Sighing heavily, he unburdened himself. “This is going to sound ridiculous, Kelsey, but for months now, I’ve been dreaming about this girl.”

Kelsey’s ears perked up. “Really? Anyone I know?”

“That’s just it. Nobody knows her. I made her up. At least I thought I did. Until today. I met her this morning.”

“Huh?”

“I met her. She just walked into my office. The exact girl. And I proceeded to be the biggest, dumbest ass she’d ever met.” He buried his face in his hands, another sigh escaping from between his fingers.

“Wait. This isn’t the cutie that was in there with you when I came in.”

“The same.”

“Well, did you get along? Was she what you hoped?”

“I don’t know,” he replied grimly. “We never really had a conversation. I was a blithering idiot when Ty introduced us, and then when we met to discuss the 4th of July plans—she’s in charge of it—it was really awkward and then you came and I think she thought we were together . . . I don’t know, but she looked upset. Now why would she be upset? We just met! I told her we weren’t together but that we were roommates . . . Anyway, she just seemed mad when she left, and now I don’t know what to do.”

Kelsey sat back in her seat. That was more words than she’d ever heard Max Evans string together at once in her whole life, and if she was right, he’d strung the whole thing out in one breath. He was in a bad way!

“This is easy, Max! Don’t be an idiot next time you see her. Treat her like she’s special. Be you. You can’t lose. I could even talk to her, if you want.”

“No!” Max almost jumped out of his skin at the thought of Kelsey trying to talk to Liz. He took a deep breath. “No, I should just talk to her.”

“Well, here’s your chance.”

“What?”

“She just walked in.”

Max’s head pivoted abruptly, finding Liz immediately. She looked stunning. Her hair was down, a simple black dress skimmed her curves and that delightful smile lit her face. Max’s heart raced just looking at her.

“Do you think I should?” he asked Kelsey, rising from his seat without waiting for an answer.

He’d only taken three steps, though, when he stopped cold. Greeting Liz was a good-looking guy who took her hands and kissed her cheek. He was short, Max observed with satisfaction, but that didn’t seem to diminish Liz’s happiness at seeing him. They found their way to a corner table and, heads together, began to talk animatedly.

Max backed up, almost sending a waiter’s tray flying. Apologizing profusely, Max threw himself back in his chair and stared at Kelsey in horror. “Did you see that? She met someone. They’re having dinner!”

Kelsey bit her cheek, determined not to laugh at her distraught friend. “Max, it could be anybody. You’re here, with someone, having dinner, right?”

“He kissed her!”

“On the cheek. People do it all the time. This afternoon, she saw me kiss you on the mouth.”

Max nodded. “Yeah, and you said you’d love me til you die. Thanks a lot, Curly.” He sat back, trying to calm down. Being an idiot seemed to be his latest thing. He looked at his friend sheepishly.

“I’m sorry. This dinner is supposed to be about you. We’re celebrating. Forgive me?”

“I have what I want, Max,” his friend assured him. “Now let’s see if we can get you what you want.”

posted on 17-Jul-2002 9:57:33 AM
********

Max sat studying Liz’s 4th of July plans in earnest. He was impressed. She had managed to put together a package of economical and fun activities that would appeal to multiple ages and interests. All the usual elements were there, like games and music and food, but there were some interesting twists, too, like an unusual fund-raiser to benefit the families who lost loved ones in the attack. She’d even thought to arrange transportation between the fair and the fireworks site—and all within budget! She’d talked a lot of businesses and personalities into donating goods and time already, and there was little left for Max to do but put her in touch with the appropriate maintenance and transportation staff and write the checks.

A light rap on his door drew him away from the plans in front of him. “Come in.”

Liz appeared in the doorway looking rather tentative about another meeting with Max. They had done a poor job of working together so far. But he was all smiles, and she felt some of her tension subside.

“Got a minute?”

“Absolutely, Liz. I’ve been looking over your ideas. They’re great! And I really think we can pull off the whole package within budget, thanks to your list of donations. You must really have a way with people, judging from all this generosity.”

He seemed completely sincere, and Liz’s pulse quickened just a little. She chided herself, remembering that this had to be a working relationship and nothing more.

“Thanks,” she smiled, stepping into the room with more confidence. “I just wanted to know if I could proceed and to get some contact names from you.”

Her smile broadened his own. “Liz, we got off on the wrong foot the other day, and I’ve been waiting for a chance to apologize. I’m not usually such a dork, really.”

“I behaved rather poorly, too, Max, so we’ll call it even, okay?”

“Agreed,” he beamed. “So, let me ask you about this fundraiser. I don’t quite get how it works.”

Liz giggled, and Max thought he’d never heard a happier sound. “What’s so funny?” he asked, starting to laugh himself.

“You’ll never believe where I got the idea for that,” she grinned. “My mother was a nut for the old musicals. Have you ever seen Oklahoma!?”

Max nodded. “Sure, my mom owns all those old movies. That’s the one with Shirley Jones, right? And . . . uh . . .”

“Gordon McRae.”

“Right!”

“Well, there’s a scene in that movie where they’re trying to raise money for the schoolhouse, and they auction off picnic baskets packed with wonderful meals. The catch is, you get to eat with the girl who packed it, but you bid without knowing which lunch is which.”

“You’re kidding,” Max laughed. “Wouldn’t a guy be mad if somebody else got to eat with his girlfriend?”

“Well, we can’t help it if sometimes little hints get dropped about what a certain basket might look like.” Her face became a mask of exaggerated innocence, and Max laughed even harder.

“If we get enough people to sign up,” Liz continued, “we could raise a couple thousand dollars. And it doesn’t have to be just women, either. Guys can sign up, too!”

“Ingenious,” Max said, impressed yet again. “But I won’t be on your list. I can’t cook at all.”

“Then you’ll just have to bid,” Liz teased, enjoying their banter. This is what it should feel like meeting the man of your dreams.

Their laughter died away and they stood staring at one another, a sharp sense of recognition building between them.

“Will you be contributing a basket?” Max asked.

Liz felt her face heat up, and she dropped her eyes. Before she could answer, Max’s phone rang. He put up one finger, asking her to wait.

“Max Evans.” He listened for a moment. “Milk and bread. Got it. I’ll be home soon.”

Liz’s face fell, and suddenly she needed to be out of there. It had been too easy to forget how things were. She turned quickly and hurried down the hall.

“Oh, and Michael,” Max continued, “don’t forget it’s your turn to clean the bathroom. Yes, today!”

Shaking his head, he turned back to Liz. She was gone! Hurrying out into the hall, Max caught sight of Liz’s small form half-jogging out the door. What the hell had happened?

********

Posters started to appear around campus and throughout the city about the 4th of July festivities at the university. Max had been taking calls from people wanting to sign up for events and some even wanted to help. It was going really well. Well enough, unfortunately, that Liz had hardly needed to see him about anything. She’d even sent a friend to pick up the list of contacts. Max was at a loss as to how to renew contact with her.

Kelsey watched Max’s depression deepen, and she ached to help him, but she hadn’t come up with a workable plan as yet. It was Maria who inadvertently offered the solution.

“Kelsey!”

Kelsey turned to find the face behind the voice and smiled as Maria trotted into view.

“Hey, babe! Michael’s standing me up for lunch—some meeting about buying new equipment at the gym. You free?”

“Yeah, I’m finished until a study group tonight, but I wanted to go by and see Max after lunch. He’s been really down.”

“He needs to get laid,” Maria stated matter-of-factly. “He sweet, but so uptight.”

Kelsey laughed. Maria was unique, all right. But she suited Michael perfectly, and Kelsey secretly wondered if maybe they were falling in love. She’d never say that out loud; they took great pride in how casual their relationship was, although they seemed to take the sex very seriously. Apartment walls were far from soundproof.

“I think he wants to fall in love first, Maria,” Kelsey gently chided. “In fact, I think he’s already there, in a funny sort of way, and just doesn’t know what to do about it.”

“Really? With who?” Maria looked dumbstruck and stopped in her tracks.

“I think that’s privileged information.”

“Give, sister! If we leave this up to Max, it’ll never happen.”

Kelsey stood, wavering, uncertain what was right at this point. She loved Max and wanted to see him happy, but she also wanted to be a trusted friend who kept his secrets. She squinted at Maria, thinking, then made up her mind.

“It’s the girl running the 4th of July events this summer.”

Maria blinked. “You mean her?” Maria pointed across the quad at a table under the huge poster advertising the upcoming celebration. There sat Liz Parker. And she was with that same guy from the restaurant.

Maybe I was a little too optimistic when I told Max it was probably nothing, she frowned to herself. But she had little time to consider that possibility when Maria grabbed her hand and bee-lined for the table.

“We want to sign up,” Maria announced loudly.

Liz smiled. “For which event?”

“Uh, oh . . . uh . . . which event Kelsey?”

Kelsey watched Liz’s eyes flicker with recognition and saw the wall go up between them. Liz was obviously still under the impression that Kelsey was Max’s girlfriend. Not good. She was obviously very bothered by that. Very good.

Kelsey scanned the choices.

“How about the picnic auction?” a friendly male voice offered. Kelsey lifted her eyes and felt her body react. Smiling back was the man from the restaurant. Why hadn’t she noticed how adorable he was before? Oh, yeah. She’d been trying to keep her best friend from having a breakdown right in the restaurant.

“Kyle Valenti,” he said, offering his hand. She took it, smiling broadly.

“From the radio station? The DJ?”

“Guilty. Liz here conned me into doing the auction. It’s for a good cause, though, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely,” she responded, warming to him immediately. “I’m Kelsey Schuster, by the way. I’m not much of a cook, though.”

“Then how about helping with it behind the scenes? We need someone to check the baskets in as they arrive, number them, record the bids, etc. I’ll be the auctioneer.”

“Great! Sign me up.”

“And I’ll contribute a basket,” Maria volunteered.

“Wonderful,” Liz replied, looking less enthused than everyone else.

“I look forward to working with you, Kyle,” Kelsey said, her smile flirting coyly with him.

“Well, actually, you’ll be working with Liz on that one. It’s her baby.”

Kelsey looked quickly over at Liz. “Oh.”

Liz was clearly as thrilled at Kelsey, but there was no backing out now. “Uh, sure. What do you need me to do?”

“Just come to a meeting on Thursday over lunch in the Union. Then we won’t have to get together again until the day before.” Her relief at the lack of contact was almost insulting, but Kelsey knew her own reaction was equally reserved.

“Yeah, okay. See you Thursday.”

Maria signed the form to contribute a basket and then linked arms happily with Kelsey. “Perfect!” she gushed.

“What’s perfect about it?” Kelsey fumed. “And how does it help Max?”

Maria rolled her eyes and adopted her most patronizing tone. “Kelsey, think about it. If you’re working with Liz, you can make it clear you’re not with Max. And you can find out what her basket will look like and tell Max. Then he can buy it and eat dinner with her! Besides, you can bid on Kyle’s.” She winked at Kelsey’s look of surprised indignation.

“Kyle’s name was on the list to bring a basket, too,” Maria grinned. “And I have a feeling I know someone who’ll be hungry for it.”

A biting comeback would have been so much easier if Maria hadn’t been right—about all of it.

********
The 3rd of July dawned amidst rare clouds and a threat of rain. Liz looked worriedly at the sky, biting her lip and cursing her lack of control over the most important factor of all. Knowing Kelsey Schuster was on her way didn’t help her mood, either. She’d managed to avoid her after the brief meeting 2 weeks ago, but today, they really would have to work together.

As if on cue, she saw Kelsey approaching from the parking lot.

“Hi, Liz.”

“Kelsey.”

“I’m ready to work. What’s first?”

“Well, first we’re going to go over the check-in procedure. Every basket has to be logged in and it’ll be important to mark whether it’s from a man or a woman. Then I need you to put together two cash drawers at the credit union, and then Kyle should be here to run through the actual auction and how we’ll flow people through here once they’ve bought a basket.”

“Kyle’s coming?” Kelsey brightened markedly.

Liz frowned. “What was that?”

“What?”

“That flirty tone of voice when I mentioned Kyle. Aren’t you living with your boyfriend? Max?”

Kelsey saw her opportunity and grabbed hold. “Max? Good grief, no. He’s been like my best friend since freshman year. He’s the one who got me through freshman comp in return for some math help. He’s my roommate—or at least one of them—but that’s all. I adore him, but there’s no romantic spark there.” She hesitated, watching this register on Liz’s face. “How about you. You and Kyle . . .?”

“Valenti?” Liz couldn’t suppress a laugh; her whole outlook was improving by the second. “Kyle and I went to high school together. We dated some, but it turned out to be a really good friendship. He’s a great guy, but . . . no romantic spark there.”

The two girls looked at each other, the obvious grins just too persistent to hold inside. Suddenly, they were totally at ease with each other, chattering and giggling and answering questions about the guys. As they finished their work, though, Kelsey’s mood became more serious.

“Liz, I can’t tell you what to feel or how to act, but keep one thing in mind. Max is special. He doesn’t fool around and he doesn’t share himself easily. When he falls, it’ll be the real thing. I couldn’t bear to see him hurt.”

Liz nodded, understanding perfectly. Kelsey might as well have been describing her. “Don’t worry, Kelsey.”

The moment passed, and Kelsey prepared to leave for the credit union. She was running late since so much of their time had been spent talking.

“Hey, good-lookin’.” Kyle kissed Liz lightly on the cheek, and Liz glanced quickly at Kelsey. Knowing how it was with them now, Kelsey could smile at the exchange.

“Kyle, you remember Kelsey, don’t you?” The way his eyes lit up almost made Liz laugh. Amazing how people just connect sometimes, she thought, her mind immediately filling with images of Max.

“I certainly do,” he said, his tone softer now.

“Kelsey has to go over to the credit union. Could you give her a lift?” She turned toward Kelsey, giving her a wink. “Would that help, Kelsey?”

“You bet!”

“My pleasure.” Kyle bowed and held out his arm, making Kelsey laugh. They turned toward the door, but Kelsey turned back for a moment.

“Liz? How are you decorating your basket?”

Liz laughed. “An alien balloon. It’s a long story.” Kyle was laughing, too.

Kelsey quirked an eyebrow. “It’ll be easy to spot then, I guess.”

She and Kyle started for the door, but Kelsey stopped again. “I just have to know—what’s in it?”

“Ah, a feast for the discriminating palate—my famous spicy chicken wings, homemade potato salad, and my particular specialty: lemon meringue pie.”

Kelsey burst out laughing, tugging a very confused Kyle out the door.

********

In true New Mexico style, the clouds had cleared and the morning burst with promise. Max was a bundle of nerves about the day’s events, but couldn’t think of anything he’d forgotten to do. He’d had a hard time sleeping, what with Maria and Michael going at it until the wee hours. It was all he could do not to picture Liz with him like that—touching her, tasting her, filling her in every way. His heart craved that closeness even as his mind reminded him of its folly. She had taken over his dreams, and sleep had become his favorite sanctuary. Sometimes they just talked in the dreams, planning a future that could never be. Other times, her body brought him to an urgent release, which he only discovered to be real when he awoke, the cruel evidence of his fantasy leaving him in despair.

In reality, though, he’d barely seen her in two weeks, and now that the 4th was here, he knew his chances of seeing her after today were slim. Back to real life, man, he warned himself. He threw back the covers and padded into the kitchen. Maria was humming as she packed a picnic basket full of goodies for the auction.

“That for Michael?” Max asked, pouring himself some juice.

“Not necessarily,” she declared. “It’s for the highest bidder. And if that’s not Michael, his ass will be in a sling the size of the Grand Canyon.”

“It’s your ass that needs a sling that size,” Michael countered, wandering toward the cereal cabinet and grabbing Maria’s rear. “Mine’s perfect, remember?”

Maria snorted derisively and Max chuckled. What was it about these two gruff characters that made him think they just might wind up together? He couldn’t live like that—the bickering, insults, dirty looks—but they thrived on it. In some weird way, that’s how they showed their affection for each other. And as his father used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The small kitchen got a little smaller as Kelsey made her appearance. “You goin’ to the auction, Max?” She winked at Maria.

“I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I might have to supervise somewhere else. I’m working with the wheelchair-bound kids in the pool this morning.”

“The auction’s not til 4, Max, right before dinner. And a word to the wise—whoever wins the basket with the alien balloon will have a real prize.”

The word “alien” caught Max and Michael off-guard, and they threw each other a pointed look.

“Why an alien balloon?” Max asked cautiously.

Kelsey shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. I hear there’s a story behind it. Maybe you should find out what it is.”

“But . . .”

“Trust me, Max,” Kelsey said softly, and pushed up to kiss his cheek. Max looked into her eyes and knew that he would.

********

Late morning was already broiling hot, and Kelsey was glad to step into the small tent behind the auction platform where large fans were pushing air around as fast as they could. Liz was bent over a table that was listing to one side.

“Need help?” Kelsey offered.

“I need for it to be tomorrow,” she quipped. “I’m hot, tired, nervous, and . . . hot.”

Kelsey smiled. “It’ll be over soon. Already people are saying it’s the best event we’ve ever had!”

The table leg popped into place and Liz straightened. “Really?”

“Yep. Everything’s ready here and I think you deserve a break. Why don’t you go take a dip in the pool before you have to be back here this afternoon?”

“Oh, I don’t have time . . .”

“LIZ! You might want to take . . . a . . . dip . . . in . . . the . . . pool.”

The light bulb went on. “Oh, okay, maybe I will,” she grinned. “I have my suit in the car.”

“Then get over there, girl.”

“Thanks, Kelsey. Oh! And you might be interested in bidding on a bucket . . . that’ s right . . . a bucket with a red bandana on the handle.” She winked at her new friend and headed for the parking lot.


posted on 17-Jul-2002 9:58:55 AM
********
Liz emerged from the locker room and scanned the pool. There he was, in the lap pool, cradling a boy in his arms and spinning in the water as the child laughed with abandon. “Faster!” the child cried, holding his small arms up to feel the air rush past, his eyes alight with excitement. Max obliged, turning tight circles and smiling broadly.

“Dizzy yet?” he laughed, and the boy shook his head no, even though his eyes were darting blindly trying to catch up with the spinning sky. “Hold your breath,” Max shouted, ducking beneath the water. Seconds later, they surfaced again, several feet away.

“More!” the little boy shouted.

“But it’s Lucas’s turn now, Ben. He’s been waiting.”

Ben turned to see his friend sitting patiently in his wheelchair, sweating as the sun beat down on the unforgiving concrete. Max climbed the small steps at the shallow end of the pool and set the boy down on a waiting towel. He dried the young child off, chatting easily the whole time, then gently set him down in his own wheelchair, fastening the belts and clamps expertly.

“Lucas! It’s your turn. Spinning or dunking today?”

“Both!” he responded, lifting his arms eagerly to surround Max’s strong neck. And into the water they went, totally enjoying each other. Liz watched, touched beyond words at the joy Max was giving those children. But when she looked at his face, she realized he was glowing with happiness, too. Kelsey was right; he was special. But Kelsey had also said he didn’t share himself easily; she must never have seen this.

After watching for a while, the heat finally got to Liz, so she turned back to the main pool and jumped in, floating under the water for several seconds. The cool water enfolded her, drawing the heat from her body and leaving her gratefully lost in a silent world. Succumbing to the need for air, she surfaced and swam some leisurely laps, enjoying the sensation of the water ebbing and flowing across her body.

Max stood alongside the main pool, searching for Ben’s older sister who would take him home. He saw her pull herself from the water, but her name died on his lips when he was distracted by the gorgeous creature who was skimming gracefully through the water in front of him. Following her with his eyes, he watched her emerge from the water, sheets of glistening drops blazing trails down her body—everywhere. He licked his lips, and his breathing grew shallow. Liz. Liz was here, wearing a bikini from heaven, her perfect body glowing in the sun. His own body leapt to attention, responding to all the dreams where this very scene took place. Panicked, he called to one of the children standing nearby.

“Jenn, go get Brittany and tell her Ben’s ready to go, okay? He’s over at the lap pool with Adam.”

Jenn took off to do his bidding and Max took off for the locker room. He couldn’t let her see him like this! Minutes later, in shorts and t-shirt, he came back out, ready to attempt a real conversation. He sagged with disappointment. She was gone.

********

The auction was going incredibly well. At least 75 people had brought baskets to auction off, and they were selling for between $25 and $75. Liz was ecstatic. Max watched from the back as couple after couple walked off with picnic baskets. He recognized Maria’s as it was brought forward, and searched the crowd for Michael.

“Ten dollars!” a voice yelled.

“Fifteen!”

“Twenty!”

Max began to look around worriedly. Michael had better be here or he didn’t want to think about what he’d hear in the apartment later!

“Twenty-five!”

The first bidder dropped out, evidently, because there was a brief silence. Then Michael’s voice came from off to one side. “Thirty.”

“Thirty-five!”

“Forty” came the annoyed response.

“Forty-five!”

There was a small ripple in the crowd as Michael moved forward to look his competitor in the eye. Glaring down at the smaller man, Michael’s voice was quiet, but intense. Without looking up, he hissed his bid. “Fifty!”

The smaller man swallowed hard and kept his mouth shut.

“I have $50,” Kyle yelled, “Going, Going, GONE! to the intimidating man in the Metallica t-shirt.”

Michael smiled coldly at the cowering bidder and approached the front of the crowd. He grabbed the basket, then grabbed Maria, and headed to the cashier. Maria was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat.

“Two baskets left, ladies and gentleman,” Kyle announced. “I can’t say whose they are, but I happen to know they are real treats. You won’t want to miss out. And remember! This is for a great cause!” The helper set out a bucket with a red bandana on the handle. Chuckles ran through the crowd. “This has been donated by a man, so ladies, let’s get those wallets out! Do I hear a bid?”

“Ten dollars!”

And so it went until the bid had reached $50. “Going! . . .”

“Seventy-five dollars!” Max’s head jerked up. It was Kelsey, breathless from bounding around the tables to the front. Then he saw Kyle smile at her, obviously delighted with her bid. Because of the amount? Kelsey was beaming. What was that all about?

“Going! Going! GONE!” Kyle shouted quickly. “And I’m sorry to inform you, dear lady, you have bid on my bucket, so if you’ll just wait to one side, I’ll be with you shortly.” The crowd clapped and the two just grinned at each other for several seconds until the crowd’s laughter drew Kyle’s attention. Max was speechless. Why hadn’t he heard about this?

Then a flustered Kyle shook himself, blushed slightly, and cleared his throat. “Yes, well, one last basket! And as you can see, it must be out of this world.” A large basket with an alien balloon tied to the handle was set on the table.

“Okay, gentlemen. Let’s go for broke.”

“A hundred dollars,” Max blurted out, amazed to hear his own voice. The crowd cheered wildly and Liz looked up in shock. Max, blushing furiously, was making his way to the front. He was almost afraid to look at Liz, so he grabbed the basket and headed to the cashier. The crowd began to disperse when they were stopped by Kyle’s voice once more.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Thank you for helping us raise $3,425 for the families of the 9-1-1 disaster. Enjoy your dinners and don’t forget the fireworks!”

The crowd cheered again and began to move away. Kelsey joined Max as they waited for Liz and Kyle.

“What was that about, Curly?” Max asked Kelsey, and she grinned sheepishly.

“We’ll talk later,” she winked.

“What’s in the bucket?”

Kelsey frowned. “Well, it’s two bottles of beer on ice.”

“You’re kidding,” Max laughed, peering inside the bucket.

“No, really.”

“Not to worry, dear lady. I didn’t think it was safe to leave the steamed crabs out in this heat. This is just your beverage. Your feast awaits.” Kelsey squealed in delight and took Kyle’s arm. Max smiled after them. They made a cute couple. He hoped it worked out.

“Max?”

Max turned at the sound of her voice, embarrassed again at how he’d won the bid. He really hadn’t expected to do that; it just sort of slipped out. She was smiling up at him, obviously happy that he’d won her basket. His heart melted just a little more.

“Liz.” Just the sound of his voice saying her name like that, so reverently, sent shivers down her spine.

They stood, soaking each other in, until “Bye, Liz!” came from one of the helpers.

“Bye!” Liz called, turning back to Max. “I know a nice shady spot. C’mon.”

Their fingers touched as they shared the burden of the heavy basket, and neither made a move to change position. The electricity flowed between them, open and strong. When they’d settled in a remote grove of trees behind the athletic building, Liz began to unpack their food.

“Mine was last because I was keeping it in a fridge in the office. I waited until the last minute to run and get it.” Max couldn’t stop watching her. Every move was graceful; every smile a prize. He didn’t care what they ate. He wasn’t here for the food.

Until he saw it.

“I hope you like spicy foods, Max. My famous chicken wings will take the paint off your car!”

“I love spicy food,” he admitted. “And sweets, too, I’m afraid.”

“Good!” she laughed as the lemon meringue pie made its appearance. Max was stunned.

“That’s my favorite!”

“It is?” A picture of Kelsey laughing as she left with Kyle yesterday crossed her mind. She had just mentioned the pie. Liz smiled.

“How did this get in here?” she wondered aloud, pulling out a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

It was Max’s turn to laugh. “Did Kelsey know about this, by any chance?” Their eyes met with instant understanding.

“Another favorite?” she asked, amused.

“Let’s eat!” Max grinned.

********

Stars were peeking out from the early dusk. Max and Liz had been talking for hours, finding a multitude of things in common, and just enough differences to keep it interesting. Max looked over at her, totally at ease now, and saw a question in her eyes. It had been there all evening.

“Are you going to ask me about what’s on your mind, Liz?”

She looked up, startled. He smiled. “It’s been there all night. What is it?” He gently stroked her cheek, just like he had in her dreams.

She hesitated. “It’s you, isn’t it?”

Max’s eyes narrowed. The simple question set off alarms in his head. “What do you mean?”

She shook her head. “Never mind. It’s ridiculous. Please, just . . . never mind.”

There was a flicker of pain in her eyes. She hid it instantly, but it had struck him hard. “You mean the dreams?” he asked, risking everything to renew their connection. Her eyes flew open, and she stared at him.

“How long have you been having them?” he asked gently.

“How did you know?” she breathed.

He cupped her face with one hand. “Oh, Liz. It seems like you’ve been in mine forever—like you’ve always been there, but over the last few months, the images have gotten clearer and clearer. I thought you were a dream, a fantasy. Then you walked into my office that day—that’s why I was such a bumbling idiot. I’d come face to face with my Dreamgirl.”

Liz nodded slightly, remembering. “Yeah, me too. I’ve seen you in my dreams at some level for so long, but only in the past year did you have a face and a voice . . . and a touch.” She leaned into his hand and kissed his palm involuntarily. It all seemed perfectly natural.

A question flew out of Max’s mouth before he could stop it. “Liz, why was there an alien balloon on your basket.”

Liz smiled and pulled away shyly. “You’ll think I’m ridiculous.”

“Never,” he assured her. She faced him, a bit of a challenge in her tone.

“The balloons come from my dad’s café in Roswell—you know, where the aliens supposedly crashed in 1947? They’re tourist trinkets.”

“Oh,” Max said, a trace of disappointment in his voice.

“But if you really want to know me, Max, you’d better know this. I’m not majoring in astronomy just to study stars. My fondest wish is to find life out there,” she confessed, gazing into the sky.

Her eyes began to glow with excitement, animating her face and her whole body. “You know Jodie Foster’s character in ‘Contact’? She’s my hero. She flew in the face of all the odds to find intelligent life in the universe. I believe it’s there, Max. I really do.”

She watched his face carefully, dreading the cynicism to come. It didn’t. He was watching her intently, as if every word she spoke was significant.

“And what would you do if you found it?” Now it was his turn to dread an answer.

Liz broke into a brilliant smile. “I would welcome it, Max! I would embrace it, learn from it, teach it. I would change the world!”

“You wouldn’t be afraid of it? You wouldn’t dissect it to learn its secrets?”

Liz looked at him, openly disappointed in his reaction. Her response was quiet, measured. “No, Max. I wouldn’t. We’re talking about life. We’re talking about the gift of new worlds. Any life form smart enough to reach us should also be wise enough to make that new connection beneficial to everyone. I can’t accept that we wouldn’t find a way to bond with this new species, to learn from each other and accept each other.” She contemplated Max’s face, a confusing mix of awe, fear, hope, and disbelief.

“You disapprove,” she concluded, biting her lip.

“God, no,” he sighed, terrified by what he was about to do. “Can I show you something?”

She nodded.

“I have to touch you.”

She nodded again.

Seconds later, she was seeing the fulfillment of every dream played out in Max’s mind—pods, powers, fear, wanting. She saw herself, mirrored in his dreams and in his reality. She saw love more powerful than she could ever have hoped. She saw Max, risking everything to be with her.

He withdrew his hands, watching her every reaction intently. Her eyes shone with the glory of it, the power of it. How could her every fantasy be realized? Maybe this was another dream. Maybe . . .

And then his lips were on hers, and the reality of it was overwhelming. More real than any dream, more true than any theory. He was here, with her, the personification of everything she had lived and breathed and dreamed in her lifetime. And suddenly she felt as if she had been a part of him this whole time, hiding in a part of his heart until he was ready, just as he had done. There was no newness now, only familiarity and understanding and trust. She felt the truth of it in her soul and the passion of it in her heart.

“Max! Oh, Max! It’s true! I know it is. We’ve been following a path to this our whole lives. Everything was leading to our finding each other. Something inside us knew it. Something in our hearts knew each other . . .”

Tears poured down her cheeks and mingled with Max’s as they covered each other with kisses, the unveiling of raw truth almost too much to absorb. Overhead, in a fitting display of explosive joy, fireworks soared through the night sky, blazing new trails of color and energy and fiery power. It was nothing compared to the sensations roaring through their bodies, but they stopped to appreciate the symbolism. The world had changed in the last few hours. Things would never be the same.

Thank God.

********

Max burrowed deeper under the covers and thrilled to the feel of her warm, soft skin against his. It had become harder and harder to shake the dreams each morning, and this one felt so real. His hand slid forward and cupped a pliable mound, relishing the instant peak that pressed against his hand. She made a little sound and turned in his arms.

Eye to eye now, Max absorbed every detail—the smiling eyes, the mussed hair, the hand that slowly slid down . . .

“Liz!” Max bolted upright and looked down on his Dreamgirl with blatant astonishment, only to hear her musical laugh.

“You were expecting someone else?”

Max chuckled, too, realizing how absurd his reaction was.

“It’s okay,” she assured him. “I woke up thinking I was still in the dream, too, until I realized I hadn’t ever seen this room until last night.”

Sunlight played against the wall, and Max glanced at the clock. Almost 11 a.m. He hadn’t slept this late since Christmas, but then, he hadn’t stayed up so late either. He chuckled, knowing what spin Maria would put on that line! Then memories of last night flooded back and he smiled adoringly at the woman sharing his bed and, he hoped, his life. Calling last night their first time wasn’t entirely accurate. It held all the poignancy of a first time, but with the familiar comfort of intimate knowledge. They had been together for so long and yet never before. It was an oxymoron—the beginning, again. With deceptive innocence, her hands slid up his chest and around his neck and slowly pulled him down. With no preamble, he slid into her. It was the place he’d longed for, ached for, dreamt of. It was where he belonged.

The gentle afterglow of their lovemaking settled around them, their souls and bodies at peace. Until Michael started channel surfing in the living room.

“Maria, any leftover pizza in the fridge?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, lover boy. Why don’t you haul your ass on over there and find out?”

“Max?” Liz’s voice was soft and tentative. Max pushed her hair back from her face and ran a finger down her nose to her lips.

“Hmmmm?”

“Who all is out there? And what are they going to think about my being here?”

“Ah, well, the male voice is my brother, Michael. He’s the one I told you about. Maria—you met her, right?—is his girlfriend du jour, although there may be something stronger brewing there. She’s been around a while and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s funny. They bicker and pick at each other all day long, but I think they’d go right for the jugular if anyone messed with the other one.”

“Like the guy who was bidding on Maria’s basket?” Liz laughed.

“Exactly!” he grinned.

“Kelsey might be here; we haven’t seen her since she left with Kyle yesterday, but I doubt she stayed out all night. Kelsey doesn’t jump into things casually.”

“I know Kyle. He’ll take his time with Kelsey. I think this time, it really matters to him.”

Max looked relieved. “Good. As for how they’ll react, I can paint you a picture right now. Michael will raise one eyebrow and then go back to watching TV. Maria will say something sarcastic, but she’ll be happy for me. She’s been trying to get a woman in my bed since she met me. And Kelsey, if she’s here, will give me a hug if her evening went well, and a supportive smile if it didn’t.”

Liz looked askance at this strangely specific response. “Are your friends really that predictable?”

“About this, they are,” Max confirmed. Then he grew serious. “Liz, I’ve been alone all my life, hiding what and who I am, keeping relationships strictly platonic.” He smiled sadly. “People who don’t know me think I’m gay, and people who do know me think I’m a dark-haired mystery man who broods too much. Maria and Kelsey are about the only people who’ve gotten to know me well—outside of my brother and sister—and even they don’t know our secret. Only you, Liz. You’re the first person to ever know the truth. And I only trusted you because I felt like I’ve lived with you in my heart for so long, and then those things you said last night . . .”

Liz reached up and stroked Max’s face, pouring her reassuring love into the gentle touch. His whole body melted within its warmth and he lay down again, drawing her into his arms. “Which is why,” he added, his tone lighthearted now, “I know exactly how they’ll react! They’ve been waiting for this for way too long!”

Max hesitated, and Liz waited, watching him. “I have to warn you, Liz. Michael is very protective of our secret. Once he realizes that I’m serious about you, he may give us something of a hard time. I’ll deal with him, but I know some of his worry will take the form of hostility, and it’s bound to spill over onto you. Do you think you can handle that?”

Liz searched his face, commanding his full attention. “Max, I never thought I’d find you. I couldn’t imagine meeting a man who fulfilled all that my heart needs like the man in my dreams. Now you’re here. Really here, and in my arms. Nothing in this world could keep me from you—least of all a pissed off brother.” She smiled impishly. “Besides, I have a feeling he’ll be facing that same decision soon.”

Max laughed. “You might be right.”

“In that case,” Liz declared, pushing up from Max’s chest, “I’m starved. Can we get something to eat?”

“Excellent suggestion,” Max agreed.

Donning shorts and t-shirts, the couple emerged from Max’s bedroom to face the inevitable. Michael looked up from his couch, arched one eyebrow in Max’s direction, nodded at Liz, and resumed his television watching. Max and Liz exchanged an amused look and headed into the kitchen. Maria, engrossed in something at the computer, didn’t even look up. As Max broke open the eggs, he began to mumble a fractured rendition of an old Mexican love song he’d learned growing up, and Liz busied herself with setting two places at the table, trying valiantly not to laugh.

A blond head poked around the doorway. “Is that you, Max?” Maria asked, incredulous.

“What?”

Then Maria spied Liz and she fairly burst in triumph. “He got LAID!” she yelled into the living room. “And by the 4th of July, too. Did I call that, Michael? Did I? I am the bomb!” Hooting and prancing in a ridiculous Rocky impersonation, Maria carried on until both Max and Liz were blushing furiously.

“What’s all the noise about?” Kelsey groused, emerging from the hallway, tousled and bleary-eyed. She eyed Maria through squinted eyes and frowned.

“Max got laid, Kelsey! And now he’s singing—in Spanish no less!—and strutting like a rooster.”

“I am not strutting,” Max protested from the kitchen.

Liz came through the doorway, catching Kelsey’s eye. Max emerged right behind her, looking ready to defend her against an over-enthused Maria. Kelsey looked from one to the other and squealed with delight. She ran into Max’s arms, hugging him tightly.

“I knew it!” she beamed. “I knew it! I’m so happy for you!”

Remembering Max’s prediction, Liz hazarded a guess. “You had a good time with Kyle, Kelsey?”

Immediately, Kelsey’s whole expression softened, and she became shy. “He’s wonderful, Liz. Thanks for the tip on the bucket.”

“Only doing as I was asked,” she winked.

“Asked? He asked you to tell me which was his?” She was grinning broadly now, pleased beyond words.

“I’m really not at liberty to say,” Liz sighed, feigning innocence.

Kelsey turned and hugged a startled Maria and ran to the phone.

“You don’t think it’s too early to call, do you?” she asked, already punching in the numbers.

Max pulled Liz back against him, taking in the faces of the people he loved. Maria had thrown herself on the couch next to Michael, purposely using the newspaper to obscure his view of the television. “Get that thing out of my face!” he complained. “Turn off that stupid game,” she countered. And so it went.

Kelsey was leaning against the wall, murmuring into the phone, a goofy smile on her face. She caught Max’s eye and winked.

Liz turned in Max’s embrace and slipped her arms around him. Looking down into her loving eyes, Max could barely contain his joy. He didn’t need to be sleeping to live the dream anymore.